Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Oregon Pinot Noir: A Surprise From Witness Tree

In our latest tasting, we tried three up-market pinot noir from Oregon – a Bethel Heights 2004 “West Block Reserve” ($41), a Patricia Green 2004 Yamhill County “Estate” ($30) and a Witness Tree 2004 Willamette Valley ($30). These are all estate wines meaning they are produced solely from grapes grown on land owned by the winery. In contrast, producers often also make wine from purchased grapes. These are generally less expensive offerings.

The Bethel Heights pinot, which costs $10 a bottle more than the other two, is not just an estate wine, but one sourced entirely from a specific location within the overall vineyard – in this case an area known as the “West Block.” That parcel presumably has unique attributes in terms of soil characteristics, elevation, drainage and orientation toward the sun. The vines may also be identified as a particular clone and be of a certain age. Producers love to make such wines because when the variables are known with great specificity, the craft of making wine can be more easily explored and improved.

These wines, which are thought to have individual personalities, are expensive and generally purchased by connoisseurs interested in exploring often very subtle distinctions between one wine and another. But as our latest tasting demonstrated, it is not necessary to buy one in order to experience a very satisfying bottle of wine.

This was another tasting having neither a clear winner nor a clear loser. Rather, the wines had different styles or characteristics. In this case, preference is a matter of personal taste.

Let’s start with the easiest to describe – the Patricia Green 2004 “Estate.” Some readers may recall we tried this one before, in the recent past, and recommended it. Our verdict is the same the second time around: this is a velvety, delicious, mouth-filling wine devoid of noticeable tannins and emphasizing big round red fruit flavors. It tastes wonderful on its own and is good with food, but not necessarily ideal. Last time around, I said this was a wine to be consumed now as opposed to after some years in the cellar and I would re-emphasize that point. I don’t think this is a good candidate for aging.

In contrast to the round, soft Patricia Green offering, the Bethel Heights “West Block Reserve” was initially more structured and austere. It exhibited both fruit and non-fruit flavors and mild tannins were evident in the finish. As such, some consumers might find it more interesting and it was a better companion to food. Whereas the Patricia Green wine deteriorated somewhat after the partially consumed bottle was pumped and reopened the next day, the Bethel Heights pinot improved. The wine “opened up,” its various flavors melded together and the tannin disappeared, giving it a more mouth-filling quality. As such, I suspect this one should really be cellared for a few years before it is consumed.

This brings us to the Witness Tree, which in some respects was the most interesting of the three. Our panel didn’t quite know what to make of it the first time around. While it wasn’t bad, it didn’t seem as well made as the Bethel Heights pinot or as sinfully delicious as the Patricia Green offering. Our discussion focused on the merits of the latter two and the Witness Tree got pushed off to the side.

The story was very different on the second day, however. When the wines were blind-tasted a second time – after getting more oxygen – one stood out: much to our surprise, it was the Witness Tree pinot.

“This one has real depth,” said one participant, describing a wine where the flavors seem to have an almost three-dimensional quality. The Bethel Heights and the Patricia Green offerings paled in comparison.

About a year ago, we tried another, more expensive offering from the same winery – a Witness Tree 2002 “Vintage Select” ($39) and described it as a dense, complex, very full-bodied wine that developed more flavors the longer it has been opened.

The 2004 described above was less dense and less complex than the 2002 “Vintage Select” and it was more medium than full bodied. But it shared the characteristic of its more expensive cousin in that it developed considerably more flavors after it had been exposed to oxygen for a while. As such, the 2004 is an interesting wine that will reward patient consumers – those willing to either put it away in the cellar for, say, three to five years or who are willing to open the bottle well in advance of consuming it.

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