Willamette Valley Vintage Reviews

Provided by Oregon Pinot Camp

2023:  Return to Normal. We’ve had several unusual vintages recently, e.g., 2022 (hard freeze), 2021 (hot, hot hot) and 2020 (wildfire smoke). 2023 pleasantly showed us a recent, relative normalcy, albeit warm. Vineyard vigor, growth and ripening were strong in summer 2023, leading to an early harvest. Crop load yields were slightly smaller, with disease pressure very low except for late-held varieties, and general quality was very good to exceptional—and that's the "normal" we'd like to see.

2022:  2022 restores your faith in Mother Nature's capacity to take a poor start and finish well, with grape plants revealing their inherent resilience to rebound from nearly disastrous weather events. In late April, buds were open and vulnerable when a hard and killing freeze settled in. Normally, if vines are damaged, grapes rely on secondaries to replace primary buds. But this time the damage was extensive, with secondaries damaged too, so that we anticipated a significantly reduced yield. Growing season weather however cooperated to boost secondary and tertiary buds, with the third highest heat accumulation in 26 years, focused at the end of the growing season. Crop load yielded much more than we anticipated. Whew!

2021:  2021 had the makings of a hard-won bullseye. Despite a growing season with searing heat spikes (116F), 2021 was a moderate vintage, thanks partly to a quick harvest response to rapid ripening. Hot and dry, 2021 sported a 5-day stretch that averaged 103F highs and a three-month growing season dry spell of 92 days, with a mere 0.02 inches of rain. Drier vintages bless us with reduced disease pressures and generally picture-perfect fruit clusters. Yields were variable, due to interrupted flowering by the last rain of early June and small berries from near-drought conditions of the growing season. With full ripeness and, ironically, very good acidity, 2021 wines may ultimately resemble 2018 in concentration and 2014–17 in size. Winemaking decisions determine the finesse and grace with which the latter is carried.

2020: Winemaking gets tested some years, like 2020. All the climate and grapegrowing underpinnings for greatness were there, with little rain and sufficient but not overpowering heat. The test for wineries in 2020 was not weather but wildfire. Depending on where the grapes were grown relative to the fires and their smoke, varying degrees of impact affected aromas, flavors and textures. As a result of winemaking methods, pick date and site, some wines were unaffected, while others needed ingenuity to dodge wildfire effects. White wines pressed immediately were unscathed if made well, while red wines benefited from a lighter touch in extraction. How good 2020 will be—with a close-to-perfect growing season and concentrated fruit from low yields—may depend on how a complex wisp of campfire is eliminated, or if not, embraced. Grapegrowing is farming after all, and winemaking sometimes an attempt at alchemy.

2019:    2019 was a cooler, slightly damp vintage resembling the good old days. Rain hasn’t been typical recently, yet rain was the cause of 2019’s flattened heat accumulation from late September on, yielding a harvest that accumulated only 15 degree-days of heat while dropping almost an inch of rain. Concentration, depth of flavor, color and structure are present with restraint in Pinot noir, if protected from botrytis and held to gain complexity with hang-time. White wines loved the bright, tense, sea and mineral ripeness of the year. We’re pleased to see an old friendly vintage again—to confirm medium-term memory passes the test!

2018:    We cruised into the 2018 harvest after an early budbreak and bloom, a comfortably warm spring, and those precious, cool summer evenings that make our eyes light up. The stellar prospect of the vintage was heightened by a “cool” final ripening compared to most of the previous five, and zero disease pressure, thanks to coastal and ridge-top breezes and the absence of rain. Rich favors with an edge of restraint, combined with the lift of gentle acidity, made 2018 textbook perfect from our vantage—and worthy of all the hype.

2017:    At first, 2017 looked like an extreme opposite to 2016, with very late budbreak and bloom following a wet rainy season. However, abnormally warm and dry months then took over, and the heat gave full ripeness to the fruit despite a large crop load. September’s 2.06 inches of rain had only a refreshing impact, and the rain coincided with cooling weather, which means acid brightness was well retained. Normal harvest
timing and excellent picking weather yielded complexity along with the riper favors.

2016:    This is the year of Earliest Ever. The winter was warm, budbreak was early and 2016 never looked back—bloom, veraison, and harvest all early records, beginning harvest in August and done before October. Although early, the growing season wasn’t as hot as the prior three, but still in the same new, warm norm.  Fruit is fully ripe but not overripe, with moderate alcohols, good enough acids and intense, easily extracted, dense wines, from 15% smaller berry sizes and yields. Potentially an excellent-to-classic vintage. Finally dialed back a little.

2015:    Here, have a cigar! We just had twins, one year apart. The 2015 vintage was slightly different in early growing season timing from 2014, but the final effect was the same, with big heat, big crop and big expectations. The acids are down, the alcohols are slightly over 14% on average and the work many did to minimize over-extraction resulted in more elegant wines than a hot vintage deserves. Similar to 2014. Also as in 2014, the fruit was impeccably clean and devoid of disease, with only a little sunburn being tossed from the sorting conveyor. Whites again look fully ripe, texturally rich, and yet balanced. Pinot noirs will rival 2014 for rave reviews.

2014:    2014 was one of those rare vintages when everyone is excited—writers and winemakers love the quality, grape growers had no handwringing to do and yields pleased bankers, which also means customers will see reasonable prices! Wine quality is excellent, based on full ripeness, probably the cleanest fruit we’ve seen in decades, and restrained extractions in fermentation to compensate for the warmest growing season on record assure balance. Despite the warmth of over 2800 degree days, driven by many very hot summer days (almost double the over 90F highs we’ve recently seen at 29) and warmer lows, good cropload balance and harvest timing gave reasonable alcohols, averaging just under 14%. Whites are lush and gorgeously fruited. Pinot noir colors are appropriately rich but not too deep, wines not tannic or over-extracted, and all’s right with the world.

2013:    A Tale of Two Harvests—one very early and one normal, with rain in between. They started as one very early harvest thanks to a very consistent, warm growing season, the warmest on record up to final ripening mid-September. An unanticipated 30-year rain event of 5″ then appeared the last days of September, made of remnants from a typhoon that had hit Japan days before, ushering in a spate of cool weather, interrupting the season, slowing ripening and turning it into two discrete picks, with early Pinot noir ferments already in barrel before remaining grapes were ripe and picked! Although grapes ripe during the rain were vulnerable to botrytis, earlier and later picks showed very good quality, with many considering the coolness and longer hang-time a big benefit, preserving acidity and flavors, while minimizing alcohol. Color, texture, balance and acidity on the whole were good for the vintage. Croploads were moderate to high, except for blocks and varieties lost to the rain.

2012:    A cool spring with record moisture in June resulted in a slightly delayed bloom that was interrupted by cool, wet weather. This resulted in an extended period of flowering, diminished berry fertilization and some bunch stem necrosis. Consequently, the clusters had reduction both in absolute number and in the number of berries per cluster, significantly reducing the crop. Spring was followed by a beautiful, sunny, warm and dry summer, with the longest dry period in the Willamette Valley’s history, over 100 days. The lovely weather continued into October with harvest occurring in mid-month. The grapes achieved ideal ripeness and wines have lovely ripe tannins, moderate alcohols and nice acidity. This is potentially one of Oregon’s best harvests.

2011:    A very cold spring resulted in delayed bud break and the latest bloom in Oregon’s history, occurring in early July. The summer was warmer than normal producing a good canopy and lower than normal disease pressure. Veraison occurred in September and at some sites, the grapes were not fully colored until early October. Cloudy and wet weather in early October increased the disease pressure, but then the weather cleared and was sunny into early November. For most Willamette Valley sites, this was the latest harvest on record. Low sugar, solid acidity and decent flavor development produced surprisingly generous wines from the better sites, especially if picked late in October and early into November.

2010:    Overall, this was the coolest growing season in the past 30 years. After a brief period into the 70’s in mid-May, there was no real warmth until mid- and late-June. There were a few brief bouts of heat into the 90’s in August, but September and October were mostly in the 60’s and 70’s. Our saving grace was an extended period of sun in October, 13 days, which allowed the skins to mature their tannins. Low sugars at harvest resulted in moderate alcohols. The wines have good acidity and the vintage also produced very good white wines. The Pinot noirs have well-developed flavors, especially given the relative coolness of the growing season. They are very textural in the mouth, unusually so, are capable of clear expressions of site and will be great food wines. Bird predation was a huge issue near harvest time.

2009:    Excellent weather during bloom created unusually large clusters with very high berry counts. Vineyards thinned to one cluster per shoot still achieved record yields. Weather during harvest was warm and dry. There was a distinct difference between vineyards located above McMinnville where there was significant dehydration and loss of acidity. Vineyards below McMinnville had little dehydration, normal acidity and a later harvest window. High yields and good quality fruit will help wineries recover from the small volume of 2008.

2008:    Hailed by many as the “best vintage of the last 20 years,” Oregon’s 2008 started with a very late bud break—almost a full month late. It rained just enough in September to keep the vines working steadily. The weather throughout October was perfect: moderate temperatures during the day and cool nights allowed fruit to ripen slowly and evenly, with no real disease pressure. Surprisingly, the vintage ended with very low accumulated Degree Days—a mere 1976. Extremely well-balanced wines were produced with complex fruit flavors, excellent acidity, well-developed tannins and moderate alcohols. The downside was very low yields and small quantities of wine.

2007:    This was a challenging Oregon vintage. Bud break and bloom occurred “on time,” followed by a summer of above normal temperatures (over 100ºF). September was slightly below normal, setting up the possibility of long hang times. A series of rain fronts progressed weekly across Oregon’s vineyards, delaying harvest by two weeks or more. As flocks of migratory birds invaded the vineyards with each successive storm front, growers used bird netting for the first time. Harvest went in spurts in the dry windows between weekly weather events. Growers who thinned to lower yields and rigorously maintained spray schedules were rewarded with balanced and elegantly ripened fruit. It was possible, but not easy to pick with ripe tannins, layers of complex and subtle flavors and a solid backbone of acidity. Many of the white wines achieved significant critical acclaim; the best of the Pinot noir wines have benefited from bottle age and are expected to age very well.

2006:    Thanks to favorable weather at bloom and an extended growing season, Oregon’s 2006 vintage was characterized by that rare combination of plentiful crop, a warm and dry growing season with little precipitation and modest disease pressure. A hot, dry, eastern wind just prior to harvest caused dehydration at many sites, boosting acid and sugar levels. Some panicked at the high sugar levels and picked before the grapes developed full physiological maturity. The resulting wines were rich and hedonistic. Higher than average alcohols were common. 2003 was the only vintage in recent times warmer than 2006, as measured by heat unit accumulation.

2005:    Although moderate in temperature, this was the coolest vintage of the last six years. It got off to a very early start (March bud break), but the weather turned cool and rainy in late May and June, leading to a late bloom and reduced crop due to poor set. A warm and dry July and August followed. Fall was cool and it rained significantly late in September. Although most winemakers fear rain just prior to harvest, in Burgundy they say a good rainstorm in early September is a basic ingredient of a great vintage. 2005 was a classic example of fall rains providing balance to the fruit after a dry summer. There was almost no damage to the fruit from splitting or rot, and harvest followed in dry conditions over the next few weeks. There is significant excitement and pleasure over the quality of wines produced in this unusual vintage. The wines are well balanced and have moderate alcohol, good acidity and supple tannins.

2004:    This vintage started out as a carbon copy of 2003, but thankfully cooled off and got needed rains in late August and then again in mid-September before most vineyards’ final ripening phase. What a difference some rain makes! Young and early vineyards that were almost ready to harvest the first week of September could have done without the rain, but the rest thought it a blessed relief and assured nutrient mobility in the vines. A short crop due to poor weather at set, extreme temperatures the prior vintage, and vineyard growth irregularities, plus growing season heat (2004’s Degree Day 2404 compared to 2003’s 2535 in McMinnville) make 2004 properly plump and extracted, but with restraint—average Brix down 1%. An interesting vintage—almost an average of 2001, 2002 and 2003, with perhaps a little more variability in reds and more structured, brighter whites similar to 2002.

2003:    This is an excellent vintage, albeit unusual in the fiery nature of the growing season. The same dry and warm growing and ripening seasons held for 2003, with Region II (not cool-climate!) heat accumulations of 2,500 units, average highs of 78ºF July-October, and half the normal rainfall with 2.75″. Fruit was disease free, crop set was generous enough for easy honing to desired levels and soil moisture was adequate due to good pre-season winter rains. Concerns regarding this vintage center on high sugars, resultant high alcohols and low acids. Most comparable past vintages, like the excellent 1992, may urge us not to worry.

2002:    An extended, dry and moderately warm harvest put the finishing touches to what may be one of the best two or three vintages Oregon has seen—perhaps best ever for whites, close to best for reds. A slightly early bud break ushered in a warm, dry growing season with excellent heat summations, but not heat spikes. An inch of rain in mid- to late-September corrected imbalanced high sugars and low pH and set the stage for an extended harvest of well over a month for Pinot noir. Harvests of young fruit prior to this only rain event may give some elevated alcohols. Crop loads were full, requiring precise green harvesting for full ripeness and extraction. Excellent acidities due to moderate temperatures throughout the growing and harvest period make this a richly ripe but structured vintage, both for whites and reds.

2001:    This year produced a soft, big vintage. It saw almost ideal growing and ripening weather and less than an inch of rain during harvest. This is not a typical cool-climate vintage, since acids are as low and ripeness as full, despite above average yields before crop thinning, as we’ve seen since perhaps 1987. The Pinot noirs will be soft, fleshy and early appealing, with moderate colors. Whites will be full and broad, and early maturing. The alcohols are restrained slightly by yields that didn’t force extreme extraction. The wines were lighter, slightly harder and not as well-reviewed by critics. Perhaps the weakest vintage of the excellent 1998–2003 string.

2000:    The 2000 growing season was almost perfect, starting early in both bud break and bloom, setting a full crop in vineyards and thus giving a chance to precisely choose optimum yields with crop thinning. During harvest, which started the last week of September and lasted until the last week of October, only 1.1″ of rain fell, with very good ripeness and moderate to good acids. Colors and extractions on the Pinot noir cuvees were excellent, acids good but not as firm as 1999 and fruit totally ripe without disease pressure. Third-in-a-row, 2000 was an average of the prior two vintages’ characteristics. In a word, a “pretty” vintage.

1999:    Bloom was very late and was followed by a very cool growing season. There was much concern about whether the crop would ever ripen, and a full crop load hung in most vineyards. We would need two months of almost perfect weather to fully ripen the fruit. Many vineyards were severely crop-thinned as a precaution, but the weather was perfect through early November. lf growers and winemakers were patient, the fruit was perfect. Many of the best wines are as good as 1998, some claiming to be better. Some variability can be expected, as some panicked and picked early, not trusting Mother Nature. An almost Burgundian level of acidity will make this vintage ageworthy.

1998:    Glorious wines, just not many of them. A large 1997 crop sapped vine energy and damp, cool weather at bloom doomed this vintage to short crops. But, that meant with a normal ripening season and no early rains, deeply extracted and highly structured wines could be produced. Crop loads were even smaller than 1994 and the wines were big, but would require time in bottle to regain their lushness and finesse. Possibly the best vintage to date.

1997:    The last of the three rain vintages, this year showed great promise until the skies opened. Crop loads promised the largest harvest yet and they were almost ripe when rains came. Unlike the prior two vintages when the rains stopped for post-rain ripening, 1997 remained wet. Botrytis pressure was high and earlier-picked vineyards and those who sorted and crop-thinned fared better. Very good structures bordering on tannic, plus slow-to-evolve fruit have made this vintage unpopular with critics, although excellent producers made stellar wines that have aged well.

1996:    The second rain-affected harvest in a row, fruit in this year was closer to fully ripe when a few days of rain arrived, resulting in almost normal size and richness in the Pinot noirs. The vintage yields were slightly below normal levels but not as low as 1994 and 1998, plus in all years since 1994 more winemakers are choosing to crop-thin to achieve intensity. A fat, rich vintage considered the best of the rain years by critics.

1995:    A vintage with rain at harvest ending a good growing season shy of full maturity at many sites. A moderate to good yield and heavy rains for a week or more in the middle of harvest meant many wines lack the depth of fruit and color that others have. The vintage made some very elegant-styled wines at the single vineyard and reserve levels. Unfortunately, following on the heels of 1994, it was reviewed poorly by many critics. It also has evolved well over the long term.

1994:    A highly ballyhooed vintage, this was a short, dry and warm harvest. Thinning was unnecessary, with most vineyards having crop loads under two tons per acre. Alcohols are moderately high, extraction huge and the reception by press predictably strong. Seen as the best vintage released to date by some, with 1998 rivaling it. Ageability was variable, wines with better acidity have stood up well. Those picked very ripe with lower acids were better consumed in their youth (which most were). The very small yields and production made both these vintages financially challenging for wineries and growers. (The driest growing season to date.)

1993:    This may become another classic Oregon vintage. Bloom was in late June. Harvest was relatively late, but the fall was warm and relatively dry. The crop was average. Thinning generally enhanced wine quality. The wines developed slowly, but are some of Oregon’s best after a decade or more of aging.

1992:    This was the hottest year in Oregon’s brief modern viticultural history. The harvest ranged from early to mid-September. Fortunately, the heat relented somewhat at the end of maturity, allowing many producers to make wines of outstanding quality. The experience of 1987 may have aided producers in making their cultural and picking decisions. Crop was good. Thinning was required to be successful. (The earliest harvest to date.) Very fruit-forward, many did not age well.

1991:    A long, cool spring pushed bloom into late June and early July. The rest of the season was, however, ideal with an extraordinary, long, warm fall. The crop was good. Because of the late harvest, quality was enhanced by severe thinning. Quality ranged from average to very good, depending on cultural practices.

1990:    Very cold conditions in December of 1989 caused bud damage, which led to the third straight year of short crops in Oregon. The vintage resembled 1988, with a long cool year and a dry fall. Quality was very good to excellent.

1989:    In the late winter of 1989, Oregon suffered a severe freeze with temperatures at below -5°F. The consequence was moderate to serious vine damage and bud damage in the spring of 1989. Crops were significantly reduced. The vintage was characterized by a late bud break, but a hot summer and fall. Harvest was in September. Quality was good to very good and the quantity was short.

1988:    The lack of rain in the fall and early winter of 1987 led to a peculiar malady in 1988 called “late fall drought-induced Boron deficiency.” The result was a very poor set and resulting small crop. Nonetheless, 1988 was a classic Oregon Pinot noir vintage, with cool temperatures and a long, dry fall. Quality was good to excellent.

1987:    Very hot, dry vintage with a September harvest. Grapes harvested in hot conditions. Sugars sometimes reached maximums before flavors developed. Quality was poor to very good.

1986:    The year started early, with buds bursting around March 20th. Bloom was somewhat early. The summer was hot, with the year tracking very close to 85°F until 3″ of rain fell in September. Good weather returned at the end of the month, but the poor weather during fruit maturation diminished the quality of the Pinot noir vintage somewhat. Some excellent Chardonnays were made. Quality was average to good.

1985:    The vintage was hot and dry from beginning to end. Harvest was in late September, under ideal conditions. Crop was a bit short. Also noteworthy was frost on May 11th and 12th, which affected many locations near the valley floor. Quality was good to excellent.

Vintage notes provided by Ted Casteel, Bethel Heights Vineyard, Harry Peterson-Nedry, Ribbon Ridge Winery, Scott Shull, Raptor Ridge Winery and Mark Vlossak, St. Innocent Winery.