Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Willamette Whites Gaining Critical Acclaim

By Dave Nershi, CSW – Vino-Sphere Publisher

With more than 700 wineries and picturesque scenery, there’s a lot to love in Willamette Valley. It is Oregon’s leading wine region, and two-thirds of the state’s wineries and vineyards are located there. Then, of course, there is the Pinot Noir, recognized as some of the best in the world.

If you assume that Willamette Valley is strictly Pinot Noir, you’re in for a delicious surprise. In fact, 30% of Willamette Valley’s grapes are those other than Pinot Noir. The quality of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and lesser-known white grapes is capturing the attention of wine critics with their balance, elegance, and higher acidity. We tasted six Willamette whites from premier wineries. To round out the picture, we contacted three Willamette Valley winemakers to get their perspectives on the rise of white wines in the region.

Iris Vineyards is a family-owned estate winery in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Mountain Range, in southern Willamette Valley. It's located on an 870-acre estate, with almost 50 acres of vineyard framed by restored woodlands. Winemaker Aaron Lieberman’s philosophy is to create bright, fruit-forward, wines that honor their source with crisp acidity and low alcohol. Aaron is approaching his 13th vintage as winemaker for Iris Vineyards.

“There are white wines produced in other parts of the world that are very similar to Willamette Valley wines,” said Lieberman. “For some white wines produced here, the combination of the climate and soils derived from volcanic parent material does make these wines unique.

“My focus for the Willamette Valley Pinot Gris is to respect the varietal (varietal character) and end up with a balanced, easy-to-drink wine. Cultural practices in the vineyard, picking decisions, and grape handling in the winery all contribute to this,” said Aaron. “All of the above applies to the Blanc de Noirs and Sweet Amalia. An additional focus for the Blanc de Noirs is the persistence and quality of mousse (foam). Additionally, for Sweet Amalia, we strive to create a product that appeals to tasting room visitors and club members who demand a sweet wine. At the same time, I want this wine to have a complex flavor profile and to improve with age.”

Youngberg Hill is a 50-acre estate with 20 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards in Willamette Valley. Proprietor/winegrower Wayne Bailey and his family are the modern-day stewards of a property that has been a family farm since the 1850s. The first vines were planted on the McMinnville property in 1989. The estate is among the Willamette Valley’s westernmost vineyards and experiences significant maritime influence.

“Our white program includes Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and sparkling wine,” said Bailey. “However, our focus is on Chardonnay. I believe, like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay is best grown in cooler climates and reflects where and when it's grown. My goal is for the Willamette Valley to be known just as much for its Chardonnay as for its Pinot Noir. And when that happens, you will finally see Willamette Valley Chardonnays on retail shelves and restaurants across the country.”

Dave Specter is the owner and winemaker at Bells Up Winery, a micro-boutique winery he operates with his wife Sara. Dave is a former corporate tax attorney who won two national amateur winemaking competitions, encouraging the couple to purchase a former Christmas tree farm north of Newberg, Oregon, to establish their vineyard. Today the winery produces about 600 cases annually.

“Regionally—and broadly speaking—there is a tendency toward producing crisper, balanced white wines that showcase the minerality of the area’s soils,” said Specter. “You don’t see many oaked whites made here compared to other winemaking regions, which makes them distinctive.

“For whites, I’m trying to achieve approachability and elegance through balanced acidity with a creamy texture that comes from a few months spent stirring the wine on its lees. That gives them a fuller-bodied presence, allowing our white wines to be enjoyed solo or accompanied by a meal. We’ve seen great pairings with oysters or creamy Mediterranean lamb stew for the Rhapsody Pinot Blanc, and fish tacos or asparagus with lemon for the Helios Seyval Blanc, which is the only planting of that varietal in the Willamette Valley (thereby making it a very unique white here).”

While the Willamette Valley's reputation for white wine previously has been built on Pinot Gris, the cool climate and unique soils that bring forth standout Pinot Noir are also ideal for another Burgundian grape: Chardonnay. We were also impressed with the range of whites reviewed, from Pinot Blanc to a sparkling Blanc de Noir, and a Seyval Blanc, as well as Pinot Gris, delivered in a dry as well as sweet style.

Areté 2019 Brut Blanc de Noirs

Areté is the premium range of wines from Iris. This wine is 100% Pinot Noir but delivered in a “blanc” style. We began our tasting event with this wine and the foamy perlage delighted the crowd. Wonderful crisp grapefruit notes mingled with lemon and peach. Small, refined bubbles. SRP $33.99

Bells Up Rhapsody 2021 Pinot Blanc

This wine immediately gained fan-favorite status with our group. I was expecting a more austere wine, but the Rhapsody (named for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue) delivered nectarine and lemon zest flavors in a jazzy way. The wine gets six months of sur lie aging for a fuller body without dampening the crispness. $32.

Bells Up Helios 2021 Seyval Blanc, Chehalem Mountains

Bells Up has the first and only Seyval Blanc planting in Willamette Valley (second in Oregon). The variety is found mostly in the Midwest and East. Tropical fruit and green apples surround a swirling minerality. There is a unique flinty twang on the finish. Very limited availability of 64 cases. $40.

Youngberg Hill 2021 Aspen Pinot Gris

Named after the youngest daughter of the winemaker, this Pinot Gris has a pleasing fruitiness perfect to pair with spicy food. Juicy apricots and floral notes mingle with tropical fruit flavors and mineral tones. This is classic Willamette Valley Pinot Gris! $35

Iris 2020 Pinot Gris

Bright citrus flavors wrapped in juicy pear. Whole-cluster pressed for additional depth of flavor. This is an easy-to-love wine with a refreshing juiciness. The acidity adds to the structure and balance. $15.99.

Iris 2019 Sweet Amelia Pinot Gris

This was one of the big surprises of our tasting. I’ve never heard of a dessert wine Pinot Gris, let alone tasted one. We had two guests who refused to leave without taking what was left in the bottle. This is a delicate wine, not viscous or sticky. There are touches of honey and orange marmalade. Even with the sweetness, it maintains balance and a crisp finish. $18.99.

Full disclosure: These wines were received as a marketing sample.

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