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I am thrilled to hear more and more people walk into the shop looking for Pinot Noir from Oregon! Despite intrepid winemakers and growers setting down (both figurative and literal vinifera) roots in Oregon as early as the 1960's, it still feels like somewhat uncharted territory. There is still so much we have yet to discover about the terroir and different micro-climates. Increasingly though, wine-lovers are appreciating that there truly is something distinct about these wines. I recently attended a symposium on the Willamette Valley, and the question was posed, "What is Oregon-ness?" Essentially they were asking, what can we say to distinguish an Oregon Pinot Noir from a Burgundian, or one from California? Can we now find the differences between the wines of Dundee Hills and those of the Chehalem Mountains, or the McMinnville Coast, as we can the wines of Gevrey-Chambertin vs. Pommard, or Sonoma vs. Santa Barbara? It is because of the environmentally-conscious farming and low-intervention winemaking, that I believe the answer is yes.
Today Oregon is at the forefront of sustainable agriculture in the US; in regards to labor practices, the winery's use of resources, and with a large portion of their vineyards being farmed organically or LIVE certified (which monitors chemical use in the vineyards). This year's Imbibe magazine Wine Person of the Year was awarded to Mimi Casteel of Hope Well wines, and for good reason. Mimi has been an incredible leader of responsible farming by championing "regenerative agriculture." This goes beyond just organic or biodynamic practices and works to actively restore the health of the land by re-integrating wildlife, avoiding tilling and irrigation all together, and increasing bio-diversity. In an article for Imbibe she exclaims, "When you start rebuilding an ecosystem that your vines can communicate with, do you taste that in the wine? Absolutely!" I can think of no better way to create wine that will truly speak to a sense of place.
Eyrie Vineyards, like Hope Well, has been an institution; a gold standard for Oregon wines, and they continue to deliver. Since their inception, organic farming has been at the core of their operation even before certification was available. They have never tilled, irrigated, nor used any herbicides or pesticides on any of their vineyards. The result is deeply (and own-)rooted, healthy vines that consistently create complex, age-worthy wines. Tasting through an array of Eyrie single vineyard Pinot Noir is an incredible exploration of what each different aspect, soil type, and clone is capable of. I chose to bring in the wine from the Roland Green vineyard as it was one of the most expressive of the bunch.
I could not talk about Oregon terroir without discussing Kelley Fox and her commitment to biodynamic practices. If you have the pleasure of meeting Kelley (or you can get a sense by reading through the bio on her website) you get an understanding of her passion for the land and vines she works with. Her mission, since beginning her winemaking career at Eyrie, has been to showcase the best of Oregon and tell the tale of each vintage. As she says, "the wines are not really 'made' at all. I have no end result in mind each year for what the wines will be," though I would argue that there is also a distinct sense of Kelley's vibrant energy in each bottling. The wines from the Maresh vineyards are particularly ethereal and thought-provoking. I believe this has something to do with the excellent stewardship of the Maresh family who has farmed this land since 1959 and has cultivated not only grapevines, but hazelnut and cherry trees, as well as an abundance of wildlife and cover crops. The current release of the Star of Bethlehem Flower is unique, elegant and memorable. I cannot wait to try it again in 5-10years after it has evolved, because this wines is alive. Michelle DeWyngaert
It is Mimi Casteel's incredible dedication to 'regenerative agriculture' that makes this wine from the Willamette Valley so special and sought-after. Her farming practices go beyond organics and work to actively restore the health of the soil and the land surrounding the vineyard, creating a living, breathing ecosystem. She believes, and I can't help but agree, that this unlocks more flavor and complexity in the grapes because more nutrients and biodiversity is available to the vines. Positioned along an east-facing slope of the Eola-Amity Hills, the Hope Well vineyard experiences an intense diurnal shift that helps maintain freshness even in this warmer vintage. This year she destemmed the grapes completely, with very gentle extraction, and then aged the wine in 10% new French oak, with the rest in neutral barrels for 10 months. Michelle DeWyngaert
Inspired by the wines of the Jura, Jason Lett decided to plant the first Trousseau vines in the Willamette Valley in 2012 and has farmed them organically ever since. The result is this beautiful, delicate and earth-driven wine. The grapes are destemmed and the juice is aged in 500L neutral puncheons, and then left unfined, unfiltered, and without sulfur at bottling. I love the light, coppery rose color of this wine and the nose of fresh soil, geranium and river rocks. The palate is lean and refreshing, but gentle tannins give the wine just enough structure. Michelle DeWyngaert
Drinking a Pinot Noir from Eyrie Vineyards is all the proof you need that these wines of the Willamette Valley deserve a place on the world's list of the most expressive and age-worthy wines. This single vineyard bottling from Roland Green stuck out the most to me in a tasting of five different Eyrie Pinots for its intense and captivating aromas. The Roland Green vineyard is positioned at about 550ft elevation planted over 30 years ago on rich volcanic soils, and like all their vineyards, the vines are own-rooted, non-irrigated, and certified organic. The nose is a powerful blend of ripe red and black cherry, tree bark and damp moss, a bit of salt and on returning to the wine, a touch of something smoky, like peat. The palate is concentrated with flavor and acidity. A beautiful wine that I cannot wait to revisit! Michelle DeWyngaert
Humbly labeled as "Willamette" this wine is actually 100% from the Four Winds Vineyard. At ~800ft elevation on the McMinnville Coast, it is one of the highest and also one of the closest to the coast in the Willamette Valley. In true Crowley style, this wine is subtle, finessed, and perfectly representative of the terroir of this region. Though it is aged in 33% new oak, it is administered with a deft hand. On the nose the oak is barely perceptible. Instead you are enticed with notes of chamomile, lemon zest, and yellow apple skins. This vintage was cooler for Willamette which meant the grapes could be picked later giving the wine lots of brightness on the palate rounded out by the oak treatment and a silkiness that develops as the wine rises in temperature. Drink this with something that won't be too overwhelming to let the delicate flavors shine; like lemon butter-poached halibut, or a creamy primavera. Michelle DeWyngaert
'Entre Nous' is a blend of fruit from La Colina Vineyard in Dundee Hills and the Four Winds Vineyard in the McMinnville Coast, all 100% Pinot Noir. This blend brings the ripeness and juiciness of the more inland vines, and the lift and elegance from the coastal influence. A small portion of new oak barrels and the rest neutral, frames this wine with a touch of baking spice, nothing dramatic, that will only continue to integrate as it ages. The nose has a beautiful floral, rose water aroma with notes of freshly picked white cherry, raspberry, and a sense of the volcanic soils that line the Willamette Valley. The palate is perfectly clean, almost austere with powdery tannins, but balanced by ripeness and power from the La Colina fruit. Michelle DeWyngaert
A beautiful example of Pinot Noir from the Demeter certified Johan Vineyard in the Willamette Valley. Exposed to cooling winds from the Van Duzer Corridor, it is the last picked of the Day Wines giving it a delicate freshness. The grapes are left 25% whole cluster during fermentation and then the juice is aged for 19 months in 15% new French oak, the rest neutral. This wine feels like Oregon to me. There is a perfect balance of richness and concentration to the flavor, while still showing enticing notes of fresh soil and dried herbs. The nose is a mix of fresh and stewed raspberry, rosemary, anise, and rose petals. The palate is plush with structured tannins that leaves me to believe that this will age nicely over the next several years. Michelle DeWyngaert
Such a great value from the Willamette Valley! Made to resemble a classic Alsatian edelzwicker, or field blend, it brings together fruit from six different vineyards and five different grapes: Pinot Blanc, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Muscat. The grapes are pressed and fermented in stainless steel with native yeasts, and then malolactic is blocked to maintain the bright zippiness of the wine before being cold-stabilized and filtered. As the name suggests, this is a tasty, super drinkable blend that will be just as delightful with or without food. Notes of freshly picked nectarine and orange blossom mingle with fresh herbs, almonds and both green and yellow apple. Tastes like springtime! Michelle DeWyngaert
I am really enamored with this single-block bottling from Kelley Fox! The Maresh vineyard was planted in 1970 and is prized for its biodiversity; home to several kinds of fruit trees, an array of wildlife, and an abundance of cover crops. The Royal Ann block runs along a row of 100 year-old Royal Ann cherry trees and borders the Star of Bethlehem Flower block. Fermented ~50% whole cluster, and then aged in neutral French oak for about a year. This wine seems to defy physics by being both rich and opulent and also crystalline and vibrant. It has a beautiful floral quality on the nose, with notes of pomegranate and white cherries, intertwined with fresh rosemary and crushed rock. The palate is a bit riper with silky texture and notes of bitter-sweet amaro on the finish. This is a definitely a bottle to cellar, but pretty captivating already. Michelle DeWyngaert
Of all of the Kelley Fox Pinot Noirs that I have had the pleasure of tasting, this bottling is the most ethereal. The Star of Bethlehem Flower Block is positioned one acre behind the Maresh house where a famed cherry tree once stood and has since burned down. It is now the only block on the vineyard where the Star of Bethlehem Flower will grow, hence the name, and there is indeed something more floral to this bottling. The vines here are own-rooted Pommard clones, planted in 1991, tended lovingly with biodynamic practices by Kelley. As with all of her wines now, it is fermented whole cluster and aged in neutral barrels. The nose is delicate with notes of rose water, fresh raspberry, red currant, and soft sweet herbs, and the palate is bright with gentle tannins. If you're opening this now, it will do well with some air by decanting it an hour early. Michelle DeWyngaert
Though the Willamette Valley has been acclaimed for its Pinot Noir for quite some time now, there still aren't nearly enough people talking about how great the Chardonnay can be! Eyrie Vineyards has some of the oldest Chardonnay vines in the Willamette from their original vineyard site planted in 1964, which I believe brings so much depth and complexity to this ubiquitous grape. The bottling is comprised of about 80% fruit from the original vineyard, and the remaining 20% is from young vines from the Sisters Vineyard. The grapes are destemmed, fermented naturally, and aged for a year on the lees, without stirring, in ~90% neutral barrels with just a small percentage of new oak used. This wine is vibrant and refreshing with a persistent vein of minerality that speaks to the old vines of the Dundee Hills, and the nose is delicate with soft, white flower, peach skin, and fresh lemon. Michelle DeWyngaert
I am not often impressed by Pinot Blanc as it can be relatively neutral and typically blended with Auxerrois or other innocuous grapes, but when it's done right, for me, it's all about the texture. This 100% Pinot Blanc from Kelley Fox showcases her incredible attention to detail and desire for balance, bringing forth a rich, silky texture in the wine. The nose is delicate with fresh white flowers, lemon zest and a bit of underripe peach, and the palate has more ripeness to it while still showing plenty of acidity and a lingering mineral undertone. Whole-cluster fermented in neutral oak with complete malolactic conversion adds to its soft, rounded edges. The grapes are all from Freedom Hill Vineyard, which was planted in 1982 on marine sediment, which really shines on a neutral variety like Pinot Blanc. I will happily sit and contemplate this wine on its own, but it would be a lovely companion to anything you might enjoy an understated Chardonnay with. Michelle DeWyngaert
Named in honor of a 15th-century priestess and poet from Rajasthan, this wine is truly a transcendent poetic experience. The grapes are sourced from the Maresh vineyard, one of the oldest and most respected vineyards in Willamette Valley. As with all the 2017s, the nose has grand aromatic power, with elegant notes of crushed strawberry and spice attenuated into an elegant whole. Fermented spontaneously in used French oak barrels. This wine has a lot of structure, and will age for up to 10 years in the cellar. Well-knit, silken tannins give a bigger structure to this wine than its color would portend, and will allow it to stand up to braised meats, coq au vin, or saucisson sec. A little smoky tension tells the secret of its volcanic soils. 662 cases produced. Andrew Farquhar
The Momtazi Vineyard is certified biodynamic, located in the McMinnville Foothills. It is the furthest west of the three vineyard properties that Kelley sources from. She describes the fruit from Momtazi as being the most savory, which she relates to the wild nature of the vineyard, the abundance of fauna, and the basalt soil the vines are grown on. The grapes are fermented 100% whole cluster for this bottling and aged in neutral Burgundy barrels.The Momtazi has a fantastic aroma of the vineyard; fresh dirt, crushed rocks, forest floor and a little meaty. The palate is dense and well-structured, balanced with juicy, stewed red cherry, and the first touch of development. I can't wait to try this wine again in 5-10 years, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to wait that long. Michelle DeWyngaert