Noble varieties make up the majority of the vineyard acreage in the Willamette Valley, but new and emerging grapes are also part of our story.
The Willamette Valley is world famous for Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay, but this region is more rich, diverse, and complex than any one variety. Pinot Noir is righfully our signature grape, but there's much left to explore.
When we started our vineyard in 1984, we planted Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling. As we matured as winegrowers, we wondered about the potential of other cool climate varieties. Our curiosity is what led us to plant the relatively unknown Müller-Thurgau. That endeavor has been wildly successful, inspiring us to grow our collection of esoteric grapes to include Carmine, Grüner Veltliner, Marquette, and Pinot Meunier.
In the early 1980s, owner Keith Kramer took a vineyard management class with a fellow who was especially excited about Müller-Thurgau for Oregon. "He wouldn't shut up about it, so we bought some when we had the opportunity in the mid-80s," he says. The wine was a hit, so vines at our estate soon followed. We've found it to be very productive at our site, yielding flavorful fruit even in the most challenging vintages. We’ve made wines in a range of styles from dry to off-dry, semi-sweet to dessert, even sparkling. Both the sparkling and still wines have become quite popular and are usually the top sellers in the tasting room. In 2018, Wine Enthusiast recognized us as a Notable Müller-Thurgau Producer in the US.
Flavor profile: Peach, starfruit, lychee, passionfruit, mango, lime, gooseberry, and sweet basil.
We planted Grüner Veltliner with the intention of making a crisp, dry, and expressive white wine. The signature white grape of Austria, Grüner is famous for its peach and white pepper notes, and great versatility for pairing with food. Early harvests yielded fruit with high acidity that made more sense for our sparkling program. Starting in 2017, we began to divide the harvests between the cooler east side for sparkling, and the warmer west side for a still wine. Fun fact: Grüner Veltliner produces clusters that are ten times the size of Pinot Noir!
Flavor profile: Lemon, lime, cucumber, peach, white flowers, freshly cut grass, green apple, and pear.
Carmine was created in 1946 at UC Davis by Dr. Harold Olmo. This cross of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, and Merlot was developed to grow in the cooler, coastal regions of California. Olmo's vision never caught on as intended, and in the 1970s, these vines traveled north to Courting Hill Vineyard in Banks, Oregon. The vineyard owner, and Oregon wine legend Jim Leyden, introduced Keith Kramer to this grape variety, gifting him our first Carmine vines in 1989. We've learned much about this late ripening, thick-skinned grape, both in the vineyard and the winery. Our Carmine wines are dark red in color, and typically have herbaceous aromas and peppery notes. It has inherited a lot of flavors from its Cabernet Sauvignon grandparent, principally dark fruit, dark chocolate and the occasional hint of mint.
Flavor profile: Dried cranberries, maraschino cherries, cinnamon, anise, bell pepper, and cracked peppercorns.
Developed by the University of Minnesota in 2006 for extremely cold climates, Marquette is a complex hybrid. What caught our attention is that Pinot Noir is on the family tree. It took seven years for any wine to come from this effort, as the cool Willamette Valley is too warm for Marquette. The plants are several weeks ahead of everything else in our vineyard, resulting in some unique challenges, from inclement weather during critical growth periods, to early ripening (for more on this subject, see 27 Blocks: Harvest in a Bottle). To balance out Marquette's big personality, we coferment it with grapes sourced throughout our estate vineyard.
Flavor profile: Cherries, blackcurrants and blackberries, tobacco, leather
We’ve been growing the German-Swiss cross Müller-Thurgau since 1986. Over the years, we’ve made wines in a range of styles from dry to off-dry, semi-sweet to dessert, even sparkling. Both the sparkling and still wines have become quite popular and are usually the top sellers in the tasting room.
While Müller-Thurgau is widely planted in Germany, it also does quite well in the Alto Adige of northern Italy. These vineyards are planted at high elevations, with close spacing. In reading the online winemaking notes, we noticed a couple of key production differences. First, the wines are fermented and aged in concrete or old oak casks. Concrete is an area of interest, but not an investment we're ready to make quite yet. Second, the grapes are crushed before pressing.
Foot crushing the Müller-Thurgau
We found the idea of crushing Müller-Thurgau very intriguing. As a rule, we whole cluster press our white wine grapes. Whole cluster pressing reduces the extraction of harsh tannins. These compounds may impart bitterness or astringency on the palate. However, Müller-Thurgau is a grape that is naturally low in tannins. Further, we wondered if crushing the grapes might result in a wine with more varietal expression. However, we don't own a machine that crushes grapes, so how would we experiment with crushing the fruit? Taking another cue from the old world, we decided to adopt a low-tech solution: feet.
During the harvest of 2018, we invited folks up to the vineyard on the day of the Müller-Thurgau pick to help us with this very important task! The harvest started at dawn, finishing around noon. We lined up the bins of grapes on the crush pad, and after a foot sanitizing dip and rinse, people climbed into the boxes one by one and went to work. It only took about 15 minutes, but squashing grapes with your feet is a quite a workout!
We noticed a difference between whole cluster pressing and crushing immediately; the press yield was 14% higher in the crushed fruit. During primary fermentation, the tanks produced a cornucopia of tropical aromas. After fermentation, we noticed the wine was quite flavorful, which is unusual for Müller-Thurgau at that stage. We continued to observe amplified flavor through the spring, finding the variety’s trademark peach and starfruit profile, but also lychee, passionfruit, mango, lime, gooseberry, and sweet basil.
Based on the flavor profile of the 2018 Müller-Thurgau, we decided to crush in 2019 as well. Now that we have another vintage for comparison, we're convinced that crushing is the best protocol for this variety. The 2018 Müller-Thurgau Estate will be released February 6.