There’s something special about Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I can never put my finger on exactly what it is, though. The region spans from coastal-setting to mountain-scape, and you wouldn’t think it would be that different from our Northern Californian Wine Country. But perhaps it’s because most wineries are small, often family-run boutiques; maybe it’s because Oregon, on the whole, is quite a young wine-producing region, unblemished by age, wear, and tear; or it could be because the Willamette, like Burgundy is located at 45 degrees latitude and that’s just the Pinot Noir sweet spot.
Whatever it is, I find that some of the most refined (most Burgundian, if you will) American Pinot Noirs come from this little pocket of the New World.
Vermentino — a grape predominantly celebrated in Italy, is a rare find in the New World of wine. Although a few West Coast producers (Bailiwick, Tablas Creek, and Uvaggio to name a few) are beginning to see the benefits of working with this sturdy grape variety. A vigorous grower, Vermentino does well in warmer climates: it’s resistant to drought, thrives on less fertile soils, and usually ripens at the peak of the harvest cycle. Vermentino vines are often planted along slopes facing a major body of water so they’re exposed to additional light and warmth due to the reflected light. In fact, if you look at those three major producers previously mentioned, you’ll notice that they source their grapes from similarly situated terroir, despite the fact that one sources from Lake County, while the others source from Sonoma Coast.
Troon Vineyard, located in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon also benefits from ideal Vermentino conditions. Situated amongst the Siskiyou Mountains, the lowest of Troon Vineyard’s vines sits at 1400 feet. Here, where the soil is predominantly granitic in nature, the vines will receive even more warmth, as granite is heat-absorbent. All this elevation and warmth is balanced by Troon’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean in relation to their position near the Rogue River Valley: the cool marine air funnels through the valley, decreasing the temperature of the vineyard up to 40 degrees Fahrenheit during the nights. Thus, the grapes are allowed to ripen while still maintaining a naturally high level of acidity.
Going a little off the reservation with the Illahe Vineyards Viognier. This is the one grape the Ford family actually sources from an external vineyard. If you’ve been following my Oregon Wine series these past two weeks, then you know that the Illahe Vineyards has its own unique micro-climate and terroir situation in the middle of the Willamette Valley. Viognier is a funny grape in that it can technically grow “well” in both warmer and cooler climates. But, because of its tendency toward mildew, and the extremes in acid-sugar balance between picking “too early” and “too late,” the white grape benefits from areas that can support longer growing seasons.
Goschie Farms is just such an area. The east Willamette farm, known primarily for their hop farming, is situated along the valley floor, where day time heat and evening coastal cooling are at two polar opposite extremes. This means that those fussy Viognier have access to an overall well-rounded temperature and — you guessed it — long growing season. The Fords first purchased these Viognier grapes when Goschie Farms had an extremely successful harvest and excess fruit they couldn’t sell. Illahe bought an experimental bunch and found the white wine sold quite well. Now, it’s a regular part of their collection.
Troon Vineyard “Orange Wine:” Whole Grape Ferment Riesling
I’m not going to lie, besides the chance to taste my first single varietal Tannat, one of the things that drew me to Troon Vineyard was the opportunity to taste my first “orange wine.” This, of course, refers to the wine’s color, achieved by keeping the grape-skins on during fermentation — much like the process used for making red wine. This can be done with any white grape, most commonly Pinot Gris, but Troon Vineyard takes an interesting approach with their whole grape fermented Riesling.
Rosé of Tempranillo isn’t something I see a lot. And it’s nothing that Illahe Vineyards’s Ford family ever originally planned on making. The initial one-acre planting was a bit of an experiment. “Let’s see what else we can grow,” seems to be one of Lawrence Ford’s pioneering attributes. But as Bethany pointed out during our conversation, Tempranillo can be a hard grape to grow and maybe the unique Illahe location isn’t the most suitable for the funky fruit. Brad’s remedy? Pick the fruit early and make a rosé. Sounds like a plan…
(Please see my first article about Illahe Vineyards to catch up on the family and vineyard history.)