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Stories of Passion and Pinot: Le Cadeau Vineyard

September 26, 2019 5 comments
Tom and Deb Mortimer. Source: Le Cadeau Vineyard

Tom and Deb Mortimer. Source: Le Cadeau Vineyard

Hello, wine lovers.

I’m going to ask you for something very valuable – your time. About 20 minutes of it, as this is how long it should take you to read this post, one of the longest posts I ever published. But I’m not asking for your time for free – in return, I’m offering you one of the very best interviews ever published in the Stories of Passion and Pinot series,  as well as the overarching One on One With Winemaker conversations.

Winemaking usually starts with passion, courage, and conviction – a belief that “you can”. Really. It is not always a degree in oenology (don’t get me wrong – of course that helps!), but the resolve to get going, as you have a burning desire to make world-class wine no matter what – this might be your main ingredient of success.

Tom and Deb Mortimer had such a resolve to make great Oregon Pinot Noir. After searching for a year, they found an uncultivated parcel of land on the south slope of Parrett Mountain in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, and the hard work began. Planting grapes, understanding your land, learning the soils and microclimates. All with the resolve to produce the best possible Pinot Noir. This is how the story of Le Cadeau Vineyard started (wonder if “Le Cadeau” means something? Keep on reading).

After tasting the wines of Le Cadeau, I was convinced that I want to learn more – which turned into a very enjoyable [virtual] conversation with Tom Mortimer, who generously offered his time to answer all of my questions. And this is what I want to share with you with a full conviction that it is well worth your time.

Here we go:

[TaV]: The story of Le Cadeau Vineyard started in 1996, when you purchased the 28 acres parcel in Chehalem Mountains AVA. When did you come up with the name Le Cadeau? What is the meaning behind this name?

[TM]: Le Cadeau (is French for “the gift”):  We like to say that “the wine is not ‘the gift’; rather, “the wine is the excuse”—the true gift is the land and friendships.”  When we first saw the Le Cadeau / BHV site, there was no view; it was obscured by scrub-oaks, blackberry bushes, and a lot of brush.  Clearing the land was a bit like unwrapping a present, and ultimately a gorgeous view emerged.  More significantly, rocky soils are coveted for top-tier vineyard sites.  As we cleared the site, the broken volcanic basalt cobbles were revealed; rock in Oregon is rare, so we were very fortunate to find a rocky site.  Lastly, wine is inherently relational.  Enthusiasts get-into wine for the product, but ultimately, they stay in wine for the people; when the glass is empty, the relationships remain.  So “the gift” has multiple manifestations.

[TaV]: When you found the parcel which became the future home for Le Cadeau, you said “For some reason, the property “felt right”. I don’t really know why”. So this was the love at first sight, right? Now, 23 years later, can you maybe better explain that feeling?

[TM]: Part of it was the location—the vineyard is only 35-minutes from downtown Portland, yet it was very serene countryside.  We came from suburban Minneapolis to start this project; 22-years ago the Willamette Valley was much less developed, so this location was perfect for us.  My wife (and I) didn’t want an isolated, rustic, farm experience.  But other than the location, it was a beautiful site—south slope, about the right grade, I was fairly certain the view existed.  It just had a different / better feeling than many of the other places we looked at.

At another level, I think I Iiked the fact that it was never-before-cultivated land.  There was something about “starting a vineyard from scratch” that was appealing… of course, at the time, I had no idea what I was getting us into… which is actually a good thing.  There are plenty of reasons to not take on a project like this.  Sometimes it is better to not know what lies ahead.

Source: Le Cadeau Vineyard

[TaV]: I really like the name “Black Hole Vineyard”, even though it has not necessarily a positive connotation about it. Have you ever bottled any wine which says “Black Hole Vineyard” on the label? What happened to that name? Is the Black Hole Vineyard simply became Le Cadeau Vineyard, or is it still exists under its own name?

[TM]: There was one “Black Hole” wine made by a fruit client.  It was small production, and was only released to his wine club.

Our business is corporately divided into two companies:  A farming company (the vineyard), and the wine biz.  Most of the fruit from the vineyard is sold to the wine biz, but some is sold to notable clients.  The farming company is named Black Hole Vineyard, LLC (or BHV, LLC), while the wine company is Le Cadeau.  So in that regard, the name lives on.  We also continue to personally refer to it as Black Hole among ourselves, and generally the winemakers like to call it Black Hole, vs. Le Cadeau.  But at some point you need to make a brand decision, and focus your time and energy on that brand.  We chose Le Cadeau vs. Black Hole.  Obviously, it is a much more positive message, though perhaps not as amusing.

[TaV]: What made you believe that you can conquer the rocky soil? What was the drive behind your passion, developing your vineyard against the difficult terrain and the cash flow?

[TM]: As noted above, a good part of my confidence was rooted in ignorance.  But as a wine collector I knew that many of the great wines of the world were grown in rocky soils.  I figured, “if they can do it, so can I”.

Over the years I have come to discover that there is one tool that is central and more important than any other in developing and farming a rocky site.  You might think that the tool is a chisel plow, or a big tractor, or whatever.  But the reality is that the single-most-important tool is a checkbook.  Unfortunately, unlike many of the folks that get into this business, my checkbook was about the size of a hand-held garden tool.  With a vineyard that is raw ground and solid rock, it is better to start with a checkbook that is the size of a bulldozer… and a D8 at that.  Fortunately, I kept my day-job.

[TaV]: How many Pinot Noir clones have you planted so far? Why so many?

[TM]: We’re up to about 16-Pinot Noir clones and 6-Chardonnay clones (the first Chardonnay, 2017, to be released in a couple months).  Why so many?—there are a handful of reasons:

  1. a) I cannot recall ever having a single clone wine that I felt was as complete and interesting as a multi-clone wine. We don’t put them all in a single wine; our cuvees result from different combinations of clones, soils, and aspect (climate). Most of the cuvees have 3 to 5 clones, Diversité has the most with 7 that make up the majority of the wine, and another 2 or 3 that are there in small quantities.
  2. b) Curiosity and experimentation. Quite simply, clones are exciting. You wait for 3-years wondering what the fruit will look like and taste like.  Often it takes several more years before you learn about the flavors, texture, physical characteristics of the fruit and how it affects the wine.  So there is always a sense of anticipation.  I liken clones to colors on an artist’s palette; they add “color” to wine—not in a literal sense, but in terms of variance, nuance, and complexity.
  3. c) Differentiation. I don’t want to make wine that is like everyone else’s.
  4. d) Optimization. Folks (i.e., typically winemakers) have varying views of how important clones are in the overall mix of variables. Most agree that the dirt / site are the most important elements, and I’d agree with that.  But for many, “clones” would be further down the list.  For me, the plant material is very central to extraordinary wine.  Great wines only happen when there is great dirt, perfect climate, excellent farming / viticulture, the very best and site-matched plant material, and of course great winemaking.  Like many things in life, something can only be as good as its weakest link.

[TaV]: Is there an Oregon (or maybe Burgundian) winery(ies) which were instrumental in the development of your own winemaking style?

[TM]: We have always wanted to make wines that are true to the estate site.  In this regard, Le Cadeau is more of a European model, in that the “rock star” is the vineyard, not the winemaker.  The wide range of cuvees exist to showcase the range of “faces” of the vineyard.  But more recently we’ve been searching for more freshness and aromatic excitement.  This is why I engaged our French consultant, Pierre Millemann several years ago.  Not surprisingly, this has led us to produce higher acid / lower alcohol wines.

It would be difficult to pick a particular winery to reference against; again, our dirt / site is very unique.  There are many wineries, both in Oregon, Europe, (and California) that we respect, but I think it would wrong to say that we try to emulate any of them.

[TaV]: Do you still have any bottles from the 2002 vintage? If you do, how do they hold?

[TM]: I have a few bottles of 2002.  The last one I had was about 2-years ago.  It was doing well, but I think it was past its prime.  Keep in mind that the vines from that vintage were only 4-years old.  I recently had an ’05 Diversité from magnum; it is going strong and will continue to last for a long time.

[TaV]: According to what I see on your website, you produce [at least] 7 Pinot Noir wines. Is there an idea behind such a range of Pinot wines? What are you trying to showcase?

[TM]: As noted above, the majority of the cuvees showcase various attributes of the vineyard:  Rocky soils (Rocheux); the cooler East-side (Cote Est); clonal diversity (Diversité); heritage clones (Merci Reserve).  More recently, we’ve added two cuvees that are more inclusive of winemaking technique—Trajet Reserve is 100% whole cluster; and “Pierre” has considerable input from our consultant, Pierre.  It is about “freshness” and higher acidity.

[TaV]: Going back to the Pinot Noir clones – considering the sheer number of them, you must be blending your wines. What is your approach to blending? Do you have any Estate Pinot Noir wines where you trying to maintain consistency throughout the different vintages?

[TM]: Generally we favor co-fermentation of multiple clones in a single tank.  Most of the cuvees are made of two separate tank fermentations that go to barrel separately, and are then combined to make the final cuvee.  But for the most part, all of the wine from each ferment ultimately goes into the cuvee.

I like to say that the Le Cadeau wines are “made in the vineyard”… I don’t mean that literally, but rather that the specific “Cote Est” fruit is picked separately, and it is made into the Cote Est cuvee.  Same for Rocheux, Diversité, and Merci.  In this regard, there is clonal consistency from year to year, because the wine for each cuvee is consistently made from the same section of the vineyard.  For example, Rocheux is always roughly 45% Dijon 777; 45% Pommard; and 10 % Wadenswil… that is what is planted in the sections where the Rocheux fruit is grown.  … and fortunately, the vines don’t move around at night when we’re not looking… that would be a mess.

Aerial view over Le Cadeau Vineyard, Chehalem Mountain AVA, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Source: Le Cadeau Vineyard

[TaV]: How did you come to the idea of the Sparkling wines? You offer 2011 vintage sparkling wine, so clearly you started making sparkling wines before they became “the thing” in Oregon, so how did you get there?

[TM]: 2011 was a very cool, late, year, and the clusters were uneven.  Some of them were quite large (a fairly rare event, given our rocky soils).  On October 15th, the bigger clusters had only gotten to about 19-Brix—not good for still PN.  I know we wouldn’t/couldn’t pull them all out on the sorting table, so we did a sort in the vineyard.  I told the crew to harvest the three biggest clusters off of each plant in certain sections of the vineyard.  Since these were at a perfect stage for sparkling, and we had them hanging on the vine for a full season at that point, it seems silly to drop that fruit on the ground.  So we took a shot at sparkling—it worked out very well, so now we make it generally every other year.

[TaV]: I’m sure you knew this question is coming J – it seems that you only work with Pinot Noir grapes. Do you grow any other varieties? Do you have any plans for the white wines? If yes, what grapes would you plant?

[TM]: As noted above, we have 6-clones of Chardonnay that are now in production.  The first Chardonnay will be 2017, released in a few months.  We’ll only do Chardonnay at Le Cadeau (other than Pinot Noir).  But under our other brand, Aubichon, we’ve made some wonderful “Alsatian Style” Pinot Gris, as well as a Pinot Gris-based Rosé, and a wine we call “Sur Peaux”, which is an “orange wine” from Pinot Gris.  All the Pinot Gris is sourced from old vine vineyards, about 25-years old.  So it’s nice fruit, and the wines are quite special.

Le Cadeau, Chehalem Mountains AVA, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Source: Le Cadeau Vineyard

[TaV]: And one more common question I like to ask – when you are not drinking your own wines, what are your favorite wines and/or wineries, in Oregon or anywhere in the world?

[TM]: I have a diverse range of preferences:

I’m a huge fan of Weinbach in Alsace; Chave Hermitage is often special, Guigal Condrieu (the good version, not so much the standard one), Huet and Chidane Chenin Blanc; Fevre Chablis; Robert Weil German Reisling (and many others—Keller dry from their rocky vineyard is nice); any good Bonne Mares; love white Bordeaux—Chevalier, Smith H-L, and of course the “big guys”, but they’re too expensive.  Barberescos from Italy—Gaja (also like Gaja Chardonnay), and I think Produtorri does an amazing job for the price, along with Albino Rocca.  I’ve had a Foradori wine that I thought was special, certain Brunellos, but many have become Parker-ized, that’s unfortunate.  I like Ciacci wines though.  … the list goes on…

In Oregon, there are many that I respect, and a small group that I like, but I’d prefer to leave those thoughts anonymous.

[TaV]: What is ahead? Where do you see Le Cadeau in 10-15 years?

[TM]: I think we’re just beginning to make our best wines, and really beginning to understand the vineyard’s nuances.  Some of our more exciting clones are still quite young, so it will be interesting to see what sort of wines we make from the more exciting clones when the vines are older.  The 2018 wines that we have in the barrel are possibly our finest to date.  Very excited about getting them into the bottle and out on the market.

I’m hopeful that our Chardonnay program will be noteworthy.  Pierre’s guidance on Chardonnay has been very helpful.  2018 in barrel looks to be very promising, and I’m excited about the first 2019 fruit from a rocky grafted section of the vineyard.  We have a couple interesting Larry Hyde clones of Chardonnay planted in that area as well.  The fruit looks to be quite different.  I’ll have a better sense of the Chardonnay potential in another year, but I’m hopeful that we can produce “the real deal”.

Le Cadeau Vineyard Pinot Noir wines

Thirsty? Here are my tasting notes for the wines:

2017 Le Cadeau Côte Est Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.9% ABV, $50, 145 cases made)
Dark Ruby
Smoke, plum, iodine, medium-plus intensity
Wow. Touch of smoke, Sage, medicinal notes (cough syrup), good acidity, excellent balance
8

2017 Le Cadeau Rocheux Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.2% ABV, $50, 174 cases made)
Dark Ruby
Plums, cherries, violets, intense, inviting
Bright, clean, succulent ripe cherries, licorice, great minerality, excellent balance, superb
8+

2017 Le Cadeau Diversité Estate Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.9% ABV, $50, 245 cases made)
Ruby
Delicate, lavender, a touch of smoke, perfect
Beautiful, plums, ripe strawberries, great acidity, baking spices, delicious overall
8+/9-

2016 Le Cadeau Merci Pinot Noir Reserve Chehalem Mountains Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $80, 143 cases made)
Garnet
Intense, ripe cherries and plums, candied fruit
Wow, great intensity, cherries, cherry compote, ripe plums, minerally notes, good acidity, good balance
8+

As you can tell, I really liked the wines – they were literally one better than another.

Here you go, my friends – yet another story of Passion and Pinot. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, and I thank you for your time and attention.

Will there be more Passion and Pinot stories? Well, do you think the passion ran out of the Pinot winemakers and aficionados? I will bet my virtual DRC bottle that it did not. So we will continue our conversations as soon as the next opportunity will present itself.

Obey your passion!

P.S. Here are the links to the posts profiling wineries in this Passion and Pinot series, in alphabetical order:

Alloro Vineyard, Bells Up Winery, Ghost Hill Cellars, Iris Vineyards, Ken Wright Cellars, Knudsen Vineyards, Lenné Estate, Tendril Cellars, Youngberg Hill Vineyards, Vidon Vineyard

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