Given the relative youth of American wine making and certainly the establishment of wine here in the Northwest, when someone tells you about the second generation of a Willamette Valley wine making family, you expect them to tell you about someone who's just getting their feet wet. Well, that's certainly not the case at Ponzi Vineyards one of the Valley's pioneering labels established by Dick and Nancy Ponzi in 1970.
Luisa Ponzi, the Ponzi's youngest daughter took up the reigns of the family operation two decades ago and with the 2013 vintage in barrel she marks her twentieth vintage at one of the Valley's flagship wineries. Luisa left Oregon in the early 1990s and headed to Burgundy hoping to learn some of the secrets of crafting the greatest Pinot Noir and Chardonnays the world has ever known. As the first American woman to complete the enology and viticulture program in Beaune, Luisa sought a different source of influence, as largely the American wine movement had grown north from California.
She returned to Oregon and has been at it ever since at the Ponzi label. Her lessons and passion not just applying in the cellar but in the vineyards as well. Ponzi brought a fresh approach back with her from Burgundy as well as recipes for success in cool climate Pinot Noir production. Rootstocks, vine spacing, trellising, Ponzi played with all of it in an effort to dial it in towards perfection. Twenty years on the vineyards located in the Chehalem Mountain AVA and they are really starting to shine.
Pinot Noir, certainly but Ponzi Vineyards has come to develop a renown for the Chardonnays that Luisa makes. Well suited Dijon clones and an excellent climate are at play but it's clear that Luisa's love for the Chardonnay grape and her belief in it's potential in the Willamette Valley make a difference. Luisa's take: "There is most definitely an Oregon style of Chardonnay emerging and it does mimic what we have seen with the Pinot Noir; emphasis on fresh fruit, bright acidity and depth of texture. The differences I see are in the transparency and/or delicacy of the Chardonnay fruit. I see terroir expression much more clearly with Chardonnay over Pinot, the impact of viticulture decisions are also more transparent and the decisions of the winemaker can more powerfully impact the wines." Perhaps like Burgundy, also renowned for it's Pinot the Willamette Valley will come to be known ultimately for it's Chardonnay? "With Pinot, I feel the spectrum is smaller for style types before the quality drops off. Of course, the best Chardonnays are made, as with Pinot, when one is respecting the fruit and the vintage."
What is definitive is that the Willamette Valley, and the Oregon wine industry have changed so substantially over those years. "Twenty years ago we were a pretty tight knit group of wineries; teaching and learning from each other out, socializing together and selling our wines together. These things still occur, and I believe we are still one of the most collaborative wine industries in the world, but now there are diverse and numerous groups discussing issues, etc. I meet people every day whom have labels or wineries in the Willamette Valley whom I have never met or heard about. I take that to signify that making wine here has become a legitimate success!"
Reliably though through those twenty years, somethings have stayed the same. "The most reliable thing vintage to vintage is that I will most certainly learn something. It never fails to amaze me…it could be something small like a new technique that a visiting intern mentions or something big like what do you do when six inches of rain falls in twenty four hours!"
In the 2012 releases Luisa is continuing to break new ground with Chardonnay as Ponzi Vineyards releases two single vineyard Chardonnays, the Avellana and Aurora. Giving both Ponzi and Willamette Chardonnay fans a look at how that terroir indeed plays out in the hands of an experienced winemaker.
2011 Reserve Chardonnay Impressive bottling. While there are plenty of examples of wonderful steel fermented Chardonnay from the Willamette Valley, Luisa shows what texture can do for a wine. Adept use of largely neutral oak and maloactic fermentation particularly for a high acid vintage, result in a remarkably complete wine. Aromatics were a bit shy at first and a largely tropical fruit palate gave way within an hour to rich aromas of lemon zest and dried spices. The palate was juicy, with layers of lemon creme. $30
2011 Ponzi Willamette Valley Pinot Noir A blend of several vineyards and "sub-appellations" throughout the Willamette Valley. Dried violets and spice aromatics lead to a palate of bright currant, cherry, cola spices and bramble berries. This cool vintage wine has great crisp acidity and texture. Classic fresh fruit flavors and elegance in it's structure. $35
2011 Ponzi Tavola Pinot Noir Fruit forward aromatics of plum skin, early season blackberry and white pepper spice. Palate is fruit dominant with prominent bramble berry flavors and notes of cola and fennel. Even at this entry-level bottling expect the 2011 vintage wines to continue to evolve and improve. $25
2011 Ponzi 40th Anniversary Pinot Noir Reserve Pretty wine. A fair bit of new French Oak makes for aromatic notes of mocha and cedar, ripe blackberry and cola. The wine has a little bit darker fruit emphasis and a more luxuriant palate given the oak influence and a fleshier mouthfeel. Baking spices, mocha and black cherry flavors and a velvet kissed finish. $60
These wines were provided as samples by the winery.