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What To Drink Now: Willamette Valley

By Hayley Hamilton Cogill |

I can never get enough of Willamette Valley.  Each time I travel there, I return home refreshed and excited about the wonderful wines that are created in Willamette. The valley continues to be the gem of Oregon, creating stellar wines from vineyards resting in volcanic dirt planted some 40+ years ago when vineyard owners like David Adelsheim, Dick Erath, Dick Ponzi, and David Lett of Eyrie decided that Oregon was ideally suited for grapes to grow in the Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains and Newberg slopes.

Though much has changed since the first Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris vines were planted in the area in the 1960’s – with new, innovative and decidedly green wineries popping up throughout the valley – the casual yet elegant and welcoming atmosphere continues to define Willamette the most.

I became a fan the first time I traveled to the area over 10 years ago, at the time visiting wineries that still rank high on my list like Chehalem, Willakenzie, Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Serene and Lange. I had a chance to visit the area again recently, introducing friends to the area and to some of my old and new favorites that are doing a wonderful job defining why Willamette Valley is so special.  Though the trip was at my expense, we did have a chance to stay on the property at Stoller Winery as their guest with complimentary tastings at several wineries we visited.

Last December when I was in Willamette I had a chance to taste at Stoller, started by Bill Stoller and his late wife Cathy in the 1990’s. Bill grew up in the area, and to this day has fierce pride in it, with a deep love and appreciation for the people, especially those in his hometown of Dayton in the Dundee Hills. After creating a successful employment company the couple purchased a former turkey ranch and created Stoller Vineyards and Winery, growing much of the Chardonnay grapes wineries like Chehalem and Adelsheim use in their wines.

When I was there in December I had a chance to try their Rose of Pinot Noir for 2011 that was still in the fermentation tank. Surprising grapefruit and tangerine notes filled the young wine, which I expected to have more of the strawberry and red cherry notes that Rose of Pinot Noir typically leans towards. I was anxious to try it now that it was in the bottle and I got one of the last available for 2011. Those incredible grapefruit and tangerine notes were still present, softened with just a touch of strawberry and a hint of spice. Delightful.

We also had a chance to try their newly packaged 2010 Reserve Chardonnay (previously labeled the SV.) Aged sur lee in neutral French oak barrels, the wine marries lemon custard notes with green apple and touches of stone fruit. Though the wine does not go through any malolactic fermentation there is softness and subtle creaminess on the palate from the sur lee aging. For those that want something slightly livelier and fresher their JV Chardonnay, soon to be packaged simply as their Estate Chardonnay, is 100% stainless steel tank fermented, keeping the flavors very clean with bright citrus and tropical fruit notes.

The treat of this tasting were a few wines usually reserved for their club and tasting room only, created as single clone, estate grown Pinot Noir. Though not many winemakers get to this level of detail when bottling their wine, as the single clones come from obviously one clone of Pinot Noir grown on one specific block in their estate vineyard. It is a great treat to try these though as you can really identify specific flavor profiles in the wine and then truly understand the difficulty winemakers have in their blending process, choosing the best of one clone from one block and blending it with the best of another. For these individual clones we tried the 2009 Cathy’s, creating in honor of Bill’s late wife.  100% Pommard Clone, one of her favorites, aged 10 months in 100% new French oak, selected from the oldest block of fruit on the Stoller property, sitting at 400 feet above sea level, which were then hand picked.  Only 88 cases of this special wine were made, filled with ripe cherry, strawberry and forest floor notes with rich spice and earthy notes and a long finish.

Though we were a week early on our trip for the grand opening, they did just open a new tasting room facility that celebrates the Green focus Stoller has for its property.  Created from reclaimed wood, much of which came from a forest fire in 2002 that demolished thousands of trees over 500,000 acres of land, and with 236 solar panels generating enough electricity for the tasting room and neighboring winery, this newest addition to the first LEED certified winery in North America, is both aesthetically pleasing and environmentally friendly.

Adelsheim Winery

I had a chance to stop by another favorite on this trip, one of the originals that celebrated their 40th anniversary last year, Adelsheim. Over a gorgeous lunch created by their tasting room team (one of which happens to be a culinary school graduate) we tasted and paired the current vintages of some of the wineries best known labels, like their lush, elegant, earthy yet approachable Elizabeth’s Reserve, David Adelsheim’s flagship Pinot Noir. Paired with a perfectly roasted and beautifully fresh Northwest Salmon the pairing proved that red wine and fish can easily come together in a harmonious marriage of flavors.

Strawberry, raspberry and orange blossom filled Rose of Pinot Noir also enhanced the spicy flavors of a smoked salmon mousse on cucumber appetizers.

Though the Pinot Noir wines were sublime, the pairing of a simple salad of fresh Arugula with a creamy, melted cheese crouton paired with the Adelsheim Auxerrois surprised the palate with the bright, clean acidity of this unusual, citrus and mineral filled white wine made from vines originally coming from the Loire Valley, cutting through the creaminess of the intense and delectable cheese, and the green flavors of the salad bringing herbal notes out in the wine. Unexpected, delicious and completely memorable to the extent that I had to buy a case and bring it home to recreate on my own.

Through the 16th of October Adelsheim has put together a mixed case special just in time for prep for your holiday celebrations…as Pinot is perfect with turkey, ham and well…just about anything.  Details here, but it includes some of my favorites from the winery including the Auxerrois, the Elizabeth’s Reserve and several single vineyard Pinot Noir like the Bryan Creek and Zenith Vineyard.  Details to purchase here.

Soter Vineyards and Winery

I stopped by Soter again this trip as well, this time getting a chance to try the Mineral Springs Pinot Noir created by Tom Soter in his signature property. Best known for his Napa Valley contributions, mainly his Carneros property Etude where he championed the cultivation of heirloom Pinot Noir clones to create wine with depth, character and balance.

In 2003 he sold Etude to create a winery in what he considered to be the best place to grow Pinot Noir in the country, Willamette Valley, building his winery in the red soils of the Dundee Hills.

His Pinot is magnificent, but his bubbly shines as a bright star in his Oregon portfolio, though often hard to find as they only make it in years they think the combination of Champagne’s traditional grapes of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir will meld well into the sparkler filled with fresh citrus, apple, sweet spice and toasted brioche.

We also had a chance to try Planet Oregon Pinot Noir which Soter began making a few years ago with an extremely approachable price point (less than $20 a bottle…shocking for well made Oregon Pinot Noir) and made in a completely Green manner with $1 of every bottle sold benefiting the Oregon Environmental Council.  Originally just sold in Oregon, it is making its way to Texas this year and will be available soon.

After a leisurely tasting around the big table in the front room of the winery, which is also the main living room of the Soter household, my friends and I were invited out to the garden to have a stroll with a glass of the last Cabernet that Tom made in California celebrating the 10 years he was in Napa. While picking baby strawberries and ripe tomatoes off vines and eating them on the spot, and standing under the shade of giant sunflowers we sipped the luscious, elegant and decidedly Napa Valley wine. Though Oregon does Pinot Noir impeccably, it knows not to touch Cabernet and this one from Napa is extraordinary…though it is fast becoming hard to come by as Tom has been gone from Napa for a while now, but some is still available via their website.  I grabbed a few bottles myself.

Along with these favorites, I had a chance to visit a few new wineries this trip. Still under construction, the gorgeous property of Alexana rose up in the Newberg hills. The sister winery to Napa Valley’s highly rated Revana, owned by Houston based cardiologist Dr. Revana, Alexana is easily earns the right to be called Revana’s sister.

Earthy, lively and distinctly Oregon Alexana Pinot Noir filled with layers of clay and limestone with fresh herbs, wrapped around layers of fresh raspberry, cranberry and pomegranate. We had a chance to taste their Riesling as well, not a common variety for the region and completely different than many Riesling options from throughout the Northwest. Mineral rich and completely dry with subtle hints of fresh peach, pear and lemon peel, without the petrol notes that Riesling can be identified by or the residual sweetness that often exists even in the driest options.

Colene Clemens Vineyards

Another new stop was Colene Clemens, just up the road from Adelsheim’s Newberg home, started by Joe and Vicki Stark just a few years ago in an ideal site that had been for sale on the market for over 6 years. When the Stark’s visited the area they saw something special in the overgrown mess of a former fruit orchard and decided this is where his dream of making wine would become a reality. He got the property for a steal, compared to what most land in the region costs, and has transformed it into one of the most beautiful wineries in the valley overlooking acres and acres of vineyards as far as you can see. And the wine isn’t bad either, in fact it is quite remarkable. The Signature Pinot Noir elevates the traditional flavors of mushroom, forest floor and spice notes Pinot from the valley is known for. Production is small and they are still looking for distribution in Texas, but this is one to consider buying online if you are looking for something truly special from Oregon.