Willamette Still West Coast’s Wine Sweetheart | Wine-Searcher News & Features
Article originally published here: https://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2019/04/willamette-still-west-coasts-wine-sweetheart
There’s no denying that Willamette Valley has become the West Coast’s sweetheart wine region over the past 10 years.
Winemakers from all over the globe have flocked to the valley, sinking their hands into the region’s volcanic soils, creating Burgundian Pinots that have claimed the hearts of both industry and consumers alike. As interest in the region continues to grow, climate change rages on, and overall demand increases, the question persists: what’s next for Willamette?
Doug Tunnell, owner and winemaker at Brick House Vineyards, has noticed a major shift towards organic, sustainable, and biodynamic farming. “Nearly every producer of fine Willamette Valley wines I know goes to some length to tell their customers how the grapes are grown,” he says, noting the overall steering away from chemicals and herbicides. Jay McDonald, winemaker at EIEIO & Company, echoes this point, also taking note of the shift towards lower yields, experimentation with fermentation styles, and a growing interest in alternate aging vessels beyond steel and oak.
Wynne Peterson-Nedry, winemaker at RR and Ridgecrest Wines, grew up in the Willamette wine industry, recalling the rather sleepy nature of the valley back in the 1980s. Since then, she’s noticed a drastic increase inOregon vineyard interest from foreigners. “The investment money from other wine regions [California, Washington, France] has really been significant in the last 10 years, including sales of wineries to outside people and larger brands,” she says, highlighting the untapped resources that continue to propel the wine region’s growth. Tracy Kendall, associate winemaker at Nicolas Jay, has also noticed a steady growth on the hospitality side of the region, with more tasting rooms, restaurants, and wine bars opening year after year. She also highlights the region’s increasing wine quality. “The winemaking is becoming better and better as the years go by; more winemakers are coming to Oregon with degrees and International experiences and the quality bar is continually rising.”
Tunnell has also seen a huge swing towards the cultivation of Gamay Noir, which he deems to be the “it” grape of the moment. Peterson-Nedry echoes this, noting that Gamay isn’t necessarily a new thing within the region, rather, the industry and consumers are just now finally taking notice. The Willamette Valley even hosts an annual I Love Gamay festival every May, where more than 25 regional producers come to pour their wines and share their love for the grape.
Surprisingly, most winemakers agree that the renaissance of Chardonnay is the valley’s next big thing. “The early clones — the only ones available in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s were, for the most part, unsuitable to our climate, having their origins in much warmer climes of California,” says Tunnell, highlighting the successful impact that the arrival of the Dijon clone in the 1990s had on the region. “We can produce wines that have richness and texture, but retain great natural acidity, much like the Chardonnays of Burgundy,” he says.
“We make amazing, fresh, bright Chardonnays, and they keep getting better,” says Peterson-Nedry. “There are, of course, pioneers who have been making it for years, but without people focusing on it as their primary wine of choice, it hadn’t gotten as much traction in the consumer and media world until recently.” In conjunction with still Chardonnay, Peterson-Nedry calls out the rise in Willamette sparkling wine production, which she claims inevitable for a region so rich in Chardonnay and Pinot cultivation. At Ovum Wines, winemaker John House is meshing his traditional method sparkling wine production with amphora experimentation. “We’re loving the early results!” he says. Anne Hubatch, winemaker and owner of Helioterra Wines, is also experimenting with “force-carbonated” sparkling wines, as well as hard cider production, a trend that she notes other winemakers are picking up on, too.
And beyond the revivals of Chardonnay and Gamay Noir, many other experimental plantings are popping up throughout the region. Tunnell states that regional young winemakers are experimenting with alternative varieties, such as Counoise, Chenin Blanc, Lagrein, and Nebbiolo; Petersen-Nedry calls out “cool, weird whites”, particularly Grüner Veltliner, Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Arneis, and Riesling. “We live in a valley that grows amazing bounties of great food and are an hour from the freshest seafood ever. We love to make wines that go with all of the above and can rival the freshness of the amazing beers in the area,” she explains. Hubatch is currently experimenting with Melon de Bourgogne, Arneis, and Huxelrebe, a lesser-known German white grape variety.
Though with every rise comes a fall – and in Willamette’s case, it’s for Pinot Gris. “I hear very little about what was once considered Oregon’s up-and-coming variety,” says Tunnell. Nicolas Jay’s recent vineyard changes are solid proof. “We recently top grafted some old vine Pinot Gris over to Chardonnay at the top of our estate vineyard, Bishop Creek,” says Kendall, adding that 2017 was the winery’s first vintage of Chardonnay, producing 58 cases.
House echoes this. “The shift away from Pinot Gris to Chardonnay is happening right in front of our eyes,” he says. “We’re likely to see the Pinot gris SKU count dramatically shrink over year for the next three to five years.” House notes, however, that higher bottle prices could therefore become an issue for consumers new to the region. “Pinot Gris represented an entry into Willamette Valley quality because of its affordability. You trade out a $15-18 bottle for $25-50 (of Chardonnay), and you’re going to lose a lot more than what you gain in margin.”
But when it comes to Pinot Noir, winemakers unanimously don’t see it going anywhere. “I’ve little doubt that climate change may well move the map of that variety’s future,” says Tunnell. “We planted our vineyard in the belief that if Pinot Noir does well in the north Willamette, then those grape varieties that have thrived around Pinot Noir in Burgundy for the last 1100 years or so should do well in the Willamette as well [Chardonnay and Gamay Noir].”
McDonald agrees. “Oregon Pinot will remain a quality standard due to the producers who are making the better, pure Pinot Noir,” he explains, describing an eventually inevitable split between purists and mass-market producers.
“Every year in the north Willamette brings a unique set of environmental and climatic conditions,” says Tunnell. “Climate IS changing. It IS getting warmer and that calls upon us to adapt and change to Mother Nature’s tune. There is no predicting at this juncture what that might look like five or 10 years from now.”
And for others, maintaining regional identity is key. “What I am most afraid of having change over the next five to 10 years is the unique feeling of collaboration in the Willamette Valley,” states Petersen-Nedry, shedding light on the collaboration, friendship, and camaraderie amongst regional growers. “It’s a special tie that bonds together 95 percent of the wineries here in the valley, and something that to me would be irreplaceable if the sentiment were to change in the future.”
Hubatch also highlights the worries of a booming region. “Willamette Valley Pinot Noir has never been stronger, yet our region has a lot of saturation,” she says.
Over the next five to 10 years, Kendall hopes to see continued growth and focus on terroir, as well as a shift away from the “hyper-focus” on Pinot Noir clones. “I believe we have some incredible soils here in the Willamette Valley and seeing what they can do as vines age, and we really allow the site to show through, will be an exciting change.”