1976 South Block Reserve – The Eyrie Vineyards
By now it is a well worn tale to Oregon wine aficionados: how in 1979 a pinot noir from The Eyrie Vineyards bested all but one red Burgundy in a GaultMillau tasting in Paris, thereby attracting the interest of Robert Drouhin to Oregon and sparking the legitimation of Willamette Valley pinot.
What hasn’t been fully appreciated is that the winning wine, vintage 1975 South Block Reserve, was never sold on the open market. Indeed, The Eyrie South Block Reserve wines were made in vintages from 1970 to 2007—but only two vintages were ever released for sale. “The more Dad liked a wine,” explained son Jason Lett, “the more he wouldn’t sell it!”
Winemaker, legend, and legendary character David Lett always felt that his South Block Reserve pinot noir—made from the same 10 rows on distinctive soil in the southernmost corner of the Eyrie Vineyard—consistently displayed special qualities, the very definition of terroir, and was (say it in hushed tones lest our hubris offend) . . . perhaps an American version of Grand Cru. A lofty thought, and one that until this year was impossible to test, so rare were the wines and so few were the people that had the opportunity to taste them.
But that’s about to change. Jason Lett, who in 2005 took over as winemaker and vineyard manager of The Eyrie Vineyards from his father, is making his father’s South Block reserve wines available. A Grand Vertical Tasting will be held just before IPNC, but a few weeks ago Jason invited me to a kind of preview winemaker dinner to taste some select vintages.
Without exaggeration, I can say that the South Block Reserve (SBR) wines I tasted amazed me.
The 1976 SBR was the oldest of the evening. It retained a ruby/mahogany center with brickish rims. The nose reminded me of opening a antiquarian book (you remember books, right?): tones of spice, cedar, leather, herbs. The fruit on the palate was remarkably pure and sweet, tasting of dried cherries soaked in cognac. The texture was silky, though there was a shadow of detectable tannin, and the finish was long. An alive wine and quite beautiful.
I was lucky enough to sit with Diana Lett at the dinner, David’s widow, and she told me that the 1976 was always David’s favorite of the SBRs. “He loved it from the very beginning,” she said. I can see why.
The 1988 SBR also had dark red/brown color, but the nose started out showing more earthy notes, with floral qualities emerging as I sipped. Again, the wine’s core had remarkable fruit sweetness with accents of spice and white pepper.
Eleven years younger, the 1999 had wonderfully full and meaty aromas, and some of the same spice notes I detected in the other vintages. Satiny texture, very elegant pure cherry flavors, white pepper, a little cigar box, great acidity, intense finish. This was served with salmon crudo, which beautifully accentuated the pure fruitiness of the wine.
The last SBR of the night was the 2007, the last SBR that David made, having blended the final cuvee only a week before he died. Its youth showed, with a nose that only reluctantly opened to—again—spice notes and cherry fruit with a sense of dried herbs and earth. Taught and elegant, the cherry flavors were controlled, the tannins present but polished, and plenty of what I was beginning to think of as signature cherry purity.
I found these wines to be wonderful. I harkened back to the complete Eyrie vertical pinot tasting that the Lett family put on while David was still with us. While there were ups and downs in the 40 years-worth of wines, I remember being tremendously impressed by how well, overall, the older vintages had held up
Americans aren’t used to drinking old wines, let alone old pinot noir . . . let alone old pinot noir from the Willamette Valley. The modern palate needs experience and education to appreciate the subtlety, delicacy, and elegance of a finely mature wine—so different from (and yet the direct derivation of) the wines we drink in their boisterous youth.
David Lett didn’t like that and he did something about it: he put away his South Block Reserve wines for the next generation. And guess what? We are that next generation: we get to taste these finely aged historical artifacts. In fact, Jason has decided to offer these wines for sale. He has gone through the SBR library stocks, eliminated oxidized or otherwise tainted wines, rebottled and recorked the good ones, and will be making them available for purchase.
Liquid history is so delicious!
For more information, contact The Eyrie Vineyards.