Oregon winemakers hoped for a respite.
While the resourceful, creative and resilient bunch had adjusted to an increased frequency of warm growing seasons, a lightning storm sparked unprecedented wild fires in 2020. Even though the calendar turned to 2021, it had to seem like last year was taking a vicious victory lap, as the Bootleg fire burned more than 400,000 acres.
Despite the challenges they’ve faced, Melissa Burr, vice president of winemaking for the Stoller Group, and Katie Santora, winemaker at Chehalem Winery, turned out refreshingly tasty rosés in 2020, and are digging in again this year against all the fury Mother Nature can throw their way.
“There’s been erratic weather, floods, heat and severe drought in parts of our state,” Burr said. “There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to fire season, which has started, unfortunately. Our first-ever fires were during harvest last season.”
While it’s been a hot and dry summer, Santora said, “We are crossing our fingers, it’s a really hard thing to manage.”
“Last year, it traumatized everyone in the Willamette Valley,” Santora said. “This year, there are fires, but in the Willamette Valley, the winds are staying away from us.”
Most importantly, despite some “hens-and-chicks” clusters – a phrase used to describe mini green berries surrounded by more mature-sized fruit in the vineyard – the 2021 vintage appears to be on track.
While the grape cluster might not look as pretty, a tiny green unpollinated few near the bottom could get lopped off if the crop is thinned. Even if it’s not, Santora said a green berry won’t add much to the fermentation.
“The vineyard looks good,” Santora said. “The vines are green and not struggling. The extreme heat wave we got caused the vines to shut down. It wasn’t in a pivotal moment. They just went to sleep. With the younger vines, we had to be intentional in our irrigation, since the roots aren’t that deep. The intense heat spike will affect them. But overall, the vines look like they are doing well.”
Also doing well is the Stoller Group’s latest label, Chemistry, a collaboration between Stoller and Chehalem. The project’s goal is to make a high-quality wine priced for everyday consumption. While fruit is sourced from outside their estate vineyards for Chemistry, the quality hasn’t taken a dip. They’re approachable wines with very friendly flavors.
“We expected it to get off to a good, healthy start,” Burr said. “With Chemistry, we want to solidify what we are doing, we want more consistent fruit sourcing for those wines. We don’t own every vineyard that we work with though, so there are no guarantees.”
When it comes to the Stoller estate vineyards – the ones they control from start to finish – Burr knows their intricacies. She has the confidence to view challenges as opportunities. In 2020, she said the pinot noir clusters were unlike anything she’d ever seen.
“In 2020, we had really beautiful, tiny clusters of pinot,” Burr said. “I’d never seen them that small, they were baby-size and petite. It was warm, and the concentration was intense. We had to adapt really radically to that situation.”
As a result, they made more rosé than usual, which is always a good thing, considering the Stoller and Chehalem selections are dry, crisp and refreshing.
“I love where the rosé has evolved from,” Santora said. “When we started dabbling with rosé, we tried different methods before we made a large enough amount to sell to consumers. We trialed different methods. What you see here is [that] the intentionally made rosé makes a good, crisp, beautiful, delicate and nuanced wine with a refreshing lightness to it.”
That’s the kind of wine perfect for hot summer days and nights.
Chehalem, Chehalem Mountains Pinot Gris 2019 ($20) – The crisp, juicy first bite of a Granny Smith apple comes to mind at first sip, there’s also pear and a warm rock note on the finish.
Chehalem, Corral Creek Pinot Noir 2019 ($50) – A fine battle between red and blue fruit flavors, a silky mouthfeel and a floral lift of dried violets. “At first, I wanted to make it heftier for some reason,” Santora said. “I realized it does better on the lighter scale, and can accentuate the nuance of the wine.”
Chehalem, Chehalem Mountains Rosé of Pinot Noir 2020 ($25) – Every strawberry has the fine line between the white and green part close to the stem and the ripe red fruit. That’s captured here along with watermelon and thyme flavors.
Chemistry, Willamette Valley Chardonnay 2019 ($13.99) – Pineapple, mossy wet stones, lightly toasted almonds and lemon custard.
Chemistry, Willamette Valley Pinot Gris 2019 ($13.99) – A rich, rounder mouthfeel than usual, with pear, peach and granite flavors.
Chemistry, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2019 ($18.99) – Bristol raspberry flavors, cloves, cinnamon stick and fall leaves wrap up a wine the team has done a great job with to keep at this price.
Stoller, Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2019 ($35) – I found a more tannic, darker pinot with dark fruit, spice rack, wet earth and cranberry flavors. “There’s less opulent fruit in these vintages, and it might take longer to show their finesse in bottle,” Burr said.
Stoller, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2019 ($35) – Black cherry and raspberry vie for your attention. The black fruit wants to turn toward a spicy, earth-driven pinot, but the red fruit wheels in on the finish with a juicy verve running straight down the seams of the finish.
Stoller, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir of Rosé 2020 ($28) – Green apple, apricot and nectarine fruit flavors, with a snappy, herbal finish that sweeps you away at the end.
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at email@example.com.