Last week, Chicago saw the the invasion of the Willamette Valley Vintners! They were everywhere, armed with bottles and wine keys, pouring their delicious Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and more. They were at Morgan Manufacturing, they were at Plum Market, they were hosting wine dinners at restaurants all over town.
It was a friendly invasion (those people from Oregon are as nice as Midwesterners!) and quite welcome, because while I love California wines, I also like to mix it up, and Willamette Valley wines are deeeeelicious. Plus, the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs they make are totally different than California’s.
First, a few tidbits on the region:
- Willamette Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) starts an hour south of Portland, OR and has six AVAs nested within it. It’s Oregon’s largest wine region and is famous for Pinot Noir, with more than 80 percent of all Oregon Pinot Noir being made in the Willamette Valley.
- Back in 1965, Willamette Valley pioneers David Lett (who started The Eyrie Winery), Charles Coury and Dick Erath were each determined to plant vineyards and make wine in the area. They started some awesome momentum, and it was validated when Domaine Drouhin, one of Burgundy’s most important vintners, started planting in Willamette Valley in 1988.
- The area is on the 45th Parallel – the same latitude as another little wine area called BURGUNDY. In fact, if you dropped a pearl necklace on top of a world globe to hit the 45th parallel, it would land on some of the greatest wine-producing regions on the planet, including Burgundy, Piedmont, Italy, and … the Willamette Valley. Okay, okay, let’s talk about the wines, because I know you are itching to run to your closest wine shop and load up!
After participating in a seminar by Elaine Chukan Brown exploring the 2011 vintage of Pinot Noir in the six nested AVAs (her depth of knowledge about the topography, climate, geology, and enology of Willamette Valley is mind-blowing), I dove into the tasting. In all, 70 vintners, all pouring multiple wines. Which equals HUNDREDS of wines!
How to Taste a Wall of Wine: So how does a person attack a tasting where hundreds of bottles are on offer? I have two rules: 1) Spit like a superstar and; 2) Go for wines that you haven’t tasted before. I usually try to start with whites and then do a second round, tasting reds, but that plan always goes straight to hell after the first few tables because people get in my way and I have to move along and taste what I can in a tidy amount of time. So I do a lot of glass rinses between whites and reds.
A Willamette Valley Chardonnay Soap Opera It’s funny, because Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are besties in Burgundy. I mean, that’s what Burgundy IS – Pinot and Chard. But Chardonnay in Willamette Valley almost disappeared! Zut alors, quel horreur! Want to know why? I’ll tell you why:
In the 1970s, people were planting Chard all over Willamette Valley. Except they were planting this one clone — Selection 108 — that, when young, takes a loooong time to ripen. Everyone kind of got sick and tired of having to wait and wait and wait to harvest the Chard. So they stopped planting it!
Fast forward about 25 years, and Willamette Valley is now stuffed with super smart people who know a lot more than they did in the 1970s and Willamette Valley Chardonnay is back and it’s beautiful. Here are some of my faves:
Adelsheim 2015 Staking Claim: Lean and savory with gentle citrus and stone fruit $40
Alexana 2014 Terroir Series: I forgot to write notes, but I wrote four stars next to it! $35
Bethel Heights 2015 Casteel: Holy wow – creamy with a mineral edge, nice oak. Super agreeable, I think this one would blow your head off in another eight or 10 years. $75
Brittan Vineyards 2015 Beautifully balanced and lush, with the nicest owners ever. $42
Lingua Franca Bunker Hill 2016 Stand back, because I will knock you over if there’s a race for my next glass of this wine. Heavenly. Lemon curd. Zippy acids. Snappy, grippy, flinty. Freaking delicious! Master Sommelier Larry Stone (right) discovered this Eola-Amity Hills vineyard in 2012, had a hunch that it would produce some freaking awesome grapes, and he bought it. Smart, smart man. So smart. $50
Rex Hill Seven Soils 2016 Here’s what I wrote in my tasting book: I LOVE THIS CHARD! Meyer lemon, a flinty edge, nice oak, super balanced and creamy-delicious. Screams for buttered corn on the cob, shrimp skewers or seared scallops. 2012 was their first Chard vintage and they only make 400 cases a year. $33
Roco Gravel Road 2015 Loved the elegance of this wine. Lush with apple and citrus notes, countered by zesty acids. Also love that the name is a word mash-up of Rollin and Corby Soles, the owners. $30
Stoller 2016 Ermagerrrrd … winemaker Melissa Burr (left) has that perfect blend of sensibility and science, creating an unoaked Chardonnay that is fruity and balanced and zesty like a sassy acid trip. Love. $25
Beaucoup de Bubbles!
Argyle is the original bubble factory in Willamette Valley, and 31 years after their first vintage, their sparkling wines are just gorgeous.
They only make them in the traditional method, or Methode Champenoise, where the second fermentation is in the bottle, just like Champagne is made. The 2014 Vintage Brut ($28) is fun and delicious – perfect for any night and any occasion. Made from the trifecta: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Petit Meunier (the same three grapes that are used to make Champagne).
The 2014 Spirit Hill Blanc de Blancs ($50) is 100 percent Chardonnay (this is what Blanc de Blancs means – all Chard). It’s a more serious wine that spends 18 months on the lees (which are spent yeast cells), so you get all those luscious, toasty, Brioche-y aromas and a creamy but zesty mouthfeel.
Plenty of Pinot Noir! You’re probably like, “Umm… hello? When are you going to get to the Pinot Noirs?” Here are the top 10 I tasted:
Andrew Rich 2014 Volcanic: Red fruits, earth and mineral. Lovely and well-made. $23
Beckham Estate 2017 Rosé of Pinot Noir: Buh bam! Surprise – a rosé of Pinot Noir that actually drinks like a Pinot Noir. Chilled. Yep – how fun is that? Spends 40 days on its skins to get the color, and is aged in amphora (stone or cement urns). Really interesting and delicious. $22.
Brooks 2015 Rastaban: A three-dimensional explosion of flavor, texture and aroma! So much going on, with endless layers of fruit and earth and mild spice. $55
Chehalem Three Vineyard 2015 ($30) and Reserve Pinot Noir ($70), from Ribbon Ridge AVA. All I wrote was four stars, so it was delicious (and sometimes I am going so quickly or talking too much and forget to write shit down!)
The Eyrie Vineyards 2015 Pinot Noir ($38) and 2014 Original Vines Pinot Noir ($80): Shut up! What a treat to taste these wines from one of Willamette Valley’s original wineries. They were both just insanely well-made, knitting together red fruit, earth and baking spices.
Lingua Franca Estate Pinot Noir 2016 ($50) and Tongue n’ Cheek 2015 ($60): Larry Stone blew me away with his Chard and he does not fuck around with Pinot Noir, crafting glorious wines that are such perfect expressions of the grape and the land.
Penner Ash 2015 Pinot Noir ($40) and 2015 Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir ($65): Another Willamette Valley icon. These wines are delicious. (Oopsies, forgot to write notes again).
Roco 2014 Gravel Road: Perfectly balanced, redolent of pure fresh cherries and dried cranberries. $20
Stoller 2016 Reserve Pinot Noir: Crazy. Notes of cola, sassafras (think root beer), salt and spice. Super unique and delicious. $45
Sokol Blosser 2015 Estate Pinot Noir ($38) and 2014 Big Tree Block Pinot Noir ($70). Very Burgundian in style – which means delicious — and more terroir-driven than fruit-driven. Smart choices in the cellar by the winemaker, and I love that they name their vineyards by childhood memories. “The vineyard with the big tree….” Sokol
Whoosh – this was a long one, thanks for sticking with it! I have to give a shout-out to the Willamette Valley Wineries Association for orchestrating such a fun invasion of the Windy City. Their website is awesome and if you’re looking for your next vacation destination, well, you’re welcome. Off to Oregon you go. Cheers!