An Afternoon with Winemaker Mark Nicholl

Valley and vineyard view from the Sweet Cheeks patio on a rainy Fall day.

Australian born winemaker, Mark Nicholl, is not only the winemaker for one of the south Willamette Valley’s most popular wineries, Sweet Cheeks Winery, but he also has his own wine label under the name of William Rose Wines. A few weeks ago, I spent the afternoon with Mark tasting future releases of the much talked about 2012 vintage. From Sweet Cheeks and William Rose wines taken straight from the barrels and tanks, to samples poured right out of the test bottles in the lab, Mark gave me a unique glimpse into some of Oregon’s future wines.

Sweet Cheeks Winery is located just southwest of Eugene, Oregon, in the heart of the southern Willamette Valley. Founded in 2005, with plantings that date back to 1978, the vineyard got its name because of the curious swell in the hillside that was noticed as the soil was being plowed to plant grapes – Sweet Cheeks. A comfortable and tastefully decorated tasting room opens to a large outdoor patio that boasts water features and an unmatched view of the vineyards and valley below. The wine, live music, ambiance and view attract hundreds of people on Friday nights, during their popular Twilight Tastings.

Winemaker Mark Nicholls next to the unique Oval Barrel – used for Tempranillo

After trying some of Sweet Cheeks recent releases in their ever-bustling tasting room, including some incredible vertical tastings, Mark took me on a tour of the winery, starting out in the original barrel room. A very large, oval shaped barrel definitely caught my eye when first entering the room. This barrel, aptly named the Oval Barrel, holds 550 gallons of juice. It was made in Italy from French oak, it’s now neutral, and was first used by Sweet Cheeks in 2007. It doesn’t impart a lot of flavor, but it does allow the wine to breathe. Mark uses it for the highly acclaimed Sweet Cheeks Tempranillo.

“Those big, rich, course tannins that the young Tempranillo has, without getting too much oxygen in too quickly and pulling the flavor out, this barrel allows those tannins to mature, so it’s the perfect vessel for that. It’s a $10,000 dollar barrel, so you don’t go out and buy them every year, but it works very well for what we use it for.” 

From the original barrel room, we headed into the fermentation room, which houses the multiple stainless steel tanks that were currently working their fermentation magic. Mark poured me some of the 2012 William Rose Riesling straight out of the tank. The Riesling was cloudy and laden with yeast, as expected at this point in the fermentation phase, so we simply swirled a small amount in our mouths and then spit it out – classic Riesling flavors with bright citrus notes were easily detectable. We moved on to another tank, one that housed the Sweet Cheeks 2012 Chardonnay, and loads of malic acid (malic acid is the acid in green apples) imparted a true puckering effect. Flavors of lemon with a hint of peach, and possibly a little pear, were quite pronounced. Even in this early stage of the winemaking process, I was thinking both the Riesling and Chardonnay will probably be very good.

Mark Nicholl pours some 2012 William Rose Riesling straight from the fermenting tank

“This is the third wine [chardonnay] in seven vintages that we’ve actually pulled off of the property, the other years [the fruit] has been frost bitten.” Mark continued, “2012 was a great year for ripening of the fruit – it was a warm year, with good, even temperatures. But, that sun light every day was not only good for the soil, it was good for the grapes.” 

We walked out to the crush pad, where Mark explained the end of harvest was just a couple days away – which is when they would be finished pressing off the fruit. I immediately noticed that the press had been Made in Australia. I wondered if Australian-born Mark had anything to do with this unique Australian-made press.

“This is why I’m here.” Mark said as he pointed to the press. “The guy who designed and built this machine, Rod, is a friend of mine and a friend of Dan’s [the owner of Sweet Cheeks], and when Sweet Cheeks needed a winemaker, Dan rang Rod, and Rod rang me. I was in France on a working holiday in Burgundy, having a jolly old time, and two days later I was on a plane and I was here, and I’ve been here ever since. Two days after that, I went home and got my dog, then I was back and it’s now been six years. Six years ago in October, so I arrived here during harvest. I did four harvests in 2006 – in Australia, Beaujolais, Burgundy and Oregon.”

Barrels of 2012 Sweet Cheeks Pinot Noir

Okay, I was impressed. I’m sure there aren’t too many winemakers in the world that can say they’ve worked four harvests, in three different countries, in one season.

From the crush pad, we went into the new barrel room, which also boasts a state of the art bottling and labeling system. Not many wineries in the southern Willamette Valley have their own bottling system, so Mark considers it to be quite a luxury and loves that he can bottle when the wine is ready, versus needing to book a service months in advance.

Before Mark thieved some samples of the 2012 Sweet Cheeks Pinot Noir from the barrels, we went into the lab – where the science of winemaking takes place. With a window that offers a view of the vineyards and valley, this is my kind of lab. It’s a very simple, basic lab set-up, other than one, small, fancy $4,000 dollar machine – a machine that is used at harvest time and a couple months after, which allows winemakers to measure sugars and malic acid levels super accurately. According to Mark, it’s an indispensable piece of equipment.

“The old fashion way, chromatography, where you use spots on bits of paper, is just not reliable enough. This machine takes a little bit to master, but once it’s mastered, the numbers are just invaluable, and it’s precise. When we need to know that the numbers are what they need to be, it comes back to the art and science of winemaking. This is the science part, you know, it takes the guess work out.”

Test bottles of 2012 Sweet Cheeks and William Rose future wines

Straight out of the test bottle, Mark shared the Sweet Cheeks reserve, barrel fermented, Pinot Gris for 2012, which displayed some beautiful tropical, fruity notes – I’m looking forward to trying this one once it’s released, which will probably be in mid-late summer, 2013. Mark is hoping the Gris will retain a little bit of a pink color, not commonly seen in Pinot Gris’. Skin contact can sometimes cause a pinkish hue, and Mark doesn’t force it or stop it – he just lets the wine do what it’s going to do. He recalled a couple years ago, when he released a Sweet Cheeks Pinot Gris that had retained some of the color from the skin contact – wine club members were returning their bottles to the winery, thinking there was something wrong with them, even though the flavors were excellent. All that was needed was a quick explanation of how simple skin contact will add a little color; in addition to, adding structure and complexity.

We also tried the 2012 stainless-steel fermented Sweet Cheeks Pinot Gris, which had no skin contact. Slightly sweet on the palate, this will be much like the Sweet Cheeks 2011 Pinto Gris, but a little richer because it’s got an extra percent or so of alcohol. Another sample from a test bottle that we tried was a future of the William Rose Gewurztraminer, sourced from the Illinois Valley in Southern Oregon. Really aromatic and fruity, its solid acidic backbone will presumably create an excellently balanced, mouthwatering wine.

Winemaker Mark Nicholl uses a wine thief to retrieve a sample of the Pommard clone Sweet Cheeks Pinot Noir

From the lab, we headed back out to the barrel room to sample two of the 2012 vintage Pinot Noirs, each from different Sweet Cheeks estate blocks and clones – the blocks that are considered to be their best. The first one we tried was a Pommard clone Pinot Noir, which was 30% percent whole cluster fermented and spent 15 days on the skin – big and rich with tight acid, bright fruit was already showing with beautiful characteristics. The second barrel sample was clone 115, which came from a block that is called the Baby Pinot Block. Same fermentation process, same whole cluster process, and same barrel ageing as the Pommard, the berries from the Baby Pinot Block were really tiny and packed full of concentrated flavors. I loved this one, it displayed clean, juicy, fruity flavors with a solid balance between fruit and acid – I can’t wait to have the finished product in my glass.

In fact, after having compiled a list of quotes from Willamette Valley vintners about the “epic” 2012 harvest, and now having tasted several future wines, I’m truly looking forward to the months and years that lay ahead as these wines of 2012 will be released. From the samples I experienced, the 2012 vintage has the potential to be packed full of rich, intense and memorable flavors – flavors that will not only showcase the unique terroir of the Willamette Valley, but will also express the talents of the winemaker.

Follow me over to my award winning wine blog,, for detailed reviews of the William Rose and Sweet Cheeks wines.






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