In 1980, Harry Peterson-Nedry planted the first 12 acres of vines in what, a quarter-century later, would become the Ribbon Ridge American Viticultural Area (AVA). Called Ridgecrest Vineyards, the site has since grown to 40 planted acres.
What drew him to this previously unexplored and rather remote location?
“I was a little lucky, a little stubborn and focused on what seemed a short checklist of key success factors,” he says.
“The general wisdom was that Ribbon Ridge was too far west to get ripe, too much into the Coast Range shadow and too high in elevation, being just shy of 700 feet.”
Despite those perceived negatives, Peterson-Nedry jumped in. He credits the good soil type and depth, the slope that faces from southeast to southwest and the success of Dick Erath’s nearby Chehalem Mountain Vineyard as motivation.
Another early arrival was winemaker Doug Tunnell of Brick House, who purchased a local farm in 1989.
“It was early fall, very dry and warm, just as I remembered Yamhill County from my days as a kid visiting grandma,” says Tunnell. “I was sold on the Lewis Rogers Lane piece before we reached the end of the drive off the county road.”
Both men contributed to the creation of the Ribbon Ridge appellation, which was officially designated as an AVA on July 1, 2005. It was set within the larger Chehalem Mountain AVA, itself a part of the all-encompassing Willamette Valley AVA.
With approximately 3,500 acres of land, around 620 of which under vine, Ribbon Ridge is by far the smallest of Willamette Valley’s seven subappellations. It may still be home to only a dozen wineries and 36 vineyards, but, as they say, some of the greatest things often come in the smallest packages.
A Distinct Terroir
Ribbon Ridge is thought to have gotten the moniker around 1865 from a fellow named Colby Carter, perhaps because the top of the ridge twists like a ribbon. In shape, it’s more like a loaf of bread that runs roughly north to south and results in vineyard sites that face east and west.
The appellation is noted for its “topographic isolation” and “island-like appearance—a distinct geological formation of eastward-tilted, marine sedimentary strata that dates to the upper Eocene geological era,” as outlined in its official AVA application.
“The parent material—sand and siltstone—is finer-grained than the coarser sands of the Yamhill-Carlton region, and the area is less influenced by the cooling effect of the Van Duzer Corridor, as it is shielded by both the Yamhill-Carlton and Dundee Hills AVAs,” says Wright.
A number of growers confirm that these ancient, stable and well-weathered Willakenzie series soils are remarkably uniform. Coupled with the geographical isolation, it makes for unusual consistency among the appellation’s Pinot Noirs, the grape that accounts for about 90% of the region’s planted acreage.
“It also has its own climate and exposure characteristics,” says Corneaux. “Facing mostly from southeast to southwest, the morning fogs tend to stay a little bit longer hanging on the hill, allowing for milder temperatures in the summer. The disease pressure is very low in this area, compared with Burgundy.”
Consistency, Elegance and Delicacy
Ribbon Ridge’s small size and uniform soils offer consistency that winemakers here cite as the reason Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noirs can be picked out in a blind tasting among those from the larger Willamette Valley AVA.
“The Ridge is comprised of small, well-maintained vineyards that are managed for fine wine,” says Ed Barr, cofounder and manager of Quintet Cellars, which produces a Pinot Noir from the Lichtenwalter Vineyard.
“What drew me to the AVA is that production is limited, so winemaking here is old school, hands on. The terrain is confined to a tight space, so consistent quality within the AVA is assured.”
That’s not to say that there isn’t any vintage variation whatsoever. Nor should it imply that winemaker choices regarding picking times, fermentation practices or barrel regimens don’t ever differ.
It’s just that generalizations about a particular Ribbon Ridge style of Pinot Noir seem to ring truer here than in larger appellations.
The area creates aromatic Pinots with exceptional structure, balance and dark red and black fruits, driven by bright acidity, often with an underpinning of salty seashell minerality.
“Although there’s plenty of marine sediments throughout the Willamette Valley, I just haven’t seen the type of high-quartz sandstones elsewhere that we have on Ribbon Ridge,” says James Frey, who purchased an old hazelnut farm across from Brick House in 2005 where he would eventually establish Trisaetum Winery and Ribbon Ridge Estate Vineyard.
“The soils here produce Pinot Noirs with darker fruit character and the most expressive spice notes.”
What exactly characterizes Ribbon Ridge Pinots? “Elegance and delicacy…floral, lilac, rose and violet aromas,” says Corneaux. “The flavors are subtle red fruit, cherry, cranberry, pomegranate. The structure is there, mostly driven by bright acidity—the backbone of Pinot Noir—and soft spicy, almost earthy sometimes, tannins.”
An added bonus is that the appellation’s wines age beautifully, especially those from top vintages such as 2009, 2012, 2015 and 2016. “When it ages, it develops the forest floor, mushroomy aromas I really like in most aged Burgundy wines,” Corneaux says.
An Eco-friendly Community
Jim Anderson purchased the old Autumn Wind property 20 years ago with his business partner, the late Patricia Green. He says it took them years to bring the “severely compromised” property up to snuff.
“The overall level of farming in this AVA is extremely high,” says Anderson. “It has to be. It’s a grind here, and you constantly have to be on top of your soil and plant management. That’s one of the things that bonds the people and vineyards and wineries here. You have to be a bit of a maniac to get the land to respond positively.”
Farming here dates back more than 130 years. The recent development of vineyards and wineries represents an evolution of that agricultural history and has introduced 21st century practices for environmental stewardship.
Most area growers already employ stringent, sustainable eco-friendly practices like dry farming and composting. Many also make their homes on the Ridge, which contributes to the big picture desire for a healthy ecology, as well as reinforces a sense of community.
Dan Warnshuis of Utopia Winery is president of the Ribbon Ridge Winegrowers Association of winery and vineyard owners, which has campaigned for years to get all area producers to farm vineyards without herbicides.
The initiative will finally take effect in 2020, something that Warnshuis believes is an important step on the way to universal adoption of organic and biodynamic farming practices throughout the appellation.
Pinot Noir and Beyond
While Pinot Noir remains the region’s main grape, many early vineyards were planted mostly to white wine grapes like Müller-Thurgau, Riesling and Pinot Gris. Recently, there’s been a renewed interest in exploring this varietal diversity.
At Pinot Noir specialist Patricia Green Cellars, a splendid Sauvignon Blanc is made from some of the oldest plantings in the state. Brick House and Ridgecrest Vineyards have also successfully branched out and produce Gamay Noir, while Trisaetum, Styring and RR Wines all craft quality Riesling.
Corneaux is experimenting with Chardonnay and Aligoté, the latter slated for first harvest in 2021. At Ridgecrest, meanwhile, two acres of old-vine Pinot Gris from 1986 remain. Chardonnay and Grüner Veltliner are also doing well, and, “at Wynne’s urging, we will finally plant Chenin Blanc this spring,” says Peterson-Nedry.
Styring Vineyards is expected to release its first sparkling wine this year, too, a Brut Riesling. And at Ayres Vineyard & Winery, owners Kathleen and Brad McLeroy are trying a few rows of Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Auxerrois.
“For the first time ever, we will be releasing a 2019 white field blend, which is something we have wanted to do since we planted the rows back in 2004,” says Kathleen.
“This isn’t only Oregon’s most exclusive dirt, this is where life itself unfolds in so many ways for our amazing neighbors that call this land home,” she says.
“We have seen each other’s triumphs and tragedies happen as the seasons pass. We know that somehow the indescribable beauty that surrounds us all carries us along through this grape-growing, winemaking, life-living journey.”
Ribbon Ridge Wines
Ken Wright 2016 Bryce Vineyard Pinot Noir; 96 points, $63. This wine combines lush blueberry and black cherry fruit with hints of pepper and well-balanced baking spices. The richness continues through the lingering finish, which has the flavor density and detail of amaro. Editors’ Choice.
Domaine Divio 2017 Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir; 94 points, $48. This is a vibrant, energetic, almost electric wine, with brilliant raspberry fruit in abundance alongside accents of sea breeze and seashell. It spent 14 months in 45% new French oak. Editors’ Choice.
RR 2017 Ridgecrest Vineyards Riesling; 94 points, $35. Along with 11.4 g/L of residual sugar, this wine lists a pH under 3.0, which translates to plenty of tangy, searing acidity. The balance between those two elements is fantastic. It sets up a well-textured palate with apple flesh and skin, wet stone, a streak of gun metal and just a faint hint of honey. Enjoy now to 2030. Cellar Selection.
Styring 2015 Estate Pinot Noir; 94 points, $45. Despite its rather high alcohol level, this wine remains balanced and detailed. Sexy raspberry and blackberry fruit hit the jammy side of the flavors, with mouthfilling richness. Barrel aging adds chocolate and caramel highlights, yet all in harmonious balance.
Adelsheim 2016 Ribbon Springs Vineyard Pinot Noir; 93 points, $75. Here’s a classy single-vineyard wine from a founding Oregon producer. Floral and raspberry highlights abound, along with toasty spice. One-third of the barrels were new, which bring some darker flavors of coffee grounds along with the finishing tannins.
Ayres 2017 Lewis Rogers Lane Pinot Noir; 93 points, $45. The estate fruit is flat-out lovely, with pitch-perfect ripeness. Bursting with cherries and finished with barrel flavors that wrap the fruit in mocha, the aromatics also bring a whiff of leaf and earth. The balance and complexity are exceptional. Editors’ Choice.
Brick House 2017 Cuvée du Tonnelier Pinot Noir; 93 points, $48. Displaying the complex aromatics that often accompany biodynamic farming, this is a sexy, sumptuous mix of citrus rind, mashed berries and sweet spice. Flavors and accents are interwoven and carry through a lovely, lingering finish. Editors’ Choice.
Walter Scott 2017 Sequitur Vineyard Pinot Noir; 93 points, $65. Sourced from Mike Etzel’s vineyard above Beaux Frères, this brings nuanced flavors with notes of seashells and minerals along with plump blackberry fruit. It’s elegant and detailed, but needs decanting or several hours of aeration to open up fully.
Trisaetum 2018 Ribbon Ridge Estate Dry Riesling; 92 points, $32. Extra tart, even in a lineup of four quite dry Rieslings from Trisaetum, this mixes green apple fruit with wintergreen mint, Asian pear and ginger. It’s bright and spicy, unique in its components. It would make an interesting match with sushi.
Utopia 2017 Bliss Pinot Noir Blanc; 92 points, $45. A pale blush color, this skirts the perimeter between white wine and rosé, and includes 10% Chardonnay. It offers a great mouthfeel, with rich flavors of melon and strawberry, dappled with cinnamon spice. Drink it slightly chilled. Enjoy now–2022. Editors’ Choice.
Patricia Green Cellars 2018 Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir; 91 points, $37. Pungent with spicy herbal intensity, this offers balanced yet tart berry and cherry fruit, with an earthy base. It smooths out nicely with a bit of breathing time, and at this entry-level price it is a fine introduction to this exemplary Ribbon Ridge estate.
Quintet 2017 Lichtenwalter Vineyard Pinot Noir; 91 points, $62. This approachable, young wine offers pretty cherry fruit, like hard candy with a tart kick. It’s fresh and backed with pleasing minerality. Some 30% was fermented with whole clusters, and 30% saw new oak. It needs a bit of time to full integrate, so enjoy starting in 2021.