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.