Panther Creek “Shea Vineyard” Pinot Noir. Willamette Valley’s answer to premier cru Burgundy. Holy cow! As a bottled-up 17-year-old it was still so vibrant. Packed with bing cherry up front, offering notes of sage, and rose petal it gave way to darker fruit and a touch of gaminess on the finish. Its balance proved it to be a venerable pairing delight. It’s a silky wine, well-knit and still showing grip, but civilized grip— tannin tame enough to appreciate Debussy in the park.
Panther Creek was founded by the legendary Ken Wright in 1986. Ken moved on in 1994, and so did his bold, fruit bomb style. When Michael Stevenson took over as winemaker in 1996 he brought a new philosophy to the estate, one that focused on balance, nuance, and more restrained oak over flamboyance. 1998 was a Shawshank Redemption to the 1997 washout. The ’98 produced a small crop, less than the tiny ’94 that basketed less than 2 tons per acre. They talked it up as the vintage with plump and powerful wines, many properties were already licking their chops. Harvey Steiman described the ’98 Argyle “Nuthouse” Pinot Noir as “Ripe and seductive” offering “plum and black cherry, shaded with hints of chocolate”. Wine Spectator gave it 93 points. When the ’98 Domaine Drouhin was released its “bright” fruit and “soft” tannins had hailed it as approachable enough to start the Pinot Party. The consensus declared it as an excellent vintage, but I’m not sure anybody realized how long the wines would last in the cellar. Even after you’ve completed barrel tastings, even after you’ve tasted a finished product, a year or two out can seem like an eternity. Wine tasting is indeed a game of extrapolation. A warm vintage like 1998 might show itself plusher in the early rounds, but the fear that it may be short-lived lingers.
The ’98 vintage started out dismally with heavy spring rains. There were already comparisons to the ’97 washout. Then it got warm for the summer, and just before harvest, maybe even too warm for some tastes. The kicker was the fact that they had less grapes to cull from, and, with viticulture less is usually more (in terms of quality). With less than a ton of grapes per acre (when 2.5 — 3.5 is considered the norm) it was going to be a tiny harvest.
Pinot Noir is fickle no matter where it grows, and this is where the love affair begins for the wine wonk. What sets Shea Vineyard apart from other sites? It’s a pristine vineyard located in the AVA of Yamhill-Carlton and is known for its soil composition: sedimentary with cracked sandstone. It is rich in marine deposit and is unirrigated, enveloped in small ridges. The grapes ripen earlier and are known to offer jammier fruit. This is the challenge then. If you you’ve got riper fruit more extraction will lead to fruit bombs. Tannin offers structure, but so does acidity. It is often overlooked as a key factor. For many people the fruit and tannin stand out. The lack of one bolsters the other, but one has to be mindful of all the components, and the interplay between fruit, alcohol, acidity and tannin.
Panther Creek’s ’98 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir has the balance and acidity level have offered tremendous ballast. It’s a layered wine with great nuance. I see this wine carrying on well into the next decade.