by Ronan Sayburn MS
I recently travelled for the first time to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, the purpose of the trip was principally for the Court of Master Sommeliers Global Exam Standards Meeting. Each year, the Exam Committee from the American Chapter and European Chapters meet to discuss the exam standards and Court procedures that are administered across the globe. It’s a stimulating time to exchange ideas and meet with our American partners.
Of course, we couldn’t go to Oregon without visiting a few vineyards so after an in-depth overview of the region by the Oregon Wine Board led by Bree Bostock MW, we headed out to see some vines.
Our first visit was to the Eola-Amity Hills with legendary US Master Sommelier Larry Stone (and 67 Pall Mall Member) who worked for many years at Charlie Trotters Chicago restaurant before the Rubicon in San Francisco (joint ownership between Robert de Niro, Francis Ford Coppola and Robin Williams). Later he moved to manage Coppola’s Napa estate Inglenook before opening his own Oregon winery Lingua Franca. One of his partners is Dominic Lafon from Meursault so unsurprisingly they make tight, minerally, reductive Burgundian styles of Chardonnay and elegant Pinot Noirs.
Eyrie Vineyards in the Dundee Hills were planted by Oregonian wine pioneer David Lett in 1965 and now run by his son Jason Lett. He was one of the original few to plant Pinot here and helped put it onto the International wine map. It’s an unassuming, small winery who’s barrel cellar was a turkey abattoir in years gone by. Production is small and artisan but did not disappoint – some interesting Chasselas and Trousseau but stunning Pinot Noirs. Great to see the real quality here rather than a winery existing on past reputation.
Brick House winery in the Ribbon Ridge area of the Chehalem mountain started in 1990 by ex-CBS broadcaster Doug Tunnell. He planted Gamay and Pinot originally, Gamay because the cuttings from the nursery were cheap! 6 MS’s tasted the wines, and we were all stunned, the Pinots are amazing, but I have never tasted a better Gamay from the New World and rarely anything as good from Beaujolais. Amazing wines!
Lastly, we visited Antica Terra, a tiny 4.5ha property in the Eola-Amity Hills. Started by Maggie Harrison, who decided on a drastic career change to become a winemaker during a semi-nervous breakdown and a dose of malaria while visiting Kenya. Having no background in wine, except drinking it, she repeatedly rang Manfred Krankel, owner of Sine Qua Non, every day for a month till he gave her a job in his winery. She now produces a small range of Pinot Noirs that include Botanica and Ceras.
The Willamette has a fascinating geological history. It is composed of red basalt know as Jory with layers of marine deposit; once on the Pacific ocean bed and known as Willakenzie soils, other alluvial deposits came into the valley during the Missoula flooding of the last ice age where vast amounts of melting glacial water ran into many valleys of NW America and carved the Colombia Gorge. Finally, wind-blown loess has settled onto many of the north facing slopes creating fine clay like layers of soils blown down from the eastern side of the Cascades mountain range in Washington State. Pinot Noirs are generally Pommard clones or the Swiss Wädensvill clone. Similar to the Russian River in Sonoma, cold Pacific winds channel through a gap known as the Van Duzer corridor cooling the interior Willamette Valley and making it perfect for Pinot.
Keep an eye on the Oregon section of the 67 wine list to try some of these gems.