Great Off-the-beaten Path Vineyard
I’d sipped only one Illahe wine (a Viognier) before scheduling a recent 4-night Willamette Valley trip, but that bottle intrigued me enough to do some due diligence on this small lot, back-to-basics producer and to make a tasting appointment. Notwithstanding the many well-established big wine names in the valley, Illahe was our overall favorite wine-related experience.
Illahe has no formal tasting room, but the day was lovely and so we had our first pour on the patio overlooking the lower half of the vineyard slope. Who needs a tasting room? (Illahe doesn’t sell food, but if you BYO you can picnic on the patio if you buy a bottle.)
Hospitality goddess Kathy G. shepherded us though our next 7 wines while we toured the winery in harvest mode and chatted along the way with pretty much everyone who crossed our path, including winemaker Brad F., owner/grower Lowell F., sales manager Bethany F., and cellar worker Mason C. We even got some love from Logan, the winery dog. We concluded our 2-hour visit roaming among those vines still bearing fruit.
“Illahe” is the Chinook word for soil, earth or place, making it an apt name for a vineyard/winery seeking to imbue wines with a sense of place. The vineyard is located
on an 80-acre, south-facing slope made up mainly of sedimentary clay plus segments of volcanic soil. Six Pinot clones thrive on 50 acres while Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Gris, Tempranillo (for a Rosé) and 3 northern Italian varietals (Lagrein, Schioppettino and Teroldego) occupy 10 more. Cover crops are spread throughout the vineyard for biodiversity and soil enrichment.
Many Oregonian growers and winemakers are renowned for organic and biodynamic practices. Illahe not only fits that mold, it ups the ante with their 2015 Project 1899 Estate Pinot Noir, which was made without modern winemaking equipment, gas-powered vehicles or electricity.
Yep, someone with a strong back, calloused hands and an old soul (and maybe a purple tongue :D) must run the show.
The mature vines were hand-pruned and not irrigated. The grapes were hand-picked/de-stemmed/sorted, transported to the winery by Percheron draft horses named Bea & Doc, left to spontaneously ferment in wood, hand-pressed, and – get a load of this – bicycle-pumped into wood barrels to age. (Their website video illustrates the power of the pedal.) They bottled the wine without using gas and then hand-corked/waxed/applied labels.
And the pièce de résistance; they brought the wine to the Willamette River by stagecoach and canoed it all the way to their Portland distributor, some ninety miles as the salmon swims. Who does that? Well, the fine folks at Illahe, that’s who.
Does all that sound a bit too precious? Certainly not when you’re strolling through the vineyard admiring delicate grape clusters bursting with juice, touring the winery with the sharp tang of fermenting grapes spiking the air, or learning about the pre-industrial process from the mouths of those conjuring magic in a bottle. They’re trying to live up to their name; that’s all there is to it.
The 1899 illustrates what a Mount Pisgah (soon to be a sub-AVA) site can do: 14% alcohol, warm baking spices, butterscotch brûlée and both red & dark fruit (and cocoa?) It’s a labor of love, so I understand the $68 price tag. 195 cases painstakingly produced.
We tasted 3 other Pinots, the 2017 Estate $25, 2016 Percheron $43 and 2016 Bon Savage $33. They’re all good; personal Pinot preferences will dictate favorites. I feel the strongest initial affinity for the Percheron, with its emphasis on spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and black peppercorn, rounded out by cedar, vanilla bean & bing cherry. Bust out some foraged wild mushroom risotto for this one.
The 2017 whites were pretty terrific, too, at $19. The Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Gris are estate-grown, and the Viognier is sourced from another family holding in West Salem. My wife adored the off-dry, stainless steel-fermented Viognier, which was bursting with that varietal’s trademark floral and stone fruit aromas, echoed on the palate by macerated spiced ripe peach and balanced acid rather than creaminess.
I’ve been drinking Grüner for years, and this one didn’t disappoint. Stone fruit on the nose with refreshing acid, brûléed grapefruit and a tingle of white pepper on the palate. Illahe fermented about one-third of the harvest in acacia barrels to boost complexity. Part of me likes the simplicity of 100% stainless fermentation here, but I can’t argue with the wood’s graceful herbal notes.
Finally, the lustrous purple 2016 Estate Lagrein. Its medium body and bright acid give those who can handle some astringency plenty of running room for food pairing. That first sip had me craving a stinky, oozy washed rind cheese like Époisses de Bourgogne.
Terrific off-the-beaten track tasting. Appointment only ($25 fee waived with a $100 purchase.)