T here were a lot of smiles around the table as six of us sat down to taste four wines from Willamette Valley Vineyards, one Pinot Gris and three Pinot Noirs. The grins never stopped as the wines kept getting better.
We had Wende Barnette on the phone with us to talk us through the tasting and answer our questions. A winery ambassador for the winery, she turned out to be a charming guide.
We started with a Skype call and then tried Face Time, but the technology just wouldn’t cooperate so we ended up putting Wende on speaker from my phone. That worked perfectly.
Heather and Dan, Cindy and Mark, and Teri and I all loved the wines. I didn’t see anyone frowning or complaining about any aspects of the wine, and that’s rare for any tasting.
The pinot gris was amazing, bright and crisp with fresh fruit. Each of the pinot noirs was fantastic, and each was different from the others.
I think everyone’s favorite was the Whole Cluster, a fresh, fruit-forward style pinot with a great price tag ($22).
“This is the best value of the night,” said Mark. Everyone nodded in agreement.
Let’s look at each wine in the order in which we tasted them.
At $16 suggested retail, this was the least expensive wine of the night, but it had a much richer taste than you might expect. After harvest, the grapes are whole cluster pressed and then fermented in stainless steel. It is aged sur lie and stirred twice monthly.
The wine is light straw in color, with wonderful aromas of citrus and tropical fruit. Grapefruit and tangerine are the predominant flavors, but there is a lot of complexity going on as you swirl the wine around your mouth. It has a smooth finish.
Wende said the pinot gris is the daughter of pinot noir. The French thought the grape clusters in both pinots look like pine trees, so that’s where the name came from. Gris is French for grey, and the juice looks grey. The skin of the pinot gris grape also is lighter than the pinot noir.
Italians and Spaniards love the grape and make their own pinot gris wines. The grapes have been grown in Oregon since the 1960s, the first planting in the New World.
This is a great food wine, so it’s no surprise the Willamette Valley Vineyards has a big festival in January called Mo’s Crab and Chowder Fest. This year it will be Jan. 29-31, named after a famous seafood restaurant on Oregon’s coast.
“They come with a big truck full of seafood–Oregon crab meat, shrimp, fresh Dungeness crab–and it’s empty by the end of the weekend,” said Wende. “This will be the 19th year we’ve been been doing this.”
We all agreed the Pinot Gris is a perfect wine for seafood and for relaxing after work or on the weekend.
Pinot Noir Estate 2013
This wine blends grapes from all three estate vineyards, Bernau, Elton/Eola-Amity and Tualatin.
“Not another Oregon Estate wine can beat this price point ($30),” said Wende. “We hand harvest and press it.”
The volcanic soil also is helpful because it drains well. “Pinot doesn’t like to get its feet wet,” she said. “It will rain, but the water drains right through to the aquifers. The roots of these vines go down 40 feet.”
It rains a lot in Oregon from October to May, so it’s important to have well drained soil if you want to grow pinot noir grapes.
Classic Oregon Pinot aromas of fresh red raspberry and cherry and orange spice create an elegant nose. On the palate, the wine is medium-bodied with flavors of red fruit, earth, almond and an accent of sweet barrel spice. This is a well balanced wine with silky tannins, lively acidity and a lingering finish. It probably will keep getting better in the bottle for another five years.
Of the three estates in the blend Bernau tends to be more masculine, said Barnette. Eola-Amity Hills is the youngest, and adds some tastes like dried fruit. Tualatin, one of the oldest vineyards in the state is very feminine and floral
Much of the difference in the wines is the difference in the clones that are planted. “Just as there are lots of different types of roses and there are a lot of different types of pinot noir, said Barnette.
Pinot Noir Bernau Block 2012
These grapes come from the first 15 acres planted by Jim Bernau in 1983. He was among the second wave of wineries following the pioneers in the 1960s. He planted all the vines by hand using a Christmas tree auger on the back of his tractor. There were only 14 Oregon wineries when Bernau started; now there are 650.
This wine might have been the favorite taste of the night. It opens with aromas of tobacco, smoke, red fruit and cedar. The smoke aroma was the most pronounced to me, though others picked up the other scents.
The taste is loaded with black cherry, red fruit, black currant and raspberry, leading to lingering finish. There is a delicate balance between the silky tannins and bright acidity.
This wine had much more body than the first we tasted, and I thought it could even stand up to a steak, not something I’d recommend with most pinot noirs.
“I’m not sure I’ve had any better pinot than this,” said Mark. We all loved it, but priced at $55, it wasn’t going to be anyone’s every day wine. It is a wonderful treat for a special occasion.
Barnette said 2012 was one of the best vintages ever for Willamette Valley wines. She thought the Bernau Block could be cellared for 10 or even 20 years.
Pinot Noir Whole Cluster 2014
This wine is fermented in stainless steel. The winery puts in the grapes, stems and seeds in a vat and pumps in CO2. That bursts the grape from inside out.
At $22 we thought it was a phenomenal buy. Barnette said wine guru Robert Parker called this wine a perennial best buy. It is among the top five selling pinot noirs in the United States.
Barnette also told us Willamette Valley Vineyards is number one pinot noir sold in Georgia and the number one Oregon wine in Georgia.
(Dennis has a separate review of this wine elsewhere on BottleReport.)
It is fresh and fruit forward, but still restrained and high in acidity, much like an Old World wine. It is a beautiful garnet in the glass with aromas of cherry, blackberry and vanilla. Juicy flavors of cherry with some blackberry wash over the palate with a soft, well-rounded finish.
All six of us tasting the wine loved it. I would chill it slightly and open it at least an hour before drinking. I decanted the wine about 45 minutes before we tasted it, and it continued to improve in the glass.
We had some snack food to eat with the wines, including nuts, cheese, pretzels and chocolates. My favorite pairing was pulled pork sliders with the Whole Cluster and with the Bernau Block. We also had bite-sized pieces of grilled pork chops that matched the wines well. Both the Whole Cluster and the Bernau Block were significantly better with the pork.
“Whole Cluster really should be a white wine,” said Barnette. “It’s very much like a white. Drink it like a white. Serve slightly chilled, 45-50 degrees.
“This one appeals to a large audience. It’s an easy wine. You don’t have to think about it too much. You can open that bottle and talk about life. You don’t have to talk about the wine.
“As far as a wine for the South, it’s perfect. Sometimes people like to drink red wine in the summer and this would be the one.”
Willamette Valley Vineyards has what looks to be a beautiful tasting room in Turner, south of Portland, that offers tasting flights, pairing menus, wine dinners and tours. The winery takes a no-nonsense approach to it’s wines and tasting experiences,
“We try to strip all the mystery and pretense away,” said Barnette. “We try to demystify wine.”
They soon will open another tasting room in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, which is within the Willamette Valley AVA west of the Willamette River. Barnette said it faces east, looking at the Cascade Mountain Range.
If you visit the winery in September you can take place in their 26th annual Grape Stomp, which will be held Sept. 26.
Another winery is being build in the Walla Walla AVA, in the Oregon portion of that area.
Like many Oregon wineries, Willamette Valley Vineyards practices sustainable farming, much to the delight of local residents.
“I grew up here watching logging,” said Barnette. “This beats logging.”
Oregon and Washington are the biggest markets for Willamette Valley Vineyards but they also sell well in Texas, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. The wine also sells well in Florida and Georgia.
Barnette also recommended trying their Chardonnay, which is fermented in French oak, in the Old World style. Many American wineries use American oak for aging, and that imparts a different flavor.
One final note on the glasses we used for the tasting. I bought pinot noir glasses from Willamette Valley Vineyards and they made a big difference in the taste of the wine. They are fairly wide, with a tulip shape at the top.
Barnette said they were designed in the late 1990s after George Riedel, the famed glass maker, spent some time in Oregon. Bernau convinced him to design the glass and called it an Oregon pinot noir glass.
The California wine industry didn’t like that, so now Riedel calls the glass the Riedel XL.
We tried the pinot noir in a taller, less rounded merlot glass and the taste difference was significant. So when you drink pinot noir, try to use pinot noir glasses.
One final note on this tasting. It was a fun way to try four different, but related wines. There was a lot of conversation around the table, and not just about the wine. You could repeat this experience at home, with just about any wines, though it is more fun if they are all related, either from the same winery or from different wineries.
Be sure to provide some food and glasses of water to help keep you hydrated.
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