A Conversation With Ken Wright & a Look at His 2019 Pinots
By Paul Gregutt
Click to view on PaulG on Wine
I have known and admired Ken Wright since we first met almost 35 years ago. His winemaking skills are only matched (and maybe even exceeded) by his deep knowledge of the terroirs of the Willamette Valley. He was instrumental in helping to define and develop the initial sub-divisions of the AVA – perhaps the first person to dive so deeply into the nuances of the region from a vintner’s perspective.
He has worked through all manner of vintage conditions, from ideal to dismal, and found ways to make great wines in all of them. His community support for the town of Carlton is unparalleled. So it was with great anticipation that I asked Ken to partner with me in the first Zoom tasting and discussion I’ve hosted for this new website.
We tasted four of the 2019 Pinots together, but the discussion quickly became far more wide-ranging. Of particular interest were Ken’s remarks on the geologic history of the region. We also talked about changes in wine styles and consumer preferences; the trend to using less and less new oak; the difficulties of assessing young wines; my go-to glass for Pinot Noirs and much more. Here is a link to the entire one hour discussion. I’ve noted touchpoints for key topics.
Overview of 2019 vintage (at 8:40)
Geologic history of Willamette Valley (at 10:30)
Volcanic wines and mother rock basalt (at 15:40)
Thoughts on oak (at 19:40)
Carter Vineyard Pinot Noir (at 25:00)
High-scoring wines (at 29:35)
Old vines (at 30:25)
Dundee Hills vs. Eola-Amity AVAs (at 38:30)
Bonnie Jean Pinot Noir and Yamhill-Carlton AVA (at 39:40)
Importance of good stemware (at 44:20)
Low alcohol in wine (at 47:58)
Palate evolution (at 50:20)
Freedom Hill Pinot Noir and Mount Pisgah AVA (at 56:50)
Over the course of several days I tasted through nine different Ken Wright Pinots from 2019. A few things about the entire lineup stood out. Overall case quantities were lower than previously, and finished alcohol (abv) on most wines came in below 13%. Yet the wines are anything but lean. They are intensely aromatic, fresh and fruit-driven. They are balanced and compact. They are generous as long as you give them a chance to breathe and then give them your full attention. Many, if not most, are ageworthy. All are recommended.
Here are Ken’s comments on some of the challenges of the 2019 vintage, with my reviews following:
“Yes, 2019 was down in production. Down 30% from 2017, 15% from 2018 and 20% from 2020. We decided to produce less of everything proportionately. 2019 was a cooler year overall, especially late season, which resulted in lower sugars and higher acids when ripeness was achieved. It was the first year that we produced the two AVA-designated bottlings, Eola-Amity and Yamhill Carlton. We expect to produce them every year going forward.
“Part of the explanation for the small volumes of 2019 was fragility of the berries during harvest. We had endured two significant rain events. After drying out we harvested and the first thing we noticed was how easily berries were popping off of the rachis (cluster frame, stem). The connection between the berry and the cluster is that very small stem which is called a pedicel. When ripening fruit experiences a rain event the berry enlarges and strains that connection. The connection can become quite fragile resulting in berries easily falling off of the stem during picking.
“Once on the truck these loose berries are more prone to juicing. In 2019 we saw juice cascading at times off of the delivery truck. It was literally like watching profits flow down the drain. Once on the sorting line we did our best to capture and retain the excessive juicing but you can only do so much. It was essentially an unwanted bleeding off of juice or saignée. The positive is that it increased our skin to juice ratio which meant greater intensity of color, aroma and flavor… but at a dear cost.”
In conclusion Ken and I both found our Zoom conversation quite interesting and enjoyable. I am deeply grateful to him for joining me. I will announce the next Zoom tasting and chatfest in the near future. Now on to the reviews of the 2019 Ken Wright Pinot Noirs.
In 2019 Ken Wright introduced a pair of AVA-specific Pinots for the first time. Although his pricing on all his wines have long held the line and represent exceptional value, the AVA designates are roughly half as expensive and are a very fine introduction to all the rest. This wine is particularly significant as Ken was the man behind the application for the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. The flavors bring together blueberry fruit, clove spices, moderating acids and a textural mouthfeel with refreshing wet rock minerality.
581 cases; 12.8%; $35
Every dark cloud has a silver lining; in the instance the stresses of fires and Covid on the Oregon wine industry has led many star wineries to blend more and offer lower-priced cuvées. Ken Wright’s AVA series is one such. Rippled with tart black cherry fruit, hints of tanned leather, a dash of cinnamon spice and supple tannins, this is a substantial wine with at least a half decade of prime drinking ahead.
610 cases; 13.2%; $35
The Yamhill-Carlton wines get the special bottles. Again note the lower abv, not sour but showing accents of sweet tomato and mixed citrus along with tart pie cherry fruit. Might the acids overtake it at some point? On the second and third days it seems better, still tart but more concentration to the fruit.
189 cases; 12.6%; $65
Tart as abv indicates, bright flavors of raspberry and citrus, blood orange and a hint of chocolate. Like chocolate orange peel. Crisp and clear as a bell. A touch of wintergreen in the aromas. Complex, compact and tart. Supremely ageable. That minty note persists but it’s a feature.
396 cases; 12.8%; $65
Brambly red berry fruit packs a tangy punch. There’s a touch of Dr. Pepper and plenty of citrus flesh and rind. Overall it’s balanced and tight; though it leans toward a high-acid profile. As with most of the 2019s from Ken Wright it should be aerated aggressively.
362 cases; 12.8%; $65
Ken Wright 2019 Freedom Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir
(See ‘For the Cellar’)
Here are inviting aromas of red plum and crushed raspberries, a lick of spice, and a palate-pleasing wine of medium concentration and good overall balance. It satisfied from front to finish. Dig in and find hints of peat moss in a compact wine with plenty of detail. This wine unlocks itself carefully so aerate aggressively and give it your full attention. I found it still drinking beautifully when down to the bottle’s last glass on the third day it had been open. As with the Freedom Hill this is one for your cellar and could last for decades.
This Yamhill-Carlton vineyard makes a Pinot with the deep colors and juicy flavors of boysenberry, accented with hints of truffle. It’s complex and compelling, muscular and powerfully built throughout. The tannins are drying but proportionate and framed with phenolic accents. Perhaps the most distinctive wine in the lineup, with unique aromatics.
182 cases; 12.8%; $65
Ken Wright 2019 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir
I don’t know that I’ve seen another Shea with such low finished alcohol, but the exceptional quality of Shea fruit is still much in evidence. The wine’s tart berry mix runs from strawberry to raspberry, showing medium body, juicy acids and good overall balance. The tannins are slightly chewy and carry a touch of herb and stem through the finish. It’s not a standard Shea but nonetheless compelling, finishing with nuanced notes of menthol.
262 cases; 12.2%; $65
(See ‘Wine of the Week’)