Monday, November 29, 2021

Utopia Vineyards Crafting Heavenly Pinot in Oregon’s Ribbon Ridge AVA

Ribbon Ridge is the smallest Oregon winegrowing region, but its reputation for great Pinot is boundless.

Dan Warnshuis of Utopia VineyardHorse Pasture To Pinot Paradise

“Utopia means trying to achieve perfection,” says winery founder, owner, and winemaker Dan Warnshuis. “What else would you aim for?” That’s what Warnshuis has been doing since Utopia Vineyard and Winery’s first commercial vintage in 2006. It is a family-owned producer of small-lot, premium wines specializing in world-class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The estate is located in what many wine lovers certainly consider utopia – the Ribbon Ridge AVA in Northern Willamette Valley, Oregon, known for its high-quality wines. Ribbon Ridge is a six-mile ridge in the Chehalem Mountains region, located about 20 miles southwest of Portland and 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean.

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Warnshuis’ route to winery ownership is a circuitous one. After growing up in California’s San Joaquin Valley, he attended Michigan State on a full scholarship for swimming. After graduating he relocated to Silicon Valley to begin a successful career in the technology sector. It was living in wine country that changed the trajectory of his life. He began as a collector, amassing thousands of bottles. Deciding to look at wine from a business perspective, he dreamed of creating his own wine label.

What was a horse pasture became Utopia Vineyard in 2002. “I knocked on the owner’s door and he sold it to me,” said Warnshuis. “It wasn’t on the market at all…[but] this place checked all my boxes.” After the soil tests confirmed the plot’s potential and the serendipitous sale went through, Utopia Estate Vineyard was born.

The soil is indeed special. The 18.9 acres of southeast-facing slopes has marine sedimentary soil. The region was a seacoast some 50 million years ago and, as Warnshuis puts it, it’s like a strip of coastline got left behind. The finely textured soil provides excellent drainage and conditions, including ample moisture from the Pacific Ocean, and results in grapes with exceptional complexity. As the vines struggle to get nutrients, they gain concentrated flavors and spice and floral accents.

Utopia Vineyard 2014 Pinot NoirDiversity Works In The Vineyard Too

Clonal diversity is another key to the wine that is capturing awards and the hearts of Pinot Noir aficionados. After three major plantings in 2002, 2005, and 2010, the vineyard today is comprised of 12 different Pinot Noir clones and three low-yielding Dijon Chardonnay clones. In addition to Dijon 115, 667, and 777, Pommard, Wadensville, and Swan Pinot Noir clones, five different Heirloom clones are part of the plantings.

Warnshuis personally oversees management of the vineyard, the harvesting, and winemaking process. Utopia is 100% dry-farmed and the fruit is always painstakingly harvested by hand using only small snip tools to pick one bunch at a time. The notoriously finicky Pinot Noir grapes arrive at the winery in less than an hour and are placed in temperature controlled storage until ready for processing.

Utopia is known for high-quality wines and a large percentage of its output is sold to restaurants. The annual production is 2,500 to 3,000 cases, all done onsite. The winery makes a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir Rosé, and a Pinot Noir Blanc each year, but is best known for its four estate Pinot Noirs, each created with a distinct blend of vineyard clones.

Utopia Reserve Pinot NoirEstate Pinot Noir Excellence

The Estate Pinot Noir ($48) is a blend of 12 different clones, something that sets it apart from most other Pinot Noirs. In many Oregon vineyards, two to three Pinot Noir clones are the norm. To sip it is to experience the breadth of the vineyard in its bright cherry and berry flavors, perfumed bouquet, and outstanding balance.

Paradise ($65) is a reserve estate Pinot made from the best barrels from the three best blocks in the vineyard. Grapes are whole-cluster pressed, adding texture and character to the wine. This has a dark cherry profile with plum and savory notes and a dash of vanilla. The current vintage is 2018, but we sipped the 2016 at the winery tasting room and it was divine. Wines are available at the tasting room or online and past vintages are available, including the 2016 (for $75).

The Clone 777 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir ($65) is a single clonal bottling of the Dijon 777 clone, one of the most important clones in the Utopia vineyard. It is savory with spice and floral notes and its structure lends itself to extended aging.

Visitors to Utopia (or online purchasers) get to experience Eden firsthand. Eden Estate Reserve Pinot Noir ($100) is the pinnacle of Utopia winemaking, crafted from the 100% Pommard clone, the building block for many of Burgundy’s Grande Cru Classe wines. This is bold power Pinot that is 100% Pommard, 100% whole cluster, and 100% new Burgundian oak. We tasted the 2015, a complex wine with layers that open up as you savor it: black cherry, oak, vanilla, and spice float over notes of leather.

Wine barrel chairs in Utopia vineyardThe Utopia tasting room is located 30 minutes outside Portland and has a daily tasting flight hosted by Warnshuis. It offers a sweeping view of the vineyard as well as outdoor games like bocce. There are comfortable Adirondack chairs crafted out of wine barrels if you choose to simply soak in the surroundings and enjoy your wine.

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