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Marveling at the view at Penner-Ash with Lynn Penner-Ash

Welcome to part three of Obsession in the Willamette Valley, so naturally we’re covering day two of the trip. In part one we discussed Fausse Piste and Martin Woods. Part two comprised Tendril and Belle Pente. Now, we’re on to Penner-Ash and Trisaetum.

The story of Penner-Ash is historic. Lynn Penner-Ash is the winemaking muscle and brains behind the operation. She earned a degree in botany and then set off to make her mark on the wine industry. After stints at Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Domaine Chandon, Chateau St. Jean and Rex Hill, she struck out on her own in 1998 with Penner-Ash, which has been integral in establishing and defining the state’s industry we know today, and remains one of the most prominent Oregon wineries on the national stage. In addition to her expensive small lot single vineyard pinot noirs, Lynn makes a pan-Willamette Valley pinot blend that sells for around $40. It is, I would bet, one of the most widely distributed and recognizable Oregon pinot noirs at or around that price.

Lynn and her husband recently sold the winery to Jackson Family Wines, but her vision persists as she remains the winemaker. She met us at the winery to give us a tour and take us through a tasting. To hear her tell the story, after several decades of building her winery, it is a bit of a relief to have to worry less about ownership considerations and have more time and mental energy to put into winemaking and grape growing.

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In the Estate Vineyard with Lynn Penner-Ash

In-line with the theme of obsession that we’ve taken with these Oregon posts, Lynn has demonstrated her obsession with wine as a cause of life through the role she’s played in the region. Spend a few hours with her at Penner-Ash and you get a good sense of how Oregon wine has become what it is today. When we arrived, we took a quick walk through a few rows of the Estate vines, which were just beginning verasion. She discussed in great detail the estate vineyard that they had spent many years cultivating, as well as other vineyards from which they source, the various experiences each were having during the current growing season, and what she expected out of each for teh vintage. The amount of diversity in the geographic distribution and site variances is significant, and understanding them to Lynn’s level takes real work – the kind of work done by someone who was involved in raising the vines and learning the geography, soils and weather. If I were a young Willamette Valley winemaker, I’d run to her my first unusual vintage to get advice and perspective.

While her wines are more voluptuous and rich than most we had on this trip, and not exactly on-trend with the minimal oak, high acid movement, no one can squabble with the quality, depth and complexity of her wines, nor should they. Her wines are as elegant as any, and deliver serious Oregon terroir. They pack that Oregon elegance into multiple layers, and hit every taste bud along the way. Penner-Ash has a style that is polished, grand and substantive. In order to achieve this profile, Lynn makes specific use of cellar tools like yeast and oak adjusted for each vineyard and vintage.

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We tasted eight wines, and I’m going to focus on four. The first is the 2017 viognier, which has set my standard for domestic viognier since I first tried it a few years ago. Viognier should be have a lush sensation, but too often it’s produced to the point of opulence, which is a mistake as the variety easily slides into flabby territory if not restrained before it enters that zone. Viognier can have trouble putting on enough acid to be interesting, even under the attentive watch of the winemaker. This makes the winemaker’s role a necessary but insufficient part of achieving nice acid. What has made Penner-Ash’s viognier the standard for me is that Lynn gets the right level of acid and body restraint, and finds a nice balance, every year. The 2017 is full-bodied, ripe and lush to the extent that it hits an unusual level of elegance for the variety. The acid is sharp, clean and maintains an engaging tension from first taste to finish. The flavors are tropical and spicy. I always look forward to a bottle of Penner-Ash viognier.

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The 2016 Élevée Vineyard pinot noir from the Dundee Hills offers a powerful level of prettiness. Coming from an area in the Willamette Valley that Lynn calls the “banana belt,” there is substantial depth of red fruit, especially Acai and pomegranate, to go with tobacco and violets. The tannins are very fine. Lynn dials back the extraction on fruit from this vineyard in order to prevent too much bitterness from the seeds getting into the wine, and uses extended cold soaks in draw out longer, smoother tannins to ensure the winery’s signature richness. It works quite well.

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The Estate Vineyard pinot from 2016 is elegant and develops impressively pure fruit and earth: plum, cherry, strawberry, Acai and a dirty minerality quality that evokes wet dirt from a minerally-diverse quarry. It’s a thoughtful wine I’ve had several times, always hoping that I’d be able to try it again with ten years of age on it.

Finally, the show stopper for me: the 2015 Zena Crown pinot noir. Using fruit from her exclusive contract on block 8 of the esteemed Zena Crown vineyard, it’s a downright impressive and captivating wine: meaty on the nose, juicy on the palate and fun and serious at the same time. The diversity of flavors and aromas include graphite, salt and pepper, iron, baking spice, mint and a cornucopia of red and black fruit that are silky in their sweetness. It has a decadence to it, however the retained acid prevents it from actually becoming sappy or heavy. What a wine.

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Penner-Ash delivers a sort of “now THAT is a wine” experience. They’re not hip in the sense of being part of this show-me-something-different moment I think the wine industry is having (think orange wine, pet nat, canned wine, minimal intervention, etc. – all things I geek out exploring), but they’re as good or better than any wine being created to fulfill some aspiration of new uniqueness that I’ve had. While it’s fun to geek out on and taste the theories and practices of this something-different movement, the industry doesn’t exist without consistently good wine, and it is the Penner-Ash’s of the world, not the something-different movement, that supplies it. Not all of Penner-Ash’s wines that I’ve tried are ones I’m excited in having again, but all deliver quality at high levels. The the viognier and Zena Crown in particular are best-in-show type wines, and the Willamette Valley pinot blend is one I’m always happy to order a restaurant or pick up to share with family and friends. If I ever get access to an Estate Vineyard pinot with some age on it, I’m running towards it. If you don’t believe me, or want to verify, I doubt you’ll be disappointed if you track these wines down.

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The second half of our day was spent at Trisaetum, a producer of pinot, chardonnay, riesling, a line of five sparkling wines, and a Bordeaux-style blend using fruit from Washington State’s Walla Walla AVA. The first thing that must be said about a visit to the winery is the property, which is idyllic. Located in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, the winery is surrounded by its Ribbon Ridge Estate vineyard that is draped over rolling hills. The manicured and developed parts of property are beautifully done, with a tasting room that develops intrigue on entry and the winery built the way a winemaker would want it to be designed. The public spaces are adorned by the artwork of owner and winemaker James Frey. This isn’t an art blog, and I’m not remotely close to an art commentator, but I feel confident in say that James’ work is not that of a self-indulgent individual who can only display his art because he owns the building.

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Trisaetum’s Wichmann Estate Vineyard in the Dundee Hills AVA

In addition to the estate vineyard, Trisaetum sources from two other vineyards: Wichmann Dundee Estate and Coast Range Estate. Each is in a different AVA. The Ribbon Ridge Estate vineyard is located in Oregon’s smallest AVA (Ribbon Ridge) and has Drury volcanic soils that are roughly 15 million years old. The Wichmann Estate soils are also roughly 15 million years old, but are of the Jory volcanic variety. The Coast Range Estate vineyard is in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA with marine sedimentary and basalt soils that are, by comparison to the others, dinosaurs at 40 million years old.

While there is considerable focus on terrior, there is an intention in making sure that the winemaking is the same for each wine regardless of vineyard. To get an understanding of how they do it, here are a few notes. First, no sulfur is added to the wine until malolactic fermentation (essentially this means minimal sulfur additions to the wine, which keeps the grapes and juice exposed, unprotected, to the elements for a relatively long period of time, allowing those elements to influence the wine). There are no cold soaks done, either. And press cycles (grape pressings – how long, with how much pressure and how many times the grapes are pressed) are very specific (you’d think this were the case everywhere, but it’s not – and further, pressing decisions can impact the wine dramatically).All wine is fermented with native yeast, and no enzymes are used to feed the yeast. More pour overs than punch downs, which means more oxygenation. The point here is that things are done with great purpose, but also that they’re done the same to fruit from every vineyard so that there are no differences in the winemaking, only differences in the site selection.

The combination of varied vineyards uniform winemaking is the sources of this winery’s obsession: same grapes, different terroirs and same winemaking, so let’s try the difference. And that’s what we did. They poured three flights of three wines: dry riesling, semi-dry riesling and pinot noir. Each flight featured a wine from each of the vineyards.

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We began with the pinot flight, all from the 2016 vintage. To give one a sense of the diversity in Willamette Valley terroirs, the picking dates of the three vineyards can stretch as much as a month between the coolest site (Coast) and the warmest (Ribbon Ridge). This was quite evident as the most rustic and delicate wine was the Coast, the most voluptuous the Ribbon Ridge and the most moderate the Dundee Hills.

I found the Coast most to my liking as I appreciated the doses of iron and spice and the slightly rustic edge. The Ribbon Ridge was a significantly bigger wine with more fruit, darker fruit and less earth. The tannin was significantly denser and grittier as well. Dundee Hills had the savory and gamey flavors and mouthfeel of a syrah in the body of a pinot. The tannic structure in each of them is very fine and precise, and regardless of size relative to each other, they all offer a leaner, fleshier style that I’d call more Alsatian than Burgundian. Oregon flavors, Alsatian structure.

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The three dry rieslings with their corresponding soils

It was then on to the dry 2017 rieslings. All go through malolactic fermentation to temper and soften the acid. The results are balanced rieslings approachable in their youth. Still, acid heads may want to look elsewhere for their fix.

The mellowest of the three is the Wichmann Estate, which I could see offering the widest appeal. Lemon and vanilla curds, baking spice and some bitter herb feature among the fleshy acid. The Coast Range bottling has a very soft touch with fleshy and juicy acid that offers some melon-balling, peach-popping flavors that get just a bit steely on the finish. My favorite was the Ribbon Ridge, which is the leanest of the batch with focused citrus and stone minerality, though mango and pepper seep through. I’d put a bet on it being the most age worthy of the three.

The final trio was the 2017 medium-dry rieslings, all in the low 30s of grams of sugar per liter. Unlike the two previous flights, it was difficult to find a favorite. I found the medium-dries to be the most balanced, complex and impressive wines of our visit. The Coast boasted semi-sweet tropics, candied lemon and orange and marzipan, with a streak of acid that digs in the longer you hold the wine in your mouth. The Ribbon Ridge was fatter and rounder with more concentrated flavors of pineapple, honeysuckle, star fruit and broad stone fruit. My favorite was the Wichmann Estate with its green apple, cantaloupe, spicy white pepper, yellow peach and Jackfruit.

Trisaetum’s method of a single winemaking approach applied to three different vineyards in three different AVAs makes tasting the wines in this format especially interesting. I was told that many customers have their favorite vineyards, and tend to prefer that vineyard regardless of the wine made from it. I had the opposite experience. Three different varieties and vineyard combination preferences: Coastal pinot, Ribbon Ridge dry riesling and Wichmann medium-dry riesling (the latter being my favorite of the entire tasting, and a wine I could easily see as a table staple in our house). Tasting wines this way does help one understand the impact of sites and soils, and is something I recommend people seek out.

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The blanc de blancs from the Pashey sparkling wine program laying in rest in the cellar

Tasting at Penner-Ash and Trisaetum in the same day is a great way to ensure one gets a legitimate variety of Willamette Valley wines over the course of a few hours while minimizing the impact of palate fatigue. It is often challenging for me to maintain my focus when tasting so many wines in a short amount of time, especially when so many are of the same variety (pinot noir in the case of the Willamette Valley). In the lead up to Trisaetum, where I knew we’d be trying predominately riesling, our trip had been filled with mostly pinot noir, and I was craving white wine. This is all to say, Willamette Valley trips can be daunting from the perspective of SO MUCH PINOT (and a fair amount of chardonnay), so do seriously consider a visit to a significant riesling producer like Trisaetum (or Brooks or Chehalem a handful of others) if you make the trip in order to add those important spices of life that are variety and acid to your experience.

With that last point made, part four will feature WillaKenzie, Gran Moraine and Zena Crown and a heavy emphasis on pinot noir with some chardonnay thrown in.

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