It feels wrong to describe Eyrie Vineyards as a dynasty, even though, technically, it is one. The wines, and the people, of Eyrie have too light a touch for such a grandiose word. Like his late father, David, Eyrie’s Jason Lett has chosen the hands-on, artisanal life of the vigneron over that of the brand- and/or empire-builder. In the mid-1960s, David Lett effectively created a whole new category of fine wine when he planted Pinot Noir in Oregon’s Willamette Valley; in a relatively short period of time, this region has been recognized as one of the world’s greatest terroirs for the grape.
That’s a pretty incredible patrimony to be entrusted with, but Jason has handled it with humor, humility, and, most important of all, the “light touch” he ascribes to the Pinot Noirs crafted by his father. When I look at Eyrie’s resolutely classic label, I know one thing for certain: What’s inside the bottle is Pinot Noir at its balanced, perfumed, high-energy best. Pinot Noir that is the epitome of finesse. Pinot Noir that has proved to be some of the most age-worthy wine from the grape outside of Burgundy. Pinot Noir that is way underpriced given its pedigree. Not to get too melodramatic about it, but this is essential wine—essential to one’s understanding of this grape, this place, and great wine in general.
Although the elder Lett (who passed away in 2008) began planting Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris in 1965, the first ‘commercial’ release of Eyrie Vineyards wine was 1970. The original estate vineyard, a 20-acre plot in the Dundee Hills, was so named for an “eyrie” (“nest”) of red-tailed hawks found at the site. They’ve since added several other small Dundee Hills sites to their collection—all with diverse elevations, aspects, and subtle variations on the basalt soil that characterizes the zone. Farming is certified organic, and in the case of today’s Willamette Valley bottling, roughly 70% of the fruit hails from ‘estate’ vineyards; the remaining percentage is bought in from organically-managed sites, including the Tukwilla Vineyard (also Dundee Hills) and the Cattrall Brothers Vineyard (Eola-Amity Hills).
As is typical of Eyrie wines, you wouldn’t guess that today’s ’15 was the product of “the warmest year in Oregon since record-keeping started more than a century ago.” Rather than ultra-ripe and rich, this is sleek, shimmering, and refined, with very moderate alcohol (13.6%) and bright, refreshing acidity. Fermented on only ambient yeasts, with a small percentage of whole grape clusters included, the wine was then aged nearly two years in mostly used French oak (yes, 11% of the barrels were new, but otherwise Eyrie is working with some of the oldest barrels in use anywhere in the US).
In the glass, Eyrie’s ’15 is a bright, candy-apple red with pink highlights at the rim. The aromas are a highly perfumed mix of red and black cherry, raspberry, cranberry, rose petals, sandalwood, and smoky underbrush. Medium-bodied and exceedingly fresh and lively on the palate, its tannins are ultra-fine-grained and the finish long and aromatic. It has great tension on the palate and benefits from at least a half-hour in a decanter before service in Burgundy stems at 60-65 degrees. Most important, as we learned firsthand when we visited Eyrie last year, these Pinots really can age—this will improve over the next decade-plus if kept well, which is not something that can be said about many domestic Pinot Noirs. It really is a standard-bearer and a model of finesse that is a true chameleon with food. Pacific salmon is always a good choice (especially grilled or roasted over coals), and there are some great complementary flavors in the attached recipe. If this is not one of your cellar standbys, it should be—it remains one of the great values in American wine. Cheers!
Willamette Valley, Oregon
Pinot Noir 100%
11% New French