Trying to explore as much Oregon as I can before moving to the Northeast, I accepted an invitation to a wine and food pairing lunch a couple weeks back hosted by WillaKenzie Estate Winery. Lunch consisted of a five-course food and wine pairing prepared by Chef Andy Arndt of Aquariva that turned out to be very memorable experience.
Located in the northern Willamette Valley in Yamhill County, WillaKenzie Estate sits on a beautiful 420-acre property overlooking the Chehalem Mountains with just over 100 acres of vines planted. The focus of the vineyards is Pinot Noir, with over 10 different Pinot Noir clones planted, along with additional plantings of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier, and Gamay Noir.
With the first plantings in 1992 the vineyards were planted with the belief of sustainable agriculture with the goal of producing high quality fruit with minimal use of any chemicals or fertilizers in order to protect the environment surrounding the estate. The vineyards of Willakenzie are both L.I.V.E. (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) and Salmon-Safe certified. In addition to sustainable practices in the vineyard they also aim to extend that to their employees. Winemaker Thibaud Mandet shared that over half of his vineyard staff have been with the winery for over ten years. To me that’s an impressive fact.
WillaKenzie produces over ten different Pinot Noirs, most of them single vineyard, along with a representation of some of their other bottlings. Throughout lunch we experienced a variety of their wines carefully paired with small plates created by Chef Arndt.
Aquariva Italian Kitchen & Wine Bar
Located just south of downtown Portland, next to the Avalon Hotel and Spa, Aquariva sits along the banks of the Willamette River with outdoor seating and fantastic river views. They have a large and open indoor dining room, with a private event space upstairs that is well equipped for anything from business meetings to weddings.
The restaurant boasts 40 wines by the glass. That combined with outdoor riverfront seating on a warm summer evening, you don’t have to twist my arm to try out this restaurant. Although I did not dine at the actual restaurant for this particular lunch, we did receive a brief tour before venturing to the winery for the five course pairing while snacking on popcorn with black truffle oil, sea salt, and toffee prepped by Chef Arndt. Probably the most creatively delicious popcorn I’ve had in years. The crunchy toffee combined with the salty and earthy flavors in the popcorn hit the spot!
What struck me most about the event was the attention to detail Chef Arndt put into the lunch to highlight both the wines and his own creative dishes. When asked about his thought process in the pairings he described how he really hoped to enhance the flavors of the wine through his food pairings. To me he succeeded. I loved the 2007 Triple Black Slopes Pinot Noir (earthy, tobacco and spice meets spicy red and dark berry fruit) paired with Lamb Rillet Tortellini, Lamb Jus and Candied Black Pepper, with tender lamb that brought out the earthy nature of the wine.
The most impressive pairing for me, however, was the 2008 Pinot Meunier paired with a Braised Pork Belly, Turnip and Rhubarb Syrup (pictured right). As if it wasn’t good enough that the pork melted in my mouth like butter, the delicate syrup paired magically with, while enhancing, the pretty fruit of the Pinot Meunier.
Wine Highlight: 2008 Pinot Meunier
Pinot Meunier (pronounced mehr-n-yay) is one of the three varieties used in making traditional champagne (along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), and is rarely seen alone as a still wine. I was very intrigued even before tasting it. The wine immediately struck me as a perfect summer red. It reminded me of a light, earthy, and yet fruity Pinot Noir. It was light bodied and fresh with aromas of bright cranberries, raspberries, and strawberries. The mouth followed with more cran-strawberry flavors with the addition of spice, toast, and very light tannins. A nice alternative to a wine you don’t want to, or need to, lay down for ten years. It is intended to and ready to drink now. Served slightly chilled this wine would be the perfect accompaniment to a nice summer day if you’re craving something red.
Appelation: Willamette Valley, Yamhill-Carlton District
While it was my first time being at the WillaKenzie Estate and also tasting food from Aquariva Chef Andy Arndt I have decided that if the food at the actual restaurant is anything like the food Arndt prepared for this lunch then I’m certainly looking forward to a visit there. I think I’ve discovered another restaurant to add to my “Portland to do list”.
As for the wines, if you’re into single vineyard Pinot Noirs then it would be worth a visit to check out their diverse selection along with beautiful views of the valley. But make sure to also taste the Pinot Meunier while you are there. You won’t likely find this variety as a stand alone still wine at most places you visit here in Oregon. It is unique and most certainly tasty.