It’s all about the soils… Three different soil types are found on our 100-acre estate. The information below gives an indepth look at the layout of our vineyard and how the soil impacts the wine.
The geographic and geologic location of Witness Tree Vineyard is of prime importance when considering the wines that are produced here at the winery.
Located within the Eola-Amity Hills in the center of the Willamette Valley (about 50 miles east to west and 150 miles north to south), Witness Tree Vineyard is roughly an hour east of the Pacific Ocean. It is bounded on the west by the relatively low Coastal Range of Oregon and on the east by the Cascade Mountain Range.
The micro climate at Witness Tree Vineyard is heavily influenced by the prevailing maritime conditions during both the vineyard’s growing season (from mid-April through mid-October) and during winter dormancy. The Pacific Ocean moderates the climate – keeping it from being too hot during the summer and from being too cold during the winter.
THE GEOLOGICAL BASICS
- Sedimentary Soils – (or more properly marine sediment soils) are a set of ancient soils (over 35 million years old) that are the result of Oregon having been “lifted” out of the Ocean to form the first landmass that would eventually become the Pacific Northwest.
- Basalt Soils – are also a set of ancient soils (around 25 million years ago) that were the result of the hardening of enormous lava-flows from the earth’s plate-tectonic movement that formed the entire West Coast. These basalt flows covered the marine sedimentary soils and hardened creating landmass.
- Alluvial Soils – are much younger soils (dating back to the period known as the Missoula Floods, a mere 15,000 years ago) that were washed into Oregon as the last ice age shoved its way from the area now known as Montana into the Pacific Northwest.
The Eola-Amity Hills are themselves a small mountain range located in the middle of the Willamette Valley. And curiously it is home to all three soil types synonymous with the great Pinot Noirs coming from the Willamette Valley.
At the top of our hills are the basalt soils known as Nekia and Jory. Through the mid-slope we have a band of marine sedimentary soils known as Willakenzie. At the lower elevations in the vineyard we find 15,000 year-old alluvial soils that were washed in at the end of the last ice age.
Year-after-year of farming the same vineyard sites at Witness Tree Vineyard gives Steven Westby, our Winemaker and Vineyard Manager an intimate relationship with the land and its nuances.
The result is that Steven stewards the vineyard as a group of small parcels focusing on the needs of each individual parcel. The vineyards have not been managed with a focus on soil-science, but rather by concentrating on vine growth and the resultant wine quality, learning year-to-year how to best change and adapt trellising, fertilization, cover crop, etc. in order to maximize their character.
Planted in 1982, the Lower Vineyard (right at 30 acres) is own-rooted principally with the Pommard Clone of Pinot Noir and is trellised on a variety of systems that are utilized to match the needs of each individual vineyard site. The soils are principally the younger alluvial soils, however around the outer edges of the lower vineyard we find a mix of all three soils types.
Lower Vineyard Sites
BENCHMARK – over the years the upper elevations of the lower vineyard have come to be known to us as “Benchmark” – a 1.3 acre site – the remarkable site at Witness Tree Vineyard that yields the wines with the greatest grace and finesse while still exhibiting sheer power at the same time. “Benchmark” is trellised on a unique system that is a modified “Smart-Dyson-Ballerina” trellis that our long-time Vineyard Foreman, Narcisso Morales, refers to as the “tall trellis”. The wine from this site is bottled (as much as 100 cases) under the “Benchmark” label and is only produced in our finest vintages. The split curtain concept of this system balances the vigor of this site perfectly and gives us our best Pinot Noir fruit.”
BENCHMARK WEST – one of the building blocks (the one from the Lower Vineyard) that provides the character for our “Vintage Select” Pinot Noir. Located just west of Benchmark this vineyard offers similarities to the fruit from Benchmark, except that the wine has a bigger fruit profile and a bit more structure than the elegant Benchmark wine.
The other sites of the Lower Vineyard are generally a mix of alluvial soils that give the big, dark cherry profile and elegant tannin structure that make the “Estate” Pinot Noir. The fanciful names of these specific sites are:
STRESSED WAD – planted to the Wadenswil clone of Pinot Noir (prolific in Oregon) in a particular site with soil so thin that it produces small “stressed” vines.
SCOTT HENRY – named for the trellising system employed there.
CHAINSAW PINOT – section that was grafted from Chardonnay over to Pinot Noir. The first procedure of this operation involves lopping the tops of the old vines off with a chainsaw.
BARNYARD PINOT– named for its proximity to our barn that was built in 1909.
SARAZUA BLOCK – the section of vineyard nearest to the residence of our former neighbors – the Sarazuas.
Planted in 1991, the Upper Vineyard (16 acres) is own-rooted, vertically-shoot-positioned Pommard Clone Pinot Noir on the ancient basalt-based soils known as the “famous red-clay” soils of the Willamette Valley – divided into Nekia (down to 2 feet) and Jory (from 2 – 4 feet) based on soil depth.
CLAIM No. 51 – The entire Upper Vineyard has come to be known as Claim No. 51. The reference alludes back to the Witness Tree as the surveyor’s landmark designating the northwest corner of Donation Land Claim No. 51 in 1854. The wines that come from the Upper Vineyard are separated for fermentation into small lots based on their soil types. In general, these wines are characterized by their intense wild blackberry flavors and their firm rustic tannins. The best wines from this section are bottled separately with “Claim No. 51” designation (as much as 100 cases) in vintages that warrant it.
NEKIA SECTION – this section produces wines with firm tannins and succulent dead-ripe wild blackberry. The huge dark, spicy and structured characteristics from this site are a direct result of the vine stress caused by the shallow soil depth.
JORY SECTION – is a site with deep and nourishing soils. The wines, compared to the wines from the Nekia section, exhibit more grace and finesse, showing soft red fruit that is plush and perfumed. The two sections together are somewhat like brother and sister – siblings that truly complement each other.
VINTAGE SELECT PINOT NOIR – Again, given our history with farming the same vineyard sites year after year, we are able to make selections from “sweet spots” in both sections of the Upper Vineyard and balance them with the Benchmark West fruit (from the Lower Vineyard) to create WTV Vintage Select Pinot Noir – our version of a “reserve” wine. In any given vintage the blend will be right at 50% from the Lower Vineyard and 50% from the Upper. The Benchmark West fruit offers grace, finesse and elegance while the Nekia section adds big dark, spicy fruit that abounds with tannin and grip. The Jory selection perfects the blend with perfumed red-fruit highlights. (400 to 600 cases are produced depending on the vintage).
ESTATE PINOT NOIR - The detailed preceding explanation is the nucleus for describing the wine that is grown on 40 out of the 52 ½ acres at WTV – Witness Tree Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir. The blending of the distinct sites at creates a wine that offers the strengths and personalities of each individual section while enhancing any limitation that another might have. This synergistic blending always seems to make a better wine than most individual parcels might on their own.
Named named after owner Dennis and Carolyn Devine’s first Grandson, the uppermost elevation at Witness Tree Vineyard (at just over 600 feet in elevation) is the newest planting. Established in the spring of 1999, Hanson Vineyard is planted to a mix of Pommard and Wadensvil clones of Pinot Noir on rootstock. It was planted using state-of-the-art viticulture techniques including high-density planting with a vertical-shoot-positioned trellis. Based on the early results from this high-altitude site the wine is deeply fruited and densly colored. Current production levels have yet to top 200 cases of truly intense, and highly collectible Pinot Noir are produced.
PINOT NOIR AND WINEMAKING
The winemaking style adopted at Witness Tree Vineyard is based on true devotion to the Pinot Noir varietal. We believe that the greatest gift of Pinot Noir to the wine world is its ability to produce wines with powerful delivery that also exhibit great grace, finesse and elegance. The quintessential goal at Witness Tree Vineyard is to make wines that represent the sections of the land that gave birth to them. Our goal is to honor and promote the characteristics that each of our sites gives to the wines.
Based on the success of the Hanson Vineyard, Winemaker and Vineyard Manager Steven Westby has spear-headed plans to plant some of the premier sites in the remaining 10 acres adjacent to Hanson to Pinot Noir. In the spring of both 2006 and 2007, additional 2 acre plantings went into this high elevation site, with plans to plant more acreage each year.
Under the tutelage of veteran nurseryman, Lowell Ford, Steven has created an in-house grafting station (where our vineyard crew will produce our own new vines here at Witness Tree), constructed a rooting hothouse and completed our own greenhouse in the spring of 2006. Producing our own vines in the process of planting new vineyards here at Witness Tree Vineyard insures us that the quality of the fruit that these much needed acres will offer will be the very best possible.
OTHER WINES Grown in the Lower Vineyard
VINTAGE SELECT CHARDONNAY – Affectionately referred to as “Wacko Block Chardonnay”, this site is located at the front entrance to the winery. It is the only 2 acres of Chardonnay left at Witness Tree Vineyard (all other acreage having been changed over to Pinot Noir in the last ten years). The resulting six barrels of wine (up to 150 cases) grown at this site is powerful, full and intense – with notes of vanilla, honey and spice and an incredibly long finish with a great acidity.
SWEET SIGNE (pronounced “Sig-knee”) – The same 2 acre parcel of Chardonnay is also currently home to the minuscule production (around 120 twelve-pack cases of half-bottles) of our truly decadent post-harvest dessert wine “Sweet Signé”, made in the style of an ice wine.
PINOT BLANC – This 2 ½ acre site is planted to the unique “Abbey Ridge” clone of Pinot Blanc. It is a low-yielding, early-ripening, small-clustered selection that Steven loves to work with, cropping it right at 2 ½ tons / acre. The limited bottling (up to 300 cases) produced from this tiny site offers unctuous flavors of apple and pear, balanced beautifully by crisp refreshing acidity.
VIOGNIER – This 2 ½ acre planting is an experiment gone right. Viognier grown in our cool-climate retains its racy acidity and makes wine (up to 300 cases) with a delightfully delicate floral nose and spicy, exotic fruit character – a nose full of apricot and orange blossom aromas, and an explosion of flavors of peaches and spice. We feel that the Willamette Valley has the potential to make THE BEST Viognier on the planet!
DOLCETTO – Literally 2 rows (or 0.6 acres) of the Northern Piedmont’s varietal that was another experiment that has produced incredibly successful results – an extremely limited bottling (up to 75 cases) of deeply purple-colored wine that offers very tasty forward fruit with moderate grip. It’s as fun to make as it is to drink!