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.


Anonymous said...

Hiya Vincent
Last summer when I was in town Brian O'Donnell was pouring wines at an outdoor festival in Carlton. The 02 Estate Reserve was quite memorable. I probably tried ~20 Oregon Pinots that weekend and this wine was my favorite. And these are young vines compared to the Murto and Wahle vineyards. It makes me wonder how good the wine could be when the vines get a little older. Maybe having control over the vineyard makes all the difference here.

An aside about the winemaker. After tasting through all the wines at the Carlton festival, we went back for another pour of the Belle Pente. We were walking out of the festival, carrying our glass of pinot, and Mr O'Donnell was chasing us out the gate with another glass of the estate reserve. It seemed the one we had was slightly corked, so he opened up another bottle and tracked us down to replace the corked glass! What a nice guy.

Hope you are well,
Marc D

Vincent Fritzsche said...


Thanks for the comment. Yes, Brian (I think he'd say Mr. O'Donnell is his father) is a good guy. For what it's worth, I think he's probably as involved with farming at Murto as he is at his home estate. But you're right, the Estate vineyard is still young and has lots of promise. The most notable element of the '02 reserve was its weightlessness in the mouth. Very fine wine. Give a holler if you're coming down this way again.