Belle Pente Means Beautiful Hills
Brian and Jill O'Donnell's goal is straightforward: "We're trying to make the best limited production, family-domaine scale wines in Oregon," explains Brian. "We don't want to be big, we like being small. We're almost at our capacity, and now we're going to focus like crazy on quality."
The O'Donnells' inspiration is clearly Old World-down to the ambiance implicit in their name. "Since everyone who has ever visited our place comments on how beautiful it is, the 'Belle' part was easy," explains Brian. "We discovered 'Pente' during a visit to Alsace, where we found the word was often used to describe the steep slopes of some of the Grand Cru vineyards. Since parts of our hillside are quite steep, it seemed like a natural fit."
Brian started as a home winemaker in the 1970s, and by the end of the 1980s had decided to elevate his craft from hobby to vocation. In the early 1990s Brian had a job opportunity in the Portland area, and after visiting the Willamette Valley wine country and tasting the wines "we said 'This is it!'"
Brian and Jill purchased the land that was to become Belle Pente Wine Cellars in 1992. "From a vineyard standpoint, we felt it had great potential," recalls Brian. "The elevation was right, ranging from 200 to 500-ft, with all WillaKenzie soils and great sun exposure-some of the best in the area."
In 1994 Brian and Jill planted the first part of Belle Pente's estate vineyard with Pinot noir, Gamay noir, Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, and Chardonnay.
"I believe that what will distinguish Belle Pente is the quality of our site," says Brian. "This site is very special. In 1997 and 1998 we made small quantities of wine from the estate vineyards and they were superb." The Belle Pente Estate Vineyard reaches marketable production levels with the 2000 vintage.
Belle Pente's first harvest was in 1996, but until recently the bulk of the wine Brian has been making has come from purchased fruit, primarily from Murto, Wahle, and Maresh vineyards.
The winery's capacity is about 4,000 cases, which is just where Brian wants to be-"We don't want to be big," he says flatly.
Approximately half the production is Pinot noir, 30 percent Pinot gris, and 10 percent each Chardonnay and Riesling.
Brian's approach to his Pinot noir is clearly Burgundy-inspired: "We don't do a whole lot; we basically let them make themselves." While this is certainly true, like any good winemaker, Brian makes many different decisions that affect the final style and quality of his wines.
For instance, his Pinot noir grapes are picked early in the morning so they arrive at the winery cool. The fruit is carefully sorted to remove any rot and mildew, and is 100% destemmed. Long cold soaking, long low temperature fermentations using native yeast, and pressing at dryness directly into barrel, are examples of how Brian tries to preserve the character of the fruit.
Bell Pente's Pinot noirs generally come in two styles, a Willamette Valley blend and single-vineyard Reserves (including Wahle, Murto, and in 2000, Estate). The Willamette Valley spends a year in oak, 25 percent of which is new. The Reserve spends longer, 18 months, and has a higher proportion of new oak-between 30 and 40 percent.
"We want to make Pinot noir wines that have great length and texture, but a little bit lighter in style and not heavily extracted," says Brian of his stylistic approach. "We're not looking for wines that will keep 20 years. We want our wines to be approachable upon release, and hit their peak within a 5-7 year window, depending upon the vintage."
One aspect that sets Belle Pente apart from the "Pinot pack" is their enthusiasm and focus on white wines.
"A lot of people ask why we make so many white wines," chuckles Brian-"because it's fun!" Besides, adds Jill, "It's not as if you can just start growing another red grape here that is as wonderful as Pinot noir; yet there are a lot of great white varieties that make excellent wines here."
Belle Pente makes Chardonnay, Pinot gris, and Riesling, as well as a new rosé. "With our whites," says Brian, "we're looking to squeeze all the intensity we can; we want them to be big and rich, but with good acidity. Alsace is the stylistic model for our white wines."
For their Chardonnay, Brian approaches things differently than the Pinot noir. "I find the white wines require more intervention," he says. "Stylistically, we're looking for fairly big, rich, and ripe fruit-the best of California-style and Burgundy-style."
To help achieve that, Brian barrel ferments his Chardonnay and inoculates with selected yeast; "I've had too many white wines get funky with indigenous yeasts," he comments.
He also is not shy about leaving a barely perceptible amount of residual sugar, and having a relatively high alcohol content. "The wines have enough acidity for the sugar to bring out the fruit, and the alcohol gives the wines more body and greater length," he says.
The Chardonnay typically stays in barrel for a full year. The barrels are 50 percent French and 50 percent Oregon oak. "The reserve will have more new oak and be a richer, fuller, more Californian style," says Brian. "Our regular Chardonnay tends to be a little leaner, more of a Mâcon style."
Belle Pente's Estate vineyard contains mixed Dijon Clone vines, though it is too early to know just what the final character of the grapes will be. Brian plans to blend some Clone 108, as he did in 1998, to add a little bigger body to the wine.
Brian is excited about Pinot gris and Riesling, in particular. "I'm really bullish on Pinot gris. We barely knew what it was when we came here, but we made a few carboys in somebody's garage in Portland and became a fan of the varietal overnight."
Brian wants his Pinot gris to be in an Alsace style, with as much bigness, ripeness, and richness as he can get while still maintaining good acidity. Belle Pente's Pinot gris fruit comes primarily from two vineyards. Brian likes the combination of flavors he gets from the tropical character of Wahle Vineyard fruit complemented by the spiciness from Whistling Ridge Vineyard.
"We'll take what the vintage gives us in terms of dryness or sweetness, and we'll try to get as much ripeness and richness as we can," says Brian.
Belle Pente's Riesling is made in small quantities from 15-year old vines. "I love to make it, I love to drink it, and I love to sell it," enthuses Brian. "Riesling is a noble grape, and Oregon has a lot of it planted, but much of it goes into $6 supermarket wines-We're trying to make a serious Oregon Reisling; completely dry, high acidity, good flavor."
In fact, that could be Belle Pente's byword: serious. With a distinctive and varied white wine program, an Estate Pinot noir vineyard only beginning to exhibit its character, and a focus on quality, Brian and Jill O'Donnell clearly take their winemaking mission seriously.
Belle Pente owners Jill and Brian O'Donnell are also winemakers for Belle Pente Vineyard & Winery (Belle Pente means "beautiful slope") and specialize in Pinot noir, working to express the unique traits of the distinctive vineyard sites Belle Pente owns and leases in the Red Hills of the Willamette Valley.
Jill & Brian O'Donnell established Belle Pente Vineyards in 1994, with the first wine produced in 1996. Brian is from New York City, and Jill from St Cloud, Minnesota. They met while living in California, and moved to the Willamette Valley in 1992. Both were award-winning home brewers, and Brian began making wine for family and friends in 1986. On the night of the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, they resolved to begin a transition out of their Silicon Valley careers to start up a small premium vineyard & winery. Born out of nature's destruction & the vision of an enduring legacy, Belle Pente's young vineyards stand ready to face the new millenium.
Their inspiration comes from the exquisite wines of Burgundy and Alsace, and follows the guiding principle that great wine is made in the vineyard and merely nurtured in the winery. Their standard practices include carefully managing vineyard quality and yields, coupled with hand sorting the grapes that arrive at the winery to remove all underripe or damaged fruit. Their facility is designed for gentle, natural winemaking in small lots, with minimal handling and manipulation, to produce premium wines of character and distinction.
Founded in 1997, the winery's Estate vineyard is now at 36 acres and the new Pinot noir blocks planted in 98 yielded their first fruit in 2000. The winery also leases the 11 acre Murto Vineyard and increased overall production to about 5000 cases.
Murto Vineyard - Red Hills of Dundee - Source for reserve-level Pinot Noir since 1996. Leased & farmed by us since the 2000 vintage.
Wahle Vineyard - Yamhill-Carlton District - Source for Pinot Gris since 1996, Pinot Noir since 1997 (including reserve-level since 1998), and Chardonnay from 1997.
Whistling Ridge - Ribbon Ridge - Source for Pinot Gris since 1996, and Chardonnay from 1997.