"Dirt Matters"

by Mark Tronson, Tastemaker in Residence

Willakenzie Vineyards -Oregon's Willamette Valley

Willakenzie Vineyards-Oregon's Willamette Valley

A really nice lady at Willakenzie Vineyards gave me a toque that has that slogan on it; my new favorite toque by the way. Also, I love saying the word toque, better than beanie by far.

Some friends and I visited 15 or so wineries in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Everywhere we went these farmers all wanted to talk about their "dirt.” It was interesting to us, some of them talked about the Jory soils, rich clay type dirt, others about the maritime soil called Willakenzie and still others about the great Missoula flood depositing many, many feet of Montana top soil on the valley a few thousand years ago. 

They really felt that the wines they are making taste differently depending on the soil types, in the end we all concurred. The wines of the Jory soil were very impressive, richer and denser and aromatic. We started with those from the Dundee Hills but a few of us really preferred the wines of the Willakenzie soil on the Ribbon Ridge and Eola Amity Hills in the end. 

For me at least they were rougher and tannic but really showed the character of the land to almost an extreme. The Jory seemed more predictable with a little "sameness" to them while the Willakenzie really highlighted the differences; all of this according to my palate. You might completely disagree, that's the fun of it!

As long as we're on the subject; the vintages MAKE A HUGE DIFFERENCE in Oregon; that can't be understated! 

We tasted examples of the:
'06 vintage - too hot: '07 vintage - too cold: '08 vintage - just right - best vintage ever tossed around, at least until '12 came along: '09 really hot - making for really, really rich Pinot's; at least for Oregon '10 very cool summer but with long hang times required to ripen. Problem being that when they did ripen entire vineyards were knocked out by attacking flocks of birds '11 too cold and rainy: '12 and I quote "if you couldn't make a good wine in '12 you should quit making wine." '13 very good year until 6" of rain dumped during harvest. Jury still out, we barrel tasted a lot of wine from this vintage and it was all over the place.

One winery - Beaux Freres was selling Goldilocks Verticals of the '06, '07 and '08 vintages for obvious reasons if you look above - pretty damn funny. 

We heard stories of and got to taste for ourselves, how the '07 vintage (which was widely panned by the press) is very similar to the '11 vintage (also widely panned) but how after a few years in bottle it had turned into many people's favorite. 

I personally showed up with a bias against the '11 and was blown away by some of the bottles; more than one winemaker begged us to drink his 12's when they showed up and let the 11's stay in the bottle for 5 years or more - "drink them when they are ready to be drunk" was a constant theme. 

One truism we came away with is this: if the winemaker and vineyard manager really know what they're doing all the vintages were tasty examples of Oregon's soils and varied weather. We actually came away appreciating that the wines were so different year to year and soil to soil; amazed that one wine region planting the same grapes and with the same basic weather could be an endless source of varied tastes.

Which brings me to my last point. Oregon is like no other wine region in the US, they are truly making wines that need cellar time (or wine fridge time) to be enjoyed fully. Vintages need to be attended to and the quality producers are truly making world class wines. 

It was one of the most insightful wine trips I've ever gone on. I made lots of friends so if any of you are heading that way "I can hook you up!"