Range of Lofty Wines

By Karl Klooster

As far as mountain ranges go, the Chehalem Mountains are neither particularly long nor high.

Nonetheless, they do form the southern boundary between the Tualatin and Yamhill valleys. And they do feature the highest peaks in the extended Willamette Valley.

Far more notable than either their distance or altitude is the fact that their slopes and ridges shelter vineyards that yield some of the finest winegrapes in Oregon.

Dick Erath, Dick Ponzi and David Adelsheim, three among the hardy handful of wine pioneers who insisted on coming here when everyone elsewhere in the industry thought it was crazy, believed this range could bring forth the best from Pinot Noir.

According to their conclusions, its geography, micro-climate and three distinct soil components—sedimentary, basalt and loess—promised conditions that would result in both complexity and diversity. And they were right, of course.

Erath was the first in 1968, when he planted 49 acres on Dopp Road. Just a couple of years later, Ponzi and Adelsheim did him one better by establishing their wineries right in the midst of Chehalem Mountain soil.

In 1980, Harry Peterson-Nedry planted Pinot Noir on Ribbon Ridge, at the range’s western end. Ten years later, he opened a winery he called simply Chehalem, honoring the Calapooia Indian word for “gentle land.”

In 1982, Paul Hart and Jan Jacobsen made the largest Oregon winery investment to that point when they founded Rex Hill Vineyards just east of Newberg.

Notable among those who followed are Dr. Robert Gross of Cooper Mountain, Mike Etzel of Beaux Frères, Doug Tunnell of Brick House and Scott and Annie Shull of Raptor Ridge, along with Josh Bergström and Patricia Green.

Those more recently beguiled by the magic of the Chehalem Mountains include: Mike Hallock of Carabella, Dave and Mary Hansen of ArborBrook, Nick and Sheila Nicholas of Anam Cara, David Nemarnik of Alloro, the Et Fille father-and-daughter team of Howard and Jessica Mozeico, Tom and Patricia Feller of Artisanal Wine Cellars, Carole and Karl Dinger of Terra Vina, along with Mark Eastburn and Ron and Marianne Lachini.

The latest releases from all of the newer wineries, and some of the older ones, were poured March 30 at the recently opened Hawks View Cellars. It’s located just north of Sherwood at the far eastern end of the Chehalem range.

The newest addition to the 60-member roster of the Chehalem Mountains Winegrowers Association, Hawks View is owned by John “Jack” Kemp, retired CEO of Portland-based Columbia Funds.

Kemp bought and renamed the former Benziger Vineyard several years back. Two-thirds of its 45 acres were planted to Pinot Noir in 1991, providing a steady supply of grapes to local wineries

Ultimately, however, he couldn’t resist the urge to make his own wine. And he hired former Rex Hill winemaker Ryan Harms to craft it for him.

The winery’s first-ever release, a 2007 estate Pinot Noir, was presented at the association’s tasting.

In all, 20 wineries poured 78 wines for retailers and other members of the trade.

The roster included 44 Pinot Noirs, 20 from 2006 and 24 from 2007. That provided a rare, side-by-side comparative opportunity.

Generally living up to their reputation as big, round, fruit-forward wines from a dry but not overripe year, the 2006 Pinots showed well across the board. Some industry observers feared the 2006 Pinots would display high, California-like alcohol profiles, but that didn’t prove the case.

Not surprisingly, Archery Summit’s Looney Vineyard, Chehalem’s Reserve and Rex Hill’s Jacob Hart Vineyard stood out. But Carabella’s Chehalem Mountain Vineyard, Anam Cara’s Nicholas Estate and Heather’s Vineyard, and estate offerings from ArborBrook, Eastburn and Lachini, also held up well.

Unfortunately, the 2007s were less consistent. Some had a hard, tannic edge, which possibly won’t integrate well over time. Others were thin, lacking the amount of fruit necessary to really please the palate, even after they acquire a bit more bottle age.

Those that did make the grade delivered varietal charm in a number of mostly middleweight ways. Differences in soils and styles were evident as well, the wines ranging from earthy minerality to piquant raspberry fruitiness.

Among those already showing well were Adelsheim’s Elizabeth’s Reserve, Alloro’s Estate, Ponzi’s Willamette Valley and the Raptor Ridge Willamette Valley Cuvée.

Between the two extremes, a number of question marks remain about 2007.

Several in the middle group hinted at that delicate elegance so prized in the cru classé wines of Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune. Only time will tell if that attribute emerges sufficiently.

Here’s hoping the story turns out to be a happy one.

Meanwhile, don’t forget all the 2008s still in barrel. Terms such as “possible greatness” would appear to apply. 

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