Our recent visit to Iris Vineyards, just outside of Eugene, OR, was quite a revelation. Iris claims as its foundation the ancient Grecian concept of “areté”. Don’t feel sheepish if you don’t know the meaning of the term; it is hardly used in modern English. The ancient Greeks used the term to mean excellence or virtue in your purpose. I was surprised when I heard the people at Iris use the term since I had not heard it used since taking a course on Aristotle when I was at university.
Areté to Aristotle, we were taught, was not a theoretical concept, but a practical implementation of maximum effectiveness at a chosen goal. Areté in winemaking, to use a concrete example, is different than areté in cooking. Both have a similar philosophical underpinning, but each is a distinct form of areté. The concept of areté is abundantly present in all of the endeavours at Iris that we encountered: from how they grow the grapes to how they vinify the wine to how they offer it to their customers.
The concept of areté was brought to Iris by the two owners, Richard Boyle and Pamela Frye. Now married, the two met in high school and both attended the University of Oregon. Richard discovered the concept of areté in a History of Ideas class where he studied Homer and particularly The Iliad. After spending time in Europe where their fascination with both wine and food was firmly cemented, they returned to Oregon and started Iris.
We began our day at Iris at the winery located in Cottage Grove, just south of Eugene. We were greeted by the winery’s very friendly general manager, David Cordtz. David introduced us to their very knowledgeable winemaker, Aaron Lieberman and the two of them proceeded to tell us all about Iris. The winery makes Oregon’s staple varieties: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris as well as some terrific sparkling wines. They also make a red blend from Bordeaux varieties. Fruit is sourced from their estate vineyard just a few miles down the road as well as from select local growers.
Aaron led us on a tour of the winery followed by a tasting of their current releases.
Naturally we had all sorts of questions about the wines and the winemaking and Aaron answered them all demonstrating the great depth of his winemaking knowledge as well as his own personal humility and ability to make the story about the wines and not himself. A bit of prying did reveal that Aaron joined Iris in 2008. A graduate from Oregon State University, he spent 3 years in Guatemala with the Peace Corps teaching farmers how to improve their crop yields through seed and plant selection. After that he returned to the Pacific Northwest making wine at Amity, Belle Ponte and Owen Roe before joining Iris.
Our conversations with Aaron were fascinating and far-reaching.
He explained his winemaking philosophy to us first which is to have a light touch in the winery, acting more to shepherd the wine through its process than force it in any way. The house style is to make fruit driven wines with bright acidity and lower alcohol levels that allow for the best expressions of Oregon’s indigenous grapes.
An area of particular excitement for us was to try their sparkling wines. As die-hard Champagne lovers it really takes a lot to impress us with a sparkling wine. But Iris delivers terrific quality at exceptionally fair prices. Aaron explained how special blocks in the vineyard are used for the sparkling wine production.
The sparkling wine blocks are picked up to a month earlier than the rest of the vineyard, assuring that each wine will have a backbone of racy acidity to complement the bubbles.
These wines are made in the traditional méthode traditionnelle (the exact same procedure as in Champagne) which involves putting still wine through a second fermentation in the bottle and then capping it so the CO2 created in that fermentation remains trapped in the bottle until opened when it escapes as bubbles.
The very best of Iris’ wine is branded under the Areté label. This includes their top traditional method sparkling wines (Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, and Brut Rosé) along with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris from the best vintages. After the winery and a delightful lunch at Coast Fork Brewing, we took the short drive to the estate vineyard.
Richard and Pamela purchased 850 acres of cleared land near the King Estate Winery. They immediately set about to restore the land by planting 500 acres with Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine. In 1996 they chose a 36-acre site on the land that was gently sloped and in a bowl shape to become their estate vineyard. They planted this site to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, and named it the Chalice Vineyard after its bowl-like shape.
The two white varieties are planted with various Dijon clones and the Pinot Noir is planted to Dijon, Wadenswil, and Pommard clones. All plants have been grafted on to phylloxera-resistant rootstock. Dry farming is practiced thanks to abundant winter rains and moisture retaining soils.
This is a high elevation vineyard (800 to 1000 feet) among the very highest in the Willamette Valley.
This elevation slows down the ripening process creating longer hang time and consequently greater development of flavour compounds. It also creates a wider range of diurnal temperature shift that tends to preserve more acidity. Soils in this part of the southern Willamette Valley are primarily Bellpine. These soils have good depth and permit adequate drainage and were largely formed by marine sediment. Iris is committed to sustainable farming practices that allow the grapes to fully ripen in a disease-free environment while respecting the land by avoiding excessive use of harsh chemicals.
The final part of our visit was to finish up at their newly created wine bar located in Springfield Oregon, just outside of Eugene. This is a very comfortable room with a bar and tables and a terrific outdoor courtyard patio.
Aaron, it turns out, is not just a great winemaker but a great mixologist as well. He made us a delicious gin and tonic with the gin made from his white wine which he refermented up to about 25% alcohol and infused a bunch of herbs and botanicals. The result was a deliciously light and refreshing cocktail!
Iris is definitely a winery to watch. Eugene and the south end of the Willamette Valley don’t get the same attention that the north does. But Iris shouldn’t be overlooked. They are making terrific wines at very fair prices and sparkling wine that can stand proud in a lineup of the best from both Oregon and from California.
2019 Areté Blanc de Noirs Sparkling Wine
100% Pinot Noir. Slight copper hue with active bubbles. Lovely aromas of lemon confit and baking bread. On the palate the structure is medium body with medium+ acidity. With 1 to 2 grams of dosage this is technically brut naturale , which can often lead to somewhat austere wines from some producers. Not here. The dosage is extremely well-judged keeping the strong acid line balanced with the generous fruit. Lovely notes of green apple, citrus fruits and bruised pear. Dry yet quite textured. An absolutely delicious new world sparkler.
Excellent – (USD$34 at the winery-particularly good value for this quality level)
2020 Areté Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine
Flavours of green apple are joined by slightly exotic notes of pineapple and hints of spice. This wine is very dry which gives a sensation of crispness on the palate. Very refreshing. Whereas the Blanc de Noirs would make a great accompaniment to a meal, the Blanc de Blancs would be more of an aperitif.
Very Good/Excellent (USD$34 at the winery)
2016 Iris Chardonnay
This is a lovely Chardonnay that is yet another example of the strength this grape is showing in the Willamette Valley. Lovely texture is balanced by the acidity which together create a palate sensation that lingers long after the wine has left your mouth. Flavours of apple and pear gain complexity form the mineral notes and hints of almond. Excellent
2020 Iris Viognier Steelhead Run Vineyard
Medium body and medium acid this hits the “just right” texture which is not easily achieved from this grape that can easily come across as fat if not picked early enough and often as lean when picked to early. Flavours of apricot on other stone fruits with hints of lemon. The wine also has a nice mineral streak to it.
Very Good+ (USD$26 at the winery)
2021 Areté Pinot Noir C Block
This mineral infused Pinot shows great balance and depth. There is a richness in the mouthfeel that is nicely balanced by the structural components.
Flavours of raspberry and dark cherry gain additional complexity from the hints of baking spice that come out as the wine gets aerated. Power and finesse perfectly aligned.
Excellent (USD$39 at the winery-particularly good value for this quality level)
2020 Iris House Call Red
A blend of Bordeaux varieties with Merlot in the lead position, the House Call is wonderfully approachable red wine.
We get flavours of plum, raspberry an black cherry served up on a medium body with medium+ tannin. There is a subtle richness to the mouthfeel. The finish is long and earthy.
Very Good/Excellent (USD $20 at the winery-particularly good value for this quality level)
322 Main Street