July 15, 2006

Homebrewing update, with DDO tasting notes

Summer’s here and things are happening again at homebrew central. Last year’s Pinot Noir from Courting Hill Vineyard is still resting fairly comfortably in my basement. Fairly comfortably because I don’t have an actively cooled cellar, meaning there’s no air conditioning. With local temperatures in the 80s most days, even above 100 for two days last month, my cellar is in the mid to upper 60s with little day/night variation. Far from ideal, but cool enough and the wine is holding up well. I'll rack it soon and bottle next month.

So how does it taste? Better than ever, with a nice if simple perfume and fresh, tart flavors without complexity but also without defects. It’s competent wine, which is really my goal to this point. Can I take decent grapes and not screw them up? So far so good.

Which brings us to the coming harvest and my goal of finding really good grapes to make my best homebrew ever. Here in the northern Willamette Valley, the growing season so far has been a bit warmer than usual, with unusual June heat but a cooler if not actually cool July. From what I hear, mildew hasn’t materialized significantly in the vineyards despite a relatively humid spring. Flowering happened in mid-June with good weather, and crop set sounds like it’s above the past couple years, but not too large to worry much about getting everything ripe. Assuming the weather stays on track. We still have a ways to go.

What’s significant about crop set? After a lightish 2005 and a small crop in 2004, a better yield means homebrewers like me have more hope of finding quality grapes. So the other day I gave a call to Betty Wahle, who farms the well regarded Wahle Vineyard in the newly designated (or soon to be, can’t recall which) Yamhill-Carlton AVA. I had a terrific conversation with Betty, and I’ll be getting a ½ ton of Pinot Noir and a tiny bit of Chardonnay from her 30+ year old vines. Old clone stuff that I want, not the earlier ripening Dijon clones that to my taste make overly alcoholic wine in our not necessarily as cool as you might imagine climate. I’m looking forward to walking the vineyard with Betty soon, so check back for more on that.

Grapes secured, I called Domaine Drouhin Oregon (DDO) to see if I could buy a used barrel or two. Many wineries get rid of old barrels this time of year, usually for a song. Bottling is happening and new barrels for the coming harvest are on the way or already delivered. Wineries need to free up space. Cellarmaster Aaron Bell said they had a bunch to unload, so I took two. One for winemaking, one for fun. The price was right.

DDO barrels are custom made by Francois Freres from wood bought by Drouhin at auction in France, aged at their estate in Burgundy for three years, then coopered by FF to specification. Most of the barrels are for Drouhin’s Burgundy production, with 120 or so sent to Oregon each year to cycle into production.

So yesterday I braved Friday afternoon traffic to drive out to Dundee on what was a Chamber-of-Commerce-approved, picture perfect day. Along the way, I saw some vineyards showing signs of recent hedging to reign in green growth and focus the vines on developing their tiny clusters of green fruit. On the back roads, I saw fields of fresh cut hay drying in sun and orchards of hazelnut trees. Then up Breyman Orchards Road to DDO high in the Dundee Hills.

Before heading down to the cellar, I had to taste quickly through the DDO line up. The ’04 Arthur Chardonnay was my favorite of the line up, not as minerally and tight as I recall some past vintages, but nicely fragrant and not overly toasty with hazelnut, green apple, and sweet cream flavors. Good balance and length, this is always a top Oregon Chardonnay. Maybe those Dijon clones aren’t so bad.

Then two reds, both quite aromatic but a bit boozy and thick to my taste. The 2003 Pinot Noir was really boozy, with a sulfury edge and an overly thick texture that shows the heat of ’03 was a challenge even for what are some of the higher elevation vineyards in this region. Not bad wine, but not what I’m looking for. Somewhat in contrast, the 2002 Pinot Noir Laurene showed more elegance and finesse, but again the texture was thick with alcohol though this wine didn’t show the same heat on the palate at the regular 2003. I would never pay what they ask for this wine; it is good but not so special.

Then down to the cellar to pick up the barrels. I get two 5-year-old beauties that smell fresh and clean and ready to give the nice, slow oxidation I want in barrel aging without imparting the oak flavors that new, expensive barrels give. We pop them into the back of my minivan and off I go, giddy with excitement for this fall.

But homebrewing always has its challenges. The lastest and yet unresolved? My new used barrels are too fat to get into my basement, so I now have my choice of projects: cut a new entrance to the basement? Ha, no. Convert the garage to a temperature-controlled barrel room? Perhaps. Or find another location to “home” brew? This might be the best solution of all if I can find somewhere close by that isn’t too costly.

At least I have a few more months to figure things out. By then I’ll probably be worried again about the weather. It’s always something.

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