Oregon’s wine country can sometimes seem to fit into a very restricted mold. The sense of repetition derives not just from the fact everyone is making Pinot Noir (that happens in Burgundy too), but more from the seeming lack of myriad exciting terroir driven expressions of the grape. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that Oregon has the potential for variety and distinction. Brick House is one of the wineries that has started to develop a strong sense of terroir, which manifests simply in the fact that their wines don’t taste like what everyone else is making.
My visit began by pulling into a small unassuming patch of land with a simple and very unpretentious little space set up for tasting right on top of the barrel aging cellar. While sipping on a surprisingly outstanding 2007 Chardonnay, my host Alan explained to me the sedimentary terroir of the Ribbon Ridge AVA where Brick House is located. Ribbon Ridge lies within the larger AVA of Chehalem Mountains but has received its special designation because of an ancient flood that deposited sediment carried from thousands of miles away (fossils of animals not indigenous to ancient Oregon are consistently found here).
The Chardonnay, by the way, was outstanding, with stone, pear and quince on the nose. However, what made this work where so many Oregon Chards fail is its great structure (full oak aging and malo) supported by ripping acidity that makes this very easy to drink and gives it the backbone to age 3-4 years before consumption. For the price, there is little around in New World Chardonnay that can match it. Very Good+. $24 at the winery. The 2008 was just as structured, but needed more time in the bottle. I would not hesitate to recommend both.
But terroir means little without the vineyard practices and farming philosophies to match. Brick House is a fully biodynamic winery and is certified as such by Demeter. This means no artificial chemical fertilizers on the vines and no chemical additives (other than sulfites) in the wine. It also means picking with the cycles of the moon and all those other unscientific accoutrements. Many of the vines are also own-rooted. To me what matters more than any certification are the actual practices of the farmers and the wine makers, what they believe in and what they do. From what I observed at Brick House, the fundamental concerns of wine making are well considered, well respected and thought about both ethically and in terms of quality and terroir.
The soul of the winery’s achievements lies with their Pinot Noirs, which taste unlike most of the Pinots being produced in Oregon today (with some important exceptions). The 2008 Boulder Block Pinot Noir is made from Pommard clones imported from Burgundy. This was an immediately accessible wine with spicy red fruit jumping right out at you from the glass. The palate has great balance, acidity and length, coupled with an easy to like prettiness and the taste of raw unadulterated red fruits. This is real Pinot Noir. Excellent. $42 at the winery.
The second Pinot was also my personal favourite, although this choice is more a contrast in style than quality. The 2008 Les Dijonnais Pinot Noir was made from Dijon Clones 113, 114 and 115 and it was the most intellectual of the wines on offer. This was densely packed, with restrained fruit and a deep mineral and earth core. It also changed tremendously with air and time in the glass, showing subtle notes of dill, chocolate and restrained red fruits. If I had to rate this I would give it an excellent rating and note that it is $45 at the winery.
Both of these wines stay out of the dark fruit territory that I find too many Oregon Pinot Noirs venture into. But the difference between these wines highlights the crucial importance of clonal selection in wine making. It is almost meaningless to grow Pinot Noir without knowing what clones you are growing, where, and why. The Dijonnais is the wine to lay down and the Boulder Block the wine to drink now. Both are outstanding.
My last taste was a barrel sample of the 2009 Gamay Noir. This is the only Gamay I’ve tasted from anywhere in the world that approximates a very good Beaujolais Cru. There is more depth and weight here than you find in many of the Crus, but I would compare this most with a Morgon from a good vintage. It had stone, mineral, bright strawberries and that wonderful clean, pure and supple earthy texture that makes great Beaujolais Cru so great. This is proof that with the right sort of vineyard treatment, Gamay Noir can be made into some extremely good wines in Oregon. Excellent. I think ~$19.
Pinot is king in Oregon, but Brick House proves that it is not everything. Both their Chardonnay and their Gamay Noir are outstanding wines at reasonable prices (which is increasingly rare) and are unique wines with character rather than ‘different grapes’ made into wine that tastes like canned fruit. That said, what Brick House is doing with their Pinot Noir also shows that, when done right, site can truly become terroir in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.