April 29, 2007

2002 Le Petit Chambord Cour-Chevergny Vendanges Manuelles

Two years ago I wrote about how much I enjoyed the Francois Cazin’s 1999 Le Petit Chambord Cour-Chevergny Vendanges Manuelles. When I saw the 2002 edition about a year ago, I immediately wanted to buy it. But I already had my hands full, and the same genius wine guy who recently steered me toward the bizarre 2005 Crima told me to stay clear of the Cazin. Something about it being a little off kilter.

In the moment, I listened and obeyed.

Fast forward to a recent visit to a local fancy supermarket, where I again found the 2002, priced at just $11.99. Temptation got me and I bought one, only to open it last night and find, well, something off kilter.

Now Cour-Chevergny isn’t typcial wine. Made from the Romorantin grape, it tends to show a unique blend earthy diesel notes balanced by pronounced red fruit and citrus, not unlike Riesling, with the honeycomb and lanolin edge of Chenin blanc.

The 2002 Le Petit Chambord Cour-Chevergny Vendanges Manuelles smells and tatses just that way, only with a fumey, slightly volatile bent to the aroma and a sour acidity on the palate that doesn’t mesh with the off dry sweetness.

The wine didn’t tasted flawed, just ripe and a bit on the edge, maybe over. We drank it over two nights but I didn’t really enjoy the wine. It was ok, just nothing like the 1999 I loved.

Go figure. 1999 was supposedly a difficult vintage, and 2002 just the opposite. Maybe my wine guy isn’t crazy from the Crima after all.

Science of Winemaking Class

Lots of times, when people find out I’m interested in making wine, they ask, “are you taking classes?” They seem to think making wine means you have to be a scientist.

Nevermind the millenia of winemaking history, long before anyone understood anything about the chemical and biological process. After all, it wasn’t even until the 20th century when we first understood something as important as malolactic fermentation. I’ve had wines older than that, and they tasted just fine.

Real fine, in fact, but that’s another story.

The point is, you can make wine without understanding the science behind it. I’ve done that for six years. But I recognize that I now have the experience to benefit from learning more about the science of winemaking. Not to become a scientist, not even to radically shift my artisanal perspective toward the technological. Rather, to know the rules better before I break them.

So this spring, I broke down and enrolled in Science of Winemaking, an eleven week course offered by Chemeketa Community College in Salem, OR. Coincidentally, the Oregon Wine News’ latest edition has a nice article about the Northwest Viticulture Center where my course and many others are held on the red soils of the Eola Hills.

My instructor is Barney Watson, a UC Davis graduate and longtime teacher here in Oregon. I’m very impressed by his knowledge and ability to communicate complex ideas fairly simply. Prior to reading the OWP article, I didn’t know that Watson was the guy behind Tyee wines. I’ve never tried any, but will seek them out just to see more of what he’s all about.

The class itself is challenging to this technical novice. My chemistry background is ancient for a 37-year old. But my interest in learning technical details is apparently strong enough to make the weekly three-hour sessions fly by, leaving my wishing for more.

We’re four weeks into the class, and we’ve mostly focused on grape chemistry and some viticulture as it relates to what this class is all about – making wine.

So we’re investigating the development of berries through the growing season, looking into the chemical compounds that become the elements and precursors of wine chemistry. Some is review, such as the various acids you find in grapes (tartaric and malic, some citric). Some is incredibly complex and still mysterious to me, such as carboxyl groups and benzene ring structures of various molecules in grapes.

What have I learned so far? Perhaps the most signficant thing is the reason behind why “canopy management” is so important in the vineyard. Specifically, that in cooler climates such as the Willamette Valley, an open canopy of vine leaves reduces mildew and other disease pressures by allowing more airflow throughout the plants. Open canopies also provide direct or indirect sunlight and heat on the grape clusters to allow for chemical changes in the berries that encourage what we perceive as ripe and pleasing aromas and flavors in most wines.

Too much light and heat can be negative depending on the site, grape variety, and season. But I think we can attribute the development of increasingly higher quality wines from our region to open canopies more than any other factor. Better winemaking technique is a close second. But as the old saying goes, great wine is made in the vineyard. Open canopies, and the chemical transformation they allow, are evidence of that.

More on the class as we move from the vineyard into the cellar and look more squarely at the subject at hand, the science of winemaking.

April 22, 2007

High Thread Count Wine

Being a wine geek seems to mean you have to spend a lot of money on wine. But it’s just not true. There are terrific wines out there for even the slimmest of budgets.

Yet I recognize that the better wines often do cost more than most people want to spend, unless it’s a really special occasion.

Even then, I think a lot of people aren’t sure why they’ve just spent a lot of money on a bottle of wine. Sure, it tastes good. But an hour later when the bottle’s all gone, they wonder, was it really worth $20, or $30, or more? Was it better than something I could have gotten for a lot less?

No and yes. If you’re looking for “flavor,” you can find a lot of that in many cheap wines. Perhaps not the complexity or subtlty of a better wine. But these days, it’s not hard to find something for $10 with a ton of flavor.

For me, spending more on wine is all about texture. And texture is worth the money, if you’re interested.

Texture? Isn’t that winespeak? I don’t know enough about wine, you’ll say, to know about this texture thing. I disagree.

Now I’m not cloth expert, but I know fine fabric when I feel it. Whether it’s high thread count bed sheets or a horribly expensive shirt that I of course won’t buy, am too lazy to even try on, yet still drool over on occasion, there’s nothing quite like the feel and the feeling of really nice fabric.

Wine’s no different. You don’t need to be a wine geek to know great texture when you feel it. You just need to know to look for it.

Take the 1998 Domaine de la Cote de l’Ange Chateauneuf du Pape that I had recently. This moderately aged wine is a case study in texture, showing how really good wine makes itself known to you by the high thread count feel in your mouth.

With this wine, you know you’re on to something when you smell the subtle fragrance of rocks, berries, old wood, and some light farm scents. But one sip and it’s all about texture, the firm but soft, worsted texture that covers your mouth and makes you pause and reflect just as you do when you slide into a fancy sheeted bed.

Yes, this is the stuff. And if I had all the money in the world, I’d drink wine like this every night. And you should, too. Don’t just settle for flavor. You wouldn’t buy colorful bed sheets that felt like cardboard, would you?

April 16, 2007

Weirdest Wine Ever

Years ago I was at an “offline” dinner, that is a gathering of internet wine geeks, where some brave soul brought a wine many others immediately and fairly dubbed the “weirdest wine ever.”

It was the 1998 Fox Creek JSM, an Australian blend of various red grapes intended as a lower priced sibling to their Shiraz varietals. That is, until the ’98 JSM got a huge rating from the pundits and turned into something you’d bring to an offline.

Indeed, this was weird wine with a dayglow color, a buttery oak aroma, a syrupy texture and flavors more akin to sugary breakfast cereals than anything vinous.

Now I think I’ve found something weirder still.

Wine geeks reading this might think it heresy to mention Fox Creek with something so different in character like the 2005 Conti di Buscareto Crima Marche Rosso IGT. The Buscareto Crima (crima allegedly being the grape, though I haven’t found much to support that) has a natural texture and wine-like base aroma and flavor.

But it’s now the weirdest wine I’ve ever tasted.

It starts out black as night. But take a sniff and it’s like someone’s soaked incense sticks in Italian petite sirah, maybe with hand soap in there too. A local wine store guy, who has a terrific though more than adventurous palate, suggested it’s like gewurztraminer blended into some red wine, as if it were a good thing.

I don’t know about that.

In the mouth, the Crima is taut and tangy with a simple charm, but it’s dominated by a strong floral perfume taste, leaving a less than pleasant bitterness that overlingers. One day later, the wine hardly seems different. And while I want to like it for its distinctiveness, I’m simply perplexed. It’s not flawed. It’s exactly as billed. It’s just not that pleasaurable.

What would you serve this with? How do you get past the bitterness? What am I missing here? Who drinks this and says, I want a case!

I’m always happy to try something different, and this wasn’t undrinkable in its odd way. But once was enough. Unless of course it gets a big score and I have the chance to bring it to an offline.

April 08, 2007

Visit to Owen Roe

On the way to my first winemaking class ever down in Salem, OR (more on that soon), I took the opportunity for a brief visit to the Owen Roe winery near Newberg.

Owen Roe is the operation of David O’Reilly, originally a business partner of Peter Rosback in Sineann and possibly still. I’m simply can’t keep track. And the Owen Roe web site shows that Peter is somehow affiiliated here. The details there aren’t the point, rather these guys have for about the past decade truly changed the face of Oregon wine, and Washington wine for that matter.

You see, Owen Roe is one of these Oregon labels that are setting a new trend by being mostly about Washington wine. They have bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah among other things from appellations like Walla Walla and Yakima in Washington, and the Columbia Valley stradling the Oregon and Washington border.

Owen Roe isn’t the first in this regard. There’s Andrew Rich in Carlton who makes lots of wine from Oregon and Washington. Cuneo also in Carlton making most of its wine from Washington grapes. And many others, including Sineann.

Where O’Reilly's (and Rosback's) wines have most set themselves apart is packaging. Now this could sound like faint praise – mention wineries and laud them for packaging? Are the wines bad? Not at all, assuming you like hefty, fairly well-oaked reds with more in common with California than anything I’ve tasted locally in a while.

It’s just that the labels at Owen Roe take good wine and set it in another league. Ask local retailers which local Syrahs fly off the shelves, and you’ll likely hear about The Sinister Hand Ex-Umbris that both come from this producer. Both have distinct labels and, while they’re good enough wine, the packaging seems to be what seals the deal with most drinkers.

So as I pull into the farm-like Owen Roe on the flatlands just south of Champoeg State Park and the Willamette River, I can’t help but reflect on how this operation looks like other producers if even the business is pretty different.

Unfortunately, this same day sees the visit of a key vineyard owner for Owen Roe, so my time will be short as the staff scrambles to pull things together for a special tasting and lunch.

Still, I have a chance to taste some barrels of new wine that will mostly go into the lower end O’Reilly’s label. Mostly we taste a few samples of Chardonnay that’s round and correct, a good vehicle to see the effects of barrels from different French coopers that give markedly different qualities to the wines they hold. Some with a subtle toast element, others with more pronounced sawdust notes that on their own seem out of whack but after blending will yield another well priced, people-friendly wine.

Then on to some finished wines that allow for more complete reporting. First two from O’Reilly’s, the label David uses for his value wines that are very popular in the marketplace. The ’06 Pinot Gris from Oregon sources is lightly sweet and round, but the ’06 Riesling from Yakima is more to my taste, clean and pure with just a hint of diesel.

Then onto some big boys, all Owen Roe labels, all from Washington grapes, all impressive wines if a big alcoholic for my tastes though, given how they sell, obviously I’m in the minority. And again, the packaging. These wines all have long, bold labels covering the heavy dark bottles like those from an old Chateau in Bordeaux. But instead of a crest and lots of French, these minimalist labels feature stark black and white photos of ancient Irish castles and little text.

First, an ’04 Sangiovese Columbia Valley that’s strapping and tannic with a light herbal note that doesn’t quite suggest the menthol of some Tuscan Sangiovese, but still seems right. Then an ’05 Merlot Dubrul Vineyard in Yakima that’s chocolatey and rich with a pleasant herbal note but a hot and tannic finish.

The ’05 Seven Hills/St Isadora bottling of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon from the Walla Walla area is also ripe, rich, even regal modern Bordeaux-like wine, chewy in the mouth with a touch of bell pepper and an interesting soil note.

Finally, the ’04 Cabernet Franc Slide Mountain Vineyard, a cool site in Yakima that produces a pretty wine with tobacco notes and a fairly tight texture. This is my favorite of the line up; it’s also the most expensive at $72. It’s more Bordeaux than Loire, actually more Napa than either of those. But this delivers the goods in its idiom.

I don’t love these wines, but I do enjoy them. I’m compelled to remember them and want to buy them because the wine is good, but the packaging is amazing. Again, I know that sounds like criticism. But when you consider how tough it is to make and sell good wine of any persuasion, I can’t help but be impressed by this whole operation from what’s in the bottle to the actual bottles themselves. I hope to return here to learn more about this organization, which is apparently growing tremendously.

Check Owen Roe out, they’re the face of new Oregon wine that isn’t bound by political borders or old conventions of what a Willamette Valley winery can produce. Namely, something beyond Pinot Noir.

April 07, 2007

Oregon Wine News

I’ve been meaning to report on the news about Seven Springs/Anden vineyard, one of my favorite sites for Oregon Pinot Noir that supplies many top local wineries.

Or make that, supplied.

The vineyard was once simply Seven Springs, on the western flank of the Eola Hills not far from producers like Cristom and Bethel Heights. Then a few years back the owners divorced, the lower and older block remaining as Seven Springs with the more recent plantings in the upper block rechristened as Anden vineyard.

Now, as St. Innocent winemaker and owner Mark Vlossak confirmed recently in a post on erobertparker.com, the owners of Anden and Seven Springs have agreed to lease all the fruit to a Californian for the next 15 years. That means St. Innocent and others who make wine from this site including Evesham Wood will apparently no longer have access to these grapes.

I write apparently because, however unlikely it may be, the deal may not in fact be done. In any industry, deals can materialize and fall through with remarkable speed. Mark seems resigned to his fate, but I’m holding hope, perhaps false hope, that the longtime producers of this property continue to get grapes.

With Mark’s history with the site, not to mention the others who have made the names Seven Springs and Anden meaningful in the wine world, I have to wonder if Anden owner Al MacDonald – himself a local legend in viticulture circles – couldn’t manage to salvage something here. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, the erstwhile Chateau Benoit near Lafayette, OR, itself rechristened Anne Amie a few years back, is taking a bold step toward higher quality wine production. How is that? By lowering production.

You don’t hear wineries doing that too often. What’s next, lowing prices in off vintages? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Actually, in the release I received from Anne Amie general manager Craig Camp, it looks like the lower production at Anne Amie, along with a commitment to sustainable agriculture and minimal intervention winemaking, is really all about rebalancing the winery portfolio of owner and local media and gravel magnate Robert Pamplin.

Chateau Benoit was created a few decades back and built a reputation for lower quality but popular wines that us geeks might categorize as soda pop wine. But they sold and continue to sell. Meanwhile, the Anne Amie label has featured all sorts of bottlings that seem more serious but still haven’t captured too much attention in the quality end of things. Now there will be a third label, Pamplin Family Vineyards, producing “extradorinary Northwestern Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay” in a separate facility in Sherwood, OR.

There is a growing number of local wineries sourcing grapes from warmer areas in southern Oregon and eastern Washington to make Bordeaux and Rhone variety wines. The Willamette Valley is still mostly about Pinot Noir, but our wineries more and more are going further than that. It looks like, to capitalize on this trend, the Pamplin label will allow Anne Amie to be streamlined while positioning the whole enterprise to grow even more.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m trying to get Craig’s ear for a visit to see for myself what’s going on behind the scenes, which I hope to share with you.