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Stories of Passion and Pinot: Knudsen Vineyards

November 6, 2017 8 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!