September 09, 2006

Visit to Wahle vineyard

A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of walking the Wahle vineyard with owner Betty Wahle. Planting began here in 1974, on a ridge of old ocean sediments in what is now called the Yamhill-Carlton district. As a home winemaker, I’m going to buy some grapes from here so I asked if I could come out and look over the site.

The Wahles got into vines after buying property with old orchards of cherries and walnuts. The farming was more difficult and expensive than they bargained for, so they looked for another crop. At the Ag Show in 1974, the Wahles met Oregon wine pioneer Charles Coury, who encouaged them to plant vines. They quickly jumped in, though Betty makes it clear they really didn’t know what they were getting into.

Betty met me at the top of the vineyard, by the old family house at just over 500” elevation. We walked over to the eastern slope, with a view down to highway 240 and what Betty calls “Shea’s vineyard.” The old block at the very top was planted in 1974 to Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay, but grafted in the 1980s to Pinot gris. Further down the were 20 rows each of Riesling and Muller Thurgau, all those grafted to gris with further young vines of gris stretching far down the hill.

Betty spoke of the challenging but ultimately joyful early years, planting in an uncommonly hot year, nursing the young wines to production, then holding big events to gather people for harvest and who knows what else. The Wahles were part of the early, small, tightknit Oregon wine community that, because Oregon wine is still so relatively young, still exists even as the industry has grown so much. I wish everyone could have the pleasure of walking with Betty and hearing about those times.

We walked along the ridgetop to the south, where the Wahles planted a narrow block Sauvignon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sylvaner, even Semillon all still in production today but mostly if not entirely for home winemakers. Old vine Cabernet Franc?!?!? I wonder what that could produce here in the right spot. But mostly, these wines – the Sauvignon aside – generally require more heat than we have here to be special.

Across the road to the west, the vineyard falls down a long sloping southwest face, with acres of old vines of Chardonnay and Pinot noir. First the Chardonnay, rows of 32 year old 108 clone that has gone horribly out of fashion with the coming of the “Dijon” Chardonnay clones. Because of that, about half of the Chardonnay was grafted in 2001 to Pinot noir, 777 clone. Of course, many of the field grafts on these old vines didn’t take, so mixed in the Pinot noir you have the ocassional Chardonnay. I think Betty said there are about 100 of them.

The next block is old “Coury” clone, which I think could be a number of different things. Coury supplied cuttings that he apparently brought from Burgundy. I’ve seen some of them referred to as essentially Pommard, a common clone here. But the Coury clone in Wahle vineyard is like nothing I’ve seen, growing extremely prostrate and yielding medium large clusters of occasionally loose berries, very different from the more compact Pommard and the even more compact clusters of most Dijons. Betty says it ripens late, and sure enough it was the least colored of the Pinot noir I saw. Apparently there’s some similar stuff out at the old Hyland vineyard, I’ll have to look into that and see where this clone really came from.

Then there are blocks of older Pinot gris, young Pinot noir, including some second year vines only up to the fruiting wire, and furthest down the slope there’s the old block of Pommard. Planted mostly in 1974, with three rows added a few years later, this is the best looking fruit in the vineyard. The exposure looks best here, almost due south with a fair grade.

The soils in this vineyard are classic for this appellation, what we now call Willakenzie series but will soon subdivide into a number of different soils. Basically, it’s old ocean sediments pushed up through tectonic activity and now weathered into gently rolling hills. Top soils are thin, with a greyish light brown cast, sometimes quite grey and sandy. These soils drain well but perhaps too well, unlike the deep volcanic Jory soils that hold water sometimes too well. This summer has been hot and dry, and there is some stress in the vineyards. Here the crowns of any rise show some lower vigor and some premature yellowing, while a trough in one section has the most lush and vigorous vines. You can really see how water drains down this hill just from the canopy.

Betty walks me all around the vineyard and back up to the old house, telling me about the 1999 Belle Pente Wahle Vineyard Pinot Noir, one of her favorites from this site. I thank her for the time and information, and I’m really looking forward to harvest this year.

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