Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Illahe, Matello & Johan in the Willamette Valley

After spending a few days in Southern Oregon, we moved north into the Willamette Valley, the most well known Oregon AVA. Willamette Valley accounts for roughly 79% of Oregon wine production, and there are over 300 wineries and 600 vineyards. Pinot Noir is by far the most planted grape, with over 11,000 acres, and accounts for 88% of production in the state. The second most planted grape, Pinot Gris, only occupies about 2400 acres and the third most planted grape, Chardonnay, occupies about 725 acres. Pinot Noir may be king, but there are other intriguing wines being made in this region as well, albeit in small quantities.

On one of our winery visits, we stopped for lunch and a tasting at Illahe Vineyards, and were joined by representatives of Matello Wines and Johan Vineyards. It was a beautiful day and we sat outside, overlooking the vineyards, with plenty of bottles on the table. Casual and fun, it was also informative and tasty, with some unique surprises among the wines. Small producers creating some intriguing wines.

Our hosts from Illahe Vineyards were Brad Ford, the winemaker, and Bethany Ford, the national sales manager. Back in 1999, Lowell Ford, Brad's father, purchased the Illahe property, which at that time was merely a pasture for a grass fed-beef ranch. Lowell started as a winegrower in 1983, so purchasing land to create his own winery was a natural extension of his career. The estate is about 80 acres with 55 currently under vine, most with Pinot Noir though you can also find Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gruner Veltliner, Tempranillo and Viognier. The word "Illahe" is from the language of the Chinook, a Native American people who once inhabited the area and it means "land, earth or soil." The symbol on their label, which partially looks like an "S" on its side, is the word "Illahe" in Duployan, a script for the Chinook language.

They aim to make wine as natural as possible, from their sustainable vineyard to the winery. For example, they use two Percheron draft horses to mow and transport grapes from the vineyard. They do not fine or filter their wines, and often use native fermentation, despite that it can be scary and risky, because they feel it adds something special to the wines. They are always seeking ways to improve their operation, and are working on some intriguing projects currently, including creating a sparkling wine from Pinot Noir. At the time of our visit, they hadn't harvested much yet.

We began our tasting with white wines and Illahe line prices all of their whites at $15, making them a good value and within the every-day price range of many consumers.

Currently, only their Viognier is not estate grown. Back in 2007, they purchased a truck of Viognier grapes and it ended up becoming their most popular white wine. They have planted some Viognier now and eventually may not need to purchase any for their needs. The 2012 Viognier is a different style from many of those in Southern Oregon, with higher acidity and more residual sugar. The aromatics were a bit more muted, with pleasing fruit flavors and only hints of sweetness due to the higher acidity. I would like to try this wine with some spicy Asian dishes.

Gruner Veltliner was first planted in Oregon around 1978, and Illahe got their cuttings from Johan Vineyards. The 2011 Gruner Veltliner was destemmed and fermented in Acacia barrels, and it presents an easy drinking and delicious wine. Crisp and clean, it has rich flavors of citrus and grapefruit, with slight honey notes and hints of minerality. Definite recommendation.

The 2012 Pinot Gris, fermented in 1600 gallon oak barrels, had a compelling aroma and its taste fulfilled the promise of the nose. Pleasant apple and pears flavors, nice acidity and a good, lengthy finish. Plenty of character for the price, I highly recommend this wine. Drink it alone or with food, and you won't be disappointed.

Illahe produces several different Pinot Noirs, at varying price points, and you can't go wrong with any of them. The 2012 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($20), which was just released last month, is their entry level Pinot and I have long been a fan. This is their highest production wine, at 2000 cases, and Massachusetts is actually their best market outside of Oregon. I know that the wine sells well at Beacon Hill Wine & Gourmet, where I work part time. The wine is produced with some native fermentation, 15% new oak and has an alcohol content of 14%. It has a light red color, and is smooth and flavorful, with bright red fruit, a spicy undertone and hints of earth. An excellent value at this price, delivering plenty of flavor and complexity, it is highly recommended.

The 2010 Bon Sauvage Pinot Noir ($28) is made from 100% native fermentation and only has an alcohol content of 13%. Complex and intriguing, the fruit flavors are a bit muted with more prominent spice and earthiness notes. Silky smooth, with a long & satisfying finish, this presents a compelling choice at this price point. The 2011 Pinot Noir Reserve ($40) is aged for 18-20 months in 50% new French oak, as well as one Oregon barrel, and has an alcohol content of 13%. This wine elevates the complexity, presenting a fine balance of fruit, spice and earth with hints of eucalyptus. A wine to slowly savor, enjoying its depths of flavor.

Their most unique and experimental Pinot is the 2011 "Project 1899" Pinot Noir ($65), which is their first vintage of this wine. The wine is essentially produced without electricity. It is hand pumped and hand racked by candle. It is produced with 100% native fermentation, 50% whole cluster, and only 75 cases were made. It reminds me most of the Pinot Noir Reserve, but it possesses some unusual taste elements, which were hard to identify. They were pleasant flavors, just more unique and maybe more on the earthier side. Very intriguing taste which should tantalize any wine lover. They recently created a bicycle pump, and are making a wood-fired kiln so they can produce amphora. They have already made a 50 gallon one, but their goal is to make larger ones and no other local kiln is large enough so they have to make their own. I look forward to future incarnations of this wine.

On a previous visit to Oregon, I met Marcus Goodfellow from Matello Wines, and you can read some background on his winery at my prior post. Marcus now produces about 3500 cases, broken down into 14 wines, priced at $18-$45. It was a pleasure to see him again, and try more of his different wines.

The 2011 Viognier Deux Vert Vineyards, aged in Acacia and neutral French oak, is bright and crisp, with pleasant citrus and melon flavors. The 2011 Pinot Gris, aged on the lees for 18 months, has a nice richness and complexity, with delicious flavors of melon, pear and lemon. The 2011 Richard's Cuvee Chardonnay is crisp and clean, with am strong mineral backbone and fresh apple and citrus flavors. Much more French in style than California. A strong showing for his white wines.

The 2011 Lazarus Pinot Noir ($22), the entry level Pinot, is a mix of grapes from six vineyards and presents with bright red fruit flavors and good acidity. An easy drinking wine, with or without food. The 2011 Whistling Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir has less up front fruit, and is more a brooding wine, with spicy and earthy notes. I think this might benefit from some aging and shows potential for interesting development. The 2011 Durant Vineyard Pinot Noir ($40) is made with some 40 year old grapes and is a more elegant and softer Pinot. It has more earthy notes, as well as some minerality. Complex, intriguing and delicious. An excellent choice.

Johan Vineyards was founded around 2005 by Dag Johan Sundby, a native Norwegian, who sought to make Pinot Noir. The estate comprises about 85 acres, and their vineyards are certified Biodynamic and organic. Growing around 9 grapes, they produce about 2000 cases annually. We met Daniel Rinke (pictured above) who is the winemaker at Johan. With experience at vineyards in California, Daniel came to Johan in 2007.

The 2012 Gruner Veltliner ($24), which has not yet been released and was bottled one month ago, was crisp, clean and dry with pleasant citrus, pear and herbal flavors. A very satisfying wine, this would be good on its own or with food. What really intrigued me though was their 2011 Blaufrankisch ($36), and there is only one other producer of this grape in Oregon (and they call it Lemberger). They only produced 50 cases and it has an alcohol content of only 12%, which is nice to see. The wine possessed a meaty taste, with a nice melange of red and black fruits, dusty spices and some herbal notes. Its savory and intriguing nature would pair well with game meats or lamb.

No comments: