Hold the glass for a moment. A wine of the week, or actually, two wines of the week, both from Oregon, and neither is a Pinot Noir? How say you?
That’s no slight on one of the Willamette Valley’s finest wineries, Soter Vineyards. I’d gladly rave about and will rave about Tony Soter’s very handsome flight of Pinot Noir.
This is a fascinating tale, however, about how a former California winemaker, turned Oregon winemaker, can teach his old state’s wine architects a thing or two about the direction California’s signature varietals should be heading.
Soter made wines as a consultant for several of the marquee names in the Napa Valley: Niebaum Coppola, Shafer, and Spottswoode to name a few, as well as the wines for his own label founded in 1982, Etude.
Tony and his wife Michelle are both Oregon natives and returned to the Pacific Northwest a decade ago, escaping the constant pressure of the Napa Valley wine culture. The Soters searched for the heart of New World Burgundy terroir, planting Pinot Noir vines on the Mineral Springs Ranch property in 2002, at the edge of Carlton in the Yamhill-Calrton AVA of the Willamette Valley. Mineral Springs is a very mellifluous, gently sloped, free-flowing landscape, rich with healthy Keasey soil and clay that are perfect with the near constant regional precipitation. At around 400 feet elevation, high winds and severe weather are not a problem, and the vineyard is inland enough to be welcoming to non-coastal grapes, such as Chardonnay.
If the 2010 single-vineyard flagship Mineral Springs Ranch Pinot Noir is any indication, this certainly is the right terroir for exceptional Pinot Noir.The 2010 almost boasts a Bourbon- toned outer hue, showing signs of graceful maturation. The sharp nose leads to a very focused, alluring body, with strong hints of date and vadouvan curry. It’s chewy like a dried fruit, but not dry or tannin heavy.
My first note from the 2009 Mineral Springs Pinot Noir reads, “A classic.” Coming from a block at the higher elevation crown of the estate vineyard, the 2009 is a tad lusher and darker than the 2010. A little paprika hits the palate initially, leading with a hefty nose, then finishing with plentiful Hawaiian kiawe wood and ripe blackberry. This is Oregon Pinot Noir exemplified.
The 240 acre Mineral Springs Ranch includes 30 acres for Pinot Noir and two acres of, you guessed it, Chardonnay. Except, it’s not the source of our North Valley Chardonnay. These estate grapes go exclusively to sparkling wines.
I didn’t fall madly in love with the 2011 North Valley Highland Rosé, the only sparkler I tasted. 80% Pinot Noir, 16% Chardonnay, and 4% Gewürztraminer craft a quenching, inviting bubbly, with the last varietal very noticeable even at its small percentage point. The taste notes don’t quite have the undeniable beauty of the beautiful bright ruby body. Also from the North Valley, where Soter has partnered with numerous regional growers in the Willamette Valley, a beauty of a two vineyard 2010 Pinot Noir hails. Immediately you think of the grill, perhaps burgers, to go with this hefty, smoky bottling, alleviated by pleasant floral notes. It’s a steal at $30 and as the tasting notes tell you, it’s a “rock star.” Party on with this? No, you still need to savor such art, but do enjoy it now.
Soter also crafted a terrific 2011 Planet Oregon Pinot Noir, focusing on the Planet Oregon Movement’s philosophy of value and sustainability. Being young from the 2011 vintage, it’s still raw with silk covering up some of the berries that will blossom over the next year. Still, it’s got the legs and ebullience Oregon Pinot Noir is so good at achieving.
But, enough on the Pinot Noir poetry. Being an experienced California winemaker, Soter must know how the Golden State unfortunately loves its Chardonnay as bombastic butter bombs. We must all appreciate his first Oregon still Chardonnay, the pristine 2011 North Valley Chardonnay. With perfect oak notes from only 10% new oak barrels and 30% used French oak barrels, and the rest aged in stainless steel barrels, the strategic oak ratios add depth without dominating the grapes’ fruit and spice details. At first you’ll notice chai and hibiscus, almost an exotic opening. Then come the bright citrus and kiwi mellowed by a tangy sweetness that absolutely screams of a magnificent Chablis.
Say what you want about Chardonnay, but this version inspires hope for the future in me.
Tony’s last Napa Valley wine, the 2007 Proprietary Red, shows what a master he was with Northern California’s vastly drier terroir. At 40% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and the always fickle Cabernet Franc, plus 20% Malbec, the grapes come from the 3-acre parcel around the Soters’ Napa home, called the “Little Creek Vineyard.” Here is a happy, healthy blend of immense depth that subtly jolts you and lingers for hours with racy cardamom notes, velvet texture, and a formidable sense of power. This a leader, not a follower.
The gorgeous, spacious cabin atop the Mineral Springs Ranch hill serves as the tasting room and an entertainment home for the Soters. The seated, guided tasting experience is one of the most formal you’ll find, but also one of the more engaging and enlightening around, adding to the enchantment of the views and wines. A dinner party here has to be one of the hottest tickets in Oregon.
You’ll find excellent Pinot Noir here at Soter. However, don’t look past the Chardonnay and red blends, the works of a California and Oregon master.