There are some people in the wine business that bring a level of knowledge to the craft of winemaking that goes far beyond what anyone has a right to expect. Ken Wright (Ken Wright Cellars) is one of those men. He has an understanding of the Willamette Valley in Oregon and how the history and geology shape the flavors of wine. This is especially true in his chosen metier – Pinot Noir.
In the Summer of 2021, I had the privilege of being able to sit down with Ken and absorb some of his knowledge. Even better, he was willing to let me record it on video and they trim down the best parts to share with you.
The result is a 13 minute video that amounts to a master class in Pinot Noir and the terroir of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Ken Wright starts with the inherent characteristics of Pinot Noir and the importance of place to the profile of Pinot Noir.
Wright then discusses the parent material and the Columbia River Basalt Flow and the islands that make up the Northern Willamette Valley.
From there, the winemaker highlights the way that parent rock manifests in the taste profile of Pinot Noir.
In conclusion, Ken Wright emphasizes the importance of farming and the various tests that are required to farm professionally.
Check out the 13 minute video below or read the Transcript underneath the video.
Note: Transcript was created by a third party service and I’ve endeavored to clean up the spelling of ‘wine words.’ Any persistent errors are mine alone and not Ken Wright’s. Or, watch the video. It is awesome.
I’m Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars and we are in the beautiful small town of Carlton, Oregon, home to 2000 souls. We are on beautiful early August day here in Oregon. The summers are delightful. They’re incredibly beautiful. There’s 85, no humidity. Incredibly beautiful, beautiful weather for growing Pinot Noir especially in this region. Our nighttime temperatures dip pretty significantly. We go down to the low 50s.
The diurnal shift is pretty extreme, which is good for grapes.
Cold nights produce what we call fixed color. So, in chemistry, something that’s fixed is stable. And so, it stabilizes color when you have cold nights. Hot nights tend to make color less stable. And it can, in fact, waiver in its intensity over the years in wine. So, we like these cold nights. It’s good for the health of the vineyard as well.
So, I’d love also to talk about the geology of this region and why does Pinot noir excel here?
All greatness that we recognize in food and in agriculture comes from the perfect marriage of plant and place. Human beings are really not a part of that picture.
When a plant finds its perfect environment, where all of the all the influences, whether heat summation, elevation, exposure, the soil, parent material below soil, when everything is right, when everything is perfect for a specific plant, it wants to be amazing. It inherently wants to be incredibly special.
And over many, many, many years, many generations, those who farm there have learned how to support that plant’s mission. But they’re just stewards. They’re just there to ensure that their farming approach is guiding that plant, helping that plant achieve what it wants to achieve.
To be successful with Pinot Noir you have to put it in an environment where you put the brakes on the plant.
The environment has to hold it back. If you plant it next to Syrah, next to Roussanne, Mourvedre, or anything, you can plant it with Chardonnay, you plant it next to any of the variety pinot noir will get to high sugars before any plant next to it. The problem with that is that if you plant pinot noir in a warm place, in a very warm climate, it races. It races to high sugar levels. It forces you, as a grower or as a winemaker, to harvest sooner than you’d like in a shorter season than you’d like, because you have to. The sugars are so elevated and you know you’ll end up with crazy alcohol. And you’ll end up with something that rather than being complex and nuanced it will end up being a hammer, not enjoyable.
Pinot noir, like no other variety, has the ability to connect us to place with tremendous detail. Other varieties tend to have an inherent varietal character, it’s part of the DNA of that variety, that overrides place. And has a big impact on the profile of the wine. Pinot noir is the opposite.
Pinot noir is like a blank canvas. Where it’s grown is everything about what it is.
Its expression is completely driven by where it is planted, completely.
In 1990, we began focusing on single vineyard production. Producing pinot noir from one location on the planet, one tiny spot. Character in the wine is driven by mother rock, by what is below soil. ‘Cause we never see detail in our wines until our root system is past soil, and we are engaging the mother rock. And, at that point, that’s when the handshake begins with that parent material. And then the roots go much further. We normally would see rooting at maturity of 25 to 30 feet depth. Vines, they’re amazing, they’re tenacious.
Average rate of development is about a foot of depth a year. Our soils are between three feet in the marine sediment areas up to 12 feet in the Dundee area, volcanic, in a volcanic area. And so, it’s just a matter of time for those roots, if they’re getting a foot of depth a year, eventually they get to their parent material, they begin that handshake with it. And then, eventually, they go right through it and they go deeply into it. It’s the parent material that has incredible amounts of trace elements: phosphorus, potassium, calcium, sodium, zinc, copper, iron, it’s all there. That’s where you have that cache of mineral that ends up creating profile. And so the vine, as it begins rooting through past soil that now it’s rooting into that parent material with the aid of microbiology, which breaks down those trace elements into an ionic form that the plant can take up that’s the key. You have to have the microbiology to do that for the plant. The plant itself cannot breakdown raw ore. All plants worldwide need microbiology to do that for them, they need a partner and those are our partners.
And they’re delivering all these trace elements that, in the end, create the aromatic and flavor profile of the wine. And, again, the beauty of pinot noir is that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about that place. And it’s all about the uptake of those elements, and not having a varietal character that overwhelms them, but rather you get totally connected to that place, and what it’s about, and the mineral of that place, which I find incredibly special. It makes having wine from a single site when properly farmed. And when you have that uptake, when you get that complexity, it makes the experience of having that wine far deeper than just whether it happens to go well with your fish, or your meat, or whatever. You’re connected. You’re connected to a place on this planet. I find that incredibly special.
Just go. It is the largest flow of lava on the planet. It’s called the Columbia River Basalt Flow, crazy stuff. Geologists love to talk about it. And, originally, there was sand that was laid down here. This area, used to be Pacific Ocean and that’s the base of our area. The volcanic floods came 15 million years ago and created a veneer over the sand.
So 15 million years forward. Most of that veneer, most of that covering of basalt has eroded, and weathered, and gone away. And we’re left with islands. And those islands are the areas I just mentioned. So, the Dundee Hills is an island left over of basalt that came in a volcanic flood from the other side of the state. Eola-Amity, same thing. Chehalem Mountains, same thing. Around them, you see the marine sediments, the old stuff from the ocean bed.
When you plant Pinot Noir in volcanic material, Pinot Noir will have a fruit driven profile. In Dundee, it’s more of a red profile. You see a lot of cherry, and strawberry, and raspberry. Eola, it’s much darker. You’re gonna see cassis, plum, black cherry, blueberry, much darker profile. But, in all cases, anytime you plant pinot noir in the volcanic material, the fruit will be the driving force in its profile, whether it’s red, blue, or black fruit, it will be what’s most noticeable. It’ll be the theme of the wine.
The moment you get away from the volcanics and begin and plant in the marine sediments in the old ocean bed, much older, the wine’s totally different. It becomes very rustic, very savory. You start to see things like tobacco, cedar, chocolate, anise, clove, fresh turned earth, mushroom. Totally different profile because the mineral is totally different in that marine sediment versus the volcanic, totally different. In the volcanic, you have a lot of manganese, you have a lot of iron. In the marine sediment you’re going to have a lot of potassium, a lot of calcium, sodium, totally different, really different elements. And, again, it’s that uptake of those elements below soil, not soil below soil, from that mother rock. It’s that uptake, again, that’s driving profile.
We celebrate that ability of the plant to connect us like that by having single vineyard production from all over this valley, from what we feel are the very, very best locations. And, fortunately for us, we’ve been here since what? ’86. And so, over many years, we’ve carefully chosen what places we work with, and who we work with. Both are important. Both are incredibly important. So, these single vineyards, they connect you. As you taste them, you’re going to find that each is different. Two thirds of our production is marine sediment driven, but each site is a little different. No two sites are exactly alike, even though they may share that they are marine sediments still, the mineral makeup is never quite the same. And so they will always be a little different one from another.
Farming is everything. It’s everything. You can only be as good as the quality of the fruit you receive.
No one, no winemaker is good enough to take average fruit and make it amazing. Nobody’s that good. In the top of our industry with the very best production of wine on the planet, anywhere in this world, things that you consider world class, again, it’s never been about people. It’s because that variety, or clones of that variety even have found their perfect spot on this planet.
And then, people have learned how to farm correctly, how to support the plant’s mission, which is really difficult. Farming is really hard because it’s slow to learn the lessons of nutrition. We take that fruit, and then we have to transform that into something that brings you amazing pleasure. That’s what we do. And so, it’s far different than growing a crop that needs to look pretty. So, number one, you have to start by understanding the nutritional status of your place, and fine tuning your farming approach to support that plant in that place exactly.
It’s critical that you do three kinds of testing: nutritional testing of the plant, nutritional testing of the soil, and then deep core sampling to the parent material, deep core sampling for microbiology.
Those three tests are the report card that any professional farmer needs to understand their place, and to understand what is the true nutritional status of the plant in that place. And it takes years to know a place. I mean, it doesn’t come easily. It takes years to understand ’cause you only have a season at a time. You can only see the response of the vineyard to whatever approach you use that year. You get to see that for that year. And then, you get to test and say, “Okay, I have the eyeball test and how the plant looks. Does it look healthier? Does it perform better?” You have all of the nutrition testing that’ll let you know whether or not the plant is in better condition, is this healthier. But you only get that one year.
And so, it takes years to truly dial in a personalized farming plan that supports that location that brings it to nutritional balance year in, year out. That’s hard.
Farming is really hard, but that’s the key.
FTC Compliance: I currently work for Cutting Edge Selections which represents Ken Wright Cellars in Ohio and Kentucky, but this blog and podcast are completely separate from that business relationship.