Barrel washing at Grand Cru
Pump over at Grand Cru
Washing bins at Soter Vineyards
Pinot harvest at Soter Vineyards
Barrel washing at Grand Cru
Pump over at Grand Cru
Washing bins at Soter Vineyards
Pinot harvest at Soter Vineyards
Experienced Oregon winemakers are quietly enthused about the potential of the 2008 vintage. Winemakers are rightfully conservative in their assessment of a vintage at this point in time because you never really can be sure about the quality of a wine until it’s actually wine. However, with experience winemakers obviously develop a pretty good idea of what to expect. Those expectations are starting to sound quite high for 2008.
Laurent Montalieu is one of the Willamette Valley’s most experienced winemakers. A veteran of Willakenzie Estate, today Montalieu owns Solena Cellars, the Northwest Wine Company and his newest venture, the ultra-premium custom crush winery Grand Cru Estates. Montalieu, pictured here (left) sampling a vineyard with winemaking consultant Tony Rynders, who is also winemaker at the new Grand Cru estates, has one of the widest experiences with the full range of Willamette Valley vineyards as his Northwest Wine Company deals with vineyards located throughout the Valley. Montalieu comments about this vintage, “The beautiful Indian summer has saved us one more time… essentially right now I am looking at hanging the balance of our fruit as late as possible….. if the fruit is not getting worse it has to be getting better…. So far the ferments have shown great purity of the aromatics and the extraction level will be quite structured .We are in for a treat of a vintage, remember 1999?”
Winemaker Scott Wright, owner of Scott Paul Cellars, also has a great depth of experience with Oregon vintages. Before founding his own winery, Scott was general manager of Domaine Drouhin Oregon. Wright says of the 2008 vintage so far, “We’ve been very happy with the quality of the fruit we’ve brought in so far – very clean and healthy, excellent flavors, really nice pH & acids – potential alcohols in the low 13s – exactly what we’re looking for. Yields have been on the low side – averaging about 1.5 tons per acre so far. We’ve got about 2/3 of our fruit in now, and will likely finish up today and tomorrow. The potential is there for a really nice vintage!”
Superstar winemaking consultant Tony Rynders (pictured above, right) had a decade knocking out one 90+ rated wine after another as winemaker at Domaine Serene before launching his own consulting company and taking on winemaking duties at Grand Cru Estates. On the 2008 vintage Rynders notes, “Harvest 2008 is well underway in the Willamette Valley. We have remained about 10 days behind in ripening based on the last ten years. But is actual fact, we are right at our long term average for harvest timing. After a little rain at the beginning of the month, we have had a nice stretch of weather for the last 12 days. Flavors have come on strong and the sugars are very reasonable. This latest weather development has been critical for flavor development and phenolic maturity. The cold soaks are showing beautiful color. The wines are going to be very pretty with excellent balance. We are about 60% complete with another 20% due in the next three days.”
You are hearing similar comments from winemakers throughout the Willamette Valley. The potential is there for a very special vintage in the classic Oregon style, which emphasizes balance, structure, aromatics and elegance with moderate alcohol levels. I’m looking forward to drinking these wines.
Pictured below, a picker in Tony Soter’s Mineral Springs Vineyard.
Oregon's grape harvest continued today in perfect, cool weather. In Tony Soter's outstanding Mineral Springs Vineyard (pictured here) in the Yamhill Carlton AVA they decided to put in the extra time needed to harvest the entire vineyard today as the fruit was in perfect condition and rain is forecasted over the next several days. Most of this vineyard is planted in a unique clone of pinot noir discovered and then propagated by Soter from an old vineyard in California. It has no name at this time and Mineral Springs is the only vineyard anywhere planted with this clone. As it is yet formally named, I'll call it the Soter Clone. This combination of distinctive terroir with a unique massal clone makes this one of the most exciting vineyards in Oregon.
Oregon’s 2008 grape harvest is now in full swing as growers try to beat the sure to come rains and the already arrived birds. The week started with about 30% of the fruit in the valley picked and by the end of this week a majority of the vineyards will be harvested. At this point, the birds may be the biggest threat as massive flocks can devastate a vineyard in a day. In my opinion, this will be a very good vintage for those that did not harvest too early as the grapes have been gaining flavor, if not much sugar, over the last week of lovely, dry and cool, but sunny weather. With showers due later in the week and the migratory birds already arrived, most growers are harvesting as fast as they can at this point. Pinot noir from good sites is coming in fully ripe with good flavors and lab statistics that promise some exciting wines. For the second year in a row, Mother Nature is forcing Oregon’s winemakers to back away from the excessive extract and alcohols too many had started to strive for as they sought high scores from wine writers. The 2008’s should show good balance in an elegant style with moderate alcohols, which, after all, is why people came to Oregon to grow pinot noir in the first place.
David Lett, pioneer and father of the Oregon wine industry passed away yesterday. He will be mourned by the entire winemaking community here. Below is the announcement from Jason Lett, his son and winemaker at Eyrie Vineyards, which David founded in 1966:
The Lett family regrets to announce that David Lett passed away yesterday evening. He died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family. We are deeply appreciative of the support of our colleagues and friends at this time. We welcome your notes of condolence - David loved to reach out to people and to connect, and we hope you'll feel free to do the same.
David cared deeply for the land and for his family. In lieu of flowers or gifts, David's legacy can be memorialized through gifts to 1000 Friends of Oregon or to Families United, a non-profit that supports assisted living for adults with special needs.
A celebration of David's life will be held, as he would have wished, AFTER harvest.
Condolences may be sent to:
Diana Lett and Jason Lett
Post Office Box 697
Dundee, Oregon 97115
1000 Friends of Oregon
534 SW Third Avenue, Suite 300
Portland, Oregon 97204
Families United For Independent Living
PO Box 473
McMinnville, Oregon 97128 0473
I know, I don't believe it either. Yet here I am writing positive notes about an American chardonnay. It's hard to think of a more boring category than American chardonnay, which tends to fall into two groups. One is cheap and sweet and the other is expensive and, well, sweet and oaky. In my opinion the only areas really producing interesting chardonnay year in and out are Chablis for top quality wines and Macon for value. There are wonderful wines produced from this variety in the Cote de Beaune and many New World wine regions, but they tend to be the exception to the rule.
I tasted one of those exceptions with a ridiculously rich home-made chicken pot pie last weekend. The 2004 Chardonnay Dijon Clones, Willamette Valley, Côte Sud Vineyard from Domaine Serene is an excellent chardonnay. I never tasted this wine in its youth, but it has matured into a beautiful chardonnay that integrates richness with a firm backbone that is perfectly overlaid with smoky vanillin from the oak. What pulls this wine together is the hard minerality and firm acidity that keep this this wine from falling into this variety's tendency towards flabby sweetness. Former Domaine Serene winemaker Tony Rynders definitely had the right touch with this chardonnay.
I am not intentionally, anymore anyway, part of the ABC (anything but chardonnay) crowd. However, as I think about it I realize I never even look at the chardonnay sections as I run my finger through a wine list. This has happened over the years as chardonnay began to bore me more-and-more and other white wines, particularly riesling, excited me more-and-more. Oddly enough, many rieslings I love and chardonnays I don't have similar residual sugar levels. However, what divides them are the very dissimilar pH levels. Sugar without acid just doesn't work unless it's for the wine-by-the-glass program at Fridays.
Todd Hamina is an opinionated winemaker. Like all opinionated winemakers he can be controversial. He also happens to be making some outstanding wines. This should not be surprising as the politically correct usually make politically correct wines, which is just as boring in the wine world as it is in the real world. Todd had a solid winemaking foundation moving through important Oregon cellars such as Patton Valley and Maysara before founding his own label, Biggio Hamina, with the 2007 vintage. The results of that education are evident in his new wines.
Those of us who cut our teeth on European wines many decades ago often accept today's supercharged wines with grudging respect and wistful memory of those more elegant, balanced wines of our past. I ran into Todd today and tasted some of his first releases and I can only say that I was blown away by his wines, which took me back to a day when wines lived by verve not power.
I was so impressed with Todd's wines that I bought two bottles almost out of disbelief. When I retasted them with my dinner I liked them even better than I did before. These are genuine wines made without regard to current fashion that were only guided by the vision of the winemaker and nature. Love them or hate them they're Todd's wines, a personal statement. I loved them.
The 2007 Biggio Hamina Melon de Bourgogne, Deux Vert Vineyard just astounded me. Firm and bright with zinging minerality and a long clean, truly dry finish, this is the first American Melon that I've tasted that will actually remind wine drinkers of the great wines of Muscadet, where the only really great examples of this variety have been produced. When I tasted this wine, from the excellent Deux Vert vineyard in the Yamhill Carlton AVA, I could only think what a shame it is that these fine grapes have been wasted in previous vintages by less thoughtful winemakers, but I'm thrilled that someone is now finally taking proper care of them. I would confidently show this wine to the most devoted Muscadet drinker.
The 2007 Biggio Hamina Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is nothing short of a profile in winemaking courage as few have the guts to make real pinot these days. This is real pinot noir for real pinot noir drinkers. Those that prefer pinot that tastes more like syrah won't like this wine and should leave it for the those that love pinot for its natural, refined personality. The color is a delicate, inviting translucent garnet. It's rare to see pinot this color anywhere these days and I applaud Todd's courage to let real pinot characteristics show through in his wines. Pinot does not naturally have a lot of color and you can bet the dark wines you see these days are made by some sort of cheat. Enzymes or other varieties are all to often used to add an unnatural depth of color to pinot noir. If you can't read through a glass of pinot, something is amiss. The nose is lifting and fresh with earthy truffle and orange zest spice layered over lively bitter cherry fruit. The finish is long and clean. I could only think of excellent pinots from lesser Burgundy appellations like Marsannay and Fixin when I drank this beauty.
Both of these wines are an astounding 12.5% alcohol, which makes them almost freaks these days. Tasting wines like this makes you realize what a critical issue alcohol is as you can taste so much more in these wines simply because all the nuance is not overwhelmed by alcohol. For delicate varieties like pinot this issue has gone out of control as high-alcohol pinots are just boring and pointless to drink because they don't taste like pinot anymore. If you want a big wine get something from a big variety like syrah, not a delicate variety like pinot.
Another astounding fact about these wines is that they are also both $20 or less a bottle. I know, like you, I thought such wines did not exist in America. Actually for all practical purposes they don't, but now at least two do. Hopefully, soon there will be a lot more.
Todd will be releasing some single vineyard pinot noirs, syrah and pinot blanc from the 2007 vintage and I can't wait to taste them. If these wines are any indicator they should be something very special indeed.
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.
Portland Oregon is a famously green city. Named the most sustainable city in the United States, the city even boasts an Office of Sustainable Development. The city’s restaurant scene also follows the sustainable mantra with a passion. The number of restaurants featuring sustainable, locally grown ingredients makes Portland a foodie nirvana. Considering that Portland sits at the head of the verdant Willamette Valley, the supply and diversity of sustainably grown meat, fruit and vegetables available to local chefs is almost overwhelming. Indeed Portland is in, “A golden age of dining and drinking,” as Eric Asimov wrote in The New York Times.
Not much more than a half hour drive from this hotbed of sustainable restaurants owned by chefs obsessed with the freshest local produce sits one of the world’s most highly regarded wine regions, the Willamette Valley. The same rich diversity of soil types and microclimates that provide the endless sustainable pantry for local chefs also offers world-class wines, which are now sought after by the best sommeliers and fine wine shops. No serious wine list in New York, Chicago or other major American city would feel it had a complete wine list without a significant selection of Oregon Pinot Noir. Just a few hours away are the great vineyards of the Columbia Valley and the emerging regions of Southern Oregon. Portland restaurants are literally surrounded by outstanding wine regions, which grow the full range of the world’s finest wine varieties.
Like Portland, Oregon is arguably the greenest wine growing region on the planet. The movement towards sustainable winegrowing in Oregon seemed to develop its own natural (appropriately enough) momentum based on the personality and beliefs of the people that came here to grow grapes. It makes perfect sense that winegrowers who came here to grow Pinot Noir—the most terroir driven of grape varieties—would have a closeness to the earth itself that would inevitably lead them to be good stewards of the land and move away from conventional agriculture to the various sustainable disciplines.
In Oregon, there are a variety of sustainable certifications and, as usual, practitioners of each discipline assert the superiority of their methods, but of most importance is the unique commitment among Oregon wine growers to use methods that have minimum impact on the environment. While environmental aspects have helped fuel the greening of the Oregon wine industry, there are two indisputable factors that are driving this growth. First is the obvious fact that grapes farmed by any of these methods make better wine. All of the top wineries in Oregon use one of these methods. The simple truth: To achieve any of these certifications, you have to spend more time in your vineyards and that contact inevitably leads to better fruit, which always means better wine. The second reason for the explosion in sustainably certified vineyards is a little less altruistic, but is important nonetheless. Being green means more than bettering the environment, as certified wines command more greenbacks. Green makes for good marketing and has, in fact, become a marketing focal point for the Oregon Wine Board, which has now introduced its own certification, Oregon Certified Sustainable.
So we have a match made in heaven: a hot sustainable food scene in Portland surrounded by dedicated sustainable winegrowers producing wines in an incredible range of styles from every important wine grape variety in the world. Unfortunately, and with a logic I cannot follow, this is a match that hasn’t happened. I have never seen a city so close to major wine regions that is so disconnected from its local wines. If people eat in Bordeaux, they drink Bordeaux, in Alba they drink Barolo, in Dijon they drink Burgundy, in San Francisco they drink California; but in Portland, you are more likely to find wines grown 5,000 miles away rather than 50.
There is a disconnect between Portland and its regional wines. It is common to dine at a restaurant that prides itself on serving the freshest local provenance while featuring wines from France and Spain with only a nod to the wines of the Northwest. Unfortunately, that also goes for the city’s fine wine shops, on whose shelves Northwest wines are often second-class citizens.
Within a four-hour drive of Portland, some of the world’s most sought-after, respected wines are grown. Great Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Tempranillo, Syrah and many other varieties, along with exceptional Champagne-method sparkling wines and dessert wines, are produced in Washington and Oregon. This fact leaves local restaurants little excuse for not offering interesting wine lists based on local wines. That’s certainly not to say there’s no room for the world’s other wines, but a food community that believes in a sustainable model and does not take full advantage of the exciting wines grown in its own backyard is only paying lip-service to sustainability. This, of course, means more work for restaurateurs who must spend more time in wine country, tasting and finding wines from producers who make wines that they find exciting with their food, but that’s how chefs working in the world’s other wine regions do it.
The concept of sustainability is important to Portland’s restaurateurs, winegrowers and their customers. Serving local wines in local restaurants is a part of the sustainability model that should not be overlooked. Putting wine on a ship, then on a truck and transporting it thousands of miles leaves a big carbon footprint hard to ignore.
In 2005, the “Eat Local” challenge (www.eatlocal.net ) was launched by the Ecotrust, Portland Farmers Market and the Portland Chapter of the Chefs Collaborative to educate consumers on the benefits of eating locally grown food. Perhaps it’s time we launch a “Drink Local” project with the same goal. Eating locally and drinking locally cannot be separated when you live in the heart of a great wine region.
There seems to be an accepted treasure map for pinot noir. You follow the clues and the dotted line and, arrive at the "X" and the treasure will be yours, with a little digging. The components of the map are simple and the endpoint is always a small, artisanal producer. However, it seems this map can sometimes blind us to treasures somewhat easier to attain.
So it was with only moderate expectations that I opened a bottle of pinot noir from one of Oregon's largest producers. After all, big guys don't make great pinot noir: right? Apparently that's just plain wrong as the 2006 Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir, Tualatin Estate Vineyard, is easily one of the very best Oregon pinot noirs I have tasted from the difficult 2006 vintage, or any other recent vintage for that matter. This is an exceptional American pinot noir that, unlike most, doesn't just offer simple rich dark cherry fruit, but exhibits real complexity. Starting with a perfect pinot hue of translucent ruby and the slightest touch of garnet, it then offers that most seductive of pinot noir noses: smooth wild strawberry fruit is laced with those funky, earthy aromas like mushrooms, truffles, dried leaves and, yes, a bit of the merde the French so lovingly refer to when discussing the nuances of Burgundy. What this wine is, most of all, is interesting as it's not dominated by simple ripe fruit, alcohol or wood, but the terroir of their Tualatin Estate Vineyard. The wine is unique because the vineyard is unique and, most of all, because winemaker Forrest Klaffke lets it retain its distinctive personality. This is an outstanding Oregon pinot noir that will please those that cut their teeth on Burgundy instead of California.
The 2006 vintage was difficult for Oregon's winemakers with all-to-many making wines exhibiting candied fruit characteristics and unbalanced alcohol levels. This wine is an exciting exception to that rule.
Somebody just asked me what I was doing on Labor Day. I thought it strange they ask so far in advance, then glancing at the calendar realized it's this coming Monday. How did that happen? Where did summer go?
As we approach the last picnics of the season, I just tasted two wines that are picture perfect picnic wines. Both are from the 2007 vintage and produced by Oregon's Willamette Valley Vineyards. Better yet, they're both priced less than $20. Their clean, crisp and just off-dry Riesling is an absolute charmer. Flowery with a tart citrus bite balanced by a hint of sweetness, this is a wine you can drink with almost anything - or nothing for that matter. At only 10% alcohol, you can actually enjoy a few glasses without worry. Their Whole Cluster Pinot Noir always makes me wonder why more producers don't make this style of wine, which is clearly inspired by the bright, fresh wines of Beaujolais. Using whole clusters of grapes fermented by carbonic maceration, Willamette Valley Vineyards has produced an explosively fruity, silky fruit-forward wine. This is no fruit-bomb, but a zesty, refreshing pinot noir that lends itself to gulps instead of concentration.
In a world where everyone seems to be trying to make Romanée Conti and sell wines priced in the stratosphere, its great to see wineries like Willamette Valley Vineyards pay equal attention to simpler, pleasure-driven wines that can be enjoyed on an everyday basis.
Scott and Lisa Neal are lost on a windy, dusty gravel road in the foothills of Oregon’s Coast Range. They didn’t mind being lost as they were more explorers than tourists. Fate was with them as they soon chanced upon a for sale sign behind which spread out what they were looking for: a place to plant a vineyard. It was a promising site with rolling hills, a rainbow of soil types and the warm protection of the lovely, inappropriately named, Muddy Valley. So in 1998 Scott and Lisa started to plant their vineyard. They didn’t yet have a name, but fate was soon to step in again. During a walk on their new property Lisa spotted a large boulder that, with closer examination, revealed its unique heart shape. So Coeur de Terre Vineyard was born and an appropriate name it is as everything about Scott and Lisa’s vineyards and wines truly come from their hearts and the earth on which they live.
Coeur de Terre is one of the undiscovered gems of Oregon winemaking. The passion and precision with which the Neals are pursuing their dream of making great wine is impressive to say the least. In my opinion they have the potential to be one of Oregon’s most interesting and distinctive wine producers. From their lovely new winery and tasting room to their vineyards, which are planted in blocks by soil type and exposure, everything at Coeur de Terre shows their deep connections to the art, nature and science of winemaking.
One of the most promising things about Coeur de Terre is their decision to expand their plantings based on a massal selection. Today, most wineries buy all new vine stocks based on clone and rootstock from commercial nurseries who start the vines and do the grafts. However, despite all the attention to individual clones of pinot noir, most winemakers agree that site always trumps clone. In other words, each clone reacts differently to each site, which makes some sort of an exact clonal stew recipe for great pinot noir a ridiculous fantasy. What you have to do is observe each individual vine, regardless of clone, to see which ones love the micro-climate of your site. A massal selection means that you take cuttings from the most successful vines on your site instead of relying on individual clones purchased from a nursery that may or may not be right for your vineyard. It seems obvious that it would be best to plant your vineyards based on individual vines, regardless of clone, that clearly thrive on the unique micro-climate of your vineyard, but very few vineyards choose this course. This is the laborious process that the Neals have selected to propagate the best vines for their unique site throughout their Coeur de Terre Vineyard. It should be noted while this practice is rare in the new world, it’s not exactly cutting edge as it is the traditional method of propagating wines in Burgundy, a region that has made more than a few exceptional pinot noirs over the centuries.
The current releases from Coeur de Terre are all excellent wines that are well worth laying down as they will certainly improve with bottle age. By today’s standards they are moderately priced and good values. The 2006 Riesling has excellent structure and a brightly fruity dryness. Notes of petrol are just starting to peek out behind the young, fresh citrus aromas and flavors. I think this will develop into an outstanding riesling with a few years in the bottle. The 2006 Estate Pinot Noir is one of the better balanced 06 Oregon pinots you’ll find. It is rich, but firmly structured as you would expect from the McMinnville AVA. Its bigger brother, the 2006 Renelle’s Block Pinot Noir, is a bolder, more powerful version of the 2006 Estate. Both show ripe black fruit with hints of cassis layered over coffee and bitter chocolate highlights. The Renelle’s Block is still a bit closed and brooding and really requires two or three more years of bottle age to show all it has to offer. The 2006 Estate is certainly enjoyable now, but will be much better in a year. It should be noted that production of all of these wines is in the hundreds of cases, not thousands, so supplies are limited and you can expect them to sell out.
Scott describes their wines as, “time and place in a bottle.” I would add soul to that list, for Scott and Lisa have also put their souls into their wines.
Poor pinot noir. As the variety most transparent to terroir and the hand of the winemaker it has become a schizophrenic variety producing a full rainbow of styles from all corners of the planet. The staggering range of wines produced makes it impossible and pointless to define which personality is the best expression of the variety. As usual, lovers of any particular style are absolutely convinced of the superiority of their preferred style.
Most pinot noir aficionados are drawn to the variety because of its capability to produce the most terroir-driven of wines. Vineyards mere meters apart produce astoundingly different wines. Strangely enough, this same love of the wonderful diversity and endless fascination with the nuances of terroir seems to put blinders on many tasters. Instead of being willing to experience the myriad of styles offered by the terroir-sity (take that Colbert), that is the hallmark of this variety, they become stuck in a narrow range of styles with a disdain bordering on the violent for wines produced in other styles, or perhaps more accurately, other terroirs. It seems to be quickly forgotten that the very reason we love pinot noir means by definition that the wines will be, and should be, very different when grown in different places.
It's important to taste wines for what they are, not what we wish they were. You cannot will a Sonoma Coast pinot noir to taste like Pommard 1er Cru because not only shouldn't it taste like a Pommard, but why would you want it to? The interesting part of pinot noir, and, for that matter all varieties, are these very differences. Of course everyone will have their own personal preferences, but personal preference in taste is not the same as superiority.
Having recently immersed myself (almost literally) in pinot noir for three days during the International Pinot Noir Celebration I could not help but be struck by the wonderful diversity and the exceptionally high level of winemaking that exists in the world of pinot noir these days. Four wines highlighted the range of this golden age of pinot we're living in: the brooding, powerful Littorai Wines, Mays Canyon Vineyard, 2006 from California; the firm, spicy Sokol Blosser Winery, Dundee Hills Estate Cuvée, 2005 from Oregon; the explosively fruity, black current flavors of the Felton Road 2007 from New Zealand; and the closed, biting youth of the Volnay, Vendanges Sélectionnées, Domaine Michel Lafarge, 2005 from Burgundy. These four wines could not be more different or more delicious in their own right. It is their very differences that make them so exciting and make them, well, so pinot noir.
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Tasting all the wines at IPNC is probably impossible and, as at all large events, a challenge. I did my best concentrate and taste as many wines as possible, but I'm sure I missed a few gems. Tasting Burgundy amid the many New World wines was certainly difficult. The tight, young French wines could be easily overlooked among all the lush, forward New World wines. Oregon was particularly lucky as most were showing the fruit-forward, easy to like 2006 vintage wines, which showed very well in such conditions. Below are some of my favorite wines from my tasting notes. Wines from the seminars are listed in separate posts.
Recommended wines from the 2008 International Pinot Noir Celebration:
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There could be no “best” wine at an event like The International Pinot Noir Celebration, where great wines come at you in a flood of Biblical proportions. However, certain wines will stand out as special even in such esteemed company. That wine for me this year at IPNC was Oregon’s 2006 Broadley Vineyards Marcile Lorraine. Made from an old block on their estate vineyards located near Monroe, the Broadleys emphasize natural winemaking techniques like whole-cluster fermentation, wood fermenters and bottling unfined and unfiltered wines. The resulting wines are pure, natural pinot noirs that truly show the terroir of their unique microclimate. It’s worth nothing that when the Broadley’s selected their vineyard site they intentionally chose a east/northeast exposure, rather than the southern exposures selected by conventional wisdom in Oregon, in a slightly warmer zone to ensure their grapes could ripen fully without over-ripening before Oregon’s fall rains arrived. This wine is nothing short of stunning with picture perfect translucent ruby color and an elegant character and texture that seems endlessly seductive. It possesses that unique character of pinot noir that enables a wine to be rich and delicate at the same time. This is very simply a exciting wine that you should go out of your way to find. Unfortunately, as always seems to be the case with great pinot, very little was produced so I’d hurry before it disappears.
Sustainability without sacrifice was the title of this International Pinot Noir Celebration seminar. A title that is perhaps a bit off the mark as New Zealand winemaker Nigel Greening noted that the real sacrifice is not farming sustainably, which is something we all will end up paying the price for in the end.
Fight one was led by Burgundy winemaking superstar Dominique Lafon and Master of Wine Jasper Morris, while flight two featured winemakers Frédéric Lafarge (Domaine Michel Lafarge), Ted Lemon (Littorai), Nigel Greening (Felton Road), Ted Casteel (Bethel Heights) and Michael Dhillon (Bindi).
While a good tasting and seminar it ended up being more focused on biodynamics than a general look at the various sustainable models. Lafon made one comment I think all winemakers should keep in mind, “My wine should not be to show off my skills as a winemaker or the skills of my cooper, but to show the character of my appellation.”
Flight #1 - Domaine Comtes de Lafon
The star of out of the dozen or so pinots poured at sumptuous lunch following the seminar was the South Block Reserve, Bethel Heights 1999. This is a wine at its absolute peak with great complexity, rich wild red fruit and those wonderful earthy characteristics that pinot develops with age.
Recent wines I have enjoyed, most under $20.
Veneto Bianco IGT, Anselmi, San Vincenzo, Italy, 2006 - The lovely light gold color is a proper prelude to the balance of this excellent wine. So few producers get the concept of balanced richness in white wines. Substantial without the least bit of heaviness or cloying fruit or oak, the smooth creamy texture has just enough bite to keep it refreshing. As usual this wine is a tremendous value offering far more complexity than almost anything at this price point. Best of all, the second glass is better than the first. ( find this wine )
Riesling, Bergterrassen Fedespiel, Johann Donabaum, Austria, 2006 - A delicate flower of wine. A lacy mixture of floral and mineral. This is a style of wine that just does not exist outside of Austria, Germany and Northeastern Italy. If it does, I have not tasted it. Lean and delicate, this is one of those wines if you don’t pay attention you’ll miss all it has to offer. The finish is dry, but mellowed by the lovely fruit. (find this wine )
Riesling, Private Lumpkin, Lazy River Vineyard, Yamhill-Carlton District, Oregon, 2006 - While inspired by Old World Wines, you’ll know right away this wine is from the New World. Richly aromatic with ripe apricots and pungent petrol notes, this wine is quite lush with a bit of sweetness accentuated by its fruit-forward style. Not for aging, but perfect for the best Asian cuisine you can find.
Riesling, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Essence, S.A. Prüm, Germany, 2006 - All charm and pleasure in this nice riesling for everyday drinking. Just off-dry, but with plenty of acidity to keep it alive, this is a wonderful wine for summer parties or for just keeping in your refrigerator for a glass when you get home from work. A very good starting place for those that don’t know the pleasures of riesling as it’s inexpensive and easy to find. One of those nice wines to enjoy without thinking too much about it. ( find this wine )
Nebiolo (yup, one b) d’Alba, Cappellano, Italy, 2003 - This is just a wonderful bottle of nebbiolo that is an amazing value. Unfortunately they don’t make enough to make it easy to find. Try Chambers St. in Manhattan and cross your fingers. A classic nebbiolo with lifting aromatics laced with tar, spice and that taught floral character only nebbiolo achieves. Still tannic and closed, it will improve for many years. Better than many expensive Baroli for a fraction of the price. Great wine from a great producer. Imported by Louis/Dressner
Pinot Noir, Rogue Valley, Skipper’s Cuvee, Dobbes Family Estate, Oregon, 2006 - This wine makes you wonder why more pinot noir producers are not looking more seriously at Southern Oregon. While the majority of top Oregon pinots are from the Northern Willamette, this wine is so good it should pique the interest of quite a few producers. Richly colored and very aromatic, it exhibits the classic cool climate personality that brought growers to Oregon in the first place. Compared to the price of most Oregon pinots these days this is a great bargain. ( find this wine )
Washington Red Table Wine, Three Wives, Remy Wines, 2006 - Young winemaker Remy Drabkin is someone to watch. Her tiny production under the Three Wives and Remy labels may be hard to find, but I suggest you try to get on her mailing list now. This release, a kitchen sink blend of Bordeaux an Rhone varieties from Washington is a very nice wine at a very nice price. Rich and brightly fruity, this is a great wine for sausages fresh off your grill. Remy has done a great job of crafting a distinctive wine with a clearly Northwestern style.
Rosso Orvietano, Rosso di Spicca, Tenuta Le Velette, Italy, 2005 - I love little Italian wines like this charming wine. Light, with an earthy fruit and lean, zesty character, it’s a perfect wine for simple pastas or pizza. Best drunk with a light chill in stubby bistro glasses on a warm Wednesday night, on your patio, with a dinner you quickly whipped together. Better yet it only costs about ten bucks.(find this wine )
Châteauneuf du Pape, Les Bartavelles, Jean-Luc Columbo, France, 2006 - Since Châteauneuf became a wine region on steroids, much loved by the Barry Bonds steak house crowd, it’s been hard to find a Châteauneuf you can drink with out blowing your palate and the next day. Here is a very nice wine, not a great wine mind you, but a very nice wine that is a pleasure to drink. Make no mistake this is not a light wine, but by New World standards it is quite restrained. With an alcohol level around 13.5% (many hotshot CdP’s push 16%), this is wine that can be drunk with ease and you can still go to work the next day. Most importantly, this is not a simple raspberry fruit bomb, but a wine that offers real varietal character and a rich earthiness and balance that is clearly and thankfully French.
Veneto Rosso IGT, Catullo, Bertani, Italy, 2002 (60% cabernet sauvignon, 40% corvina) - Normally I can stand these new wave Italian wines, but this is a very nice effort. Of course, the cabernet sauvignon overwhelms any touch of corvina character, but what I like is that that the wine is not overdone. You can taste the oak, but it is not over-oaked and is not at all over-extracted and still actually tastes like it not only came from Italy, but the Veneto. A nicely balanced wine that will pair well with lamb or veal. It is mature and ready to drink.
Moulis, Château Maucaillou, France, 2003 - It was with a tinge of sadness that I opened my last bottle of this excellent Bordeaux, but it was only a tinge. This wine, like most 2003 Bordeaux, is ready to drink. Frankly, I think letting wines from this super-hot vintage age is a very bad idea. The wines are lush and easy without the definition that is the hallmark of classic Bordeaux. Wonderfully fragrant, rich without ponderous fruit and with a long, soft cedar spiced finish I just adored this wine. As befitting the a last bottle of good Bordeaux, I served it with the best lamb chops I could buy. ( find this wine )
Pinot Noir, Corral Creek Vineyard, Willamette Valley, Chehalem, Oregon, 2001 - I know that the 2001 vintage forced Oregon producers to a more lean style, but I admit that I love these wines as they age and wish more producers would make wines like this in more forgiving vintages. The nose is wonderfully layered with orange peel, spiced wild cherries and touches of wildflowers, vanilla and tart blackberries. Firm and almost taut on the palate with a graceful, almost delicate character with hints of tar, candied bitter orange and wild strawberries. I think this wine is perfectly ready to drink now and , in fact, may be at its high point. The tannins on the finish have evolved into that dusty, silky texture than only pinot noir achieves. A very good wine at its peak. ( find this wine )
Those of you that read my post last last March know that I am a fan of Scott Wright's (pictured left with his wife Martha and daughter Pirrie) wines. He makes wines under the Scott Paul label in Oregon's Willamette Valley and selects and imports some very fine Burgundy as Scott Paul Selections. What I love about the wines that Scott both makes and imports is their purity. They are wines made with a delicate hand that respects the vineyards from which they come. Balance, grace and refinement are the best descriptors of his wines. The easiest place to obtain these wines is probably directly from Scott Paul, which you can contact by email or by phone at 503-852-7305. If you're lucky enough to stop by their tasting room in Carlton, you'll find some of his French selections available on the tasting bar right next to his own wines from Oregon.
Crémant de Bourgogne, Domaine Huber-Vedereau - 100% pinot noir and you can taste it. At $22 this is an amazing value, unfortunately only 100 cases were produced so grab a case while you can. The flavors and aromas are more fruit driven than yeasty lees driven, but there's more than enough toasty character to keep it interesting. Very long and bright with a creamy texture. Lovely bubbly.
Champagne Brut Réserve, Domaine Marc Chauvet - Here' a Champagne very high on the "wow" meter. Grower Champagnes like this are so much better than the big commercial brands that it's embarrassing. This is a wonderful wine with a lifting brightness powered by bubbles and brilliant citrus flavors laced over a complex base of fruit and toasty lees. A finish designed to exercise your saliva glands. 65% pinot noir, 35% chardonnay 100% delicious ($45)
St. Veran, Champ Rond, Domaine Thibert Père & Fils, 2006 - Firm, crisp and mineraly with a bright green apple and honeysuckle fruitiness, this charming chardonnay is a great bargain at $24 as it clearly displays some of the best characteristics of the more expensive Burgundian chardonnays to the north. Match with some fresh dungeness crab and you will find inner peace.
Gevrey Chambertin, Clos Prieur, Domane René Leclerc, 2006 - There is a wonderful grace and purity in this very fine pinot. Starting shyly at first, as befits its youth, the flavors grow and expand until you are totally seduced. The refinement in each aspect of this wine is very impressive with silky, but firm tannins tying everything together in a perfect package. It needs three or four more years to really open. For a Burgundy under $50 there is a lot going on in this wine. ($44)
Pommard 1er Cru, Clos de Derriére St. Jean, Domaine Violot Guillemard. 2006 - The expected tannic punch never arrives in this surprisingly silky, velvety young Pommard, which is an AOC that usually packs structure to spare. However, this wine is still very closed and demands aging so it is not a wine to buy for dinner this weekend. I believe this will age into an outstanding wine. As it comes from Burgundy's smallest Premier Cru vineyard at a ¼ acre and produced only 23 cases, I think it's worthy or getting the aging it deserves. As you are unlikely to find this in a floor stacking at SafeWay, I suggest you contact Scott Paul ASAP. ($75)
Echezeaux, Domaine Jean-Marc-Millot, 2006 - Here's pinot in all its glory. Richly textured, velvety, silky and endlessly aromatic with flavors that never seem to end and this wine is just getting started. Perfect color, beautiful fruit and richly complex tannins show everything that makes pinot great. (Price: if you have to ask...)
Romanée St. Vivant, Grand Cru, J.J. Confuron, 2004 - I tasted this wine last March, and it's just as beautiful and just as nowhere ready to drink as it was then. Given five or so years, this will be an outstanding wine. ($225)
Pinot Noir, La Paulèe, Willamette Valley, Scott Paul Wines, 2006 - Not every American winemaker would like to show his pinot after such a line-up, but Scott Wright obviously knows his own wine. While he is not trying to make Burgundy in Oregon, you can tell what his palate has been honed on. While more fruit-forward and flowery than the preceding Burgundy selections this very fine pinot noir displays the balance and grace that brought winemakers from California to Oregon in the first place. While certainly drinkable now, I would wait a few years, which will bring out even greater complexity.
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Winemaker Tony Soter is a member of that rare club that has made both exceptional cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. I’ve always thought that the approach that each of these varieties requires is so diverse that it makes it difficult to find winemakers that can handle both with equal dexterity. Tony has proved over-and-over again that he can cross that bridge with style. Having known Tony and his wines for several decades now, since he made wines at Spottswoode, I think there is a “Soter-icity” in his wines that have made both him and his wines so successful and respected. The key elements to the Soter style are elegance, un-amplified vineyard character and balance.
For many years Tony has divided his attention between his projects in California and Oregon, but last year he and his family made the trek north on a permanent basis and officially set up housekeeping in Oregon full time. Fortunately for us, his winery in Oregon, Soter Vineyards has been slowly increasing production and more people will be able to enjoy these lovely wines made by Tony and his winemaker James Cahill. However, make no mistake, this is still a very small winery and many releases are essentially sold only on their website.
Their two new releases of pinot noir are the main focus of their production, full of Soter-icity and should be available in most major markets. It’s worth pointing out that both of these wines are under 14% alcohol, which unfortunately has been less common in Oregon lately. They are well worth seeking out.
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