Hello friends. I’ve heard many variations on the same theme about the 2012 harvest in the Willamette Valley. “A beer-drinking vintage” has been the most common refrain. In other words, the winemakers drink beer and just wait for the perfect fruit to ferment itself into perfect wine. “If you can’t make a good Pinot in 2012, I don’t know what to tell you” is another popular adage.
You folks get the point. It was a decorated vintage, with huge potential. And now the flow of releases from this epic vintage has slowed to a trickle. But they’re still out there, and we’re beating the bushes to find them. Today we have a trio of 2012s, including one retail exclusive from some dear, familiar friends.
I go back and forth between which one I prefer, generally favoring Stewart in cooler years (his 2007 was magnificent, as were 2010 and 2011) and Athena in warmer years. For the 2012s, it was a close call, but I had a slight preference for Athena. We were also offered a fine discount off this wine’s $36 release. I love all the Yamhill-Carlton bass notes in this wine: earth and forest floor, ground coffee and mineral. They beautifully balance the blackberry and redcurrant fruit. I also love how much depth and intensity (perhaps helped along by the inclusion of 35% whole clusters) this conveys at very reasonable weight (13.5% listed alc). It’s a tightly-wound beauty, just beginning to unfurl.
Wine Spectator (Harvey Steiman): “[REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 92pts.”
Vinous (Josh Raynolds): “[REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 94pts.”
“One of America’s finest sources of elegant Pinot Noir?” Seriously strong praise from a critic not prone to hyperbole! And it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Brian O’Donnell launched Belle Pente in 1994 after many years of home-brewing and home-winemaking. It’s one of Oregon’s hidden gems, open only twice per year (you just missed Memorial Day, so now you have to wait until Thanksgiving) and producing a series of earthy, terroir-expressive Pinot Noirs. In my opinion, Belle Pente still does not receive a level of attention commensurate with the quality of wines Brian crafts. Probably because he’s as nice and unassuming as a winemaker gets, and just quietly goes about his business, making vintage after vintage of haunting, ethereal Pinot Noir.
Here is how Brian describes the Estate Reserve: A barrel selection from the best parts of the vineyard, with the core of the blend coming from our original block planted in 1994 paired with our steep south-west facing block planted in 1998 to the Wadensvil selection of Pinot Noir. This year’s version also includes about 30% from our Pommard block (also planted in 1998) which has really come into its own over the past several years. As the vineyard matures, the process of selecting barrels for this bottling gets harder every year … but the resulting wine seems to get better and better! Although the wine-making protocol for the estate reserve is essentially the same as for our single vineyard wines, there are a couple of notable exceptions. While all the top wines include a little bit of whole cluster, indigenous yeast fermentation, 18 month elevage, and gravity flow processing from fermenter all the way to the bottle, the Estate Reserve enjoys a slightly higher percentage of new barrels (about half) and longer aging in bottle prior to release (typically around 18 months).
I won’t add much to Raynolds’ spot-on review above. I’ll just say that I think this is indeed the finest Estate Reserve Brian has made for Belle Pente, and that’s saying something. For lovers of Pinots with elegance and energy to spare, Belle Pente is not to be missed.
In April, I made a very speedy trip to Walla Walla. With two little babies at home, the luxury of multi-day road trips is on hold for a while. Instead it was fly out Tuesday night, fly back Wednesday afternoon. Just before getting onto the plane back to Seattle, I visited John and Molly at their new winery space at the Walla Walla airport to taste the new Devona wines (in bottle and in barrel) and to grovel (successfully, as it turned out!) for an allocation.
To some degree, the feeling in the winery was that of ex-pats returning home. Home to Pinot Noir. Over the years I have known John Abbott, he has made a lot of really divine Cabernet Sauvignons for Abeja. But it was never Cabernet Sauvignon that he wanted to talk about. It was almost always Pinot Noir (and sometimes Chardonnay). Much of John’s early winemaking career was spent making Pinot, and I sense he has long desired to hear its siren call again.
The Devona adventure begins with a tiny release (10 barrels) of Freedom Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir, a mix of Pommard and Wadenswil clones from this 1982-planted site in the foothills of the Coast Range, on soils of marine sedimentary uplifted sea bed. The 2012 vintage represents 31st leaf for this site, getting squarely into old-vine territory. I believe fewer than ten wineries get access to this fruit, and the list is a who’s who in Oregon, including St. Innocent, Patty Green, and Walter Scott. John’s version is so beautifully evocative of this part of the world: forest floor notes that evoke mossy coastal pine boughs; earthy notes that evoke chanterelle mushrooms; and of course plenty of red and black fruit. This is supple, easy-drinking Pinot, comfortable in its own skin. Not showy; just quietly confident, and expressive of the site where it’s grown.
John Abbott is one of my favorite winemakers in the northwest, and John and Molly are two of the best people in the trade, period. I would probably write about sweet White Zinfandel if that’s what they decided to make. But it is a real pleasure, a real jolt of excitement, to see what John can do with Pinot Noir. This feels like the start of something special.
Athena is first come first served up to 12 bottles. For Belle Pente, please limit order requests to 6 bottles, and for Devona, 3 bottles. We’ll do our best to fulfill all requests, and the wines not already in the warehouse should arrive in a week or two, at which point they will be ready for pickup or shipping during the next temperature-appropriate shipping window.