Wine

Becoming a Master of Roussanne

Maggie Harrison on her unconventional path to becoming a winemaker and her dedication to a difficult grape

Maggie Harrison with Sean O’Connor (left) and chef Timothy Wastell (right). Photo by Hannah Wallace.

As soon as you taste one of Maggie Harrison’s wines—whether it’s an earthy Pinot Noir, a marvelously complex Chardonnay, or her lush, floral Roussanne—you understand why she has such a loyal following. What you taste in the glass comes from the unconventional ways in which this winemaker picks and ferments her fruit, particularly the Roussanne, a Rhône variety that’s notorious for ripening unevenly. For more than a decade, Harrison has been pulling the very best expressions out of a handful of varieties and making exquisite, nuanced wines at Antica Terra in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

The Epiphany

Harrison’s unlikely journey to becoming a winemaker started on an island off the coast of Kenya. With a degree in international relations and conflict resolution from Syracuse University in New York State, Harrison landed a job at the Carter Center in Atlanta but deferred acceptance so she could travel. After a year spent backpacking around Europe, another year in South America, and yet another year in Africa, she was less and less sure about pursuing a career in conflict resolution.

“One evening, on an island off the coast of Kenya, I was having a beer and a complete nervous breakdown,” Harrison says. “A fellow traveler from Mozambique was unlucky enough to have pulled up a seat next to me. I spent most of the evening explaining to him that I was feeling adrift. Finally, this guy put down his beer, exasperatedly, and looked me in the eye. ‘You’ve just spent half an hour telling me everything that’s impossible,’ he said, ‘everything you don’t want to do.’”

“Then he asked, ‘What is it that you want to do?’” Harrison considered the question for a moment and said she thought she’d like to learn how to make wine. The traveler asked if there were any grapes in her country and she said there were.

After leaving Africa, Harrison headed for a winery in California. It wasn’t just any winery but Sine Qua Non in Ventura County—the cult winery owned by Manfred and Elaine Krankl.

The Oregon Trail

After working eight vintages with the Krankls—a period she calls the most formative of her life—Harrison was asked by one of their dear friends to be the winemaker at a new venture in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills. She demurred.

“I had just begun Lillian—my own tiny Syrah project in California,” Harrison recalls, “and my first vintage was still resting in the barrel. I was afraid that if I took on another project, I would be stretching myself too thin.”

The owners of the new vineyard—Scott Adelson, John Mavredakis, and Michael Kramer—none of whom had winemaking or vineyard experience, were persistent. Ultimately, though, they accepted Harrison’s firm “No, thank you.” But they did ask her for a favor: Would she mind taking a look at the vineyard and giving them some pointers on how to farm it? Harrison flew up to Oregon on a rainy spring day.

Her arrival was not auspicious. One of the partners picked her up at the airport and drove her southwest to the Eola-Amity Hills. The weather was gray and bleak, and the endless suburban strip malls along 99W only made things seem bleaker. When she finally arrived at the vineyard, in the countryside northwest of Salem, a sign in barely legible script read “No Trespassing.” “The r was backwards,” Harrison recalls, “as if it had been written by an ax murderer.”

But once she set foot in the vineyard, Harrison fell in love with the property.  

“To our left were wetlands and views of the ryegrass growing beyond. To our right, on a steep hillside, was a forest of gnarled, moss-covered oaks. When we reached the top of the hill, the first thing I noticed was the light,” Harrison says. “The clouds fractured over the vineyard and allowed the sun to ray through… I could see the vineyard—a sea of yellow leaves and stunted shoots. The vines were at the beginning of their growth cycle, but they were already beginning to defoliate. The site was so beautiful, the potential so clear—but the suffering was equally clear.” Harrison had only been there a minute before she ducked behind one of the oaks, called her then-boyfriend (now husband), and said, simply, “We’re moving to Oregon.”  

Luckily, he agreed.

Harrison finished her last vintage of Sine Qua Non in 2005, and in 2006 she became an owner—with Adelson, Mavredakis, and Kramer—of the 40-acre property in the Eola-Amity Hills. At the time, only six acres were under vine. But since then, she’s planted another 13, bringing the vineyard to just under 20 acres. It’s here that Harrison grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes and bottles them under the Antica Terra label.

Reckoning with Roussanne

But Lillian, Harrison’s California project, lives on. Each fall, she flies south to California and picks Syrah, Roussanne (which she started sourcing in 2011), and (in the past) Cabernet Sauvignon. The clusters, carefully stacked in vented plastic totes, are sent to Oregon by refrigerated truck to be sorted and fermented at the Antica Terra facility in Dundee. The resulting wines are bottled under the Lillian label, named after Harrison’s maternal grandmother.

Harrison has a particular passion for Roussanne, the only white wine she makes under the Lillian label. If you ask her how she produces it, she grows animated, eager to share the unique methods she’s devised to get the most out of this tricky variety.  

Lillian Roussanne Wine
Photo by Jeff Quinn.

“There is not a tremendous amount of Roussanne grown in this country, because of its somewhat annoying habits,” Harrison says. “The growers struggle with it because it ripens incredibly late, and the winemakers struggle because it ripens incredibly unevenly.” (Jon Bonné, in his book The New California Wine, reports that fewer than 400 acres of Roussanne are planted statewide.)

“Roussanne is the least uniform grape variety I’ve ever seen,” says Harrison. “A single vine will have clusters that are green, yellow, gold, amber, rusted, and botrytis. Nothing is ripe at the same time.”  That’s a major frustration for most vineyardists, but it became a creative challenge for Harrison. Her work-around is to pick when 80 to 85 percent of the fruit is perfectly ripe and then collate by color.

“Roussanne becomes really russet when it’s ripe—deeply amber and a little bit scaly,” says Harrison. She and her vineyard team bring the whole block in at once and then separate it by color at the sorting table. First they sort by clusters—one box for the greenest, then gold, then amber—as well as a box for the fruit with the highest percentage of botrytis. The grapes on the richest end of the spectrum are sorted one by one. Harrison handles each of these boxes differently.

The grapes on the lightest end—the greenest ones with the highest acid—she handles like Chardonnay. “I’ll give them 10 to 18 hours in the press,” she says, “and then [send them] directly into barrel.” The yellowish grapes, she’ll macerate on the skins for six hours and then take them to the press. Deeply golden grapes she might let macerate on the skins for as many as 20 hours to extract maximum aromatics, flavor compounds, and textures. Says Harrison, “We’re trying to eke out what’s there.”

Finally come the richest grapes. “The challenge here,” says Harrison, “is really how you’re going to access the aromas you know are there—in the gentlest way possible.” Instead of walking on the fruit with rubber boots (the way winemakers may do when making a dessert wine like Sauternes), she macerates and ferments the fruit on the skins for three to five days, gently washing the skins with the juice twice a day until the aromatics crack open and the flavors become really clear. Each of these Roussanne wine groups is fermented in barrel, separately, for a year. “Then we take samples and take them to the blending table,” says Harrison. “That’s where we find the ratio that comes together to form the most compelling whole.” The result is a highly aromatic, floral wine with a lush texture and an almost oily quality.

A few years ago, Harrison was at a dinner party at a winemaker’s house in California. She says the winemaker exclaimed, “We hate Roussanne!”

The reason it’s a turnoff for some, she surmises, is that it’s a low-acid grape. “If you try to retain the acid that exists, you lose out on the dripping honey beeswax characteristic,” she says. “But if you forgo that, you lose all the acid.”

In her inimitable way, Harrison has figured out a method for working with the fruit and pulling the best aromas, flavors, and textures from it to create the finest expression of a Roussanne.

Hannah Wallace is a Portland-based journalist who writes about food, cannabis, sustainable agriculture, health, and travel for CivilEats.com, Fast Company, Food & Wine, Vogue, Portland Monthly, and the New York Times

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