Thirty years ago this summer I was finishing up the first edition of ‘Northwest Wines’ with co-author Jeff Prather, a close friend who was at the time the Wine Director at Ray’s Boathouse. During the year that the book was being researched and written I’d been paying particular attention to the drubbing that Eyrie wines were getting in the national wine press – notably some critical reviews in the two most influential publications of the day – Wine Spectator and Robert Parker.
The fashion at the time, even among many Oregon vintners, was to make heavy, over-ripe, alcoholic, super-saturated California-style Pinot Noir. Some of these wines closely resembled Syrahs. Eyrie’s Pinots back then, as now, were 180 degrees apart in ripeness, élévage, texture and abv. Although Eyrie founder David Lett had pioneered Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley a quarter century earlier, his wines had fallen completely out of vogue. And I couldn’t find a reviewer anywhere who would stand up for him.
I became that reviewer with the entry on Eyrie published in ‘Northwest Wines’ later that year. After recounting the many firsts (vineyards, grape varieties, awards) that the wines had accumulated by that time, I wrote the following:
“Recently Eyrie’s Pinot has come under attack from wine reviewers who seem to believe that all Pinot Noir should be dark, jammy, and etched in new oak. ‘I don’t make dark color, high alcohol wines; I never have’ is Lett’s reply. ‘I want finesse’.”
“It is their incredible longevity that is the ultimate validation of Lett’s theories” I continued. “Eyrie’s Pinots set a towering standard for ageworthiness; they often don’t begin to evolve until most other wines of the vintage have died.”
Thirty years on those words still ring true. What has changed dramatically over time are widely-accepted standards of excellence for Oregon Pinots. From winemakers to retailers to somms to writers the favored wines today are low in alcohol, high in acids, and replete with herbal and earthy phenolics that are counterweights to ripe but never over-ripe fruit. I’ve spent the past week focused on a dozen current releases from Eyrie, not only because they continue to be the standard for longevity in Oregon, but because by tasting and re-tasting them over multiple days I can get a better view of their long term aging curve.
All Eyrie wines are estate-grown and farmed organically. In addition, regenerative no-till farming is practiced, meaning special attention is given to the health of the total ecosystem of the soils. The single block cuvées are produced identically using wild yeasts and small fermentation vessels. They’re aged in mixed cooperage, including 12% new oak. They are like stair steps up the total vineyard elevation, from the lowest (Sisters at 220 feet) to the highest (Daphne at 860 feet).
Among the rarities currently shown are a luscious 2018 Melon de Bourgogne; a 2019 Pinot Meunier still wine; and a 2021 Trousseau. The wines bottled as ‘The Eyrie” – a Pinot Gris, a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir – seem to me to represent the essence of those varieties as seen through the lens of second gen winemaker Jason Lett.
And then there is the coup de grace as far as any lingering criticism of Eyrie from the old guard – the legendary South Block Reserve. This is a wine that was more of a myth than a reality for decades, and this new release has earned one of a handful of perfect scores I’ve awarded in the past quarter century.
You will find most of the wines reviewed below listed for purchase here. These scores reflect how the wines are tasting right now and could improve with additional bottle age.
The Eyrie Vineyards 2018 Melon de Bourgogne –
A deep gold, this delicious wine, purportedly a domestic version of Muscadet, bears only a passing resemblance to the Loire Valley wine. This is rich and succulent, loaded with ripe fruit flavors of melon and papaya. It feels relatively light in acid, and may be at or near its peak drinking window. That said, with Eyrie wines being known for astonishing longevity, that is pure speculation. 45 cases; 12%; $45 (Dundee Hills) 93/100
The Eyrie Vineyards 2021 The Eyrie Pinot Gris –
Jason Lett calls this Pinot Gris “a liquid manifesto.” He believes the grape can equal Pinot Noir in its ability to “reflect the nuances of site, craft and vine age.” During my recent visit to the winery he pressed the point with a bottle from 1983 that was still drinking beautifully. But this young PG is perfectly delicious, with a refreshing stony minerality that soaks on through the finish. The fruits coalesce around apple, peach and citrus and linger with a power and presence that suggests this too will age for decades. 156 cases; 12.9%; $30 (Dundee Hills) 94/100
The Eyrie Vineyards 2019 The Eyrie Chardonnay –
This special wine is a barrel selection from Chardonnay vines purportedly the oldest in the Willamette Valley. They are also, the winery believes, among the last surviving examples of the Draper field selection, a French import now believed to be extinct elsewhere. It’s a slender wine, but not thin; fresh but not racy. The fruit brings apple and pear front and center, with a touch of lemon rind as the wine fades. Built to age, this wine should continue to evolve over the next 10 to 15 years. 196 cases; 12.7%; $90 (Dundee Hills) 93/100
The Eyrie Vineyards 2021 Trousseau –
It’s been several years since I last tasted this wine, and the vines, planted in 2012, have had some time to develop deeper roots. The aromatics of this latest vintage are as evocative and compelling as Pinot Noir, the color reminiscent of Sangiovese, the fruit flavors a compendium of flowers, herbs, rhubarb and berries. The balance is fine, the tannins rugged but proportionate, and the finish brings touches of earth and citrus into play. In short, this is a fascinating and complex wine that is a perfect complement to Jason Lett’s expansive portfolio of Pinot Noir. 11.5%; $40 (Dundee Hills) 93/100
The Eyrie Vineyards 2019 Pinot Meunier –
Most commonly known as the sturdy component of Blanc de Noir Champagnes, this rather rare single varietal still wine unmasks the grape and reveals more of its true character. The flavors are surprisingly light – red currant, rose hips, herbal tea, orange peel – but complex and nicely intertwined. The tannins are present and accounted for but balanced, ripe and supportive. The flavors linger gracefully through a long finish. At the end of the day, it’s a fine complement to the Eyrie Pinot Noirs, with its own special strengths. 375 cases; 12.8%; $50 (Dundee Hills) 93/100
The Eyrie Vineyards 2019 Estate Pinot Noir –
This blends grapes from five separate estate vineyards, crafting a wine that perhaps best captures the Eyrie zeitgeist as it exists in the current decade. To my palate, along with ‘The Eyrie’ bottling, this is the smoothest and most quickly accessible of the winery’s 2019 Pinots. The distinctive components that characterize Eyrie – earth, bramble, neutral wood, dried herbs, breakfast tea, tart fruits and a hint of funk – are here in perfect harmony. If you can put the word ‘classic’ in front of any Oregon Pinot Noir, it would be this one. 1553 cases; 13.1%; $50 (Dundee Hills) 93/100
The Eyrie Vineyards 2019 The Eyrie Pinot Noir –
From the original site farmed at Eyrie (since replanted), this honors the past while showcasing the present. Along with ‘The Eyrie’ bottlings of Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, they form a trio that represents the summation of the decades of work put in by the Lett family. I don’t know if any original vines contributed to this blend, but in any event they are quickly vanishing due to ongoing phylloxera. Nonetheless, it’s classic Eyrie – subtle, elegant, a bit disarming, with light red fruits, tea leaf tannins, a long, gliding finish, and decades of life ahead. 13%; $85 (Dundee Hills) 94/100
The Eyrie Vineyards 2019 Sisters Pinot Noir –
Jason Lett has divvied up his vineyards by age and elevation, this being the lowest site, planted four decades ago. There is a pleasing, earthy funkiness to the aromatics, a touch of leather and compost. Those same flavors wrap around tight raspberry fruit in a compact core. The Sisters name references the three Pinot family grapes planted here – Noir, Blanc and Gris. An earthy finish rings out with a tang as the wine fades. 503 cases; 13.3%; $55 (Dundee Hills) 92/100
The Eyrie Vineyards 2019 Outcrop Pinot Noir –
This site was planted over the past 20 to 40 years on thin, rocky, volcanic soils adjoining the original Eyrie vineyard. This seems like a more extreme version of the other Pinots – more earthy, with bitter herbs and thinner fruit. That said, it keeps its poise and balance, and makes a pretty good comparison to a fine Village Burgundy from a top vintage. Where will it go from here? Time will tell. 195 cases; 13.8%; $70 (Dundee Hills) 91/100
The Eyrie Vineyards 2019 Roland Green Pinot Noir –
From a vineyard first planted in 1988 to ungrafted Pommard and Wadenswil clones, this initially opens tight and tannic. The unmatched track record for ageworthy Oregon Pinot established by the Lett family at Eyrie comes at a price – these wines, even when held back an extra year or two, can be tough to unpack. This is dense with composted earth, black fruits, espresso-soaked tannins and a thread of black licorice. After 24 hours the wine begins to unwrap; after 48 it’s bursting open aromatically and the mouthfeel finally softens up and spreads out with strawberries, black cherries and very light suggestions of toasted almonds. 197 cases; 13.6%; $70 (Dundee Hills) 94/100
The Eyrie Vineyards 2019 Daphne Pinot Noir –
Daphne is the highest site among the winery’s vineyards, topping out at 890 feet. Principally planted to Pinot Gris, a small 1974 plot of Pinot Noir grows at the top. There the thin soils and cold winds emphasize the acids, giving this wine a juicy, lemony foundation. The red fruits are quite tart, strawberries and raspberries not yet at full sugary ripeness. The style fits well into the total Eyrie Pinot portfolio. This wine should be aggressively aerated, and is built to appeal to acid lovers. 198 cases; 13%; $90 (Dundee Hills) 92/100
The Eyrie Vineyards 2017 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir –
Planted in 1968 and first bottled as a single block in 1975, these 10 rows of Pinot Noir are as special and iconic as any grapes in Oregon. This legendary bottling was for many vintages made and cellared but never released. I was privileged to attend a tasting of a couple dozen back vintages that Jason Lett orchestrated some years ago. This 2017 is a ‘young’ wine with almost unbounded aging potential. Elegant, subtle, complex, well-integrated components bring rhubarb, raspberry, pie cherry, tea, a touch of cumin and more flavors into play. After 24 hours baking spices and candied fruits emerge. By any measure this is a stunning achievement that can be enjoyed immediately (with decanting!) or cellared indefinitely. So often, expensive high end and rare wines are ripened to excessive levels, given massive amounts of new oak. and basically blown out. Here is a truly magical wine that has been given the vinification it deserves so it can show itself in all its unique glory. The track record of ageability speaks volumes. Drink now until…. 2050? 97 cases; 12.9%; Dundee Hills; $250 (Dundee Hills) 100/100