In the gently rolling hills northwest of the bucolic Oregon hamlet of Monmouth, in the mid-Willamette Valley, lies a quiet little family-owned, organically farmed vineyard that has kind of snuck up on the wine world. Long a source for some of Russ Rainey’s fine Evesham Wood pinot noir and gruner veltliner, IIlahe Vineyards has come into it’s own with a handful of recent new releases under their own label.
Specifically, the 2009 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir should be on everyone’s must have list this Christmas, along with the very impressive and under-priced 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir. At $21 and $36 respectively, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better value for top quality, artisan crafted, small production pinot noir in Oregon.
The 2009 Willamette Valley is gushing with intense black cherry and dark, cola inflected red fruits, with a fine thread of Asian spice and black tea. Broad and expansive, it shows the ripeness of the vintage, while remaining well balanced, with a solid underpinning of fine tannins and sufficient acidity. This well crafted pinot noir will drink nicely through the next 2 or 3 years, but it’s so good right now that it will be hard to keep it off the table throughout the coming holidays. where it will prove a perfect foil for turkey, smoked salmon and even ham.
The 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir is a serious wine that will age. In fact it needs another few years to come into it’s own, but when it does it will hang right in there with the 2008 Reserve bottlings of it’s more expensive and illustrious brethren. While you’re at it, grab IIlahe’s Gruner Veltliner, an aromatic Austrian varietal that is one of the better domestic examples you’ll encounter, done in a style reminiscent of the Gruners from the Wachau.
IIlahe is a traditional Burgundian model of a small family vineyard and winery where everyone contributes. But although incredibly down to earth, there is nothing rustic about Lowell Ford, the founder and viticulturalist and his son Brad the winemaker. It’s clear that these guys know what they’re doing when you taste their wines and delve into the background of IIlahe. Lowell is an experienced grape grower who is deeply involved with the Northwest Viticulture Center at Chemeketa Community College, where he served as Dean of Students and is presently on the board of directors. Brad has learned wine-making from the best of the valley’s talent, including Russ Rainey and Joe Dobbs.
Although they’ve flown under the radar until now, the quality of IIlahe’s wines is no fluke. Their unassuming profile and humility is a breath of fresh air in today’s wine and food world, where “personality” often trumps substance. Instead, IIlahe is about what’s in the vineyard and in the bottle. Seek these small production wines out – they are worth the effort.