2018 '1899 Cuvée' Willamette Valley Illahe Vineyards
The legacy continues with this new release of our 1899 pinot noir! On our travels, we are often asked why this wine exists. It’s a fair question. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to make. The frenzy of harvest is regularly punctuated by regular calls of “horses!”, at which all tools are put down, all projects are halted, all equipment is turned off. The whole crew stops what we are doing to guide the horses to a halt, bring in a cart-load of 5-gallon buckets, sort them by hand and lift them one by one into a wooden fermenter, a percentage of which pass first through a bike-powered destemmer. The ferment is then foot-pressed, fermented on its native yeasts and then loaded, bucket-by-bucket, into our wooden basket press. The young wine is bike-pumped from the fermenter and the basket press to barrels in the cave, where it undergoes manual topping every two weeks throughout elevage using a French copper topping pot. The bike pump is dusted off once again for racking, and then employed a final time to move the wine to a manual bottling unit. Each bottle is then individually labelled, numbered, waxed and packed. The last step is to transport the wine by horse, canoe and bike on a 50-mile journey to Portland and celebrate with a tasting and dinner with friends and customers. Though current circumstances have unfortunately postponed this photogenic last stage, the wine is now bottled and ready for your orders. So, why do we bother to make a wine without electricity and fossil fuels, relying on 19-century technology? The simple answer is that 1899 is both a wine and a way of thinking. A study in historical winemaking, inspired by a time when sustainable and natural winegrowing were the rule, not the exception. By removing automation we remove an automated mindset, and are reminded at every step of the relevance of each action and its importance in the winemaking process. We are forced to become hyperaware of winery hygiene and must rely on impeccable equipment cleanliness and the wine’s natural acidity and tannin to protect the beautiful fruit expression. In short, it makes us better winemakers. It also helps us tell the wider story of Illahe Vineyards. The grapes are hand-picked, like all of our wines. The must is fermented by native yeasts, like all of our pinot noir. The grapes are pressed in a wooden basket press, like all of our reds. The theatre of the final canoe trip brings attention to the rest of the work which we do year-round throughout the seasons. Finally, anyone that has spent any time camping in Oregon and canoeing on the Willamette river will surely understand that some things are worth slowing down for. Winemaker's notes (Jul 2020)
*Case price discount: Mix any 12 bottles (or 9l equivalent) of wine or 6 bottles of Champagne, Spirits, Sweet Wine or Fortified to get the 'case price' for each bottle.
We came across the brilliant Brad Ford and his beautiful Illahe (Ill-Uh-Hee) estate on our Oregon road-trip in the summer of 2019. We were looking for fine wines with personality, a real sense of place and at a sensible price: with Illahe we hit the jackpot.
The story of Illahe goes back to 1983 when Brad's dad - Lowell Ford - planted his first vineyard on the family farm in the burgeoning Wine Region of Oregon's Willamette Valley, part of a pioneering, ground-breaking group of viticulturists.
Inspired by the great white wines of France, Germany and Austria, Lowell planted a selection of varietals including the first planting (to our knowledge) of Grüner Veltliner in the US. The terroir proved a success for whites but unfortunately rather challenging for Pinot Noir, which was rapidly becoming established as the region’s leading red varietal. In scouring the valley for the perfect, higher-elevation site to grow Pinot Noir, Lowell and his wife Pauline drove past the hillside where the estate is now located. A consistent, south-facing slope protected by a neighbouring forest. The ground here is made up of marine sedimentary soils sitting on ancient volcanic bedrock, Lowell knew he had found something special. He purchased the land and began planting his dream Pinot vineyard. At this time, Lowell’s son Brad had completed his chemistry and viticultural studies and was excited to turn his father’s vineyard into a full estate winery. Illahe’s first vintage was made by Brad in 2006.
In the vineyard a slow and gentle approach is taken, embracing sustainable farming methods in order to preserve and promote the biodiversity of the site, as well as allowing the vines to produce the highest quality and most balanced fruit, always prioritising quality over quantity. To this end, Illahe are LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) and 'Salmon Safe' certified and currently have a number of acres under organic management, a programme they are looking to extend across the estate. They are a member of the Deep Roots Coalition and are committed to 'dry' farming (without irrigation) and only pick by hand.
This natural approach extends into the winery where they are hyper-focused on making balanced, clean and age-worthy wines. Wild, native yeasts are embraced for the fermentation of the Pinot Noirs. All fermentations are done in small lots and occur in either wood or concrete fermenters, with gentle punch-downs or pigeage. Ageing is done in the new underground 'cave' dug into the hillside - in primarily used French oak, the Pinots are bottled without filtration or fining. The whites also see some time in used wood, including oak for the Pinot Gris and acacia for their Gruner Veltliner.
Brad draws special inspiration from historical wine-making techniques. This has led to the acquisition of the beautiful vineyard horses, an ongoing exploration of amphora production in Brad’s own, home-built wood-fired kiln and ultimately the 1899 Project; a Pinot Noir they produce each year without any use of electricity or fossil fuels. This process includes harvesting with the help of the horses and moving wine around the cellar completely manually with their human-powered bicycle pump!
Eccentric or obsessive - you decide - what is undeniable is the attention to detail and incredibly focussed approach Brad takes at every step. Pushing the boundaries of comfort or ease at every turn - in pursuit of the best, most sincere expression of each variety from this wonderful place. These are wines that will delight you and they represent incredible value from this often very pricey part of the world.
Sustainable producer series – Illahe Vineyards (Jancisrobinson.com, 10th November 2020)
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