Making Oregon Pinot noir
By Jean Yates
The world's finest winemakers line up to purchase Shea Vineyards fruit. The long list of highly rated wines made from the 200 acre property in the North Willamette Valley of Oregon includes a 97 point (Wine Advocate) Pinot noir and many 90-95 point wines. Beaux Freres, Ken Wright, Bergstrom, Penner Ash, and Raptor Ridge are some of the wineries whose single vineyard Pinot noirs from Shea fruit have received top scores from Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator.
When the owners of Shea Vineyards decided to make wine from their fruit, founding a winery in 1996 called Shea Wine Cellars, the wines were highly anticipated. With their 2004 vintage, Shea Wine Cellars achieved national prominence, making Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines list for 2006 with their 95 point Shea Wine Cellars Estate 04. Other 2004 Shea wines received 95 points (Shea Homer 04), 94 points (Shea East Hill 04), 93 points (Shea Wadenswil 04) and 90 points (Shea Block 23 04).
The owners of Shea Vineyard have some advantages over the wineries they sell fruit to - first, the vineyard owners have the best possible knowledge of the site, and choose just the right fruit for their wines. Second, the owners have worked with the vineyard for over 15 years, and have made wine from it since 1996. Several winemakers, all excellent, have developed a Shea Wine Cellars "style" of winemaking. With Sam tannehill and his successor, Chris Mazepink, Shea's wines received international recognition. The wines and their winemaking continues to evolve under the management of owner Dick Shea. Chris is now winemaker at Benton Lane and has his own label, Ebony Wines.
Shea Wine Cellars - a One of a Kind Opportunity
When Chris Mazepink learned that Shea Wine Cellars was looking for an assistant winemaker, he jumped on the opportunity, which seemed a once in a lifetime opportunity. He'd be focusing intensely on making Pinot noir with some of the best grapes grown in the country, learning from then consulting winemaker Sam Tannahill, a winemaker for which Mazepink held much admiration, and he'd be working for Dick and Deirdre Shea, whose vineyard's reputation is nearly unmatched in Oregon. Mazepink learned that Dick and Deirdre were interested in expanding their winery, and he liked the idea of growing with it.
The Shea Vineyards property was perhaps the strongest lure. Mazepink knew what great experiences winemakers had working with Shea fruit. After much tasting, he'd discovered that the sedimentary soils of that particular region in Yamhill County, Oregon, made for more depth of flavor and texture in Pinot noir than did other, volcanic soil sites he'd made wine from.
Dick and Deirdre were impressed by Mazepink's dedication and qualifications and brought him on board in 2004.
The Shea Vineyards
The Shea Vineyards were planted in 1989 and were, at that time, made up of mainly Pommard and Wädenswil clone Pinot noir and Dijon Clone Chardonnay vines. In the 1990s, many of the vines were lost to phylloxera, but new vines were planted to replace those lost, and - all the while - Shea Vineyards remained one of the most recognized and celebrated vineyards in the state of Oregon. The vineyard's success is due, in large part, to the smart decisions Owners Dick and Deirdre Shea and Manager Javier Marin have made.
Up until a few years ago, Shea Wine Cellars made Pinot noir from single blocks within the vineyard. "It was a neat opportunity for people that knew about the vineyard to follow specific areas of the vineyard and specific clones," Mazepink said.
The Shea wines are still produced only from the Shea vineyards, but over the past few years, Tannahill - and now Mazepink - have tried some variations on the traditional Shea "block" theme. "We may go back to single blocks," Mazepink said, "but we've had a great response to the blends we've been putting out."
Winemaking at Shea
Dick and Deirdre Shea have sought out some of the best winemakers in Oregon since the first Shea Wine Cellars vintage in 1996. Their winemakers have included Michael Stevenson (Panther Creek, Stevenson Barrie), Ken Wright (Ken Wright Cellars), David Autrey (Westrey), Patty Green (Patricia Green Cellars), and Sam Tannahill (Archery Summit, Francis Tannahill, A to Z).
Of primary importance to the Sheas and their winemakers has been the preservation and enhancement of what the vineyard gives them. To not overly manipulate the very special fruit that Shea produces is paramount. Thus, methods have been developed for the Shea wines that continue to be used, independent of any one winemaker.
Each winemaker adds their own ideas and improvements to the wines. In response to how Mazepink adds his own style and sensibility to Shea winemaking, he said, "Style is how you do things, not what you do. It's how you wear the clothes you wear, not what you wear, and it's how you make the wines you make in your own personal way, not things you can put down on paper. It's a lot of timing...
"The general style of the Shea wines has been about preserving the fruit and not overpowering the fruit from the vineyard - because it's great fruit," Mazepink said. "There have been different signatures that different winemakers have had on it, but the vineyard is most important" Mazepink is less interested in leaving the Chris Mazepink mark on the Shea wines and more interested in consistently producing wines that feature the Shea Vineyards fruit in the ways the vintage at hand seems to want to be featured. "We have to be very conscientious not to put a signature style on the fruit that comes through the door... otherwise we might as well be making two wines - or even one wine," Mazepink said. "I don't want people to say, 'This is a different vineyard, but I know such-and-such made it.'"
Mazepink's thinking is: "This vineyard, being as diverse as it is - and just as exceptional in quality - it's important that we don't get too heavy handed." (The vineyard is 140 acres of different vine clones, elevations, rootstocks, exposures - plus variation in the years the vines were planted.)
"It's about figuring out what each block and clone need," Mazepink said. "...different regiments in the fermenter, different yeasts, different enzymes, different nutrient levels, different numbers of punch-downs, different cooperages, different percentages of new wood, different picking times, whole cluster versus not, different temperature needs...
"I'm trying to capture what each and every vintage is. We like vintage variation; we don't like variation in quality. Our goal is to get the best of what the vintage has the potential to become," Mazepink said. Quality, in his mind, has a lot to do with texture and depth of flavor - something he calls, "plush, succulent and round."
Fermentation, Barrel Aging and Blending
All winery practices vary vintage to vintage at Shea as Mazepink analyzes the needs of each unique block and clone. For the 2005 vintage, Mazepink said, "We farmed from sixteen different blocks and divided them into two or three separate fermenters - some with different enzymes or nutrients, some as whole clusters, using different sized fermenters. It's amazing to see how responsive Pinot noir is to different techniques."
Mazepink also ferments and barrel ages the Shea Chardonnay in small lots. Currently, the '05 Chardonnay fruit is in barrels, and "no two barrels are done in the same way," Mazepink said.
There is no part of the winemaking process that Mazepink doesn't ponder over intensely. Fermentation and barrel aging all involve several stages of tweaking and decision-making, and then there's blending. "Blending takes a long time," Mazepink said. "We go through a lot of different combinations - a barrel of this, a barrel of that - we even get into doing a half barrel of this and a half barrel of that. With Homer, for instance, the finished wine we settled on - I must have looked at about seventy different possible combinations before we settled on that one.
"You put ten or eleven barrels together and you're wondering, 'Should I leave that one barrel in or keep it out?' It doesn't always work the way you think it will," Mazepink said. "You owe it to yourself to look at as many combinations as you can, regardless of whether you think it would work or not - because you get surprised every year," he grinned and said again, "Every year."
The work is dynamic, and that's precisely why Mazepink loves it - developing a new configuration of cellar procedures with each vintage, with each block and each blend. "I don't think you ever get to the point where you say, 'I've got Pinot figured out.... Working with a varietal like Pinot noir, that's a moving target for your entire career."
The Shea Wine Cellars Wines
In 2004 and 2005 Shea has produced a Pinot noir featuring the Wädenswil clone, the Shea Wine Cellars Wadenswil Pinot noir 05 being the next release (Summer/fall 2007). The wine is one hundred percent Wädenswil (just as "Block 32" or "Block 25" used to be), and it is blended from three different blocks. "Some's young, some's old, some is done as a whole cluster, some isn't..." Mazepink said. "Instead of just having one fermenter, we divide it all up in six to seven fermenters. It gives us different things to work with while we keep the wine all about one clone. We're able to make a more complete wine."
The East Hill Pinot noir, (current vintage 2005, released in April 2007), which made its first appearance in 2004, is a blend of three Shea Vineyards components - as the name suggests, from a hill on the eastern end of the vineyard site. So far, it has been a combination of Block 5's Dijon 777 clone, which Mazepink said, "has always been about texture and flesh but doesn't give you backbone to hold it all together," some Dijon 115 clone (for backbone), and young vine Wädenswil, which develops the front palate and aromas on the wine.
"In '04," Mazepink said, "we put those three together in different proportions and we were able to make something we thought was the most complete wine we could. The '05 has the same components but in different percentages. It's important to go into each vintage without any preconceived notions about something that you have to bottle because you've done it before. It's about making the best wine that you can that vintage."
The Shea Homer Pinot noir, (current vintage 2005, scheduled for release in summer/fall 2007), named in honor of the winning hit in one of Dick Shea's favorite sports, is designed to be, Mazepink said, "the darkest, most concentrated, and most robust Pinot we make. Homer has always been about the best barrels in the cellar."
As part of the 2005 line-up, Shea is introducing a Pommard Pinot noir, in honor of another clone (alongside Wädenswil) that the Shea crew thinks is worthy of its own bottle.
In general, Mazepink noted that "the '05s - the majority of which we picked before the rains hit - have a little less concentration than the '04s, but the tradeoff is more natural acidity, which means better aging potential and incredibly food friendly wine.
"If there's something that's worthy of being bottled as a block designate [in the future], we'll do it," Mazepink said. "It doesn't give us continuity year to year on the label, but it does give us the continuity year to year of making the best wine in the bottle that we can. That's more important to us."
As far as aging the Shea wines is concerned, Mazepink said, "It's important to us to make wines people can either drink a few months [after release] or for serious collectors to pull out in five to ten years. I think a well-made Pinot noir will take care of all these things.... The Homer is the one you'd lay down for a while, but ultimately it comes down to how you like to drink your wines. It's so personal. Dick and I will tell people the Homer is the most age-worthy wine we make, and someone will buy three bottles, and a few months later we'll get a phone call or an email from the person saying, 'I drank it all; I need more.'
"Our wines will go the distance," Mazepink said. He said the '01s and '02s are still showing great. Recently, Mazepink and Shea opened a few bottles from the vineyard made in the mid-nineties. Mazepink was happy to report: "They're still phenomenal."
Shea and Oregon Chardonnay
Mazepink has observed some exciting improvements in Oregon's Chardonnay over the past few years. "I really shy away from Burgundian references to Oregon wines," Mazepink said. "I think Burgundy's doing something great. They've done it for a long time, and they know what works there. To think that those same things are exactly what we should do halfway across the world I think is pretty naïve. That said, Oregon Chardonnay is more like White Burgundy than it is like Californian Chardonnay.
"For the longest time, Oregon was trying to make California-style Chardonnay, but Oregon Chardonnays don't stand up to all that new wood - the heavy oakiness that California-style does, and, frankly, I don't like that style. We're not trying to make White Burgundy here; we're trying to figure out what Oregon Chardonnay is.
"Until the last five to seven years, not a lot of great Chards were coming out of Oregon. We didn't have the right clones here. We were trying to use clones made for hot places in California... People have got the right clones in the ground now and have started to make Oregon Chardonnay - words I love to say. There is a Chardonnay from Oregon. I can think of a half dozen producers that make a great one - Chehalem, St Innocent, Soter. The thing I think you're starting to see is the backbone and tannin, the strength and concentration to lay the bottle down for a while."
A few years ago, Shea Wine Cellars was producing a very small amount (around 145 cases) of Chardonnay, but that's about to change. "We're taking a big step forward with the '06 vintage," Mazepink said, "and that's really, really exciting."
Mazepink explained that, "When Pinot was first grown in Oregon there were large crops - four tons to an acre - because that was the only way to make money - , but around ten years ago people dropped things down and gave more time and attention to the vineyards. Most vineyards switched over to an acreage contract [instead of by the ton]. Now Chardonnay gets treated in the same way as Pinot. We farm the Chardonnay at two tons to an acre, just like the Pinot noir. We go for a more boutique style of wine instead of just a white wine."
"At this point," Mazepink said, "I'm as in love with Chardonnay as I am with Pinot. The thing that's really gotten to me with Pinot and Chardonnay in Oregon is that all the time and energy and expense and thought and hard work that you put into those two varietals shows in the finished wine. I'm not convinced that all that hard work... put into the other varietals grown in Oregon really pays off in the end."
Mazepink used Pinot gris as an example. "It's not the kind of wine I'm going to sit and scratch my head over as it evolves and really ponder for an hour - say 'Wow, I've never seen that aromatic or spiciness in this wine.' To me, it's always going to be a white wine that I drink because I'm eating my meal but not anything to really go to that next level, and that frustrates me when I want to figure out how to do something better but at the end of the day it isn't something that's going to respond to all your hard work.
"I think [Pinot gris] is more of a larger production style than it is a boutique producer's. We're here to make boutique wines, and our Chardonnay responds to everything that we're doing just as the Pinots do."
Similar to Mazepink's handling of Pinot noir, he keeps small lots of the Shea Chardonnay separate and uses a variety of methods - enzymes, yeasts, wood, stainless steel - to gently guide the fruit toward several unique flavors that are eventually - if he deems worthy - added to the blend. "It's a style you can age and enjoy for a while or right out of the gate," Mazepink said. "I had an '04 Shea Chardonnay last weekend, and it still had plenty of life to it."
Currently, Mazepink said there is enough Chardonnay in the ground to make about six hundred cases. "We'll keep all of it for ourselves," he said, "so you won't see another Shea Vineyard Chardonnay."
New Happenings at Shea Vineyards and Shea Wine Cellars
In the coming years, it will be interesting to see if the folks at Shea decide to return to block designate wines or if they'll stick with the kinds of blends they've produced for the past few years. It will also be fun to taste the new Shea Chardonnays.