2009 Brittan Vineyards Pinot Noir Basalt Block

Hello friends. I recently experienced one of the professional joys of a lifetime when I attended Oregon Pinot Camp.

We were referred to as “campers.” We were driven around in yellow school buses (see picture; I’m the third from the left; yes, we’re wearing orange safety vests, and yes, I am handcuffed to the gentleman next to me. Long story.) Plenty of silliness, certainly, balanced by plenty of seriousness: seminars, vineyard soil pits, cross-AVA tastings, verticals, library wines. And each evening, before dinner, there was a large tasting, where many of the sponsoring wineries served several current releases. It was an unparalleled opportunity to explore a number of wineries not-so-familiar to me, and you can bet I will be featuring several of them over the coming months.

Beginning with Brittan:

Robert Brittan’s winemaking origin story is fantastic. After pursuing dual degrees in physics and philosophy at Oregon State, he graduated “both geeky and broke. I soon realized that alcohol was an attractant to co-eds, so I began my career in fermentation sciences in order to get a date.” As a former applied-math major and (former?) geek myself, this story resonates.

So, instead of pursuing grad school in either of his majors, Robert decamped to UC-Davis and then onto the Napa Valley, where he spent 30 years making wine. The last 16 of those years were spent at Stags’ Leap, where he was Winemaker and Estate Manager.

But there is something about Oregon that attracts the intellectuals. I think it’s the siren call of the perfectly imperfect, the challenge of winemaking on the climatic cusp. It’s nothing if not exciting.

In 2004, Robert, and his wife Ellen (who he met through winemaking; his instincts were spot-on!) identified and purchased a piece of land in the McMinnville AVA, a cool, windy site on the edge of Oregon’s Coast Range. He liked this piece of land for its mix of soils: predominantly broken sub-marine basalt, but with volcanic material and glacial deposits as well. By the 2006 vintage, Robert was producing wines from his estate vineyard, and since then, he has also taken on some consulting work for other wineries in the region.

In sum, he is a lavishly experienced winemaker with a well-defined point of view, making exactly the kind of Pinot Noir he wants to make. And it shows.

The “Basalt Block” Pinot comes from the sections of the vineyard that have the heaviest concentration of broken sub-marine basalts. The vines give very low yields of intense, complex grapes. I had a chance, over the course of Pinot Camp, to taste 2007 through 2010 vintages. 2007 was glorious, and I’d offer it if I could. 2008 was locked up tight, typical for the vintage. 2010 was brisk, fresh, and still young. And 2009, which we’re offering today, was wide open, practically smiling out of the glass. It was by far the most approachable of the bunch, again typical for the vintage.

Only about 25% new oak, so the fruit plays the starring role, and it’s all black and red: raspberries and cherries. And unlike many of the 2009s, which were unmitigated fruit bombs, this balances its generous fruit with cut-rock and floral grace notes, and a brightly-acidic spine. It’s a very easy wine to love, and it just received Paul Gregutt’s strongest review for his latest roundup of Oregon Pinots, currently appearing in the August issue of Wine Enthusiast:

Wine Enthusiast (Paul Gregutt): “($45); [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 94pts.”

As that review trickles down through traditional channels, I imagine it will put pressure on allocations. But for now, it’s first come first served up to 12 bottles, and the wine should arrive in about a week, at which point it will be available for pickup or shipping during the autumn shipping window.

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