March 17, 2012

Midnight in Paris

So I finally saw Midnight in Paris, after far too much delay. I have a special fondness for Woody Allen movies, as I suppose many people do. My fondness feels different though, special to me anyway.

However, you must know this. If you go to the movies with me, you'll find me momentarily distracted by anything wine-related. So please excuse me if the scene where Owen Wilson and company taste wines overlooking beautiful Paris caught my eye. I believe they were allegedly tasting old things like Haut Brion, obvious for its distinctive bottle shape and iconic label.

But what was this? Rausan-Segla, a second growth from Margaux, on the table with several old legends? Sure, it's an historic property and would fit in the line up, but the label was all wrong. The bottle pictured - assuming I'm correct and I've tried without success to find a photo on the interwebs - showed a contemporary Rausan-Segla label, the exact same as a bottle I have in the cellar, one that already happened to be on the same shelf as many others waiting to be opened. One I've meant to get to for a while.

This bottle is different from the many strays I've collected. I suppose it shows my patience. I bought a pair of the 1994 Rausan-Segla Margaux in the late '90s at the Ashbury Market, the lovely little market across the street from my San Francisco apartment of many years, long known for its excellent wine shop. Last summer on a visit to the old neighborhood, I sadly found the market shuttered. Yet I clearly remember picking out this wine, the Wong family cashier remarking on my bold purchase of two not inexpensive bottles. My rationale at the time? Bordeaux prices were skyrocketing, I'd spent a good deal of time in France in 1994 and had an irrational fondness for the vintage there, and I wanted some wine that I could and should age, patiently, with the hope that some day I'd open them and be rewarded.

I never opened either bottle. They sat for a year or two in the interior closet of the apartment, honeycomb stacked with several other bottles. I packed them up in boxes and moved to Portland in 2000, where they rested for a year in the basement of a rental house, then for more than a decade in the basement of our bungalow in NE. Untouched, or at least unopened.

I thought many times about what would be inside. 1994 is a sentimental vintage for me, but not necessarily a great year anywhere in France. It was a warm year overall, but rains in many areas, including Bordeaux, cause the year to be overlooked by more obvious vintages. Overall, there's a hardness, a lean quality to the wines of this year, something I enjoy for the lack of plump, even fat ripe flavors that increasingly afflict even the classics of old France.

Seeing Midnight in Paris and being momentarily distracted by the apparently off-period label told me something - it's time to open this wine. So tonight was the night, for the first bottle at least. Again, you can see the dark, youthful color of a wine that smells no more than seven or eight years old. It's amazing how wines can persevere. The aromas are classic old school Bordeaux. Lean but rich at once, currants, gravel, toast and slight bell pepper notes that scream left bank cabernet sauvignon. The flavors are medium bodied, delicate if you're a fan of lightness, dilute if you're looking for power and richness. This is elegant Bordeaux, piquant but not lacking flavor and length. Young, but the tannin I've read about in early tasting notes of this wine seem resolved, or resolving. It was delicious with grilled flat iron steak, fresh asparagus and rice. And afterwards, as I lingered over a glass to sniff and taste, thinking of Paris, of Fitzgerald and Cole Porter, dreaming for a moment of a late night wander through Parisian streets, searching.

I should remain patient. I have one more of these, and while it's not the world's greatest wine, it's more special to me still. And given what I tasted, I'm sure this wine will last and perhaps improve over another decade. I'll wait and see.

March 16, 2012

2000 Montirius Vacqueyras Clos Montirius

Here's another stray bottle from the cellar that somehow never got opened. Until tonight. I originally bought two of the 2000 Montirius Vacqueyras Clos Montirius at a local supermarket that has a particularly rich bargain, where good wines end up at half off, sometimes from already marked down prices. Maybe this should have been $20, but I think I got this for $8 per.

The idea was...good commune in the southern Rhone Valley, good producer, biodynamically farmed grapes, older school winemaking, it should be great. And the first bottle was. In fact, I remember thinking it was better than I expected and I should hold that second bottle for some years to see how it aged. And I held it. And held it. Maybe seven years now. For a while I forgot about it, then found it again in a box of wine in the cellar and put it on the shelf to be opened. It waited some more.

Tonight, finally, I pulled the cork. Not that it necessarily matters, but the cork looked perfect. Stained dark on one end, otherwise brand new in appearance. There's something pleasing in the sight of a perfect cork. As you can see, the wine is dark garnet in color, lively despite 12 years. Initially the aroma was a touch old with raisiny fruit. Then gradually the wine revealed itself, concentrated and powerful, plummy, complex with pipe tobacco and warm stone aromas. The flavors followed, with a dried fruit strength, resolving tannin that still gave good grip, more than adequate acidity to convey freshness, and a long, bottle sweet finish that lingered well. This wine could be nothing but southern Rhone, full of stony, meaty, savory garrigue nuance, like walking in the hills of around Ventoux or, to bring it closer to my experience, Santa Monica. That warm, herbal, dusty scent of hiking in the hills.

At first I thought this might have been better a few years ago. With time it seems perfect now. I think it might last a while longer but probably lose freshness and turn more raisined. Then again, considering the '69 Sizzano we had last weekend, maybe it will go another 30 years and amaze someone for it goodness despite a second tier appellation and modest price. Wine's like that, full of delicious surprises.

March 11, 2012

1969 Berteletti Sizzano

Last November, Chambers Street Wine in New York City emailed a unique offer of Nebbiolo Vecchio, or old Nebbiolo from mostly lesser known regions of northern Italy. There were a few things from Barolo and Barbaresco, or maybe they just had some old bottles in stock. The real show was a broad assortment of vintages from the 1950s through 1970s from DOCs like Carema, Ghemme, Spanna and Sizzano, mostly from producers I'd never heard of.

Oddly, the internets seemed to lack much detail on the producers or vintages. The Italian wine bible, Wasserman's Noble Wines of Italy, predictably had more to offer. There was a good deal of information on these otherwise obscure growing regions, certainly some nice detail on the old vintages, occasionally a note on the producers involved and even a specific bottling or two in the offer. But everything I saw suggested nothing from these regions was really made to last for decades. And the producers involved were largely not the few notable ones that serious Italian wine geeks would know.

Nevertheless, I couldn't resist putting together a collection of bottles, all from the 1960s with the exception of a single bottle from the year 1970. Chambers is as good as wine shops come, the prices were surprisingly reasonable for wines of this age, and though many of my initial selections had quickly sold out, I felt confident that anything I purchased would at least be interesting, certainly educational, and perhaps wonderful.

 I followed Chambers' instructions to let the wines rest after their journey to Oregon. These were fragile wines, they said, that, whenever one opened them, might need some patience and coaxing to reveal themselves. I have no problem with that. I'm patient. But I couldn't help noticing the color of the wines through the green glass bottles (most are darker brown). Ruby, quite translucent and certainly not brown, promising.

Already these wines have fallen into the "when do I open them?" trap. They've been here for three months, and only now did I take one out to the Oregon coast for a bit of a retreat with my partners in Guild Winemakers. Surely were would cook nice food and pull corks on some variety of bottles. What better time than to see about the 1969 Berteletti Sizzano? If it was dead, and the vintage by all accounts was awful, we'd have other things to take its place. If it was even remotely drinkable, who isn't interested in trying a wine as old or older than oneself?

I needn't have worries. Out came a stubby, plain cork and into the glass went the wine. One sniff and I knew it was marvelous nebbiolo vecchio from the commune of Sizzano. Look at that color above. Not young, but far younger looking than most 43-year-old wines have any business being. One partner, who makes nebbiolo locally, simply said, "it's nebbiolo." If there's an Italian red grape that should stand up to the decades, it's nebbiolo.

This wine was astonishing. Much better than I expected, more youthful but so mature, full of bottle sweetness and meaty, earthy notes of age. There was some nice cherry fruit in there, a bit any way, and the texture was so good. Tannin resolved but still present, the finish pretty long, soft and yet focused at once. More than just holding up, this was excellent wine.

Alas, we didn't quite finish the bottle, what with many other things to try and, admittedly, lots of seafood on the table. I was determined to try this wine in this company, so I opened it anyway, food match be damned. I was also determined to save the rest for tonight, to see if it survived.

The picture above shows how the color browned overnight. Still, the wine resisted oxidation and held together fantastically, the meaty boullion character from last night showing a bit more pronounced, the texture and length intact so that I couldn't let that last glass go to waste.

Drink a wine like this and one is transported somewhere else, some time else, in a way nothing but wine can do. Back when wine was made more simply (even if Berteletti wasn't a tiny producer - numbers on the bottle suggest there were are least a few thousand cases of this wine - I can only imagine their grape growing and wine making techniques were quite simple compared to norms today). Back when walking on the moon was something new and one's life had hardly begun.

Needless to say, my expectations for the rest of my purchases has risen considerably. I know, I know, there are not great wines, just great bottles. This one may not have been great exactly, whatever that means, but it was very, very good and incredibly memorable and thought provoking. Almost perfect if you ask me.

March 07, 2012

Chehalem Mountains Winegrowers trade tasting

I'm remiss in reporting on a nice trade tasting put on last week by the Chehalem Mountains Winegrowers. (Let me be clear in saying that I was a guest of the association, driven there and back to Portland with other industry types. I also make wine from the Ribbon Ridge AVA, a unique lobe of land tucked into the southwestern corner of the area and represented by this group.) As you can see in the adjacent photo, the event took place at Raptor Ridge Winery, which on the northern slope of the AVA in the lighter colored portion of the map.

The Chehalem Mountains run northwest to southeast and feature three distinct soil types. I love how the association's logo map shows by color the general limits of each soil. The green area represents the sandy soils of ancient ocean floor sediments, lifted over time by tectonic action. This area includes Ribbon Ridge and to my taste delivers a darker fruit expression of Pinot Noir. The red areas represent, naturally, the red volcanic basalt soils most typical in our Dundee Hills, but common here in the steep southern slope of the Chehalem Mountain and the entire Parret Mountain region on the lower right. I find the basalt soils give a redder character to Pinot Noit. Finally, the younger windblown Loess soils on the northern flank, where Raptor Ridge is located. I honestly don't have a good sense of this soil type, in terms of Pinot Noir anyway. Windblown soils are meager nutritionally, which is great for vines. I need to do more research to speak with any more knowledge though.

Obviously this diverse soil range might make terroir oriented wine lovers wonder...why not three AVAs, or growing areas? The association admits on their website that over time it would seem likely that a few subregions will emerge. For now, this broad area of the northern Willamette Valley, that happens to be the closest of our AVAs to the city of Portland, is one big region full of several top quality producers.

On the whole, the wines were delicious. I have made a point here previously that it's simply impossible for me, a local wine producer, to write critically of other local producers. That said, I was delighted in the range of wines, white and red, particularly in the delicacy of style that many are going for. I didn't even get to half of what was being poured, but a few that stood out for various reasons...

Adelsheim's crisp 2010 Pinot Blanc Bryan Creek Vineyard. Wished they were pouring the Auxerrois, which I've loved in the past.

Anam Cara's range of Pinots, particularly the 2008 Pinot Noir Nicolas Vineyard (by the way, I also enjoyed the '08 Et Fille Nicolas Vineyard a few nights later at a dinner in Portland).

Anne Amie's range of wines, including crisp 2010 Pinot Blanc and 2009 Pinots with a soft touch. I'm loving what Thomas Houseman is doing at this property.

Beckham Vineyard's 2011 Rose of Pinot Noir, a beautiful, juicy and dry pink wine from a producer I'd never heard of.

Bergstrom's 2010 Old Stones Chardonnay, really good Oregon chard and fairly priced in the low $20s. The Pinots were also more restrained than I remember from past years.

Dion's delicate Pinots from their 1970s era vines on the far northern end of the AVA.

JK Carriere's 2011 Glass White Pinot Noir, really a very pale rose that I usually enjoy.

Utopia Vineyard Pinot Noirs in general, with nice whole cluster aromatics, toasty but graceful.

The tasting featured an unexpected aspect, which I loved but I can imagine might be difficult for the non winemakers to appreciate - Pinot Noir barrel samples of 2011s from a few unnamed producers. The samples were arranged by the three soil types, but at this stage with many wines still going through their malolactic fermentation, all I felt you could really get was a general sense of the vintage, at least from this specific growing region.

The view from Raptor Ridge on a beautiful late February afternoon.
So how were the 2011s? Dark in color, bursting with flavors even with the sharp malic acidity in some samples still to be converted to the softer lactic acid you're used to in finished red wine. In short, they reminded me of the great 2008. How can that be? 2011 was our coldest season in 20 years, much colder than the cool, late 2008 harvest. The answer I think is in the late and dry harvest, where grapes ended up getting the time to get ripe even at remarkably low sugars. Yes, most producers had some grape lots with pretty low brix (sugar levels), but from my own production experience, my experience tasting other producers barrels (mostly friends), and now tasting a bunch of samples here, all I can say is wow. 2011 has produced some powerful, but not powerfully alcoholic, wines. The best wines will live a long time in the cellar, and like the 2008s they may seem a bit dense at first.

The press better not make any judgements before tasting these new wines. All summer we heard about the cold season and how disaster could be upon us. Then we had a perfect autumn, most unexpectedly but still. Taste the wines when they come out later this year and all through the next. Yes, there will be lots of delicious rose from some of that lower brix fruit. Some people inevitably will produce some red wines that lack sufficient ripeness. When isn't that true? But from what I'm tasting, and believe me I don't have much 2011 wine to sell so this is no sales pitch, I cannot wait to see the 2011s hit the market. And we'll see which critics actually taste wines before making pronouncements.

March 05, 2012

Little Bird

Today saw a day trip to eastern Washington with the Guild Winemakers crew to research sources for our future bottlings. Leaving Portland before dawn, through the Columbia River Gorge and then north through the Yakima Valley to the Wahluke Slope, pictured left. Sagebrush and scrub, tumbleweeds rolling in the wind, the sky and landforms as big as I remember New Mexico many years back. Clouds hanging over it all, but no rain, just dust. A haboob.

This land makes me think of Mary Austin's The Land of Little Rain, a southwestern classic I read in grad school in San Francisco, about the perseverance of living, surviving, in a landscape where water leaves you lonely, but not the wind.

We found what we were looking for today, plans for our future, clarity I suppose. Things we can live within, like this landscape, indifferent to us but patiently giving what we need most if we can see it.

Then back again to our home, the sky turning grey near the Dalles, the rocks by the roadside turning mossy at Cascade Locks, then the rain, only drops, then hail, then sun, the pattern of spring. Then Portland at sunset, clouds reflecting the day's dying in a way I wish I could capture and give on demand. It seems that important.

Tonight it was back to the city, a beautiful dinner at Little Bird downtown with a partner and barrel people, discussing forests and grains, toast levels and aging protocols. My mind wandered a bit though, late, to the music. The district sleeps tonight from the postal service, old for being new enough to hear in a modern restaurant. And Rome right after it. The coliseum.

We drank 2009 Four Cairn Syrah from Napa Valley.