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.
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.
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.
This epic package arrived at my door. A beautifully emblazoned box holding this radiant rosé. Oh yeah — and two pairs of sunglasses. “Gimmicky?” my partner in wine crime asked, skeptical that the contents of the wine bottle would be no better than the white zin that, in our house, is just called “pink.” “No,” I assured him, “I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”