On Top of the World with Perpetual Balance: Terry Brandborg and Brandborg Wines
Just a few miles from downtown Elkton, Oregon, Terry Brandborg, of Brandborg Wines, stood on his deck and pointed out towards the edge of the Coastal Range where the trees meet the ocean. From Terry’s deck, a feeling of being on top of the world is quite surreal while looking out over the valley below and across an entire mountain range. The view is breathtaking – the veriegated green hues of the mountain and rolling hills dotted with farms and firs is absolutely gorgeous.
When Terry Brandborg, and his wife Sue, purchased the hilltop property in Elkton, the view was not what was on Terry’s mind – he was more interested in the dirt. One look at the sloping hill along the two mile long driveway that leads to the residence at the top, Terry was hooked.
What got Terry hooked on winemaking, however, happened years before the purchase of the Elkton property – in the Anderson Valley of California.
For every winemaker, wine grower or wine enthusiast I’ve ever met, there’s always a moment where the world of wine becomes a passion for wine. For Terry, picking grapes in an idyllic vineyard setting for an Italian wine grower in California during his college years, led him to making small batches of wine for himself and a neighbor who provided Terry with grapes. Those beginning days of picking, stomping and making wine would lead Terry down a path to become one of Oregon’s most highly praised winemakers.
As Terry continued to make wine in California for consumption with friends during bar-b-ques and parties, people began to take note – he was making excellent wine. Producing wines such as Pinot Noir, Riesling and Charbono, to name a few, and using fruit from some of the finest cool-climate regions of California, Terry later created his first label in 1986. Operating as a true garage winery, Terry was able to get a conditional use permit to operate a bonded winery as a home occupation, and he produced 300 cases of Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay in his first year.
“I expanded and outgrew the garage in three years and I was making wine in a rented warehouse space in Richmond, and continued primarily with Pinot Noir. I was self distributed for the first 6 or 7 years, so I’d get off of work and I’d throw a sample bag over my shoulder and take to the streets of San Francisco and the Bay area.”
With a passion for creating fine Pinot Noir, Terry, and his wife Sue, spent years searching for an ideal cool-climate vineyard property to purchase in California. Just when they felt like they were striking out, they saw an ad for a piece of property near Philomath, Oregon, and decided to drive up and see it. In the winter of 2000, an AVA map that Terry picked up at a hotel in Ashland, Oregon, while on their way to Philomath, prompted a visit to a winery in the Umpqua Valley that he had never heard of: Abacela. Earl Jones, owner of Abacela, and Terry immediately hit it off.
“We arrived at about 10:30 am, and Earl was puttering around [the vineyard], and we got to talking with him. And, being a winemaker, I was traveling with samples in my trunk, and hoping to do trades. I was doing some stuff at the time that he [Earl] had planted. I had a Russian River Sangiovese and Carignan, so we hit it off right away, and ended up doing some trades. I told him with my past experience, I thought he was raising the bar for what was going on here in this area.”
Terry expressed to Earl that his main focus was Pinot Noir, so Earl suggested that Terry and Sue check out Elkton – where Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewurztraminer had been growing since 1972. Although Terry and Sue didn’t make it to Elkton that trip, they did the following year.
“As soon as I drove into this valley, I told Sue, ‘this looks really promising, this feels like Pinot country to me’, so I went home to San Francisco, got on-line, found some climate data, there had been a forest service nursery here for 60 years, and I calculated that out and said, ‘Sue, it’s a bullseye’.”
Two weeks later and one look at the sloping hill, Terry and Sue purchased the Elkton property. Since then, Terry Brandborg has been creating some seriously amazing Oregon wine.
Of the five whites, one rosé and seven Pinot Noirs that I recently sampled, including a Nouveau Pinot Noir, there was not a single Brandborg wine that wasn’t out-of-this-world delicious. One common character between them all: perpetual balance.
2011 Fleur de Lis Umpqua Valley White Pinot Noir: Creating a white wine from a red grape is truly a niche wine, but is happening more and more in Oregon – resulting in a white wine that displays both red and white wine characteristics. The outstanding Brandborg Fleur de Lis White Pinot Noir is full-bodied, like a red, but bright, crisp and refreshing, like a white. Beautiful acidity, full fruit flavors and a palate pleasing texture creates a wonderfully balanced wine with loads of character.
2008 Umpqua Valley Riesling: One of the best Rieslings I’ve ever had, beautiful aromas of peaches, honey and lemon glide on to the palate with added hazelnut and herbs. The solid acidic backbone aids in creating a dry, citrusy long lasting finish that’s complimented by fruit, refreshing minerality and well balanced perfection.
2011 Oregon Gewurztraminer Umpqua Valley: This reminded me of the Florida Keys, where I would sit on the beach under a swaying palm with a bowl of fresh cut fruit – aromas and flavors of oranges, pineapples and grapefruit flowed in waves on the palate from front to back. Medium bodied with loads of texture and perfect balance, the finish was beautifully blessed with a shot of lemon zest. If you’re not a fan of Gewurztraminer, I’ll bet you haven’t tried this yet.
2012 Nouveau Pinot Noir Elkton-Villages Umpqua Valley: The first release of a new vintage, this wine is made to resemble the Beaujolais Nouveaus of France – not in taste, but in following the tradition of releasing a wine the third Thursday of November – one that’s had no aging, is super fruity, is less expensive and should be consumed right away. It offers wine drinkers an inside look of what a vintage may offer in quality and taste when the aged wines are released in the future. Brandborg’s Nouveau Pinot Noir was, indeed, expressive of the fruit, light bodied and a totally fun wine to just pop the cork on and enjoy.
2006 Love Puppets Pinot Noir: With fruit sourced from some of the Brandborg’s favorite dry farmed Umpqua Valley vineyards, this Pinot is all about the blackberries, black cherries and pie spice – in both aromas and flavors. Added earthy qualities come to life on the palate, and an elegant mouthfeel created by fine tannins proves that Terry’s Pinots can stand the test of time. This is luscious, well balanced and absolutely delightful in every way.
2009 Bench Land’s Pinot Noir: A fine example of a beautiful Oregon Pinot Noir – red cherries dominate subtle hints of earth, cedar and smoke. Supple tannins, solid acidity and fruit driven qualities offer a well rounded, well balanced, long lasting finish.
2008 Ferris Wheel Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir: This was my absolute favorite of the seven Pinot Noirs we sampled, and it simply proves that Terry’s purchase of the Elkton property was a wise decision when aiming to focus on fine, high quality Pinot Noir. Raspberries, blackberries, dark cherries, earth, fresh tobacco and fall spices create super pleasing aromas and flavors. A luscious mouthfeel with well rounded tannins and a beautifully lingering pie spice finish all contribute to the outstanding characteristics of this gorgeous Pinot Noir.
The Brandborg’s property is just 25 miles from the ocean and sits at an elevation of 750 to 1,150 feet above sea level.
“Our site is very cool. We are one of 9 reference vineyards that are scattered throughout the Umpqua that participate in an ongoing research project. We are collecting climate and phenology data from each of the sites. Our site is the coolest of the nine and our growing degree days have not reached the 2000 growing degree days that are the minimum threshold to be classified as a region I. Region I is generally considered to be the only climate cool enough to grow top quality pinot noir. We are farming on the edge, and that is what always gives the most distinctive grapes, stretching the ripening curve to the very last minute.”
The Umpqua Valley ranges tremendously in terroir from one end of the wine region to the other – some of Oregon’s coldest and warmest sites are contained within this AVA. Although the Umpqua is well known for incredible warm climate varietals like Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon, stellar cool climate varietals like Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewurztraminer hail, as well. The top portion of the region is dry farmed, while the middle and bottom portions are both irrigated. Unbelievably, there’s about 1,000 growing degree days between Brandborg in the north and Abacela in the south. It’s an incredibly and dramatically diverse climate – Terry and other winemakers in the region are currently working on getting Elkton to be Oregon’s newest designated AVA, which will be a sub AVA of the Umpqua Valley.
Visit the Brandborg Winery and tasting room in the heart of small town Elkton at 345 First Street, 97436.
A huge thanks goes to Terry Brandborg for taking time out to pour us his excellent wine, show us around the beautiful town of Elkton, educate us on the Umpqua Valley, and for making us the best home-made Minestrone soup we’ve ever had. Cheers!