March 28, 2006

More geology from the northern Willamette Valley

Following up on my recent visit to a geological society meeting, I paid a visit to Portland State University geologist Scott Burns for more information on the soils and rocks of the northern Willamette Valley.

First, Burns' office is filled with rocks of all kinds. I think if you look up the word rockhound, you'll see his picture.

Second, Burns clearly loves wine and loves talking about wine and geology. So I asked him a few questions to get a little more insight on the local territory.

I knew our geology here is either volcanic basalt or ocean sediments. But where did the soils on the basalt come from? I wasn't sure if they were wind-blown deposits, but in fact our volcanic soils are mostly eroded basalt. Hence their red color and, given their age of 14 million years, low fertility.

And what about the "bathtub ring" left over from the Missolua floods 10,000-15,000 years ago? These floods covered the Willamette Valley floor with rich "Woodburn" deposits up to a height of 400 feet. However, most of these deposits settled below 200 feet or so, with rapidly thinning deposits the higher you go up to the bathtub ring.

So the best vineyard land in this part of Oregon is above the flood deposits, at least 200-250 feet and ideally higher still. However, there are places below 400 feet particularly in the Eola Hills with shallow and infertile soils that suggest the bathtub ring (or maximum height of the Missolua floods) might vary depending on location.

I'll investigate that further as I delve into the further refinement and reclassification of many soils in this area. Stay tuned.

Giacomo Conterno tasting at Liner & Elsen

A week ago Saturday saw yet another terrific event at my favorite wine shop in Portland, Liner and Elsen.

This time it was the wines of Giacomo Conterno, one Barbera and three Baroli, all at no charge. Pouring was Bob Liner of Galaxy Wine Co., a Portland-based wine distributor, alongside Roberto Conterno in town from Italy.

The wines of G. Conterno fit the traditional house style, showing very young and mostly unforgiving early on. Yet these are all wines of quality, even if I can't afford any but the first.

As G. Conterno no longer produces Dolcetto, we began with the 2003 Barbera Cascina Francia. Healthy dark ruby in color, this is ripe and even a bit roasted aromatically with a fleshy texture and good length with healthy but unobtrusive acids. If all '03 Barbera are this good, wow. Even at $26, this is a deal in top quality Piemontese wine that tastes good now but should hang on for several years.

Then the Baroli, designated Cascina Francia as are all the wines of this Serralunga-based producer. First the 2001 Barolo, in three words tight, tight, tight. Floral aromas with nice red fruit but criminally young.

Second, the 2000 Barolo, which is ripe as this warm vintage would suggest, but with young and stern acidity, mouthfilling but in need of time.

Finally, the 1999 Barolo, the most expressive of the three today but again simply too young for complete enjoyment. More tar and floral aromatics, tannic in the mouth but promising.

With each of the Baroli priced at $110, I can't exactly recommend buying. But if you like ageworthy, authentic Barolo, and you have the cash, you'd be hard pressed to find better things to toss into the cellar.

You might also make sure you're young. These are wines for drinking in 20 or 30 years, especially the 2001.

March 20, 2006

Dinner at Tabla

This past weekend saw three wine events, which is three more than I usually seem to attend these days. But this is Magnum Madness weekend, with an added bonus of a little Giacomo Conterno tasting that I’ll get to later.

Friday night I arranged a dinner at Tabla in NE Portland with Magnum Madness hosts Marshall and Carolyn Manning, the Portolover himself Roy Hersh and friend Justin down from the Seattle area, and Becca Hunt and Jimmie Wellman from out Yakima way. The theme: Mediterranean and friends, meaning anything made in or inspired by the region. Not that we kept to that.

These being good and generous folks, we drank well with a truly eclectic line up that ended up complementing Tabla’s diverse flavors nicely. By the way, Tabla is hot, and Eddie Robinson is tearing it up in a well-staffed kitchen. Definitely eat here.

We started with the 1998 Rudi Pichler Riesling Smaragd (designation missed), that was very fresh but showing nice aromas of early maturity. Bright, almost piercing on the palate, very focused, delicious and still young. No rush here.

Next came an out of order red, the 2001 Edmunds St. John Los Robles Viejos. An hommage to Chateauneuf du Pape from the Berkeley producer wine from all over California, this mourvedre, grenache and syrah blend from the limestone soils of west Paso Robles delivers. Neutral cask ageing, natural fermentations, and terrific, pure fruit and earth flavors. One of the few California wines that easily suggests France but in the end displays what California can produce.

We went back to white for the 2002 Chave Hermitage Blanc, paired with a substantial Amuse Bouche of chorizo on a chickpea base with whipped chive crème fraîche. Nice combination of spice and sweet cream, and once the Chave warmed up, what a pure aroma of marsanne and roussane. Not so thick and oily on the palate as a better vintage might be, but lovely in the mouth with minerality good length.

Then the 1995 Chateau Musar, a favorite obscurity of mine, red wine from the Bekka Valley of Lebanon. A blend of cinsault, grenache, and cabernet sauvignon in unclear amounts, this wine is never for the unadventurous. Tonight’s bottle was good but not great, young to be sure but showing some volatility without too much depth. Round on the palate, more like a southern Rhone than anything else, typcially farmy and certainly a nice drink. Not a match to my organic greens but what is?

The 1989 Produttori di Barbaresco Montestefano seemed less intense than I expected, but it was a pretty wine with nice nebbiolo fragrance and a silky texture if not so complex and long. A nice accompaniment to parpadelle with rabbit ragu.

Next came my contribution, the impossibly tight 1990 Ch. Pradeaux Bandol. The color of a 2000 with a narrow aroma of black fruits and eventually some forest notes. Tight, tight, tight on the palate. Will this ever come around? A fine drink and better with food, but a few people wondered aloud if this would ever turn into something special. Hold for ten more years if you have any. Need more sap.

Then the coup de grace, my first Unico. Specially the 1986 Vega Scilia “Unico” Ribera del Deuro. Again, impossibly dark and youthful color. How does something kept in cask for so many years stay so vibrant? Well integrated fragrance of berries, American oak cedar and light dill notes (I don't mind dill, unlike many in the wine world), and charred earth, this wasn’t an oak bomb but a beautifully textured, silky and fairly long drink. If you like Spanish reds, this is really nice though perhaps not a blockbuster Unico that other vintages deliver. I tried this and a few others with my duck confit, which (again) was delicious. As one taster noted, what a good use of salt at Tabla.

Finally, the 1986 Ch. Climens Barsac for dessert. Still a bright, lightish color with a fresh pineapple and slightly volatile aroma. Sweet and pure on the palate, ginger, tropical fruit but not heavy with botrytis, I really liked this and thought it plenty long. The most persnickety in the bunch thought it not as good as ooooother vintages. Yeah, sure.

Then exeunt, satisfied.

March 13, 2006

Winemaking update

After five months élevage, I’m pleased to report that I haven’t yet screwed up the wine I started making last fall in my garage.

Honestly, in my early years of homebrewing, I can’t tell you the problems I faced. Some of them with my encouragement, just to see what would happen.

My best wine to date was a very – very – modest 2002 Willamette Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. 2002 was a nice harvest, and the last weekend in October I learned the true meaning of something being “ripe for the pickin’” – cabernet of all things, on Ribbon Ridge.

But it was ripe...enough. Around 22.5 brix with some nice flavors, if heavily varietal in a pleasantly cabernet way.

The wine turned out light – I only made 3 gallons and you won’t get much flavor out of that. But I did nothing to the wine aside from adding a little sulfur and letting it soak until fermentation started naturally. And it turned out sound. All 15 bottles. I still have a few.

With this year’s wine, I did things in the manner I was learning while working harvest.

When I last reported, my 2005 Pinot Noir from Courting Hill Vineyard was resting in my basement in a 4-year-old, 50L Slovonian oak barrel with 5 liters of topping wine. I’m down to less than half of that, probably due to my cool but dry cellar. I’ve been religious about topping up the barrel, and sampling the wine as it really becomes finished wine.

What is “finished wine?” After pressing, the new wine is raw and hard, having not gone through the softening malolactic fermentation nor seen the beneficial, slow oxidation of cask ageing.

Wine is finished when the winemaker decides, though the keys are biological stability and a flavor and aromatic profile that just seems right. Sometimes there’s also the fact that you need to free up space for new wine.

Over time, even my modest Pinot Noir has become more round on the palate, with greater length and an overall sense of harmony. Slowly I can see the finished wine emerge. Grand cru stuff, this will never be. More on the gamay side with brightly acidic flavors, but with some sweetness if not much soil character. Already it’s something I’d be happy to drink, which is saying something.

Most people ask me when I will know when to bottle. I don’t really know. I hope I can tell through tasting, but I can’t see holding it beyond August. This is a wine for early drinking, I think. The fresher the better.

March 08, 2006

Taiwan - it was a good shift

I travelled to Taiwan recently, my first time in Asia. What a place.

It's actually hard for me to find the right words to describe my experience. If I'd never travelled much outside the U.S., I think I would have been bewildered by how truly different the culture and feel of the place is to home.

Sure, they have donut shops and Starbucks, but under the surface things are really different there. And really interesting.

First, I discovered how pleasantly familiar it was to be foreigner again. It felt great to be an outsider.

But really the smells were the story. Incense, street food, even bakeries that sometimes reminded me of France. Not that the bread was anything like France, though the pastries in many places were delicious and cheap.

The fragrant night markets and street carts littering the city are obvious attractions for even novice foodies like me. But most impressive were the smells in the basement of a department store in Kaohsiung. The food court of a department store, reeking of ginger and spices! It was amazing.

There was even a McDonald's in the corner, and sure, it drew a crowd. But there were maybe a dozen other outlets all offering various Asian cuisine, cooked fresh with real ingredients (for the most part) served on reusable wooden trays and big soup bowls or cast iron skillets with your order. And it all smell so good.

In a department store food court!

Plus, for about $5US you can eat really well in many places. Just be ready to try stuff you've either never heard of or don't want to ask about. G.I. tract lovers, you'll be well served.

But what about the wine?

Taiwan is warm and even I'd rather drink beer in most occasions just because of the climate. But I was surprised to find a nice selection of things, with prices high but not as high as you might think given how low demand probably is.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but the people eat so traditionally that I can't imagine they drink outside of their tradition (beer and whiskey as far as I can tell). Certainly I didn't see too many people consuming wine in public eateries. And it seems like everyone eats out, and often.

I found the predictable Australian producers on store shelves. Looked like the Antinori salespeople make regular calls in the higher end locations. There was also lots of Bordeaux, though not many deals. And in one spot I even found some Oregon wines, notably from Willakenzie and Henry Estate. Neither was cheap, but then again probably only half again what you'd pay here, which isn't bad for export.

Where to find wine? The internet didn't give me much information before I went. Apparently the big box stores in the larger cities are good, places like Carrefour, Tesco, and RT Mart. However, I didn't make it to any of those.

The upscale market Jason's in Taipei and Kaohsiung had the best selection I found, but higher prices too boot. Ultimately, I found the market halls in the basements of local department stores to occasionally have great selections and probably the best deals I saw. Still, I didn't find anything I couldn't live without. A wine shopping desitnation this isn't.

In the end, I drank more beer, and really it tasted great with the food. Anything notably good? No, really it was just about crisp, fresh and cold beer, none of it distinguished or memorable.

The same can't be said for the classic line uttered by a family friend, who's no wine geek but sure likes his beer and knows the local bartenders well. He'd crack open a cold one, smell the contents and exhale before declaring, "it was a good shift."

The best inexpensive sparkling wine of late

Really good, inexpensive sparkling wine is not easy to find.

Sure, there's good, cheap stuff to be had. But there's a lot more garbage, overly sweet wines that taste like soda pop and watery, flavorless stuff that gives sparkling wate a bad name.

I've enjoyed a variety of things around or even under $15 that represent their typcially modest terroir well. There are some real values in Prosecco, Cava, sparkling Vouvray, even a few California and Oregon producers, among many examples the world over.

But really good, inexpensive sparkling wine? Nope. Just doesn't really happen. Mostly, they're just good, especially for the money.

Then there's the latest bottling of NV Hubert Clavelin et Fils "Brut-Comte" from the Cotes du Jura, a 100% chardonnay bottling that positively dazzles. And it costs just $13.50.

What? You've never heard of the Jura? Yes, some of you have. But for the less obsessive, it's a range of hills in France due east of Burgundy, with similar limestone soils that produce terrific wines that don't get much play in the U.S. Perhaps that will change.

The Brut-Comte has fine bubbles with a frothy mousse and a fragrant, well integrated and complex aroma of apples, dough, and minerals. In the mouth, it's flavorful and rich but so light on its feet, with a mix of apple, citrus, toast, and mineral flavors, good length but weightless and truly elegant to the end.

I'm amazed a wine this natural and pure, so rich and yet so cool, can sell for so little money. Seek this out, even if it's hard to find. The importer is Weygant-Metzler, which has a little write up on its web site.

And if you can't find this, don't miss the well distributed NV Gruet Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine. Straight out of...Albequerque, New Mexico, Gruet offers consistently nice, reasonably priced Blanc de Blancs and this especially attractive Blanc de Noirs. It's light copper in color from its Pinot noir grape, with strawberry and clean earth aromas and flavors, and a hint of sweetness. It's terrific with Sunday brunch. And it usually costs around $14.