June 28, 2006

My First Crush: Misadventures in Wine Country

I just finished reading My First Crush by Linda Kaplan, who until last year was the co-owner of Panther Creek winery here in Oregon. It’s a fun read, not the best wine book ever but perfectly worth your time. Especially if you’re looking to learn a bit about what really goes on in an Oregon winery.

Kaplan’s book details the tumultuous first year of operating a winery after her husband Ron somewhat suddenly took his wine passion to another level by purchasing the McMinnville business. That the Kaplans lived in Des Moines, IA, only complicated what would be a tough transition for almost anyone.

So Kaplan has plenty of stories to tell. The purchase, leaving Iowa and old friends, the journey west, arrival in Oregon, finding a place to live, the first harvest, wine tastings, wine dinners, making new friends and meeting old ones again.

Kaplan is an experienced writer, and she handles the book professionally. It’s not flashy, which is a plus. But it isn’t as poignant as I think she intended it to be. Still, she conveys the sensitivity of her transition to Oregon life well.

The book begins with a recipe for Pinot Noir. The story is that Kaplan, previously a white zinfandel drinker, couldn’t imagine the winery didn’t come with a recipe for making the wine. After all, good mid-western woman know that recipes are essential to success in food or beverage preparation.

The recipe symbolizes her initial naiveté about wine, which she overcomes with determination seemingly fueled by the angst felt by any50-something woman, a recent empty nester in an unfamiliar part of the country and business. The angst propels her to succeed in gaining wine knowledge and hosting savvy, the bread and butter of boutique winery owners.

Such that, in the end…well, why don’t you read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, I don’t share her appreciation for Panther Creek wines. But that’s beside the point. You can drink any Oregon wine with this book and have some fun.

You might even get the urge to sort grapes or, gasp, become a certified fork lift operator.

June 26, 2006

Summer is Port time

Ah, summertime. It’s 100F out but I’m here in the cool basement thinking about Port. Typically thought of only in the cold winter months, Port is good any time of year.

Especially when a certain someone recently gifts you special Port glasses like mine did me. My new glasses are like tiny champagne flutes, only a bit wider in relation. They present wine in a pleasing way, though pretty much any glass will do.

Two wines I’ve enjoyed lately are predictably cheap, or should I say inexpensive. One more so than the other, though naturally it ain’t as good. And mind you, I’m writing about real Port, not the fake stuff from around the world labelled as such. Much of that can be quite good, but it’s not real Port even if they use the traditional grapes of Touriga Nacional and its Tinta friends.

First is the NV Broadbent Auction Reserve Lot 1, a blend of wines 4 to 7 years old that sells for $10 per 375ml. This is essentially ruby Port, a lighter, early drinking style of vintage Port without much of its grip or intensity.

The wine smells a bit alcoholic, but even the Broadbent Selectionsliterature admits so. And it seems to fit the rustic, traditional profile of the wine. Just serve it cool and you’ll be set. It has an otherwise pleasing aroma of preserved plums and spice, with simple but mouthfilling flavors, a bit sweet but balanced with light tannin and acidity. This is not refined port but it satisfies. It’s terrific patio or camping wine for drinking now.

Broadbent Selections labels the Auction Reserve from the well-regarded producer Niepoort, which makes my other recent favorite.

The 1998 Niepoort Late Bottled Vintage is "traditionally" bottled LBV but made in a more modern style than the Auction Reserve. Traditionally, LBVs are bottled 4 years after harvest where Vintage Port is bottled at 2 years. Both are intended to age in bottle, LBVs maturing sooner for their extended cask time and their realtively lighter intensity.

The ’98 Niepoort LBV has a dark purplish red color with a fresh fruit aroma, much like a modern Portugese table wine, mixed with nice pepper, spirit, and otherwise classic “Port” aromas. In the mouth, the wine is moderately sweet with grape, plum, light pepper and leather flavors, mild tannins and good length. If you don’t mind the more modern, grapey style, this wine is impressive. It’s a little over $20 for a 750ml bottle, and you might find a different vintage, but trust the producer. This is something you can cellar for a few years, or bring to a dinner party.

Even if it's 100 degrees. Who doesn't love someone who shows up with good Port?

June 17, 2006

Wherein bad wine is apparently good

Sometimes wine just makes me scratch me head. Despite the subjectivity of taste, I still think I know good wine from bad. But then I go and try something popular with the critics and subsequently the masses, and I feel completely lost and disconnected from my fellow humans.

Case in point - the 2004 Las Rocas de San Alejandro Garnacha. This is Spanish red wine made from the grenache grape, the king of the southern Rhone Valley in France and hardly anywhere else.

Along comes Spain, with seemingly endless tracts of old and young wine grenache that is allegedly - if you believe what you read - taking over the wine world with some of the best quality wine for the money anywhere.

Las Rocas, a co-op wine from the Calatayud region, has a few vintages of glowing reviews from the tastemaker himself, Robert Parker. Do a quick Google search and you'll find bloggers drooling over this stuff. So I see a bottle of the latest release for $10, which isn't as cheap as you can find this...wine elsewhere, and listen carefully the wine clerk's assurance, "I think you'll really like this wine," and toss a bottle in the grocery cart. Never mind that the clerk doesn't know anything about me or my taste in wine. Who needs to know any of that? This is good wine, everybody knows it, so naturally I'll enjoy it.

I get home and open the wine, pour a glass and notice a seemingly unnatural purple color. This is grenache, which even with the best producers tends to give a cherry red wine (if not something much lighter). But this wine looks more like motor oil, with an oily sheen and a violet tinge to the black/red color.

I smell the wine. Burnt rubber tires, stewed cherries and plums, pepper (this is grenache after all), and strange vegetal fruit syrup aromas. This is a winner - weirdest wine of the year, to date. What is this? Who did what to common grapes to end up with this? Can a wine smell harsh? This one does.

Reluctantly, I taste the wine. It's predictably sweet and fleshy, with warm alcohol and possibly a touch of residual sugar, cola flavors with berries, that vegetal syrup thing, more burnt rubber tires, low acid until a strange, false sense of acidity pokes holes in the revolting flavor, gracelessly but happily ending the experience.

I smell the wine again. It's still the same. I taste it again. No change.

Honestly, if I made this wine - and make no mistake, this wine is true creation - I would think it should be sold off in bulk. In winespeak, it's clearly reductive, which can go away with exposure to air. But it also seems to show mercapten, which isn't so easily reversible. Mercapten is the nasty stuff they put into odorless natural gas so you'll smell as gas leak. So that the smell is nasty enough that you'll do something about it. Quickly.

No, this is critically acclaimed wine recommended by wine retailers, resold by wine bloggers, and apparently loved by the masses. Great value, terrific QPR, back up the truck, buy it by the case.

But I'm left thirsty and in a foul mood for having wasted time and money on this wine. Not to mention the fracture in my soul for knowing such wines exist and that I clearly can't tell you what will appeal to the average person. So note that and read further entries in this journal accordingly. You've been warned.

June 16, 2006

Good, cheap nebbiolo

Lately I’ve been on a nebbiolo kick, and knowing my budget, it better be good and cheap. Which is a tall order for nebbiolo. Like pinot noir, nebbiolo is a tempermental grape that in the lesser spots and with lax farming tends to produce a lightly flavored, tart wine. Not awful wine, but not always very good, even with dinner.

But there are some little gems out there, some commonly available, others – like most good values – quite limited.

I’ve mentioned the Langhe Nebbiolo from Produttori du Barbaresco, which everybody mentions. It’s good, traditional nebbiolo with pretty fragrance though often lacking intensity if not tannin. This is wine for food and, even then, this isn’t easy, cozy wine. At $14 locally it’s a bargain in real Piemontese wine, if that’s your thing.

Then there’s the off vintage closeout, a whole ‘nother kettle of bargain. (I should write something about the major categories of wine values and which are the best...but that’s another day.)

I subscribe to the theory that good producers make good wine in most years. There are exceptions to every rule, and 2002 in Piemonte was apparently the most challenging harvest in a generation. Still, I’ve tried a few wines from the vintage and been impressed at what’s available at the low end.

Case in point – the 2002 Ugo Equio Langhe Nebbiolo. For $12 with discount, this wine is terrific. Apparently it’s declassified Barbaresco, probably blended with what lower end wine they could salvage from the rainy harvest. And it’s really quite good for the money.

It has a rich red color with a slightly orange rim, which is typcial for nebbiolo. It’s fragrant with classic nebiolo aromas of tar and flowers, and some balsamic notes. More rich than the Produttori ever is, but not modern and generic smelling. Then comes the tannin.

The flavors are ripe and interesting, but the tannin is strong in this wine. Clearly this is something to drink with a meal, or even cellar a couple years – not longer, even the best “bad year” wines tend to mature early.

This wine is lower in acidity, which purists won’t like. And it’s not Barbaresco because it’s coarse, lacking the refinement and texture of great Barbaresco but not necessarily lacking the flavor.

And for $12 and change, it’s a steal.

June 01, 2006

Le Cadeau Vineyard, part two

After touring Le Cadeau Vineyard, Tom Moritmer and I went inside the small house he and Deb have built where we sampled some wine. As Tom opened and poured the 2002 Pinot Noir, he told me about the winemakers at Le Cadeau.

The first two vintages, 2002 and 2003, were made by Isabelle Dutartre, a French friend of Veronique Drouhin at Domain Drouhin Oregon. Isabelle previously worked for Drouhin here and in France, and is now winemaker for Deponte, a producer just below Domaine Drouhin in the southwestern end of the Dundee Hills. At Le Cadeau, she blended the entire vineyard in the Drouhin style, making a restrained and powerfully mineral wine.

The 2002 Le Cadeau Pinot Noir is a fragrant wine, with strong rocky aromas along with layers of ripe cherries, clove, and cinnamon. It smells distinctly Oregon with its ashy, earthy notes, but it’s uncommonly mineral and attractive for that. In the mouth it’s firm and young with good acidity, not yet revealing its richness. Some alcohol peeks through after a while, but it’s not bothersome. Along with the 2004 Grochau Cellar Pinot Noir, this is the most exciting Oregon wine I’ve had in some time. Just give it a few years.

To contrast, Tom poured the 2003 Le Cadeau Pinot Noir. This smells like boysenberries at first before relaxing to a lightly roasted, red raspberry aroma. There’s alcohol showing here but I’m more sensitive to that in Oregon wines than most drinkers it seems. In the mouth, it begins with good intensity amid the ripe fruit flavors, definitely some mineral tones in there, but over time the alcohol seems to overwhelm. If you don’t always serve red wine cool, do it with this one. It’s still more French in style than you tend to find in Oregon, with a restraint despite its size. But it simply has that roasted fruit of 2003. Still, it’s lush and I bet it’s an easier sell than the more stern 2002.

With 2004, everything in the cellar changes. Isabelle is out because she’s too busy with Deponte and others. And who comes in? Would you believe Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem, Sam Francis and Cheryl Tannahill of Francis/Tannahill, and Josh Bergstrom of Bergstrom? Sort of a local dream team of winemakers, though stylistically different from each other and certainly different from Isabelle. The trio each makes their own bottling. And the vineyard goes to each winemaker in pieces, so no longer is Le Cadeau wine a blend of the property. Harry has the rockiest southwestern part, Sam and Cheryl have a few scattered blocks, including Deb’s block, and Josh has the eastern slope that gets lots of afternoon sunlight.

So Tom pulls out two of the three bottlings that will be released later this year. First is the 2004 Le Cadeau “Rocheaux” made by Harry. It’s young as you might expect, having been in bottle just a few weeks. Minerally, lightly peppery cherry aromas with firm acids reminding me of the 2002 without that wine’s earthiness. This is pretty wine, but it needs time to be more enjoyable. Should be good.

Then Tom opens the 2004 Le Cadeau “Cote Est” made by Josh. (By the way, the Francis/Tannahill bottling will be called “Diversité”.) This shows some sulfur dioxide at first, then a bacony, smokey oak aroma with ripe raspberries and some earthy, organic smells. It’s chewy on the palate from fine grape skin tannins, structured as Bergstrom-made wines tend to be but not outright oaky, almost Chateauneuf du Pape like with a roasted quality, pleasingly so as wine goes though not necessarily a compliment for Pinot Noir. Again, I think this will be very appealing wine, but it’s a little heavy handed for my tastes.

After tasting these wines, I’m struck by their minerality and certainly the overall quality of the vineyard and cellar work. This is a serious producer with some of the promising wines that I think will make a mark here in Oregon. My only concern is slight, and probably not shared by Tom and Deb. What to do with all the winemakers? In 2005, the trio from ’04 are back with Le Cadeau, and in ’06 Isabelle will return to make a fourth bottling. I asked Tom if he instructs them to make wine in a way for Le Cadeau, but he lets them do their thing. It shows in the wines, and while it’s admirable and probably what I’d do in his situation, maybe the hands of the different winemakers obscure the nuance of the vineyard. The dream team is fun and unique, and quality isn’t an issue here. But I wonder how the audience for Le Cadeau will respond to the different winemaker styles. And I wonder how sustainable the arrangement is. It wouldn’t be surprised to see one winemaker after a few more years, unless these talented and high profile winemakers continue to make time for what must be a labor of love for each.

In all, I had a terrific visit with Tom and greatly appreciated his time and information. I asked about the future, and Tom suggested there might be another label of non-estate wine. And with the potential for more plantings on the property, there might be some white wine might be in the mix someday. Whatever happens, keep your eye on Le Cadeau.