WillaKenzie Estate's "Estate Pinot Noir" 2011 is our wine of the week. For anyone not yet familiar with the wines of Oregon and happy to pay around £20 (at our offer price: it's normally closer to £30) this is a really representative example of what Oregon is about: it's a wine region dominated by PInot Noir for red wines and by Pinot Gris for whites, though there's also a bit of Riesling and Chardonnay is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. The Willamette Valley is a sort of Côte de Nuits for Oregon with AVA's (American Viticultural Areas) with arguably differentiating characteristics such as Yamhill and the Eola Hills.
WillaKenzie Estate is named after the marine sedimentary soil that defines it. It's a small, family-owned winery making wonderfully intense but balanced wines exclusively from the Pinot family of grapes from their own estate vineyards. Owner, Bernard Lacroute developed a passion for Pinot Noir in his native Burgundy. Having made a stack of cash in the Silicon Valley, he thought that growing Pinot Noir in Oregon would be a nice way to return to his roots. He came across an advertisement for land in the Wine Spectator and in January 1991 he and his francophile wife, Ronni purchased a beautiful 420 acre cattle ranch in Yamhill. In 1992 the first vineyards were planted on south-facing slopes replacing pasture, blackberries and poison oak. Now there are more than one hundred acres of vineyards pleasingly arranged on the rolling hills below the Chehalem mountains around untouched stands of native Douglas ﬁr and oak.
A European theme is evident at WillaKenzie: with a degree in œnology from the University of Bordeaux, Thibaud Mandet brings a French touch to the art and science of winemaking. This is allied to a profound respect for the character of the soil and its effect on the wines made from the vines which grow there with different bottlings from different single vineyards. But this is not to suggest that they are shy of innovation or experimentation. Many different clones are used in the vineyards, both Dijon and more heritage types such as Pommard and Wadenswil. In the cellars there are innovations such as the in-house designed mechanical punch down robot (affectionately known as Big-Foot), and powerful refrigeration units by the vineyards to cool and/ or dry out grapes just harvested. Like at most Oregon wineries there is a strong preoccupation with working in an environmentally aware manner (sustainability): the woodlands, pasture and native plants help to maintain biodiversity and are home to hawks, owls, coyotes and the like which help to control the rodent population. For the health of their soils they use organic fertilisers and fungicides rather than synthetic ones, and no herbicides. In the winery the wines are treated as naturally as possible, which the design of the multi-level gravity flow winery helps to ensure by making use of pumps largely redundant. Attention to detail, solid investment, skilled grape-growing and winemaking and impeccable vineyards result in reliably high quality wines which fuse elegance and power from one of Oregon’s smartest estates.