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Montinore Estate: Biodynamic Willamette Valley, Oregon

Montinore Estate: Biodynamic Willamette Valley, Oregon

We don’t need to tell you that Oregon’s Willamette Valley is a privileged place to grow Pinot Noir. David Lett, the founder of The Eyrie Vineyards, figured this out in 1965 when he established the state’s modern era of winegrowing in the Valley’s Dundee Hills. A little to the north the first vines went in at Montinore in 1982, in a region then known as Washington County. Unlike David Lett, Montinore’s owners—a logging family—were not initially reaching for the stars, but the site’s potential was not lost on Rudy Marchesi, who began consulting here after establishing a relationship with the owners in the late nineties.

Born and raised on the East Coast, Rudy Marchesi has always liked to grow things. Marchesi’s grandparents arrived in New York City from a tiny village in northern Italy. They established a small holding of grape vines, fruit trees and a tiny cellar, from where Carlo would make wine for his family, friends and fellow Italian settlers. Rudy was seven years old when he planted his first garden.

Following an aborted foray into psychology, Marchesi found his way into the industry as a fine wine buyer while establishing a small family vineyard and cellar in the Delaware Valley. It was not until 1992 that Marchesi discovered Montinore while visiting his eldest daughter at Reed College in Portland. Not long after joining the set-up, Marchesi found some of the own-rooted Pinot Noir had come down with phylloxera. He immediately converted the farming to organics, replacing synthetic sprays, planting cover crops and starting a composting program to strengthen the vines and sustain the vineyard, if not cure it.

Not only did the vines begin to flourish, but Marchesi quickly noticed firsthand the connection between vineyard practice and grape quality. By 2005, the vineyard’s owners had decided to retire and, long story short, Marchesi found himself at the helm of one of Oregon’s largest growers of organic grapes. Marchesi could have stopped there but ever-curious, he developed an interest in biodynamics. “I didn’t really know much, but some of the great producers in France were doing it. If they thought it was better for their farm and made better wine, I wanted to know.”

Montinore was certified by Demeter in 2008, but not before Marchesi had to overcome the challenges of adapting this kind of labour-intensive farming to the scale of Montinore’s 80-hectare estate. “I had worked with biodynamics on small gardens, hay fields and vineyard plantings, but we were trying to work 240 acres of vineyards,” Rudy explains. “At Montinore, we needed to mechanize certain operations, like the stirring process for the vineyard sprays, without losing the potency of personal attention and engagement. It took some time, creativity and perseverance.”

The original estate vineyard is in what is now known as the Tualatin Hills, a relatively young AVA of the larger Willamette Valley, nestled in the east-facing foothill of Oregon’s Coastal Range. This zone is distinguished by its unique Laurelwood loess soils, washed into the valley by the Missoula Floods at the end of the last ice age. In 2001 and with the help of an investor, he moved to future-proof the winery by purchasing the Tidalstar Vineyard, located on the western edge of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. Tidalstar’s 12 hectares of biodynamically farmed Pinot Noir are rooted in marine sediment soils with some volcanic basalt cobbled throughout. It’s an impressive site that stares eastward to Mount Hood and the Cascade Mountains. Where Tualatin Hills’ terroir and cooler season leans to a fresh and fragrant style of Pinot, the warmer Yamhill-Carlton delivers a deeper spectrum and softer tannins.

Marchesi’s right-hand man is the knowledgeable and experienced Stephen Webber. I think it was Eben Sadie that said that it takes 10 years to really get to know a vineyard; Webber has been treading Montinore’s floorboards for 18. A details man, Webber’s thing is picking dates, ensuring each parcel arrives at the cellar at optimal ripeness. In the cellar, he works with low-intervention methods and a host of neutral vessels to craft wines that reflect Marchesi’s thoughtful biodynamic and organic work in the vineyards. And he does so with a great deal of passion and no lack of talent.

With a savoury edge and flavours of fruit, flowers and earth, Montinore’s Pinots are layered, supple and fresh. They always seek to strike a fine between refreshing acidity and supple tannins. Alongside the delicious reds, we were also mightily impressed by the white wines we tasted. The loess-rich soils of the Tualatin Hills beget Pinot Gris of silky weight combined with citrussy freshness, while the Riesling, sourced from 40-year-old, own-rooted vines strongly influenced by cool Pacific breezes—is delightfully textured and racy.

Aside from the quality of its wines, through its size Montinore deserves great credit for helping to normalise the conversation around organic and biodynamic farming in Oregon. Until January this year, Marchesi served as chairman of Demeter-USA and has spent considerable time on a project to unite and promote various biodynamic organisations under a single umbrella.

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