A Pinot Noir is like the eponymous cream-filled cookie. Some eat only the inside. Some eat only the outside. Some eat the two together. With that deeply philosophical introduction to wine appreciation, let’s tell you why Saffron Fields’ 2020 wines (released fall 2022) are a special treat for those who go straight for that creamy center filling.
Let’s be frank. 2020 was a difficult year for wineries in the northern Willamette Valley. Fires in the Cascades, and even as near as Bull Mountain, inundated the western section of Oregon just as grapes were nearing their harvest.
Our beloved Pinot Noir grapes are especially vulnerable to the environment, the very delicacy that gives them their world-famous reputation for blending balanced flavor and acidity also makes them susceptible to damage from toxins. The decision to pick or not to pick, to press or not to press, all had to be made right as an otherwise promising vintage was set for harvest.
Growers in the valley reacted differently with mixed results. Some wineries disposed of their entire harvest. Others sold off grapes to be blended in to make higher-volume, lower quality wine (anyone for a horizontal blind 2020 box wine tasting?). Some embraced the smoke as terroir, that is the essence of earth, sun, heat and timing that gives each place and each year its own special character. Some of those wines are eminently drinkable, at least for now. Whether they will cellar well is an open question, to be revisited for several years. Others taste like, to borrow a phrase from Wine Spectator, licking a wet ashtray. Don’t buy the case until you sample the bottle.
At Saffron, we trusted in the skills of winemaker Tony Rynders to produce a wine that could meet our high standards of excellence. We were not interested in wines that needed to be deeply discounted to sell or which damaged the brand we have so carefully cultivated.
September 2020 was a traumatic time for Tony, as for almost every winemaker in the valley. Coming off a spring and summer when tasting room and restaurant sales vanished due to lockdowns, many wineries faced yet another crippling financial blow. Saving the harvest required vision and experience. Red wine production involves multiple presses before bottling. The juice of the grape picks up color, and tannins from contact with the skin and, especially in the case of whole-cluster fermentation, the stems. While a smoke event of the magnitude of the 2020 Oregon fires was unique, Tony understood that minimizing skin contact was a key production step.
While there are many post- harvest techniques that can impact the quality of the resulting wine, the key, according to Tony, was capturing the juice that ran free from the grapes with minimal punch downs and press downs. In other words, being gentle with the grapes.
The results exceeded even our best expectations. Our 2020 wines were released to club members in the fall and far from being a second-best wine, some members have found these wines to be immediately approachable, with pretty fruit and a soft, silky mouth feel. They are, to paraphrase Tony, more like licking off the creamy center and less like eating the outside cookie. These are wines that are immediately ready to enjoy and can be savored over that next five years. Opening a bottle of 2020 Yamhill-Carlton estate wine, experience the creamy texture with notes of blackberry and plum. Slide it across your tongue and note the balance of acidity with the restrained tannins that are a natural result of the press and barreling techniques.
For all the trauma of 2020, Tony is proud of the resulting wines. As he says, “I wouldn’t put it in a bottle if I couldn’t be proud of it.” We are too. So next time someone tells you 2020 was a horrible year, say, to quote the French “au contraire,” and uncork a bottle of Saffron Fields 2020 for all to enjoy.