January 21, 2006

A winter pruning adventure

I drove out to the Dundee Hills the other day to meet up with a friend who works an old vineyard planted with pinot noir and a few other things. I had asked him if I couldn’t come out and give him a hand with winter pruning.

I don't have much pruning experience, so the afternoon quickly turned into a terrific lesson in the art of pruning. Winter pruning is structural, where you cut back last year’s growth to leave only the healthiest and best positioned cane and renewal spur for next year. The cane will produce fruiting canes in the coming season, and the spur will provide a few additional fruiting canes positioned to be selected as next year’s main cane and renewal spur.

Despite having read some about winter pruning, and knowing a thing or two from my gardening and vineyard experience, I still couldn’t quite envision how vine pruning happened. My friend suggested that I start by focusing on what I would definitely eliminate, which meant virtually everything. Then I could select from what remained with relative ease.

I was impressed with his quick analysis of the vine and crisp cuts of the woody growth. My attempts were slow and uncertain, but I could see how the puzzle of deciphering each vine’s unique shape could become addictive.

Even this time of year, sap may weep harmlessly from the cuts on the otherwise dormant vine. With the vine now pruned, the leftover cane is tied down to the lowest trellis wire, carefully so that no buds are rubbed off. The cuttings are collected and burned or composted. Winter pruning is done.

We moved down the vineyeard row, studying each vine, making cuts, and moving on. After some time, another friend came by and we happened upon a nearby place to sit and check out the view and sample a couple local wines.

This is the heart of the Dundee Hills, vineyards like Arcus, Goldschmidt, Maresh, Prince Hill, and Le Pavillon among many others on the southern exposure of Worden Hill Road. The engorged Willamette River lay in the distance on this unusually dry afternoon. The air was chilly and fresh, this special place glowing in this late sunlight.

We tasted two Pinot noir from 2003, both warmly alcoholic and not to my taste though well made and enjoyable in the setting. Then we decided to take an impromptu and possibly illicit tramp by and though some of the local vineyards. We talked about vine age, training, growth habits apparent in the unpruned vines, and pruning techniques displayed on the recently cut vines. I couldn't help but think of returning during the growing season to see how the vines transformed during the year.

Then the tramp turned a bit grueling, over a fence and across a rushing creek, and then a long uphill climb on a path cut mysteriously through brambles. Our destination was a recently established vineyard and winery of another friend, producing small amounts of high quality, previously homebrew-only wine.

We tasted from two barrels of ’05 chardonnay, naturally fermented, both gorgeously pure and fresh with uncommon minerality. The new barrel is particularly impressive for not being woody. Of course, they’ve yet to go through ML, so it’s very early. But I suspect this will become fine wine and I’ll be happy to elaborate then.

And then outside again, through a hazelnut orchard and another vineyard with old Riesling vines with their ungodly thick tendrils, and back to where we began. The sun was down now and it was time to head out, my boots muddy and my head spinning with satisfaction.

January 17, 2006

The mystery of rock(s)

No, not the majesty of roll. It’s the mystery of terroir in the northern Willamette Valley.

Such was the title of Dr. Scott Burns’ presentation the other night to the Geological Society of Oregon. More than 60 people filled a lecture hall at Portland State University, where Burns works, to learn about the geology and soils of our local winegrowing region.

Burns is a passionate speaker, not what you might expect in a geologist. He began by apologizing for his scratchy voice, worn out from a heavy dose of consultation and media requests in the wake of recent rain-triggered landslides. Then he launch into a high volume, fast-paced hour-long presentation covering everything from the origins of the Oregon wine industry to, eventually, terroir. His voice held up fine.

Burns is rare in bringing obviously extensive knowledge about geology together with great knowledge and clear passion for wine. Frankly, I expected a geologist who knew little, really, about wine, but Burns is one of the most articulate and, in my opinion, informed wine lovers out there. Generous too.

I was hoping he’d spend less time on background material and more on the rocks. This was a geology meeting after all, my first ever. But the audience was clearly beyond the typical rockhound, so I suppose Burns was smart to give context even if it was old news.

But once Burns started talking about the earth, wow. He provided great information I hope I convey at least mostly accurately. First of all, good news. The soils are old here, meaning low nutrient levels in general for grape growing. 96% of grapes in the region are on either very old, or just about very old soils.

The underlying geology of the northern Willamette Valley largely consists of volcanic basalts and ancient marine sediments. The basalts came from lava flows originating hundred of miles to the east approximately 14-16 million years ago. The marine sediments were once under the ocean before being pushed into hills and mountains by tectonic activity.

Local soils largely came from Missoula flood sediments from approximately 15,000 years ago, when receding glaciers from the last Ice Age repeatedly flooded the Willamette Valley, leaving gorgeous soils on the valley floor. The old soils are up on the hills, windblown deposits along with eroded bedrock. Soil depths vary widely, from nothing to a few feet, to more than 50 feet.

The most common soil types in northern Willamette Valley wine regions are Jory and Willakenzie, with a variety of others mostly represented in far fewer planted acres. Jory soils are most commonly found in the Dundee Hills, where occasionally deep red soils cover volcanic basalts. You also find some Jory in the Eola Hills, though more of the up-and-coming Nekia soils. Nekia is like Jory, volcanic but only a few feet deep. Roots here get down into the bedrock easily.

Willakenzie soils are apparently being reclassified more specifically than before. But as we know them, they are marine sediments found in the Chehalem Mountains and Ribbon Ridge (I believe also in sites around Yamhill/Carlton and McMinnville Foothills). Burns said wines from Willakenzie soils produce red-fruited wines, while Jory soils produce black-fruited wine. But I think that’s mixed up.

Demonstrating the different tastes of soil types, Burns closed by generously poured samples of two 2001 Chehalem Pinot Noir.

First the Stoller Vineyard, from the far west of the Dundee Hills on a lower hill exposed perfectly to the sun. Jory soils all the way. This wine smelled rich and alcoholic, with macerated cherries and a roasted quality. It was actually quite nice, wood-marked as both wines are, but soft and a little squishy.

I preferred the Ridgecrest Vineyard, with its wood spicy, light black currant aroma and brighter flavor. Willakenzie soils here, Chehalem Mountain appellation. But I think micro-climate played a bigger different here than soil, with the heat of Stoller showing clearly versus the cooler profile of the higher elevation Ridgecrest.

So are all Geological Society meetings like this? The meeting ended, but there was a buffet after-party in the department office that looked interesting. Then I thought, don’t push your luck. So off into the rainy night.

January 07, 2006

Tastings: Belle Pente and Cameron

I took the opportunity recently to taste new releases from two of Oregon’s top wine producers, Belle Pente Vineyard and Cameron Winery. Thanks to the producers and to Liner & Elsen wine shop in Portland for this terrific event.

Belle Pente is located just outside Carlton, OR, on a beautiful slope as the name suggests. The estate vineyard was planted around 1994 and is already producing beautiful wines. Winemaker Brian O’Donnell also sources fruit from highly regarded sites such as the Murto vineyard in the Dundee Hills.

I’ve tasted many Belle Pente wines over the years. As good as the reds have always been, the whites impressed me first, particularly the Riesling made typically in an Alsatian style – drier and fuller bodied than you tend to find in Germany. In recent years, the reds have only seemed to improve in quality so that they are now what I really like most about Belle Pente.

On this day, Brian was pouring two whites and three reds. While the reds are usually fermented with “wild” yeasts, Brian says that Oregon doesn’t seem to have good yeasts for fermenting whites so he inoculates with what seem to be fairly neutral tasting yeast cultures. The ’04 Pinot Gris was mineral and fairly opulent in the mouth, larger-sized than usual perhaps as there is no reserve bottling due to the short crop. This wine is aged at least in part in large German ovals Brian procured a few years back from the old world. A ’03 Gewurztraminer showed the heat of its vintage, very ripe and round though not particularly alcoholic, dry but with honey and spice aromas that seemed more like a lighter dessert wine. A good wine though low acid and perhaps a tough match with food.

The ’03 Pinot Noir Murto vineyard, from 30-year old vines, smelled a bit oaky at first, but shows more restraint that might be expected from this torrid year. Black cherries, spicy earth and oak, young wine that should settle down some with age. The ’03 Pinot Noir Estate showed lots of Christmas spice, with gingerbread and mulling spices mixed in with good fruit and clean earth flavors. Another nice wine and not too large scaled. Clearly a step up was the ’02 Pinot Noir Estate Reserve, a long, very refined and elegant wine with great depth and intensity, beautifully integrated flavors, good structure, the is perhaps the most impressive wine I’ve had from Belle Pente. Highly recommended and among the best ‘02s I’ve tried.

Next to Brian was the impresario of Oregon wine, John Paul of Cameron Winery. Nothing John does is low key, he’s larger than life and yet down to earth as fits his wine. Cameron is no secret and yet, perhaps because it’s been around for 20 years, this producer doesn’t seem to have the buzz of newer, flashier operations. That’s fine, because business seems good, John’s as crazy as ever, and the wine and the prices are some of the most attractive out there for top quality Oregon wine.

John was pouring only one white, the top shelf ’03 Chardonnay Abbey Ridge. He says matter of factly that you need to think about white Burgundy when drinking this wine. I tried and found this wine to be nice, but I was distracted by toasty oak aromas and flavors that currently dominate. Abbey Ridge is one of the highest vineyards in Oregon, a blessing in 2003, and the freshness and tight core of this otherwise large wine should allow it to age well.

On to the reds, first was the ’03 Pinot Noir Gherts vineyard from the Dundee Hills, the source of all these Cameron wines. Located below Domain Drouhin on the southwestern side of the appellation, the Gherts vineyard bottling seems promising. I enjoyed the ’02 for its freshness and drink younger personality, but this ’03 seemed a bit muddled and unfocused. Either it’s in a bad place or perhaps it’s just a victim of the hot year.

Next was the ’03 Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge, which I’ve tried twice now and find delicious. Ripe, fairly rich wine but still elegant as I like this grape to be, with good structure. Abbey Ridge may have produced the best wine of the ’03 vintage. Finally, the ’03 Pinot Noir Clos Electrique, from Cameron’s “estate” (which looks more like a shack, a really cool shack but this ain’t no grand estate) vineyard. Planted in the mid-to-late 1980s with wide spacing, it’s lower in the Dundee Hills than most and seems to produce a richer, black fruited wine where most of the Dundee Hills vineyards give redder, cherry flavors. As with the ’02, the ’03 is dark and brooding, young and unevolved, with fine tannin and good length. This is a wine to cellar but I expect it will show more complexity and subtlety in time.

But wait, John’s a passionate Italophile (Ital-o-phile? Ital-i-phile? Fan of Italy?) who’s planted Nebbiolo and is excited about his early efforts with the grape. He hasn’t released any wine yet, but to get people excited he decanted a bottle of the ’01 Produttori di Barbaresco “normale” so we could taste something he has in mind. Classic Nebbiolo here, tannic and young in the mouth but already fragrant and crying out for earthy food. It lacks the depth of the cru bottlings from this terrific cooperative, but it’s not something I’d drink young. Instead, cellar for a few years and drink the even cheaper Produttori Langhe Nebbiolo in the meantime. And then look out for what I’m guessing will fall under the “Cameroni” label John uses for wines made from traditional Italian grape varieties.