We know that they're making serious Pinot Noir up and down the Willamette Valley. From the Northenders like Chehalem, Cameron and new hotshot Colene Clemens to the farthest south sub-appellation Eola-Amity Hills and producers like Evesham Wood, Cristom and St. Innocent. Yet little of what's happening south of that southern point is on the radar of the Pinot Public. Fact is, there's a whole world of wine happening down in the Eugene, Oregon area, and it doesn't all begin and end at King Estate.
LaVelle Vineyards is one such place: a family operation founded by Doug LaVelle after a long corporate career. The vineyards and winery, formerly Forgeron Vineyards, was South Willamette Valley's oldest, planted in 1972. Forgeron closed its doors in 1992 and Doug opened LaVelle in 1994. At its inception, in addition to being a small winery, LaVelle Vineyards was also a substantial custom crush facility. Throughout its evolution, LaVelle has seen significant changes and some serious talent walk through its doors. Syncline's James Mantone, Anne Amie's Andy Gribscov and long time consulting winemaker and Willamette Valley stalwart Gary Carpenter have all been part of building the LaVelle brand.
In 2006 Doug's son Matthew took the production reigns and as a winemaker and owner aims to put LaVelle's best foot forward. At his disposal is a 16 acre vineyard with some of the region's oldest established plantings and a state-of-the art winery. LaVelle Vineyards and Matthew have turned their focus toward crafting the finest Pinot Noir their vines will give them and creating a destination for locals and visitors to gather and enjoy their wines. In addition to a production facility, the winery (located in Elmira, just outside of Eugene) is very much an event and gathering space. The focus is certainly on the wine; not just the technical aspects, but providing a place to enjoy it, often accompanied by live music, local food and several companions. LaVelle has more or less eschewed distribution, having none outside of Oregon, and just a trickle outside of Eugene. The bulk of their wine is sold through the winery, wine club and their downtown Eugene tasting room at the 5th Street Public Market, where they again place emphasis on the experience.
The wines that LaVelle Vineyards are producing have two aims: being true to the fruit and style. Stylistically, Matthew fancies his Pinot a feminine one, not over-extracted or dumbed down by oak. Matthew wants the true character of Oregon's crown jewel varietal to come through. Pinot Noir is intended to lighter in body, Oregon is renowned for it's "fresh" fruit expression and this is all underlined with a fine structure. The second aim is to be true to the high quality fruit that is being grown in Oregon's little-known South Willamette Valley. What is it about the South Willamette that's special? Consistency, says Matthew. "There are probably less "fantastic" Pinot Noir vintages in the South Willamette Valley when compared with the North Willamette Valley, but there are [more] "less than average" vintages up North than we have down here." That kind of reliability makes the production and sales of your wine less of a guessing game. (LaVelle also produces a Columbia Valley line sourced from Washington state which allows them to provide variety both in the tasting room and to their club.)
The wine I found most surprising and refreshing ofthe LaVelle wines that I sampled (all Pinots) was the Reserve Pinot Noir, Matthew's Reserve. The 2008 Reserve is an outstanding Pinot Noir, and while the 07 and 08 Pinots are also fine wines, this one is clearly head and shoulders above them. I'll wrap this piece up with tasting notes, but the thing is, before the 2008, they hadn't made a Reserve since 1998. I was intrigued by this as '06 was a really nice year for Oregon, but there was no Reserve for LaVelle. Matthew's response? "The most likely years for reserve Pinot Noirs in the South Willamette Valley are the coolest, dryest ones. 2010 was a cold year but there was too much rain [...] only having a reserve wine when the wine is good enough is something that doesn't happen much anymore." I've spoken with winemakers who've said "There won't be a reserve this year" but to go ten years, that's a serious standard to uphold and whether you find yourself a fan of LaVelle's wines or not, you have to respect that kind of discipline.
The 2007 LaVelle Pinot Noir ($24) is indeed a feminine expression of the varietal, and in many ways similar to the 07s that are now coming into their own. The aromatics are mostly red fruit from this cooler vintage and a hint of moss. A Burgundian styled, medium bodied Pinot Noir typical of the 07s that continues with red currants and raspberries on the palate and a touch of spice on the finish.
The 2008 Pinot Noir ($24) is a bit more broad shouldered and fills the mouth with darker, more concentrated fruits while retaining the elegance of the varietal. Aromatics exhibit more spice and smoke with darker fruits. This well rounded Pinot bring ripe dark cherries, blackberries and earthen character. The structure is substantial and the finish goes on quite a while.
The Matthew's Reserve 08 ($48) is an excellent example of the capability of the South Willamette, with aromatics of bramble berries and earthen forest floor. Layers of flavor complexity, including currants, blackberries, cloves, and the 35% new oak makes an appearance imparting smoky flavors throughout the finish. This is a wow wine to be sure.
Samples provided by the winery.