May 30, 2006

Le Cadeau Vineyard, part 1

I was fortunate enough to visit the other day with Tom Mortimer of Le Cadeau Vineyard on Parrett Mountain.

Tom and his wife Deb are unusual in Oregon wine because they live most of the year in Minneapolis, MN. Some years back Tom bought a company based in Dundee and fell in love with Oregon. With a serious wine hobby, it seemed logical to find land and plant a vineyard.

A long search ended at a very rocky southern exposure on Parrett Mountain, south of Newberg proper and just north of the Willamette River, which flows west to east here a short way before turning north again.

The land was a mess. The fir trees had largely been logged, with some notable exceptions. Maples, scotch broom, brambles and poison oak flourished. There wasn’t a view, much less anywhere to plant. But the Mortimers cleared the land, revealing a gorgeous view and seriously rocky soil on which to “create the environment” they wanted.

Much of the northern Willamette Valley vineyards are planted in deep but infertile soils where the roots may never reach the bedrock. There are some areas with shallower soils, but I haven’t seen anything like the bare rock in the vineyards of Parrett Mountain. Chunks of fractured basalt at the surface, with a foot or two of soil in places north and east, but essentially bare rock to the west and south. It’s not the white and grey limestone of Burgundy, it’s rusty red Oregon basalt and it’s beautiful.

Planting was more than challenging in the unforgiving ground. As you go west, you notice the senic wooden trellis posts giving way to metal bars that are the only things able to penetrate the rock. The result is a slow growing vineyard, with smaller vines that produce grapes that seem to show the mineral flavor of the site.

The vineyard itself is a mix of rootstocks and clones, all the Dijon regulars and Pommard, along with the little known Mariafeld clone from Switzerland that produces a large, blackfruited wine. The elevation ranges from 610 to 725 feet, on the higher side for Oregon but still well within the norm.

Plantings were in 1999 and 2002, with additional plans for the uncleared ravine to the southwest. It’s a steep, rocky site that could be terrific if not expensive. But the entire project has been expensive, which led to the name “Black Hole Vineyard” that you don't see on the wine bottles.

How's the wine, you ask? Next time.

May 28, 2006

Oregon Winery Visits

Memorial Day weekend is traditionally the time, along with Thanksgiving, that Willamette Valley wineries open to the public. But I’m sick this weekend and I don’t really like the crowds and traffic anyway, so here’s a recap of some winery visits earlier this month when crowds were low and the roads clear.

We started at Chehalem, which was holding their annual Pinot Noir “best barrel” event. They selected, naturally, what they think is the “best” barrel in the cellar of each of their three vineyards from 2005 for tasting and purchase. The barrels will be bottled separately. The idea is you’ll get the wine exactly from the barrels you tried.

In theory, it’s interesting. But barrel samples are hard to gague, and the whole notion of a “best barrel” seems hokey. Sure, winemakers always have their “best barrels” but selling that to the public seems to me to undermine the whole “wine as a common beverage” thing.

Still, it was a nice chance to taste 2005 Pinot Noir. The Corral Creek was the only heavily oaked wine, with spicy caramel and red fruits. Hopefully they’ll rack this wine into neutral oak until bottling to keep the oak level in check. The Ridgecrest was nicely peppery with signature black fruit and spice. But this wine still has to finish malolactic fermentation, so it will change considerably before bottling. The Stoller was brighter than usual, showing perhaps the cool harvest. Very nice overall, love the balance and loamy, cherry fruit.

From bottle, we also taste the 2004 Cerise, a mostly Gamay and Pinot Noir blend. Delicious, peppery with cool red fruit, very easy to drink. The 2004 3 Vineyard Pinot Noir was a bit wan, just soft and dull today. And the 2004 Corral Creek Pinot Noir lacked the verve of the Cerise and the 2005s.

Chehalem isn’t open to the public regularly, so this was a nice chance to visit the property. But it seems like more and more producers are opening up to the public, and some are building some pretty significant tasting rooms. So we thought we’d check out Penner-Ash’s new place, a big winery on a previously uncharted hill (wine-wise) surrounded by a new estate vineyard.

The wines are equally large-scaled as the facility. Oddly enough, the 2005 Roseo was my favorite wine. Dry, crisp rose with perfume and nerve, surprisingly good. The 2004 Pinot Noir Willamette Valley fits the house style. Big and rich flavors with a polished texture and just the proper amount of spicy oak for an entry level wine at $40. The 2003 Syrah was not so oaky but not terribly varietal. And the 2004 Rubeo, a blend of more Pinot Noir and less Syrah was more Pinot Noir like, oaky with typcial polish. These are impressive wines, so that our guests loved them. But I find them too flawless, glossy rather than toned and too oak influenced. And the prices don't help, at least for this shopper.

Then on to Bergstrom, another new tasting room that is less grand than Penner-Ash but not less pricey. The 2004 Pinot Noir Willamette Valley was good with spicy red fruit. The 2004 Cumberland Reserve was tannic and chewy, more to the house style here. Even more backward was the 2004 Broadley Vineyard, from Monroe in the southern Willamette Valley. Very dark, monolithic with that’s all structure now. Hard to say where a wine like this will end up, but I wouldn’t count on resolution. The 2004 de Lancelotti, the “estate” vineyard around the modest winery on sedimentary soils, had the most unique aroma, with anise and grass, very interesting but tight on the palate, another wine that needs time to show what it has. Finally, the 2004 Bergstrom Vineyard from the Red Hills, just above the Le Pavillon vineyard on the top of a knoll above Worden Hill Road. The was softer and more fragrant, as you would expect the Red Hills to be, cherries, oak spice, less tannic than the others and tasty. But worth $70? Not to me, but the small crowd seemed sold. I can’t argue with that.

So that was the day. Stay tuned for part two of my recent adventures, a visit to Le Cadeau Vineyard on Parrett Mountain.

May 26, 2006

Zinfandel tasting

My tasting group met again recently to taste Zinfandel, so hot in the 1990s but taking more of a back seat in wine circles these days in favor of Syrah.

I love good Zinfandel, a grape that gives about as widely varying wines as you’ll find. And I’m not immediately put off by high alcohol Zinfandel as I am, for example, with Pinot Noir. Like with southern Rhone reds, sometimes a little warmth can add to the exuberance of Zinfandel, which really shouldn’t ever be shy. With a bucket of ribs, nothing beats a big Zin.

With that in mind, I completely enjoyed this tasting even when the wines weren’t exactly elegant or graceful.

We tasted five wines blind, the first being the 2003 Carol Shelton “Wild Thing” from the Cox Vineyard in Mendocino County. Dark ruby violet in color, it showed a fumey, coconutty, waxy red berry aroma, the most obviously oaked wine in the bunch. In the mouth, full bodied with wood tannin and charred berry fruit, maybe a hint of residual sugar. Graceful? No. Elegant? No. Something I’d buy and cellar? No. But with that bucket of ribs, yes. My least favorite here and still worthwhile. Note that the “wild” part is natural yeast fermentation, which didn’t give out until the wine reached more than 15% alcohol.

Next came an older dark ruby wine, with minty brambly zinberry aromas, the mint giving a high-toned component to the perfume. Silky in the mouth, round and mature, not terribly deep but elegant with bright acids and delicious. This was the 1996 Ridge Geyserville, an old vine blend of around 75% Zinfandel and the rest Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Mataro (Mourvedre). Interesting thing about this wine, on release it was quite oaky and not “classic” Ridge. But a few years have yielded a wonderfully integrated old vine wine, classically California.

The third wine was more mature but not old looking, with a muted aroma at first. Then fresher fruit, some volatility but nice complexity, I rated this first on the aroma alone. In the mouth, it’s finely tannic with bright red berry flavors, winey with good length and an integrated feel. This was the 1996 Ravenswood Monte Rosso Vineyard from Louis Martini’s old Sonoma Valley property.

The next wine was the darkest, with a youthful dark red violet color and a sweet, pie filling aroma. Buttery oak, waxy smelling with some pleasant youthful herbaceousness amid the superripe quailities. Big, ripe and round in the mouth, with grape tannin and some obvious alcohol, chewy and tannic but nicely done if a touch overoaked. This was the 2003 Dashe Dry Creek Valley, made by Mike Dashe, formerly of Ridge, who’s made some Zinfandel I’ve perferred more than this one.

Last was a ringer of sorts, the younger vine 2003 Maryhill Zinfandel from the Columbia Valley in Washington state. The cheapest of the lot, but not at all out of class here. Dark ruby with a positiviely huge black pepper aroma, with sweet pie filling and dry herb aroma, all very interesting. Jammy, even a bit goopy but with good tannic structure and even some grapefruity acid that might be added (or not) but seemed well integrated either way. Not bad at all, another good one for a bucket of ribs.

To cap the evening, we tried a half bottle blind. Turbid with sediment with some maturity and a fragrant, ripe but restrained slightly raisiny, spicy aroma. Mildly sweet on the palate with nice balance and concentration, overall a terrific late harvest zinfandel without any volatility. It turns out to be the 1993 Ridge Essence, from the Dusi Ranch in Paso Robles if memory serves.

In sum, a terrific evening of fun, loud wines that’s rekindled my love for Zinfandel. You should try some too.

May 19, 2006

Reading about Oregon wine

Did you notice the big feature on Oregon wine yesterday in the weekly Wine section of the San Francisco Chronicle? It’s worth a read.

Smart of the Chron to get local guy Cole Danehauer to write the piece. Cole writes for the online Oregon Wine Report. He does a good job here conveying the latest happenings in the Willamette Valley to an audience outside Oregon.

Also, today I noticed the latest issue of the Oregon Wine Press magazine, newly redesigned (sort of) after being acquired by News-Register Publishing in McMinnville, down in Yamhill County.

Turns out OWP’s founding operators had to suddenly back away from the business early this year, but the new owner is keeping the publication open with Hilary Berg as managing editor.

The first issue, May 2006, is mostly listings for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend winery fest. But even the scant few articles put together apparently in very short time suggest a brighter future for this fun but probably too folksy publication.

Out with the bizarre if occasionally brilliant interviews and periodic rants about Oregon wine marketing. In perhaps with more consistent coverage of what’s really going on in Oregon wine production, though hopefully without any wine country lifestyle drivel.

And not Oregon related, but I get the Wine Spectator and can you believe that there’s a letter in the latest issue (June 15, 2006) from Kermit Lynch congratulating the publication on its 30th anniversary. He even writes something like “I can’t imagine the wine world without Wine Spectator.”

I don’t know what to make of it, but I couldn’t miss mentioning it. Is he joking?

May 15, 2006

The best $6 red there is

Although I'm hardly the first to say it, the Italian wine producer Masciarelli makes what might be the best $6 (or so) red wine there is.

The latest vintage of their estate bottled Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is the 2002, a rainy harvest in much of Italy that might lead one to believe this wine isn't worth your time if not the few dollars it costs.

But don't be fooled. This might be the best of many years of Masciarelli Montepulciano that I've tried. Consistently rich and fragrant, with a depth that wine two or three times the price hopes for.

Typically this wine is "food" wine, meaning it's not a little bit crisp and tannic. Yet this year's model, while rustic as usual, has an elegance that makes it good with or without dinner.

Most people will call this wine "pizza" wine, suitable only for simple fare. But pop this in a decanter and tell me if it doesn't smell something like a higher grade Tuscan red, and a good one too. I'd serve this with any sort of roasted meat or musroom ragu. Or pizza if you must.

May 07, 2006

Oregon whites

For all the attention paid to Pinot Noir, the northern Willamette Valley produces some terrific white wines. Not all of them Chardonnay, by the way. I tried a few recently that are worth mentioning.

The first was the 2003 Brooks Amycas, a kitchen sink blend that turned out very well. And it’s still going strong. Mostly Pinot Gris and Riesling with some Gewurztraminer, it’s very Gewurz-like with a floral, spicy muscatty aroma and a lightly alcoholic, sweet lychee flavor. This I believe was from the late Jimi Brooks’ last harvest, a nice if simple tribute to him.

Next came the 2004 J. Christopher Sauvignon Blanc Croft Vineyard. Sauvignon Blanc isn’t that common in the Willamette Valley, but with the warmer years recently it seems like a nice prospect for the future. The wine didn’t show nearly as well as some months back, when it was bright and grassy and simply delicious. This night it seemed muted but still tasty. I imagine the 2005 will out soon, I’d look for that one.

Finally the 2004 Francis Tannahill Gewurztraminer Dragonfly, from the Dragonfly vineyard in the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland. This was alcoholic at first and a bit stinky, though fresh and oily rich on the palate. But night two the wine really shined. It smelled sweet like a light dessert wine and tasted viscous and rich, lacking only acidity as the grape does notoriously. This isn’t my first choice for the dinner table, but it’s interesting wine and worth trying if you looking for something off the beaten path.

Grochau Cellars Pinot Noir

Surfing the web the other day, I came across this piece on Grochau Cellars from last year on NPR’s business program Marketplace.

Grochau Cellars is one of many upstart wineries in the northern Willamette Valley. John Grochau is the man behind the curtain here, a former assistant at Brick House as well as sommelier at the terrific Portland restaurant Higgins. The winery isn’t paying the bills for John, yet. You can still find him working a few nights a week at the restaurant.

But it seems like only a matter of time before that goes away, based on what I’ve tried.

I first heard about John from my neighbors who’ve known him for years, back when they were bike mechanics well versed in tune ups and safety breaks.

The first Grochau wine I tried was a very small production “negociant” wine John bought in bulk and blended for a friend’s wedding. Some went to the wedding, some went to local stores simply labelled as “Red” for about $10. This Bordeaux-blend from eastern Washington wasn’t distinguished, but was pretty nice drinking for the price. Apparently John’s coming out with a larger production follow up soon.

But the main wine for Grochau Cellars so far is the Pinot Noir. At Higgins recently we ordered a bottle of the ’04 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, and I have to say this is the most exciting Oregon Pinot Noir I’ve tried in a while. Deep but translucent in color, this has terrific fragrace – perfumed red and black cherries with subtle oak spice and a distinctive mineral note, very well integrated and pretty but wound so that time should only reveal more nuance.

In the mouth this wine is elegant but rich, flavory without heaviness, just the quality I look for in red wine. It’s not so complex as it is pretty, with light tannin and fresh acidity that should hold the wine together for years. The first bottle was emptied quickly, and a second ordered without hesitation. Had I been served this blind, I might have guessed this was from Evesham Wood, perhaps my favorite Oregon producer.

The best part? I think this retails for $24 or so, and it can be found for less. It’s $35 on the Higgins list, which is still quite a deal in top flight Oregon Pinot Noir. 2004 was a small harvest, and Grochau Cellars doesn’t make much wine. But I’ve seen past vintages at major retailers outside Oregon, so it is out there if you do some digging.

More soon after I set up a visit with this exciting new discovery.

Stoller’s new LEED-certified winery

The scene – a gorgeous Oregon spring day, and I found myself touring the newly opened winery at Stoller Vineyards. The facility is solar powered with features and workspace that are embarassingly attractive.

Stoller is located on the southwestern most flank of the Dundee Hills. It’s a former turkey ranch with premium southern exposure, and a steeper upper slope than I previously realized. Along with the deep but low fertility Jory soils and volcanic basalt geology, this is certainly one of the most ideal sites in the northern Willamette Valley.

The Stollers are partners in Chelalem winery in Newberg, long the source of the most visible Stoller vineyard Pinot Noir in the market. But over the past few years, the Stollers have produced their own label, initially at Chelalem but now in this sparkling new facility just below the vineyard.

The crushpad and fermentation room are the ground and top floor of the foursquare facility. (If there’s any criticism to make, it would be about the fairly bland outward appearance. But that’s picking nits.) Inside there’s a line of stainless steel fermentors, 3- and 5-ton varieties, elevated between tracks that can hold equipment for crushing straight into the vats or doing mechanical punchdowns. Very nice on the shoulders and back.

There’s a middle level below the fermentation room where pressed wine can settle before moving to barrels below, and space for case wine storage. To bottom level is the cave, with multiple barrel storage rooms carved between the load bearing walls. That allows the red wine barrels to be kept cool while other space is warmed when necessary for white wine barrel fermentation. There’s no having to do it all in one open space like you find in many other facilities.

After the barrel rooms came the solar power set up. Apparently the facility captures enough sun-energy to power 40% of the winery at maximum usage. Most of the time they feed power back to the grid, so the facility uses substantially less commercial energy than it ordinarily would.

The office and lab space was impressive, as was the stylish – perhaps too much so – tasting room. In short, the facility looks like terrific place to produce wine. And winemaker Melissa Burr, formerly of Cooper Mountain, seems like the whole package.

How are the wines? Commercially very good. Not terribly distinctive, and not my favorite wines, but well make, fairly priced, and most certainly good drinking.

The ’04 Chardonnay is plump and toasty but not overdone and retaining some fresh acidity. The ’04 “JV” Pinot Noir is designed to drink young. It’s bright and fruity, almost candied, but pleasantly earthy with a touch of sulfur that should go away.

The main wine is the ’03 Pinot Noir, which is ripe but not as ripe as I would have guessed from such a warm vintage. Stoller vineyard is a warm site with a low elevation in the lowest blocks. But this ’03 was pretty attractive, with some alcohol and generic toastiness along with distinctive turned earth aromas mixing with the signature macerated cherries. Very attractive wine that won’t be hard to sell, despite the uninspiring label design.

All in all, the site is top notch, the facility is top notch, and the wines are safe but good in their way. What if this producer really broke out and produced something of more intensity without quite the heft? Is that possible in this warm-site vineyard? Time will tell as the producer grows into its new facility. But so far, so good.