For many years it was my pleasure and privilege to review Northwest wines for Wine Enthusiast magazine. Although all the wines I’d reviewed were candidates for the year-end ‘Best Buys’ ‘Cellar Selections’ and ‘Best of the Year’ lists, I never knew until each issue arrived which if any of my reviews had made it into the final lists. In most years I could place around 10 wines on each list – a hefty 10 percent of a list drawn from around the world.
But beyond the ability to draw attention to some outstanding wines and producers, these lists served to place the Pacific Northwest among the ranks of those rare places in the world that could make high quality budget wines, age-worthy wines and simply brilliant high-scoring wines.
I no longer review for the magazine, but I’m still curious to see which wines get chosen. The December issue is focused on the Top 100 Cellar Selections, and the NW wines were reviewed by my Oregon friend Michael Alberty. Oregon winemakers should be congratulated, having been honored for #4 Walter Scott 2021 X-Novo Vineyard Chardonnay; #36 The Eyrie Vineyards 2019 Daphne Pinot Noir; #79 Antiquum Farm 2021 Alium Pinot Gris; #81 Ken Wright 2021 Bryce Vineyard Pinot Noir; #83 Cristom 2021 Louise Vineyard Chardonnay and #100 Del Rio 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s a nice group that covers four different varieties and gives a nod to the Rogue Valley AVA. I’d have wished for at least one Riesling and a sparkling wine in the group, but maybe next year.
Washington, which arguably makes some of this country’s most ageworthy Cabernets, Merlots and Bordeaux blends, got pretty much skunked, with just a single mention. Long Shadows 2019 Pirouette placed at #75 – the only Washington wine on the list. That seems like a significant list fail. The bulk of the 100 are wines from California, Champagne, France and Italy – no surprises there.
I started my career with a tight focus on the wines of the Pacific Northwest, back when the total number of wineries in the region had not yet reached triple digits. And as I roll into my fifth decade I have returned to those beginnings, but with a much more expansive understanding of how the region’s wines have evolved, and what continues to make this a very special place for winemaking.
I want to provide context along with reviews, so it’s not just an endless compendium of tasting notes and scores. I have lived in Washington state for 50 years; for the past 12 in the farming town of Waitsburg, just outside Walla Walla – in many ways the state’s most important and influential AVA. I have cut way down on the sheer number of wines I taste, in order to do more thorough evaluations of wines, places and styles. As most of the wines I review are quite young, I have learned to give them ample time and space to show their best. This generally means re-tasting them over a period of days, not the rapid fire sip ‘n’ spit run-throughs that most reviewers employ.
A detailed overview of my methodology is here. To sum it up in a sentence: I specifically value wines that best demonstrate typicity, specificity, clarity, elegance, polish, depth and balance. I publish scores using the 100-point scale, having been advised in no uncertain terms by a number of wine industry friends that, love ‘em or hate ‘em, scores are still essential for wine marketing. All my notes and essays are designed to put a spotlight on wines that are highly recommended because they are significantly better than the mainstream efforts. Many of these wines are from very limited production, under-the-radar wineries. That is intentional. I encourage readers to seek them out from winery websites. Give these wineries your direct purchases; for many it’s the difference between survival and failure.
With that I will do some catching up on wines tasted over the past couple of months but not yet reviewed.
Any list of the most important vineyards in the Willamette Valley will include Shea. The 290 acre property includes roughly 155 planted acres. All but six are Pinot Noir, with the remaining producing Chardonnay. A who’s who list of top tier Oregon producers not only purchase Shea grapes, but honor the vineyard with Shea-designated Pinots. Among past and present clients are Antica Terra, Archery Summit, Bergström, Boedecker, Broadley, Chapter 24, Elk Cove, Ken Wright, Penner-Ash, Purple Hands, Raptor Ridge, Rex Hill, Stevenson-Barrie, St. Innocent and Winderlea. More than a few leading winemakers have at one time done winemaking for the Shea winery brand, including Ken Wright (1999 – 2000), Patty Green (2001), Sam Tannahill (2002 – 2004), Chris Mazepink ((2004 – 2007) and Drew Voit (2008 -2011). Dana Booth has been the on-site winemaker since 2019.
Dick and Deirdre Shea moved to Oregon in the late 1980s to embark on a mid-life career change following Dick’s 25 years on Wall Street. Planting at Shea began almost immediately, in what had been fallow pasture land, and the first grapes were harvested in 1989. The estate winery debuted in 1996. Various block and clonal selections are offered each year, along with an estate reserve called Homer. “We are not trying to make the same wine every year, but rather to bring out the best that each vintage allows,” Shea explains. “Essentially we are trying to turn great fruit into great wine.”
Peter Shea, who grew up on the property, has taken on the reins of General Manager. New releases from the estate winery come out in the spring and fall. Among the current featured wines are several cuvées never before seen. Taken as a whole, these are spectacular wines that take advantage of careful blending of various blocks and barrels.
Some further background from Peter Shea: “Neli (the Estonian word for the number 4) is done as a tribute to Deirdre’s mother and my grandmother who was from Estonia. This is a four barrel blend we came up with a few years ago. After years of our lineup consisting of Homer, our ‘best barrel blend,’ and several releases that were based on specific sections of the vineyard, this was our first experimentation with creating blends based on winemaking intention. The idea with Neli is to be a bit of a counterpoint to Homer. While Homer is meant to be big, deep, dark and concentrated, Neli is meant to be more elegant. Both are meant for longer cellar aging.”
“Revel is a brand new blend that our winemaker, Dana Booth, and I came up with while tasting through the cellar last year. We noticed a number of lots that were displaying really spectacular spice notes and we wanted to find a way to capture that in a finished wine. The final blend for Revel comes from several sections of the vineyard that have been used in our small lots before but have never been put together in this combination.”
Shea 2021 Tina-Louise Chardonnay – This stunning wine hits a very high bar for Chardonnay, even by Willamette Valley standards. I’m tempted to say I’ve never had a better bottle, and few as good. Deep, sappy and utterly delicious, it’s a seamless mix of tree fruits, citrus and pineapple. The acids are plentiful and bring a burst of refreshing minerality. Fermented and aged in 14% new French oak along with a mix of concrete, stainless steel, and neutral barrels, the combination hits a flavor bulls-eye. And stays there for days after being opened 558 cases; 13.9%; $70 (Yamhill-Carlton) 98/100
Shea 2021 Neli Pinot Noir – Neli, says Peter Shea, is the Estonian word for the number 4. This is an homage to family members from that country; a four barrel blend intended as a stylistically elegant counterpoint to Homer. That’s interesting, as it’s the sturdy muscle power of Shea fruit that has always been the vineyard’s strength and calling card. By that standard I would agree that the Neli is a bit more restrained, nicely focused and replete with lighter fruit flavors of ripe strawberries and raspberries. It’s showing good length and has picked up some spice from aging in one quarter new French oak barrels. 94 cases; 13.9%; $90 (Yamhill-Carlton) 93/100
Shea 2021 Revel Pinot Noir – This new cuvée is a blend of select lots intended as a reserve-level showcase for barrels previously designated for bottling as individual block selections. Spicy, aromatic and forward, this frames ripe flavors of blue plums and black cherries with firm tannins and supple acidity. Aged in 44% new French oak, it finishes with the pleasing toasty mocha highlights that nicely complement a wine this powerful. Young as it is, it’s a joy to drink already and should develop further complexity over the next decade. 204 cases; 13.9%; $85 (Yamhill-Carlton) 95/100
Shea 2021 Homer Pinot Noir – Homer is what the winery has long considered to be their top reserve. It’s a barrel selection each year; for this edition five blocks contributed. It was aged in 43% new oak for nine months. Dark fruits and firm tannins are here, as expected. The black cherry fruit is streaked with seams of coffee and dark chocolate. This is definitely a wine to cellar for at least a couple more years before dipping your tongue into such deep waters. Still tight after 48 hours of being opened, but all the right components are there for this to be an exceptional Homer. Just give it some time. 327 cases; 14.3%; $105 (Yamhill-Carlton) 96/100
Winter’s Hill is that rare Dundee Hills estate that keeps its prices low Some of these notes were published earlier on paulgwine.com without scores. Several were featured as Value Wines, and deservedly so. Here they are again, this time with scores, along with the latest releases. A * indicates wines currently listed for sale on the website.
Winter’s Hill 2022 Watershed Pinot Gris – The fresh, crisp scents and flavors of ripe pears set the tone for this lovely young wine. The estate-grown fruit was fermented in stainless, quickly bottled and released within a few months of the harvest. It’s a marvelous approach to this grape, and when grown in the Dundee Hills, where Pinot Gris was first introduced into Oregon, it’s particularly noteworthy. 200 cases; 13.6%; $21 (Dundee Hills) 91/100
Winter’s Hill 2021 Reserve Pinot Blanc – This drinks like a more elegant version of the winery’s excellent 2021 Chardonnay. Details of apple skin, citrus, almonds and a suggestion of mint put it squarely in the same space, but with less intensity. It’s more focused, less broad across the palate. With ample breathing it fills out and adds a touch of malolactic butter to the trailing finish. 224 cases; 13.3%; $29 (Dundee Hills) 91/100
* Winter’s Hill 2021 Reserve Pinot Gris – Estate-grown, pure varietal, this is a clean and fresh expression of Oregon-style Pinot Gris. The fruit mixes citrus and apple, melon and green berry, with balancing acids. Some aging in French oak adds touches of toast and helps to round out the palate. More solid than distinctive, it’s a good template for an uncomplicated take on the grape. 144 cases; 13.3%; $29 (Dundee Hills) 90/100
* Winter’s Hill 2021 Chardonnay – I tasted this wine months ago, prior to release, and even at that young age I found it to be a complex weave of lemon candy, wintergreen, toasted almonds and bitter greens. This dense and detailed wine, I noted, is more than a showcase for the exceptional quality of Oregon Chardonnays; it’s also a display of aspects of the Chardonnay grape all too often concealed by too much sugar, too much new oak, or overcropping. Re-tasted just now, I found all of the above, again in an elegant, detailed wine that rewards your focused attention. All estate-grown, it’s firm, beautifully balanced and subtle. 152 cases; 13.4%; $44 (Dundee Hills) 92/100
* Winter’s Hill 2021 Pinot Noir Blanc – This is a white wine made by taking a red grape and pressing it immediately – before the skins can color the juice. Pinot Noir is a light colored grape to begin with so it lends itself to the process. That said, don’t look for any real hint of Pinot Noir flavor. It’s a white wine with modest tannins and here a bread-like yeastiness, along with buttery tree fruits. What I like here is it doesn’t taste like any other white wine in the group; as a stand-alone the jury is out. Drink this at room temperature, not colder, and the flavors meld and get richer. 96 cases; 13.5%/ $44 (Dundee Hills) 91/100
* Winter’s Hill 2021 Watershed Pinot Noir This is a well-made Oregon Pinot Noir at an affordable price. It’s an earthy style that offers fresh Pinot flavors from an iconic AVA. Watermelon, strawberry, lingenberry and plum are augmented with accents of salty greens and clean earth. With ample aeration the aromas open up and seduce! This smelled and drank much better on the second day. 270 cases; 13.7%; $29 (Dundee Hills) 90/100
* Winter’s Hill 2019 Pinot Noir – Tasted ahead of official release I noted that “this well-structured wine pulls together savory herbs, stem tannins, wild berry fruit, lemony acids and a touch of compost. All in proportion, detailed and compact.” I was unaware at the time that the wine was months away from release, and that makes a big difference in my score. Re-tasted ahead of its official release this month, it’s had time to expand, smooth out and start to reveal the depths of flavor. Dark fruits, chewy tannins and well-modulated savory notes, this is an estate grown Pinot with no frills – unadorned, straightforward Dundee Hills Pinot Noir. It makes me think of David Lett’s tight, austere Eyrie Vineyards Pinots, and could age along similar lines. Drink 2025 – 2035. 273 cases; 13.1%; $49 (Dundee Hills) 92/100
* Winter’s Hill 2018 Reserve Pinot Noir – This barrel selection, from one of the finest vintages of the past decade, is just now being released. Wineries can be penalized rather than congratulated for holding wines back; essentially doing the necessary aging rather than dumping young wines on consumers. This has benefitted from that practice, yet remains quite youthfully fruit-driven. Estate-grown Dundee Hills Pinot Noir is for many the epitome of Oregon wine. The aromatics suggest the complexity and depth that follows on the palate. Mixed red and purple fruits, sassafras, Dr. Pepper, lemon oil and much more. All estate-grown and just released. 100 cases; 13.4%; $75 (Dundee Hills) 93/100
Last month I did an extensive post on the Long Walk Vineyard wines. A couple of those reviewed were transitioning to new vintages. Here are those new releases.
Long Walk Vineyard 2021 Grenache – This is 100% varietal, slightly earthy, even rustic, in the best possible way. It’s brambly and loaded with berry fruits; tangy but not too acidic, full bodied yet a bit restrained. Savory notes carry the fruit on through the finish, with slightly peppery tannins. A flavorful but lighter follow up to the excellent 2020. 70 cases; 13.9%; $35 (Rogue Valley) 90/100
Long Walk Vineyard 2021 Mourvèdre – It’s a pleasure to experience a varietal 100% Mourvèdre from an Oregon vineyard with a fine track record for Rhône grapes. I’m impressed with the purity of this wine – no frills, just solid winemaking showcasing immaculate fruit. Though the winery says 25% of the barrels were new you could’ve fooled me as the fruit and minerality of the grape shows so clearly, with only the faintest hint of barrel influence. This wine surprised the heck out of me by continuing to evolve and improve over several days. I would strongly urge you to aggressively decant it if planning to drink it any time soon. 70 cases; 12.8%; $38 (Rogue Valley) 90/100