April 30, 2006

Quick tasting at Bethel Heights

My parents are in town for the weekend, so we drove down the valley yesterday to check out the sites.

Leaving the freeway at Woodburn, we passed fields of hops, berries, and seed grasses on our way to the Wheatland Ferry. Crossing the Willamette River on a car ferry is like going back in time a little bit, giving you a few minutes to enjoy floating over the water.

Going west, the ferry leaves you right at the base of the Eola Hills. So we drove up Zena Road to Bethel Heights for a quick tasting before looping around the Red Hills on our way back to Portland.

What a line up at Bethel Heights. They were pouring just about everything they produce without any charge. Being the driver, I sampled just a few including a 2004 stainless steel fermented and aged Chardonnay that was varietal and fairly crisp with a pleasant flavor.

But what really impressed me was the 2001 Bethel Heights Freedom Hill Pinot Noir. Showing a bit of age in the color, this smelled earthy and meaty without uncleanliness and tasting elegant and long, with more intensity and interest than any of the 2001s I tried in a recent tasting. Not tannic and hard like the Freedom Hill reputation, this is drinking beautifully and seems like it will last for a while.

For $30 this isn't cheap, but if you like savory Pinot Noir instead of the jammy, fruit packed versions, definitely seek this out. You might even find it for less, as wineries retailers are still occasionally moving 2001s at close out prices.

Reading Peynaud

I just finished reading Emile Peynaud’s classic book, Knowing and Making Wine. If you’re seriously interested in making wine, it’s simply a must read.

This book was written more than 20 years ago, so naturally some of the information is dated. But much is still current and, knowing the influence this book has had on winemakers all over the world, it’s not surprising how common many of Peynaud’s techniques are in modern cellars.

Before reading this book, I had the idea that Peynaud was a modernist in terms of wine philosophy. You know, better wine through science. And that’s true, the book goes into great detail about scientific advances in all aspects of wine production. Peynaud clearly believed in the ability of science to assist quality wine production. He refers to it as “knowing” the wine more fully.

But what strikes me most about the book is Peynaud’s philosophy of discretion throughout the process of quality wine production. He conveys the notion that you should do no more than is absolutely necessary to produce the highest quality wine possible. That’s hard to argue with.

One example – “The Age-Old Practice of Using a Starter Culture” section on page 104. Here Peynaud talks about beginning the harvest by starting a small fermentation “with or without yeasts added” and using that to innoculate the others as grapes are harvested and processed on the crush pad.

Of course, on the following page he describes “Modern Innocuation Techniques.” But it’s up to you to decide what to do. Peynaud simply gives you the information to make your decision. He’s the messenger of science-based wine making techniques, not necessarily advocating for their use in making laboratory “Frankenwine.”

The other most fascinating thing in this book is Peynaud’s practical, even obsessive, tips about cellar organization and efficiency. He writes about what shape of fermentation tank is best, which to avoid, how to arrange your cellar, how to process the grapes…essentially everything you need to know to make high quality wine on a small scale, or industrial quality wine on a massive scale.

It’s a tremendously helpful read for any winemaker, professional or amateur. And it’s surprisingly readable despite the sometimes stiff translation from the French. Even serious winelovers would do well to give this a go, if they desire a comprehensive yet concise view of how wine is produced.

April 20, 2006

Tasting 2001 Oregon Pinot Noir

My tasting group met recently to go through a number of 2001 Oregon Pinot Noir. It was a bittersweet affair, with our instigator Chris leaving to be a vigneron in his native Missouri.

The wines were interesting if not thrilling, as is the case with too much Oregon wine. But it’s always a good time with this group and tonight was no exception.

As usual, the wines were tasted blind, which I find a curious practice but on these occasions worthwhile.

We began with the 2001 Privé Le Nord, showing an evolved color with unpleasantly buttery caramel and toast aromas. Silky and round on the palate but it seems to be coming apart at the seams a bit. I heard this won big praise on release but it’s not pretty now. Drink up.

Next was the 2001 Witness Tree Vintage Select, with a fresher cherry floral aroma and a silky round, even mineral flavor amid some candied fruit. Good but would have been terrific without the confectionary notes.

Then the 2001 Maysara Estate Cuvee, from own-rooted Pommard vines. Fresher still, with cherry and smoked sausage aromas and some volatility. In the mouth, fine grape tannin and ripe cola and cherry flavors, not bad.

A surprise was the 2001 Bergstrom Willamette Valley, the basic bottling that has never shown to me like some of the heavier examples from this producer. Instead, this was vinuous with meaty floral notes and purple aromas, probably some brett too. Tangy cherry flavors, monotone but balanced and nice, maybe even worth holding.

I somehow figured out this was 2001 Holloran Le Pavillon, as it showed what this vineyard seems to show to me. That’s classic loamy Red Hills cherry fruit aromas with some dust, darker this time but somehow typical of its site. Silky but chunky on the palate with some alcohol sticking out, not so long and lacking complexity. Good enough really, but not special.

Finally the 2001 Patrice Rion Savigny Les Beaune thrown in for fun. Obviously French, but tart and lacking depth or complexity, even a little sour. Just not what I go for in any wine, but sadly too common in Burgundy. It seems all wine regions have their work cut out for them.

April 17, 2006

Real Wine by Patrick Mathews

I recently reread one of my favorite wine books, Real Wine by Patrick Matthews. It’s uncommonly well written and one of those truly enjoyable reads that holds up the second time around.

Matthews wrote this about five years ago, yet most of the information seems as current and ahead of the curve today. In it, he surveys wine from vineyard planting and grape growing to vinification and wine selling, telling stories of characters past and present generally possessed by their passion for wine.

The subject, naturally enough, is real wine. Which Matthews defines on p. 167 as “one that tells a truthful story about its growing conditions, and whose concentration of colour, flavor and texture is determined in the vineyard, not the winery.”

Bascially, real wine is authentic to its site, grapes, and vintage. Why else label wine by any of these attributes if we don’t accept the uniqueness that each will provide?

And that’s not code for spoiled, rotten, acidic wine. No, Matthews specifically points out that real wine tastes better. And for all I know, it’s true.

Perhaps the most exciting geek content in this book is that about French soil scientist Claude Bourguignon and the vine’s uptake of soil minerals, transmitting the flavor of the soil to the grape.

That’s a common notion in wine marketing, but apparently not so with the scientists I’ve come across. Yet here I found for the first time a description of soil organisms chelating minerals into forms usable by grape vines. This is one reason Bourguignon promotes farming practices that encourage living soils.

Real Wine is the book that first got me excited about soils and wine, but it definitely has more to offer than just technical stuff. Matthews is a wine lover and journalist, and it shows in his writing. You should read this book.

April 13, 2006

Magnum Madness 2006

I’m late again with the report from last month’s annual magnum bottle bash at the Manning's. This year saw another incredible line up, with a few high points missed by yours truly. However, I did manage to taste some marvelous wines in between seeing lots of familiar and friendly new faces. Even a few readers of this, ahem, vanity site.

The whites were nice as always, but none stood out immensly. One exception was the 1989 Zind Humbrecht Hengst Gewurztraminer VT, which smelled sweeter than it tasted.Delicious.

The lighter reds table had the usual array of new and old Oregon Pinor noir, among a broad mix of things. Memorable were the primary but solid 2002 Thomas Pinot Noir Willamette Valley and a more than alive 1995 St. Innocent Pinot Noir Freedom Hill, with a touch of dill but otherwise nice mature aromas and flavors. In the mix was a terrific 2003 Charles Joguet Chinon Varennes du Grand Clos, positively delicious and ageworthy Cabernet franc. But stealing the aromatic show was a 1981 Mt. Eden Pinot Noir from California's Santa Cruz Mountains. Unfortunately, it didn't deliver on the palate as it apparently had when first opened.

By the time I made it downstairs, a few of the bigger red wines were already being finished. I missed the 1989 Vieux Telegraph Chateauneuf du Pape (which was apparently excellent) and the 1995 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chappelle. Still, I loved the 2003 Ridge Geyserville, the classic old vine blend that smelled earthy rather than woody, like Geyservilles of old. The 2001 Produttori du Barbaresco normale that I brought – decanted for a few hours before arriving – was frankly better than I expected. There were many others to enjoy as well.

And I haven’t even gotten to the dessert wines. Among other things were the 1989 Baumard Coteaux du Layon Paon, 1969 Baumard CdL Clos St. Catherine, 2002 Inniskillen Vidal Ice Wine, and 1975 Taylor’s Porto.

The Paon was nice, still youthful and classically sweet. The 1969 Clos St. Catherine I’d had once before, and it was stunning then. Tonight, not nearly as nice, but still a good wine. It just lacks the intensity and depth it showed previously. Hard to quibble with birthyear wine though. Thanks to the generous stranger who brought both of these.

The Inniskillin Vidal from Canada's Niagara Peninsula was courtesy of Roy Hersh, the man behind For the Love Of Port, down from Seattle for the weekend. What a beautiful wine, fat and sweet but crystaline. My first taste of Vidal last year suggested it would make nice dessert wine. Indeed.

And finally the 1975 Taylor’s, which wasn’t a top wine but clearly top shelf quality here, aging nicely if lacking in depth what it has in relative freshness. A nice drink, and a fine way to close the evening.

And once more, to the bus.

2004 Domaine la Bastide Syrah

Want to know the best under-$10-wine I’ve had in a while? It’s the 2004 Domaine la Bastide Syrah, a Vin de Pays D’Hauterive from Corbieres-based propietor Guilhem Durand. Check out the importer’s web site for more information.

This Syrah, which one local market has for only $8, is year in and year out one of the best buys in wine. But somehow the 2004 strikes me as the best I’ve tried, so bright and lively in the mouth with just enough richness. It has simple flavors but terrific purity, an honest French syrah that beats the pants off industrial shiraz.

The 2003 is still around in places, and it’s also pretty nice though riper and a little squishy. Yet it’s also real wine and well worth buying. Perhaps you’ll like this one better.

April 09, 2006

Hill country wine

I’m just back from a week visiting in-laws outside of Austin in the Texas “hill country,” where I envied the white chalky limestone soils. The climate for grapes there is a bit extreme, with drought, heat, flooding rain, humity and high disease pressure.

But oh those fractured soils, limey and delicious.

Oregon’s soils are generally acidic, so we see pine trees and rhododendrens among other acid-loving things. Grapes obviously grow and thrive in our acidic soils. But we don’t share the higher ph limestone soils you find all over France and other key growing regions in the world.

Of course, the Texas hill country has tons of it. And vineyards too, as most of the wineries in Texas seem to be in this large area.

I only tried a few local things on this trip, all of which were surprisingly pleasant as I typically find Texas wines to be. That’s a compliment. And I’m sure there are some really bad wines out there. But whites from Fall Creek and reds from Becker that I tasted were all nicely varietal and drinkable, if not terribly interesting, just like they always seem.

Not sure what they cost, but I can’t say I’d seek any of the wines I’ve tried so who cares. Drink them if you’re there, you might be surprised. Otherwise pay no attention here, at least until my next visit.