January 06, 2013

Barrel tasting the 2012s

I will admit it. Amid all the hype over Oregon's 2012 vintage, I've been more than a little nervous about the wines I made this past fall. Let me explain.

In 2012, we had yet another cold, wet spring, which gets the growing season off to a slow start that very likely turns into a late, possibly rainy harvest. In 2010 and 2011 harvest dates were two to four weeks later than usual, meaning early October picking turned into late October, even November harvesting in 2011. If you know western Oregon, you don't plan outdoor activities that time of year. And yet, both years saw exceptionally dry and mild weather as long as we needed to harvest ripe, delicious fruit. We got lucky and the wines show it.

After more cold and wet spring weather in 2012, it looked like we were in for another late harvest. Yet summer came on stronger than it has in years and by September we were maybe just a week behind "normal." We didn't have extreme heat. Instead, we had record dry weather and what seemed like perfect weather for growing grapes. Nice long days, cool nights, little disease pressure in the vineyards. Maybe it would have been nice to get some rain in there to water the vines a bit, but we had lots of ground water and the vineyard everywhere looked great.

Then came the wind. Late September saw days that reminded me of warm winter days growing up in LA. Dry, warm winds not unlike a Santa Ana capped off our growing season. The only problem is, that kind of weather dries out the grapes, raising sugar levels and degrading acidity. What seemed like a really nice growing season suddenly seemed to be overheating at the end. Think of cooking a nice dinner, only to find your child has accidentally turned up the oven right before everything is perfectly done.

Happily, the grapes came in healthy - in fact I've never seen such clean fruit. There were absolutely no rotten clusters or anything but some leaves to sort out before crushing and fermenting the fruit. I was just a little worried that sugar levels were a bit high, meaning higher alcohol levels that I'm looking for. And the flavors in the new wines were so fruity. Maybe even a bit frooty, if you know what I mean.

Wine is a cured product, meaning we age it in barrels to allow it to change from something raw to something refined, naturally so. Think of fatty meats or cheese, to which age brings a depth and nuance that only time can give.

Let's just say, as lovely as the fruit looked coming into the winery and as well as the fermentations went, I put the new wines in barrel with a lot of hope that the curing process of barrel aging would take jarringly raw, frooty wine and give the lace and elegance I look for in finished wine.

The new wines aren't finished yet - they still have a long way to go in barrel. But tasting them today with a friend, I can finally say it - I'm excited.

The Chardonnay is green tinted with aromas and flavors of green apple, pear and pineapple. I'm really excited about my first commercial white wine.

Then a variety of Pinots from Armstrong vineyard. The 115 clone had a bit of whole clusters in the otherwise destemmed fruit and was picked a few days before the rest of the vineyard. This wine seems dense but gaining elegance, with good length. The Pommard, with a bit of 667 clone co-fermented, is earthy and a touch reduced. And the pure 667 is the most snappy and taut, though these will all be larger, more generous wines than the past two vintages. Tasting a blend of these different vineyard blocks in the press wine gives a nice look at what blending should achieve. There's a dullness typically of press wine, but a broader range of flavors that really excited me.

Next we moved on to the three Eola-Amity Hills vineyards that I work with. As with Armstrong vineyard, these wines are all Pinot noir. This is my first year working with Crowley Station, a mix of 114 and 115 clones, planted in the late 1990s on its own roots. Being new to me, I'm wondering if the wine will merit bottling on its own as a single vineyard. Today it tastes lovely, full and dense as the vintage has given but floral with an emerging delicacy, a pepperiness, that I'm excited to see evolve with more time in barrel.

Next is Zenith vineyard, all Pommard clone and a bit tannic at this point, nicely so with a firmness that balances the fruit and suggests a long life in the cellar. Then there's the Bjornson vineyard, higher in the Eola Hills on very red soils, mostly Pommard clone with a bit of Wadenswil. All my 2012 reds are saturated in color, but this wine is jet black. I'm not looking for such color and during fermentation I punch down fermenters only a handful of times total. But that's the 2012 vintage, dark and rich, and this wine is a bit of a bruiser. Experience with this site suggests it will calm down with further aging, but what I'm looking for here I found - a sense of vinosity emerging so that the wine isn't all about primary fruit.

Finally we tasted the press wine, a mix of the three Eola-Amity vineyards. A touch lighter in color than the others, given that press wine has more solids (extra cloudy after pressing) and all that matter strips out a bit of the density as the wine settles out. I like press wine for its almost leavening quality in wine, taking the denser free run juice and airing it out a bit. Note, this is just the opposite thing I learned as a wine geek, free run wine being delicate and press wine heavy and dense. Free run wine is what come out of the fermenter without pressing, and it's about 80% of one's yield. If wine can be burly and dense, and it very much can be, that's free run wine talking. The press wine is usually lower in acid and lighter in color, frankly more suited on its own for simply quaffing wine. But blended in judicious amounts, I really like its lifting effect in a finished wine.

In all, these young 2012s are powerful and impressive wines. My only worries have been if they reflect the style I'm carving out, of more delicate though no less flavory and delicious wine. What I'm seeing even after a few months in barrel is a positive lightening of the wines, so they lift and fly a bit in your mouth, not plod and thud in a graceless way. And after tasting through things today, I can finally say I'm excited that the power these wines will be known for will continue to develop more and more nuance and grace with more barrel time.

Note, I use older barrels so these wines are not and will not become very oak marked. And these wines are in various stages of malolactic fermentation, meaning my impressions are snapshots, and certainly impressions that will continue to change. The important part, and why I've written all this, is that the wines are finally being wine-like, vinuous. And I'm simply thrilled about that. I really wish you could taste what I'm talking about, but perhaps in time.

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