September 1, 2021
A fun ride through a complex AVA
If a new AVA launches during a pandemic, and no one is there to taste, did it really happen? Such was the fate of the Laurelwood District, a nested AVA of Chehalem Mountains, awarded AVA (American Viticultural Area) status in June 2020. Due to COVID-19 regulations, opportunities to pour were limited.
On a mission to educate myself and palate on this new appellation, I attended Magic in the Mountains, a tasting celebration presented by the Chehalem Mountains Winegrowers in partnership with The Allison Inn & Spa. The first major tasting experience for the area since safety restrictions loosened, the June event hosted 24 wineries (see end of story) eager to showcase the quality and diversity of the greater Chehalem Mountains.
Chehalem Mountains is known for its diversity of soil, range of elevation — from 200 to 1,000 feet — and varying topography. From Parrett Mountain on the southern edge, running northwest across Bald Peak and Ribbon Ridge, this area was formed by uplifted sedimentary seabeds, lava flows and wind-blown silt to create the highest elevations and most diverse soils in the region. So, it’s no surprise a region with such variation would produce a nested AVA in Laurelwood District.
Laurelwood’s most prominent defining feature remains its namesake soil. Loess (windblown freshwater silt) accumulated over the past 200,000 years makes up the top layer at depths of up to four feet, depending on elevation. Dig a little deeper — pun intended — and there’s more going on. In addition to the silt are pisolites, little concentrated bits of iron manganese that some believe add a rose petal quality to Pinot Noir. All of this sits above a 15-million-year-old base of basalt rock and clay.
With this layered soil, the age of the vines makes a difference in flavor profiles. As vines mature, they root deeper into the volcanic soils, exposing them to more available moisture and different mineral sources. The opportunity for dry farming of older vines, later ripening and higher acidity are the results. According to the Oregon Wine Board, younger Laurelwood District vines (those rooted into the loess) produce Pinot Noir with more floral and red fruit notes, while older vines (those deeper into the basalt clay) result in a more brooding Pinot Noir with darker fruits.
How does this translate, glass to glass, in a showcase tasting? Many of the predicted flavors were present, along with a common note of white pepper, but there was quite a bit of diversity. Considering the influence of the specifics of the site, the hand of the vintner, the lineage of the vine and roots, anything less would not be so magical. Here is just a small taste.
One of the predicted markers of Laurelwood District Pinot Noir is a “rustic” tannin that to me is like fine brick dust. Hamacher Wines 2017 Pinot Noir from Paloma Vineyards delivered that tannic structure plus a white pepper note that founder/winemaker Eric Hamacher attributes to the 800-foot elevation.
Freja Cellars takes the diversity up a notch with their 2014 Estate Pinot Noir showing cedar, white pepper and sandalwood from the influence of both Oregon and Hungarian oak.
Alloro Vineyards 2018 Estate Pinot Noir presented a blend of dark and red fruits with subtle but present earthier notes. Chehalem’s 2019 Corral Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir was strawberry, cherry, baking spice and softer, silkier tannins. Potter’s Vineyard 2017 Barrel Select Pinot Noir tasted fresh with ripe red cherries, herbs and rocky minerality. Ruby Vineyard & Winery 2018 Ruby Old-Vine Estate Pinot Noir was ripe and tart with cherry and pomegranate, along with pepper and herbal notes.
While Pinot Noir is known to be expressive of place, there were a range of other grapes and styles, including Blakeslee Vineyards’ freshly acidic Burgundian-style Chardonnay from its 2018 Estate bottling; Freja Cellars Albariño from vines planted at 850 feet; and both a sparkling rosé and Grüner Veltliner from Raptor Ridge Winery.
A stop at the Ponzi Vineyards’ table was a reminder that while the AVA recognition is new and well-deserved, some, like Luisa Ponzi, have been making wines from this area their whole lives. The AVA designation is simply an opportunity for focus.
Ponzi reached into her bag and pulled out the tiniest, geekiest, most clever little bottle showing pisolites, loess and basalt — all the layers of the Laurelwood soils. Too school for cool, I am always intrigued by soil displays in tasting rooms. Upon opening the vial, I noticed Laurelwood had a distinctive fragrance.
She explained the Laurelwood District AVA is unique not just from the soils, but also by being farther north in the Valley, the influence of the Columbia Gorge winds, and less rainfall from the rain shadow created by the Chehalem Mountain range. Ponzi finds Laurelwood Pinot Noirs often show light florals of dried rose petal or lavender, warm spices of nutmeg and cardamom, white pepper, anise and, most commonly, a mid-palate saltiness. She proceeded to pour exactly that profile, complete with the signature dusty tannins, from her bottle of 2017 Ponzi Vineyards Laurelwood Pinot Noir.
There is much to explore in the Chehalem Mountain AVA. Wineries from the tasting with vineyards located in the new Laurelwood District are marked with an asterisk in the sidebar. Please note that other AVAs source fruit from the Laurelwood District, and many wines from the Laurelwood District AVA may not list it on their label yet. As safety precautions allow, make it a point to taste, ask questions, form your own opinions, and discover what makes the Chehalem Mountains magic.
Adelsheim, *Anne Amie Vineyards, Bells Up Winery, *Blakeslee Vineyard, *Chehalem, Colene Clemens, *Dion Vineyard, Flâneur Wines, *Freja Cellars, *Hamacher Wines, *Hawks View Winery, Hazelfern, Lachini Vineyards, Le Cadeau, Longplay Wine, *Ponzi Vineyards, *Potters Vineyard, Rain Dance Vineyards, *Raptor Ridge Winery, *REX HILL, ROCO Winery, *Ruby Vineyard & Winery, Sidereus Vineyard & Winery, and Vidon Vineyard.