(May 2017) I was very much looking forward to meeting the legendary David Adelsheim, Chairman of Adelsheim Vineyard, with over 40 years of experience making Oregon wines. As one of the original winemakers of the Willamette Valley, he also helped to establish the Oregon Wine Board and has mentored many newcomers over the years.
David did not disappoint us, because he was a very charming host and welcomed us with the utmost hospitality to his cellar, which was set up with a sea of tables for the most comprehensive and amazing tasting of Oregon pinot noirs I have yet encountered. Over the next few days, he continued to join us at the various events, and was consistently friendly, helpful, and fun.
Climate and Appellations of Willamette Valley
After we were comfortably seated, David proceeded to provide us with a brief overview of the climate and AVAs of the Willamette valley. He explained that the climate is cooler than California, but because of 15 hours of daylight in the summer and the same latitude as Burgundy, the Willamette Valley is able to ripen pinot noir and chardonnay grapes perfectly. Protected by the rain shadow of the coast range mountains, they receive around 100 centimeters each year of rain (39 inches). They do not get the thick coastal fogs that California pinot noir regions rely upon to keep their grapes cool in the evenings and mornings.
The soil is primarily a combination of basalt lava flows from volcanic eruptions and marine sediment from the Missoula Floods. It is a “layer cake of soil,” according to David. The valley is 250 kilometers long, and 84% of the acreage is pinot noir.
The first grapes were planted by David Lett in 1965. David Adelsheim and his wife established their winery in 1971. Most vineyards are organic or sustainably farmed. The main certification for sustainable vineyards/wineries in Oregon is called LIVE – Low Input Viticulture and Enology.
Today there are 6 smaller AVAs in the Willamette Valley (see slide below). These are: 1) Dundee Hills, 2) Eola-Amity Hills, 3) McMinnville, 4) Yamill-Carlton, 5) Ribbon Ridge, and 6) Chelhalem Mountains – where Adelsheim Winery is located.
Tasting 30 Willamette Pinot Noirs Blind by AVA
After David’s overview presentation, a panel of experts described each of the six AVAs in detail. After each AVA presentation, we tasted a flight of pinot noirs from that region. Since the tasting was blind, it was fascinating to learn the name of the winery at the conclusion of the tasting. All wines were from the 2010 vintage, one of the coldest on record. This was probably a wise choice with so many European MWs in the crowd, because the wines had the high acidity and earthiness that many of them prefer. Following are my notes on the tasting.
Dundee Hills AVA – named for a location in Scotland. Slightly warmer, protected from winds, mainly volcanic red soil – clay/loam, very slippery when wet. Produces red fruit character – red cherry, red raspberry. Label must be 95% from Dundee Hills. There are currently 45 wineries in this AVA. At the conclusion of the tasting, I learned that my two favorite wines from here were:
- Archery Summit 2010 Pinot Noir – Medium ruby, spicy, muted red fruit. Red raspberry, fine grained tannins, concentrated, long, a bit of warm earth, well balanced, allspice, oak. 92
- Sokol Blosser 2010 Pinot Noir – Floral, red cherry, earthy, bigger tannins, higher acid. Long juicy finish. 91
Eola Amity Hills AVA – lowest point in coastal range, a bit cooler. Marine and volcanic soils, but different on each side of hill. Wind and cooler in the evenings. Last on the margin of viticulture, especially during cooler vintages. Usually higher acidity and elegance. Around 30 wineries. At the conclusion of the tasting, I learned that my three favorite wines from here were:
- Antica Terra Antikythera 2010 Pinot Noir – Ripe, black berry jam, floral, rich, velvety, structured tannins, long finish with an energetic vibe running through it. A truly amazing, and mind-blowing wine. Utterly delicious – wow! 96
- Evening Land 2010 Pinot Noir – Cherry cola, supple, rich, concentrated, long. Lovely! 92
- Christom 2010 Pinot Noir – Floral, stemmy (earth), black cherry, truffle, dirt, well-balanced, complex, tempting – 92
Yamhill-Carlton AVA – on the map it looks like two crab claws. Maritime climate, cooler, more sedimentary soils. They don’t plant on the north slopes because they can’t ripen pinot there. Known for bramble berry, blue berries, and some blackberry; Christmas spice, savage notes, and some salinity. At the conclusion of the tasting, I learned that my two favorite wines from here were:
- Big Table Farm 2010 Pinot Noir – Spice, oak, smoke, and black cherry, deep, juicy, complex, earthy – yum! 94
- Sotor 2010 Pinot Noir – Ripe berry nose, spice, grippy, yet supple tannins, inviting – 91
McMinnville AVA – mix of soils, but primarily volcanic. Furthest west, closer to the ocean, but further south. The town of McMinnville is not in the AVA. Known for bright acidity, black fruits, ash, deeply colored and concentrated larger tannins. At the conclusion of the tasting, I learned that my two favorite wines from here were:
- Hyland Estates 2010 Pinot Noir – floral, raspberry, juicy, long, black cherry, earth, well-made. 91
- Brick House 2010 Pinot Noir – spice, ash, burnt cherry, big tannins, chewy – 90
Ribbon Ridge AVA – a spine that runs like a ribbon along the top of the ridge; has had its own community for years. All sedimentary soils – drains down the ridge. 5.3 kilometers long. Some spheres of basalt. Close to Dundee Hills. More red fruit with some black cherry. At the conclusion of the tasting, I learned that my two favorite wines from here were:
- Beaux Freres 2010 Pinot Noir – Rich, ripe, raspberry, luscious and approachable. Very satisfying! 93
- Ayres 2010 Pinot Noir – Muted nose, black cherry, more concentrated tannins, earthy, long – compelling, 92
Chehalem Mountains AVA – Mixed geology and soils. Not a clear signature style, due to mixed soils, but seems to have more concentrated tannins. At the conclusion of the tasting, I learned that my three favorite wines from here were:
- Ponzi Aurora 2010 Pinot Noir – black cherry, earth, chocolate, chewy tannins, good acidity – delicious! 93
- Bergstrom Silice Single Vineyard 2010 Pinot Noir – cola, earth, mixed berry compote, wonderful juicy acidity, fresh – tempting – 92
- Le Cadeau Winery Rocheux Vineyard 2010 Pinot Noir – Lovely rose perfume and raspberry, jammy, juicy, concentrated tannins, texture – very approachable. 92