Brad Ford, winemaker at Illahe Vineyards, is the fourth generation to live on the Dallas, Oregon property. His family settled here in the 1880s, around the same time grape farming and winemaking was first established in the Northwest. But the Ford’s main business was dairy farming and cherry orchards — that is until Brad’s father, Lowell, planted an experimental acre of müller-thurgau (a sort-of Riesling hybrid) in 1983. From that time on, the Fords became a successful grape growing and selling family business, pioneering modern Northwestern wine education.

It wasn’t until Brad decided to completely change careers that Illahe turned to winemaking. The former carpenter turned grant writer turned English instructor ultimately transformed into a winemaker — a career he finds satisfies him mentally, physically, and creatively. In 2004 he worked his first harvest alongside his father and in 2006 Illahe Vineyards bottled their first vintage.

According to Bethany Ford, Brad’s wife and the winery’s chief ambassador, the Illahe Estate Vineyards are located in quite a unique region of the Willamette in the Mount Pisgah area. The 80-acre, south-facing hill slope that comprises the Illahe Estate is protected by larger hills and mountain ranges, and of course the Coast Range to the west and the Cascades to the east on either side of the Willamette Valley’s extremes. Thus, this “valley within a valley” is not as affected by harsh winds as even some of their closest neighbors. Bethany also notes the unique soil type on the Illahe land, a mix of marine sedimentary clay soil — silty clay loam — that sits on top of denser ancient rock. It is completely unique to this specific area of the Willamette AVA.

The south-facing nature of the property also means increase sun exposure, so Illahe’s average temperatures are one degree warmer than even their closest northern neighbor. The slope of the property ranges from about 4% near the bottom to over 20% near the top where the vineyard reaches about 440 feet elevation at its peak. Thus, most of Illahe’s vines are dry-farmed.

About the Wine: The Illahe Vineyards Project 1899 Pinot Noir is probably the most accurate expression of what their unique plot of land has to offer. In 2011 Brad decided he wanted to make a wine as naturally as possible — without using modern techniques. This “pre-industrial” wine seems like an artistic nod to his family’s pioneering roots. 

The wine was hand picked and traveled from vineyard to winery by the family’s horses, Doc and Bea. All grapes were hand de-stemmed and placed into wooden fermenters where natural, native yeast takes over the primary fermentation process. After soaking for 10 days, the wine was then hand pressed in a wooden basket press, hand pumped into barrel, and “encouraged” through malolactic fermentation (no outside strains were used). If and when pumpover was needed, Brad crafted a bicycle pump to assist with this process. Gravity flow also assisted with pumping as well as bottling. Bottles were corked by hand. Lastly, because if he’s going to go native, he’s going to go all the way, Brad brought the wine to his distributor in Portland via canoe. “It would be a shame to go through all that and then put the wine in a truck,” says Bethany.

Flavor Profile: Bethany says when she walks amongst the fermentation barrels and takes a deep breath in, she can smell the uniqueness of their grapes in the air. “Ahhh, that’s Illahe,” she says. And I think I know exactly what she means…

Upon popping the cork, there’s already a strong aroma of tart, ripe red fruits, oak, and dank wet wood. On the pour, the Illahe Vineyards Project 1899 Pinot Noir is a brownish-red of old, dried blood, settling into the glass with a rocky-red rouge hue — but it’s a iridescent liquid you can see right through.

On the nose, the Pinot Noir emits tart cherry alongside some oak aromas, and a faint hint of herbs (at first I was thinking eucalyptus). Swirl and sniff again, there’s a background aromatic of cinnamon spice mixed with unsweetened cocoa powder that becomes more prominent if you move your nose to the top of the glass.

On the palate the wine is simultaneously full and flush, yet clean and clear. It’s very woodsy — think tree bark, dried leaves and the fruit, those tart cherries, taste as if they’ve been dehydrated and rehydrated. There’s a solid tannin structure through and through with just the slightest grip on the tongue at the finish. There’s the thinnest line of acidity that travels from beginning to end — just enough to keep those fruit flavors alive. And post-swallow, if you keep your lips shut and breathe through your nose, there are those beautiful — again woodsy — baking spices (cinnamon, unsweetened cocoa powder, a hint of nutmeg) initially sensed on the nose: they’ll hang out with you and linger a bit longer if you let them. (Please let them.)

The Illahe Vineyards Project 1899 Pinot Noir is the gritty, earthy truth of Pinot Noir. It’s beautiful and delicate, yet provides the very essence of how a wine is produced.

Food Pairing: Bethany suggests pairing the Illahe Vineyards Project 1899 Pinot Noir with meats like lamb or duck and I absolutely agree. The gaminess of those proteins will pull out the rusticity of the wine, while the refreshing attitude of the wine will do well to cut through the fatty nature of certain cuts of lamb (I’m thinking rack) or the crispy skin of the duck. For those not into gamey meats, you could get the same enjoyment from a bone-in pork chop.

Vegetarians, don’t worry. I find that this wine also pairs well with a ratatouille or a vegetarian lasagna. Be careful, because if you like those dishes spicy, this will pull out some hidden spices in the wine. Also note cruciferous vegetables will enhance the tannins on the tongue. But soft veggies (think squash, eggplant, portobello) will play nicely here, and a well-rounded, herb-based tomato sauce is your best bet.

More Info: Please see my posts on Oregon wine history and the Willamette Valley AVA for more information about this wine region.

I received the Illahe Vineyards Project 1899 Pinot Noir as a sample for review. (Cheers Bethany and Brad!) Retail: $65. For more information about Illahe, please stay-tuned for my next review which will be a continuation of the family’s story. And until then, you can always visit the Illahe Vineyards website for more info and to purchase wines directly.

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