Several weeks ago, I attended the Oregon Wine Trail tasting in New York City. It was two hours of talking, tasting, and typing as I flitted from one crowded table to another, hoping to learn as much as I could in such a limited time.
Knowing it would be impossible to sample every wine on offer, I used the event guide to narrow the field. I particularly liked how it was organized, with wineries categorized according to several criteria:
- Sustainably Grown
- Classic Pinots
- Diverse Whites
- Unexpected Oregon
- Bold Reds
Each category was represented by an icon. A quick glance at winery’s listing showed what it was known for, making it easier to prioritize my meanderings. I expected Pinot Noir to be widely represented at the tasting, and I was not disappointed on that count. But I was keenly interested in the wineries who were pouring what the guide called “Diverse Whites.”
My first stop of the tasting was a chat with Bethany Ford of Illahe Vineyards. Three of her four wines were white, one of which was Viognier. Off to a great start!
About Illahe Vineyards
Illahe (pronounced Ill-Uh-Hee) is a Chinook word meaning earth, place, or soil. The Ford family has grown grapes on the property since 1983, when family patriarch Lowell Ford planted a single acre of Müller-Thurgau. But the land originally belonged to the family of his wife, Pauline: her father established the farm in 1943 and it has remained in family hands ever since.
In the 1990s, Lowell founded the Northwest Wine Studies Center at Chemeketa Community College, a place where aspiring winemakers, industry leaders, and the general public can take classes. It includes an eight-acre test vineyard managed by students in the Wine Studies Program.
Winemaker Brad Ford is a true renaissance man: he followed his father into the wine business after having earned a degree in the Classics. But Brad has also worked hands-on as a carpenter, grant writer, and teacher, giving him a wide perspective on life beyond the vines. He happens to be married to Bethany, who serves as National Sales Manager for Illahe, turning her love of Pinot Noir into a marketing plan designed to increase the winery’s visibility throughout the United States.
All told, Illahe includes 80 acres of vines on south-facing slopes. It is a warm site in the Mount Pisgah region that enables the grapes to achieve maturity in even the coolest vintages. But that warmth is tempered by sea breezes flowing through the Van Duzer corridor, which lower temperatures in the evening. Grapes ripen slowly and maintain their acidity. Soils are predominantly Willakenzie sedimentary clay, with volcanic patches scattered throughout.
Winemaking at Illahe
Unapologetically old school in its approach to winemaking, Illahe strives to do everything “as naturally as possible, from soil to bottle.” It’s low intervention all the way! The Fords rely on age-old techniques and materials both in the vineyards and in the cellar. Vines are tended by hand, with harvest occurring in small lots.
Percheron draft horses transport the grapes to the winery; in fact, many of their wines are made without the use of electricity or any modern mechanization. Grapes are gently pressed in a wooden basket press, and the wines include no additives or enzymes.
Oak is employed judiciously, with neutral French barrels as well as local acacia barrels in use.
Their website sums up the Illahe philosophy like this:
Illahe is a LIVE-certified, Salmon Safe vineyard. We use cover crops throughout the vineyard to benefit the soil and for biodiversity. As part of Oregon’s Deep Roots Coalition, which promotes responsible water management, we do not irrigate mature plants. We do extensive green pruning and conduct plant topping. All pruning, as well as the harvesting, is done by hand. Sulfur spray is only used to control for powdery mildew and botrytis.
We aim for balance and optimal ripeness. This includes leaf pulling to decrease shade and dropping green clusters after the grapes ripen (véraison). One of our goals at Illahe is to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels – we have installed solar panels on our winery and use our two horses, Doc and Bea, to mow and to transport grapes to the winery.
The gravity-flow winery utilizes the natural slope of the site, starting from the crush pad to the fermenters and the press below, where press baskets are loaded by hand. The building’s west and north faces are buried in the hill which stabilizes the temperature throughout the year.
Illahe’s winery is also solar-powered, allowing them to drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels. And, to conserve water, they collect rainfall for during extremely dry summer conditions.
What I Tasted
2017 Illahe Vineyards Willamette Valley Grüner-Veltliner (SRP $19)
Illahe has 1.5 acres of Grüner, making it one of Oregon’s largest plantings. The original cutting came from a Hungarian fighter pilot who defected to the west, bringing his love of Grüner with him to the United States. This wine was partially fermented in acacia barrels, giving rise to an herbal component to the nose and palate. I found it to be beautifully floral, with medium body and tart acidity. Distinctly different from the European versions I have tried but in a good way: ripe peach and apple flavors with accents of grapefruit and lemon. Fresh grilled fish in herbed butter would be the perfect pairing!
2017 Illahe Vineyards Willamette Valley Pinot Gris (SRP $19)
100% Pinot Gris, part from the estate’s vineyard, part form the nearby Erratic Oaks Vineyard; both reflective of the local Mount Pisgah weather and soils. The wine was vinified in neutral oak, adding a little weight and texture to the ripe orchard fruit flavors. Medium+ acidity balances the fruit and makes for a very enjoyable wine. Sip it as you watch the summer sun go down.
2017 Illahe Vineyards Willamette Valley Viognier (SRP $19)
Fruit for this wine comes from two sources: the estate’s Glenn Creek Vineyard in West Salem and the Goschie Farms in Silverton. I can’t really tell you what that means but I can tell you that I loved this wine! I adore Viognier but don’t often find one from the US that ticks all the boxes (i.e., ripe stone fruit aromas, hedonistic floral notes, and enough acidity to make it all work.) Check, check, and check! And did you notice that it costs $19? Viognier lovers, take note.
2017 Illahe Vineyards Willamette Valley Estate Pinot Noir (SRP $25)
Like most wineries in Oregon, Illahe is serious about its Pinot Noir:
We grow six clones of Pinot Noir in various blocks (for the vine geeks, these are Dijon clones 777 and 115, 1943, Pommard, Swan, and Wädenswil, which are all grafted to either 101-14 or 3309 rootstocks). These clones are the best match for our site and each carries a special aromatic tendency and composition that we want in our blends. We are also assembling a Selection Massale below the winery, a traditional way of propagating a vineyard that uses cuttings from old vines.
Aromas of just-ripe red and black fruit waft from the glass, accented by subtle herbaceous notes like thyme and lavender. The wine is medium+ in body, with rich notes of chocolate on the finish. It seems both light and dense at the same time! You get a lot for your money with this Pinot.
Find Illahe Vineyards Wines
It’s hard to give a complete picture of what Illahe is all about, after just a few minutes of conversation and a quick sip of four of their wines. In addition to the wines featured here, Illahe grows Tempranillo (for rosé and red wines) as well as the Italian varieties Lagrein, Schioppettino, and Teroldego. These last three comprise just six vineyard rows and will be vinified in clay amphorae.
I strongly encourage you to learn more about the history, vineyard practices, and winemaking at Illahe Vineyards by checking out their website or, if you’re local, scheduling a visit in person. Wines are distributed by Indie Wineries.