June 28, 2010

Racking the 2009s

Here is a picture of the my nine barrels of 2009 Vincent pinot noir, getting racked at the winery in Portland. For those not clear on racking, that's the process of moving the wine from barrel to barrel to separate it from its sediment. It's also a nice chance to areate the wine a bit, which can help round out the flavors and texture. Too much areation and your wine will tastes oxidized. Too little and it can be a little "reduced" or stinky. This is the only racking before bottling, pretty traditional and useful especially for unfiltered wine.

The process is pretty simple but time consuming. Using inert gas like nitrogen or argon, you use gentle pressure to push the wine out of one barrel through a hose to an empty barrel. Since barrels are in pairs on barrel racks, you rack two barrels in to empties, clean the emptied barrels, then rack two more barrels into those clean ones. And so on. If you don't start with two empty, clean barrels to rack into, you can fill two small tanks. Then at the end, you pump that wine back into the final two barrels once they've been cleaned. Like most winemaking tasks, it's really mostly about cleaning. Cleaning beforehand, working and cleaning things as you go, then cleaning everything again. Mom would be proud.

All this work is in preparation for bottling at the end of August. At that time, we'll rack the barrels again into two tanks. One for the main Eola-Amity Hills bottling, which will be most of the production. The other for the Zenith single vineyard bottling, just 24 cases.

How are the wines tasting? You don't have to believe me, how can I be objective, right? But the wines taste really good. I'm excited for the freshness in the wines, something you don't always get from hotter growing seasons like 2009. All the barrels smell and taste good. A friend tried the Zenith and commented on the savoriness. That's exactly what I'm going for. No candy sweet flavors here.

June 26, 2010

élevage and 32 Days of Natural Wine

My contribution on natural wine is the feature of Day 8 of Saignee's 32 Days of Natural Wine. To me, natural wine is all about your intention to make something that reflects the grape, the place and the season without any improvements.

June 24, 2010

A field trip to reWine Barrels in Salem

Anne Hubatch of Helioterra and I took a field trip recently to reWine Barrels in Salem, OR. What an interesting visit. reWine is the barrel refurbishing business of father-in-law and master woodworker Todd Dollinger and son-in-law Trent Thomas, a former New Seasons wine buyer among other wine industry experience.

I bought a rehabbed barrel from reWine for the 2009 harvest and I'm buying another one for 2010. I like the idea of recycling barrels. As Todd says emphatically, it doesn't make sense to cut down seriously old French oak trees to make barrels that you use for a few years and turn into planters. Renewing those barrels makes sense. Plus, I like the results I've seen. And the cost doesn't hurt. Rehabbed barrels aren't the same as new barrels, but they're pretty close and cost only a fraction of new wood.

The reWine truck, usually full of barrels for delivery all over the Willamette Valley, just back from another drop.

Inside the workshop are barrels in various stages of rehabilitation.

Todd animatedly shows off his self-made barrel shaving machine.

A barrel is loaded on sideways and gently and fairly quietly shaved, back and forth across the grain with the barrel rotating slightly with each pass.

Trent hams it up near the shaver. This machine saves lives and limbs, as early experiments with handshaving were a bit perilous.

Barrels before shaving.

Barrels after shaving.

As you might expect, there's hand shaving to touch up what the machine doesn't quite get.

Barrel heads are also resized to fit snug with the slightly reduced dimensions of the shaved and ultimately retoasted barrel.

Here's my 2005 Siruge barrel from my last homemade wine that's ready for toasting.

Here's a look inside. The electrical element will slowly heat things up to more than 400F over 2 or more hours for a light toast. I'm interested to see how a more subtle toast will react with local Pinot noir. Most barrels out there are medium to heavy toast. Over time, we check in on this barrel as it slowly colors and gains amazing smells of, well, toasty oak.

Here's a barrel that's nearly done with a medium toast. I forgot to get pictures of my barrel as it finished up. Looks and smells good.

Once they're toasted and reassembled, the refurbished barrels are filled with water to soak up. You can imagine the lengthy toasting process dries out the staves pretty good. Once they're water tight, they are drained, gassed with sulfur and wrapped for delivery.

Todd and Trent talked a lot about the process and how they got started in 2009 combining Todd's knowledge of wood and machinery and Trent's experience with the wine industry. We talked about other barrel refurbishers out there who crank out more barrels per day and apparently don't spend nearly the time reWine does in toasting like a new barrel cooper does. reWine's trying to do things differently.

This operation is obviously still very new but already it's impressive to see several local producers buying the product, or bringing their own barrels to get rehabbed like I did this time with my Siruge. It's a bit less expensive to do that. What impresses me most is the wholehearted commitment of Todd and Trent to their work. Todd's fanatic about the process. Trent's all about building long term relationships and making sure reWine is doing everything right to produce excellent barrels. These are people I'm glad to know and do business with. I can't recommend them highly enough. Thanks guys for the great visit.

June 21, 2010

2007 La Gramiere rouge

Sometimes wine isn't a simple "like it" or "don't like it" proposition. Sometimes wines perplex, engage, delight, all at once, leaving you satisfied but uncertain how or why. For example, the 2007 La Gramiere rouge, one of the "natural" wines we're hearing so much about (in part thanks to Cory Cartwright's 32 Days of Natural Wine over at Saignee, now in Day 3).

This Vin de Table could be Cotes du Rhone Villages, a blend of 80% grenache, 15% syrah and 5% mourvedre from Americans Amy Lillard and David Kling, who moved to France years back and farm a vineyard in the southern Rhone valley. Their blog, La Gramiere, is a nice read with archives detailing the hard work they've endured to this point.

On the site, there's a tasting note for this wine that reads remarkably similar to my experience, mostly. Fruit driven, blackberry and boysenberry flavors, lush, with licorice and spice notes, and firm tannin that gives nice texture. This is delicious southern Rhone red, with so much energy it seems to glow an electric purple. Yet there are reductive notes, stinky vegetal aromas that come and go, never dominating but everpresent. These seem to vanish with a plate of broiled steak and steamed new potatoes, then reappear after the meal. For a while I smelled acetate (nail polish remover), then that seemed to melt into cinnamon notes, then occasionally a touch of acetate reappeared.

On balance, I really enjoyed this wine but am perplexed. This is a wine shape shifter, at once a lush crowd pleasing red, then difficult even wild, requiring patience, good food matches and intellect to seek out what the wine offers, not make snap judgements. If that sounds like a wine for you, and it most certainly does to me, have at it. Plus, I love the old world meets new wine label, especially the striking green that you see only rarely on wine bottles. Beautiful. (Note: image borrowed from La Gramiere)

June 19, 2010

1995 Ch. Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape

When we moved to Portland ten years ago next month, I brought with us several cases of wine. I'd been collecting bottles throughout the 1990s and just finished working for a Berkeley-based wine importer and retailer. In that position, I took advantage of the significant employee discount to stock the wine larder. "We won't get a chance like this again," I persuaded my wife. I bought a significant amount of wine, at least at the time. I wasn't making wine yet, you know.

Then came the great move north, with baby, cat and life's belongings. That meant engaging a moving company for all the big stuff and renting an air conditioned minivan to drive the family (baby) in cool comfort. And of course, the several boxes of wine. Meanwhile, Anthony the cat and I sweated it out driving our old VW in caravan with the rental. We thought we had A/C in that old heap, but it just turned out that San Francisco air was so naturally cool that we never noticed the A/C didn't really work.

Here in Portland, I still store my wine in the cellar in cardboard boxes, bottles upside down and close to the concrete floor to maximize cooling. There's no air conditioning in the house, but the cellar keeps pretty cool in all but the worst heat waves. I've worried about the wine collection, which I've continued adding to, evidence that we had, in fact, plenty of fine opportunities to buy wine. Then I try older bottles and they're great, and I don't worry so much. What do they say about cellar in Bordeaux rising slowly in the summer to the upper 60s farenheit (maybe higher)? Wine's fragile but not that fragile.

Of course, I've also had some cellar disappointments. Was that only because of my cellar conditions? Probably not. I know people with fancy, temperature controlled cellars who have off bottles. The one thing I've noticed is that I don't want to cellar half bottles all that long. Recently a half bottle of '96 Ch. d'Epire Savennieres was shot. That was nice wine in its youth and really shouldn't have had a problem making it to 14 years. Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was my cellar. Maybe it was the half bottle format.

That d'Epire was the last "original" bottle I'd opened, before tonight. I'm down to about 2 cases of originals, those bottles hauled up here 10 years ago. What's left is a mix of 1980s and 1990s Bordeaux, Port, and Rhones, for the most part. That's what I was mostly into back then. Since then, I've gotten more into German, Italian (especially) and Oregon wine. I have old bottles of all those, but they were all procured since the move.

What did I drink tonight? A lone half of the 1995 Ch. Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape. I'd waited on this wine for so long because reports suggested it was highly tannic and needing time. Now at the 10 year mark in Portland, I'm thinking about those older bottles I still have and wondering if they really ought to be opened sooner than later. One, because I don't have a pristine cellar. But two, what the hell, it's been ten freaking years. What am I waiting for at this point?

The Beaucastel only reinforces this thought. The wine is mature, at least out of half bottle. Slightly oxidized upon pouring, it got more youthful in the glass, revealing a lovely mix of peppery cherry fruit and mushroomy, bottle sweet, earthy aromas. No brett here that I could find, no barnyardy or band aid notes. The wine is indeed tannic, and I'm sure this bottle would have dried out before the tannin resolved. Perhaps larger, slower aging bottles in colder cellars will live a lot longer. This bottle was delicious, with a great burst of flavor in the middle palate and a long finish. There's something difficult to describe but clearly obvious in a really good wine. This one had that quality. Enough words. Go try it for yourself, even if you have to wait a decade for it.

June 15, 2010

Armstrong Vineyard, Part 3: June

For reports earlier in the growing season, see here and here.

I got out to Armstrong Vineyard again the other day to check on things. Remember that this new vineyard will be the primary source for Vincent Wine Company grapes in 2010. Young vines can produce excellent wine.

Despite our very cool and wet spring, things continue to look really good on Ribbon Ridge.

The canopy is tall with lots of healthy shoots, no signs of disease and lots of promise for the summer ahead.

Of course, no flowering yet. We got off to an early start with bud break at the beginning of April, a couple of weeks early. At mid-June we should be in flowering, but no sign of that yet. Just infloresence.

The dry weather recently gave a good opportunity to see about drainage in the vineyard. What parts have dried out? Where is there still water and mud? Here's a shot of the bottom of the 667 block, near the road and still draining water while the vineyard top was largely dried out.

Today's been cold and rainy again in Portland.

Will we ever get good weather to push the flowers to open? Will there be hail to knock off lots of those flowers before they can set as fruit? Stay tuned. For now, things look awfully good.

June 11, 2010

400th post

Yes, I changed the template again. No, it's not in honor of this being the 400th post in the 5+ years of this blog. But since you mention it, yes, 400 posts. Glad Blogger finally got some fresh(er) templates to choose from, btw.

June 08, 2010

Thinking about natural wine

I'm thinking about "natural" wine in preparation for writing a piece for Saignee's 32 Days of Natural Wine, which starts later this month. I struggle with what natural wine really is. Grape growing isn't very natural, at least with all the row planting, pruning, etc. Winemaking's even worse. Even a hands off approach requires lots of work or intervention. You still punch down or at least tread the frementing must. You separate the new wine and press the skins to get the rest. You might use sulfur dioxide. You store in vessels of one kind or another. You package it somehow. And that's the bare minimum.

Even most "natural" wine producers do more, in the name of producing something that tastes authentic to the grape, the place, the season. I guess that's really what natural wine is all about. I like Joe Dressner's quote from last year's 31 Days of Natural Wine. He wrote:

"What exactly is a natural wine? For me, it’s a wine that tastes like it fell off the vine and into a bottle, fermented, packed its bags and arrived in America."

But there it is - "and arrived in America." Why is it so much natural wine I read about on the internet is from Europe? Sure, there are lots more producers doing close to the earth stuff over there. But how natural is it to ship the thousands of miles here, presumably not on biodiesel or solar powered freighters, in reuasble packaging with a minimal carbon footprint? Not to mention their usual fragile state, with little or no sulfur dioxide that requires careful handling. Do these natural wines really travel well? Is it the point? Or does enough of the goodness in close to the earth wine production erode in transit, leaving a natural wine denatured?

Ok, no, not entirely. Natural wine can move. But what I want to write about is my passion. City wine. Natural, local city wine that I want to see happening in a much bigger way in Portland, Oregon. It's a movement for local, unpretentious wines that haven't traveled far, from producers who grow local grapes or who work with local growers to produce wines in the city (that latter more my model). To produce something here that tastes like it fell off the vine into a wine growler and didn't travel much further than my bike ride home from the city winery in my neighborhood, my winery or my neighbor's winery or any old body's winery. That's my natural wine dream. Is that crazy?

June 03, 2010

New releases from Arterberry Maresh

I had the chance to taste through a bunch of new releases from Arterberry Maresh last night. Young Jim is making some excellent wines, all pinot noir and chardonnay from the Dundee Hills. Jim's brash and talks some shit, but his wines speak for themselves. I can't help but admire his confidence that what he's doing is absolutely great. I suppose if you don't believe it, who will? You don't make this hat if you're not confident, right? Yeah, my new favorite hat.

We started with the 2008 Arterberry Maresh Chardonnay Maresh Vineyard. Old vine 108 clone, harvest late, this bottling from a single Dargaud & Jagele light toast barrel that took more than a year to finish fermenting. Maybe there's a little sugar leftover, maybe not, there's fat flavor but the acid balance and freshness is terrific. With lots of lemon, sweet cream and hazelnuts, it's white Burg on the nose but broad tasting Oregon chard on the palate. Bottled unfined and unfiltered, it's a little hazy too. Really, really good.

Then the 2007 Arterberry Maresh Pinot Noit Gherts Vineyard, actually a single barrel of purchased wine from another producer who didn't think it fit the profile they were looking for. Apparently from grapes picked before the rain, the wine has deep color uncommon in 2007. There's a little musky, hard to pin down something in the aroma, but I love this. Lots of ripe fruit, subtle wood, full flavors in the mouth but really nicely refined and long. While I think many '07s are beautiful, they can also be delicate and I wonder about how long they really need to be cellared. This one, though, could last a while and maybe should sleep for a few before it shows its best.

Then onto 2008 reds. First, the 2008 Arterberry Maresh Pinot Noir Dundee Hills, Jim's $25 cuvee that's tremendous value. Most wineries would like this at their high end level. Fragrant, silky but also wound up and needing time to reveal itself, I really liked this. Then the 2008 Arterberry Maresh Pinot Noir Julliard Vineyard, down Worden Hill Road from Maresh vineyard and indeed a world away from the higher vineyard's pure red fruit tone. This has bass notes with a darker fruit profile and really tight structure. Right now, it's a little challenging to drink. But in time this will stun.

Jim and I hung out with some others talking wine and winemaking. Ji'm vocal about barreling wine more than a year, not for the oak profile but the curing aspect of barrel aging. Wines gain an intensity and vinosity from extended aging, perhaps even a savory quality. Some people like bottling early to preserve fruitiness. Some do it to get wine to market more quickly. Some early bottled wines are superb, so it's not like you have to wait. But Jim's wines, like those of the producers who mentored him, show what longer aging can give you. Assuming the source material is really good, of course. We weren't all born on Worden Hill Road, but Jim was and the place is in his wines.