Bergström Winery On Winemaking
It's hard to write about a winery that receives so much great press and so many high scores.
How many Oregon wineries have a full page interview in Wine Spectator's Oregon Tasting Report? One: Bergstrom
We can tell you that Bergstrom's 2008 Pinots are the best they've made. That Josh's winemaking style is evolving in a subconscious way towards greater elegance. That we share a mutual affinity for French fries.
The skinny: Bergstrom Pinots will be some of the highest rated wines of the super-highly-rated 2008 Oregon vintage.
What more can we say?
The Bergström family has a vision, and they are sticking to it. "Our goal from the very beginning," says Josh Bergström, winemaker and vineyard manager, "has been to craft the greatest possible wines we could. We want to be leading the forefront of Pinot noir in Oregon and America!"
And if the scores of national wine critics are any measurement, Bergström Vineyards is rapidly realizing their goal. The Wine Spectator has given a passel of impressively high scores to Bergström wines, and there is little doubt that Josh Bergström currently has one of the hottest hands in Oregon winemaking.
"We have been fortunate to have started our winery in the second of six consecutive great vintages," comments Josh. "It's great when people congratulate us on the scores, but I always say 'thanks, we've been working really hard at making it all successful!"
View from from Bergstrom Winery into Willamette Valley
The Key is in the Vineyards
"Working hard at it" is clearly the focus of Josh's time. An energetic and affable member of what has become an informal band of "young Turks" who are invigorating Oregon's wine world, Josh spends a vast amount of energy tending his vines, managing his cellar, and marketing his wines.
Mostly, though, his time is spent in the vineyard. "Vineyards have always been where we put all of our efforts," he says. "My job is winemaker and vineyard manager, but I spend 10 months out of the year on a tractor or in the vineyards. We will do anything we possibly can in the vineyards to make a concentrated and balanced wine."
Josh's focus on the vineyard was learned both in the wine cellars of Oregon and the vine rows of Burgundy. "I cut my teeth working with some of the great wineries of Oregon and with some great winemakers," he explains, "and I observed carefully where these people focused their energies, and it was always on the vineyard first."
In France, he saw a similar phenomenon. "When I went to Burgundy to study theory, I saw that the focus was vineyards, vineyards, vineyards, all the time. What I noticed more than anything was that these people are farmers!"
When he returned from Burgundy, what he had learned gave Josh some new ideas about how to manage the newly planted Bergström Vineyards. "I remember walking through Le Musigny and Romane - Conti and seeing vines with two to three clusters per plant. I remember thinking, wow, that's extreme! But if you can match the vine and the vine spacing to your soils and your climates, it may be the best thing for the wine."
So, Josh threw himself into the farming side of winegrowing. "As I learned to farm more and more, it totally consumed everything that we did at Bergström. I realized very quickly, unlike a lot of other wineries, that the vineyard truly is the place where the wine comes from. But," he adds with force, "I wanted to take it to a new level."
New Farming Methods
Not content to simply ape what he had learned in his work experience Josh looked at new ways to achieve the optimum balance in his vineyards - everything from varied row and vine spacing, to severely small yields, to organics and biodynamics.
"Wine can be a fairly competitive industry," he comments, "with a lot of theories and schools of thought being thrown this way and that. But let's all realize that we're agriculturalists - we're people who farm - and we have to do what is right for the crop. The reason we pay so much attention to our soils and our vineyards," he explains, "is because we want to grow the perfect photosynthesis machine that's going to give us perfectly balanced fruit."
One place where Josh decided to make a difference was in balancing vine needs and crop yields. "Even when I was younger I thought that the whole 'two tons an acre' paradigm was garbage! It didn't make sense when you considered different spacing." With vineyards planted to varying densities, Josh felt, the accepted formula became moot.
Even though the 2-tons-per-acre has become a rough standard, Josh decided to tighten yields even further. "I like to aim for anywhere from 0.8 tons to the acre with young vines, all the way up to 1.5 or 1.6 maximum with old vines," says Josh - but adds significantly "of course, it depends on the balance of the vine."
Reducing Crop Loads, Teaching Vines New Ways to Grow
For an example of what he means, Josh points to his experience with Hyland Vineyard, an old-vine Pinot noir (33 year old vines) vineyard that Josh has farmed under contract since 2000.
"The vines were used to carrying 3 to 3.5 tons to the acre and we instantly took them down to eight clusters per plant," explains Josh. The first year under the new regime the vines did not perform well. "It was a shock to the plant's system," he says. "They thought 'I'm not carrying any fruit, why should I ripen it?"
Added to the mixture was the fact that the vineyard tended to have high tannins. "If you are only getting 22 brix and it's a tannic site, then that's an austere wine," he says. "If you can get it to achieve better sugar ripeness and phenolic development, then all of a sudden the tannin issues seem to disappear."
Marcus, Caroline, and Josh tasting the 2008 Pinots
It took two to three years for the vines to adapt themselves to carrying the dramatically reduced crop load, but once they did, the character of the fruit changed for the better. "Now we're getting ripeness levels that the vineyard has not seen in the thirty-plus years it's been growing fruit, which is tremendous. Now instead of people being cautious, believing the vineyard was difficult to work with, they are calling the vineyard owner saying 'I tasted this wine and I'd like to buy some of your fruit'' - it's just wonderful!"
Bergström Manages Estate Vineyards for Quality
In their own vineyards, yields have been kept small right from the start. Josh explains: "From the first time the vines ever produced fruit, they were carrying the yields we want them to always carry. The vine is in better balance. Many people get spectacular fruit from their third or fourth leaf, and then the vine seems to shut down for a long time. That's because it's common to put on more crop after the first few years in order to start getting a return on their vineyard investment."
"Well, the plants are freaking out and they don't know how to adjust to all the extra crop. We've never thought that. It's always been what will keep our vines in balance and not stressed out, to give them a long life and a very good crop."
The Bergströms know that the ultimate quality of their wine is almost entirely dependent upon the quality of the fruit their vineyards produce. That's why they are committed to their natural, non-interventionist, artisan-farmed philosophy.
"We're trying to grow fruit that gives us the essence of Pinot noir in our wines," explains Josh. "That means we want the best balance between the triumvirate of acid, tannin, and fruit. Everything we do in the vineyard affects those three elements, and is in turn reflected in the wine."
Josh Bergstrom's father John and wife Caroline
Soils and Planting Styles
Staying committed to their viticultural values may seem risky, but Josh also believes in the value of experimenting and learning in their own vineyards. The two estate vineyards, Bergström Vineyard and de Lancellotti Vineyard, give him a wide palette to work with. His soils come from both the major Willamette Valley types, Jory (volcanic) and WillaKenzie (sedimentary); his grapes include all the major clones Pommard, Wadensvil, Dijon clones, and a few "suitcase clones"); and his vine spacings are varied from 4 x 6 (4-ft between each vine in the row by 6-ft. between rows), meter x meter (3.3-ft x 3.3-ft) and the unusual configuration of 2 x 6.
Getting the most from this mixture of viticultural variables is a challenge - and a lot of work. "We're a small winery, and we basically won't stop at anything in the vineyard to grow the best grapes we can in the most natural way we can."
Josh has employed only organic farming including only elemental sprays to combat vine diseases such as mildew and botrytis, natural and indigenous insects and bacterium to control pests, composts and teas for soil amendments, and foliar sprays of kelp, fish emulsion, and other natural ingredients as fertilizers.
Returning to the Vineyard,
Over and Over Each Season
And, Josh spends a whole lot of time tending the vines. "From bud break we'll pass through the vineyard in a given season forty or fifty times." When bud break happens, he'll go through and disbud all double buds to prevent excessive flowering. "At the three-inch stage we're going back through and removing shoots that we don't want so we get the best placement of shoots we do want." At pre-flowering he removes flower embryos to reduce the crop. "Once flowering has happened we purposefully spray to try and abort flower clusters." After fruit set he goes through the vineyards dropping all "triples and secondaries, and then back through to get rid of wings and shoulders . . . so that by the time we're done, because all of this is well-timed and well-spaced out, the vine has become accustomed to maturing just the right amount of fruit that is left on that vine."
Is all of this vineyard work worth it? Josh and the Bergström family are certain of it. "To some extent it was a leap of faith from what I had seen and learned in Burgundy and what we're doing here now," Josh admits, "I was looking and learning and seeing things all the time that I thought could work in Oregon and in our vineyards." And though some of what the Bergströms are doing may seem unconventional, it is all firmly rational and well grounded in experiences around the wine world . . . and the scores and sales that Bergström wines have been receiving are proof enough of the efficacy of their philosophy.
"From the get-go my family made the commitment that we would do these things no matter what," says Josh. "And if we get burned over it, so be it. But we'll continue to push forward - to push the envelope in our own vineyards to make the very best wine we can!"
The Estate Vineyards
The focus of Bergström's wine program is increasingly turning to their two estate Pinot noir vineyards. "Oregon should be growing Pinot noir," says Josh, "and our goal is to be at the forefront of Pinot noir in Oregon."
Even though they have made well regarded Chardonnay and Syrah wines in the past, Josh says he will focus for the future on the brother and sister varietals of Pinot noir and Pinot gris. And even though they have also made highly acclaimed single vineyard wines from a number of Oregon's most respected sources, going forward they will emphasize their two estate vineyards, Bergström and de Lancellotti.
Their sought-after Cumberland Reserve will continue to be a premier blend of some of Oregon's finest vineyard names, and their Willamette Valley blend will remain the best possible value-oriented, early release Pinot noir they can make.