In this "Wine of the Week," WTOP's Scott Greenberg explores the vintages in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
Vintages in the Willamette Valley are very much like the different personalities of good friends.
There are some friends that like to do all of the talking, and when they come over, they spend the evening controlling the conversation. You don’t have to think too much about where the evening is going since these friends are never at a loss for words. You don’t have to put too much thought into enjoying the time spent with them.
On the other hand, there are some friends who are more introspective, where you can spend a quiet evening getting into conversations that are deep and meaningful. These are just like the vintages of Willamette Valley. They all have their own unique personalities, as do the different parcels on Dick Shea’s property.
That wonderful analogy was provided by Mark Vlossak, owner and winemaker of St. Innocent Winery in McMinnville, Oregon.
I recently had the good fortune to spend an afternoon with four of the most iconic wine producers of Pinot Noir in Willamette Valley. They were all gathered to talk about not just the magic of Willamette Valley but, in particular, the unique terroir of Dick Shea’s famous Shea Vineyard, arguably the most acclaimed vineyard site in Oregon.
These four producers each make a vineyard designated bottling of Pinot Noir from fruit sourced solely from Shea Vineyard. And, they are not alone.
Over 20 different wineries make a vineyard designated wine from Shea Vineyard. Yes, you heard correctly: over 20 wineries. Some of these include well known properties, such as Antica Terra, Bergström, Elk Cove, Penner-Ash, Raptor Ridge and Rex Hill.
On this occasion, I was in the company of the aforementioned Mark Vlossak, Bill Sweat of Winderlea Vineyard and Winery, Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars and, as a very special treat, the man himself, Dick Shea of Shea Wine Cellars. This rare gathering was arranged to not only show off the diverse qualities of the property, but also the unique style of Pinot Noir that each winemaker produces from this famed vineyard.
As each winemaker spoke about their particular bottling, it was clear that they are not only passionate about their own project, but they are absolutely devoted to the fruit grown on Dick’s land. They pointed out both the similarities in their wines and celebrated the differences, as well. From dark and powerful to feminine and seductive, the range of styles was impressive.
What makes Shea Vineyard so special? Two things: location and soil. In a word — terroir.
Dick and his wife, Dierdre, planted the 140-acre mountainside vineyard site — located in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA — back in 1989. The vineyard has two different hills that rise several hundred feet in elevation, separated by a steep ravine. This configuration of the land allows cooler weather to make its way through the Wapato Valley watershed and up to the vineyard.
This is particularly important in the summer months, when the cool nights and warm days help the fruit develop both acidity and ripeness. In addition, the constant breeze helps mitigate the use of chemicals in the vineyard for disease control.
The soil composition is a bit more complicated and a longer story. Suffice it to say that millions of years ago, the Willamette Valley was literally underwater. Between ancient floods and long-dead volcanoes, there are two basic soil compositions that are found throughout the valley: basalt (volcanic) and sedimentary (marine).
The Shea Vineyard site is located on a thin layer of ancient marine sedimentary soil that sits on top of sandstone bedrock. This combination forces the grapevine roots to struggle as they burrow their way down through the bedrock in search of water and nutrients, imparting a minerality and richness to the fruit.
These characteristics can be found as a common thread through the different versions of Shea Vineyard wines. However, given the diversity of the topography and the selection of grape clones that are planted in each section of the vineyard, each winemaker has a veritable palate of fruit that one can use to put one’s own personal style in the bottle. One vineyard and a lot of choices.
It was an extraordinary, nearly ideal growing season in 2015. To quote winemaker Mark Vlossak, “If I could not make a great wine in 2015, you should never buy wine from me.”
It began with warm weather conditions in the winter that continued throughout spring and summer. Light showers in late August and warmer weather in September resulted in concentrated, balanced fruit that you can taste in the 2015 St. Innocent Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir. Aromas of dark cherry, baking spices and cherry cola are absolutely charming. The mouthfeel is perfect and expansive on the palate, with lovely flavors of dark red berry, ripe blueberry and red plums. Notes of clove and cinnamon slide in on the silky-smooth finish. Good news, Mark: You nailed it. $55
Similar to 2015, the 2016 growing season enjoyed a warm winter and a mild spring. Though it was not as hot as 2015, the fruit in the Shea Vineyard did achieve beautiful ripeness, excellent acidity, and sweet tannins. In the hands of Ken Wright, the fruit turned into a monolithic wine. The 2016 Ken Wright Cellars Shea Pinot Noir has a very floral nose of blueberries, dark strawberries and violets. The lovely flavors of dark plum, blueberry and ripe cherry walk a fine line between dark and red fruit. Savory notes of baking spices and cedar just keep expanding on the long, long finish. $55
Co-owners Bill Sweat and Donna Morris are relative newcomers to the valley. They traded in 20-year careers as financial advisers in Boston in 2005 to follow their dream of making great Pinot Noir in Oregon. They have both found the experience worth the effort.
“A lot can be said for building on the shoulders of the people that started this adventure before us,” proclaimed Sweat. “We were fortunate to convince Dick (Shea) to sell us fruit shortly after we arrived in Willamette Valley and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Their 2015 Winderlea Vineyard and Winery Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir is proof that their momentum is going strong. Sleek and complex, the highly perfumed bouquet is bursting with aromas of cherry cola, red berries and cinnamon stick. The flavors on the palate are deftly crafted and feature savory flavors of spice cake with notes of ripe cherry fruit. The tannins are smooth, textured and balanced, leading into a long, smooth finish. $60
The three-year streak of phenomenal vintages in the Willamette Valley started with 2014 and was, at one point, considered “a vintage of a lifetime” until 2015 and 2016 came along. The weather was warm, but not too hot, and the rains held off until after harvest was complete. Dick Shea took full advantage of this when crafting his 2014 Shea Wine Cellars Shea Vineyard “Block 5” Pinot Noir. The nose is teeming with aromas of cherry liqueur, black raspberry and warm baking spices. The palate is rewarded with red and black fruit that is seamlessly integrated with notes of black tea and clove. Hints of minerality mingle with polished tannins, which together provides depth and character on the smooth and sophisticated finish. $60
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