In celebration of Oregon Wine Month, which is during the entire month of May, I decided that we should have a special tasting at the winery. We were hosting our friends from Tokyo who own a wine bar called ‘BAR SWITCH’ and who have been huge supporters of Oregon Wines in Japan. They have been coming to Oregon on their “Golden Week” vacation every year for ten straight years, so I decided that we needed to taste something special, interesting and educational for our friends and for my staff.
Luck would have it that at the Salud Oregon Pinot Noir Wine Auction last November, one of the live auction lots was a case of Oregon and California wines from the 1983 vintage. This was the perfect opportunity to taste Oregon wines from such a heralded vintage and some of our Californian counterparts from the same year, so we bought it.
In 1983 Oregon first established our Oregon Wine Advisory Board, Robert Parker had not yet visited our state and our wines had not yet been mentioned in the Wine Spectator Magazine. The Willamette Valley as an AVA had not yet been legally designated. Oregon was still young and forging its path but like Mount St. Helens which had erupted three years prior, the wines from our great state were beginning to explode onto the national wine scene and be recognized on a larger scale based on the hard work laid out in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
It was indeed the 1983 vintage that Robert Parker first reviewed from Oregon which led to Oregon’s first reviews in the Wine Advocate and which ultimately led Robert Parker himself to want to own part of a winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. In New York, in 1985, the International Wine Center held a “Burgundy Challenge” to compare 15 of the top Oregon Pinot noirs with a similar number of high quality Burgundies. All were from the 1983 vintage. The tasters were all experts. When the wines were revealed, it was unanimous that they could not distinguish Oregon Pinot noir from Burgundy and the top five scoring wines were all from Oregon. This tasting had an immediate impact on the prestige and sales of Oregon Pinot noir and the combination of press attention and the demonstration of a critical mass of top quality Oregon wineries set the industry leaping forward. Many people believe that the 1983 vintage was a turning point for Oregon wines.
So it was with great enthusiasm that we opened 11 bottles of wine from the 1983 vintage that had been carefully cellared by Myron Redford, founder of Amity Vineyards. The bottles were in very good shape as were the corks. Myron stores all of his wines upside down from the day of purchase. I had set them right side up one month prior to the tasting so that the sediment could fall to the bottom of the bottles. Each wine was decanted off of that sediment just prior to tasting.
When tasting 32 year old wines, which is not an everyday experience, I believe it is important to approach the wines with historical reverence. You are not going to find fresh fruit, fresh cut flowers, sweet toasty oak or primary youthfulness. What you will find are intoxicating tertiary perfumes and flavors that speak of a wine that once was young and now is mature. Much like ourselves wine turns into something older, softer, more fragile but beautiful and still carrying with it memories of a glorious past. Older wines are not for everyone and it takes some experience tasting older wines to appreciate the subtleties and the importance of certain flavors and aromas that you would not normally look for in a young wine. Some of my staff members had not even been born in 1983, so this was definitely a fun tasting for perspective.
Most wines had a brick-red color with some occasional browning at the rim of the glass as would be expected for a 32 year old Pinot Noir from a warmer vintage. I should mention that there are many great 1983 Oregon Pinot Noirs that were produced but not included in this tasting. This is merely the case of wine that was purchased as an auction lot. You can probably imagine that it is quite difficult these days to find wines from this vintage and in this condition. The following are my tasting notes:
Adelsheim Vineyard 1983 Pinot Noir: Sweet dessert aromas of caramel, crème brulee and toffee but also a distinct saline note like oyster shell. A wonderful Soy-sauce umami savory character like Dashi broth. For such richness in the nose you would expect a heavier mouthfeel but this wine was light on its feet with vibrance and lithe layers of texture. Very good.
Amity Vineyard 1983: A little faint mustiness but not TCA, more of a blue cheese type aroma that tied into a savory soy sauce but mostly a dark molasses nose that was very warm and rich. In the mouth there is wonderful forest floor, underbrush woodsy mushroom flavors and then orange rind bitters much like an Amaro. Finishes with Christmas potpourri like spice.
Bonny Doon 1983 (Bethel Heights Vineyard designation): Prunes, dashi broth and kelp type aromas with sweet Armagnac soaked cherries in the nose as well as a wonderfully deep mushroom like character. This was coplex and very mushroomy with great fruit presence in the mouth like old strawberry jelly jars. This wine had great mineral cut and a terrific lift of acidity.
Sokol Blosser 1983: Pristine condition! As good as any older wine I have had from anywhere else on earth, this wine was shockingly delicious. Exotic aromas of truffle and mushroom and incense and rich savory and sweet baking spices. This wine is succulent and vibrant still with an amazing balance of fruit and ripe tannins. The acidity is akin to tomato sauce which somewhat reminded me of a savory pizza or pasta. This was a lot of fun and perhaps one of my favorites of the tasting.
Arterberry 1983: This was one of the leaner wines of the tasting with a slightly volatile nose (perhaps from the closure). The aromas were similar to tomato jam and gooseberry pie or rhubarb/strawberry jam. Great acidity on this wine which gave it a lot of verve. This would have been probably considered very Burgundian upon release back in the day due to the bright red fruits and acidic lift and mineral tension. One of our friends from Tokyo announced this as one of her favorite wines of the tasting.
Elk Cove 1983: The best nose of the lineup, I could sit and smell this wine all day long! So much dried Thyme and savory herb garden aromas that mingled beautifully with truffles, cheese, dried lavender and sassafrass. This wine was bright and lively with spicy flavors and a great acidic lift. I am surprised at how amazing the acidities are in this lineup.
Hillcrest 1983: Unfortunately this wine did not show well and I am not sure if it was due to the closure or the cork itself but this wine only showed flat soda and rootbeer characteristics in the nose and thin tart acidity and papery tannins in the mouth. Interestingly enough this wine was listed as 11% alcohol which I think is something you just don’t see a lot of these days.
Yamhill Valley Vineyards 1983: decadent aromas of chocolate cake, sweet grain mash and dates. Truffles and cheese round out this exotic nose which I very much liked. There was a definite chocolate ganache profile on this wine which I loved because it was not too heavy or awkward, but rather vibrant and fresh with an acidic lift and beautiful fine grain tannins.
Mount Eden 1983: This wine had an amazing animal character and I’m not talking about the Muppets. This was not as exotic as its Oregon counterparts but a very exciting regardless. There was soy and a definite savory umami character here with a strong Teriyaki sauce character. This was one of the ripest wines with a strong plum, Hoisin character in the mouth. Potentially the lowest in acid but still very much in balance and very full-bodied and exciting to taste.
Joseph Swan 1983: A very ripe nose on this wine with dark chocolate and cherry fruit, dates or prunes and a fruit-filled chocolate alcoholic truffle type of a feeling. The nose does not equal the mouth here as the aromas were very ripe and promising but the mouth was too acidic and had flavors of unripe citrus (grapefruit) fruits with a papery tannic finish. This wine was maybe always out of balance?
Alpine 1983: One of my favorite wines of the tasting, potentially my favorite, this is a winery that I know very little about but they are out of Monroe Oregon. This wine was crazy with its depth and complexity and its exoticism! Amazing mushrooms, potpourri, incense, sandalwood, blood/meat/iron element and a sweet dark chocolate ganache that was more reminiscent of pot-brownies. In the mouth there was a rich and ripe fruit expression with old cherry and strawberry jam notes which made this the sweetest and biggest wine of the tasting but still in balance and very exciting to taste and think about. Bravo to Alpine Vineyards!
When the tasting was finished, I was shocked at how much I had loved these wines. I had somewhat secretly expected to find a lot of oxidized, flawed wines that could not have possibly stood the test of time. Instead I found a group of wines that inspired me with rich exotic aromatics, lifted bright mouthfeels, great acid levels and a question as to whether these wines were drinkable young or too structured compared to many wines hitting the market today with the hopes of selling out early.
I loved this tasting and as I was sitting at my table pondering these wines I was immediately taken back to the summer of 2013 when I invited the British wine authority Jancis Robinson to dinner and she responded: “why don’t you come over to our house for a gathering of friends.” I found myself at Jancis Robinson’s dinner table with none other than Michael Broadbent and Hugh Johnson drinking rare Bordeaux wines from the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. As Hugh Johnson leaned over to me and said, what do you say Josh… between the 1953 and 1954…? First of all, what can I possibly say to Hugh Johnson that would be of any importance and second of all, how do I critically judge two wines that were crafted twenty years before I was even born without giving points for historical nostalgia? Any wine that can stand the test of time deserves respect. And in the case of this Oregon 1983 lineup, my respect for Oregon wines has just expanded greatly.
Happy Oregon Wine Month everybody!! Get out there and collect some Oregon Pinot Noirs.