My baptism into the world of wine took place in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. It was there I first fell in love with Pinot Noir. The fall after I graduated college, I worked as a harvest intern at Penner-Ash Wine Cellars for the 2012 vintage. My liberal arts degree entailed years of abstract thinking and I was searching for something more concrete, tactile, sensory. The process of making wine is one of the most palpable forms of labor. It includes the strenuous effort of punch downs, the sticky feeling of sorting grapes for fourteen hours straight, and the delight of tasting the inchoate releases of last year’s vintage. Penner-Ash took me in as a member of their family. And for my four month stay, the valley spoke to me.
In terms of winemaking regions the Willamette is relatively young. Its genesis dates back to the 1960’s when mavericks such as David Lett, Charles Coury, and Dick Erath planted the first vines. I like to think of the valley as a young professional. It has seen early success, but it is still embarking on what will be a lengthy, world-class career.
As the tradition of winemaking in the Willamette ages, one cannot help but compare it to its elder, Burgundy, considered the “Promised Land” for the cultivation of Pinot Noir. It is thus common to evaluate Oregon wines in a strict binary, either as “Burgundian,” or “not Burgundian” But the regional personality of Oregon Pinot Noir is not that simple. There are over 450 producers in the Willamette Valley and the style is pluralistic. Rather than simply viewing Oregon as an imitation of Burgundy or a rejection of it, it is perhaps more important to think of the valley as a relatively young region that is still creating its own history and tradition. While I cannot predict how the area will change in the coming years, below are a few distinct vineyards and producers to keep an eye on:
Hyland Estates: First planted in 1971, the vineyard is one of the region’s oldest. When I first visited this site, the unique altitude of the vineyard fascinated me. The vines appear to be in their own world. They grow at an altitude ranging from 600 to 800 feet above the sea in the Coastal Range, and here they have their own microclimate. During my visit I was informed that this environment is unique to the valley as it experiences cooler summers and warmer winters, allowing for more consistent ripening. The soils are composed of volcanic Jory and Nekia, which provide excellent drainage and give the wine characteristics of cherry and spice. Here, forty-year-old vines of Pommard, Wadensvil, and Coury Pinot Noir clones are cutting a distinguished name for the vineyard. When I first tasted a wine from Hyland, I was struck by how it walked a fine balance between transparent, ripe, fruit and a seductive inner personality. Renowned winemakers crafting single vineyard wines from here include Penner-Ash, Bergstrom, and Beaux Frères.
Antica Terra: The 11 acre vineyard that produces Antica Terra’s estate wines should be on everyone’s radar screen. Planted in 1989, these vines have struggled in extreme geological conditions for the past twenty-five years. The estate is part of the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, a region accented by rocks and boulders. If there were a contest held in the Willamette for “best wine from extreme terroir,” then I would put my money on Antica Terra’s estate vineyard. It features a steep slope of bedrock that includes fossilized oyster shells. The estate wine, Antikythera, is a gorgeous expression of this intense terroir. When winemaker Maggie Harrison left her assistant winemaking position at Sine Qua Non for the Willamette in 2005, she had a hard time believing that the vines at Antica Terra were planted in 1989. Rather than gnarled and sturdy, the oldest vines still don the appearance of infancy. Their trunks are spindly and frail. The result: precious, low yields of tiny berries with a reduced seed count. Maggie Harrison uses these yields to make a wine that is rich in tannins from the Pinot Noir skins, but avoids the harsh tannins embedded in the seeds. Antikythera offers a focused inner concentration of fruit and minerality. It is one of the most sought after wines in the valley, and I can’t wait to try the 2012 vintage.
Shea Vineyard: If you are a follower of Oregon Pinot Noir, then you have probably heard of Dick and Deidre Shea. They are pioneers who have struggled, and I mean really struggled, to make their vineyard one of the Willamette’s best. Shea’s fruit is some of the most prized and allocated in the valley. What makes it so? Wines stemming from the Shea vineyard consistently evoke aromas and flavors of dark fruits, violets, and spice. These wines are deep. For me, drinking Penner-Ash’s vineyard designate bottle of Shea was like listening to Highway 61 Revisited for the first time. It struck a cord that I will never forget. However, Shea’s vines have not always been superstars. When Dick Shea left his job on Wall Street and planted his vineyard in 1989, he initially struggled to sell his fruit. Then Phylloxera struck the vineyard throughout the 1990’s. This led to selective replanting and a meticulous vineyard management strategy. Weathering these storms, the Shea vineyard has become one of the most celebrated sites in the region. For an excellent bottle of Shea, look for the single vineyard selections of Bergstrom, Penner-Ash, Raptor Ridge, J.K. Carriere, and also Dick and Deidre’s own, Shea Wine Cellars.
What will the regional personality of the Willamette look like in ten years, or twenty? This question includes not only how the vines themselves mature with time, but also how producers and vineyardists continue to develop a relationship with their land.
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