The seminar was titled “It’s Willamette, Damnit,” to break the pronunciation barriers, and offered “a deep dive into Oregon’s Willamette Valley.” And it was well worth the plunge.
Bree Stock, Master of Wine and education manager for the Oregon Wine Board, led the educational session and tasting of 10 wines. It was part of the annual SommCon® conference held each year in San Diego. The three-day conference provides sommelier-level education and training for wine professionals and serious enthusiasts with some 50 sessions led by recognized experts.
She provided short background on the Willamette Valley. It has 22,000 acres. There are 800 wineries, 1,000 vineyards and 80% of the wineries produce less than 5,000 cases. Leading varietals are: Pinot Noir, 16,536 acres; Pinot Gris, 4,104; Chardonnay, 1,941; Riesling, 282; and Syrah, 261.
The first vineyards were planted in 1965 and over the next four decades it became recognized for the quality of its Pinot Noir and other cool climate grapes. Bree said this was possible because of the protection afforded by the Cascade Mountains to the east, Coast Range mountains to the west and a series of lower hill chains to the extreme north of the valley. The soils vary throughout the huge American Viticultural Area (AVA) with 3.4 million acres and extending from Portland in the north to Eugene in the south.
The major soils are marine sedimentary, volcanic and windblown loess, or silts, resulting in wines with different characters depending upon their mesoclimates, microclimates and soil. This led wineries and vineyard owners to petition the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), of the United States Department of the Treasury, in 2002, to divide much of the northern part of the large Willamette Valley AVA into six more specific AVAs: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton. In 2019, the Van Duzer Corridor AVA was added. If a wine is labeled with an AVA, at least 85% of the grapes that make up the wine must have been grown in the AVA, and the wine must be finished in the state where the AVA is located.
Bree presented the wines from three vintages. She said 2015 had a long Indian summer so there was a lot of ripeness in the fruit and big harvest. 2016 was a warm vintage, picked early, starting in August. 2017 was cooler and wetter with a late bud break; it had a typical late September harvest. The wines:
- Rex Hill 2016 Jacob-Hart Estate Vineyard Chardonnay, Chehalem Mountain, $50. Sharp, mid-straw gold; clean Chardonnay nose; pear; oak; tight acid; crisp, with some buttery characteristics. 16 to 16.5 UC Davis scale, 90-91 other scales.
- Brick House 2016 Cascadia Chardonnay, Ribbon Ridge. $35. Sharp, Light mid gold; floral, tropical, angel food cake nose; mid body; good fruit; better varietal characteristics on the palate; long rich finish. Used new oak and Dijon clones. The Dijon clones are earlier ripening at higher altitude and tend to create a tension in the wines. 16.5, 91.
- Morgen Long 2017 Willamette Valley Chardonnay, $30. Light-mid Green gold; mineral, Chardonnay, oak Puligny-Montrachet; tight, good acids; some depth; a little hot. 16-16.5, 90-91.
- Angela Estate 2017 Willamette Valley Chardonnay, $30. Sharp, mid green gold; Meursault-like nose; butterscotch and vanilla; mid body; balanced to bigger style; long semi lush finish. 16-16.5, 90-91.
- J.K. Carriere 2017 Provocateur Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $25. In screw cap, went through carbonic maceration. Mid brick; sweet red fruit nose; light wood; good structure; tight red fruit hot finish. 16-16.5, 90-91.
- Failla Wine Company 2017 Eola Springs Pinot Noir, $40. Used both Dijon and Pommard clones. Mid garnet; spice, sweet red fruit nose; pomegranate; mid to big body; tight acids and tannins; bigger style; whole cluster; oaky; stemmy; red fruit; long finish. 16.5, 91.
- Big Table Farm 2016 Sunnyside, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, $60. Light-mid brick; odd nose; tar, oak, carbonic maceration; mid body; balanced; better flavor than nose; fine fruity finish; bigger style; opens with time. 16.5-17, 91-92.
- Lavinea 2016 Nysa Vineyard, Dundee Hills Pinot Noir, $65. Mid ruby; smoky, floral, reductive nose; minerals; a little thin and woody; stemmy; hot finish. 16-16.5, 90-91.
- Day Wines 2015 Johan Vineyard Pinot Noir, Van Duzer Corridor, $42. Light-mid brick; spicy, red fruit nose; mid body; good red fruit; cherries; balanced; more elegant finish than the others. 16.5-17, 91-92.
- Et Fille Wines 2015 Kalita Vineyard Pinot Noir, Yamhill Carlton, $40. Father and daughter winery (et fille in French). Mid brick; bright Pinot Noir nose; oak, saline, minerals, raspberry; mid body; good fruit; well-made, classical style (12.7 alc.). 16.5-17, 91-92.