September 29, 2006

Harvest arrivée

Harvest is in full swing here in the northern Willamette Valley under summer-like weather, with producers scrambling to pick fruit before sugar levels soar any higher.

The past summer was among the warmest on record locally, with nearly a record number of 90F+ days in Portland (21) and below average rainfall for each of the past four months. The stats remind me of 2003, a notoriously hot year that produced hot wines (high alcohol). So far, what I’ve seen harvested looks pretty ripe for our area, but it’s early still and we’ll see how things turn out.

We had a brief cool down with light rain a couple weeks back, and at the time I thought maybe fall was here for good. I was even worried because fruit was nearly ripe, but not quite there and needing more 70F+ weather to progess. But temperatures locally rebounded with consistent mid-80F readings every day for the past week. Fruit that was coming along nicely early in September, then stalled during the cool period, has taken off with the renewed heat.

Now the harvest is surging as lower elevation vineyards and younger vines are, in some cases, more than ready. Higher sites and older vines that typcially mature a bit later are hanging on in the hopes even better flavors can develop in the fruit without sugar levels soaring, leading to high alcohol wines or manipulations in the cellars to produce balanced wines.

This year, I’m sharing a harvest internship at one producer, working every third day and glad for the breaks between shifts. Working the crush is hard work (huge understatement). I’m also planning to help out when I can with another producer whose wine I discovered earlier this year. I don’t like to name drop about where I work, but you can read about these and other producers in previous posts. I’ll get around to naming names after harvest is done. For what it’s worth, I choose to work with producers I like. I want to learn from people whose wines I respect. So when I continue to write about these producers, especially if I write favorably, it’s not because I worked there. I worked there because I like the wines.

All that said, I’m also getting my own Pinot noir from the Wahle vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton district. Between my fulltime job, my family, my part-time harvest internship, and helping out elsewhere, I’m too busy to get my own fruit before this coming next Tuesday. Some grapes from Wahle are being picked for commercial wineries yesterday and today. I can only hope the old vines at Wahle can hold up for a few more days. I’m nervous that the fruit that was just about ripe a few days ago will come in overripe. But we’re expecting a cool down again, and I’ll get a mix of clones with one particular clone later ripening and frankly needing the extra time (in a perfect world, I’d skip it entirely but I don’t have that choice if I want Wahle fruit). So we’ll see how it turns out.

One of the many things I’m learning is that you can’t always get the fruit exactly when you might want, for almost every reason you can imagine. Life gets in the way, other fruit gets in the way, pickers aren’t available, the weather turns either too hot or too wet before you can harvest. Even when you get the fruit exactly when you want, when it should be perfect, it can be different than you expected, either not quite so ripe or a bit too ripe. You’ll hear from some people that really good producers don’t have these problems, but that ain’t true. It’s just the way things are. I’ve seen it every time I’ve worked in a winery, three different years now.

Meanwhile, I bottled last year’s Pinot noir recently and I must’s not bad. I’m hopeful that this year’s ferment can be more vigorous to extract more color and flavor out of what will undoubtedly be riper fruit. And I’m hoping that all the good things about last year’s wine and experience will carry over to this year, so I’ll produce healthy, sound wine again but from better raw materials. Get that right and I should have a pretty nice wine on my hands. No pun intended.

A tasting note for harvest? NV Widmer Hefeweizen, fresh and cold from the bottle while watching the sun set over the coast range after a long hard day of harvest work. One word: perfect. Only it turns out this wasn’t an end of the day beer, just a beer break beer. There was and always is more work to do on the crushpad. So back to work for me.

More soon.

September 20, 2006

The Shadow knows

The latest syrah from Edmunds St. John is out, and besides being a screaming deal there is a story.

Edmunds St. John is one of the best producers of California syrah out there. I’d call them the best, but I don’t try enough others to really know. California syrah usually isn’t my thing. So rich, so ripe, so purple, so intense! Often too intense, even the better ones.

But Edmunds St. John wines are different, and to my taste better. They’re aromatically complex without oakiness, and they taste long and subtle on the palate like a French wine despite their California ripeness. Rarely are the wines heavy, though sometimes they can be a bit lean. But always they are authentic and unique, the kind of wines that slake your thirst but keep you coming back for more.

Alas, this is not what the market wants. Winemaker Steve Edmunds writes a terrific newsletter, and recently he’s opened up about the struggles a wine producer can face when critical attention turning elsewhere coincides with plans for growth.

Of course, the wines are as good as ever, perhaps better. And the prices, while not as low as they used to be (whose are?), are more than reasonable. This is handmade wine.

And now we have The Shadow, 2002 California Syrah that Steve held in tank for a variety of reasons until this year. Normally he would release single vineyard Syrah from many of these vineyards – Bassetti, Wylie, Fenaughty, Durell, and Parmelee-Hill – as well as a California bottling from the leftovers. In 2002, it’s all in The Shadow and priced to move at $11.50 full retail.

How does it taste? Like it costs twice that, if not more. Steve’s right, it’s not unlike a good Crozes-Hermitage, a really good one in fact. Lots of floral and blackberry aromas with the clear scent of espresso, from the grapes rather than any new wood aging. In the mouth, the wine is ripe and fleshy with resolved tannin but brisk acid that I think will perserve this wine for some years. There’s terrific length and the wine is delicious with pretty much anything roasted. At this price, it’s worth buying at least six. Deals like this don’t come along that often.

September 10, 2006

White Burgundy tasting

The wine group met recently to taste a bunch of white Burgundies procured by one member who works for a local distributor.

We started with a pair of blind “mystery” wines. The first smelled like Sauvignon blanc, with a clean gooseberry, grassy lychee aroma and a tart grapefruit flavor, angular and minerally but not especially deep. I guessed New Zealand Sauvignon, but it’s the 2004 De Moor St. Bris, made from Sauvignon from just outside Chablis and one of France’s newest appellations. In retrospect, this tasted just like the ’98 and ’99 versions of this wine that I was familiar with from my days working for an importer.

Then a huge change of pace, the next wine showed a huge toasty aroma with diactyl buttery aromas, coconut, brown butter, and golden fruit. Reminds me of the 2003 Cameron Clos Electric Chardonnay from here in the Dundee Hills. Full and rich in the mouth with toasty tropical fruit, nuts and brown butter, citrusy but a bit hollow in the middle and just too oaky. With time the wood seems better integrated, I’m surprised to find out this is the 2004 Fougeray de Beauclair Marsannay made from 100% Pinot blanc, which incidentially I’ve heard Cameron blends into its Chardonnay.

Then on to the main flight of wines. I struggled with this line up, finding the first wine terrific and the others hard to distinuish from one another for a while. The first showed a broad, fresh minerally aroma wtih clean, lightly honeyed and waxy fruit and hints of smokey oak. In the mouth it had round, full and long flavors with great finesse. This was the 2004 Deux Montille Pernand-Vergelesses “Sous Frétille” and it's one of the nicest white Burgs I've had recently.

The next wine smelled a little like orange juice and sea shells with bright acids and a Chablis-like focus. It was the 2004 De la Folie Rully “Clos la Folie.” Then another sea shell, lightly stinky wine that I couldn’t get a handle on at all beside the bright flavors. It was the 2004 Dauvissat-Camus Chablis “Vaillons” that one person nailed as Chablis, but there I was thinking the Rully before was Chablis. Call this one young and closed, or maybe that's me.

The fourth wine again seemed like Chablis, a basic wine but nicely flavored but just lacking intensity. It was the 2004 Olivier Morin Bourgone Chitry, from a village very near Chablis. So at least I wasn’t far off there.

Finally, a nice fleshy clean Chardonnay with simple, lightly sweet citrus flavors. I couldn’t figure this one out either, but in retrospect that sounds like a wine from the Macon. It was the 2004 Domain Robert-Denogent Macon Fuissé “Les Taches.”

All in all, a nice tasting but challenging in that we were trying young wines from (somewhat) one region. I came away thinking that I may be a fair taster of diverse wines, but sometimes I struggle when the subjects are so similar. If I want to be a winemaker, I better be able to pick out the quality lots from an assortment of similar wines. The prescription? More practice.

Grape sampling at Wahle

After my visit with Betty Wahle a few weeks back, she encouraged me to come back a few times before harvest to see and taste the fruit as it ripens. That’s probably the most exciting thing for me this year. There’s no substitute for this kind of experience, something I need and have been looking to get for a while. But it’s interesting how many vineyard owners seem reluctant to let a guy like me do that.

I can understand. Vineyards are precious, and fools wandering around can at least in theory do some pretty damaging things. Namely, unwittingly bringing in bugs like phylloxera and what not on their shoes, which in an own-rooted vineyard like Wahle could be disasterous. These days vines are grafted onto bug resistant rootstock. But old vineyards like Wahle are full of own-rooted vines that are fragile, to the point where you don’t even share work tools from other vineyards that would only encourage contamination.

Betty’s a straight shooter, and although she’s warm and friendly she had no hesitation in telling me I better wear clean shoes. And you bet I’ll do just what she says.

So I took the opportunity to stop by Wahle the other day when I was in the neighborhood. I started down in the old Pommard block, which looks beautiful with fully colored clusters and a green canopy. There are mostly 2 clusters per shoot here, with approximately 12 shoots per vine in this fairly wide-spaced vineyard. All the second crop has been cut off, and already the grapes taste sweet with seeds about 50% brown. I hope to get sugar readings from Betty but I’d guess these grapes are around 22 brix as they’re as mature as some fruit I saw harvested last year. But oh, those thick skins that I think will soften up a little before harvest this year.

Moving up the slope to the east, there’s the second year vines with some tiny clusters of sweet berries. Then the fourth or fifth year Dijon vines that look a bit stressed from the dry, warm summer. The grapes here seem behind the Pommard, odd you might think as the Dijon clones are known for ripening early, a benefit in a “cool” climate. But I think this is a case where the deep roots of the Pommard have allowed consistent development during the height of summer where the shallow roots have caused the young vines to shut down more in the heat of the day. Only one cluster per shoot on most vines here with some second crop remaining and some coloring to come on the western side of the grape clusters.

The Coury clone is still the least ripe with some coloring to come and seeds that are only beginning to show browning. There are some big jangly grape clusters here that really look odd compared to the other blocks. Lots of canopy here, the Coury clone grows straight up and tall and needs lots of hedging.

Then the 777 clone that was grafted onto old vine 108 Chardonnay. Mostly 2 clusters per shoot and, like the young vine Dijon, not as sweet and tasty as the Pommard but certainly not behind in any way. It’s still early September after all and harvest here usually wouldn’t happen until probably the first days of October. This year, depending on how September plays out, harvest could come by the end of the month.

I wandered up to the top where the old vine Cabernet is, still getting color but tasting varietal in a way few grapes do. Very interesting to taste, but it’s still a long way to “ripe” and you can see why Cabernet ain’t what the Willamette Valley is known for. Then back around to where I began, retasting the blocks to see if my original impressions were right. In fact, the Pommard tastes even better at the end.

I'm very curious to see how this develops. Will the sugars soar in a hot September, will the weather cool and the flavors develop without sugars rising too much, or will the weather fall apart and our early harvest end up late and lackluster? Still too early to say, but this is what winemaking is really all about. Learning about vineyards, following the grape development, and guessing, guessing, guessing about how it will all turn out. Stay tuned.

September 09, 2006

Visit to Wahle vineyard

A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of walking the Wahle vineyard with owner Betty Wahle. Planting began here in 1974, on a ridge of old ocean sediments in what is now called the Yamhill-Carlton district. As a home winemaker, I’m going to buy some grapes from here so I asked if I could come out and look over the site.

The Wahles got into vines after buying property with old orchards of cherries and walnuts. The farming was more difficult and expensive than they bargained for, so they looked for another crop. At the Ag Show in 1974, the Wahles met Oregon wine pioneer Charles Coury, who encouaged them to plant vines. They quickly jumped in, though Betty makes it clear they really didn’t know what they were getting into.

Betty met me at the top of the vineyard, by the old family house at just over 500” elevation. We walked over to the eastern slope, with a view down to highway 240 and what Betty calls “Shea’s vineyard.” The old block at the very top was planted in 1974 to Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay, but grafted in the 1980s to Pinot gris. Further down the were 20 rows each of Riesling and Muller Thurgau, all those grafted to gris with further young vines of gris stretching far down the hill.

Betty spoke of the challenging but ultimately joyful early years, planting in an uncommonly hot year, nursing the young wines to production, then holding big events to gather people for harvest and who knows what else. The Wahles were part of the early, small, tightknit Oregon wine community that, because Oregon wine is still so relatively young, still exists even as the industry has grown so much. I wish everyone could have the pleasure of walking with Betty and hearing about those times.

We walked along the ridgetop to the south, where the Wahles planted a narrow block Sauvignon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sylvaner, even Semillon all still in production today but mostly if not entirely for home winemakers. Old vine Cabernet Franc?!?!? I wonder what that could produce here in the right spot. But mostly, these wines – the Sauvignon aside – generally require more heat than we have here to be special.

Across the road to the west, the vineyard falls down a long sloping southwest face, with acres of old vines of Chardonnay and Pinot noir. First the Chardonnay, rows of 32 year old 108 clone that has gone horribly out of fashion with the coming of the “Dijon” Chardonnay clones. Because of that, about half of the Chardonnay was grafted in 2001 to Pinot noir, 777 clone. Of course, many of the field grafts on these old vines didn’t take, so mixed in the Pinot noir you have the ocassional Chardonnay. I think Betty said there are about 100 of them.

The next block is old “Coury” clone, which I think could be a number of different things. Coury supplied cuttings that he apparently brought from Burgundy. I’ve seen some of them referred to as essentially Pommard, a common clone here. But the Coury clone in Wahle vineyard is like nothing I’ve seen, growing extremely prostrate and yielding medium large clusters of occasionally loose berries, very different from the more compact Pommard and the even more compact clusters of most Dijons. Betty says it ripens late, and sure enough it was the least colored of the Pinot noir I saw. Apparently there’s some similar stuff out at the old Hyland vineyard, I’ll have to look into that and see where this clone really came from.

Then there are blocks of older Pinot gris, young Pinot noir, including some second year vines only up to the fruiting wire, and furthest down the slope there’s the old block of Pommard. Planted mostly in 1974, with three rows added a few years later, this is the best looking fruit in the vineyard. The exposure looks best here, almost due south with a fair grade.

The soils in this vineyard are classic for this appellation, what we now call Willakenzie series but will soon subdivide into a number of different soils. Basically, it’s old ocean sediments pushed up through tectonic activity and now weathered into gently rolling hills. Top soils are thin, with a greyish light brown cast, sometimes quite grey and sandy. These soils drain well but perhaps too well, unlike the deep volcanic Jory soils that hold water sometimes too well. This summer has been hot and dry, and there is some stress in the vineyards. Here the crowns of any rise show some lower vigor and some premature yellowing, while a trough in one section has the most lush and vigorous vines. You can really see how water drains down this hill just from the canopy.

Betty walks me all around the vineyard and back up to the old house, telling me about the 1999 Belle Pente Wahle Vineyard Pinot Noir, one of her favorites from this site. I thank her for the time and information, and I’m really looking forward to harvest this year.

September 01, 2006

Seattle wine shops

We drove up to Seattle last weekend for a quick visit with old friends. This was a family trip, no wine activities in the mix. But that didn’t stop me from poking around a few local shops to see what’s available.

Seattle wine geeks are the first to say that, while selection at the major retailers in town can be good, prices don’t come close to those of major retailers in California and other states. But from past visits, I remembered that I might find some things that aren’t available in Portland shops, and maybe a buck or two cheaper than this town.

So imagine my surprise in visiting top retailers like McCarthy and Schiering and Esquin, not to mention Pike and Western and DeLaurenti in touristy Pike’s Place Market. The selection wasn’t much better than Portland if at all, and oh the prices! With only a few exceptions, one notable (see below), prices were pretty much a buck or two higher than Portland, if not more.

The first thing I notice each time I visit Seattle’s a big city, bigger than I remember. It’s not a sibling to Portland, as we tend to think down here. It’s more like a parent. The skyline is bigtime, the streets crowded, and downtown on a warm summer day there’s the stale stench of urine mixing with fresh sea air. That’s old school big city stuff, something Portland can’t match.

At least the wine could be cheap and people friendly. Actually, most of the wine shop staffers I met were quite friendly, even at Esquin where they’re in the midst of a significant remodel.

Wish I could say the same for McCarthy and Schiering in the Ravenna neighborhood. I’d heard a little about this store’s attitude, but I always give a place the benefit of the doubt. The complaint here tends to be that the staff is a bunch of wine geeks who won’t give you the time of day unless you’re one of them. It’s a familiar thing I’ve seen over the years in surf shops, guitar stores, and now with wine. My friends, who live in the neighborhood, typcially don’t go to this shop for that reason.

But I want to check it out so we head over for a browse late on Saturday afternoon. There’s a nice selection from around the world, and prices are decent for this market. It’s a nice place. Then I notice the 2004 Chateau Trignon Gigondas, a new release from Kermit Lynch imports. The price? Would you believe $13 for a 750ml? Yeah, I haven’t seen this wine that cheap in a decade. Even Trignon’s Rasteau is more than that now. So I ask the clerk, after waiting for a minute, how they have it so cheap. He’s nonplussed, and says something dismissive about how some Gigondas cost that. I persist nicely. Hey, I’ve bought this producer for years, it’s never this cheap, it’s not big deal but maybe there’s a story about the special deal they cut. Who knows, maybe it’s the wrong price? I don’t know. But here I am about to buy something, and my friend has a couple bottles too. I think I’m familar with wine a little bit, maybe the staffer would be a little interested in communicating with a soul brother? Nope, nothing, just a blank stare that seemed to ask “are you done yet?”

Now I’ve worked in a busy wine shop on busy Saturday afternoons. But there’s no good excuse for being laconic, or brief to the point of rudeness. But that’s this shop’s reputation and, much as I tried to engage, it’s funny how quickly it surfaced. We bought our wines and upon leaving, my friend commented about how they were tasting wines down the counter but not exactly offering us any tastes. Maybe we should have spent more. My friend got it right, they just didn't seem like they were having any fun. One other bargin tip – they did have the delicious Brut-Comté from the Jura on close out for $10. That’s a steal in good, cheap bubbly.

Moving on, the Pike’s Place shops are predictably spendy but well stocked with interesting wines. There’s nothing I can’t get for the same in Portland (or less, no sales tax here). But for the Seattle equivalent to Fisherman’s Wharf, DeLaurenti and Pike and Western are impressive. Oh, and I saw the ’03 Trignon Gigondas at DeLaurenti. The price? $15 for a 375ml bottle.

On the way out of town on Sunday, we stopped by Esquin, probably the top retailer in town with a shop that reminds me of the Wine Club in California. I fully expected to find at least a few things I couldn’t live without, but I left without purchasing anything. Great selection of stuff, and good enough prices for the market with a few minor bargains, but that’s about it. I was most surprised that their newsletter specials were mostly mass-market things like Jacob’s Creek Shiraz. This is a serious store. Can’t they find bargains that are a little more adventurous?

Oh, and again here’s the Trignon Gigondas, vintages ’03 and ’01. The prices? About $22 and $25, respectively, about what I’d expect these days for 750ml bottle. Hmm.

In the end, Esquin was fine, but nothing like I’d hoped. Yet if McCarthy and Schiering still has that Trignon for $13, you should load up and tell them who sent you. Just don't expect them to enjoy it.