Terroir, a French word that refers to the impact soil, climate and a vineyard’s orientation have on a wine’s taste, is based on the theory that the land creates a unique flavor profile in a grape that would not be the same in any other location.
But Martin Woods Winery is taking the premise of terroir one step further, creating barrels from fallen oak trees on the winery property, so not only the grapes display a true sense of place, but the wood the wine is aged in does as well, creating wines with an augmented sense of place.
In other wine-growing regions such as France and Hungary, the wines are made in wood that comes from those specific regions. So why not do the same in Oregon?
Evan Martin, winemaker and proprietor of Martin Woods Winery explains, “Barrels are a tool almost all winemakers use. French oak is wonderful for barrels, which is why it’s used all over the world, but it doesn’t necessarily make Oregon wines more Oregonian. Rather, it makes Oregon wines taste more like wines from other places in the world.”
He has been producing Pinot Noir in Oregon oak since 2014 and Chardonnay since 2016. And while Oregon oak barrels continue to be a large proportion of his Pinot Noir barrel program, it is for Chardonnay that he has made a firm commitment to exclusive use of Q. garryana, the species of oak native to Oregon.
“Oregon oak builds a unique and delightful tension into Chardonnay. It gives me the chance to craft wines with a distinct texture, subtly different, but with an energy that I don’t get from French oak.”
2014 marked the first vintage for producing a wine aged entirely in Oregon oak, which was Martin Wood’s Pinot Noir from Jessie James Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills, a vineyard that Martin leases and co-farms with Beaux Freres winery.
Martin acknowledges that wines aged in French barrels have a faster elevage (meaning the wines develop and finish quicker). Oregon oak tends to be heavier and denser, allowing less oxygen to permeate into the wine and less evaporation from the barrel. That is a major reason why the wines stay tight, fresh and energetic.
“Those early wines we produced in 2014, 2015 and 2016 are today showing remarkably youthful. They have very long lives ahead. I just wish we had more of them!” Martin said.
While supporting Oregon oak in general, the goal of Martin Wood’s oak program is to not overtly express oak in the wines, which is why Martin keeps the overall percentage of new oak to a minimum, generally 5 to 15 percent, though sometimes none at all. What made that possible was the generosity of several earlier-generation winemakers who sold Martin their used Oregon oak barrels.
Between 2014 and 2017, Martin purchased roughly 40 Oregon oak barrels ranging in age from four to 20 years from Belle Pente, Cristom and Elk Cove. Those wineries and others had supported Rick DeFerrari’s early efforts at Oregon Barrel Works to pioneer an Oregon oak barrel industry.
According to Martin, Oregon oak does not have the same impact as French oak.
“The wine sits on the palate differently,” he said. “When wines are crafted in French oak, the wine texture is experienced broadly, at the sides of the tongue. With Oregon oak, the structure and energy is focused more on the top of the tongue, building forward movement, creating lingering freshness and tension at the front of the palate and the tip of the tongue.” He sees a textural signature in his Chardonnay that he thinks is unlike any other.
When Martin was working for Belle Pente in 2009-2017, first as a seasonal winery employee and then as associate winemaker, he enjoyed the winery’s support of DeFerrari’s Oregon oak barrels. While tasting Chardonnay in 2013, something clicked for him. While previous generations were busy working hard to just get Oregon on the world wine map, Martin discovered the subtle but positive effect Oregon oak had on wines, especially Chardonnay.
He thought that while generations past were focused on establishing Oregon’s reputation as a world-class wine producer, as a state, it was ready for the next chapter in its story. Martin believes that to take that next step forward, Oregon needs to continue to make the well-made, fresh and long-lived wines Oregon has become known for, but that the terroir-driven story can be advanced. Wineries like Beckham Estate are doing this with their amphora-aged wines, and he is doing this with his Willamette Valley harvested, Oregon oak barrel program, he said.
Martin started experimenting with Oregon oak in his own winery in 2014, recognizing its unique characteristics. He’s found the trees have tight and dense grain, more like French oak than American white oak, the type used for aging bourbon.
“If seasoned and toasted properly, Oregon oak can be quieter and more transparent with a subtly different aromatic impact,” he said.
He still nurtures some of his wine in French barrels, which allows him to compare the two side by side. He finds the French oak full of pronounced spice, vanilla and floral components, and acknowledges there’s a reason people use French oak.
“Oregon oak simply doesn’t offer the same ability to give wine a beautiful layer of pretty makeup. Those expressive aromatic compounds just aren’t in the wood. But if you’re willing to properly season and carefully toast Oregon oak, then what you can possibly achieve is a marriage of wood and wine that offers transparency and purity of aroma.” He believes the barrel should just disappear into the wine.
A well-crafted barrel, according to Martin, will bring those qualities out. Barrels should be toasted at lower temperatures for extended periods of time, sometimes eight to nine hours, with little to no flame in the toasting pot, at times just embers, minimizing toast impact on the inside of the wood. This slow and low toasting procedure, along with three or more years air-drying time (a practice common in France), results in softer and more complex tannins, he said.
Oregon Barrel Works, the Pacific Northwest’s only cooperage, is dedicated to designing, producing and importing the highest quality oak for the wine industry and works closely with winemakers to achieve their desired expression of wine and wood, says owner and master cooper at Oregon Barrel Works, Rick DeFerrari. After apprenticing under the Francois Freres cooperage in France, DeFerrari, a native of the Willamette Valley, returned to Oregon and has been working with Oregon oak since the 1990s, building barrels and tanks.
According to DeFerrari, “Q. garryana, a specific variety of Oregon oak, has many of the characteristics of European oak. And when it is very well seasoned, the resulting wine might benefit substantially, rather like one of the features of French oak. However, if these high levels of tannins are not efficiently broken down during seasoning, the finished wine might be bitter and astringent.”
The future of barrel making on a larger scale is still relatively far off. Most mills are set up for Douglas fir, and aside from Oregon Barrel Works, no one knows how to properly cut the wood into barrel staves, he said. In addition to wine barrels, DeFerrari makes barrels for the spirits and beer industries, where barrel staves are typically kiln-dried, instead of the more time-consuming open-air seasoning for wine barrel staves. The time needed for proper seasoning of wine barrel staves creates logical and financial hurdles.
Martin Woods is the first Oregon winery partnering with Oregon Barrel Works to see how far they can take the Oregon oak barrel program. Martin said, “We have our initial impressions, but given a little more time and experimentation, we’re just now poised to see what distinctive and beneficial effect Oregon oak could ultimately offer.”
Located on 40 acres on Eagle Point Mountain in the foothills of the coastal range and in the McMinnville AVA, Martin Woods has a slightly different microclimate that’s a little wetter and a little cooler than other parts of the Willamette Valley. Visitors can see evidence of this in the trees on the estate, which are blanketed in a thick coat of Old Man’s Beard.
Evan Martin and his wife and business partner Sarah, who also works as a vineyard manager, have just begun clearing Douglas fir from their land and eventually want to plant a small vineyard. Currently, they purchase fruit from two neighboring properties within the McMinnville AVA — Yamhill Valley Vineyard and Hyland Vineyard — to produce Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. Additionally, they farm or source Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay, Gruner Veltliner and Gewurztraminer from a half-dozen late-ripening vineyards in the central and western parts of the Willamette, where the cooling influence of the Van Duzer winds and the Coast Range mountains produce grapes with bright acidity and phenolic maturity at low to moderate potential alcohol levels. But their Oregon oak barrel program truly sets them apart.
The small stave yard adjacent to Martin Woods winery is from 250- to 350-year-old fallen trees found on his property. When delivered to Oregon Barrel Works, they are milled into staves and then returned to the Martin Woods property for extended open air-drying.
Martin said when the staves are seasonally rained on and repeatedly dried by the wind and sun, the wood slowly becomes more seasoned and the tannins are leached out. It’s this patient weathering process and the action of local bacteria and fungi that slowly transforms the structure of the wood and imparts the gentle flavor profile Martin desires.
Oregon oak used to dominate the Willamette Valley, both in dense oak woodland and more open oak savannah. The native populations wanted to preserve it, knowing that the acorns attracted game animals. In more recent times, the oak was cut down, largely in part because it never had economic value. It was cleared for farmland or cleared and then re-planted with Douglas fir, a much faster-growing tree.
Martin said he is intent on providing a wine to discerning consumers that occupies a unique place, a wine that is recognizably Oregon and hopes to convince neighbors who have hundreds of acres of old growth Oregon oak on their properties to become the first sustainably-managed Oregon oak forest for wine barrel production.
He sees a rare opportunity for oak habitat preservation and economic use to align. The presence and careful management of large oak woodlands are needed to allow sustainable harvest of oak staves for barrel production. Selling oak for barrel production might give local landowners the necessary incentive to preserve and replant Oregon oak.
Planting new oak forests for stave production requires a long-term commitment of around 150 years, and if done at scale, it would be a first for a wine region in the New World. It could become a part of Oregon’s continuing wine story that builds on the pioneering spirit of Oregon’s wine industry, and contributes to terroir-driven wines with a better sense of place, he believes.
For now, Martin is focused on the day-to-day work of producing top-quality wines while building a following for a relatively new brand. His estimated 2019 production is 4,500 cases, principally Pinot Noir, with increasing amounts of Chardonnay. He has grown his Oregon oak Chardonnay program. His 2018 Martin Woods Chardonnay was 650 cases, and he has about 1,100 cases of Chardonnay in barrel from 2019, which will be bottled as three distinct vineyard-designated Chardonnays, all aged in Oregon oak. Parts visionary and pary innovator, he’s also a bit of a romantic, making honest wines the old school way.
TAMARA BELGARD is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. She is a regular contributor to www.satiatepdx.com and several northwest publications.