December 25, 2006

Christmas Wine

Last year’s Christmas case of wine for my parents proved so successful, we’ve expanded things to two cases this year. This year, all of my siblings chipped in. Being the “enophile” in the family, I naturally do the shopping. Tough break, I know.

Since we’re visiting my childhood home in Los Angeles, I took a trip the other day to the Wine House in West LA to fill up the boxes. With a budget of roughly $20 per bottle, here are some thoughts on what I selected and why.

First, we always need bubbly. In my price range, Champagne prices and selection at the Wine House were a bit lacking, so I turned to two sparkling favorites – the 2000 Domaine Huet Vouvray Petillant and 1998 Domaine Meriwether Cuvee Wm. Clark. Huet is perhaps (inarguably?) the finest producer in Vouvray, and its sparkling wine of 100% Chenin Blanc is fine indeed. Typically lemony and minerally, with just enough dough and yeast. The Domaine Meriwether is an Oregon product and quite nice wine, more in the Champagne style with nice yeastiness from longer lees ageing.

Then, white wines. Domestic Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc tend to be common and boring, at least given our budget. So I turned mostly to Europe for my selections, and that’s probably never a bad idea no matter your price range.

For Sauvignon Blanc, the 2005 Domaine de Chatenoy Menetou-Salon, an appellation close to Sancerre in the upper Loire valley of France. For Chardonnay, two Maconnais – the 2005 Les Heritiers du Comte Lafon Macon and the 2005 Maison Verget Macon-Villages Grands Elevage. Of course, we must represent Oregon and I was pleased to find the 2001 Hamacher Chardonnay Cuvee Forets Diverses for less than you’d pay in Portland. I find this wine to be one of the top Chardonnay from Oregon, released late and still worth cellaring for a few years more.

My parents visited and quite enjoyed Vouvray a few years back, so in addition to the Huet sparkler I added the 2005 Domaine Champalou Vouvray Cuvee des Fondraux, usually a sec-tendre or lightly sweet that should be terrific in the highly touted 2005 vintage. And my father, loving his German heritage, must have wine from the Fatherland, no matter his reluctance of sweet Riesling. So, the 2005 Gunderloch "Jean-Baptiste" Rheinhessen Riesling Kabinett, a drier style even for Kabinett but still with a hint of sweetness. And the always terrific 2005 Nigl Gruner Veltliner Velt Krem Freiheit, which may be a bit out there for my parents. But I couldn’t resist.

For reds, I was again put off many domestic Cabernet selections but still found some oddities of fine quality to include. Namely, the 2001 Cedarville Cabernet Sauvignon from El Dorado County in California’s Sierra Foothills. Likely rich and strapping, but without being over the top. Also, a sale bottle of 2001 Havens Bourriquot, an unusual Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend from Napa made is a Bordeaux style. As a contrast, I picked the 2003 Chateau Coufran Haut Medoc, mostly Merlot from what is usually Cabernet country.

The Zinfandel selection in this price range is also limited, but I found the 2004 Dashe Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley that should be good if more oaky and rich than earlier vintages from this ex-Ridge winemaker. And an old school favorite, the 2003 Sausal Zinfandel Alexander Valley Old Vine, still with its 1970s vintage label and hopefully wine style. Haven’t had it in some years, but I suspect Sausal hasn’t changed much from its days producing savory Zinfandel that can age gracefully.

Branching out, I found some Rhone variety and varietal wines. First, the Grenache-based 2004 Domaine Charvin Cotes du Rhone Le Poutet from the acclaimed Chateauneuf du Pape producer. To contrast, two varietal Syrah – the 2001 Havens Syrah Napa Valley and the 2003 Pikes Shiraz Clare Valley from a cool climate region in Australia. Typically peppery and fruity without too much heaviness or alcohol that plagues the land down under.

Of course, we must have Pinot Noir. So the 2003 Domaine Simon Bize Bourgogne Les Bourgeots from the respected Burgundy producer of Savigny Les Beaune. Should be translucent and fragrant if not especially rich. To contrast, I was happy to find the newly released 2005 Grochau Cellars Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, which I tried from barrel earlier this year. Definitely check out this producer.

And from Italy, two bottles (it’s so good) of 2004 Fattoria Felsina Chianti Classico and, with a lacking selection of Barbera, a mystery bottle that I know nothing about – the 2004 Massolino Barbera d’Alba. If it’s modern and oaky, so be it. These wines are for my parents’ taste, not mine, though I couldn’t help including some off the radar stuff.

So there it is, two cases of wine for Christmas. What’s that you say? Only 23 bottles? Yes, I forgot the magnum of 2003 Clos la Coutale Cahors, mostly Malbec from the Dordogne in France that, despite a dose of Merlot for softness, retains nice country wine authenticity. Who can resist 1.5 liters of this stuff. It’s a party in a bottle.

Merry Christmas.

December 10, 2006

Sampling my new wines

As it’s two months past harvest, I thought I’d taste my new 2006 wines again to see how they’re doing.

In my garage barrel room, I have one barrel of free run Pinot Noir plus two carboys of mostly press wine, one six and the other three gallons. I also have a 3 gallon carboy and another 1 gallon jug of Pinot Noir Rosé.

The barrel room is a coverted water closet, with temps this time of year in the low to mid 40s. The barrel is up on a rack and the carboys are on the concrete floor. The reds all have solid bungs, the rosé airlocks.

The 1 gallon of rosé smells clean, as all the wines are at this point. But it has a dark color for rosé from too long a maceration, and a candy fruity black cherry aroma that is a bit much.. The 3 gallon carboy seems more mineral, but similarly fruity and a little heavy on flavor. These are perfectly good wines, just not quite my style. We’ll see how they change.

The 3 and 6 gallon carboys of red both show some stinky reductive notes, particularly the 6 gallon. I really don’t want to rack these things this early if I don’t have to, but I think it will have to happen. The reduction blows off in the glass, and they both show black cherry fruit aromas and a full, softly structured palate. The 6 gallon seems a little more meaty, maybe lightly syrah like. Again, not the style I’m going for, but not bad and not alcoholic.

The barrel is all free run wine, and interestingly seems a bit more tannic than the press wine. It’s not stinky like the press wine, but the aroma is muted. In the mouth, the wine is still tight but some fine tannins are welcome. This barrel is from 2001, so I don’t expect much wood tannin in the wine, but I’ll be curious to see how this wine changes compared to the wine in glass carboys.

Overall, things are looking good. At this point, the wines are what they are, I just want to keep them healthy. The reds will have to finish malolactic fermentation in the spring, and I’m hoping the malic acid levels are low. That way the finished wine will retain as much acid as possible. It’s already low enough, I don’t want it going any lower than it has to.

What’s next? Topping the barrel regularly with press wine and even some of last year’s wine, whatever’s handy. Last year’s wine is high acid and lighter in color, so I won’t mind using it here and there. This day I used about a full bottle to top the barrel, just 16 days since I last topped. At that rate, I’ll lose about 8% a year to evaporation, the angel’s share. I’ll look at getting a cheap humidifier to cut that down a little.

December 06, 2006

Domaine Tempier and Lots More on Wine Terroirs

Ok, I'm not exactly frequent with blog posts. And I haven't exactly filled out a site's worth of links and other resources I thought I'd have gotten too long before now.

But savvy élevage readers may have noticed the link on the lower right to Wine Terroirs, my favorite wine blog. If you don't check it out already, bookmark it.

Now, Paris-based photographer and writer Bertrand Celce doesn't exactly update his wine blog much more frequently than I do mine.

But the content. And the photos. Wine Terroirs is gorgeous and among great wine literature in its ability to make you thirsty.

Bert has spent the past two years travelling around France calling on a laundry list of producers I only wish I had the opportunity to visit. His latest post is Tempier, probably around the time I had that nice chance to taste Tempier here in Portand and chat with winemaker Daneil Ravier.

And Bert's been to Oregon, visiting this past summer and posting on one of my favorites, Evesham Wood. I only wish I had known and then invited myself along.

Yes, Bert's a non-native English speaker and writer, and his prose isn't exactly poesy. But he's a good taster, relays terrific information, and the site as a whole conveys what artisan wine and winemaking are all about.

So go read Wine Terroirs and open a nice bottle of Bandol.

December 02, 2006

2003 Edmunds St. John Rocks and Gravel

I’ve written before about how good Edmunds St. John wines can be. So when I saw the latest issue of Rocks and Gravel, their grenache, syrah, mourvedre blend, marked down to $13 from the usual $18, I grabbed a couple.

This wine is usually a great deal at full price, and I still have memories of the terrific 2001. Peppery, meaty grenache-dominated wine that tasted like a Gigondas or other good southern Rhone wine.

Alas, the 2003 isn’t the 2001. It’s not bad wine, and it improved markedly with food. But on its own the aromas and flavors seemed muddled, with a vegetal streak that I wasn’t sure about.

Then with dinner on the table, the food aromas mixed with the wine to bring out cherry fruit and the vegetal note evolved to an iodine, earthy complexity.

So I enjoyed the wine. But I wish I had the 2001 instead. And with The Shadow still a dollar or three cheaper around town, that’s what you want on the cheapside from ESJ.

November 22, 2006

Kermit Lynch Tasting

I went to a terrific event at Liner & Elsen wine shop last week, a tasting of three French producers imported by Kermit Lynch in Berkeley, CA.

There are many importers of French wine, many good ones. Yet Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant is, to me, the best. I grew up in wine through KLWM selections, and even with occasional doubts through the years, they keep coming through.

Case in point, the wines of Reuilly, Robert-Denogent, and Tempier.

From the Loire, Denis Jamain of Domaine de Reuilly poured wines and showed a nice rock from his vineyard filled with fossilized sea shells, His 2005 Reuilly Sauvignon is crisp, clean middle Loire sauvignon. The 2005 Pinot Gris Rosé is light and delicate, more inoffensive than graceful, with a beautiful light copper color. Then the 2005 Reuilly Pinot Noir, fresh and lively ruby red wine, simple and in the words of Jamain, easy to drink. I’d say that and delightful.

Next came Jean Jacques Robert of Domaine Robert-Denogent in the Maconais. These wines really impressed, with all of them more than satisfactory and a couple that were truly outstanding. At $20-$35, these are great value in high quality white Burgundy.

The 2004 Macon-Fuissé “Les Taches” is nice clean chardonnay with great balance, simple but still very nice. The 2004 Pouilly-Fuissé “Les Croix” is similar in frame but with more mineral intensity.

Then, at another level, the 2004 Pouilly-Fuissé “Les Reisses” that’s simply gorgeous. Rich but precise aroma, full and long flavor, this is pick of a nice line up. The 2004 Pouilly-Fuissé “Cuvée Claude Denogent” that’s named for Jean Jacques Robert’s grandfather is a bit wild and less clear than the Reisses, but no less delicious. These wines show some oak influence, but also have such nice fruit and minerality to balance things.

And finally the 2000 Pouilly-Fuissé “Les Carrons” for contrast. It was a bit mature at first, but opened quickly with mint and fennel aromas, a bit lean on the palate though I think this just needed more time to unfold in the glass.

I’ve been on a white Burgundy kick lately, and wines like these only make me more interested. If you think white Burgs are too expensive, too rich, too boring, too oaky, too whatever, give these a try. They aren't cheap by most standards, but they're worth the extra money. And if you're loaded, drink this stuff anyway.

Then to Provence. Daniel Ravier of Domaine Tempier was on hand to pour the 2004s and other things, and chat candidly about his technique and the domaine in general.

First, the 2005 Bandol Rosé is a mineral and structured rosé, good but a bit lost for me tonight if you can believe it. Daniel said it’s 50% grapes macerated one night, which gave more color than they hoped, so another 35% of the grapes were pressed right away without maceration. The cuvee also includes about 15% saignee from the reds. Daniel says that he wants to be careful not to bleed too much from the red wine so as to not imbalance it. This wine is fermented with added yeast, unlike the reds.

Then reds. The 2004 Bandol “Classique” is dark colored, full bodied and fruity but still cleanly earthy too, fairly forward and drinkable though I’m sure it would last some time. This is more modern than I remember Tempier, but still it’s authentic wine, not candied.

The 2004 Bandol “La Migoua” – pronounced Mee-gua for those of us who wonder about about things – is a step up. 50% mourvedre with syrah, carignan, and others in the mix, it has a sappy richness that’s a bit tight right now, but this is good if hefty wine.

The 2004 Bandol “La Tourtine” smells just like I remember Tourtine, which isn’t something I usually say about a wine. But this just smells like other bottles from this vineyard, good bottles I should add, have smelled. Yet it’s very ripe for Tempier and more forward than the Migoua while still clearly structured and a bit furry as mourvedre can be. It’s nice but again big wine. Daniel suggests it’s in the 15% range, which might come as a surprise to some people.

Finally, the 2000 Bandol “La Tourtine” that’s still young, as you would expect. Daniel jokes that they might have missed a racking on this one, his first year at Tempier. Stinky, reduced right out of the nearly fresh bottle, but with some minutes it clears up some. If you have this wine, decant it, which is probably a good idea with most Bandol. This is good Bandol, a minerally cherry wine that really wants food to smell and taste its best.

In sum, a terrific event that was like a little slice of Lynch’s classic book Adventures on the Wine Route. Both leave you thirsty for more.

Visits to Evesham Wood and Bethel Heights

Last Saturday, we ventured down the interstate to visit Evesham Wood in the southern Eola Hills just outside of Salem.

Instead of working all of Thanksgiving weekend, Russ and Mary Raney hold their fall open house one week earlier. When we arrived, there was a nice crowd in the dim but cramped cellar.
How nice to return to where I worked last year, the whole operation noticeably smaller than Belle Pente, the cellar below the family home just as you’d expect in Europe, just as I remembered it.

I was hoping to taste a barrel sample or two from 2005, but Russ only poured bottled wine. Most were from 2004, and all were red now that the whites from these short years are mostly sold.

We started with the 2005 Evesham Wood Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, which was more together than a couple months ago right after bottling. Terrific wine for $15.

Then the 2004 Pinot Noir, all medium red at most with generally soft textures and ripe flavors. First the Le Puits Sec estate bottling, the most oak marked in a spicy, toasty way. Cherries, strawberries, winey but broad and fleshy.

Then the Cuvee J, an equal blend of estate and Seven Springs fruit. This wine showed a balance of the softer estate fruit and the deeper, more structured Seven Spings fruit. A hint of mint and loam with nice length, very good wine.

Finally the Seven Springs, back on form after what I thought was an overly alcoholic 2003. This was the most compelling wine here, deeper and fully in every way, approachable now as are all these wines but more structured to age. Still, in this ripe vintage, none of these wines is shy and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that alcohols aren’t much lower than ’03. But these wines didn’t show it today.

But wait, one more bottle, a....2005 Willamette Valley Tempranillo. Yes, Evesham Wood has gone round the bend and made a tempranillo. Russ loves Spanish reds and found tempranillo in a vineyard that provides the base of the Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. So he got a small amount to play with. Half the wine was apparently bottled for a local restaurant, and half on sale at the winery. How’s the wine? Dark in color and needing oxygen to get rid of some bottle stink. Underneath it smells like blackberries and earth but tastes tannic and tight. These grapes weren’t super ripe, but they made a nice wine. I had thought Russ would age it longer before bottling, but perhaps there wasn’t quite the depth for that.

Having enjoyed ouselves, we set out for another winery without quite the crowd. To Bethel Heights, a bit north in the Eola Hills with a nice tasting room, no tasting fee, and no crowd. Did I mention the tables where you can spread out and stay a while? This was a nice stop.

First the 2005 Pinot Gris, a mix of fruit from around Oregon in a clean, screw-capped bottle. This was quite nice, fresh and lively with a light sweetness that didn’t get tiresome. We bought one of these. Then the more barrel-marked 2003 Chardonnay Estate, which seemed clumsy at first but changed to show very nicely, not unlike a good Macon white without quite the precision.

To reds and the 2005 Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills, designated properly after the new American Viticultural Area for this region. Again, I initially didn’t like this but it grew on me. Sweet fruit and ash aromas at first, but then more complex spice and wine notes, not confected. Tastes simple and clean, not bad but more standard, I enjoyed this and wonder if it won’t evolve a little bit yet.

A step up was the 2004 Pinot Noir Flat Block Reserve, again lighter like the 2004s at Evesham Wood though not alarmingly so. Pretty aromas with a sense of layering, soft and full on the palate without heaviness. Very nice wine, I have sometimes found the reserves from Bethel Heights too wood-marked, but this is very nice wine and good value for higher end Oregon wine.

November 21, 2006

Harvest Dinner at Belle Pente

To celebrate the end of havest nearly a month ago now, Brian and Jill O’Donnell hosted a wonderful harvest dinner at their home literally in the Belle Pente estate vineyard.

The harvest crew, friends, and neighbors were all there, and a former employee with serious chops in the kitchen cooked an outstanding meal.

The meal itself mirrored the harvest experience. The Belle Pente approach to farming and winemaking is highly traditional, and with the harvest dinner we shared another tradition of marking the season’s end. It’s difficult to describe, but this was a special experience.

The wines of course were top notch. Brian poured sparklers to begin, with the clean but simple 1997 Argyle Oregon Brut from magnum showing well enough next to a more mature NV Tattinger Champagne Brut. More impressive was the NV Bruno Palliard Champagne Brut, with terrific focus, freshness, and complexity.

Brian then paired wines to the multiple food courses, beginning with two from Alsace. The 2000 Rolly Gassman Riesling was good, lightly sweet with nice flavors, but not at the level of the 2002 Domaine Ostertag Riesling Munchberg Grand Cru. This was rich with some sweetness, but such terrific acidity, length, and mix of scents and flavors. I’ve heard some mixed things about Ostertag wines but never tried much. This was absolutely gorgeous with mixed greens and cigars of fig, hazelnut, and gorgonzola wrapped in prosciotto.

Next, two Belle Pente Chardonnay, the 2002 Estate Reserve and the 2004 Estate. Both showed well, not especially oaky but pretty. I think they suffered a little after the Rieslings, but still paired nicely with fish.

Then there was the main course, with nicely grilled flatiron strips, twice truffled potatoes, and braised carrots. What else to drink but a mix of red Burgundy and Belle Pente Pinot Noir, which held up well.

We began with the 1995 Roty Gevrey Chambertin Champs Chenys, tight and primary with five or ten years to go before maturity. Then the 1998 Leroy Pommard Les Vignots, which I thought was the class of the night. Backward and reduced at first, it blossomed into something beautiful. There’s nicely ripe fruit here, and also the finesse and complexity of nice Burgundy. It’s not overly tannic either, as the vintage reputation goes. This is village wine? Wow.

With these, we tried the 1996 Belle Pente Reserve, their first commercial vintage and produced from six barrels of Murto Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Dundee Hills. I’ve enjoyed a bunch of ‘96s from Oregon in the last few years, and this was another good one. Mature with some sous bois in the aroma and silky in the mouth, this is more than ready now but quite good. We also tried the 2001 Belle Pente Estate Reserve, which Brian likes for current drinking but I found it needing time to shed its remaining primary character. There’s also seemed to be a slight bitterness to the finish, but I think the wine just needs to rest still.

For dessert, nothing for me topped the 2001 Albert Mann Gewurztraminer Furstentum SGN, a honeyed but beautifully balanced, rich and exotic wine. Coming close was the 1993 Diszokno Tokaji Essencia, stunning in its own way. A full bottle of 2002 Belle Pente Pinot Gris VT was less impressive to me than recent half bottles, perhaps a touch volatile but still quite good dessert wine.

There were more wines still, and happily I had a bed down the hill at the harvest crew’s quarters. This was the night before my last work day, and falling asleep that night was especially sweet.

November 12, 2006

End of Harvest

The end of harvest at Belle Pente in Carlton, OR, meant more wine dinners and shorter work days. Shorter being 10 or 11 hours, not the 13+ hour hauls of weeks ago.

It felt right to see the season end when it did. The green was long gone from the vineyard and the branches showed in the spot that weeks ago offered only the first yellowing. The mornings frosted, the ground hardening, it was time for the seasonal worker to move on.

I learned a great deal this year, and I come away knowing that it’s time to make my own wine. Of course I’m doing that already. But this year I turned a corner so that from now on, I’m making wine, not just learning to make wine. There’s a big difference.

I also came away with a longer list of to do items than I had going in, which stands to reason if the more we learn, the more we discover questions. There’s no shortage of things to learn about winery operations, forklifts in particular, and the dreaded winery finance and accounting. Not to mention where I’m going to put next year’s wine, much less afford the grapes.

Oh yeah, where am I going to get grapes?

So there’s lots to do, but it’s the season for thinking and reading and researching so I have much to look forward to. Winter rains have returned, happily after all the grapes are long in. Fermentation interests turn from wine to bread and perhaps beer in this season, so there will be plenty to eat and drink along the way. The fervor of harvest is past, the new wines in bed and I’m enjoying the quiet of long fall nights.

But...does anybody know if it’s possible to bond your garage as a winery?

October 29, 2006

Are you reading the harvest reports?

Just back from another long day at the winery. Today saw the last fruit processed, one lot of spicy Gewurtztraminer and two separate lots of Riesling, one especially botrytized. This was my first opportunity to see and taste this much botrytis in white grapes. Was there enough to make a dessert Riesling? Maybe so, maybe not. It will all depend on how things progress.

Today began cold and foggy, my hands numb on the sorting line. By lunch I lay on the hill in the weak but still warm sun, resting for a moment before continuing. And I thought of harvest everywhere, and I remembered that Louis/Dressner Selections has terrific first hand 2006 harvest reports from many terrific French and maybe two Italian producers. Don't miss them.

October 23, 2006

Harvest Update

I pressed my ½ ton of Wahle Vineyard Pinot Noir last Friday, a few days after the brix fell below zero. Like many Pinot Noir makers, I wanted to give the new wine a chance to macerate on the grape skins for a few days before pressing to give more complexity.

Pressing took hours, as I had a small rented basket press that drained into two tubs that I rotated, one to catch the new wine while I took the other to the makeshift barrel room to pour into my barrel. You might be shocked at home much air exposure wine can see during pressing, but I think some oxygen exposure is good for the wine at this stage. I filled the 228L barrel with mostly free run juice and then two carboys with press wine, all of which tasted delicious if a little alcoholic.

On Sunday I tasted the wine after it had a chance to settle in the barrel just a bit. Still a vibrant purple color with some haziness, the aroma showed more winey fragrance and in the mouth the wine shows sweet fruit, less alcohol than before, and some nice acid that will decrease through secondary fermentation in the coming months.

Overall, I think the wine is quite good. Clearly leagues above what I’ve made to this date. Of course it’s early so there’s no congratulations yet. But I know I’m on to something here, and it honestly feels real good.

Meanwhile, life goes on at the winery where I’m working harvest. Things are definitely winding down for the season, with only some late harvested whites coming in later this week. All of the reds should be pressed and in barrel by then, so my last day will be next Monday.

The weather has been a little rainy, but with nice sunny days in between. No serious botrytis in the grapes still hanging, but there should be some nice dessert wines this year, noble sweet or not.

It’s been quite a season for me, with some serious ups and downs. But in the end, I think I find myself in a very good place, with more experience, with good wine in my cellar, and no less interest in continuing down this slightly insane path of winemaking. Who knows where it will lead.

By the way, one of the first days of harvest, some dudes from the University of Oregon stopped by the winery for a story they were doing for the college newspaper. Their story is here, sort of choppy but give the college kid a break. What's really cool is the video story that's linked here. Check it out. I’m in a few pictures, the guy in a white t-shirt with green silkscreen, misidentifed at one point as the winery owner raking grapes out of a bin. Sure, that would be nice.

October 16, 2006

Heading less than zero

Things are looking very good with my 2006 Wahle vineyard Pinot Noir. After lightly warming the must last Wednesday, all three bins began natural fermentation within twenty four hours. The ferments reached a peak temp of 93F over the weekend, and were above 90F for just over a day.

I battled some H2S, an eggy smell caused by nutrient deprived yeast that is a form of reduction. Air helps neutralize it, so I stirred the vats vigorous to add air and added some yeast nutrient to feed the ferment. Everything smells very nice now.

First brix reading two nights ago was 11, down from 24 at the start. Last night was 5.5. Tonight was 0 and maybe a hair under. I’m looking for –1.5 or so for total dryness. Cap temp is around 80 after tonight’s punchdown, and I’m cooling the fermentation room to let the wine temp cool gradually as primary fermentation finishes.

How does the new wine taste? A touch sweet even at 0 brix, but almost pretty smelling with fine tannin that I’ll watch closely. The acidity is likely covered by the sugar, and I hope so or else this could be a softer wine than I was hoping.

Pressing will likely be Thursday or Friday, depending on how things go. Just have to get the barrel and other containers prepped and the barrel area cleaned out. Then it will be time to open some nice bottles of wine and feast.

October 11, 2006

More havest, with actual wine notes

Monday I was back at the winery and it proved to be a cathartic day. Things are back on track.

I suppose it didn't hurt that Monday actually started on Sunday night, when I showed up for a nice harvest dinner with the extended winery crew. A former employee cooked a fabulous meal centered around two tremendous ducks stuffed with chantrells, leeks, and various meat. And of course we sampled a bevy of terrific wines.

Among the whites were the 1995 Evesham Wood Chardonnay Mahonia Vineyard from the south Salem Hills, young and aromatic. The 2001 Dauvissat Chablis Grand Cru Le Clos took a little time to open, but showed beautiful stony terroir and a lightly honeyed note. The 1999 Domaine Rollin Pere & Fils Pernand Vergelesses Blanc 1er Cru Sous Fretille had a similar stony quality, also very young and fragrant. A 2002 Domaine Serene Etoile Chardonnay from the Dundee Hills was more rich than the others with a yeasty quality, but still showed nice restraint and balance. Apparently no new oak on this one.

The top red for me was the 1999 Pavelot Le Corton Grand Cru had the perfume of the night, just tremendous but also young. Not so full on the palate as the others, but so subtle and complex already. Very fine wine. The 2000 Vincent Girardin Corton Bressands Grand Cru on the other hand was more dense and rich, but not oaky and quite attractive. I brought the 2001 Jean Foillard Morgon Cote du Py from the Beaujolais, and it was quite nice with a beautiful fragrance. It was lighter on the palate as it should be, but showed perfect maturity and really showed well. In the mix was another good Domaine Serene wine, this the 2000 Mark Bradford Pinot Noir that was a bit gaudy but otherwise tasted nice.

For dessert we had the powerful 2003 Durban Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, sweet with an eau de vie fragrance. The 2003 Baumard Quarts du Chaume was a little controversial, some saying it was a little corked. Perhaps muted, but fresh to me and a little fat. I preferred the 2002 Belle Pente Riesling Vendange Tardive from Oregon, sweet but so nicely balanced with great length. Terrific with Tarte Tatin.

Then off to sleep in the crew's quarters before another long day of winery work. All of the red grapes and most of the whites are in, so duties in the winery shift from processing fruit to managing the cold soaks, kicking off fermentation in the bins that have finished soaking, punching down the active fermentations, and of course pressing the earliest lots that have already finished fermentation. And don’t forget preping barrels, and cleaning and loading the press, and cleaning again.

The weather has been terrific lately, and it helps to mix up the busy day with the occasional gaze upon the gorgeous scenery. I especially like the end of the day, when the long shadows and fading light reveal new details in the broad landscape. The hay fields have a hint of green again, and though the days are still warm, it’s only for a brief time each day as the nights grow long and cold.

Back at home, at this very moment I’m warming up my cold soaks to try and get fermentation started. I haven’t actively cooled them for days but they remain in the high 50s, which won’t help fermentation to kick off. So I’m heating the room and using an aquarium heater to boost things to the mid-60s or so and see if I can get the yeasts to start making some heat of their own.

Time to stir and then back to the winery tomorrow.

October 08, 2006

Harvest continues

It’s been a tough ten days.

First, the fun part. I got just under a half ton of ripe Pinot noir from the Wahle vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA here in the northern Willamette Valley. Ripe as in 25.5 brix, or percent sugar, soaking up to just over 26 after a few days of cold maceration.

The fruit looked immaculate, except for some obvious dehydration and occasional raisined berries. Those raisins take some time to release their sugar into the crushed mass of grapes and juice that fermentation will turn into wine.

Now, raisins in Pinot noir? I know. We’ll see how the flavors turn out in the wine, but the juice doesn’t taste raisiny at all. And there weren’t that many of them. More important at this point is that there was no rot and essentially no sorting to be done before crushing.

I got the grapes this past Wednesday. Why not earlier, when sugar levels were lower but flavors already nice? That’s where the trouble begins.

Basically, between my regular job and my harvest job, and my wife going out of town for a close friend’s wedding last weekend leaving me in the care of two young kids for four days and nights, I simply didn’t have the time. That and, lucky as I was to get the fruit processed at the winery where I’m working, I was stuck with their shifting schedule for processing red grapes. Wednesday turned out to be the only day that would work, so Wednesday it was, 26 brix grapes and all.

Such is life at harvest. As I wrote last time, you just can’t always get the grapes when you’d like. Not that I’m complaining. My homebrewing is still experimental, and this year I’m learning how to deal with slightly overripe fruit. The “real wine” lover in me wants to make wine just from what I harvest. But reality this year and my desire to get experience with things, even if only to why I might not do them in the future, wins out.

So, out came five gallons of lightly pigmented juice after one night of soaking to make some early drinking rosé. And in went the same amount of distilled water with some tartaric acid, to dilute the sugar level to approximately 24 brix and increase the acid level from 5g per liter to something between 7 and 8. Adding water to make wine? Yes, sacriledge. But I don’t want to end up with 15.5% alcohol Pinot noir with a ph above 4.0. Even if I did, that kind of low acid wine is just waiting for spoilage. Lower the ph to more normal ranges and you’re much more likely to end up with a drinkable, and giftable, wine.

I’m experimenting. Perhaps it will work ok. Perhaps not. There’s only one way to find out. And judging by what I’m seeing and hearing from around the valley, I’m not alone. No one wants to talk about adding water – acid is less taboo. And for those who wonder – won’t water dilute the flavors? Not really. So much flavor and color is still in the skins and only starting to leech into the juice, adding a little water now really just lowers the sugar level. And only a bit really.

Now I’m struggling to find time to monitor the wine as much as I’d like, not to monkey around with it any more than I have, but to learn by observing it and smelling it and generally getting to know it better. But work calls and my family calls, and sleep calls. Most significantly for my body and mind, the winery calls.

Really, I’m working only every third day, so that’s not so bad. But I’m struggling. It’s hard to find a rhythm when you don’t work every day, though I’m not sure my body would stand up to repeated 12 to 14 hour days without much downtime. Am I cut out for this winemaking stuff?

More significantly, I just don’t know my way around a professional winery either as much as I thought, or at least as much as I think I should know at this point. I’m not a total newbie, but truth be told my experience is not deep. And my mechanical nature has never been strong, and you’ll quickly find out that in a winery, just like on a contruction site, being handy is a big plus. I’m not very handy.

So I’m slower with tasks then I’d like. Many processes at this winery are new to me, so I’m forever bugging my co-workers with questions, then asking for clarification when their hurried answers don’t make much sense. Then asking where I can find whatever tools or gear they’re telling me to use. Needless to say, they get frustrated and I get frustrated with myself and, while it's not like the whole experience has been a disaster, far from it really, each day has taken a toll on me. I hate not knowing my way around a place, and I find sometimes I leave for my hour drive home a bit broken down.

Maybe some of it is just the physical work. Or maybe I just need to toughen up and accept that I’ve got a lot to learn and, as much as I’d like this to be more of a learning experience, a real internship, my job is to work hard and long hours and get things done quickly and right. No matter how many other things are on my mind, including the biggie – can I hack this kind of work?

So it’s back to the winery tomorrow, then back to my “real” job Tuesday after essentially not being there for much of the past couple weeks. My kids want me to take them to the park, but it’s raining lightly. And my own wine calls.

I’ll write again when I find the time and energy.

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.

August 20, 2006

A visit to Grochau Cellars

John Grochau, a lanky, wire-framed guy in his 30s, was busy on a forklift moving barrels around his small winery when I arrived for a visit.

“His winery” meaning the place he makes wine for his label Grochau Cellars. It’s really the site of Aramenta Cellars, here on Lewis Rogers Lane in the heart of the new Ribbon Ridge AVA of Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley

John describes the arrangement as a “collaboration,” where he helps the owners of Aramenta make their wine in exchange for space to do his thing.

I’ve written before about loving John’s 2004 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, so I was excited to learn more about his project. It doesn’t hurt that he’s doing exactly what I’d like to do. If I wanted a model of a low-cost, start-up winery, this is it.

We quickly got to tasting, and I ended up sampling pretty much everything he has from the 2005 vintage. How are the wines? Good to very good, not overwhelmingly great but more than simply competent. John isn’t the self-promotion type, but he’s quietly putting together a very nice mix of classic Willamette Valley wines with a growing share of bottlings from southern Oregon. The biggest lesson – don’t read too much into barrel samples, especially what you see how different (and better or more complete) things can taste once you do some blending.

We started with the soon to be bottled Chardonnay, a blend of Willamette Valley and Columbia River Gorge fruit. The former comes from the Eola Springs vineyard and an unusual clone I’d never heard of – Mendoza – that John says gives a minerally wine. Blended with the riper fruit from above White Salmon, WA (across the Columbia from Hood River, OR), this is nice, somewhat toasty and tropical fruited chardonnay with a green apple finish.

Then a single barrel of Viognier from the Pompadour vineyard 2,200 feet above Ashland in southern Oregon. There were “issues” with this wine, with a stuck fermentation that never really finished until this spring. Nicely floral on the aroma, very true to the variety, but reduced and a little rubbery. Needs some airing.

These were the only whites tasted, but John also makes Sauvignon Blanc that I’ve enjoyed before, aside from a little reduction that I think should resolve itself with time.

With the reds, we began with a variety of Pinot Noir from around the Willamette Valley. The Pommard clone from the Vidon vineyard in the Chehalem Mountin AVA has a fruity aroma but is very toasty and finely tannic from a new barrel. The same wine with slightly different treatment at the crusher showed more complexity on the aroma and a more creamy texture. 777 clone from Vidon from a Gillet barrel was dense and thick as you’d expect from this Dijon clone. John calls it good blending materials.

Then on to a sample from the Monk’s Gate vineyard off Abbey Road near the Dundee Hills but on Willakenzie soils and from the Wadenswil clone. Lighter aroma, peppery with an ashy quality I tend to get from some sedmentary soils. Then to the Dundee Hills proper, with 667 clone from the Anderson family vineyard, lots of toast, bacon, and coffee aromas, pungent with tight flavors from a new barrel. Older oak gives a lighter color, not so rich with a slightly gassy, reduced aroma.

So far, the 2005s from Grochau taste fairly ripe and rich, not showing the cool October that gave lower overall ripeness and challenged winemakers more used to, and more interested in, higher sugar levels in their grapes. Now, we get to vineyards from the cool McMinnville Foothills AVA.

First, Pommard clone from Meredith Mitchell vineyard, picked on October 16th at 22 brix and soaked up overnight to 22.5. Bright aroma, grapefruit and some gassy smells, then light caramel hints. This from a “cool” ferment peaking at 88F, a lighter but pretty and fragrant wine. Same vineyard and clone from a “hot” ferment peaking at 94F gives a slightly bigger flavor, but still the coolness of the harvest shows.

Then Momtazi vineyard, not far from Meredith Mitchell, this 115 clone picked on October 18 at 22.5 brix and soaking up to 23. I found this sample the most complete of the barrels we tried, nicely perfumed with good fruit and spice. In comparison, the “best barrel” of Meredith Mitchell shows nice bright cranberry fruit but not quite the depth of the Momtazi. These are not blockbuster wines, but I really like the lower brix perfume and lack of jamminess so prevalent in the riper fruit people around here seem to love.

John will blend these lots into a Willamette Valley bottling and a Reserve Pinot Noir. A hypothetical “Reserve” blend was outstanding;. John mixed bits of maybe a half dozen barrels, and the result is a lesson in winetasting. Bright like most of the samples, the blend showed richness that the individual wines lacked and a more complete flavor that immediately stands out from the rest. That, and the fact that these are wines are still developing, make me think 2005 will be a nice year for Grochau Cellars Pinot Noir.

So are we done? No. I was fascinated to find out how interested John is in other varieties from southern Oregon. Not simply Syrah and who knows what else from the ubiquitous Del Rio vineyard that everyone here in Oregon seems to make wine from. Rather, Tempranillo and Syrah from the Umpqua Valley and, most interestingly, Syrah from Pompadour above Ashland where John got his Viognier.

The Tempranillo from the young Upper Five vineyard has a nice bitter chocolate aroma with very fine but substantial tannin. From McQuorkadale, another Umpqua vineyard, more floral with leather and fruit aromas and even more tannin. These wines will stay in barrel for nearly another year, so it’s very early here. Same with the Syrah, first a sample from Upper Five that’s a warmer site than Pompadour, showing a little stinky and tight. This wine will be racked soon to give a little air to help resolve the reduction notes.

Finally, impressive Syrah from Pompadour. First, Syrah co-fermented with 2% Viognier, brightly aromatic with floral and coffee notes, chewy in the mouth and impressive. Then a sample with 4% Viognier added at the crusher, truly inky and a little grapey, but bright, full, and rich. Both of these wines show Rhone-like flavors, not simply oakiness that most new world producers rely on for complexity. John describes the Pompadour site as a rocky hillside, like a little Hermitage in southern Oregon. We’ll have to check that out – if there are truly great sites here in Oregon to grow Syrah, that would be exciting.

For now, I wrap up my visit peppering John with questions about how he got started in wine (though Higgins restaurant where he still works part-time), in winemaking (working up the road at Brick House), and most importantly, how much debt he’s in so far (not so much, actually, so there’s a glimmer of hope for me yet). John's also working on long-term lease to plant and farm a nice hayfield just down the road. I’m excited enough to offer to help out at harvest a little, and we’ll see how that plays out. It’s not everyday you get to see someone living your dream, and doing it well. I’ll make a point to stay in touch with Grochau Cellars. You should too.

August 15, 2006

Summer drinking in the Manning's backyard

We went over to Marshall and Carolyn Manning’s house for Marshall’s birthday celebration the other night. As usual, there was lots of nice wine that, given the social setting, was fun to taste but not analyze too critically. Nice seeing old friends and meeting even more local winos. The Mannings are simply terrific folks.

Among the whites, the 2003 Donnhoff Riesling Niederhauser Hermannshohle Spatlese was terrific with fresh riesling flavors and light sweetness. A 1999 Pierre Sparr Pinot Gris “Brand” was showing some age, with rich, lightly sweet flavors but a maturing profile and a cidery edge. I brought the 2003 Evesham Wood Chardonnay “Les Puits Sec” from their estate vineyard near Salem, OR. Some thought it too oaky, but I thought it was delicious and worth aging for a few years to see how it develops. The rareity of the evening was an old Oregon wine, the 1985 Eyrie Vineyard Chardonnay that smelled interesting and mature but tasted just a bit tired. Perhaps it was the setting, as this wine hasn’t cracked, but it just wasn’t as compelling as I hoped.

Rosé? There were a few, but I tried only the nice 2005 Domaine Gaussen Bandol Rosé, which is brightly fruity and crisp. As Marshall said, the value rosé of the season.

And then there were reds. I also brought the 2001 Raspail-Ay Gigondas, on close-out locally and worth twice the $16 price. Old school grenache-based southern Rhone wine here, lots of stones, red fruit, earth, and herbs. Not tannic as I expected, but bright and probably worth aging 5 to 10 years. Then came a progression of terrific reds, and I didn’t even try everything.

With lamb kebabs, the 1995 Domaine Tempier Bandol "La Tourtine", opened by the host (thanks big fella). Still young, but beginning to show bottle sweetness, softly tannic and just terrific with the lamb. Really nice wine.

The 2001 Domaine Pegau Chateauneuf du Pape “Cuvee Laurence” is a huge wine with more than a little alcohol and such extract and weight, and finesse despite its size. Rich in the mouth with young but already complex flavors, this is powerful wine but savory, not jammy and candy sweet. Apparently this sees small oak casks, but I didn’t pick up much woodiness. I remember feeling the same after trying the ’95 “Laurnece” a few years back, which was also outstanding.

In contrast, the 2003 Copain Syrah “Cailloux & Coccinelle” from Washington grapes was clearly new world in color and fruit aroma. I was impressed with the natural texture and smokey signature of this wine, without being overly oaky or creamy. My first Copain wine and I enjoyed it, though as with all these wines, I didn't have much to taste and I didn't spend lots of time pondering each.

Then a pair of old Sonoma zins appeared. First, the 1984 Lytton Springs Zinfandel from the Valley Vista vineyard. This wine is huge, port like with clear residual sugar. It’s holding together well but a bit jarring on the senses. Not so much like the ’81 Lytton Springs I tried last summer, which was terrific, supple zinfandel without the late harvest notes. In contrast was the 1982 Joseph Swan Zinfandel Sonoma County, more claret in style as Joe apparently favored in the 1980s. We should have tried these zins in reverse order. This wine showed a bit lean following the Lytton Springs. Reminiscent of the ’81 Swan Sonoma tried a few years back, both are very cherry and bright, not so much evolved as pleasantly alive in their place. No rush here.

What’s this, Califonia Pinot Noir in Oregon? The 2003 Hitching Post Pinot Noir Highliner was just as nice as I remember Hitching Post wines to be, never blockbusters but always nicely ripe with just the proper amount of earthiness to keep things interesting. The only downside here was a touch of sulfur on the nose.

Then came the 1993 Chevillon Nuits St. Georges “Les Chaignots” – a lively, still youthful Burgundy that’s drinking well. Fragrant with lots of floral notes, not tannic but firm in the mouth, this showed a little floral bitterness but otherwise nicely ripe fruit with good length.

Finally, after the pair of Montevertine Riservas I tasted recently, thank you to whomever brought the 1995 Montevertine Le Pergole Torte, made from 100% Sangiovese from Tuscany. Take the old school richness and fragrance from the ’95 Riserva and add just the right amount of sweet fruit and florals to give even more depth and you have the ’95 Le Pergole Torte. Wow, this was delicious and another favorite from the night.

And would you believe I skipped a bunch of wines and we left early before the dessert bottles? Sometimes there is too much wine, not a bad problem to have, and as it was the next morning was looking to be a bit foggy. So off into the night.

August 11, 2006

Terrific red Burgundy from de Villaine

When it comes down to it, about the most exciting wine I’ve have recently is a $20 red Burgundy, the 2004 A. Et P. De Villaine Bourgogne “La Dogoine” from the Cote Chalonnaise.

This part of Burgundy, immediately south of the Cote d’Or, typcially produces lighter wines from pinot noir and chardonnay than its northerly neighbor. But de Villaine is in my mind the leader of the better producers in the region. Every wine I’ve had from this producer has been exceptional.

This wine is no different. It shows a brilliant light ruby color, with a perfumed, simply gorgeous aroma. It is not deep but it’s so elegant and ripe at once, with cherries and wood spice, it makes me think of something we might produce in Oregon at our best. Soft and silky in the mouth, truly elegant with spicy cherry and mineral flavors, bright and light textured but ripe tasting and so pleasurable. Great acidity draws out the finish, it's so fresh and pure I found myself thinking, simply, "wow."

This isn’t complex wine, but it is so aromatic and delicious. I think this is terrific for drinking now, and for the money it pretty much blows away the local competition for value. But I wouldn’t think I’d want to age this wine more than a few years.

So I find it interesting that the de Villaine brochure says that La Digoine “benefits from bottle aging.” It goes on to say:

“After 18 to 24 months, slow maturation and evolution begin to make their mark, and La Digoine will improve over the next ten years, revealing the deep, complex aroma worthy of a great Burgundy. Depending on cellar condition, we recommend twelve to fifteen years of aging.”

Wow. That’s a long time. But when I think about it, with this producer, I wouldn’t be surprised. This is, after all, probably the best “generic” red Bourgogne I’ve ever had.

August 06, 2006

Italy: Something old (school), something new

I try to avoid the circular old world/new world debates that rage in online wine fora about so-called “traditional” wine from old fashioned methods vs. “international” wine made from the latest technical innovations. Traditional methods often reflect what were probably heretical advances a generation or three back. And the latest technological innovations aren’t all about making wines the world over taste the same.

But sometimes you just have to ask – what the hell is going on in Italy?

A few weeks back, my wine group had a blind tasting in two flights. First, a pair of traditionally made Tuscan wines from Montevertine. These wines are both made from 90% Sangiovese and 10% Caniaolo grapes, and are labelled “Riserva” on the back label while just “Montevertine” on the front.

The 1995 Montevertine was stellar, with a ruddy ruby color and an elegant but rich aroma that to me defines quality Tuscan red wine. Cocoa, cherries, smoke and a light balsamic accent, with great purity and depth. In the mouth, the wine was soft with good acidity and fine tannin, tart cherry flavors and terrific balance, very good wine that should only be better with dinner.

In contrast, the 1996 Montevertine was sweeter aromatically, almost Amarone-like in richness (where the grapes are dried before fermentation), with a minty herbal edge not unlike a California wine. Fat with a minty tone in the mouth, this wine is chewy and heavier than the 1995 but still classically made. That is, ruby rather than purple in color, with winey aromas instead of sweet fresh fruitiness and firm but not unnaturally sharp acidic structure. I thought the ’96 might be from ’97, to my knowledge a riper vintage, but still this was impressive if a little odd for my tastes. Interestingly, I mentioned this wine to a very wine-knowledgable friend who said, “I love how high quality Sangiovese can show a eucalyptus quality.” Which I’d never heard before, so perhaps what I thought a bit odd isn’t so odd at all.

In any event, these wines from Montevertine show what terrific, old-school Italian red wine can be like. They don’t come cheap at a price beteen $40 and $50, but they are quality wines that have aged well and will continue to age for another decade or more.

And then we moved to flight #2, a trio of 2001 vintage wines from Fattoria Zerbina in the up-and-coming Emilia Romagna region east of Tuscany. These wines absolutely confounded me. They didn’t taste Italian, instead they could have come from anywhere but really that’s not the criticism. They just aren’t that attractive. If you want big, lush, modern wines, you can do a lot better than these, at lower prices.

First was the 2001 Zerbina “Pietranora” Superiore Riserva, dark red in color with a yeasty, nail polish-tinged aroma of jammy sweet fruit amid some attractive perfume. In the mouth, the wine was sharply acidic with more volatility, a creamy, oxygen-deprived frootiness, and fine but drying tannin that hardens the finish. In short, “impressively” ripe and rich wine but wholly unappealing. How do they do that? Let’s not mention the boozy whack of alcohol, as this bottling weighs in at 15.5%. Yikes. Not to mention the price - $65. Eek!

Next came the 2001 Zerbina “Ceregio” Sangiovese di Romagna, to me the only one of the three maybe worth drinking. Slightly ligher in color with some perserved fruit aromas and earthy complexity in the mouth alongside similarly the tannic, candy froot flavors of the Pietranora. At least this tasted like Sangiovese, if not really good Sangiovese. Would you believe that this is the cheapest of the three by a wide margin? Around $15.

Finally, the 2001 Zerbina Marzieno Ravanna Rosso, which was eye-stingingly volatile with big creamy sweet fruit aromas along with a thick, dark color. There were also some tar, dirt, and pepper notes, but in the mouth it was even more tannic than the others, and not tannic in a way that time would tame. I see this drying out over time, the lush purple fruit shortening with age while the rough tannin and acid structure takes things over. For this, you pay around $50.

In the end, I loved Montevertine. Can you believe I’d never tried this producer before? And as for Zerbina, others report greatness and who am I to argue? But I know what I’m drinking.

July 22, 2006

2000 Domaine de Roally Macon-Villages

A few years ago I had this wine for the first time and was shocked at its quality. I had never heard of Domaine de Roally but bought one bottle on the recommendation of a local wine shop. It cost $20 and tasted like it could cost twice that or more. Imagine my delight on finding a few more at another local shop on close out for $11. Why is wine like this ever on close out? God only knows.

A quick web search will show you that I was woefully behind the curve in not knowing about Roally. Happily I’ve changed that. The proprietor Henri Goyard is something of a legend and iconoclast. As with a few other avant gard French producers, Goyard has been denied certain AOC status at times for producing wines that don’t show the “typicité” of their appellation. In Goyard’s case, his late picked Chardonnay grapes occasionally tinged with botrytis produce uncommonly rich, even decadent white wines from a region more typcially known for lean, crisp green apple aromas and flavors. Sometimes Goyard’s wines are sweet, depending on whether the fermentation ended dry or with a little residual sugar. Usually, the wines are great. Read more about Roally at the importer's site.

So the other night I went to the cellar looking for something special, and found this. A quick pour showed a beautiful golden color. I swirled the wine and took a sniff – wow. Without any airing, the wine was already so complex. Ripe yellow fruit, minerals, cinnamon and other spice aromas without any new oak smells, and the unmistakeable honeyed scent of botrytis. In the mouth, the wine is still young but expansive with terrific flavors that echo the aroma. I noticed more sweetness than other bottles, really just a hint of residual sugar balanced nicely with fresh acidity that together draw out the finish. This wine offers stunning quality for what is entry level pricing from higher end appellations. This is Macon wine that tastes like top shelf white Burgundy from the Cote d’Or, and perhaps should be a model for what Oregonians could do with Chardonnay from less than exquisite terroir.

Sadly, this was my last bottle of what turned out to be Goyard’s final vintage before handing things off to the nephew of Macon legend Jean Thevenet. I have one bottle of the ’02 in the cellar, and it’s still available locally for $23. There has been no apparently drop off in quality, so look for Domaine de Roally. I only wish I had more from old man Goyard.

July 18, 2006

Reading about wine

Actually, reading about Oregon wine, mostly.

Have you seen the new Oregon Wine Press? This sleepy little monthly recently changed hands and the quality of writing and content is soaring. There’s even good copyediting now. Now the features are more interesting, the news is newsier, and I actually find myself interested in what the next issue will bring.

Then there’s Wine Press Northwest, which may just annoy me for its emphasis on Washington wines under the banner of the the broader northwest. It’s forgivable, the publication is based in Kennewick, WA. Hey, I’m in Oregon and equally biased toward our wines. But the WPN columnists for the most part leave me unsatisfied, and the wine reccomendations seem like wasted opportunities. Do we need write ups on wine from Domaine Ste. Michelle and Willamette Valley Vineyards? Is the readership that unadventurous? At least the latest issue bucks the trend with a pretty good cover story on new Oregon AVAs.

I liked a new publication, Imbibe. It’s from Portland but does a surprisingly good job at disguising that fact. Lots of ads from across the country with features that don’t focus on the local scene too much. This magazine is about all beverages, and the premiere issue does a good job with features on Mezcal, “third wave” coffee, and, unfortunately, a mixologist. What a terrible word, and no magazine can be perfect.

Wine-wise, there’s a terrific feature on organic grape growing featuring Brick House and Evesham Wood from the northern Willamette Valley. The wine recommendations even include a Savennieres from French biodynamic guru Nicholas Joly. Talk about challenging your readership. Good stuff here, fresh without being over the top “cool.” As in, not cool. Remember Wine X? Is that even still around?

Finally, a sad note to pass on. Wine industry publications like Wines and Vines still suck. Good lord. If a space alien got ahold of the July issue, it would think wine on earth was nothing more than a vehicle to flavor with oak chips, oak stave inserts for wine tanks, oak dust, oak essence, even some screw threaded oak plugs that offer maximum flavoring in a tidy, small package. Ok, the issue theme is Oak Alternatives, so at least they’re comprehensive. But how depressing.

And yet there’s a bright spot. On nearly the last page, there’s an opinion piece from...surprise, surprise...Alice Feiring. Talk about the last person I expected to see in this issue. Alice is a terrific wine writer who has one of the better blogs. If only I could steal the whole package – her design, her writing, even her curly red hair. And here she is writing about whether or not biodynamism is just a marketing ploy in America, a way for some capitalists to charge more money for no good reason. Like with the commercialization of “organic” labelled food. Nice piece, Alice. Refreshingly unflavored with oak.

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.

July 08, 2006

1990 Burgundies and more

So, would you like to attend a private dinner and tasting of some top examples of 1990 red Burgundy? I know I would.

But when this email invitation came from Craig Camp, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. Maybe he had the wrong guy.

I’d never met Craig, though I was familiar with him as a well-known internet personality. [Insert Troy McClure voice here.] You might remember him from the influential Italian wine and food blog vinocibo, his internet home during his three years in Piedmont. Now he’s back in the U.S. as general manager at Anne Amie Vineyards outside of Carlton, OR, and host of winecamp.

Craig had contacted me a few months ago with kind words about this modest site and an invitation to visit Anne Amie that I had yet to follow up on.

I suppose once in a while indolence has its rewards.

Turns out Doug Salthouse of Smart Buy Wine & Spirits in New Jersey was coming to town for this year’s Oregon Pinot Camp. Craig knows Doug, who, being a longtime Burgundy collector, shipped a case of 1990 premier and grand cru wines from A-list Cote d’Or producers from his personal cellar to share with people who’d appreciate them. Craig and the gang at Anne Amie thought they’d bring in Bistro Maison from McMinnville to put together a dinner, invite some other OPC visitors and local wine trade friends, and have a little fun.

Happily, Craig was nice enough to invite me.

So here’s the lowdown on what happened. First, I was not a paying guest, and tasting high end wines in this setting presents a unique critical challenge. How can you not love everything in the face of such generousity and such rarefied producers in a top vintage? If you like them, is it only because you should?

We’ll have to leave that unresolved. These were damn fine wines, not absolutely mindblowing but compelling and delicious. And the food was pretty good, too. If I enjoyed myself only because I was supposed to, fine with me.

We began with an attractive Oregon sparkler, the 1999 Soter Brut Rosé Beacon Hill. Then we turned our attention to the line up – 1990s all:

Volnay, Clos de Chenes, Domaine Michel Lafarge
Volnay, Santenots, Domaine de la Comtes Lafon
Corton, Domaine Cornu
Mazis Chambertin, Domaine Maume
Chambertin, Domaine Rousseau
Chambolle Musigny, Amoureuses, Domaine Roumier
Clos de la Roche, Domaine Georges Lignier
Vosne Romanee, Les Genevres, Leroy
Romanee St Vivant, Domaine de la Romanee Conti
Richbourg, Domaine Anne and Francois Gros

Overall the best wines showed more similarities than differences, due no doubt to the ripeness of the vintage. Burgundy purists complain that 1990 reds are too ripe, that the warmth of the growing season obscured the terrior expression in the wines.

No matter how you feel about that, these wines generally showed terrific purity and Burgundian character and lots of youth and vigor. Colors were generally dark and more youthful than mature. I think these wines generally have at least another decade until reaching full maturity. Some I expect will last much longer still. Of course there are exceptions.

Aromatically, the wines were very complex, without obtrusive oakiness and with beautifully integrated spicy, sous bois (that woodsy note you find in Burgundy) fragrance. Any of these wines would be delicious with dinner. All of them together was a little overwhelming. But we struggle.

Of the two Volnay, the Lafarge was a bit volatile and perhaps showing some medicinal character of brett, but I loved its aromatic complexity. The Lafon was more restrained, with great purity and fragrance.

The next two wines showed the least to me. The Corton was nice, spicy pinot noir that wasn’t too far from Oregon in profile, but a bit lost in this line up. The Chambertin was pretty and delicate, surely not bad wine, but fading in color and very soft and fragile in the mouth. If this bottle is representative, drink up while it’s still hanging around.

Then a complete change, the Mazis Chambertin from Maume. This wine provoked the first oohs and aahs of the evening, showing the ripeness of the vintage and the structure and heft that Maume is known for. Dark color, strapping aroma with more overt oakiness than the others (not in a bad way), full and rich on the palate with fine tannin, this is still a baby but already tastes really good.

Every Les Amoureuses I’ve had has showed grand cru quality, and this Roumier was no different. Terrific aroma, great intensity, and yet so graceful and light on its feet. I wish I had a cellar full of wines from this vineyard.

I was taking my time tasting through the wines, and ended up rushing with the Clos de la Roche from Lignier. My notes were scant, but this wine again showed great youth, power, and elegance, though it too was a bit lost in the line up for me.

Perhaps that’s due to the remaining wines. The Vosne Romanee Les Genevres showed Leroy purity, lacking only the depth of a grand cru. Spicy, woodsy aroma without obvious oakiness, just delicious. Again, such elegance for such a ripe wine.

The Romanee St Vivant from Domaine de la Romanee Conti might have been a bit of a letdown, only because of the impossibly high reputation of the producer and the amazing showing of the following wine. Still, beautifully floral with great length, just terrific.

And finally the Richbourg from A. et F. Gros. Darker than the other wines and just tremendous, perhaps with some life changing properties. What can you say about this one? It was simply the most impressive wine of the night, and darn tasty.

But that wasn’t all. We also had the following two bottles to cap things off:

1964 Charmes Chambertin, Remoissenet
1959 Vosne Romanee, 1er Cru, Les Malconsorts, Girard Giroud

The Charmes showed a youthful color, for a 42 year old wine that is. Immediately fragrant and pretty in the mouth, it showed more tea character with airing. In contrast, the Malconsorts was shy aromatically at first, but opened wonderfully, showing more maturity than the Charmes but with airing more sweetness and fullness. Neither wine needs more cellaring, but both will hang around for a while in a cold cellar.

Needless to say, I don’t usually drink so well. So thanks to Craig Camp for the invitation, and especially thanks to Doug Salthouse for providing such rare, and well cared for, wines. What a treat.