February 22, 2005

Oregon Wine Magazine

Anyone ever read the Oregon Wine Magazine? This is a long running monthly newspaper-like publication that at times mystifies me with its folkiness, but on occasion delights with true insights into the people behind Oregon wine. The lastest example is the February 2005 edition, which features a terrific interview with David Lett.

Unfortunately the editorial staff neglected to include the NAME of Lett's groundbreaking winery, The Eyrie Vineyard. At least until the very end of the multi-page article. Sure, "Papa Pinot" is the legend of Oregon wine, the first to come north and plant vinifera exactly 40 years ago this month. But if you want to preach beyond the choir, don't you want to drop the assumption that everyone knows Lett's winery? Maybe I ought to offer my copyediting services.

Still, that's a relatively minor quibble. The article is classic David Lett, full of strong opinions and no compromise to current fashions in wine. That is, wines made from grapes verging on the overripe, wines that gush fruit flavors but have little flavor complexity, length, or nuance. Wines that hit you over the head, then disappear on your palate. Of course, one man's disaster is another's cellar treasure, so Lett offers one opinion, albeit a strong one. If you don't agree, at least consider his advice - when everyone is planting the hot grape of the month, you should be ripping it out to stay ahead of the curve. If that's not your farming style, I think the lesson might be that when almost everyone seems to be making pinot on steriods, it might be time to take your own winemaking back to Lett's model. Pick ripe but not overripe, age in older wood, ferment with patience to create a wine that's brightly acidic and built for development in the bottle. Who knows, maybe such wines will return to the mainstream, no matter how crazy that sounds today. It's worked for David Lett.

Oregon Wine Magazine isn't on the web, but apparently you can request a free copy through the Oregon Wine Press website - http://www.oregonwinepress.com/COM_0005.HTM

Cour-Cheverny Found

Just an update to say the 2000 Cazin Cour-Cheverny Vendanges Manuelles is available around town in Portland for $12.99, if not less. So no one tell me this is another "wine you can't find." If only the sweeter, demi-sec Cuvee Renaissance from any vintage were ever available. Now there's a "wine you can't find."

February 11, 2005

Cour-Cheverny? White Wine No One's Ever Heard Of

Well, a few people have heard of it. Francois Cazin might head the list. He's the Frenchman behind the best Cour-Cheverny I've tasted. Add Joe Dressner and Denyse Louis, the pair behind Louis/Dressner Selections, which imports Cazin's "Le Petit Chambord" wines to the US. I had previously tasted Cazin's regular Cheverny, apparently made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. It can be a crisp, delicious white wine. But the subject here is Cazin's Cour-Cheverny, made exclusively from the obscure Romorantin grape found in this part of the Touraine.

I first came upon the 1999 Le Petit Chambord "Cour-Cheverny" Vendanges Manuelles two years ago. The 1999 vintage in the Loire valley has essentially been panned by even some of the most dedicated lovers of Loire whites. But this wine shows once more how limiting vintage generalizations can be. Yes, the conditions for winemaking were challenging. But this wine exemplifies how every vintage produces worthy wine. On release this Cour-Cheverny seemed like a mix of Chenin Blanc, with a nice lemon, honey, and straw aroma and flavor, and Riesling, with a hint of petrol on the aroma. After some bottle age, the wine now shows even more petrolly, oily character of a top Riesling, with a more intense honeyed note than before. This is Romorantin. Fragrant wine that shows a variety of scents over time, light bodied but full flavored with a persistent, crisp finish that refreshes the palate. My only quibble is a sense of dilution in the wine, though it makes me think of beautiful music that could be better still if it were a touch louder. The cost for this wine in 2003 was just $10. Now, with the US dollar down sharply against the Euro, you might expect to pay a bit more for a current vintage. But what a splendid wine, well worth looking for and certainly still a huge bargain in handmade, off the beaten path wine.

February 07, 2005

Thinking about Pinot Noir

I’ve been reading a great new book called North American Pinot Noir by John Winthrop Haeger. This book offers lots of thought-provoking comments about, naturally, Pinot noir and the wines it makes not only here in north America, but in Burgundy as well. I can’t say I agree with Haeger’s opinions all the time. As one might expect, he defends North American Pinot noir from critics who claim the wines are too fruity or too alcoholic or not ageworthy compared to the great wines of Burgundy. Not to mention too oaky. These are valid arguments in the cases of some North American producers, who clearly show that Pinot noir here need not taste like Syrah or zinfandel. But for me, the wines of north American Pinot noir are too often just what the critics say – too fruity, too alcoholic, and, even if they are ageworthy, too boring to warrant the gamble that they will blossom into something worthwhile. So isn’t that a huge generalization? Sure, but it reflects my experience along with the growing number of exceptions, especially here in Oregon.

I could write volumes about the thoughts this book leaves me with (I’m still reading). But for now, I was struck by Haeger’s distinction of how Americans and Burgundians use a different vocabulary to describe their wines, something I believe exemplifies the differences in the wines themselves and, by extension, the differing intents of many old and new world producers that make the generalization above more true and hopefully less controversial. Haeger writes that Burgundians are more likely to talk about "elegance" and "finesse" in their wines, while Americans might refer to "opulence" and "fat." More significantly, he suggests that, while Burgundians might say pinot noir is essentially about "perfume," Americans more likely point to "mouthfeel." Haeger writes that his own tasting notes on Burgundies more commonly use terms like nuance and elegance than do his notes of north American Pinot noir. Yet he goes on to write, "It is not entirely clear why so-called elegance should be easier to achieve, or more often achieved, in Burgundy." He then suggests that perhaps the answer lies in the ability, due to Burgundy’s northerly climate, to get ripe flavors in the grapes at lower sugar levels (thus less alcohol). Perhaps more significantly, he suggests, the differences are due to the North American winemakers’ disinclination to tolerate the lower alcohols of Burgundy. Talk about provocative. Definitely check out this book.

For me, the distinction of Burgundy is…terrior, or the combination of soil, climate, and exposure that makes a particular vineyard, or even a part of a vineyard, unique. That’s hardly a unique opinion, but for some reason – likely that it can’t be explained by science, or at least not yet – terrior is still discounted far too easily by those who write about North American wine. Burgundy has something unique that makes its wines unique. Haeger makes the point well – winemakers around the world are using the same techniques, barrels, and other equipment as the Burgundians. What’s the one thing no one can match? Terrior.

February 04, 2005

2002 Oregon Pinot Noir

I went to a wine store tasting the other day that featured 2002 Oregon Pinot Noir, mostly. Overall, these are some nice wines, though it's hard to get a real sense of any wine, especially pinot noir, in such a short period of time. Speaking of vintages is always difficult too, but 2002 in the Willamette Valley was an ideal year, if perhaps giving some wines too high in alcohol. The beauty of the growing season was the nice harvest weather that lasted so long. You really should have been able to pick pretty much whenever you wanted, so the results in that way might reflect the winemaker's intention more clearly. Go for the fences with a huge ripe wine, or pick early for better aromatics?

Cameron Ghertz Vineyard
A new vineyard designate from Cameron, with a different label design. This wine showed some sulfur and earthy cherry aromas with a nice fresh fruit and earth flavor, finishing with a fresh citrus tang. It’s not complex but tastes good, though it probably needs some time in a decanter to lose the stinkiness.

Ponzi Willamette Valley
An Oregon classic, I can see why this garnered a big rating from one wine magazine. Dark yet still translucent color, which is nice. But the aroma is annoyingly oaky, with the scent of sawdust. Oak and nearly blackberry flavors on the palate, tastes like oaky pinot noir and it’s good for that idiom. But this is the least interesting wine here.

Torii Mor "Deux Verres" Reserve
Nice wild berry and spice flavors with earthy notes and good tannic structure. Needs time and perhaps too tannic for its own good. But I like this wine’s grip, especially because I usually associate this producer with overly glossy-textured offerings that leave me cold.

Chehelam Stoller Vineyard 2001
The only non-’02 in the line up, it shows typical Stoller softness and pure cherry fruit. Not a lot of structure, more like a chubby slice of cherry pie. Good pie, sure. But this is not compelling wine, much like I find Stoller vineyard bottlings from other producers. Fat and happy, crowd pleasing wines at their best, but I’ve yet to taste one I really like.

Adelsheim Elizabeth Reserve
A blend of three Chehelam mountain vineyards and the Goldschmidt vineyard in the Red Hills. Adelsheim seems so uncool, they must have an uberhip underground following somewhere. No one seems to talk about Adelsheim but they produce fine pinot noir that should appeal to lovers of old world wine. Look elsewhere if you seek candied sweet oaky pinot. Distrinctive floral and red berry aroma, a little sauvage. Nice bright pure fruit and earth flavors, nice and long, my favorite here but more suited for food than casual sipping. Should last many years.

Cristom Eileen Vineyard
Brighter red fruit aromas than the previous few wines. Some mineral and nicely complex berry and earth flavors, medium bodied with good acid and a young, unevolved profile. Nice wine that should also last many years.