Published on April 13th, 2018

Notes from the field: Willamette Valley

I was invited to the 3rd Annual Willamette Pinot Noir Auction which took place last week, and what an experience! This auction benefits Willamette Valley in many ways, and was a wonderful way for me to taste the 2016 vintage of Pinot Noir, which will be released soon. The auction hosted 83 of the top producers in the valley, and the auction lots included a winery’s best wine from 2016, making the lots incredibly rare and special.

 

While in Willamette for the event I got a real sense of the place and the community. Spring was blooming in full force (read: it was raining like crazy) and on the rare occasion the rain ceased and the sun came out the valley absolutely exploded with the color green. Rolling, rustic hills were deep emerald, the mustard was in full-chartreuse-bloom, and the hilltops were crested with sage-green Ponderosa Pines. Willamette Valley is a magical place, a farmland seemingly untouched by time. Vineyards are planted next to apple orchards, cherry trees and hazelnut farms. The valley also supplies grass to the rest of the country.

The soil is the key to all this vegetal wealth. There are 3 main soil types, which every winemaker loves to talk about in great detail: Willakenzie, Laurelwood and Jory. These distinct soils really do create wines of distinct characters, and Pinot Noir specifically allows terroir to be expressed in a final wine, much like Burgundy. So, it’s no big surprise that many native Burgundians have made this new frontier home, and are experimenting with Pinot Noir’s potential in this relatively new growing region. I spoke with many French people, all of whom seemed excited to be a part of something in its infancy, a place with the potential of Burgundy but without the crazy land prices, restrictions and confining traditions.

 

The oldest vines in Willamette are from the early ‘70’s, mostly planted by one man, Dick Erath. Dick was present at the auction and received a standing ovation from the crowd, without him Willamette would not be what it is today. It was moving to see how many people owe their livelihoods to this one legendary figure, and many of the auction lots included an homage to him.

 

My main objective was to bid on, and win, an auction lot that I could then sell at DEP’s. However, bidding quickly went sky high and way out of my price range. For example, a single lot of 5 cases of wine from Antica Terra went for $33,000! That’s $550 a bottle. Which showed me that Oregon Pinot’s are steadily gaining the respect and interest they deserve. All auction lots were from the 2016 vintage, which is not yet released.

 

The current vintage on the shelves is 2015, widely regarded as the best vintage of all time. It was a warm year, with a long growing season which allowed for optimal ripeness. In this post I share with you some of my favorite producers and what I learned about them, all of which are available at DEP’s!

Winemaker Maggie Harrison of Antica Terra

 

Antica Terra ‘Ceras’ Pinot Noir, $75.99  EXTREMELY LIMITED

This winery has garnered the highest bid 3 years in a row at the auction. This year’s lot of 5 cases went for $33,000! Truly a Grand Cru in the making. It’s an 11 case vineyard located on a rocky hillside in the Eola-Amity Hills. The geology of the site is very unusual; in this place, the remains of a far older prehistoric seabed rise to the surface, leaving the vines to struggle, without topsoil, amongst a fractured mixture of sandstone sown with fossilized oyster shells.

 

Sommelier Larry Stone and winemaker Thomas Savre of Lingua Franca

Lingua Franca ‘Tongue n’Cheek’ Pinot Noir, $57.99  94 Points Wine Spectator Lingua Franca is the partnership between Burgundy Legend Dominique Lafon, sommelier Larry Stone and business partner David Honig. They were joined by winemaker Thomas Savre, who has work experience at some of the finest wineries in Burgundy, including Domain Dujac and Domaine Romanee-Conti.

Lingua Franca ‘Mimi’s Mind’ Pinot Noir, $80.99  94 Points Wine Spectator

This winery is based upon two exemplary estate vineyard sites. The philosophy is to respect the flavors of the place where the grapes are grown, making well-defined and differentiated wine from expressive vineyard sites.

Chehalem shares double-magnum aged riesling

Chehalem ‘Three Vineyards’ Pinot Noir

 

Chehalem boasts a rich history of innovation, sustainability and exceptional quality. First established in 1980 (that’s old for Willamette!) pioneering grape growing in the prestigious soils of the Ribbon Ridge AVA. Mature vineyards in a top-notch site is what gives the wine elegance and structure.

 

 

Soter Vineyards ‘Mineral Springs Ranch’ Pinot Noir, $65.99

A gorgeous vineyard situated on top of a grassy knoll, which used to be an old dairy farm. Tony Soter’s dedication to elegance and purity shine in this 2015, one of the most refined domestic wines I’ve tasted in a long time. As the website states, “These wines are a reflection of the intention to convey place as an essential character in every wine we make. The combination of respectful farming, craftsmanship, ancient soils, and a temperate climate results in wines that are layered, nuanced and seductively captivating while remaining modest in tannin and alcohol.”

Resonance Pinot Noir, $45.99  92 Points

Ungrafted vines planted in 1981 are the backbone of this property, which is Louis Jadot’s first project outside of Burgundy. This was a Wine Spectator Top 100 wine of 2017.

 

Bergstrom ‘Shea’ Pinot Noir, $64.99

A family-owned and operated exploration of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with 85 aces of biodynamically farmed vineyards spread across 5 distinct sites.

 

 

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