When it comes to Spanish wines, Ribera Del Duero is probably most iconic and best-known region worldwide – I know some will say it should be Priorat or Rioja, but let’s leave this argument for another time. Hold on, here is a bit of stats to support my statement. If you will look at the Wine Spectator Classic ratings (95-100, best of the best), you will find 38 wines from Ribera Del Duero, 24 from Rioja and only 11 from Priorat rated in that category. And while in Ribera Del Duero, do you know which wine has the top Wine Spectator rating of all times? 2004 Bodegas Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero Malleolus de Sanchomartin.
No, this is not the wine we will be talking about here, but – it is perfectly connected to our story. First commercial wine under Bodegas Emilio Moro name was released in 1989 – however, Moro family’s viticultural traditions and experience go all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century, starting with Don Emilio Moro, a first generation vigneron. Today, in its third generation, Bodegas Emilio Moro continues to build upon a century of traditions and tried and true techniques. And now we are getting to the actual subject of this post – the latest venture of the Moro family – Bodegas Cepa 21.
Bodegas Cepa 21 was created by brothers José and Javier Moro, the third generation vignerons. It is located in the heart of Ribero del Duero region, in the area known as “The Golden Mile”. It is worth noting the Ribera Del Duero comprise highest altitude vineyards in Spain, located at 2,400 – 3,300 feet above sea level. Bodegas Cepa 21 farms 125 acres of estate vineyards, and has another 125 acres under direct control through the agreements with wine growers. All 4 wines produced at Bodegas Cepa 21 are made out of one and the same grape – Tempranillo, albeit it is their own “Moro clone”, cultivated for more than a century.
Instead of inundating you with more information which you can easily find at Bodegas Cepa 21 website, I had an opportunity to [virtually] sit down with José Moro, an owner and winemaker at Bodegas Cepa 21, and inundate him with the barrage of questions – and now I can share that conversation with you:
[TaV]: Cepa 21 name implies that this is the winery for the 21st century. By the time when Cepa 21 was created, Emilio Moro was well known and very successful business. What was the motivation for the creation of the Cepa 21 winery and the brand overall? What sets Cepa 21 apart from the Emilio Moro?
[JM]: Cepa 21 is the project of the third generation of the Moro Family. We were eager to experiment with a different terroir and a diverse expression of the Tempranillo variety. Our goal was to find the maximum expression of the Tempranillo variety, respecting the finesse and elegance of the grape.
In that sense, Emilio Moro and Cepa 21 have several differences. For starters, Cepa 21 vineyards are orientated to the north whereas Emilio Moro vineyards have a southern orientation. The climate is another differentiating factor (colder in Cepa 21) and the way we classify our wines also differs. In Emilio Moro we classify attending to the age of the vineyard and its vines, whereas in Cepa 21 we classify according to the altitude of the vineyards.
The result: Cepa 21 wines are subtle but structured, fresh and yet complex, elegant and full of personality and they have an interesting aromatic palate.
[TaV]: What is 21st century winery and how Cepa 21 fits into that image? Are you also trying to appeal to millennials with this wine?
[JM]: From the moment people see the building in Cepa 21, a black and white minimalist structure with an air of “chateaux française” raising among vineyards, they realize they are about to discover something made for this century. Innovation has also been one of the key values throughout the winemaking process. It’s this union of modernity and our unique Tinto Fino clone that turn Cepa 21 wines into a traditional and yet modern wines made for today’s consumers. I believe it is them who define modern winemaking, and not the other way around… And in Cepa 21 we make a continuous effort so our wines exceed the expectations of these new consumers.
[TaV]: It seems that previous vintage for Cepa 21 was 2011, and now the current vintage is 2014. Does it mean that Cepa 21 wines are only produced in the best years?
[JM]: We have maximum quality standards for our wines, so if a vintage doesn’t have enough quality, we simply don’t bottle it. This is a way of guaranteeing consumers that if they buy a bottle of our wine, it will meet their expectations, whatever the vintage they choose to purchase.
[TaV]: Ever since the inception of Cepa 21, what were your most favorite and most difficult vintages and why?
[JM]: 2011 was an excellent vintage, one of the best in the Ribera del Duero. The climatology was perfect for our variety, with sequential rainfall that resulted in a powerful vintage of great quality wines. 2015 was also an outstanding vintage; hot temperatures and hard work resulted in very promising wines.
2009 was a really difficult vintage. It was extremely rainy and cold, with frequent hails that stopped the vegetative cycle of the plant. It was a vintage to forget.
[TaV]: What are your biggest/most important markets for Cepa 21?
[JM]: Cepa 21 is a young winery, but its growing at a fast pace. We export our wine all over the world, from Asia to the United States, and we continue to grow internationally. The US is one of our key markets this year, but we also focus in European countries and in our own, Spain.
[TaV]: Along the same lines, do you sell in China, Cepa 21 or Emilio Moro wines? Even broader, are Ribera del Duero wines known/popular in China?
[JM]: Yes, we do sell in China and we are proud to say our wines are very well regarded in this market, although we recognize there is still a lot of work to be done. I often visit China and talk about the potential of our DO, which is popular in China but still has a lot of potential.
[TaV]: Do you grow any other grapes than Tinto Fino at any of the Emilio Moro/Cepa 21 properties? If you don’t, do you have any plans to start growing any other grapes?
[JM]: We recently announced in Spain that we are starting a project in El Bierzo. We are looking into producing a white wine that’s 100% Godello, a grape that stands out for its elegance and finesse. We are only in the initial phase, but we are sure of the potential of this relatively unknown grape.
[TaV]: It seems that Tinto Fino is one and only grape used at Cepa 21 (and also at the Emilio Moro too). Do you ever find it limiting (the fact that you only have one grape to work with)?
[JM]: Tempranillo is king in Spain, it is the national grape, and our Tinto Fino clone we use to graft each and every one of our vines is what moves us, our reason of being. No, we don’t find it limiting at all.
[TaV]: On your website, I saw a reference to “Moro clone” – is Tinto Fino from your vineyards actually different from the mainstream Tempranillo?
[JM]: Definitely. We grafted our vines with a unique Tinto Fino clone to achieve the maximum expression of the variety. It allows us to produce wines that age beautifully, that embrace the flavors given by the barrel during ageing and of great quality.
The cluster is smaller and looser, the vines produce less grapes – For us, quality is more important than quantity – but offer fruit that ages beautifully in the bottle.
[TaV]: Are the general challenges facing Ribero del Duero region, or is everything great in its winemaking world?
[JM]: We had to reinvent ourselves due to the economic crisis that Spain has been experiencing for the last years. The Moro family embarked on a new project with Cepa 21. It was a winery that was only going to produce the wine that bears its name, but during the worst part of the crisis we launched “Hito”. It means “milestone” – And it definitely was one. We have never stopped evolving since then.
[TaV]: To the best of my understanding, Cepa 21 practices what is called a “sustainable viticulture” – dry farming, etc. Do you have any plans to advance to organic methods, or maybe even biodynamic?
[JM]: Not at the moment. But we respect the climate 100%… We only work with what our environment gives us, and we use no artificial irrigation.
[TaV]: When it comes to the wines of Ribera del Duero, outside of your own wines, do you have any other favorite wineries?
[JM]: The Ribera del Duero is an area known for its viticulture tradition. There are many great wineries in this area – Apart from Emilio Moro and Cepa 21, I wouldn’t be able to pick a favorite.
[TaV]: The same question, now going beyond Ribera del Duero – any favorites in Rioja and Toro?
[JM]: I enjoy drinking wines from Bodegas Muga, Bodegas Eguren, and Bodegas Sierra Cantabria. They all produce amazing wines.
[TaV]: Are the Cepa 21 wines made for the immediate consumption or will they benefit from some age?
[JM]: Hito Rosado and Hito are our rosé and our young wines and, as such, they are better when drunk shortly after they are released. Cepa 21 and Malabrigo, even though they can be enjoyed when they are released, will greatly benefit from ageing in the bottle: They will evolve beautifully.
[TaV]: What is next for you? Are there any new projects in the making, maybe even outside of Ribera del Duero?
[JM]: Like I said before, we do have a project in El Bierzo with 100% Godello grape. Until we release that wine, whenever that may be, we will continue promoting our wines abroad to show the true potential of the Spanish Tinto Fino and our unique clone.
Now, after reading all this, it is time for some wine! 2011 Cepa Tempranillo made it to the Wine Spectator 2016 Top 100 list, so obviously it instantly disappeared from all of the stores. I was very happy to try the 2014 rendition, which now should be getting into the stores near you:
2014 Bodegas Cepa 21 Tempranillo Ribera Del Duero (14% ABV, $25, 100% Tempranillo, 12 months in French oak)
C: dark garnet, inky
N: lavender, fresh blackberries, cigar box, typical Tempranillo nose
P: ripe plums, well integrated, dusty tannins, eucalyptus, smooth, clean acidity, excellent balance.
V: 8/8+, excellent now and will evolve.
That’s all I have for you, my friends. Great history, great present, great future – all through the hard work and passion. And luckily, we all get the wine we can enjoy. Cheers!
Two weeks ago, I shared with you a conversation with Max Weinlaub, the winemaker for the Viña Maipo winery in Chile. While our Q&A session was mostly virtual, the Viña Maipo wines were not – I had an opportunity to taste 6 wines presented by Max during the session in New York. And I can sum up my impressions about Viña Maipo wines in one simple word – delicious.
I have to honestly admit that even opening of the box was pleasant – I love it when the bottles are wrapped, it gives an oenophile an additional moment of play, an additional source of enjoyment.
By the way, if you would read my interview with Max Weinlaub, you will find that one of the questions I asked was about Viña Maipo’s selling wines in China. If I would look at the wines more carefully, I wouldn’t need to ask that question – take a look at the back labels below:
Here are my notes:
2016 Viña Maipo Vitral Sauvignon Blanc Reserva (12.5% ABV, SRP $11) – 2016 was one of the best vintages for white wines.
C: straw pale
N: grassy, lemon, touch of tobacco, white fruit
P: restrained, lemongrass, fresh lemon, perfect acidity, vibrant
V: 8-, nice and refreshing, will be perfect with seafood. Excellent QPR
2016 Viña Maipo Vitral Chardonnay Reserva (13.5% ABV, SRP $11)
C: light golden
N: vanilla, golden delicious apple, touch of honey, herbaceous undertones
P: Crisp, fresh, nice acidity, lemon, very restrained, green apples, good palate weight
V: 8-, very drinkable now, and should evolve. Great QPR
2013 Viña Maipo Gran Devocion Carmenere DO Valle Del Maule (14.5% ABV, SRP $25, American oak is used only for Carmenere, better showcases the wine, Carmenere 85%, Syrah 15%)
C: Rich garnet, wine looks very inviting in the glass
N: Characteristic mint and herbs ( hint of), dark red fruit, pepper
P: peppery, spicy, dark fruit, earthy, delicious, powerful, full bodied
V: 8, excellent, powerful wine
2012 Viña Maipo Syrah Limited Edition DO Buin Valle del Maipo (14.5% ABV, SRP $35, 86% Syrah, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 months in French oak)
C: bright garnet
N: bright, open, blueberries, herbal notes, touch of barnyard
P: pepper, black fruit, blackberries, spicy, firm structure, mouth-coating, velvety
V: 8+/9-, stand out, beautiful wine
2013 Viña Maipo Protegido Cabernet Sauvignon Valle del Maipo (14.5% ABV, SRP $50, 30-35 yo vines, very low yield, Cabernet Sauvignon 97%, Cabernet Franc 1%, Syrah 1%, Petite Verdot 1%, 20 months in French oak )
C: dark garnet
N: green bell pepper, mint, classic cabernet nose, eucalyptus
P: beautiful, round, open, cassis, mint, firm structure, delicious
V: 8+, outstanding, beautiful Cabernet
2012 Viña Maipo Alto Tajamar DO Buin Valle del Maipo Chile (14.5% ABV, SRP $110, Syrah 92%, Cabernet Sauvignon 8%, 30 months in French oak)
C: Bright garnet
N: espresso, tar, pepper, hint of barnyard, black fruit
P: Blackberries, tart cherries, espresso, spices, dark power, brooding, full bodied
V: 8+/9-, outstanding, a treat which needs time
I had an opportunity to taste all of these wines over the course of a few days, and I have to say that literally all of them kept getting better and better. Viña Maipo Syrah wines are unquestionably a world class, but so are the Cab and Carmenere, and I would gladly drink both Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay every day – overall, one of the most successful tasting lineups I ever had.
Have you ever had Viña Maipo wines? Have you ever had Viña Maipo Syrah or any Chilean Syrah for that matter? If you did, what do you think of them? Cheers!
When I was invited to meet with the winemaker Max Weinlaub of Chilean winery Viña Maipo, one thing immediately caught my attention – Max was described as an advocate of the “new Chilean Syrah movement“. Syrah might be my all times favorite grape (secretly, of course – I would never admit it in public), so anything which has to do with the Syrah sounds interesting to me.
I couldn’t travel to New York on the given date, but Patricia Clough from Gregory White PR was very accommodating and managed to include me in the live conversation and tasting with Max with the modern wonders of technology (thank you Patricia!). I was able to listen to Max presenting his wines and even ask questions and make comments – and all of it not with my fingers (in most of the “virtual” tastings we use Twitter or similar mechanisms to “talk” to the presenters – this conversation was refreshingly different).
This was the tasting, of course, so I did taste the line of Viña Maipo wines, and in a word, the wines were stunning. But I will tell you all about the wines in the next post, as I reached out to Max with a bunch of questions, which he graciously answered despite being on the plane for the most of the time in the months, going around the world and introducing his wines. Max’s answers are great and well worth every minute of your time if you want to learn more about Chile and its wines.
Without further ado, here is our [now virtual] conversation with Max Weinlaub:
[TaV]: It appears that Viña Maipo was one of the Syrah pioneers in Chile, planting it in 1990. Are there any wines from those early vintages still around? Did you have a chance of tasting them? What do you think of them if you did?
MW: Even though the vines were planted around 1998, the grapes were blended with other red grapes. In 2005 the grapes were used to make Limited Edition for the first time. We still have bottles of that vintage. I have had the opportunity to taste it, but the style has evolved year after year. To me, the first vintages were bold and too ripe. In recent years, I have been turning to a fresher style with a better balance and great ageing potential.
(Side note for Anatoli: If you are truly interested I could find one of those rare bottles, and we can taste it together next time I’m in NY.)
[TaV]: Since starting at Viña Maipo almost 10 years ago, did you make any changes in the way Syrah grapes are grown or the way the wines are made?
MW: Since I started as chief winemaker in 2007 it has been an endless learning process in direct connection with understanding how the vineyard behaves under different climatic conditions and canopy management, and noting the changes as the vines age each year. Today, I have a better knowledge about our Syrah grapes to express the varietal’s maximum potential with a clear sense of origin: Syrah from Chile. If I compare the last 10 years, I definitely see a change in the style of Viña Maipo’s wines —building towards better elegance, power, balance, fruit expression and oak impact.
[TaV]: Why Syrah in Chile? Do you think that Syrah is the next big grape for Chile?
MW: Until the first half of the 90’s, Chile was known for producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Carmenere was re-discovered just in 1994. So the general perception of Chile was as a reliable producer of inexpensive wines but without many options to show (in terms of grape varieties). At the same time, Australia was living golden years with its Shiraz, so many winemakers thought that maybe Syrah could be introduced in Chile. Some clonal material (stocks) were imported and multiplied by a couple of nurseries in Chile and then, we neared the end of the decade, the first Syrah grapes were harvested with pretty good results. Thanks to a joint venture with one of those nurseries, Viña Maipo was one of the first wineries that planted Syrah in the country.
In my opinion, Chile has been and will be widely recognized as a great place of origin for Cabernet Sauvignon. But at the same time other grapes, especially those from the Rhône Valley, have adapted extraordinarily well to the Chilean terroirs — and Syrah is by far the best example of that. If you consider that nowadays the oldest Syrah vines are around 20 years old and already are producing high quality wines, then you can clearly see a bright future with this grape variety.
[TaV]: When making Viña Maipo Syrah, is there a region (Cote-Rotie, Hermitage, Cornas, Barossa, and Santa Barbara) or a wine maker (Guigal, Chapoutier, …) which you see as a hallmark and try to achieve some similarities with?
MW: The regions you mention (with their singularities) plus the talent and skills of those renowned family names have made some of the most iconic and unique expressions of Syrah grapes in the world. From those wines I learned that Syrah is able to make outstanding wines with a great potential for ageing even comparable with some Cabernet Sauvignon. My humble dream is someday to be part of that “Hall of Fame of Syrah” world, to be recognized as a previously-unknown Chilean winemaker named Max Weinlaub who made a jewel with Syrah in Chile, standing along with those big names.
[TaV]: You are blending Syrah with Cabernet Sauvignon and vice versa, which is quite unusual. Why do you think these two grapes work together? Are there any other regions in the world where Syrah is successfully blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, or do you think this is purely a Chilean phenomenon?
MW: I do believe in the synergy between their different but complementary components when you blend the right way. This is the best evidence that winemaking is closer to an artistic expression than to math because 1+1 is more than 2. Syrah is a fantastic grape to make single varietal wines, but also for blending. Sometimes the Cabs are too classical, too serious for me. I used to define the Syrah variety as “fireworks in a carnival”…it has lots of color, intensity and rich flavors. So Syrah plays an important role shaking up or adding verve to a (sometimes) circumspect Cabernet Sauvignon. My aim here is to make a more distinctly South American or Chilean style of Cabernet Sauvignon.
In another style, I add a smaller percentage of Cab to Syrah to increase the structure or backbone of the wine. As part of its nature, Syrah’s tannins are soft but non-structural – so hence the need for the strength and structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. You can find this blend of Cab-Syrah or Syrah-Cab elsewhere and it works well for me, and I intend to keep perfecting it.
[TaV]: Pinot Noir seems to be fast growing in popularity in Chile. You don’t make any Pinot Noir wines – do you have any plans for it? What do you think overall about Chilean Pinot Noir?
MW: I think that finally there’s a bunch of very good Pinot Noir produced in Chile thanks to the better knowledge of the grape variety in terms of terroir, viticultural management, clonal selection and winemaking. Pinot Noir is a challenging variety that sooner or later many winemakers—who tend to thrive in challenges–try to produce his/her own version. I’m having a lot of fun and joy producing Syrah (among other grapes of course) so Pinot Noir will be in my “101 things-to-do-before-to-die” list for a while.
[TaV]: Many wineries around the world add sparkling and Rosé to their repertoire – do you have any plans for Viña Maipo to start producing sparkling or Rosé wines too?
MW: We produce sparkling and rosé too!!! As we have a limited capacity (in terms of volume), the production of sparkling is allocated to certain markets – so it is not currently part of our global portfolio. Our rosé is sold largely in Nordic countries at the moment. We could taste both wines next time I see you.
[TaV]: How old are the oldest vines at Viña Maipo?
MW: The Cabernet Sauvignon vines are the oldest planted in our vineyards. Today, some of them are reaching 40 years old….just like me.
[TaV]: Don Melchor is an uncontested flagship wine for Concha e Toro, with very high critic ratings (98 from Suckling, 96 from Wine Spectator). Do you think Alto Tajamar will beat Don Melchor’s ratings one day?
MW: By far Don Melchor is the Dean of all the renowned Chilean wines. It’s the Chilean wine with the longest and most complete vertical tasting starting in 1986. I truly admire its history and legacy. If someday Alto Tajamar receives as high ratings as Don Melchor has won, for me that would be an honor and privilege. One of my principles is “work hard in silence, do your best and the rest will come along.”
[TaV]: When it comes to the white grapes of Chile, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are, of course, well established and well known. Is there a next big white grape for Chile?
MW: Chile is a paradise for grape growing due to its diverse terroirs, stable weather and healthy environment. Even though Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are widely planted I’m sure there are new areas where some other white grapes could produce great quality wines, such as Verdejo or Godello, both grapes especially recommended for warm climates. There are some very interesting Rieslings and Gewürztraminer. But the problem with those grape varieties is the almost relatively little commercial success we’ve seen when are produced outside of their home countries. I have the feeling that the only white grape that could succeed (technically and commercially) is Pinot Grigio.
[TaV]: What are the biggest export markets for Viña Maipo?
MW: By far the UK and Nordic countries at the moment, but there are some interesting opportunities to grow in other areas especially in Asia. Asia is a great market with its own codes and tempo (rhythm). We’ve also been focusing on the U.S. to a greater extent and I am very much looking forward to spending more time in the market.
[TaV]: Continuing the previous question, how big is China, and it is growing, flat or declining?
MW: China is just awakening!!! And everybody is trying to get a space in China since the Dragon feels thirsty. They are starting drinking wine, more often for Gambei (heavy duty toasts) rather than for joy, learning or food matching, so there are some things to do in terms of wine culture and education.
[TaV]: Do you have a favorite vintage of Viña Maipo Syrah?
MW: Always the last one!!!… Because it’s better than the previous one. Maybe it’s because the vines are becoming older and I’m turning older too (and hopefully wiser)!!!
[TaV]: When you are not drinking your own wines, what are some of your favorite wines and winemakers around the world?
MW: More than follow a label, brand or winemaker, recently I have been discovering regions. I’m currently really intrigued by German Rieslings (especially old vintages from Mosel River) and some Spanish red grapes such as Garnacha (aka Grenache), Mataro (aka Cariñena or Carignan), Graciano, Mencia and Bobal.
We are done here, my friends. I really enjoyed our conversation with Max, and I hope that the next time we will sit across the table and taste his delicious wines together. You might be thirsty at this point, so I hope you have something to drink – and the next time I will tell you all about delicious Viña Maipo wines I had a pleasure tasting. I can only say that I would gladly drink those wines at any time… Until we talk again – cheers!
Let’s say you are looking for the site to plant the vineyard of your dreams. After many years of research, you finally find what you were looking for – it should be perfect. And so the site you find is located on Laurel Ridge, and it has Laurelwood soils. Now assume you have an Italian heritage: how would you call your vineyard? What do you think of “Alloro Vineyard”? Alloro is an Italian for “laurel”, so it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
For sure it did for David Nemarnik, who was born into a Croatian – Italian family, and he was the one who started looking for the good vineyard site in Oregon in the late 1980s and finally purchased one in 1999 – and yes, named it Alloro Vineyard. First Pinot Noir vines were planted in 1999, and the first vintage was 2002. In addition to the Pinot Noir, the varietal line-up today also includes Chardonnay and Riesling.
Alloro Vineyard is a lot more than just a vineyard. Actually, the vineyard occupies only 33 acres out of the 80 acres estate, and the whole estate is a full-blown farm, with cattle, sheep, chicken and gardens. Altogether, it became a holistic habitat, where growing grapes and making wines is simply part of the lifestyle, perfectly attuned to David’s family traditions. The vineyard is sustainably farmed, L.I.V.E. certified sustainable and certified Salmon-Safe. To top that off, David installed solar panels on the property, and now generates 100% of the electricity he needs for all the operations.
I had an opportunity to [yes, virtually] sit down with David and ask him a few questions, and here is what transpired from our conversation:
TaV: Having Italian roots and memories of winemaking in Italy, have you ever thought of planting some of the Italian varietals? Moreover, Croatia also offers some interesting and unique grapes – how about those?
DN: I grew up with an Italian-American mother and grandmother who were all about family meals, which also always included wine. Not the high-end stuff, we are talking Familia Cribari Red Table Wine. My father was Croatian and born just outside of Triesta Italy. Family visits to my father’s village impressed upon me a lifestyle of artisan food and wine production. There was the home-made prosciutto and sausage, farm raised grain for bread, corn for polenta, and of course wine and grappa.
I love Nebbiolo and the wonderful Barolo and Babaresco wines of Piedmonte. If I were to plant an Italian varietal it would be Nebbiolo. I was recently in Piedmonte and observed the grapes were at about the same stage of development as our own Pinot Noir vineyard here in Oregon. It would be fun to put in an acre or two. Learning and trying new things is part of what keeps this winegrowing business fun!
TaV: Why Riesling? This is not a very common grape for Oregon – how did you decide to plant Riesling? In a blind tasting with German, Alsatian, Finger Lakes and Australian Riesling, where do you think people would most likely place your Riesling?
DN: Years ago in the mid-nineties I was making wine in my garage for family and friends. This was mostly Cabernet and Zinfandel. A friend of mine who was making wine in his apartment bedroom closet finally was given an ultimatum from his wife that led him to join me in my garage. He turned me on to Riesling. I really like Riesling’s versatility, dry, off dry, and sweet. So it was a natural to plant my own Riesling and make an estate wine.
TaV: Any expansion plans for the vineyards? May be some new grapes outside of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay?
DN: Well we recently planted a new 5 acre block that is mostly Chardonnay with the balance Pinot noir. I planted this on the east side of the road for a different exposure and aspect. We also have our Riesling and a small block of Muscat. So we currently have 33 acres planted out of 130 acres total. I’m sure at some point I’ll plant more grapes, perhaps that small block of Nebbiolo.
TaV: You produced your first vintage in 2002, so starting from that year, what was your most difficult vintage for Pinot Noir and why?
DN: The most difficult vintage for me was 2011. 2011 was the coolest year with the least amount of heat units since I started farming grapes in 1999. Bud break and bloom were 3-4 weeks later than our average year. We had a very cool summer and by early October we still had not fully completed veraison and were worried the fruit would not have time to ripen sufficiently. We did everything we could, thinned to one cluster, pulled leaves on both sides, and prayed. Thankfully we had an incredible October with dry and sunny weather. In the end, we made some really nice wine.
TaV: Continuing the previous question , what was your most favorite vintage and why
DN: My favorite vintage in the cellar is our 2010. What started off as a cool growing year transitioned to a mostly dry summer with mild temperatures leading to great conditions during that critical month of ripening prior to harvest. The wines are elegant and complex with a wonderful balance of red and dark fruit.
TaV: You operate not just a vineyard, but also a farm , a whole habitat with lots of things happening. I’m sure you had plenty of funny stories over the years – do you care to share some of them?
DN: Yes, Alloro is really a sustainable whole farm that includes raising hay for our cattle and sheep, as well as an extensive garden, hazelnuts, and numerous fruit trees. We compost manure from our cattle barn that is then spread on our fields as a natural fertilizer. We have a strong food culture that I would say is aligned with the Slow Food and Locavore folks.
One funny story has us picking strawberries in the garden. My chocolate lab named Abby disappears for a while and then returns with my neighbor’s Chinese runner duck in her mouth. The duck with its long neck sticking out of Abby’s mouth seems perfectly calm as she proudly brings me the duck. I carefully take the duck back to her owner’s pen…it never happened…
TaV: I’m assuming you produce your top of the line “Justina” Pinot Noir only in the best years – how many times have you produced it so far?
DN: Our Justina is a very special barrel selection. Although a blend of multiple barrels, it is a barrel equivalent (or 25 cases). Before any other barrel selections are made, we comb through every barrel looking for the very best of the vintage. Within the context of the vintage, our Justina has the most weight; the broadest, densest, finest, and most persistent texture; the most complex aromas; and typically a higher percentage of new oak. We have produced this wine every year since 2010.
TaV: You get all your power from the solar energy. Was the winery designed like that from the very beginning, or did you install solar panels at some point later on?
DN: The winery was completed in time for our 2003 vintage. The solar panels were installed in 2008 as part of the Oregon Business Energy Tax System program. Our goal was to invest in a green sustainable energy source.
TaV: Which are more difficult to tend for – the vines or your farm animals?
DN: Oh, by FAR the vines!!
TaV: You produce White, Rosé, Red and Dessert wines. The only one which is missing is Sparkling wines. Any plans to produce your own sparkling wines?
DN: Possibly, if we were to add one new wine to our lineup, this would be it. We love bubbles!
TaV: When you are not drinking your own wines, what are your favorites from Oregon or around the world, both for whites and the reds?
DN: To be honest, I wish I spent more time visiting and tasting the many well made wines produced here in our state. When I go to industry tastings I am always amazed at the overall quality. I am really excited about Oregon Chardonnay and what seems to be an explosion of well made sparkling wines. Outside of Oregon, I am a Barolo and Barbaresco fan.
Of course our conversation would be incomplete without tasting David’s wine. I had an opportunity to try his estate Pinot Noir and here are the notes:
2014 Alloro Vineyard Pinot Noir Estate Chehalem Mountains Oregon (14.1% ABV, $35)
C: dark Ruby
N: earthy smoky plums with licorice, open, medium intensity
P: sweet red fruit, licorice, touch of sage, espresso and mocca, excellent acidity, nice “meaty” undertones, medium long finish
V: 8, the wine has a lot of finesse, nice Burgundian style. Will evolve.
Believe it or not, but our Passion and Pinot journey is almost over. 6 winemakers, 6 stories of Passion – and Pinot, of course. I’m not saying good bye yet – Oregon is one of the hottest winemaking areas today in the USA, and with lots happening, I want to take another look at what we learned here and what might lay ahead. So I’m finishing the post with the rhetorical “stay tuned”… Is it Pinot time yet? Cheers!
To be continued…
P.S. This post is a part of the “Stories of Passion and Pinot” series <- click the link for more stories.
For many years, I was trying to start my garden. Every year I would order my tomato plants, some peppers, and some herbs, plant them and then meticulously make sure to water them on the regular basis and hope for the best. Every year my reward would be a nice rosemary and sage (basil would always die) and maybe 10 mediocre tomatoes from 8 or so plants.
This was the story until this year, when I built raised beds, got a perfect top soil, premixed with all the proper organic fertilizers, planted tomatoes and lots more, and still collect (it is October now) a nice daily harvest of tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers. The soil is the king, you know – that rich, soft, almost greasy dark goodness of the good dirt.
Don’t worry, this post is not about me and not about my amateur gardening escapades. Talking about wine, do you think the soil is important? Would you want the best possible soil for your vines, the richest and the most nutritious? Or would you believe that someone would purposefully choose the plot with the poorest possible soil, and plant there the vineyard of their dreams? Enters Steve Lutz, who did exactly that.
In the year 2000, after searching for the perfect vineyard site for 8 months, Steve Lutz climbed a steep hill on the outskirts of the town of Yamhill in Northern Oregon, and after an hour of negotiations became an owner of the plot where Lenné vineyard was planted. The chosen site had peavine soil, which is not all that rich in the nutrients. Couple that with the steep slope and no irrigation, and you got the ideal farming conditions, right?
In 2001, 11 acres of Pinot Noir vines were planted, consisting of 3 blocks (one Pinot Noir clone per block). In the first year, Steve lost 35% of his plantings. In 2003, the additional 2.5 acres were planted, only to lose practically all of it to the record heat in the same year. It was only in 2007 that Steve was able to harvest enough fruit to vinify individual Pinot Noir clones. Also in 2007, Steve opened the tasting room, and the rest of it is a history which you can read for yourself on Lenné Estate web site.
I had an opportunity to [virtually, of course] sit down with Steve and ask him a few questions – here is what came out of our conversation:
TaV: Before you purchased that parcel of land that became Lenné, what made you believe that that soil can produce great Pinot Noir wines?
SL: All great soils for growing grapes have low nutrient value that limits the vines vigor. The soil type I am on is classified as the poorest Ag soil in Yamhill County. I knew the shallow, low nutrient, sedimentary soil would produce smaller clusters and berries with more concentration.
TaV: It took you about 6 years (from 2001 to 2007) to get to any level of commercial success. How many times (if ever) you were ready to declare the project to be a failure?
SL: Well there was too much sweat equity and personal money involved to turn back, but after we planted a 2.5 acre block in 2003 (one of the hottest springs ever) and lost all of it, we came close.
TaV: The soil at Lenné sounds it can produce some other interesting wines – have you thought about planting grapes other than Pinot Noir, let’s say Syrah?
SL: Well, we have grafted some Pinot to Chardonnay and have thought about grafting a little over to Gewurztraminer. The issue is that you can’t do much because it isn’t economically viable. We do have a neighbor that grows syrah which I find interesting but it’s a little like swimming upstream; cool weather Syrah is fascinating with bottle age but a hard sell young.
TaV: Outside of your own wines, what is your most favorite wine what you ever tasted?
SL: Well, years ago I had all the DRC wines about a half a dozen times and those would have to be my favorites.
TaV: Looking at the names of your wines, I’m assuming Jill’s 115 and Eleanor’s 114 are named after your daughters?
SL: No, Jill is my mother in law who lives in England and Eleanor is named after my late mother. We also have a wine called Karen’s Pommard named after my wife.
TaV: Along the same lines, I’m sure there should be a story behind the name of “Kill Hill”?
SL: Yes, that is the most shallow, stressed soil in the vineyard and we had many dead vines when we planted there in spite of burning out a clutch on a tractor trying to keep them watered the first year. I always referred to it as “kill hill” because of all the mortality. When we finally got it established I decided to blend the two clones there (114 and 667) and call it “Kill Hill.”
TaV: You are teaching a class for the wine consumers on Dundee Hills and Yamhill-Carlton District soils, Red and Black, which includes blind tasting. How often do your students identify the wines correctly to the type of soil?
SL: Probably about 70% of the time.
TaV: Do you plan to expand the vineyard in the future?
SL: No, we have planted most of which is plantable.
TaV: If you are to expand the vineyard, would you ever consider planting white grapes, such as Pinot Gris or Chardonnay?
SL: Refer to above.
TaV: I understand that you are using low intervention, dry farming. Do you have any plans to obtain any certifications, such as LIVE, or maybe even going all the way into biodynamics?
SL: We are looking at the LIVE program right and I have thought about experimenting with biodynamics though I think some of the practices are more about marketing than having anything to do with good farming practices.
TaV: I’m really curious about particular significance of “11 months in oak” which seems all of your wines are going through. Why exactly 11 months? Do you ever change the duration of time the wine spends in oak based on the qualities of the particular vintage?
SL: No, not really. The practice is based partially on practicality in that we like to get the wines out of the barrel before harvest. But having said that my philosophy is to get the wines in the bottle as intact as possible. Letting them sit in oak for extended periods of time leads to oxidation. Pinot is very sensitive to oxidation and I would rather put it in the bottle with as much of a reflection of the vineyard as possible and let what happens in the bottle happen. Some vintages could benefit in terms of mouthfeel with extended barrel aging, but they will get that in the bottle and have less oxidation than if you gave them extended barrel age.
TaV: If you would have an opportunity to “do over”, would you choose any other location for your winery, or may be more generally, what would you do differently?
SL: I would do a lot of things differently in terms of the way we started, attention to detail in terms of farming the first year. We were in such a hurry to put the plants in the ground that we didn’t have our farming practices completely dialed in with the right equipment. As far as the site I can honestly say there is not another 21 acre site in Oregon that I would even think about trading my site for. The one thing we got completely right was finding the site.
2014 Lenné Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (14.2% ABV, $38)
N: Smoke, lavender, ripe blackberries, medium intensity
P: tart cherries, fresh, vibrant acidity, firm tannins and firm structure, earthiness, excellent balance
V: 8-, very good wine, food friendly, will evolve with time
Here you are, my friends – another story of Passion and Pinot – now it is all about the soil and believing in yourself. We are not done yet, so until the next time – cheers!
To be continued…
P.S. This post is a part of the “Stories of Passion and Pinot” series <- click the link for more stories.
What do you think of biodynamic winemaking? As an oenophile, do you embrace it or shrug it off?
Well, it is easy for us, oenophiles, to have an opinion, informed or uninformed – but then there are people who actually live by it, meaning – practice every day.
Biodynamics was born almost 100 years ago, in 1924, when German scientist, Rudolf Steiner, presented a course of 8 lectures on agriculture. At the core of the biodynamics is a holistic approach to the agricultural work, embracing the whole sustainable, natural ecosystem – akin modern day organic agriculture. However, biodynamics goes further and adds what many perceive as voodoo element – bladders, intestines, skulls and many other “strange” items play role in the full biodynamics approach, and that puts a lot of people on offensive.
I’m sure at this point you are probably looking back at the title of this post and trying to figure out what biodynamics has to do with promised winemaker’s interview? In 2003, Wayne Bailey purchased the vineyard in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, called Youngberg Hill. The Youngberg Hill vineyard was planted in 1989 by Willamette Valley pioneer, Ken Wright, and it produced its first vintage in 1996. When Wayne Bailey was looking for the property to buy, Youngberg Hill was recommended to him as the place which has “good vibrations” – and rest is now a history. These “good vibrations” also set Wayne on the path for the holistic farming, starting with all organic in 2003 and upgrading to biodynamic farming in 2011 – and this is why you had to get the refresher course on what the biodynamics is.
Lots of things are happening at Youngberg Hill Vineyards today, but I will let you read about it on your own, as now I would like to share with you my [virtual] conversation with Wayne Bailey:
TaV: First vineyards were planted on Youngberg Hill in 1989. How much did you have to change between then and now?
YHC: Those 11 acres continue to produce and are healthier now than 14 years ago as a result of switching to organic and biodynamic farming practices. We have planted four additional acres of Pinot Noir in 2008 and five acres of Pinot Gris in 2006. In 2014 we grafted over half of the Pinot Gris to Chardonnay.
TaV: 1996 was the first vintage at Youngberg Hill. Have you had an opportunity to taste those wines?
YHC: Yes. The only vintage I have not had was the 1997. I had a few bottles of ’96, ‘98’, ’99 that were part of our purchase.
TaV: What do you think of them?
YHC: They were very good and reflected both the quality of the fruit coming off the hill and the ageability of the wines.
TaV: Are there any of those wines still around?
YHC: I have 1 bottle of ’98 and a few 2000, etc.
TaV: Your first vintage was in 2003. How are those wines aging?
YHC: Only have a few bottles left, but had one only a couple of months ago that was beautiful. Aging very well and was still not showing signs of deterioration.
TaV: You produce Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from Youngberg Hill vineyards, and Chardonnay is on the way. Do you have plans for any other grapes (Tempranillo, Syrah,…)?
YHC: No, I am not convinced that we will see global warming impact us to the extent that we can consistently ripen big red varietals in my lifetime. That will be up to my daughters.
TaV: Do you have any plans to expand plantings beyond the 20 acres you have right now?
TaV: You went from traditional (whatever it was) farming to organic and now to biodynamic. How those transitions manifest themselves in wines? Can you taste them?
YHC: Yes. The fruit is much healthier coming out of the vineyard and into the winery, meaning that the fruit is much more balanced and more balanced ripening of the fruit across all parameters of ripeness. That shows up in the wine as higher quality (depth and complexity and balance) and more vibrancy as the wine ages in the bottle.
TaV: Is the day in the life of biodynamic farmer much different from the “traditional” one?
YHC: Yes, in that you spend more time walking the vineyards and knowing each plant more intimately.
TaV: Is going all the way to biodynamic worth the effort for the grapes and wines, or is it just better for the farmer’s soul and the environment?
YHC: All of the above. You grow healthier grapes which are of higher quality, resulting in better wines. At the same time the soil and plants are healthier and will sustain better in the long run and there is no negative effects to the environment.
TaV: Youngberg Hill might be the only winery (to my knowledge) producing Pinot Noir Port. How traditional is your Port in making and style? Would you compare it to any of the Porto wines? Do Pinot Noir grapes accumulate enough sugar to be made into the Port? Lastly, do you produce Port every year?
YHC: Our Pinot Port is slightly lighter in overall structure and a little drier, not because there was not enough sugar accumulation, but because I let primary fermentation go a little longer. The production process is the same and the style is similar except for the varietal characteristics. We do not produce every year. It depends on many factors related to the vintage.
TaV: What were your most favorite and most difficult vintages at Youngberg Hill and why?
YHC: Of past vintages, 2005 and 2010 are two of my favorites for their balance, elegance, and complexity. However, 2005 was significantly reduced in quantity due to mildew; and 2010 was greatly reduced in yield due to the birds. 2015 may become my best vintage to date (currently in barrel).
TaV: When the Youngberg Hill is called a “good hill”, is this more of a gut feeling, or is it more of a specific terroir parameters – soil, climate, wind, temperature range etc.
YHC: Both. It is good from the standpoint that the terroir is excellent for growing Pinot Noir; higher altitude, marine sedimentary and basalt soils, southeast facing slope, altitude change from 500 to 800 feet, coastal breezes coming off the coast, cooler temperatures both day and night, etc. but also the peace, serenity, isolation, aquafer, underground water, and much more “natural” setting also attribute to the “good hill”.
TaV: As a biodynamic farmer I presume you are well attuned with Mother Nature. From 2003 to now, do you see the material effects of the climate change? Do you take this into account with the grape growing and wine production?
YHC: Having been in agriculture throughout my life, I have experienced the 20 year cycle of hot and colder temperatures, so I believe in another couple of years we will see temperatures going down again. However, over the long term (hundreds and thousands of years) the earth is getting warmer and the highs and lows are tending to be more extreme along with weather incidents. Does it impact my grape growing practices? No.
Hope you are still with me, and it is the time for some wine, right?
We have an open conversation among friends here, so I will dare to confess an interesting experience. I opened the bottle of Youngberg Hill Pinot (screwtop), poured a glass. Swirl, sniff, sip – nothing to write home about. Swirl more intensely, another sip – just a touch of acidity and not much else. I closed the bottle, put the wine aside and decided to give it a day. Before I tasted it the second day, my thought was – please, please, please – if the wine the same as the previous day, this post is going to be published without the tasting notes. Luckily, the wine evolved dramatically, so I’m happy to share my tasting notes with you:
2013 Youngberg Hill Pinot Noir Cuvée Willamette Valley (13% ABV, $35)
C: dark Ruby
N: lavender, cherries, earth, fresh, open, medium intensity
P: first day was very tight; sweet red fruit showed up on the second day, bright acidity, vibrant, firm structure, good concentration, dark powdery medium-long finish. Still delicious on the third day, so definitely this wine can age.
V: 8/8+, well made wine, needs time to open, can age for another 10+ years
Here you are, my friends – another story of Passion and Pinot – with rocks, soils and a bit of biodynamics. We are not done yet, so until the next time – cheers!
To be continued…
P.S. This post is a part of the “Stories of Passion and Pinot” series <- click the link for more stories.
Wine and mystery go hand in hand, don’t they? How about a little ghost story? Take a sip from your glass, and say it with me: “It was dark and stormy night…” – now take another sip – do you taste the difference between the first one and the second? So here is a little ghost story for you. Legend has it that during the Gold Rush in Oregon (1800s), the miner was on his way to Portland with the load of gold. He decided to set an overnight camp on top of the hill. During the night, someone got into the camp, killed the miner and took his gold. Ever since, the miner (his ghost, of course) is wandering around that hill, looking for his gold; quite appropriately, the hill became known as the Ghost Hill.
In 1906, brothers Daniel and Samuel Bayliss purchased about 230 acres of land around that Ghost Hill, and started their farm. That farm is now staying in the family now for 5 generations, with all the cattle, sheep, hay, wheat and clover growing there. Being in the heart of Willamette Valley, it is hardly possible not to catch the Pinot Noir bug. In 1999, the Bayliss-Bower Vineyard was planted with the Pinot Noir. The Oregon wine pioneer, Ken Wright, once asked Mike Bayliss if he would sell the vineyard and how much he would want for it – as you can guess, the answer was “no”.
I had an opportunity to [virtually] sit down with Mike Bayliss and Bernadette Bower, his daughter and 4th generation owner of Ghost Hill Cellars, and ask them a few questions – here is what transpired from our conversation:
TaV: Ghost Hill farm is 234 acres, and the Ghost Hill vineyard today is 16 acres – do you have any plans to expand it?
GHC: At the moment, we have no plans to expand, but we are not ruling out expansion. We will have to see what the future holds. We have 90 acres deemed plantable to Pinot Noir.
TaV: How did you come up with the idea of producing Pinot Noir Blanc? Did you see/hear someone else do this (or maybe you even tasted someone else’s wine), or was it a pure moment of bliss?
GHC: Actually, the idea of Pinot Noir Blanc came from our winemaker at the time Rebecca Shouldis. She was talking to a fellow winemaker from France who suggested a Pinot Noir Blanc for our younger plantings of 115. He told us that in France, half of champagne is usually Pinot Noir Blanc, so that would be a good white option for us. We agree, it has been very successful for us.
TaV: You use Pinot Noir to its full capacity, producing white, Rosé and red, all from the same grape. So the only type of wine which is probably missing is sparkling wine, for which Pinot Noir is perfectly suitable. Do you have any aspirations to start producing your own sparkling wine?
GHC: We have discussed it, but we have no plans to start production of a sparkling in the near future. Again, you never know what the future holds!
TaV: Did you ever meet the ghost of the deceased miner, looking for his gold?
GHC: The presence of the miner has been felt many times. Neighbors have seen and felt the presence of the ghost at dusk while riding horses. They will not ride in that area anymore. When the kids were little, Mike used to tease the kids and tell them he could see the ghost on the hill, but that is as close as we have come.
TaV: Do you have any plans to start growing other grapes, such as Chardonnay or Pinot Gris, for example, or do want to stay Pinot Noir all the way at the moment?
GHC: At the moment, we are staying Pinot Noir all the way. We have been considering Chardonnay for future planting, but nothing has been decided.
TaV: Do you have any plans to convert your vineyards to all organic or biodynamic?
GHC: We will not go to all organic or biodynamic. It takes away too many tools to deal with emergency situations in the vineyard, but we are certified sustainable and salmon-safe, and plan to continue those practices, as sustainability is very important to us.
TaV: On your farm, you grow more than just grapes. Is farming for the grapes much different from all other plants?
GHC: Yes and no. Some of the same rules apply to farming other crops, but grapes are incredibly labor intensive, much more so than other crops we have grown. Grapes need your attention all the time.
TaV:Did you ever regret not selling the land to Ken Wright?
GHC: Depends on which day you ask us… But really, no. We want to keep the land in the family. 110 years is a long time, we aren’t ready to give that up. The land holds so many memories for our family, we would feel lost without the farm.
TaV: Your life had been intertwined with the farm pretty much forever. With the grapes or not, but I’m sure you got some interesting stories to tell. Can you share some of your most fun (or most dreadful) moments
GHC: When we were raising beef cattle, the cattle were always getting out and had to be chased. We appreciate that the grapes never escape or have to be chased. Our daughter will tell you her least favorite day was the morning the cattle got out and she was out chasing them in her pajamas when the school bus went by, full of her friends who were laughing at the whole situation. Our vet from the cattle days is writing a book and has promised to devote an entire chapter to The Bayliss Farm.
TaV: You use only the very best of your wine to produce the Prospector’s Reserve. Was there a year when you decided not to produce the Prospector’s Reserve, or do you see such a situation possible?
GHC: For the 2013 vintage, we do not have a Prospector’s Reserve as we did not have enough grapes to make a reserve blend. We will only be releasing 2013 Bayliss-Bower.
TaV: When you are not drinking your own wines, what other wines from what producers and what regions do you like to drink?
GHC: Of course, we drink Hamacher. We are discovering fabulous new Oregon wines all the time, there are so many new producers in the region.
2014 Ghost Hill Cellars Pinot Noir Blanc Bayliss-Bower Vineyard, Yamhill-Carlton AVA (13.9% ABV, $25)
C: light copper, reminiscent of Rosé
N: initially intense, yeasty, Granny Smith apples, citrus, then evolving to the notes of honey and then showing hint of gunflint
P: creamy and round, touch of strawberries, minerality, lemon, green apples, good structure, good acidity, medium long finish, with acidity prevalent
V: 8, very enjoyable
Here we go, my friends. I can’t tell you if the ghost of deceased miner is affecting the wines – you can try to find out on your own, by either visiting the Ghost Hill Cellars or, at least, drinking their wines. And, of course, stay tuned, as more of the Passion and Pinot stories are coming out soon. Cheers!
To be continued…
What do most people do at the age of 69? Retire, or at least, semi-retire, right? Humans live longer than ever before, and many still have enough energy and desire to continue doing what they are doing. But let me rephrase the question a bit – how many people do you know who would start a totally new business at the age of 69? Might be a difficult question, I understand. Sure it would be for me, but now I can proudly say that I know at least one person like that. Let me introduce to you Don Hagge.
So what does rocket scientist (with degrees from UC Berkeley in physics and business from Stanford), whose resumé includes Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Centre d’Etude Physiques Nucleare in Paris, Apollo Mission at NASA and Silicon Valley high-tech industry, upon retirement? Of course, starts his own winery! Well, it sounds radical, but considering that Don grew up on a farm in North Dakota, and had an opportunity to live in France and experience wines of Burgundy, maybe it is only logical?
Vicky and Don Hagge started Vidon Vineyard in 1999 in Willamette Valley, in the Chehalem Mountains AVA of Oregon (you can probably figure that name of the winery, Vidon, is made up after Vicky and Don). Fast forward to today, Vidon Vineyard produces primarily Pinot Noir, plus small amounts of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Syrah, and Tempranillo. Vidon Vineyard is sustainable, LIVE and Salmon-safe certified, and practices minimal intervention winemaking. Don Hagge not only makes wines, he also plays a role of a handyman when it comes to various winemaking tools and equipment. Plus, he is very opinionated about the use of glass enclosures instead of corks…
I had an opportunity to [virtually] sit down with Don Hagge and ask him a few questions, so here you can find our conversation:
TaV: For many years, you had been living and working in California. Why have you decided to build a brand new winery in Oregon and not in California?
DH: I was recruited to Oregon by a venture capitalist as the CEO of a startup semiconductor company. During this time, I biked in the Willamette Valley regularly and loved the vineyards. Since I lived in France some time ago, Pinot Noir has been a favorite wine. I grew on a farm and decided to make a career change and what could be better than buying land, planting a vineyard and learning how to make wine? Oregon was gaining a reputation for Pinot Noir so here I am.
TaV: Your very first wines were made in 2002. Do you still have any of those bottles left? If you do, how do they drink today?
DH: Unfortunately, the 2002 vintage is gone. I made only 40 cases and didn’t label it, only for friends and personal use. We just had a 2006 vintage this evening which is fantastic.
TaV: During all the years of Vidon Vineyard existence, what was the most difficult vintage for you and why?
DH: Probably the 2007 vintage. This was the first year I used my own winery so many things were new. I saw the forecast for heavy weather, got a crew and pulled in 16 tons on September 25th. Before we finished cleaning the equipment it started raining and didn’t stop for a month. Most people suffered through the rains and the vintage got a bad rap in the press. We were lucky – it’s still a beautiful wine!
TaV: For how long do you typically age your Pinot Noir wines in French oak Barrels?
DH: Most of my wine carries the 3-Clones label and gets 11 months in French oak barrels which are on average 30% new. I’m not a fan of big oak in any wine.
TaV: You are an enthusiastic proponent of glass enclosures instead of traditional cork. When did you start using glass enclosures? Also, did you ever try to bottle the same vintage both with glass enclosures and traditional corks and then compare the results of the aging?
DH: Until the 2008 vintage I used corks and usually quite expensive ones. However, I determined that no matter what they cost, they still taint wine because of TCA and pre-oxidize occasionally. Therefore, in 2008 I began using Stelvin screw caps. In 2009 I started using Vinoseals for the Single Clone labels. No, I’ve never done a comparison of cork vs Vinoseal glass closures. It’s not necessary, I know what corks do and Vinoseals and screw caps don’t do. I don’t understand why anyone uses a closure that ruins a percentage of their wines when there are alternatives that don’t.
TaV: Today, you are producing a number of different white and red wines. Do you have any plans (if not plans, may be at least some thoughts) about starting to produce Rosé and/or Sparkling wines?
DH: I made Rosé for two vintages and one was a great, I was told. I’d like to do a Sparkling but my winery is too small given what I’m now doing. That’s not to say I’m not dreaming of a winery expansion and interested in trying more and different wines.
TaV: Outside of your own wines, which are your favorite Pinot Noir producers in the world?
DH: Good Bourgogne wines are what I like to emulate. The 2004 vintage was the nearest to a great Bourgogne that I’ve made.
TaV: If you would have an opportunity to start your winery again, would you do something different?
DH: Given the resources I had, not much. Perhaps I’d build a better winery instead of an expensive house, but I have a wife. 🙂
TaV: You describe your approach in the vineyard as “minimal intervention”, and your winery is LIVE Certified. Do you have any plans to become certified organic or biodynamic winery?
DH: I’m a scientist and Biodynamic winemaking isn’t scientific. Many of their practices are good, how they treat the land, etc. But I don’t believe in VooDoo. I don’t’ believe that Organic Certification results in better wine or land management than what we do in the LIVE program.
TaV: I understand that you have built your own bottling line wine dispenser for the tasting room. What are the other technological tools which you built at your winery?
DH: I don’t think I’ve built anything for winemaking that any good farm boy couldn’t have. I’m always trying to find ways to simplify tasks and become more efficient in using time and material. I have an idea about saving wine and labor in barrel topping but haven’t implemented it yet. My use of Flextanks to replace some barrels is already saving wine and labor by eliminating barrel topping while producing wine that’s equivalent to that from barrels.
TaV: You already work with quite a few grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Cab Franc, Syrah). Do you plan to add any other grapes in the vineyard?
DH: No more varieties. No more land to plant. However, I do hope to plant a small plot of Coury clone Pinot Noir next year. Planting of the clone date back 50 years to the original plantings.
TaV: What drives your passion? You started Vidon vineyards at the age when most of the people are happily retiring, so there must be some deep reason for you to engage in such a – of course, a labor of love – but hard labor?
DH: I like to live. I’m not ready to “stop” and watch TV. I think having a ToDo list every morning and a little anxiety and stress about getting things done will result in a longer life. To have no challenges is pretty dull and boring. When one is doing things that one enjoys, it’s not labor.
What do you say, my friends? This interview continues our Stories of Passion and Pinot series, and I think it is a perfect sequel to the conversation with Ken Wright – Don Hagge exudes the same righteousness, passion, and confidence in everything he does.
And you know what supports Don’s ways and means? His wines! I had an opportunity to try his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and in a word, I can tell you – what a treat! Two stunning, perfectly balanced and perfectly Burgundian in style – made with passion and care in Oregon.
2015 Vidon Vineyard Chardonnay Estate Chehalem Mountains, Oregon (12.9% ABV, $35)
C: golden color
N: initially, very restrained, mostly minerality. After 2 days in the fridge, honey and vanilla, quite spectacular
P: initially tight, minerally and acidic. Two days later – exuberant, golden delicious apples, perfect acidity, vanilla, medium finish. Every sip leaves you craving for more
V: 9, simply outstanding, delicious.
2013 Vidon Vineyard 3 Clones Pinot Noir Estate Chehalem Mountains, Oregon (14.3% ABV, $40)
C: bright Ruby, cranberry undertones
N: inviting, intense, touch of smoke, lavender, red fruit
P: nicely restrained, minerality, crushed red fruit, mouthwatering acidity, fresh, elegant, lots of finesse
V: 9-, outstanding wine, Burgundian style
Here you are, my friends – another story of Passion and Pinot. And I have more for you, so until the next time – cheers!
To be continued…
Grape grower. Pioneer. Visionary. Winemaker. Mentor. Teacher. Philanthropist.
It makes perfect sense to start our “Stories of Passion and Pinot” series by conversing with Ken Wright. After starting making wines in Willamette Valley in Oregon in 1986, Ken came to the realization of a tremendous diversity of soils and microclimate conditions in the region. Ken was instrumental in establishing 6 AVAs in the region; he also focused his winemaking on showcasing terroir through single-vineyard bottlings. The rest is history which you can read on Ken Wright Cellars web site and various publications, such as Wine Spectator May 2015 issue.
I have limited exposure to Ken’s wines – the production is small, and there are lots of people who loves to drink his wines. But even my limited encounters resulted in long lasting impressions – and not only the wines but also the labels which you need to see only once to remember forever. Thus when I had an opportunity to ask Ken a few questions, albeit virtually, I was very happy to do so – and the outcome of our conversation you can see below. This might be a tad long, so arm yourself with a nice tall glass of Pinot – and enjoy!
- When it comes to the winemaking, is there someone who you would name as your mentor or a teacher?
KW: My first position was in California and included working with Dick Graff of Chalone on their Gavilan brand. Dick started a research group, in 1979 I believe, that met once a month at Mount Eden Vineyards. The group included many of the best wineries in the state including Mt. Eden, Kistler, Calera, Sanford, Acacia, Forman, Chalone and the Paragon group among others. The opportunity, as a novice winemaker, to be part of that group of successful producers allowed me to be part of cutting edge winemaking discussions. Ears were perked, respectfully my mouth was generally closed. I was a sponge.
- As a pioneer and a long standing and successful winemaker, I’m sure many young winemakers look up to you and want to learn from you. Are there any winemakers who you would call your students?
KW: Once I moved to Oregon, in 1986, to pursue the production of Pinot noir I had a learning curve to understand the new area that I was in. During those early years I fell in love with the ability of Pinot noir to connect myself and our buyers with the qualities of individual sites. After blending sites for several years I began in 1990 to produce site specific wines that connected us to place.
In the mid 90’s I was part of a group we created, quite similar to the California research group, that focused on research both in the vineyard and winery. My partners were Bethel Heights, Cristom, Solena and Penner-Ash. Beaux Freres joined at a later date. Our experiments provided a volume of information that I believe changed the way in which we all grew grapes and made wine. That information was openly shared with anyone who cared to ask. Many viticulturists and winemakers are now approaching their craft with the lessons we learned whether or not they are aware of where this information came from. I would not want to take any personal credit for the success of those that have benefited from this work or from my many direct relationships. Information comes from so many sources. If I have benefited someone along the way that would be great but I would only be one of many.
- You personally helped to define 6 AVAs in Oregon. Do you think there are still areas in Oregon which would benefit from their own designated AVAs?
KW: It is a natural evolution for regions to define themselves. All areas must first identify which wine varieties have inherent superiority. It’s a process. What is clear at this time is that the Willamette Valley, particularly the area of the six new AVA’s, is world class. We are producing Pinot noir that is riveting. While there are regions that can say they are older there is no area on the planet that can say they are better, period. I suspect there will be new AVA’s within the six new identified AVA’s that will further define each region in more detail.
- In the description of the Freedom Hill vineyard, there is a mention of Phylloxera. How did it come around? How difficult was it to contain it and deal with it? Is that the only one of your vineyards which was affected?
KW: Phylloxera reared its ugly head in 1990 at Fuqua Vineyard in the Dundee Hills. With the first inexpensive own rooted plantings of Eyrie in 1966 the industry coasted until this time with the hope the blight would never come. But it did. It is impossible to know what the source of the “infection” may have been. This was an older vineyard so unless they were purchasing replacement vines on a regular basis from a nursery that had an issue it would be hard to assign blame on source of vine material. Not impossible though.
Phylloxera became real in the mid 90’s. Freedom Hill began to fail. Guadalupe began to fail. Shea began to fail. There were a number of others. Vineyard owners, hoping to forestall the infection, did whatever they could to protect their sites. At the time the concern was that the insect was being transferred on soil. We had chlorine foot baths. Incredible cleaning of vineyard equipment. It did not help. It is only my opinion but I believe most of the “infection” was directly from the replacement vines from nurseries that had the bug in their soil material that came with new or replacement vines.
- Can you make parallels between any of your vineyards and Burgundy vineyards, in terms of wines which they are capable of producing?
KW: Burgundy could only hope to make wine that consistently produces the quality of wine that we produce. They are in our rear view mirror. It’s sad that people automatically assume age of region is related to quality. Do truly blind tastings and you will not be able to assign label prestige to the result.
- Same question regarding your wines – would you compare any of your wines with any of the wines from Burgundy, and if yes, which with which?
KW: If there is any comparison I would say that Oregon Pinot noir has a perfect fresh fruit profile. Burgundy tends to be more acidic, angular in youth and less forward.
- It seems that you only produce Pinot Noir from all of the vineyards you are working with, and the only white wine you are producing comes from Washington. Is there a reason why? Have you ever thought of planting white grapes in Oregon?
KW: As a business, anything we produce that is not Pinot noir is harder to sell and less profitable. The entire world recognizes the quality of Pinot noir from our region but no other variety resonates. We have a half acre of the Chardonnay Dijon 548 clone at Savoya. It is delicious but only sold to our mailing list. We will not plant more Chardonnay in my lifetime.
- I find your wine labels fascinating. How do you come up with the designs? Are you making those yourself or you are working with an artist? Do you change any of the labels from vintage to a vintage?
KW: The artist that created our labels is David Berkvam, a Portland native. He is a dessert chef at a local Italian restaurant named Geno’s. The original artworks are 100% beeswax carvings. Incredible depth that we attempt to relay on paper. Our relationship with David began with seeing his work at a gallery in 1999 in Portland.
Our original label for Ken Wright Cellars was a clean, straightforward text only label. It was not memorable or noticeable. My wife Karen and I decided to make a significant change to the look of our label. We asked David to produce a label that showed the efforts of the Mexican laborers in our vineyards during the difficult time of winter pruning. There was no other labor that would do this work. Yet the Mexican women and men who did this work did so with graciousness and humor. That was our first label with David. Now each vineyard has its own artwork from him and each is quite personal for us.
- What is your approach to the oak ageing? For how long do you typically age your wines? What type of oak do you use most often?
KW: Unfortunately, we have to use French oak for our wines. Would prefer to buy from the US but our native oak species are very resinous which does not rhyme with Pinot noir. Pinot noir spends 11 months in oak before bottling.
- Based on the information on the web site, your general philosophy around winemaking is “minimal intervention”. Did you ever consider going into organic or even biodynamic wine production?
KW: Winemaking has nothing to do with your farming approach. Yes, the winemaking at the highest level is minimal intervention, assuming a very high level of professional babysitting. All inherent quality comes from the vineyard. Any winemaker at the highest level knows they are subservient to the quality of what they receive.
- You’ve been making wine in Oregon for the very long time. Did you have any scary (okay, most difficult) moments you can share with us?
KW: The beauty of our area is that we do in fact have “vintages”. No robotic wines. The year is reflected in the wine. A great example of a “scary” vintage was 1991. A cool year that produced wine that was at first reticent. With age this vintage proved to be perhaps the best of the decade for most producers.
- Among all the wines you made in Oregon since the beginning, can you share a few of your most favorite vintages and particular wines?
KW: 1990 was the best vintage I have seen in Oregon. An unusual year in that it was amazing for so many regions in the world, Germany, Italy, Champagne, Burgundy and more.
- Do you export your wines outside of US? If yes, what are your top export destinations?
KW: We export to all provinces of Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, South Korea and of course Luxembourg.
- Today, Oregon wines are well known and well recognized by the wine lovers. What is ahead for the Oregon wines? What are the latest trends and new directions for the Oregon wines?
KW: We will always hang our hat on Pinot noir because we truly have a world treasure with this variety. As world markets emerge we will find a place at the table in each of these markets.
- You have very extensive list of charities you support. How do you go about deciding which charities you are going to support?
KW: Karen and I normally choose to support local charities that keep our immediate area healthy. We have hosted Flavors of Carlton for 15 years which is by far the most impactful event that keeps the pre school, after school, summer work experiences, 12 sports programs and more financially sound. We are founding sponsors of Salud, started in 1992, which is a combined effort of Wineries, hospitals, clinics and Medical Teams International that has provided health care for vineyard workers. Karen and I were the initial 50K endowers of the local Community College program for their vineyard curriculum.
We partnered with the local FFA Alumnae, High School FFA teacher, YC Board, the curriculum writers from the local college and members of our AVA board to create a path for our local young people to get real world experience in growing grapes. We created a 1.5 acre vineyard on the high school property so they would have real world experience, not book knowledge.
We are done – and I hope you are still here, as there was a lot to read (and I thank you for that). Hope you found this interesting, and now have an increased desire to drink Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noir (good luck with that unless you already have one in your cellar). I also believe that this was an excellent opening into our Stories of Passion and Pinot – you can clearly feel passion and pride in every word of Ken’s answers…
We will continue our series next week, so for now – cheers!
To be continued…
To anyone inside of the wine circles, the name “Michel Rolland” needs no introduction. If you enjoy an occasional glass of wine but don’t dig deep, very deep into what is behind the label, it will probably tell you nothing. Unlike Araujo, Bryant Family, Harlan, Staglin – right? All of these are the cult wines from California, revered, adored and drooled upon by many wine connoisseurs. Let’s not forget Tenuta dell’Ornellaia from Italy, Angélus and Ausone from St-Emilion and l’Evangile from Pomerol. In case you didn’t know, Michel Rolland, classically trained French winemaker, is behind these and hundreds (I’m not exaggerating – search for his name on Wikipedia) of other wines. He is a consulting winemaker, sometimes also referred to as “flying winemaker”, who made wine on all continents and all possible and impossible corners of the world.
When I got an invitation for lunch with Michel Rolland, who was visiting New York to introduce some of his newest wines, I was excited at first, and then bummed. The lunch was overlapping with the Jura wine tasting, which I was planning to attend for a very long time. So as a last resort, I asked if I can meet with Michel Rolland after the lunch so I can ask him a few questions. To my absolute delight, kind folks at Deutsch Family, a wine importer company hosting the event, managed to arrange the time for me right after the lunch to sit down and talk to Michel Rolland.
As you understand by now, unlike most of my virtual interviews in this “one on one” series, this was a real face to face conversation, with a real handshake and visible emotions. At first, I was thinking about recording our conversation. That probably would be okay, but I never did this before, and fighting with technology in front of the busy man who was doing me a favor didn’t feel right. So I did what I always do – I prepared my questions in advance. After a subway ride and a brisk walk, I arrived – on time – and shake hands with the legend. We sat at the table, three different glasses of red wine appeared on the table. And conversation started – here is what we were talking about, with the precision of my fingers hitting the screen of the trusted iPad:
Q1: You made wine all over the world. Is there one place or one wine which was your absolute favorite?
“No. I like the challenge, so every time I’m going to the new place, it is very exciting.”
Q2: What was your most difficult project and why?
“To make wine, we need soil, grapes, and weather. When the weather is not playing, it is very difficult. There were 2 places which were the most difficult. First one was India – everything is great except the climate. India has only 2 seasons – dry and wet. Another one was China – extreme climate, very difficult to make wines. In the project in China, years 1,2 and 3 had no frost, then in the year 4 we decided not to cover the vines, and half of the vineyard became dead.”
Q3: You are known to create big and bold style wines. At the same time, it seems that wines with restrained are more popular today. Did you make any changes to your winemaking style to yield to the popular demand?
“After 43 years in this job, it is good that I have style. So the style is what the market is asking – the wines are made to be sold, so we have to follow tendencies in the market. Even that not everything is changed at the same time, it is more of the evolution and adhering to the fashion. The wine to drink tonight is not the one to be stored for 10–15 years. So the wine have to be made more enjoyable younger, and this is what we do.”
Q4: Where there any projects which you rejected and if yes, why?
“Yes, of course, but it doesn’t happen very often. The biggest concern is the relationship with the team. Day to day in the cellar and field it is the team – if the relationship with the team is not good, I prefer to leave. For sure if nobody is happy, then it is better to leave. I never refused project because it is too challenging. In Chile, 25 years ago the variety called Sauvignonne had to be used, which was hard – and I didn’t refuse the project because it was challenging. So the relationship is the major part.”
Q5: Again, appealing to your worldwide expertise, what do you think is the hottest new wine region today, if there is one?
“We have to look back – we have new world and old world. France, Italy, Spain – being there before. Then came US, then South America. Chile, and Argentina is growing the fastest now. Then there is New Zealand and Australia. But I think the area around the Black Sea, which was historically there, is very promising. Now Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Russia all started making really good wines and we will see great wines coming from there. I [actually] currently work in Turkey, Russia, Bulgaria.”
Q6: What are the most undervalued wine regions in the world today, if there are any left?
“One of the most difficult countries to make and produce wines is South Africa – great wines which sell well only in UK, but very difficult everywhere else.”
Q7: What do you think of natural wines, which are very often are very opposite in style to “big and bold”
“We can’t fight against natural wines, but all the wines are natural [laughing], minimal intervention. We have to slow down with all the chemicals, but the wines should be made to be good wines – a lot of “Bio” is done only for marketing, so if it is done smart, it is good. I have small estate Val de Flores in Argentina which is for 8 years is completely “bio”, so yes, I support that.”
Q8: What are the latest projects you are working on?
“The one in Tuscany (Maremma) running by the German family, they have a wonderful vineyard and wonderful winery, and now making very good wines.”
Q9: You are a role model and a teacher for many in the wine world. Who were your role models and teachers?
“When I began my job my mentor was Émile Peynaud. It was another era. When I began the oenology, we were not speaking about quality. The goal was to avoid problems. I discussed this a lot with Peynaud. Peynaud was convincing people to do better in the cellar, to have clean wines, to use better material. It was very difficult, but Peynaud was great dealing with the people, so I learned a lot from him, including the patience for dealing with people. I often said that my job is 80% psychology, and 20% oenology, this is what I learned from Peynaud.”
Q10: What are the new trends in the wine world? What wine consumers should expect to see and experience over the next few years?
“I think people like more and more approachable, and gentle wines – full bodied, but gentle. The big problem I see is that during the 90s, I did a lot of work where we dramatically improved quality. In the 2000s, we drunk best wines we could. What I don’t like now that everybody is going after cheaper and cheaper wines – we can still do good wines, but not better than in the previous years. In the end, the wine is a business, so I don’t want to see people reduce quality just to survive.”
As you can imagine, Michel Rolland didn’t come to the New York to talk to me. He was promoting his latest project, the wines of André Lurton which he helped to create. André Lurton is the winemaker in Bordeaux whose family winemaking heritage goes back more than 200 years, and who is not only known as a winemaker but also was very instrumental in advancing Bordeaux wine industry, including creating of the new appellations.
Here is the story of how Michel Rolland started working with André Lurton (don’t you love wines with the story?):
“Lurton is one of the last projects. I had an interview on the radio, and the journalist asked me if I have any regrets. I said at 65 years old, I don’t have a lot of regrets. When making wines, you get to meet wonderful people from all over the world. So the regret is “why I never met this guy” – one of such people is André Tchelistcheff – I met his wife, but never met him. And then the journalist asked me “who else”. So I said in Bordeaux, there is André Lurton, who I never met and worked together.
3 hours after the interview I received a call from Andre Lurton who said: “come and meet me”. Now we are working together.
So what we are doing is looking after the future, what can we produce for the people. We have to make approachable wines – still with the ability to age, but more approachable. “
This was the end of my conversation with Michel Rolland. We spoke for about 45 minutes, and it was clear that Michel had to continue on with his day. But there were still three wines standing in front of me, so I had to go through the speed tasting and only capture general impressions, there was no time for detailed notes. Here are my brief notes:
2012 Château Bonnet Réserve Rouge Bordeaux ($14.99, Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon blend) – beautiful tobacco nose, fresh fruit, soft, round – clearly Bordeaux on the palate, green notes, restrained. Green notes do get in the way, though.
2012 Château de Rochemorin Rouge Pessac-Léognan ($33.99, Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend) – beautiful, classic Bordeaux, great finish, some presence of the green notes
2012 Château La Louviére Rouge Pessac-Léognan ($74.99, Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Petite Verdot), new oak, open fruit on the nose, lots of complexity, very beautiful, layers, delicious finish. Overall delicious wine, my favorite of the tasting. This wine was polished and concentrated, and I would love to drink it every day.
What is interesting for me here (besides the clear proof that I’m a wine snob who prefers expensive wines) is that there is a clear progression of taste and pleasure in this three wines – the price was increasing accordingly, and this is how things are quite often in the wine world.
After an encounter like this one, and the pleasure of talking with the legend, if blogging would be my job, I would gladly proclaim “I love my job”. But even without it, I still would proudly say that I love blogging as it makes possible conversations like this one, which is priceless for any oenophile. Cheers!