Winery to Watch: Oregon's WillaKenzie

By Robert Whitley

March 10, 2020 6 min read

The wines of Oregon's WillaKenzie Estate are priced to impress. They're made that way, too.

Winemaker Erik Kramer, who joined WillaKenzie after a 13-year career split between the Willamette Valley's highly regarded Adelsheim and Domaine Serene wineries, has been on a roll since arriving in January 2017.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Kramer and taste one chardonnay and three pinot noirs from his first vintage as well as a chardonnay from the 2018 harvest. All five wines were a brilliant reflection of Kramer's bedrock philosophy and approach to winemaking.

For starters, they were crisp, fresh and clean with exceptional balance and a deft touch of oak. Despite the generous use of new French oak barrels, the influence of the wood was remarkably subtle.

"Wood selection is about elevating without interfering," said Kramer. "Wine should be wine."

His philosophy came through loud and clear when I tasted the two chardonnays, the 2018 WillaKenzie Willamette Valley Chardonnay ($40) and the 2017 WillaKenzie Estate Chardonnay, Yamhill-Carlton ($75). The 2018 Willamette chard shows a wonderful touch of lemon creme, richness lifted by firm acidity and subtle hints of baking spice. The 2017 Estate chardonnay, grown in a slightly warmer microclimate in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, is richer and more opulent, with complex layers of citrus, apple, pear and spice.

Since arriving at WillaKenzie, he's scoured the 400-acre estate (100 acres under vine) for the best chardonnay sites. The trick, he said, is "putting chardonnay in really lovely spots where it has the opportunity to be great."

Suffice it to say he is off to a very good start.

The three pinot noirs were equally stunning, including the relatively modestly priced 2017 WillaKenzie Pinot Noir, WillaKenzie Estate Vineyard/Jory Hills Estate Vineyard at $35. This is an elegant pinot that shows exceptional fruit purity, impressive structure and a pleasing finish with a touch of tannin on the back end.

"I'm looking to build palate shape with good tannin," he explained. Hallelujah. Too many pinot noir producers are so afraid of tannins that they shy away and go in the other direction with soft, flabby, oft times sweet pinot.

The other two pinots are part of WillaKenzie's terroir-specific program that isolates grapes from six specific sites on the estate. I tasted the 2017 WillaKenzie "Aliette" pinot noir ($65) and the 2017 WillaKenzie "Kiana" pinot noir ($65). The Aliette delivers a distinctive nose of cherry and spice and is light in color though big on flavor. The beautifully perfumed Kiana, grown in a warmer microclimate, trends to the floral spectrum of aroma, with an impressive mid-palate and exceptional palate length.

I must say I can hardly wait to taste the rest of the WillaKenzie portfolio.

Best Value

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

Domaine Bousquet 2018 Gaia Red Blend, Mendoza, Argentina ($20) — Malbec and syrah (with a small shot of cabernet sauvignon) isn't a blend seen often, but it definitely works. This beauty from Bousquet exhibits floral and spice notes on the nose, which follow through on the palate. The body is rich and juicy, with predominantly black-fruit notes and a touch of wood spice and nicely integrated tannins. Rating: 93.

Trivento 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Mendoza, Argentina ($16) — Argentina remains the one to beat when it comes to top-notch red wine at a ridiculously low price. The 2018 Reserve Cab from Trivento shows impressive depth and palate weight; it has rich layers of dark fruit, a gentle note of wood spice, soft tannins and a long finish. And the price is right. Rating: 90.

Tasting Notes

Flora Springs 2017 Trilogy, Napa Valley ($85) — Trilogy was one of the first Bordeaux-style proprietary blends from the Napa Valley when it was introduced 30-some years ago, and it was one of the best of the genre at the time. I am happy to report nothing has changed. One of Napa's iconic Bordeaux blends, Trilogy 2017, is another masterpiece. Beautifully balanced, with layers of dark fruits, a note of graphite and a beautiful touch of oak vanillin, this is a wine to lay down in the cellar for another 10 to 12 years, though it is remarkably pure, smooth and satisfying at this early stage. Rating: 96.

Enrico Serafino 2015 'Monclivio,' Barolo DOCG, Italy ($40) — At five years, the tannins are beginning to mellow and the dry cherry fruit to emerge. Medium-bodied with excellent mouthfeel and a long, spicy finish, this is a Barolo that is just coming into its own. Serve it with grilled meats or roasted veal shank. Rating: 90.

Silver Ghost 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($35) — The Silver Ghost is one of those rare Napa Valley cabernets under $40. It delivers as a Napa Valley cab should, with rich, ripe aromas of blackberry and black currant, impressive palate weight and a long finish. The tannins are ever so slightly mouth-puckering at the moment, but a good decant or another two years in the cellar should smooth those rough edges. Rating: 90.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Email Robert at [email protected]

Photo credit: Olichel at Pixabay

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