The Old Vines of Oregon Wine

While Oregon may scream "New World," a number of producers in the state are choosing to keep their focus on old-vine grapes to make high-quality wines.
Photo by Meg Baggott

If you’re looking for wines made from old vines, your mind probably journeys to Germany, France, Spain or Italy. In the New World, it might be 19th-century Shiraz from the Barossa, or Zinfandel from California. But do you know that many of America’s most interesting old-vine bottlings are made in Oregon?

When you see “old vine,” “ancient vine,” “original vine,” or some other reference to vine age on the label of a U.S. wine, these are unregulated terms. The federal government is silent on the matter. It’s basically an honor system, although there’s considerable agreement that 35 years is a fair age to be called old vines.

A bottle of Willamette Valley Vineyards 2015 Vintage 42 Chardonnay and a bottle of Bethel Heights 2014 The High Wire Estate Chardonnay.
Willamette Valley Vineyards 2015 Vintage 42 Chardonnay and Bethel Heights 2014 The High Wire Estate Chardonnay / Photo by Meg Baggott
Willamette Valley Vineyards 2015 Vintage 42 Chardonnay (Willamette Valley); $40, 92 points.
Bill Fuller, who still makes this wine for Willamette Valley Vineyards, planted these Draper clone vines in 1973. The buttery barrel flavors come up immediately in the nose and on the palate. The flavors push through and deliver pinpoint highlights of butterscotch, vanilla and spice around ripe apple fruit. It seems to gather strength throughout the sip, with a lingering finish. Drink 2019–30.
Bethel Heights 2014 The High Wire Estate Chardonnay (Eola-Amity Hills); $95, 94 points.
This is the debut vintage for this cuvée, made from 100% Wente clone vines planted in 1977. The winery refers to it as a “pre-Prohibition heritage selection,” a nod to the California history of this vine. Immense concentration­ shows up in the dense layers of dried apricot, grapefruit and pineapple. It’s wrapped with a lush, buttery note through a long, satisfying, full-bodied finish.

“My definition of ‘old vine’ increases with my own age,” says Eyrie’s Jason Lett. “I’m calling the beginning at 45 at this point. In 10 years, it might be 55.”

Using the 35-year criteria, Oregon vineyards planted in the early 1980s, when the nascent industry first attracted national acclaim, are reaching old-vine status.

The wines featured in this story are made from the original vines planted on the dates indicated. Despite the ravages of time, these gnarly old stalwarts persist. And winemakers are nearly unanimous in praise of the wines they produce, despite the fact that old vines are low yielding, more disease prone and generally own-rooted (hence, subject to phylloxera).

Wines made exclusively from old vines are rare, available in limited quantities and mostly sold through tasting rooms and wine clubs. So why are old vines, and the wines they produce, worth the hassle?

Old-vine wines often have extra dimensions in aroma, texture, overall length and a wealth of subtle details. They start with complexity upon the first whiff, and they add delicate, graceful notes on through extended finishes. If wine is “time in a bottle,” old vines express it beautifully.

“The longer I make wine, the higher the value I place on vine age,” says Ken Wright, owner/winemaker at Ken Wright Cellars. “Whether close or widely spaced, despite clone in most cases, regardless of trellis in most cases, we see complexity and depth from vine age that cannot be duplicated in young vineyards.”

Wright says that as the vines’ root systems explore more of the soil profile over time, the resulting wine adds aromatic and flavor depth. However, there’s no guarantee that an old vine will offer such depth.

“All of this will go quiet if the farming approach ignores support of the oxygen-loving, positive microbiology responsible for the breakdown of raw ore,” says Wright.

A bottle of Airlie 2016 Old Vines Dry Riesling and a bottle of Sineann 2015 Old Vine Zinfandel
Airlie 2016 Old Vines Dry Riesling and Sineann 2015 Old Vine Zinfandel / Photo by Meg Baggott
Airlie 2016 Old Vines Dry Riesling (Willamette Valley); $16, 93 points.
Made from vines planted in 1983, this is dry and textural, with crisp and complex flavors of lemon, tangerine and orange peel. It’s persistent and fleshy enough to be rounder than bone dry, and finishes with a touch of mineral. Editors’ Choice.
Sineann 2015 Old Vine Zinfandel (Columbia Valley); $39, 93 points.
These Pines Vineyard vines are nearing a century in age. In the new vintage, the wine seems almost brutally powerful, with rough, rugged oak flavors that will want further bottle age to mellow. Ripe blueberry and cherry tones are matched to strong streaks of caramel, cocoa and coconut. Drink 2018–25.

Alex Sokol-Blosser, co-owner of and winemaker for Sokol Blosser Winery, offers another reason: “Older vines equal a better perspective on how to farm and make wine…The true genius of working with an older block of grapes is that there is rich, historical winegrowing knowledge about the site, and that can translate into better quality wine.”

A sip of Eyrie’s Original Vines Pinot Gris, made from vines planted by the Letts between 1965 and 1968, offers a look at the first planting of that variety in the U.S. It went into the ground with the Willamette Valley’s first Pinot Noir (planted 1965–74) and Draper clone Chardonnay (1965–75).

To Lett, old vines contribute “imperturbability” during the growing season.

“They just give excellent quality, regardless of vintage challenges,” says Lett. “Drought resistance in dry years, bloat resistance in wet harvests.”Luisa Ponzi’s original estate vineyard still grows Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir planted in 1970, and Pinot Gris from 1978. Along with added dimension and complexity, she finds the wines they produce offer clear movement away from vintage variability, obvious fruitiness and softer structure.

A bottle of David Hill 2014 Old Vine Pinot Noir and a bottle of Aberrant Cellars 2014 Chehalem Mountain Vineyard Block B3 Old Vines Pinot Noir.
David Hill 2014 Old Vine Pinot Noir and Aberrant Cellars 2014 Chehalem Mountain Vineyard Block B3 Old Vines Pinot Noir / Photo by Meg Baggott
David Hill 2014 Old Vine Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $45, 92 points.
From vines planted in 1965 by Charles Coury, this dry-farmed, self-rooted selection is remarkably fresh and forward. Lush strawberry and black cherry flavors comingle, with chocolaty tannins, exceptional texture, detail and length. It spent 14 months in 30% new French oak. Beginning with the 2015 vintage, this will have national distribution.
Aberrant Cellars 2014 Chehalem Mountain Vineyard Block B3 Old Vines Pinot Noir (Chehalem Mountains); $50, 93 points.
This is the last remaining block of grapes from a vineyard planted in 1968 by Oregon pioneer Dick Erath. Yields are less than 1.5 tons per acre, and the wine’s aromatics are loaded with rose petals and cherry blossoms. Delicate and graceful, it disguises its power with subtle raspberry, blackberry and cherry fruit. The finish is exceptional, long and complex, with subtle hints of coffee and caramel. Give this wine your full attention, and see how long it lingers. Editors’ Choice.

“The vines seem much more concerned with what is happening below the ground than above when it comes to climatic events—rain, wind, heat, etc.—and seem to endure and continue on, while their younger counterparts are more reactionary,” says Ponzi. “So cliché, but so much like people.”

Many Oregon wineries have planted cuttings of what’s called the Coury clone of Pinot Noir, named for Oregon wine pioneer Charles Coury. David Hill’s Old Vine Pinot Noir is sourced from vines that Coury planted in the early 1960s.

Mike Kuenz, general manager of David Hill, guided me around the original vineyard last winter. It’s a hodge-podge of experimental plantings that date back a half-century and are still being researched and identified.

Kuenz believes Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Sémillon, Sylvaner, Chasselas, Müller-Thurgau, Flora and Pearl of Csaba are among the white varieties. The oldest Pinot Noir vines are a mix of Wädenswil, Pommard and Coury clones, which may be descended from a “suitcase cutting” smuggled from France back in the day.

Aberrant’s Chehalem Mountain Vineyard Block B3 Old Vines Pinot Noir draws a small amount of grapes from a vineyard planted in 1968 by Oregon pioneer Dick Erath.

Winemaker Eric Eide believes that while younger vines are showier up front, “old vines tend to talk a little quieter, speak less, though what they do say ends up being more poignant. Depth and subtlety are also hallmarks.”

Oregon Chardonnays have gone through a dramatic evolution that began with the introduction of Dijon clones a quarter century ago. There’s no argument that the clones improved quality, and in many ways, are far more suitable for Oregon than the California-sourced clones planted before them. That said, some surviving patches of those previous Wente and Draper clones still thrive, and the decades seem to have mitigated some of their excess vitality.

In 2014, Bethel Heights made its first High Wire Chardonnay, produced exclusively from Wente clone planted in 1977. Winemaker Ben Casteel also makes three Pinot Noirs from his original 1979 plantings.

“The older vines on our property hold their respective sense of place, regardless of vintage variation,” says Casteel. “You view the specific parcels through the clear lens of vintage, rather than having it obscured.”

Willamette Valley Vineyards has nudged Bill Fuller back into winemaking, with both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made from vines he planted for his Tualatin winery in 1973. Cuttings from California vines were used.

“I love having the Draper clone Chardonnay in our vineyard today—even with the conversion over to Dijon clones—because in warmer vintages such as we’ve been having [from] 2014 [to] 2016, this clone performs very well and retains its acid,” says Christine Collier, winery director at Willamette Valley Vineyards.

The state’s modern-era pioneers often planted Riesling, as Oregon was believed to be too far north to ripen much else.

Airlie’s Old Vines Dry Riesling is from its estate vineyard, planted in 1983. Two other medium-dry versions are principally from the Beckenridge vineyard, planted five years earlier. Both vineyards are located in the Coastal mountain range on the western edge of the Willamette Valley. Moderate alcohol, mixed fruits and a marvelous balance of acidity and sugar are evident in all three.

 

A bottle of The Eyrie Vineyards 2015 Original Vines Pinot Gris and a bottle of Ponzi 2014 Old Vine Pinot Gris.
The Eyrie Vineyards 2015 Original Vines Pinot Gris and Ponzi 2014 Old Vine Pinot Gris / Photo by Meg Baggott
The Eyrie Vineyards 2015 Original Vines Pinot Gris (Dundee Hills) $41, 92 points.
Planted in 1965, these are the oldest examples of this variety in the country. Jason­ Lett showcases this special fruit in this natural wine with no sulfites added and no cold stabilization. Light gold in color, the crisp apple flavors are forward, the balance is spot on and the finish polished. Drink now through 2020.
Ponzi 2014 Old Vine Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley); $38, 93 points
Sourced from the original vines planted at the estate in 1978, this exceptional wine envelops the palate with extra layers of richness not expected in Pinot Gris. It’s lush and seductive, with hints of honeycomb, brown butter, toasted peanuts and dried apricots. The flavors just don’t quit, and the lovely details keep it interesting all the way. Editors’­ Choice.

Another terrific single-vineyard example from the same timeframe is Chehalem’s Corral Creek Vineyard Riesling. Chehalem’s founder, Harry Peterson-Nedry, has participated in soils studies to explain what’s happening underground, but he believes more research is needed.

“The growth of older vines is more uniform,” he says. “Ripening [is] consistent, acid retention predictably good, fermentations from them more routine and not as problematic as younger vines exhibiting plant-based growth, rather than root-based growth.” Chehalem also has 33-year-old Gamay Noir that nears old-vine status.

Perhaps the most surprising old-vine discovery in Oregon is the Zinfandel from Lonnie Wright’s vineyard, named the Pines. Geologist/winemaker Alan Busacca, who partners with Wright on his Volcano Ridge vineyard project, says the Pines dates to the 1890s, planted by an Italian stonemason named Louis Comini.

Five Great Oregon Vineyards Worth Knowing

Farmed up until the 1960s, it was revived by Wright in the 1980s. Though winter freezes have forced Wright to cut the vines to the ground on occasion, the original roots are going strong. Old vine bottlings are produced under both Sineann and The Pines 1852 labels.

Not quite within the 35-year timeframe are other vines and vineyards that have introduced grapes like Gamay Noir, Tempranillo and Grüner Veltliner to the mix. Even at just 25 years old, they can begin to display the characteristics that old-vine aficionados most value.

Looking for old-vine wines, especially in Oregon, is a lot like truffle hunting, and you’re the hound. The bottles turn up on websites and in tasting rooms, as limited releases for wine club members, special occasions and, sometimes, for those who simply ask what’s available.

Labels that deliver details like the name and location of the vineyard, when was it planted and assurances that these are indeed the original vines (not replanted or grafted over) are your best insurance that you’re getting the real deal. Compare an old-vine bottling with another release from the same vintage, winery and variety, and you should see a difference.

Quantities are limited because these vineyards are disappearing, and they rarely yield much above one ton of fruit per acre. But for those who value the extra nuances, details, grace and elegance that old vines can convey, the search can yield real treasures.

Other Great Wines

Dion 2014 Old Vines Pinot Noir (Chehalem Mountains); $40, 94 points. From vines planted in 1976, this aromatic wine is a graduate course on the rarefied flavors that old vines can bring. Strawberry, cola, a pat of butter (14 months in half-new French oak), wild cherry and more come into focus, and the wine, though gentle—even delicate—lasts and lasts. The finish is spectacular. Editors’ Choice.

Timothy Malone 2016 Medici Vineyard Riesling (Chehalem Mountains); $20, 94 points. In 2016, Tim Malone has cut back on the residual sugar, dropping it down to 12 grams per liter (g/L), meaning the wine is just slightly off dry. The old vine flavors rock on through, delivering big bursts of honeydew, grapefruit and lime, underscored by minerals. The depth, length and succulent drinkability are sublime. Editors’ Choice.

Chehalem 2015 Corral Creek Vineyards Riesling (Chehalem Mountains); $29, 92 points. The slightly off-dry profile (12g/L residual sugar) perfectly complements the ultraripe, deeply concentrated fruit. It’s downright plush, with ripe apple and pear tart flavors. Young as it is, you may not want to wait to drink this one. Editors’ Choice.

Durant 2014 Bishop Pinot Noir (Dundee Hills); $50, 91 points. All Pommard clone, from vines 30 and 40 years old, this offers concentrated strawberry and cherry fruit, with highlights of stem and leaf. The balance and focus are spot on, and the wine fades gently into a soft finale.

Published on August 7, 2017
Topics: Oregon
About the Author
Paul Gregutt
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from Oregon and Canada.

Paul Gregutt is a Contributing Editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, a founding member of the magazine’s Tasting Panel, and reviews the wines of Oregon and Canada. The author of the critically-acclaimed Washington Wines & Wineries—The Essential Guide, he consulted on the Pacific Northwest entries in current versions of The World Atlas of Wine and The Oxford Companion to Wine.

Email: paulgwine@me.com.



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