OK, I am not going to lie, I have had it up to here with Zoom tastings. Sure, it is great to “see” people that I normally wouldn’t be able to during this still weird new existence, but I have written many times that one of wine’s greatest attributes is its ability to bring people together. Zoom has served a purpose during this crazy new reality, but I know I am not alone in saying “ugh” when I see an invite to another Zoom meeting.
When said invite comes from the Willamette Valley Wineries Association (WVWA) is the host of said tasting, the only answer is “yes, of course!” Not only do I know that the wines will be extraordinary, but the folks who work for the association are also some of the nicest, most dedicated people I have met anywhere in the world.
Thus, when there was a slight snafu in the delivery of the wine for the tasting, I was not surprised at all at how quickly the staff at the WVWA jumped to action and made sure that all would be right for the tasting.
The focus of the tasting was on three of the newest AVAs in the Willamette Valley, all of which were established over the last couple of years.
The first of those presented was the Laurelwood AVA, established in June 2020 and found in the north end of the valley, completely nested within the Chehalem Mountains AVA. Confusing? Probably. But these AVAs were established in large part based on the different soil types, which in Laurelwood means a 15 million-year-old basalt base, covered by windblown freshwater silt (loess).
2017 Ponzi Vineyards Chardonnay Reserve, Laurelwood District, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $45. Under DIAM10. From the newly created Laurelwood District of the Willamette Valley, this Ponzi Reserve Chardonnay, with over four years of age, is captivating. A bit of color (more yellow than straw), the oak treatment is evident, but far from overwhelming on the nose, which pairs well with the lemon curd and acacia bloom. The palate has that same lemon influence and is marked by a distinct tartness that carries the wine all the way through to the finish. This is not a trendy “unoaked Chard” by any stretch of the imagination, but it is darned tasty and a great indication of what Willamette Chardonnay can be. Excellent. 91 Points.
2021 Raptor Ridge Grüner Veltliner Tuscowallame Estate, Laurelwood District, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $30. Under screwcap. Simply put, there is not a ton of Grüner made in this country and very little of what is made comes from the Willamette Valley. Thus, when this beauty eventually landed on my doorstep (long story), I was stoked (Oregonian term of excitement). 100% Stainless steel all the way through, this is bright, mineral-driven, and yes, steely. Yet, it is also quite rich, given the variety, I might even say “opulent”. Where to place this as it is outside what I understand “Grüner” to be. Where to place it? On the back patio or aside some oysters. Close to a Whoa. Excellent. 92 Points.
Next up was the Tualatin Hills AVA, the northernmost AVA in the Willamette, which has similar soils to the Laurelwood District but a different micro-climate that is largely influenced by the Tualatin River.
2021 Apolloni Chardonnay Estate, Tualatin Hills, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $25. Agglomerated stopper (non-DIAM). From the newly minted Tualatin Hills AVA, this Chardonnay is on the leaner, more modern style. Not much oak (if any) evident, oodles of tree (peach) and citrus (lemon zest) fruit, and a delicate floral component. The palate is fruity, yes, but closer to “austere” than “fruit-bomb.” Great acidity and depth, this is a subtle, almost reserved Chard that requires, above all else, food. Excellent. 90 Points.
2021 Elk Cove Vineyards Pinot Gris, Tualatin Hills, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $22. Under screwcap. I have stated countless times that I consider Alsace as my second home. I studied there, rode my bike there, fell in love there (OK, two outta three ain’t bad). So every time I see “Pinot Gris” I get excited since it (usually) indicates that the wine is made more in the French style where there is a focus on the incredible fruit that Pinot Gris can offer. That is in sharp contrast to the ubiquitous Italian, aka “Pinot Grigio” style which (usually) means a rather bland wine that has plenty of acidity but is lacking in fruit. Add to the equation that this wine was made by Adam Campbell at Elk Cove, one of my favorite winemakers in the Valley, and, well, whoa. Rich. Tree fruit. Pear. Peach. Apricot. Salinity. Mineral. Yowza. A whole lot going on even before the first sip. Happily, the palate does not disappoint. A wave of fruit is quickly followed by a near-bracing acidity, resulting in a beautifully balanced wine. It seems as though Adam has found the formula to incorporate the best aspects of both styles of Pinot Gris/Grigio, and that is a beautiful thing. Whoa. This has to be near the top of my favorite domestic Pinot Gris. Outstanding. 94 Points.
Last, was the Lower Long Tom AVA, the newest of the nested AVAs, established in November 2021. Not pictured on the map above, it is located between Corvalis and Eugene at the southern end of the Valley and largely consists of Bellepine soil.
2018 Benton-Lane Pinot Noir First Class, Lower Long Tom, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $65. Big. Ass. Bottle. While I do have some familiarity with the brand, I am far from an expert and the AVA is all but foreign to me, so I was excited to pull this cork. Good cherry fruit but also a bit “dirty” on the nose, which suggests (at least to me) that there is some whole cluster but I could not confirm that assertion. The palate is fruity, tart, and yes, a tad “dirty” but it works. Just get rid of the stupidly heavy bottle. Excellent. 91 Points.
2021 Brigadoon Pinot Blanc, Lower Long Tom, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $22. Agglomerated stopper. The Brigadoon website states that this is “Alsation [sic] in style”. Despite the fact that many residents of Alsace bristle at the “Alsatian” adjective (for them, it is reserved for a breed of dog that Americans call “German Shepherds”), this has little resemblance to all those Pinot Blancs that I polished off while studying in Strasbourg. This iteration of the “second-class” variety from Alsace (it does not have Grand Cru status like Riesling or Pinot Gris) is much richer, unctuous, fruity, and, yes “delicious-er-er” than its French brethren. Plenty of citrus (tart lemon) and mandarin orange zest, this really explodes on the palate. Rich yet tart, layered yet angular, fruity yet nuanced, like the Elk Cove, this has to rate among the top Pinot Blancs I have tasted (certainly from the US). Whoa. Outstanding. 94 Points.