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Stories of Passion and Pinot: Iris Vineyards

June 18, 2019 Leave a comment

Let me ask you something. If you would look at the mountainous parcel of land, completely destroyed by the brutal commercial logging – would you be able to envision there a beautiful Pinot Noir vineyard? (if you answered “no”, same as I did, don’t worry about it – this is why you and I are not in the winemaking business). When Richard Boyles and his wife Pamela saw such a logging-destroyed site at the south end of the Willamette Valley, they were able to see past the nature in distress. They were able to see the future vineyards and even future forest restored where it was before. They purchased about 1,000 acres site in 1992, and it became the home to the Iris Vineyards, with the name inspired by the beautiful wild Douglas iris covering the surrounding hills in spring.

Richard’s fate was sealed at the age of 7, when he assumed assistant winemaker duty to his grandmother, helping her to make the sweet, dessert wine. As they say it in the stories, the rest was history. Richard met Pamela while studying at the University of Oregon. Countless visits to Europe and living there for a while as Richard had a carrier in international business management and hospitality, helped Richard and Pamela to discover their wine passion – Burgundy, and its signature grape – Pinot Noir. That passion for Pinot helped Richard and Pamela to see through the broken trees and realize their dream of making the world-class Pinot Noir.

Well, there is also an additional element to that passion – a principle of Areté. Richard and Pamela learned about Areté in the university, while studying ancient Greek philosophy. This principle simply means that it is one’s moral obligation to achieve the highest potential the person can achieve. Give it a thought – Areté is really a great principal to live by; we will get back to it later on in this post.

Today Iris Vineyards farms about 43 acres of vineyards, located at 800 to 1,100 feet elevation (quite high for the Willamette Valley). The vineyards are surrounded by more than 500 acres of restored forest, mostly Douglas fir and Ponderosa Pine, as well as Oregon white oak. The main vineyard of the estate, Chalice Vineyard, was planted in 1996 and produced its first vintage in 2001. Pinot Noir takes two third of the plantings, following by the Pinot Gris and a small acreage of Chardonnay. Iris Vineyards also produces a number of other, less traditional wines (Viognier, Syrah, and more) from other appellations in Oregon, such as Applegate Valley.

Richard Boyles Iris Vineyards

Richard Boyles

I was definitely intrigued by what I learned about the Iris Vineyards, so I took an opportunity to sit down with Richard Boyles (yes, once again it was a virtual conversation) and ask him a few questions. Here is what transpired:

[TaV]: You grew up tasting sweet wines. How did you end up with Pinot Noir becoming a passion?
[RB]: Although my first experience was sweet wines made and sampled with my grandmother, the wines I “grew-up” with were the wines served at family celebrations organized by my dad. These were usually red Bordeaux and reds and whites of Burgundy as well as German Rieslings. As you can see, with the exception of the Rieslings, these were dry wines that were intended to pair with food. I became more focused on Pinot Noir as it became clear that Oregon could grow world-class Pinot Noir with Oregon attitude. After graduation from the U of O, while living in Seattle, Pamela and I continued to explore the world of wine, visiting vineyards, tasting rooms and sampling primarily in Oregon and Washington and occasionally in Napa and Sonoma. Our interest in Pinot Noir solidified as a passion as Pamela and I explored different viticultural areas of Europe when we lived in Germany and Switzerland. We found ourselves gravitating to Burgundy for Pinot and Alsace for Pinot Gris.

[TaV]: What made you think that the parcel of land destroyed by logging would be an ideal place to grow Pinot Noir?
[RB]: In the Pacific Northwest logging is a part of the rural economy and landscape. In the case of our property, the fact that it had been logged and that we took on the legal obligation to replant the forest meant that we were able to acquire large acreage at a modest price. The property had a long history as a mixed forest operation, with cattle and timber harvests providing income to the owners. When we acquired the property, we replanted hundreds of acres of forest before we turned our attention to planting the vineyard on former pasture. The areas for vineyard plantation were selected for the Jory and Bellpine soils, south-facing slopes, elevation and for modestly steep slopes which allow the property to be farmed with standard farm equipment. While our purchase of the property was prompted by the vineyard potential, it has been equally satisfying to plant tens of thousands of Douglas fir trees that have now matured into a forest, an ecosystem really, supporting many species of flora and fauna.

[TaV]: I know that the concept of Areté and its relevance to everything you do is explained on the website, but can you explain one more time for our readers what Areté means for you and how does it apply to the Iris Vineyards and your wines?
[RB]: In addition to what is on the website and press kit, this is what I would say about Areté: Areté is a philosophy or way of being that says, “Hey buddy, you want to excel and standout? Then be deliberate about it. Figure out what skills and knowledge you need, practice them, perfect them if you can. Figure out what else will up your game. Go get that skill or knowledge. Repeat. Because that is what this life is all about. A constant aspiration to live up to the potential that is you. Why would you settle for less?” With respect to Areté at Iris, Areté is a cultural signpost. It tells team members and prospective team members what we value at Iris, how we want to be and be seen as an organization. It tells team members how they can contribute. We can only be an organization that exemplifies Areté if our team members embrace it, make decisions and plans by it. By making it clear what we are about, we attract like-minded team members. And, of course, Areté is a proclamation to the world about aspirations. So, we take it very seriously when we put the Areté name on the label of the wines that are the best examples of our craft.

[TaV]: I would guess that first was Pinot Noir, then Pinot Gris, then Chardonnay (curious – am I right?), but Iris Vineyards today offers way more than just 3 flagship Oregon grapes – how did you get to include Syrah, Tempranillo, Viognier into your repertoire?
[RB]: From the time we committed to establishing a vineyard, Pamela and I planned to grow Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay. The expansion into other varietals is the result of two factors: 1) the desire to create variety for our club members; and, 2) our winemaker, Aaron Lieberman’s curiosity, interest and skill at working with grape varieties beyond Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.

Iris Vineyards

Source: Iris Vineyards

[TaV]: While it is not yet available on your website, I understand that you are about to introduce Iris Sparkling wines. Can you tell me more about this project, starting even with “why sparkling wines”?
[RB]: Much as the reintroduction of the Rosé program was in response to Pamela’s strong interest in Rosé and renewed consumer interest in the category, the sparkling wine program came about as a result of Aaron’s interest in, and interest in the challenge of making sparkling wine. Sparkling wine is the ultimate celebratory beverage. Our club members and tasting room visitors love our Methode Champenois Blanc de Noir and Blanc de Blanc. We reserve a small amount for weddings and other celebrations at the tasting room, though the sparklers routinely sell out prior to the subsequent release. Aaron can expand on what brought him to pursue sparkling.

[TaV]: Will sparkling wines be generally available or they will be offered as winery exclusive/club options?
[RB]: I anticipate that the sparkling wines will be available to club members, available at the tasting room, available to weddings and celebrations held on the property and perhaps to select accounts. I don’t anticipate that it will be available to broad distribution. These are intensely hand made wines requiring lots of time and attention. The sparklers will have an important but limited role in our line-up.

[TaV]: Considering the wide range of grapes you already use, do you have any plans to expand it any further?
[RB]: Our offerings will continue to evolve. Our core business is in Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Rosé. As we expand our vineyard, we will plant small amounts of Pinot Meunier and Pinot Blanc as well as a broader variety of clones of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Pinot Meunier will have a place in our sparkling program. We will evaluate it as a potential stand-alone variety. Pinot Blanc will be a standalone bottling. I expect we will pare some wines from our current offerings as we respond to the tastes of our club members and tasting room visitors. 8. I’m assuming you started producing wines at the end of the 1990s. Do you still have any of your first releases available in the cellar? How do they hold up? What is the oldest of your own wines you ever tasted?
We first bottled wine under our own label in 2001. Prior to that, we sold the small volume of fruit coming from our vineyards to other producers. We recently sampled a bottle of 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir. We have a single bottle left. I wish we had more in our cellar. While this wine wasn’t deliberately built to last ten years, it is drinking very well. The 2012 Reserve Pinot is drinking nicely. Pamela and I have a few overlooked bottles of 2001 and 2002 Pinot Gris in our personal cellar. These were award winners 15 and sixteen years ago, including double platinum for 2002. As compelling as these wines were at two, three, four and even five-year-olds, they weren’t intended to age and are now past their prime. It’s a good reminder to drink while the drinking is good.

[TaV]: You are practicing sustainable farming. Can you explain what it means for you, how does it relate to the land, vineyards, grapes and so on? Have you ever looked at going Biodynamic?
[RB]: The goal of our farming practices is to produce fruit that meets our particular purposes. We use different farm practices and viticultural techniques for Pinot Noir that’s intended for Rose’ differently than the fruit that is intended for our estate bottling for instance. Our farm practices are conventional as we want to have all the tools available to produce the best fruit for the purpose while supporting the long-term productive capacity of the vineyard and operating a financially sustainable business. Farming isn’t static. We annually review best practices and new literature to improve what we do in the vineyard. While we have considered a Biodynamic approach, we believe we can produce better fruit for our purposes with a conventional approach to farming.

[TaV]: When you are not drinking your own wines, what are your favorite wines from Oregon, and from around the world?
[RB]: One of the notable things about the world of wine today is that so much great (and not so great) wine is accessible from all over the world. We see wine as an exploration, so we regularly try what we haven’t tried before. That is as likely to be a Pinot from a new Oregon producer, a Sauvignon Blanc from a new growing region or an obscure varietal we haven’t tasted in a while. Through exploration, we learn more than returning to the same things repeatedly. That said, we have a broad stable of wines of our own production. We do frequently return to those.

[TaV]: Where do you see Iris Vineyards in 15-20 years from now?
[RB]: I expect that Iris will garner increasing consumer attention as we offer compelling wines at a good value. I expect that we will continue to offer wines across a variety of complex profiles and price points. I don’t say across a variety of quality, because all of our wines are of high quality, they just differ in terms of complexity. Personally, in 15 or twenty years I hope to have more tractor time and hands-on time in the vineyard and in the winery, particularly at crush. Overseeing this and other businesses currently require that I focus on the big picture. It was a “need” to farm and a maker mentality that brought us into the business. I still craft beer, pickle and can. I look forward to re-creating my job description to allow more time in the vineyard and winery and less in the business of running a business.

Yes, I agree with you – it is time to drink. I had an opportunity to taste two of the Iris Vineyards Pinot Noir wines – here are my notes:

2017 Iris Vineyards D Block Pinot Noir Chalice Vineyard Willamette Valley (12.7% ABV, $39.99, 300 cases produced)
Bright Ruby
Light, elegant, plums, cherries, a touch of ripe strawberries
Sweet cherries, plums, great acidity, excellent balance
8-/8, nice and approachable

2016 Iris Vineyards Areté Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $59.99, 100 cases produced)
Dark Ruby
Touch of smoke, plums, a hint of cranberries
Iodine, Cherries, a touch of smoke, good balance
8/8+, very good wine, will be interesting to try it again in 10 years…

Cropped Bench Iris Vineyards

Source: Iris Vineyards

Here you are, my friends – another story of Passion and Pinot. Go pour yourself a glass of Pinot – more stories are ahead…

To be continued…

P.S. Here are the links to the posts profiling wineries in this Passion and Pinot series, in alphabetical order:

Alloro Vineyard, Bells Up Winery, Ghost Hill Cellars, Ken Wright Cellars, Knudsen Vineyards, Lenné Estate, Tendril Cellars, Youngberg Hill Vineyards, Vidon Vineyard

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Bells Up Winery

May 31, 2019 4 comments

Do you know by any chance what “bells up” means? If you do, you can already pat yourself on the back and pour yourself a glass of wine. If you don’t – you can pour yourself a glass of wine and ponder at the question for a bit – the answer will follow.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about the passion, an indelible component of winemaking, possibly even a key ingredient in a delicious wine.

Dave Specter started making wine in the basement of his home back in 2006. By 2009, he realized that passion for winemaking trumpets his (successful!) career of a corporate tax attorney, and Dave decided to let his passion lead the way. In 2012, Dave and his wife Sara found themselves in Newberg, Oregon, purchasing a dead Christmas tree farm in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, where they started planting their estate vineyard. The rest is history – of passion and Pinot, there is.

BellsUp-Pinot Harvest

Bells Up vineyards. Source: Bells Up Winery

Before there was wine, there was music. For more than 20 years Dave had been playing the French horn. In classical music, there is always a moment which needs to be stressed – “Bells up” is the conductor’s instruction to the French horn players to lift the bells of their instruments and produce the sound of maximum intensity. “Bells up” became Dave’s motto in life, and it also gave the name to his winery – now you have your answer in case you are still wondering.

While Pinot Noir was the first grape planted at the newly minted Bells Up winery, the passion also led Dave to plant half an acre of Seyval Blanc, the grape he successfully used back in Ohio. That Seyval Blanc planting became the first in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, and second in Oregon. If you look at Bells Up winery website, you will see that the winery bills itself as micro-boutique and un-domaine – planting Seyval Blanc and not Pinot Gris in Oregon is clearly an un-domaine move. By the way, the “un-domaine” was one of the words which caught my eye while researching the Bells Up winery information. So I took the opportunity to sit down (virtually, albeit) with Dave and listen to him share his passion for wine. Here is what transpired in our conversation:

[TaV]: What kind of wine(s) did you make in your basement in Cincinnati?
[DS]: In the beginning, when my wife Sara and I started making wine in 2006 as a couple’s activity for our fifth wedding anniversary, we started with kit wines—juice in a bag, essentially. When I moved on to grapes, I sourced from both local and regional vineyards for Seyval Blanc, as well as through a Cincinnati vintners club that would truck in fruit from vineyards in California. From that I made Syrah, Petit Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot—even a Pinot Noir, although that fruit was sourced from Lodi, and was completely unlike the Pinot I work within Oregon today. Essentially, it was a hobby that grew out of control.

[TaV]: Why Oregon? As a young winemaker, you had many options – what made you decide to go to Oregon?
[DS]: First, thank you for calling me young. We were a whole lot younger when we started this journey. After that first kit wine, I was hooked on the process and wanted to learn more. Sara graciously let me take over the basement, then the garage, then the dining room. And we started taking wine vacations to “hidden gem” wine regions—Texas Hill Country, Finger Lakes, and finally Oregon in 2008.

We had already visited Oregon briefly in 2004 and loved it. In 2008 we spent two weeks roaming the state, with the last few days in Newberg at a bed and breakfast just 400 feet up the mountain from the property that is now ours. We fell in love with Oregon, the scenery, the climate, the wines, and the intimate experiences tasting wines at the tiniest wineries with the winemaker. We decided then that this was the place for us.

[TaV]: Seyval Blanc is one of the most popular grapes in the Eastern US. But why Seyval Blanc in Oregon?
[DS]: When we moved to Oregon in 2012, we knew we wanted to plant a vine that connected to our story. I’d been working with Seyval Blanc for years in Ohio and when I won two amateur national winemaking competitions in 2011, one was with a 2010 Seyval Blanc. So, it was a great tie-in.

But also, we see an opportunity to differentiate ourselves with a white wine that nobody else has in the Willamette Valley—and only one other winery has in Oregon. Plus, we believed it would grow well here, and after two small harvests that resulted in some beautiful wine, we’re happy to be proven right. Note, however, we didn’t plant a lot of it: only about 250 vines (and not all of them made it—so Sara’s been propagating like crazy ever since for replants). We figured if it was a failure, we could always graft over it.

[TaV]: Any future plans for more mainstream Oregon white grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling?
[DS]: From a business perspective, we’ve taken a really close look at what other wineries in the area are making, and for a 500-ish case production winery like ours it’s best to have just one white wine available for sale at a given time. That’s because we don’t move enough volume and the whites generally don’t age as long as reds.

We currently make Pinot Blanc and we like it quite a bit. It’s a bit rarer in these parts than Pinot Gris or Chardonnay, which again helps to differentiate us. But as for expanding our white wine program, the ultimate plan is to phase out Pinot Blanc for Seyval Blanc and that will be the only white in our line-up. There are a lot of similarities between my Pinot Blanc and my Seyval
Blanc, so the transition from one to the other won’t be as jarring as a shift from another white varietal, such as Chardonnay.

Bells Up Wines in the cellar

Bells Up wines. Source: Bells Up winery

[TaV]: Today you already make white, rosé, and red. Any plans to join seemingly the hottest Oregon trend and start producing sparkling wine?
[DS]: No. I know I keep coming back to the numbers, but I’m a finance guy with an MBA and a corporate tax law career. While we think there’s a place in the market for adding bubbles to still wines, if I made a sparkling wine I’d want to do it the right way (traditional method). That takes time, space and money. And at our volumes, what we’d have to charge per bottle to justify that type of investment is more than what the market would reasonably bear.

[TaV]: Continuing the same question – as you already produce Seyval Blanc, which makes very good dessert wines, any plans for some Late Harvest Seyval Blanc goodness?
[DS]: Don’t give Sara any ideas! Actually, we’ve been so focused on just getting these Seyval Blanc vines established and proving that our concept had legs that we really haven’t thought much farther than straight up Seyval Blanc. Our 2017 harvest yielded 100 pounds and made 23 bottles (yes, bottles)! Our 700-pound 2018 harvest produced 15 cases and we’ve made that available exclusively to our wine club members on a 2-bottle allocation. Give me a few years when I’ve got Seyval Blanc growing out of my ears and I’ll get back to you on a Late Harvest version.

[TaV]: Who are your winemaking mentors (if any)?
[DS]: First and foremost, Joe Henke of Henke Winery in Cincinnati. Joe took me under his wing as a basement winemaking hobbyist. He offered me a position as an unpaid cellar rat but promised he’d teach me everything he knew—open book—and he did. He even showed me his books because he wanted me to understand what he called “the good, the bad and the ugly of being a professional winemaker.” He’s an award-winning winemaker who makes 2,000 cases across roughly 15 different types of wines (including a phenomenal sparkling Chardonnay and an incredible Norton) in the basement of a 100-year-old house in an urban neighborhood with the bare essentials: barrels, a pump, a press, a pallet jack. I learned so much from him about the process of winemaking and the business of winemaking; that you don’t need a bunch of expensive equipment to make incredible wines. You just need to do a ton of cleaning. Amazing mentor.

Additionally, I did a harvest internship in the Fall of 2012 at Alexana in Dundee, Oregon under Bryan Weil. It was Bryan’s first harvest there as winemaker and Lynn Penner-Ash of Penner-Ash Wine Cellars was still working alongside Bryan, as she had been consulting winemaker for the label prior to Bryan coming on board. I soaked up as much as I could about working with Pinot Noir from both of them. Because, at age 39, I was not your typical harvest intern—plus I had three years of time at Henke Winery under my belt—Bryan was gracious enough to build my internship around what I needed to learn. He put me in the vineyard for sampling fruit, for example, something I’d never had the opportunity to do before. He had me set up the lab for him and run lots of testing because I knew how to do it. We’re still very close today and I appreciate everything he was gracious enough to share with me.

As far as winery business mentors, there have been so many people in the Willamette Valley who have generously offered advice and shared their successes and failures that it would be impossible to name them all. But they know who they are.

[TaV]: What is your view on sustainable viticulture, dry farming, organic methods?
[DS]: That’s what we do here in our own vineyard and at the vineyards we source from. We think it’s very important to be good stewards of the Earth—we’re farmers now! It also produces stronger vines that develop more flavorful grapes and ultimately better wines.

[TaV]: How did you choose the music pieces as the names of your wines? What was your thought process, what criteria? What message are you trying to convey with those names?
[DS]: Let me start by explaining the name of the winery. I played French Horn for more than 20 years (I’m horribly out of practice now—Sara says I only make noise) including after business and law schools, so it was a key part of my life. When it came time to name the winery, we wanted to name it something personal that wasn’t our last name (people are terrible at remembering names!) and I really wanted to tie it into the French Horn. Coincidentally, the property Sara found was on Bell Road in Newberg. So that tied in perfectly to the term “Bells Up,” which is a notation by the composer in the score of a piece of music. At a dramatic moment, it directs the French Horns to lift the bells of their instruments to project their sound with more intensity. It’s our time to shine—which is why I say the winery is my #bellsupmoment.

The pieces of music I chose to name each wine are all ones that prominently feature the French Horn, as well as epitomize the wine itself. George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” inspired our Pinot Blanc to be named “Rhapsody” because it’s a jazzy, energetic white wine. Gustav Mahler—the French Horn player’s best friend because his pieces tend to be horn-heavy—wrote his Symphony No. 1 in D Major, called “Titan,” and it’s become regarded as his flagship work. Therefore, our Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, which we consider to be our flagship Pinot, is “Titan.” And so on. There’s a link at the top of our wines page to a playlist of all the pieces for those interested in hearing them.

[TaV]: Why “un-domaine”?
[DS]: It was a term that came up as we were discussing how to describe our casual tasting room vibe, our keep-it-simple winemaking approach, and our distinctive brand with a good friend who happens to be a wine writer. A couple of years ago after we opened our doors in 2015 there was a trend of new wineries opening in the Willamette Valley with the word “Domaine” in their name. We just aren’t. Our property is humble, our tasting room is a converted pole barn, you won’t find a marble fireplace. While Sara and I enjoy wine, nobody would ever confuse us with wine snobs.

Does “un-domaine” mean we’re not for everyone? Absolutely. There’s no cachet associated with owning or drinking a bottle of Bells Up wine. And that’s perfectly fine with us. We’d much rather be the bottle on your table every day of the week than the one gathering dust in the wine rack because you spent a ton of money on it and are waiting for a special occasion—and friends who will appreciate it—before it’s opened.

[TaV]: Did you have a pivotal wine in your life, the one which changed your wine worldview?
[DS]: Not so much a specific wine but a wine experience I had very early on. I had the pleasure of visiting some friends in Europe after graduating from law school and they took me to Beaune (in the heart of Burgundy) for a weekend. We did a lot of tasting in the touristy cellars, but also in garages and co-operatives where the atmosphere was much more down-to-earth. I knew absolutely nothing about wine prior to that but I was in awe of what I saw, smelled, and tasted. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but I was in the heart of a culture that valued wine as an everyday experience—that part really resonated with my soul. Looking back, I’m sure that I would appreciate that experience more fully if I took the same trip now, but that time in Beaune has fueled my passion for wine ever since.

[TaV]: With the exception of your own wines, what are your favorite Oregon wines and /or producers?
[DS]: We truly have an embarrassment of riches here in the Willamette Valley—so many quality producers call this place home that a list of my favorite producers would fill about 3 dozen barrels. With every producer having their own unique style—plus the trailblazing nature of the Oregon wine industry—innovation is happening all the time: new grapes, new techniques, and so on. I think many people assume that a winemaker drinks only his or her own wine at home, but the truth is I almost never drink my own wines outside of the professional setting. I’d much rather be exploring the styles and fresh ideas that other winemakers here are creating and perhaps get inspired to try some of those ideas myself!

[TaV]: What are your favorite wines and/producers outside of Oregon?
[DS]: Again, way too many to answer! The wines I enjoy most are ones where I have a personal connection in some way and I’m fortunate to have so many talented friends in other parts of the winemaking world. Back in Ohio, my mentor Joe Henke at Henke Winery, of course, but also my friends Greg Pollman of Valley Vineyards and Bill Skvarla of Harmony Hill Vineyards make fantastic wines from grapes grown locally and regionally. Up in Woodinville, Washington my friend, Lisa Callan of Callan Cellars is making a name for herself with her Washington-focused program. And up over the border in Naramata, British Columbia my friend Jay Drysdale has founded Bella Sparkling Wines, BC’s only winery dedicated to sparkling wines. I know that some other friends have projects in the works and can’t wait to brag about them in a few years too.

[TaV]: Where do you see Bells Up Winery in 20 years?
[DS]: Not in the grocery store. Our customer base is national, but we have no aspirations for retail distribution. We’re perfectly content to sell direct-to-consumer and to a couple of local restaurants and a wine bar in Downtown Portland. When we hit 1,000-case production, that’s it. We won’t make any more than that annually because we both enjoy and believe wholeheartedly in the micro-boutique winery experience we’ve created. We want to have personal relationships with our customers. We specifically don’t have an online ordering portal because we want to have a conversation with our buyers either by phone or email. Making and maintaining those connections is really important to us, and we hope to grow those relationships over the next 20 years and beyond.

I’m sure you are ready to taste some wine by now. Before I will share with you my notes after tasting 3 of Dave’s wines, I want to bring something to your attention. By now you know that Bells Up wines are named after different musical compositions. In case you want to experience those musical compositions, either by themselves or together with the wine, Dave has a link to Spotify playlist of all the relevant music pieces available on the winery website. And now, here are my notes:

2018 Bells Up Helios Seyval Blanc Chehalem Mountains AVA (13.1% ABV, $38, 15 cases produced)
Light golden
Restrained, minerality-driven, touch of gunflint, a touch of fresh green apples
Excellent acidity, Granny Smith apples all the way, crisp, fresh, good texture. Has traits of Seyval Blanc (tropical fruit intent, I would say, like a hint of guava without any fruit notes), but put on a different core
8-, very interesting, thought-provoking and food friendly wine (acidity lingers on the finish for a good couple of minutes)

2018 Bells Up Prelude Rosé of Pinot Noir Chehalem Mountains (13% ABV, $22, 126 cases produced)
Light red
Medium plus intensity, distant hint of the barnyard, underripe cranberries, herbal notes
Bone dry, crunchy cranberries, excellent acidity, food-friendly wine, fruit showing up a bit later, excellent balance
8/8+, delicious and dangerous. I can keep drinking it until the bottle will be empty

2016 Bells Up Titan Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.1% ABV, $40, 12 months in French oak (39% new), 131 cases produced)
Dark ruby
Plums, a hint of smoke, violets
Slightly underripe plums, crisp cherries, sage undertones, good acidity, light to medium body,
8-, light, easy to drink, food friendly. Should improve with time.

Dave Specter conducts Bells Up-Private Tasting

Dave Specter conducts the private tasting. Source: Bells Up Winery

Here you are, my friends. Another story of Passion and Pinot.

To be continued…

P.S. Here are the links to the posts profiling wineries in this Passion and Pinot series, in alphabetical order:

Alloro Vineyard, Ghost Hill Cellars, Ken Wright Cellars, Knudsen Vineyards, Lenné Estate, Tendril Cellars, Youngberg Hill Vineyards, Vidon Vineyard

Valentine’s Day Experiences

March 1, 2019 2 comments

Valentine's Day RosesCooking is the ultimate expression of love. This is always true, but even more though on Valentine’s Day, as the whole holiday is all about love – the holiday which exists since about the 5th century – it is really fun to celebrate something so deeply rooted in history.

Our personal love story was simple – yet, probably, equally uncommon – the love at first sight. It took three days since the moment we saw each other for the first time until everything was decided. So you can imagine that Valentine’s Day was always an important holiday for us. At first, we tried to follow to common path, working hard to score coveted restaurant reservation – until the dinner at one of the most expensive, and supposedly, best Italian restaurants in Connecticut, which we left asking each other “what was that???”. That was the end of our “eating out” Valentine’s Day celebrations, and the beginning of the “eat in” tradition.

One of the advantages of “eat in” celebrations is a much better wine program. You don’t need to desperately comb through the pages of the wine list, finding that you can’t afford any of the wines by the bottle you want to drink, and common sense preventing you from getting any of the wines by the glass which can be classified as a “seemingly affordable rip off”. Instead, you can spend hours combing through your own wine shelves, looking for the bottles which you will deem worthy of a special celebration –  and which will also work with the menu you have in mind.

Valentiens Day wines

Martinelli Syrah which you see in the picture was a backup wine in case anything will be wrong with the Pinot. Now it is back in the cellar, waiting for its turn.

Last year’s celebration was about steak and Cab – obviously, I couldn’t repeat myself, so the search was on to find an appropriate protein replacement. Somehow that resulted in the duck breast – and what wine does the duck breast call for? Of course, the Pinot Noir!

Before we talk Pinot we need to talk bubbles. Bubbles don’t have to exclusively narrow down to Champagne. Champagne is a wonderful sparkling wine, perfectly appropriate for any celebration – but the world of wine moved up tremendously over the past 15-20 years. I don’t have any stats to prove this objectively, but I have a feeling in the USA at least a third of all wineries if not half of them produce sparkling wine – if not for the wide distribution, then at least for the wine clubs and tasting room visitors.

I also have to say that ever since I visited the Franciacorta region in Lombardy, Italy, Franciacorta sparkling wines became my go-to choice of bubbles for any special celebrations. In my mind, Franciacorta wines are very consistent, and today, as they honed their production methods to perfection, this translates into the “you can’t go wrong with” Franciacorta wines in general. La Valle was one of my top highlights of that Franciacorta trip and the La Valle Rosé really hit the cord then – and it continues to do now. This 2011 La Valle Brut Rosé Franciacorta was superb – fine mousse, delicious strawberries on the nose with the hint of the toasted bread, and more strawberries on the palate – a perfect opener for our evening.

Now, the Pinot time. Similar to the bubbles, Pinot Noir also enjoys quite a universal appeal around the world nowadays. There some regions, however, which do a better job than the others – and California Russain River Valley is definitely one of them. I tried 2007 Charles Mara Pinot Noir for the first time back in 2010. It was silky smooth and powerful at the same time. I was so impressed with this wine that it became the top wine of the inaugural Talk-a-Vino Top Dozen Wines list. I still had a bottle of 2007, and I decided that it would be a perfect choice for our Valentine’s Day dinner – and the wine didn’t disappoint. Now, 9 years later, this 2007 Mara Laughlin Road Ranch Pinot Noir Russian River Valley became even more round and less “in your face”. Characteristic California Pinot plums and smoke on the nose, succulent dark fruit on the palate with a hint of violets, perfect acidity, perfect balance, lots and lots of pleasure. And it also worked perfectly with the duck.

Let’s talk about the duck. I had it a number of times before, either made by friends or at the restaurant – but duck is rarely my go-to dish. The form of duck I cooked before was either duck legs as part of the Cassoulet or the whole duck as part of the Turducken. I never attempted cooking the duck breast before, so obviously was concerned with the outcome. After studying a number of recipes, I was concerned even more, as a number of commentators complained about rendering duck inedible even after repeated attempts, so I was really not sure about my own success.

I don’t know if it was a quality of the ingredient, Moulard Duck Magret, which I got at our local Fairway Market, or the cast iron pan, a combination of the above, or the beginner’s luck, but the duck breast came out perfectly. I also made a Port (you saw it in the picture above) and berries reduction, which elevated the nicely gamey taste of the duck breast and was a bridge to connect it all to Mara Pinot Noir – all in all, a delicious dinner. Nevermind the paper plate in the picture – everything in life has a story, but this is not the story for this blog post.

There you go, my friends – not a timely share, but still an experience worth sharing. If you still remember, I’m curious to know how was your Valentine’s Day dinner. Cheers!

 

 

A Pinot Noir Lesson for Self with Tendril Cellars

October 3, 2018 7 comments

Tendril Cellars winesBack in May, we virtually met with Tony Rynders of Tendril Cellars and talked about … many things wine, of course – you can find this conversation here.

Tony is one of the few winemakers I know who teaches people about his wines by conducting organized tastings. As I didn’t have an opportunity to attend any of those events, I decided to run a lesson for myself on the same subject. How you ask? Easy – by tasting the wines blind.

I can literally see the surprised looks and raised eyebrows. How is it a blind tasting if I know already everything about those wines? You see, the lineup I had included 6 wines. Out of those six, four were different Pinot Noirs – different vineyards, different winemaking process, different price points. Obviously I was not planning to try to identify the exact wine, but still – will I be able to taste the difference, and maybe identify the most expensive wine? Comparing Chardonnay and white Pinot Noir should also be a fun exercise, as those are two siblings ruling the world of Champagne. Yep – lots of opportunities for having fun.

Okay, blind tasting it is. The bottles are wrapped, the numbers are randomly assigned. May the taste buds serve me right!

Tendril Cellars Blind tasting

Here are my notes for the wines while tasting them blind:

1 Light golden color
Vanilla, golden delicious,
Bright acidity, vanilla, apples, a touch of honey

2 toasted notes, yeast
Perfect acidity, Granny Smith apples, a touch of honey, toasted notes on the palate, outstanding
white pinot?

3 Dark ruby
Earthy, Rutherford dust on the nose, a touch of roasted meat,
Beautiful palate, soft plums, round, espresso, excellent acidity, wow. ThightRope?

4 Ruby
Concentrated nose, mint, eucalyptus
Concentrated palate, acidity, eucalyptus, sage, violets on the palate. Very unusual. Single Vineyard?

5 Dark ruby
Wow. Blueberries, raspberries, restrained
Very smooth, silky, bright fresh fruit, acidity, firm structure, excellent balance, never-ending finish. Wow. C-Note?

6 Dark ruby
Nose old world style, forest floor, mushrooms, great restraint
Round palate, blackberries, baking spices, soft, delicious. Outstanding. Extrovert?

Tendril cellars after blind tasting

Everyone knows that the best part of the blind tasting is … unwrap! The moment of truth, pure and simple. Here are my notes for the tasting of the wines non-blind, 3 hours after the blind tasting (in the same order):

1 – 2015 Tendril Cellars Pretender Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $60, white Pinot Noir)
A bit darker color (golden)
Vanilla, butter
Plump, round, crisp acidity, acidity on the finish (very extensive), plump body.
8, excellent. Reminiscent of a nice Marsanne.

2 – 2015 Tendril Cellars Chardonnay Willamette Valley (13.5% ABV, $40)
Honey, gunflint, vanilla
Brioche, Granny Smith Apple, a touch of butter, clean acidity, excellent
8, outstanding.

 

3 – 2014 Tendril Cellars Extrovert Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $48)
Beautiful, classic, open Pinot, with cherries, sage, and plums.
Soft cherries and plums on the palate, clean acidity, sage, violets, delicious, wow
8, delicious.
8+/9-, a pure standout. Polished, velvety, seductive, like a light touch on the hand which makes your whole body to vibrate. More reminiscent of CA Pinot than dark and loaded

4 – 2014 Tendril Cellars TightRope Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (14.2% ABV, $64)
Very tight, espresso, licorice, blackberries
Beautiful, sweet fruit, noticeable tannins, very round, medium body, cherries and cherry pit.
8, excellent.
Complex nose of herbs and spices, exotic and unusual.
Wow, great power and complexity, not a typical Pinot, might be more of a Zinfandel or even Syrah profile. Needs time, lots more time.

5 – 2014 Tendril Cellars Pinot Noir Mount Richmond Single Vineyard Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $60)
Very unusual. Beets and caramel on the nose, with a touch of dark chocolate.
Blueberries and caramel on the palate, nice salinity, raspberries. Medium+ body. Excellent
8
Very ripe after 2 days been open (air pumped out). Beautiful palate, minerality-driven, cigar box, eucalyptus, tense, powerful. Can be mistaken for a Rioja of a nice caliber.

6 – 2014 Tendril Cellars C-Note Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $100, 100% Whole Cluster, 100% new oak)
Sublime. Can be described only via allegories, such a finesse. Dark chocolate and cherries. Excellent
Equally delicate on the palate, crisp acidity, bright, sweet plums, and tobacco. Outstanding.
8, excellent
Nose is incredible. First, you want to smell.this.wine.for.a.long.time.
Superb, elevated wine, complex, great finesse, and needs time. 8+

As you can tell, I failed miserably. I didn’t identify any of the wines – however, this was perfectly in line with my expectations. What was definitely interesting is that despite the four Pinot Noir wines been all from Oregon and at about the same age, they were absolutely, unquestionably, distinctly different – and strikingly delicious.

Of course, I extended the pleasure of tasting some of those wines over the few days, which is reflected in the tasting notes above.

 

Here you are, my friends. Blind tasting or not, the Tendril Cellars wines are worth seeking – the virtual tasting will simply not do it – these are the wines to experience. And if you need to choose only one, I can let you in on a secret (don’t tell anyone!) – the Extrovert was my favorite. Cheers!

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Tony Rynders of Tendril Cellars

May 11, 2018 5 comments

Wine and passion are indelible. Yes, wine is a business for the most parts, but making a bottle of wine which someone else is desiring to drink is a labor of love, and every such bottle has a bit of the winemaker’s soul invested in it (feel free to call me melodramatic). Thus I’m always happy to talk to the winemakers, trying to understand what moves them, what drives them to do what they do. A lot of my conversations are virtual, and you can find most of them on this blog.

Many of interviews are truly random in terms of profiling the wineries and winemakers. However, about 2 years ago, with a prompt and help of Carl Giavanti, I started a series of posts called Stories of Passion and Pinot, which are dedicated (so far, at least) to the winemakers in Oregon, producing Pinot Noir wines. Winemakers are always passionate about what they do and the grapes they use – but it seems to me that Pinot Noir, being a difficult grape it is, really asking for a special dedication to allow itself to be tamed – hence the name for the series.

My latest addition to the series is a conversation with Tony Rynders, the proprietor and winemaker at the Tendril Wine Cellars, a young winery in Willamette Valley in  Oregon (the winery officially started 10 years ago, in 2008). While the winery is young, Tony is an accomplished winemaker, who started making wine back in 1989, honed his craft at the wineries around the world, including 10 years as a head winemaker at Domaine Serene, one of the best-known wineries in Oregon.

When Tendril Cellars started, it owned no vineyards, which essentially gave Tony a flexibility to bring the best fruit from the Oregon vineyards he was already familiar with. To my surprise, Tendril Cellars only offers one single-vineyard bottling in their line of  5 different Pinot Noir wines – but you will find an explanation below. In 2013, Tendril Cellars planted a 19 acres Maverick vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton district with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – the vineyard already producing the fruit which is going into the Tendril Cellar’s second line of wines, Child’s Play (a creative name for the wine, don’t you think?).

Tony 5 Courses instruction 2

Tony Rynders leading five course tasting

Tony calls his approach to winemaking “low and slow” – letting the nature to do its work. He is also aging all of his Pinot Noir wines for 16-17 months, which I find particularly appealing. And then, how many winemakers do you know who run organized tastings for their customers? That is what Tony does, presenting his wines as a “5-course meal” and explaining the concept of terroir to the wine consumers (after tasting Tendril wines, Tony’s approach to the tasting makes perfect sense to me – but we will discuss it in the next post).

After learning a bit about Tony and Tendril Cellars, I decided that the time came to sit down (yes, virtually) with Tony and ask him a few questions. Here is what transpired.

[TaV]: You started making wine for others in 1989. Was there something which prompted you to start making your own wines in 2010, a pivotal moment, or you simply decided that it is time to make wines “my way”?

[TR]: I have had several opportunities making wine since I began in 1989.  Each one has contributed in some way to influence my approach to making wine.  I can tell you that I am a much different winemaker today than I was when I started.  I think it is critical that we continue to evolve and adapt as the climate, consumers, and wine preferences change.

In fact, I started my own brand, Tendril, in 2008.  I was just coming off a 10-year stint as head winemaker at Domaine Serene.  It was a highly formative period in my career as there was a massive shift toward new, estate vineyards during my tenure. The creative “heavy lifting” took place largely during my watch.  I accomplished everything I set out to and more.  It was time for my next big challenge…creating a portfolio of wines for my own brands from scratch.  And tell a story about Pinot Noir in a way that it had not yet been told.

[TaV]: You worked at the wineries around the world. Are there any winemakers you would consider your mentors, either directly or indirectly?

[TR]: There is one fact in winemaking that I completely embrace: There is no way to learn it all…I will never stop learning, growing and evolving.   Every winemaker I have worked with has mentored me, including but not limited to, Rollin Soles, Ken Wright, Co Dinn, Jean-Francois Pellet and David Forsyth.

[TaV]: Can you explain your “low and slow” approach to the winemaking?

[TR]: Just like the “slow food” movement, I use top quality ingredients (grapes) from attentive, engaged farmers (vineyards) with whom I have a very close relationship.  I have hand chosen each of our vineyards myself and each brings a distinctive flavor profile (like spices) in order to make our signature “five-course meal” of Pinot Noir.

For all the Tendril wines, I over-vintage the wines in barrel (at least 16 months) and then bottle age 12 months or more prior to release.  The wines are then at the front end of their drinkability curve, with the potential for a decade enjoyment ahead of them.

[TaV]: I find it interesting that in your range of Pinot Noir you have only one vineyard-designated bottling – I always think that designated vineyards and even specific plots are better identify with quality of the grapes and the resulting wines – obviously you don’t see it like that?

[TR]: While I love to make single vineyard wines, I find that not every site is able to produce balanced, compelling and complete wines every year.  And that, simply put, is my goal as a winemaker.  So this is how the unique story and line-up of wines for Tendril was born.  When I started Tendril, I knew that I wanted to do something different with my portfolio of wines.  And it took 6 years to complete the lineup (Extrovert 2008, TightRope 2009, Single Vineyard (Guadalupe) 2011, C-Note 2011, Pretender 2013).

The common model that exists for Pinot Noir is the single vineyard model.  Wineries make 5-15 (or more) single vineyard wines in a given vintage.  The problem is that not all of the sites deliver on their promise of distinctiveness every year.  The true test is a horizontal tasting in which all of the wines are evaluated blind.  In a given year, some wines are great, some under deliver and some taste quite similar in a given line-up.  This is not consistent with my goal.

So, I created my own, unique model for Pinot Noir.  Each of my wines is distinctive and complete.  Collectively, they show a progression of flavors that mirrors the progression of dishes in a five-course meal.  My wines gain in intensity, darker fruit character and structure as the “courses” progress.  And each of the wines must re-qualify for their place in the lineup each and every year.

I believe single vineyard wines should be special.  Since all wineries charge more money for them, I think they should be worth it.  So we typically do just one offering per year that is, simply put, the “wine of the cellar” from just one site.  As I had anticipated, it has proven to be rotational (4 vineyards in 7 vintages).  It is like a Christmas present in that you don’t know what it is until you open it.

Tendril Cellars Pinot Noir

[TaV]: Your C-Note Pinot Noir is designated as “whole cluster fermented” – is that a substantial differentiator to make it the “top of the line” wine, or is there something else behind it?

[TR]: Of the Pinot Noir line-up, the C-Note is the most stylized wine yet at the same time requires the greatest amount of restraint.  Whole cluster fermentation of Pinot Noir is a technique that I have only attempted since 2011.  The was the first year I made a wine using 100% whole cluster…and it was so successful that it became our first C-Note bottling.

For C-Note, we use 100% Pinot Noir, 100% Whole Cluster fermentation, and age in 100% new French Oak barrels (air dried 3 + years).  The restraint comes into play in order to reign in the “whole clustery-ness” and tame the oak impact to mimic a wine with half the new oak exposure.  We are extremely gentle with our cap management to control the whole cluster notes and we select the most subtle, elegant barrels coupled with long aging to integrate the oak flavors.  C-Note is all about complexity, texture and mind-blowing length.  I love making wines that surprise and beguile.

[TaV]: You are one of the very few winemakers who conduct organized tastings. Can you explain what you are trying to showcase with your 5-course Pinot Noir approach?

[TR]: Yes, I believe the best way to showcase these wines and share this unique experience is to do seated tastings.  Like a five-course meal, our tasting take time (typically an hour and a half or more).  But people leave here feeling that that have experienced something truly special…and that is pretty rare.  They are shocked that they enjoyed each and every wine they tasted.

I began working in restaurants at a young age.  I cooked for several years and really enjoyed it.  A few years after I started making wines, I realized that I was using the exact same skill set to make wine that I used to cook.  I am truly a “wine cook” and make wine with that sensibility.

I wanted to showcase a diverse range of flavor profiles that can be accomplished on an annual basis with Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley.  Each offering is distinctive, unique and impeccably balanced.  Collectively, they showcase perhaps the greatest range of flavors and textures of Pinot Noir under one brand.

[TaV]: To follow on the previous question, how receptive are your customers (typically) to what you are presenting in the tasting? Do they get your point? Do you offer people to taste the wines blind and to try to identify what they are tasting?

[TR]: The beautiful thing about the “five-course meal” context of our tasting is that EVERYBODY can relate to that experience.  People completely get it and they really get into it.  The wines show a progression of flavors just like a multi-course meal.  They also increase in intensity much like turning up the volume on a radio.

At this stage, the tastings are not blind and are tasted one at a time.  And I don’t have the ability to pair food at this time.  But we have done the “five-course meal” here at the winery a few times. It was a huge success.

[TaV]: Maybe an odd-ball question here – wine is an adult beverage, and nevertheless, you called your line of wines “Child’s Play” (I personally like it very much, especially the labels). Do you think wine consumers might find this controversial? Did anyone ever comment on this wine name?

[TR]: I am a huge fan of the “double entendre”.  Here it is actually triple.  1) My kids playing…my two daughters paintings are the original artwork for all the labels 2) We winemakers are big kids and we get to “play” with offering unique wines (the Pinot Chardonnay is the only still version of Chardonnay and white Pinot Noir in the country…to my knowledge), Zinfandel from WA (a unicorn wine), and a stylistically different Rose of Pinot Noir.  The Pinot Noir is just damn good. 3) Child’s Play implies it’s easy…so easy a kid could do it.  We are taking the pretension out of wine with the packaging and the wines inside.  Great value for money…as it should be.

My customers love it.  The only objection came from the Feds…and a simple paragraph explaining point 3) above got us our label approval.

[TaV]: This one is more of the pet peeve question for me. Your Tendril wines are enclosed with the corks (makes me very happy to see it). The Child’s Play line uses screwtops, so obviously the screwtop idea is not foreign to you. I know that some winemakers in Oregon swear by alternative closures (like Don Hagge at Vidon with the glass stopper), but I personally think that the wine needs a cork to age properly. What is your take on this subject?

[TR]: While I like the idea of cork, the execution of the closure has haunted me for my entire career.  Corks are highly variable in both their flavor impact on the wines as well as the oxygen permeability.  Each one is unique and has an unintended impact on my wine.  I believe natural corks are a huge problem and as such, I no longer use them.  But I do gladly use a cork product in my Tendril wines (looks like a duck and quacks like a duck) that provides consistency of density and very low aromatic impact.  I would be happy to talk to you about this topic some time.  I have researched it for years.

Screw caps are new to me, but I love them in the Child’s Play line to further differentiate the brand from Tendril.  I think the MSRP $30 price point avoids any potential push back on the choice of closure.

[TaV]: Sparkling wines are so popular nowadays, almost everyone is making them, and often with very good results. Considering your experience at Argyle, should we expect to see Tendril sparkling wine at some point in the future?

[TR]: Maybe…but I will wait until we have a great sparkling wine vintage (cool and slow ripening) to make that decision.  If you asked my wife (who is a sparkling junkie), the answer would be yes.

I would only do it if it could have the potential to be a truly special offering.

Maverick Vineyard

Maverick Vineyard

[TaV]: What is in the store for your new Maverick vineyard? How are you planning to farm it – sustainable, organic, biodynamic? Out of 19 acres, you have 10.5 allocated for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – what about the rest? Any plans to expand beyond Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – let’s say, Pinot Gris, Riesling, etc?

[TR]: At this time, Maverick is LIVE.  We plan to move towards organic over the next few years.  It is an incredibly well behaved site that is already producing strong personality wines.  I view this as a highly desirable trait for a young vineyard.  The Chardonnay for the Pinot Chardonnay (70% of the blend) is all Maverick.  This is the first bottled wine coming from Maverick.

No plans for other varietals at this time.  But the clonal mix for the Pinot Noir (943, Swan, Calera and Mt. Eden) is pretty unusual.

[TaV]: Oregon is clearly a leader in Pinot Noir, considered by many as simply the best in the world, and it is also getting to the same level of recognition with the Chardonnays. What is ahead for the Oregon wine industry? Is the future bright and sunny, or do you see any clouds on the horizon?

[TR]: To me, the only constant is change.  By that I mean that to continue to succeed as an industry, we need to be engaged (both locally and on a world stage), we need to be adaptive (as our climate continues to change, we are in for more and different challenges), and we need to be more concerned about the sustainability of our environment (both locally and throughout the world).

I believe we will have sun and clouds…and perhaps some rain.   Just the weather we always have in Oregon 😉

[TaV]: When you are not drinking Tendril wines, what are your favorites from the other producers and/or regions?

[TR]: Lately I have been enjoying Graham-Beck sparkling wine from South Africa.

Or give me a good single malt Scotch…

Here we are, my friends. I’m sure you are thirsty at this point, but we will talk about Tendril Cellars wines in the next post.

To be continued…

 

Discover Wines Of Loire Valley

April 23, 2018 5 comments

What do you think of the wines from the Loire Valley? Why, you say you are not sure? Come on, give yourself a credit – there is a good chance you had Loire Valley wines, but maybe you simply didn’t associate those wines with the Loire Valley? Let me help you – Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé (not to be confused with Pouilly-Fuissé), Muscadet, Vouvray, Touraine, Anjou, Saumur, Chinon – had any of the wines with these words on the label? Ah, of course, you are saying? Then now you know – those are all the wines from the Loire Valley in France.

Loire Valley appellations map. Source: http://www.loirevalleywinetour.com/

The Loire Valley is not the most famous winemaking region in France, but it deserves the utmost respect. Here are some facts for you. Number one region in France for production of the white wines. The largest producer of the sparkling wines in France outside of Champagne. Number two producer of Rosè wines in France after Provence. The largest in France vineyard declared UNESCO World Heritage site. 79 sub-appellations and denominations and more than 2,000 years of winemaking history. These numbers speak for themselves. And to round up the stats – five grapes (Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Melon de Bourgeois, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir) comprise most of the Loire wines, but a total of 24 grapes are used there.

A few weeks ago, I was happy to attend the “Spring To Loire” trade tasting in New York City, alongside the inimitable, one and only JvB Uncorked – we definitely had lots of fun tasting through the Loire wines together. It was also literally the first tasting this year which I managed to attend, so “happy” is the right word. Besides, I love Loire wines, with Chinon and Saumur been personal pet peeves, as producers of delicious Cabernet Franc.

The tasting was unquestionably interesting. First, it had a couple of curious moments. There was a seminar which offered an excellent introduction to the region, tasting all major styles and varieties. Two of the reds in the tasting were rather green and aggressive. At the end of the tasting, I asked a lady sitting next to me how did she liked the wines, and she told me that she didn’t like the red wines individually, but she mixed them (!?!?) and they became more palatable – truly a wow moment in the professional tasting. And then it was another lady who (accidentally or not) dumped what seemed like a whole bottle of perfume on herself – trying to smell nuances of the wine standing next to her was beyond mission impossible. Some memorable moments…

Okay, let’s talk about the wines. I have a few favorites which I will be happy to mention, but first, let me give you my broad stroke impressions.

  1. Sancerre had a much lesser amount of fresh cut grass than I was expecting. Okay, I’m not an expert on Sancerre evolution, as I rarely drink them. However, based on what I remember from my education and some of the previous experiences, classic Sancerre is supposed to have pronounced grass and cat pee notes – didn’t find much of the Sancerre like that. Touraine Sauvignons, on another hand, were delicious across the board with an abundance of the freshly cut grass.
  2. Many of the Muscadet-Sèvre-et-Maine wines were lacking the characteristic acidity. When going for Muscadet, I’m expecting acidity which will plucker my mouth and make the cheeks to go meet each other. Many Muscadet in the tasting were nice white wines, but they were lacking their prized quality.
  3. The Chenin Blanc was a star. We had a number of delicious Vouvray and not only wines, which offered bright acidity, sometimes a touch of sweetness, a round mouthfeel – all which you would expect from a nicely done old world Chenin.
  4. Many of the Chinon and Saumur Reds were too tannic. This was a total surprise – the wines were fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks, nevertheless, the mouth was drying up almost as much as if you would be tasting the young Barolo. I was told that the whole cluster fermentation and aging was a culprit, but this was not a pleasant surprise. I really expect much more elegant and approachable wines to come from those regions. Nevertheless, we managed to find a few of the superb reds.

Done with my general impressions – here are some limited notes on my favorite wines.

Sparkling:

Crémant de Loire:
NV Maurice Bonnamy Crémant de Loire Brut (SRP: $16.99, 65% Chenin Blanc, 20% Chardonnay, 15% Cabernet Franc) – nice, refreshing, yeasty
NV Maurice Bonnamy Crémant de Loire Rosé (SRP: $16.99, 100% Cabernet Franc) – toasted bread and strawberries, nice, refreshing, great mouthfeel
NV Ackerman Crémant de Loire Brut (70% Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc for the rest) – this wine was presented in the seminar, so I had a bit more time to spend with it – great nose, toasted bread, fresh, a touch on a sweeter side but still very nice

White:

Melon de Bourgogne:
2017 Sauvion Muscadet-Sèvre-et-Maine AOC (SRP $13.99) – crisp, fresh, great acidity
2014 Château de la Cormerais Monnieres-Saint Fiacre Muscadet Sèvre et Maine (SRP $19.99) – outstanding. fresh, clean
2012 Domaine de Colombier-Mouzillon-Tillières Muscadet Sèvre et Maine (SRP $19.99) – great complexity

Sauvignon Blanc:
2016 Domaine Pascal Jolivet Les Caillottes Sancerre AOC (SRP: $38) – steely acidity, crisp, a touch of grass.
2015 Domaine Pascal Jolivet Sauvage Sancerre AOC (SRP: $73) – this wine was just ok. The only reason to include it – this was probably the most expensive wine in the tasting, and it really didn’t deliver.
2016 Domaine Michel Vatan Calcaire Sancerre AOC – presented at the seminar – on the nose, minerality, lemon, distant touch of the grass, crisp, fresh. Excellent acidity on the palate, very nice overall.
2017 Raphael Midoir De Silex et Tuffeau Touraine AOC (SRP $14.99) – outstanding. Classic nose, delicious.
2016 Pierre Prieuré & Fils Domaine de Saint-Pierre Sancerre AOC (SRP $19.99) – excellent, fresh
2016 Raphael Midoir La Plaine des Cailloux Touraine-Oisly AOC (SRP $19.99) – outstanding, great complexity.

Chenin Blanc:
2016 Château de la Mulonnière M De Mulonnière Anjou – presented at the seminar – delicious. White stone fruit, peaches on the nose. A touch of sweetness and perfect balance on the palate. Outstanding.
2017 La Croix des Loges Anjou White AOC (SRP $14.99) – outstanding. Clean, fresh, touch of sweetness.
2014 La Croix des Loges Trois Failles Anjou AOC (SRP $22.99) – outstanding, gunflint on the nose, clean, balanced palate.
1977 La Croix des Loges Bonnezeaux AOC – yes, 1977, this is not a typo – this was an off the list, off the charts treat – a Chenin Blanc dessert wine, still elegant and complex.

Other:
2017 Domaine du Colombier Vla de Loire IGP ($14.99, 100% Sauvignon Gris) – excellent, fresh, complex.

Reds:

Cabernet Franc:
2015 Domaines des Varinelles Saumur-Champigny AOC (SRP: $20) – amazing similarity with Lodi wines on the palate – soft, aromatic, touch of cinnamon, ripe blueberries and raspberries, hint of blueberry compote. The similarity with Lodi is mind-boggling. Let’s not forget that this is Cabernet Franc wine, so there must be something there which can explain it. Need to dig deeper into this, I’m really curious.
2015 Domaines des Varinelles Laurintale Saumur-Champigny AOC (SRP: $24) – muted nose, and practically identical on the palate to the previous wine from the same domain. I will look into it… But two superb wines by all means – the wine are coming from the old world, but clearly, are screaming “new world”.
2017 Domaine du Raifault Chinon AOC (SRP: $17.95) – wow! Cassis on the nose, cassis on the palate – spectacular. This was my best of tasting red wine. This wine is not available in the US yes (we tasted one of only two bottles brought in for tasting) – in the process of being imported. Once it arrives, do yourself a favor – go find it and buy a case, or two. You can thank me later.
2016 Sauvion Chinon AOC (SRP: $17.99) – interesting dense nose, great palate, sandalwood, smoke, fresh, present. Tannins are still aggressive, but not as much as others.

Pinot Noir:
2014 Xavier Flouret Domaine de Chatenoy Menetou-Salon AOC (SRP: $20.95) – great Pinot Noir – excellent fresh nose, great balance of dark fruit on the palate, outstanding. 15 generations of vignerons know what they are doing. Definitely one of the highlights of the tasting.
2015 Domaine Gérard Millet Sancerre Red (SRP: $25) – fresh, crisp, herbs, spices, light.

Blends:
2014 Domaine de la Chaise Touraine-Chenonceaux AOC ($22, 70% Cabernet Franc, 30% Côt) – fresh, delicious, cassis and tobacco, excellent balance

The Spring is finally here (or at least it seems so in New York), so go on, find some Loire wines to explore on your own. Cheers!

Daily Glass: Textbook Precision

March 19, 2018 4 comments

Once you fully embrace the wine world, one of the important lessons you learn is rather simple – “there are no guarantees”. The bottle of wine can perfectly say “Cabernet Sauvignon” – there are absolutely no guarantees that Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington, California, and Chile will have any smell and taste similarities, never mind Cabernet Sauvignon from China, Czech Republic, and Moldova. And this is okay, we can all accept it – at the end of the day, the only thing which matter is whether we like the wine or not.

Despite all the differences, when it comes to the major grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and so on, we usually know how the “classic” wine should taste like – especially if we take any formal wine education or make enough effort to study the wine, pay attention to what we drink and make it a lesson to learn. Yes, there might be a bit of our perception in it too, but still, we usually have that “classic profile ” idea in the mind.

What prompted this post was a lucky happenstance, an encounter with two classic, textbook wine profiles for two nights in the row.

First, there was Pinot Noir. When it comes to Pinot Noir, there are probably four classic profiles – Burgundy (of course!), with lots of dark fruit power and a little bit of funk (especially with age, but drinking young Burgundy is almost like killing a baby, right?). Then you have New Zealand, which usually can be identified by the pronounced acidity. Oregon Pinot Noir often screams minerality, mocha and dark chocolate. And then you got California, with luscious smokey plums and silky, seductive texture.

So the wine I had a pleasure of experiencing was a textbook, unmistakable California Pinot Noir – 2015 Field Recordings Derbyshire Vineyard Pinot Noir San Luis Obispo County (13.1% ABV, $28, 20% whole cluster fermentation, foot tread in open top bins, 12 month in French oak) – smokey plums on the nose, bright cherries and plums profile on the palate with a perfect balance of acidity, velvety layers – tremendous amount of pleasure in every sip. Drinking this wine evokes comparisons with other California classics such as Siduri. It doesn’t reach the ultra-luxurious texture of Sandhi, but if you have any experience with classic California Pinot, one sip of this wine will perfectly put you in the right place.

Now, talking about classics, let’s talk about the grape which is not a relative of Pinot Noir, but more often than not, a closest friend and neighbor – Chardonnay. What is interesting about Chardonnay, in my opinion, is that good Chardonnay is a lot more cosmopolitan than a Pinot Noir. With the exception of Chablis, which often can be recognized by the gunflint on the nose, the classic Chardonnay profile includes vanilla, apples and a touch of butter. You can often differentiate Burgundy from California by the amount of butter (California usually offers lots more) and acidity (that’s what you will get with the young Burgundy), but still, Chardonnays from Australia, Burgundy, Chablis, and California have quite a bit of similarity.

Oregon, which is definitely an established world leader when it comes to Pinot Noir, lately also started to show its Chardonnay provenance. Two years ago, I was blown away by the perfection of Vidon Chardonnay. This time around, the 2016 Knudsen Vineyards Chardonnay Dundee Hills (13.5% ABV, $45) made me say “wow” many, many times. Perfect nose of vanilla and golden delicious apples with a distant hint of butter and even honey (honey is usually showing up in Chardonnay after some aging) was supported by the same profile on the palate – vanilla, apples, butter – all perfectly mended together in cohesive, sublime package resting on the vibrant core of acidity. This was definitely a textbook Chardonnay for me, and the one which I would love to see aged, at least for another 5-7 years.

Here you go, my friends – a textbook experience with two classic grapes. What are your textbook wine experiences? Cheers!

 

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Knudsen Vineyards

November 6, 2017 12 comments

It takes courage to be a pioneer. It takes vision, belief, perseverance and lots and lots of hard work to convert the dream into reality – but this is how many great wine stories start.

Nobody questions “World Class” status of Oregon wines today.  But back in 1971, this was really not the story. One had to see the potential and believe that Oregon is meant to produce the world-class wines. Cal and Julia Lee Knudsen did when they purchased the remnants of the walnut orchard in 1971 and established Knudsen Vineyards. The whole family – Cal, Julia Lee and four of their children worked hard to clean up the land and plant the vines. In 1972, they established a 30 acres vineyard, which was the largest in the  Willamette Valley. By 1976, they had 60 acres planted, which made them the biggest in Oregon (as a matter of fact, Knudsen Vineyards still have some of the 1974 vines which produce fruit). Today, Knudsen Vineyards plantings span 130 acres, which is certainly one of the largest in the state where the typical vineyard size is 35 acres. And in 1975, in partnership with Oregon winemaking legend, Dick Erath, Knudsen Erath Winery became first commercial winery in the Dundee Hills appellation.

In 1987, the Australian Brian Croser met Cal, and the new chapter started for Knudsen Vineyards. Cal always had a dream of making sparkling wines, and the Knudsen Vineyards entered into the new partnership, now with the Oregon sparkling wine pioneer, Argyle Winery. Today, many of the Oregon wineries are starting to add Chardonnay to their repertoire – Knudsen Vineyards was growing Chardonnay for the very long time, and Chardonnay is essential for a good sparkling wine. As a matter of fact, Julia Lee’s Block, which you can see designated on one of the top Argyle’s sparkling wines, contains the oldest in the new world plantings of French Chardonnay Dijon clones 76 and 96. Also, while you will not see it widely advertised, Knudsen Vineyards grows 3 acres of Pinot Meunier, used only for the production of Argyle sparklers.

Knudsen Vineyards, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Knudsen Vineyards, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Ever since Knudsen Vineyards started working with Argyle, all of their fruit was going into Argyle sparkling wines. Five years ago, the four siblings who run the vineyard now, decided to start producing the wine under their own label, which resulted in the 2012 release of Knudsen Vineyards Pinot Noir. The first release of Chardonnay was added a year after, in 2013. This year, Knudsen Vineyards added the new premium bottling – 2015 Pinot Noir Reserve. All of the wines are produced with the help of the winemaking team at Argyle, which vinifies the juice from the different blocks of the Knudsen Vineyards – but the family gets together to decide on the final blend of the wines they later release.

If you followed any of the Passion and Pinot stories, you probably expect that I will have an interview for you – and you are right. Only this time around, it is slightly different – in addition to the virtual part, I also had an opportunity to sit down face to face with Page Knudsen Cowles, managing partner at Knudsen Vineyards, and extend our virtual conversation with the personal one. I learned lots of interesting things which are really impossible to get to in the format of the virtual interview.

For instance, have you ever heard of the “Suitcase clones“? I certainly never had. It appears that it is a common name for the vine cuttings which are smuggled into the country in the suitcases. For the Knudsen family, the “suitcase” was not exactly a choice tool for vine transportation – the ski bag was the one, as every family skiing vacation in Europe saw new cuttings finding its way home.

At some point, Cal started experimenting with the effects of the birds’ chirping on the vines. The birds’ sounds were played between the rows of the vines. The unfortunate part is that the results of this experiment are not known. But when birds became a problem in the vineyards in 2010/2011, the sound of distressed robin came to the rescue – it was played throughout the night and helped to shoo the birds away – however, made the stay at the small cottage the family has right in the vineyard very problematic.

Knudsen Second Generation

Knudsen Second Generation: Page, Colin, Cal Jr, David

Okay, let’s move on. Let me share with you our [now virtual] conversation with Page Knudsen Cowles. Get a glass of wine in hand, and here you go:

[TaV]: The first vines were planted at Knudsen Vineyards in 1971. Are there any of the original vines still around, and if yes, are they still producing fruit?

[PKC]: The oldest currently-producing vines were planted in 1974. They are Pinot Noir vines that produce fruit for sparkling wine.

[TaV]: I understand that back in 1971, Cal and Julia Lee purchased a 200-acre former walnut tree orchard – are there any of those trees still around and producing [commercially}? Was/is Knudsen family ever in walnut business?

[PKC]: No, the Knudsen family was never in the walnut business. The walnut tree orchard was destroyed in the 1962 Columbus Day storm that wrecked havoc through the Willamette Valley at that time.

[TaV]: The first Knudsen wines under Knudsen Erath label were produced in 1975. Are any of those wines still around? Have you ever tasted wines from that inaugural vintage?

[PKC]: I have not had the pleasure of tasting that very first vintage. I have found in the secondary market a stash of Knudsen Erath Winery 1983 Vintage Select Pinot Noir and some bottles of the Knudsen Erath Winery 1985 Vintage Select Pinot noir. Both wines have held up remarkably well and are fun to drink and share with wine aficionados who appreciate the provenance and age of the wine.

[TaV]: Continuing the previous question, what are the oldest vintages which can be found at the Knudsen Vineyards library? What are the oldest Knudsen wines you ever tasted?

[PKC]: The oldest vintages we have in the Knudsen Vineyards library are:

  • 1979 Knudsen Erath Winery Merlot
  • 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987 Knudsen Erath Winery Pinot Noir

The oldest wines I have ever tasted are the 1983 and 1985 Knudsen Erath Winery Vintage Select Pinot Noirs.

[TaV]: Today Knudsen Vineyards has about 130 acres under the vines. What grape varietals do you grow today?

[PKC]: We grow 73% Pinot Noir including a variety of French Dijon Clones 667, 777, 115, and 4407, plus the heritage clone Pommard; 24% Chardonnay including the French Dijon clones 76, 95 and 96; and 3% Pinot Meunier.

[TaV]: Knudsen Vineyards just started producing the wines under its own label, and it is not surprising that the first two wines are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Moving forward, do you have any plans to start producing any other wines, such as Pinot Gris or Riesling?

[PKC]: No, we do not have plans to produce either of these varietals.

[TaV]: Within the 130 acres of vineyards, you probably identified some of the plots which perform better or, at least, different than the others. Do you plan to produce “single-plot” wines?

[PKC]: Our current planning does not include production of “single plot” wines. We have favorite estate grown blocks that we like to blend when we produce our wines.

Aerial View over Knudsen Vineyard, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Aerial View over Knudsen Vineyard, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon

[TaV]: Knudsen Vineyards have a strong connection to the production of the sparkling wines through the partnership with Argyle Winery. Nevertheless, do you have any plans to produce sparkling wines under the Knudsen Vineyards label?

[PKC]: Our father, Cal Knudsen, had a love affair with sparkling wines from around the world, though he was most attached to those from the region of Champagne and Oregon sparkling wine. He allied Knudsen Vineyards with Argyle in order to make sparkling wine. Knudsen Vineyards would love to produce a small amount of sparkling wine in the future in honor of our father’s love for that expression of the fruit from our vineyard.

[TaV]: When making wines, do you rely on natural yeast, or do you work with some specific strains of yeast?

[PKC]: I reached out to our winemaker, Nate Klostermann, of Argyle Winery, for the answer to this one. We grow several selected yeast cultures and then inoculate with the one that seems best suited to the vintage.

[TaV]: What kind of oak regimen do you use in the production of your Chardonnay and Pinot Noir?

[PKC]: All of our oak comes from French barrels. Our inaugural 2013 Chardonnay has 35% new oak and was aged over 13 months in barrel; our 2014 Chardonnay had 25% new oak and was aged over 10 months in neutral and new oak barrel; and our 2015 Chardonnay has 27% oak over 10 months in barrel.

For the Pinot Noir, our oak usage is as follows:

Knudsen Vineyards 2014 Pinot Noir 25% new oak barrels; remainder aged in 2 – 4 year old previously used oak barrels; aged for 15 months in barrel, nine months in bottle Knudsen Vineyards 2015 Pinot Noir 20% new oak barrels; remainder aged in 2 – 4 year old previously used oak barrels; aged for 16 months in barrel, nine months in bottle Knudsen Vineyards 2015 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir 35% new oak barrels; remainder aged in 2 – 4 year old previously used oak barrels; aged for 16 months in barrel, nine months in bottle

[TaV]: What is the total production of your Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (how many bottles)? Do you plan to increase the production in the near future or you are happy with the current production?

[PKC]: Currently, we produce between 1,000 and 1,200 cases of our Pinot Noir and Chardonnay combined (between 12,000 and 14,400 bottles). The mix is approximately 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. We are content at this level of production for a couple of years. In the future, we hope to expand.

[TaV]: Is there a “next big grape” for Knudsen Vineyards?

[PKC]: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are what we intend to grow into the foreseeable future.

[TaV]: What about Willamette valley in general – is it going to stay a Pinot Noir land for the foreseeable future, or would there be a “next big grape”, white or red, for the Willamette Valley?

[PKC]: I believe the North Willamette Valley will stay devoted to Pinot Noir and will increase its production of Chardonnay.

[TaV]: Do you have a dream wine – the wine you always wanted to try, but never have?

[PKC]: I would like to try a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from Burgundy and a bottle of any of the Bordeaux First Growth red wines: Château LatourChâteau Lafite RothschildChâteau Margaux and Château Haut-Brion. I also would love to try a bottle of Opus One from California.

Knudsen Vineyards wines

Now for sure it is time to drink the wine. I had an opportunity to try Knudsen Vineyards wines, here are the notes:

2015 Knudsen Vineyards Chardonnay Dundee Hills Willamette Valley (14% ABV, $45)
C: light golden
N: vanilla, touch of toasted oak, medium intensity
P: fresh, crisp, slightly underripe Granny Smith apples, touch of minerality, distant hint of butter and vanilla, quite an acidic finish
V: 8/8+, not bad, but needs time to evolve. Opens in the glass quite elegantly. Second day was outstanding – nice buttery note while fridge cold, and more vanilla-driven as the wine warmed up

2015 Knudsen Vineyards Pinot Noir Dundee Hills Willamette Valley (141% ABV, $55)
C: light bright ruby
N: tart cherries, lavender, hint of smoke
P: cherries, round, good acidity, touch of mushrooms, fresh, Burgundian style
V: 8-, very nice

2015 Knudsen Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve Dundee Hills Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $70)
C: dark ruby
N: smoke, mushrooms and forest floor aromatics
P: cherries, good acidity, layers, smooth, lavender-driven on the second day
V: 8/8+, very polished, elegant, will evolve with time.

Thus we conclude another story of Passion and Pinot (and a little bit of Chardonnay). Wine is a family affair, and Knudsen Vineyards shows it very well. Now the third generation of Knudsens is entering the business, and I’m sure there are lots we should expect to see from the Knudsen Vineyards in the future. Cheers!

One on One With Winemaker: Phil Rose of Wairau River, New Zealand

July 15, 2017 2 comments

It just happened to be that once again, we will be talking about New Zealand wines. Once again, we are going to visit Marlborough. And once again, we are going to meet with a pioneer.

Wairau River Vineyards

Source: Wairau River

Wairau River Wines‘ story started in 1978 when Phil and Chris Rose became grape growers (Phil was a farmer since the childhood, so the transition was not that dramatic). In 1991, they also became winemakers, producing their first wine. Today, Wairau River vineyards span 550 acres, making it one of the biggest family owned wineries in New Zealand. And it is all truly in the family, as Phil and Chris’ two sons and three daughters are all working at the winery.

Wairau River Wines produces two lines of wines. The Estate collection includes all of the usual suspects, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Chardonnay, but you can also find some oddballs there, such as Albariño. The Reserve line also includes Syrah and Viognier, as well as late harvest botrytized Riesling.

I had an opportunity to sit down with Phil Rose (albeit, virtually), and inundate him with questions – here is what transpired.

[TaV]: You started growing grapes in 1978. Was there a pivotal moment which got you into the grape growing? Were grapes a long-time passion before you started, or was there an event which brought you into the world of the wine?

[WR]: The oil shock in the 1970’s meant we looked for an alternative away from the farming of beef and sheep plus the growing of Lucerne and other crops. However due to a rural council district scheme rule, grape growing was prohibited on land north of old Renwick road. 
We were required to apply for permission to establish a vineyard, which we did but the application received 56 objections and not one single vote of support. There were a number of reasons for the objections. Forestry owners were concerned they would no longer be able to use sprays like 2.4.5.t because of its impact if grapes were nearby. Local farmers were also concerned their normal farming methods would be threatened. There was also the moral opposition such that no one should be able to grow a product that could be turned in to alcohol. 
Unfortunately the council denied our application, so we appealed. But things moved even slower back then than they do now – and it took 18 months for the independent tribunal to take place. 18 months where we worked hard to try and convince the powers that be and our own neighbors that grape growing in the Rapaura area of Marlborough had huge merits. 
Finally in 1978 we got a unanimous decision from the tribunal which gave us the permission we needed to become contract grape growers. As a result, the council had to change the district plan and open the Rapaura area up to grape growing.

[TaV]: Can Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc age? What was the oldest Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc you ever tried? What is the oldest Sauvignon Blanc you have in your cellars?

[WR]: Of course the wine will age well although the wine takes on different characters with age as do all wines. Most sauvignon blanc now though is consumed in its youth as its fresh, crisp and lively style that have become hallmarks of our success. 1991 was our first vintage and we still have a few bottles of that in the cellar.

[TaV]: Did you ever experiment with cork versus Stelvin closures? Obviously, all your wines use the screw tops, but I wonder if you ever tried to create a control batch with the conventional corks and see how the wines would compare.

[WR]: We bottled our first wine in screwcaps in 2002. Prior to that we were 100% cork but never really happy with the closure. We felt that cork was tainting, oxidising and affecting the delicate aromas of sauvignon blanc in particular. 
Wairau River was part of the New Zealand screwcap initiative that was formed in 2001 and we did many trials in the early days – all of them showing that wine under screwcap was far better in terms of consistency and quality than corks. 
Today we are 100% screwcap for all of our wines.

[TaV]: It seems that Wairau River is truly a family operation top to bottom. Do you ever have any work conflicts? If yes, how do you resolve them?

[WR]: Yes we now have the whole family and some their partners involved in running the business across vineyards, winery, cellar door and restaurant. It is not often there are any issues but having a voice and opinion is important and so we all listen and work through this and will always achieve a result that works for everyone. We also have a board of directors which meets regularly which helps with accountability and offers independent advice.

[TaV]: The question I always like to ask: what was the worst vintage you remember at Wairau River and why? 

[WR]: I think 1995 will long be remembered as the toughest vintage we have had. It rained and rained

[TaV]: And the second question I always like to ask: what were your most favorite vintage years and why? 

[WR]: Actually there are many years we look back and think that was one of the best vintages however we never like to look backwards for too long. We are always striving to improve our wines each year so lately it seems every year we are getting better results across all varieties.

[TaV]: How would you differentiate Sauvignon Blanc from Wairau Valley and Awatere Valley? Are the pronounced differences there? Do you think Marlborough needs further subdivision?

[WR]: There are quite big differences between the 2 valleys in terms of flavor profiles however strategically the Rose family have chosen to focus in the Wairau Valley and then within that a tight area surrounding our home vineyard and winery. 
Further sub regions like Rapaura or Dillons Point will develop with time however Marlborough as an overall region will still be the key to our success and the protection of that is paramount.

Wairau River Wines

[TaV]: It seems that your wine portfolio is very diverse and includes a wide variety of grapes as well as styles (white, rosé, red, dessert) – the only notable absence nowadays is Sparkling wine – do you plan to fix it?
[WR]: haha – always a good topic of conversation…..we are happy with what we are doing at the moment, however we have a rule of never saying no to anything so who knows what the future will bring – perhaps the next generations may want to make sparkling wine.

[TaV]: Sauvignon Blanc and then Pinot Noir squarely put New Zealand on the world wine map. Is there a next big white and/or red grape for the New Zealand?

[WR]: We consider Pinot Gris to be the next big thing especially from Marlborough. It has a certain style that resonates well with wide variety of cuisines and will help those drinkers that are looking for NZ wine and want to try an alternative to our Sauvignon Blanc.
In the reds perhaps the wines from Hawkes Bay may make a statement but this will also be limited by smaller production.

[TaV]: Outside of New Zealand and your own wines, do you have any other favorite producers or regions for Sauvignon Blanc?

[WR]: We are lucky enough to travel the world selling wines and meeting customers so we are exposed to a number of different wine areas and styles.
In all honesty I think we produce a world class Sauvignon Blanc that is hard to beat however I do quite enjoy wines from Sancerre in particular Domaine Vacheron.

[TaV]: Same question as before, but only for the Pinot Noir – any favorites outside of New  Zealand?
[WR]: Of course, we enjoy Jim Clendenen wines at Au Bon Climat.

[TaV]: What are your next big plans at Wairau River? Any exciting projects you have started or about to start? 

[WR]: We are comfortable with where we are at in terms of our vineyard ownership and winery capabilities – our challenge is to grow sales and return better margins in all markets as we have wines that are in high demand but with limited availability. 
Gaining recognition for our other varieties such as Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir will be a key focus. Ros sales have become very hot lately so this will also be a focus going forward.

[TaV]: Last question: as you run winery as a family, I’m sure you had some funny moments in your daily wine business. Anything you care to share?

[WR]: We work extremely hard throughout the year and don’t often come together as a whole family outside of the work environment. Although I can’t pick one particular moment we have a lot of fun with the family when we gather to celebrate Christmas in the Marlborough sounds with our 5 children, their partners and 12 grandchildren there is always something happening that creates some funny occasions and a great laugh.

I’m sure you are thirsty by now, so let’s taste some wine, shall we? Here are the notes for a few Wairau River wines I had an opportunity to taste:

2016 Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough New Zealand (13% ABV)
C: white pearl, pale
N: intense, currant, touch of grass, bright, fresh
P: herbaceous, nicely restrained, fresh, bright, touch of grapefruit on the finish.
V: 7+/8-, an excellent example of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

2015 Wairau River Pinot Gris Marlborough New Zealand (13.5% ABV)
C: light golden
N: medium intensity, minerality, limerock
P: white stone fruit, nice minerality, salinity, crisp, refreshing
V: 7+

2015 Wairau River Pinot Noir Marlborough New Zealand (13% ABV)
C: bright ruby
N: freshly crushed berries, cherry, plums
P: cherries, fresh fruit, plums, touch of smoke, medium body
V: 7+, nice, traditional Marlborough Pinot Noir

Passion and perseverance rule in the wine world – we all know that, but it is always fun to listen to the stories. Pour yourself another glass – you deserve it. Cheers!

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Looking Back and Looking Forward

February 15, 2017 6 comments

Back during the fall of the last year, I ran a series of posts talking about passion and Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is a finicky grape which, I can only guess, has some enchanting properties – for the winemakers and wine lovers alike. Pinot Noir has an ability to grab you and never let you go – once discovered, it becomes an object of obsessive desire: winemakers go out of their way to make the best Pinot Noir wine, and oenophiles go out of their way to find it.

To give you the best examples of Pinot Noir’s passion and obsession, I decided to [virtually] sat down with a pioneer, a rocket scientist, a soil fanatic, biodynamic believer and some true farmers – all of them from Oregon. Through our conversations, I wanted to convey the unwavering belief in the magic of that little black grape, Pinot Noir.

We talked with Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars, David Nemarnik of Alloro Vineyard, Mike Bayliss of Ghost Hill Cellars, Wayne Bailey of Youngberg Hill Vineyards, Steve Lutz of Lenné Estate and Don Hagge of Vidon Vineyard – the passion was easy to see, through their words and through their wines.

The essential Pinot Noir map includes four major players – Burgundy, California, New Zealand and Oregon. Out of these four, Oregon usually beats Burgundy in consistency, and often California and New Zealand in finesse. That consistency and finesse don’t go unnoticed – and not only by wine consumers but by the big domestic and international wine businesses and investors as well. Big businesses are great, but – they are, first and foremost, big businesses – and passion is often replaced just by pragmatic business needs and shareholders value.

The wine quality and creativity is on the upswing around the world, and while consumers are driving this trend with an ever increasing thirst for the wine, nothing can be taken for granted – the wines have to find the consumers, and convince them that they are worth paying for.

The big business interest and more and better wines – what does it mean for the Oregon wine industry, the passion and the Pinot Noir? To answer this question, I asked once again for the help of Carl Giavanti of Carl Giavanti Consulting, wine marketing and PR firm, who reached out to the Willamette Valley Wineries Association. As you can imagine, I had more than one question, so here I would like to share with you what I have learned.

Passion and Pinot series photo collage

First three questions were answered by Anthony King, 2017 President of WVWA Board of Directors and General Manager of the Carlton Winemaker’s Studio:

[TaV]: Willamette Valley squarely joined the ranks of world-class wine regions. Does it mean that everything is great, or you still have big issues to solve on your agenda?

[AK]: Willamette Valley is certainly on the rise and we are all thankful for the attention. Our biggest issue is to continue to share the spotlight with the other classic regions of the world without losing our roots, our authenticity, and collaborative spirit.

[TaV]: It seems that lately big corporations are paying lots of attention for the WV wineries – or rather money, as for example, Jackson Family which acquired 3 WV wineries over a short period of time. Are you concerned with this development? Do you think it might change the soul and spirit of WV wines?

[AK]: Most of us are flattered by the attention that our wines, vineyards, and wineries have been getting from producers all over the world. JFW, in specific, has invested heavily, but have done so with a soft touch and an eye towards the community and their neighbours. In the end, the region will have diversity that consumers will ultimately benefit by. Our hope, however, is that this interest doesn’t drive vineyard and fruit prices into a range that makes the hands-on artisan winemaking that has made Oregon so special too expensive for entry.

[TaV]: There are many white grapes which can be called “next frontier” for the WV wineries – Pinot Gris (yes, okay, this is an old news), Chardonnay, even Riesling. However, if we look at the red grapes, WV wineries are a “one trick pony”, only working with Pinot Noir. Do you see any problems with that? is there a next big red grape for the WV, or is it not necessary?

[AK]: Great question. I don’t think that any of us, as winemakers, regret that we are working with Pinot noir in such an ideal locale. It presents a lifetime of challenges and, hopefully, rewards. Although much more rare, Gamay can be thrilling and has been successful planted alongside Pinot noir. Syrah, too, has a lot of potential, making compelling, Northern Rhone style reds in warmer years. Cooler-climate Italian reds could have potential as well. We’ve already seen an increase in planting of these “other reds,” but the more dramatic shift is (as you mentioned) towards focusing on whites and sparkling wine, which are very well suited to this climate. Ultimately, I foresee increased experimentation with a range of red varieties in the warmer sites in the Willamette Valley in the short-term; time and the weather will tell what succeeds.

The rest of the questions were answered by Emily Nelson, Associate Director for Willamette Valley Wineries Association.

[TaV]: What percentage of WV wineries are LIVE certified? Do you see this number dropping, increasing, staying the same?

[EN]: In 2016, there are 13,170 Oregon vineyard acres certified sustainable, which is 48% of total planted acres in the state. 8,218 acres are LIVE Certified, which is 30% of total planted acres. We do see the number of certified sustainable vineyard acres increasing year after year. As the home of the nation’s most protective land use policies, the first bottle recycling law, and the highest minimum wages for farm workers, it’s fitting that the Oregon wine industry is committed to sustainable farming and winemaking practices.
For LIVE Certified acres in particular, the number has increased annually from 2,368 acres in 2007 to 8,218 acres today.

[TaV]:  How important is Biodynamic viticulture for the WV wine industry? Do you see more wineries embracing it?

[EN]: Biodynamic viticulture in Oregon has also steadily increased over the years, from 289 certified acres in 2007 to 1,585 certified acres today. It is an important component of our sustainable character in the region, reinforcing our belief that agriculture in general and viticulture in particular can flourish in harmony with our natural environment. In general, Demeter Biodynamic certification is in accord with many practices that characterize the certification of organic farms. However, certain practices are unique to Biodynamic agriculture, including managing the whole farm as a living organism; maintenance of a healthy, diverse ecosystem that includes not only the earth, but as well the cosmic influences and rhythms of which the earth is a part; and use of the Biodynamic preparations to build soil health through enlivened compost.

[TaV]: Are there any new wineries showing up in the WV? If yes, is there a trend there (more than the last 5/10 years, less than the last 5/10 years, the same?

[EN]: Yes! Our number of wineries in the region has climbed over the last five to ten years. We had about 110 wineries in the Willamette Valley in the year 2000. By 2010 that had more than doubled to 300 wineries. And now in 2016 our most recent census shows 531 wineries in the region. People are drawn to grape growing and winemaking here for many of the same reasons that brought our pioneers in the 1960s—unique climate and soils ideally suited to Pinot noir and a wine industry culture that celebrates collaboration, inventiveness, and land stewardship.

[TaV]: Do you see a lot of foreign capital coming into the WV winemaking industry (buying, partnering, starting new wineries)? Again, is there a trend?

[EN]: There is a trend of outside investment in the Willamette Valley wine industry, and it speaks to the quality of the wines being produced here. We see Burgundian investors who’ve found the New World home of Pinot noir, as well as those from Washington and California who are expanding their premium Pinot noir brands with Willamette Valley wines.

[TaV]: Last question – are there any new and coming, or may be old but coming around wineries wine lovers should watch for? Anything which makes you particularly excited?

[EN]: We’re particularly excited about a few things here: first, many of our pioneering wineries are handing the reigns down to second generation winegrowers and owners. The children who grew up in the vineyards and cellars of the wineries who put our region on the map are now at the helm. They continue to innovate and improve, so watching their brands and their wines flourish and evolve is a thrill. Second, we’re excited about the Burgundian presence in the Valley. French winemakers who come here to experience the Oregonian version of their time-honored grape offer unique expressions of the wines and outside confirmation that there’s something really special happening here. Lastly, we’re excited about new winemakers just entering the industry, who contribute a vibrant sense of experimentation and energy to the Valley.

All the good things come to an end, so this was the last of the conversations in the Passion and Pinot series – for now, at least. As I said before, Pinot Noir has some very special properties, making people fall in love with it and not letting them go. And whether you agree or disagree – you know what to do. Until the next time – cheers!

P.S. Once again, here are the links to the web sites for the wineries profiled in this series:

Alloro Vineyard: www.allorovineyard.com
Ghost Hill Cellars: www.ghosthillcellars.com
Ken Wright Cellars: www.kenwrightcellars.com
Lenné Estate: www.lenneestate.com
Youngberg Hill Vineyards: www.youngberghill.com
Vidon Vineyard: www.vidonvineyard.com

 

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