In todays ever more corporate world of winemaking, the old image of the small wine farmer, or as it is called in French, vigneron, seems a quaint part of winemaking history. However, there are still really winemakers crafting small amounts of outstanding wines in somewhat simpler surroundings than the winemaking temples constructed by the big name wineries. In fact, Oregon is full of them.
The green, rolling hillsides of the Willamette Valley are a patchwork of tiny growers and winemakers with productions measured in hundreds of cases instead of thousands. Buying wines from these small producers can be like walking through a minefield, but when they’re good, they’re very good.
Two such pinot noirs recently tasted are the 2006 Dalla Vina (soon to be re-christened Terra Vina due to a lawsuit) Dundee Hills Pinot Noir (146 cases) and the 2006 Arcane Cellars, Dundee Hills, Kelly Vineyard, Pinot Noir Reserve (105 cases). These excellent wines are spiritual cousins. Both are balanced, elegant wines with a classic, translucent garnet color, a spicy nose layered with black truffles, bright fruit and that essence that the Italians call sottobosco, or undergrowth in the forest. After the hyper-clean fat, cherry fruit style of so many New World pinots, these wines are a real treat. As they are both under 14.5% alcohol, you can still actually taste the nuance in these wines.
Great wines from small producers is not limited to red wines as proven by the 2007 Arcane Cellars Del Rio Vineyard Viognier (95 cases) and the 2007 Emerson Vineyards Pinot Gris (only $15 by the way). As someone who has rarely tasted an American viognier that I liked, finding them too blowsy and without backbone, I was stunned by this firm and dry Southern Oregon effort. I’m starting to get the idea that Southern Oregon may be a New World home to viognier. The Emerson Pinot Gris is both refreshing and a refreshing change for its bracing dryness, unlike so many other Oregon pinot gris wines that try to make up for lack of body and flavor with residual sugar. On top of it, it may be the best value in Oregon gris that I’ve tasted.
It’s always risky to buy wines from small producers as often you end up with faulted wines. Yet, the best small producers often make better wines than bigger wineries with better equipment and far greater resources. While buying wines from small producers that you’ve never heard of can be like playing craps, sometimes you win the jackpot.