The 2012 RR Willamette Valley Pinot Noir in my glass—made from the first vines planted on Ribbon Ridge, now one of the region’s preeminent AVAs—is simply gorgeous. At 10 years old, the wine is still purple-tinged and vibrant, with voluptuous (a word I rarely use), juicy fruit perfectly balanced with mature tannins and fresh acidity. “This is Jane Fonda at 55!” says Ribbon Ridge Winery founder Harry Peterson-Nedry, “not 80.” (Although he concedes that, at 80-plus, Fonda is still pretty wonderful.) But, he counters, “we got only half a crop that year, and even though I’d love to make a wine like this every year, I can’t sacrifice half my crop to do it.” A major hail event, it turns out, was the culprit; the bean counters the victims; and savvy Pinot lovers today the beneficiaries of that short crop that produced the inky, concentrated, spicy red.
And with a 17-vintage vertical available, he’s done the work of aging it for you.
In fact, the 2012 RR Pinot Noir is available. That’s because, as he set out to produce RR wines from his Ridgecrest Vineyards in the very early aughts, Peterson-Nedry was already on a mission to provide a way for wine lovers to discover for themselves how gracefully Pinot Noir from this cool swath of Oregon can age. It would seem that he had two kinds of wine drinkers in mind. First, collectors of fine wine who, of course, know great red Burgundy for its capacity to evolve elegantly over time but who rarely credit West Coast Pinots with the same skill set. And second, those consumers who, as they say, age their wines about the amount of time it takes them to get home from the supermarket and so never brush up against the beauty of a great Pinot Noir that has evolved beyond its first burst of fresh fruit.
That last is a shame in Peterson-Nedry’s book. “Restaurants rarely have cellars to supply an authentic reserve list,” he says, “and retail bottle shops often have wines no older than last week’s delivery. Gone are the days when dust and cobwebs were wiped away to find a ‘special’ wine for you in either place.” And so, too, gone is the chance to taste the different spectrum of flavors, aromas, textures and nuances that older wines can offer. Put another way, Peterson-Nedry says, “I like wines to be spherical, three-dimensional—to have as much tannin as fruit. Age brings gracefulness and balance to young wines, and savory characteristics begin to raise their heads above water.”
To be clear, this Oregon wine pioneer isn’t asking us to compare Willamette Valley Pinot Noir to its counterpart in Burgundy. “You are what you are,” he says. “Don’t require things to be the same as something else you know.” And to give people the chance to taste the entirely unique progression of Willamette Valley Pinot from one of its great vineyards through the years, Peterson-Nedry held back a large part of each vintage and now is making bottles available from 2003 (when Ridgecrest Vineyards was already more than 20 years old) to 2019, with more than 40 years of age on the vines. “Same vineyard, same winemaking,” he says.
We move on to the 2013. The wine offers up lovely aromatics—florals layered with a whole spice rack; it’s supple and elegant. “There’s no accounting for it,” says Peterson-Nedry, considering that the year was warm and the crop load on the vines heavy. This discussion comes easily because the data is provided: Growing Degree Days of heat (as warmth is measured) and tons of fruit harvested per acre, as well as alcohol level and pH (indicating acidity)—enough numbers to fuel the geekiest of conversations. In fact, Peterson-Nedry and his daughter, Wynne Peterson-Nedry, who makes the wines now, have plotted the vintages as circles on a graph, the axes being growing season heat and the size of the crop load, as a visual prompt to compare wine profiles. It’s irresistible to jump from that beautiful 2012 to the 2011, in a similar quadrant on the graph but from a very cool vintage. (“It was one of our latest harvests ever for Pinot Noir,” says Peterson-Nedry. “And the greatest vintages are often the latest.”) With bracingly high acidity, the wine might have been hard to sip on release, but that acid-tannin balance is a beautiful thing now, still vibrant, with a savory, earthy edge and complexities emerging—a kick of citrus, a hint of ginger.
This is far from an orderly retrospective tasting, a march from young to old or vice versa. And that’s what the father-daughter team has in mind. The real discovery is in going rogue. “Start with a few vintages that you know, or know you love,” advises Peterson-Nedry. “Then challenge yourself with questions and question your assumptions about the character a certain kind of growing season will yield. How does the current release, 2019, from a season that clocked in almost as cool as 2011, but with a very heavy crop load, fare? Short answer: It’s bright with red berry fruit, savory with herbs and minerality, and impressively structured—an old-school beauty. A random dart leads to 2006, a warmer year with a moderate crop load. Warm spice and sweet, exotic fruit (akin to golden raspberry) end in a savory finish undergirded with tannic power. Lovely.
My tasting notes are punctuated with that last adjective. The vintages vary widely, with some characteristics you’d expect from the vicissitudes of the seasons, and some that are counterintuitive, only partly explained by explanations of leaf pulling (or not) and crop dropping (or not) in response to fluctuations. But there’s a through-line of balance, of fruit and acid and tannin in mutual support of one another, no matter the year. It could be the patience of experience, the lack of knee-jerk reactions to extreme events. “We pick on flavor and acids,” Peterson-Nedry says. “We kind of ignore sugar levels unless an alarm goes off.” Thus alcohol levels vary from year to year too. But that’s just another element in the impression I come away with: Not only do the wines from each great region age into their own beauty (Willamette Valley apart from Burgundy), but variations from one region and vineyard from year to year are individually beautiful too. I can’t pick a favorite in the lineup.
This choose-your-own-adventure retrospective tasting has turned into a find-your-style romp. And it’s hard to come away not feeling that life would be barren without some great Willamette Valley Pinots with a few—or many—years of bottle age on them.
Vertical collections of RR Pinot Noir are available from Ribbon Ridge Winery, as are individual bottles from the library, which you can mix and match, with all the information and support you need from the Peterson-Nedrys to make your tasting a personalized, immersive adventure.