April 28, 2011

On bripeness

I've been in Tucson, Arizona, the past few days for a conference related to my day job, running university continuing education programs. It's nice to get a break from the cold and wet spring in Portland.

Would you believe people are making serious wine in Arizona? Locals here would scoff. Of course we are, they'd protest. Where have you been? The high desert around Tucson and other relatively higher elevation sites northwest of Phoenix near Jerome and Prescott have several vineyards, not the least of which was planted by Oregon's own Dick Erath.

Turns out I'm not the only one looking for a break from the wet. Dick may have sold his eponymous winery last year, but he has been down in several years focused on Arizona viticulture. Arizona, where frosts after budbreak and rain at harvest are essentially non-factors. Dick's traded Pinot noir for Sangiovese and other grapes more suited to the southwestern climate.

In the arid climate here, you need plenty of water for irrigating your vines. The good news is you don't need to worry much about rot and mildew in the vineyard. I imagine organic farming is easier here, if you're so inclined. Not so much need for highly engineered sprays for to ward off disease during wet growing seasons.

However, I imagine you do need to worry about "bripeness." Bripeness? That's a word my Guild Winemakers partners and I (mostly they) coined to describe really ripe tasting wines that are obviously acidified. In hot climates, grape sugars can rise quickly while grape acids plummet, especially because of warm nights. The results are grapes with plenty of sugar and ripe fruit flavor, but lacking acidity that keeps a wine fresh tasting (and microbiologically stable). The solution? Tartaric acid powder from a bag. Heaps of it in some cases.

Now let's be clear. I'm interested in making wine from grapes without fussing with them if possible. Wine grapes have the rare natural ability to be made into wine without added sugar, acid or even yeast. I think if you can do that, do it. But you can't always do that, and part of the issue for me is building the experience of when to pick to preserve natural acidity while not having unripe flavors. I will add tartaric acid to wine when I think it's necessary. I won't add too much, mostly because I don't want bripeness.

What's that taste like? Candy is a good example. Take Sweettart type candies. They're sweet and fruity tasting, but have serious tartness. My kids love Sour Patch candies. Same thing. Intentionally tart though sweet at the core to provide balance. And what about Pixie Stix? Essentially sugar and citric acid, and oddly enough Pixie Stix is a newly classic term to describe certain wines, usually those that taste highly acidified. Where the fruit flavor is broad and ripe, not cool and focused like lesser ripe but still ripe berries, for example, with something of a tent pole of acidity sticking out awkwardly. Acid that makes the ripe wine overly bright, or simply bripe.

Yesterday I tried the 2009 Arizona Stronghold Mangus Red Wine, yes, from the guy from Tool among other people involved. The wine was tasty with plummy flavors, obviously ripe but not pruny or raisined. And not volatile or otherwise flawed like hot climate wines can get. But it was bripe. Just a little too tart for the ripeness. Not bad, rather a smudge on perfectly good, clean table wine.

The wine shows the challenge of this desert climate. But I'm left curious to try more Arizona wines, including those from Dick Erath's planting that is apparently not too far from where I'm staying. Wish I had more time. A return visit may be in order.

April 17, 2011

Vincent open house

If you're in Portland and want to check out what I'm doing with my Vincent Wine Company Pinot Noir, come to a winery open house on May 1 with friends Helioterra wines.

Anne from Helioterra is releasing a 2010 Pinot Blanc and 2009 Syrah, and will be pouring her 2009 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, which recently was accepted for this year's Indie Wine Festival.

I'll be pouring and selling my only remaining wine from 2009, my Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir. And I'll preview 2010 with a barrel selection of my Pinot Noir from the new Armstrong Vineyard from Ribbon Ridge. I'm really excited about this site and will offer the first wines to mailing list members this summer.

No need to RSVP. Location is 2621 NW 30th Avenue in Portland. We'll be pouring from 1-5pm. Drop in when you can. Hope you can make it. And if you're an elevage reader, let me know when you stop by my table.

April 11, 2011

Zenith vineyard dinner

I had the pleasure of attending a tasting and dinner hosted by Tim and Kari Ramey of Zenith Vineyard for all producers of wine from Zenith grapes. This was the third annual event, modeled after the longer running Shea vineyard dinner that follows the same format. Taste through barrel samples of the prior year's wines from all producers in attendance, and follow it up with a nice dinner.

This year we were tasting 2010s, of course. Producers in attendance included Zenith and St. Innocent, both made by Mark Vlossak, Adelsheim, Ponzi, Biggio-Hamina, Seufert, Elemental Cellars, Wild Aire, and Grochau Cellars and of course my label, Vincent. Since John Grochau couldn't make it, I led the tasting for his sample as well as my own.

Essentially, each winemaker gets up and details what block the grapes came from in a given barrel sample, when the grapes were picked, how the wine was made, where the wine is in its elevage, and then people offer comments, opinions, questions. Sometimes lots, sometimes not much at all. For me, it's a chance to have several leading winemakers in our region try my wine and give their input. I happily wasn't nervous as I've been in the past. I'm happy with what I've produced and know others will enjoy it, provided they're looking for something translucent in color with delicate flavors that sneak up on you rather than hit you over the head.

I found it particularly instructive to taste everyone's barrel samples, hear how they approached the winemaking, where their wines are in their elevage, and what they thought of the wine. People are pretty honest, though they don't criticize so much. I think it's more about praise if the sample warrants it, then understanding of what the winemaker is trying to do, then keeping ones mouth shut if there's something they don't love about the sample.

How were the 2010s? From a big vineyard like Zenith, it makes sense to say - very good but all over the map. There were masculine, extracted wines. There were delicate, ethereal wines. There may have been some sense of place through them all. I'm not convinced though. I did find the wines interesting. Loved some of them, especially those that fit my style, which makes sense, no? And there's certainly a vintage signature - enough ripeness but not too much, reasonable alcohols, bright acids or flavors that convey more "crunchiness" than acidity levels might suggest. Call it a junior 2008, which is praise.

I came away both happy with my wine but also knowing I have lots to learn if I want to make truly great wine. I mean truly great, oh my god wine. Right now, I'm making what I think is very good wine. Wine I'm very proud of. But let's be real, I can do better and feel inspired to do just that. To continue learning and growing. So that I'm looking forward to this growing season and harvest, and many more after that.

Need more inspiration? How about a marvelous three course dinner that featured a vertical of Ponzi Reserve Pinot Noir from 1990 to 1996. That '90 was spectacular. The '92, from a hot vintage where harvest apparently started in late August (!!!), was really nice. The '95, from a rainy "wash out" vintage, I'd had before and it was again really nice, lighter for sure but all together and beautiful. Those were my favorites, though I was driving so I did much more sniffing than drinking.

Thanks Tim and Kari for the lovely event. I feel lucky to be part of the Zenith vineyard, even in my small way.

April 05, 2011

Old school cabernet from 1985

Pictured to the left you see two old school wines. Both from 1985, tasted earlier this year at Storyteller Wine Company in Portland.

One is visible in the glass, the 1985 Stags Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. The other is the 1985 Ducru-Beaucaillou, a classified growth Bordeaux from the Medoc commune St. Julien.

Both were made largely before the heights of modernization took hold in each region. Before picking at elevated sugar levels. Before micro-oxidation to "round out" tannins, reverse osmosis to concentrate musts and other wine growing and making techniques that create more and more sweet tasting, even if dry, wines.

And these wines reflected the glory of those days. The '80s. When we already thought the world had gone to hell compared to the "good old days." Yes, I'm aware that it's easy to look to the past for comfort.

Yet, these wines both showed qualities that simply aren't part of the current wine landscape. Ruby colors, translucent even, with delicate fragrance and medium bodies, with none of the purple, extracted sheen of more contemporary cabernet-based wines.

The '85 Stags Leap was beautifully aromatic, bottle sweet with red fruit and green tobacco aromas, soft, mature, silky balck currant tea and perserved fruit flavors. Perhaps it's a little old at 26 years. Let's not forget this was the basic bottling for this legendary Napa producer. Still, great producer, great vintage, lovely old wine that I would happily enjoy before, during or after a meal.

To compare, the '85 Ducru was all Bordeaux. Where the Stags Leap showed plenty of sunshine in its aroma and flavor, the Ducru was powerfully fragrant with iodine, gravel, meat and ash aromas, mixing with herbaceous red fruits. Younger smelling and tasting, with red fruit and gravel flavors, incredible tannic texture and some bottle sweetness, this was all Bordeaux, less about fruit and more about gravel and earth, still young so that another decade would probably allow for further softening, the flavors maybe not so intense as the Napa wine but the complexity and the finesse greater.

What struck me about these wines is that, were they young, many winemakers today might consider them unripe. Lean. Needing too much time to show their best. I understand the market pressures. How do you convince as consumer, much less a shop buyer, that the wine will be incredible in 20 to 25 years? So we have more and more wines built for immediate consumption, which will age no doubt, but don't seem to be built for the ethereal pleasure of such old school wines as these.

These wines started out as red, not purple, and purple doesn't magically become red with two decades in the bottle. So here's unique tasting experience, and a pleasurable one at that. See how wine was made in the old days of the '80s. Marvel at how such techniques are at our disposal today, if we're interested. If you'll buy.