Obsession in the Willamette Valley, Part Two

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Northwest Fresh Seafood in Newberg, Oregon, sells some great sea stuff.

Welcome to part two of Obsession in the Willamette Valley. In part one, I covered a dinner with Fausse Piste’s Jesse Skiles and a visit to Martin Woods Winery. I used it to set up the concept of obsession of wine as a life’s cause for many in the Willamette wine industry. It was advantageous to be able to go from that concept into describing my interactions with Jesse and Martin Woods’ Evan Martin because they are living examples of it. The three winemakers that we’ll discuss in this article bring their own obsessions to the party.

In part one we left off with a Tuesday morning visit to Martin Woods, where the obsession is making as Oregonian a wine as possible. While this could mean many things to many people, at Martin Woods it means using Oregonian oak to age wine and limiting manipulation in the winemaking. The result are pretty and ethereal wines. From there, we drove to Tendril Wine Cellars, a project by Tony Ryders who also does custom crush and consulting across the Valley.

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Tony has a lot winemaking experience under his belt from across the world, but he seems best known for his ten years at Oregon’s famed Domaine Serene where he was head winemaker. During those years, Tony made one of the very few American pinot blancs available on the world market. This is white wine made from red pinot noir grapes, and his obsession with it has carried through to Tendril where it was the wine he seemed most enthusiastic to share and discuss.

Before discussing the wine, I do want to point out one of the elements of the tasting that I most appreciated. It is a fallacy to say that when tasting red and white wine that the white should be served before the red. While this can be true, and often is, it is not when chardonnay and pinot noir are the flight. These are two nuanced and often times subtle wines that also happen to be high in acid, and in the battle for the palate the main offensive weapon is that acid. When the chardonnay carries the higher acid, it must be respected as the dominating wine, and be poured after the pinot. I remain surprised that even in the Willamette Valley where pinot and chardonnay are royalty, the white often precedes the red. Tony served the chardonnay and pinot blanc after the pinot noirs, and it made a positive difference.

Tendril offers two lines, the higher end Tendril wines and the more accessible, lower priced Child’s Play line that’s made for restaurant glass pours. We tasted the Child’s Play chardonnay, rose, pinot noir and zinfandel, which are forward and fresh wines, even the pinot noir which sees 9-11 months of barrel aging. The wine I’d order if I found it in a restaurant would be the zinfandel, which has a big personality and a variety of flavors and aromas that are fruity, earthy and savory. Often times zinfandel can deliver big fruit and not much else, so it’s always refreshing to find one that offers more.

The Tendril line is built to mirror a progressive meal curve, which Tony described as beginning with bright, acidic courses followed by meat and then savory stuff. We tasted his 2014 pinots – Extrovert, Mount Richmond Vineyard, Tightrope and C-Note – in that order. We followed these with the 2015 chardonnay and Pretender (pinot blanc), and finished with his 2015 cabernet sauvignon made from grapes from Washington’s Walla Walla Valley.

The first thing I’ll say is that in comparison to much of the Oregon pinot I’ve had, Tendril wines are bruisers. Words like “full bodied,” “rich” and “gritty” are apt descriptors, and this does not make them pinots for every pinot lover. While they exhibited some of the signature Oregon flavors and aromas, their physical presence is unusual for the region in my experience. They seem appropriate for lovers of bigger wines looking to build an appreciation for pinot noir.

At this stage in life, the 2014s are loud and proud, and I would be curious to see them again in ten years to witness what kind of development they go through. I’d be especially interested to see how the grippy tannins, which for me were a bit distracting, develop. The wines certainly have the right levels of acid, alcohol and flavor to develop more with time, but my question is whether there are sufficient long-change tannin complex to overtake the relatively coarse phenolic tannins that currently dominate the wine. Only time reveals that answer.

The whites offered more appeal for me. The chardonnay stays in barrel for at least sixteen months, and it shows in the nice balance it demonstrates. The acid is bright but integrated and the palate seems comfortably settled. I enjoyed the juicy, tart caramel apple note. Tony’s best wine for my taste is the pinot blanc, which he calls Pretender. The grapes are picked at full maturity, pressed gently and then aged in neutral oak. The palate is lush and smooth, and the fruit is downright tropical with quince and passion fruit, which juxtapose nicely with vanilla custard and a white peppery spice. It was one of the most memorable wines from the trip. The last wine, which made use of Washington State cabernet sauvignon, was a nice display of what that variety can achieve from that part of the world.

From Tendril it was an easy ride to meet up with Brian O’Donnell at Belle Pente Vineyard and Winery. Though this wasn’t my first visit to Willamette Valley, my time there had always seemed a bit incomplete without a trip to this historic winery, whose first vintage was in 1996. Pronounced “bell-pont,” which means “beautiful slope,” is aptly named after its 70-acre hillside upon which the estate vineyard sits (it doesn’t cover all 70 acres).

Their wines are classically-styled along the lines of Burgundy and Alsace, and strongly reflect elegance and place. The standard wine program includes muscat, pinot gris, riesling, gewurztraimer, chardonnay, gamay and pinot noir.

Perched on the side of a large valley, the property is lovely. The winery isn’t open to the public beyond two weekends per year and through appointments. As one might say in the collateral of one of those sustainable, farm-to-table, organic, biodynamic, dolphin-friendly type-places, Belle Pente has a “working farm” feel. This allows the tastings to occur where the wine is made, which in my experience draws the visitor closer into the glass, and gives them a particularly intimate experience. We tasted outside, using a few wine barrels turned on their end for tables, next to some of the winery equipment with a nice view of the estate vineyard and basketball court.

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Brain, who with his wife owns the winery, is the winemaker. He first made wine, as the website intimates, in the 6th grade. This experiment led to a “20 year retirement” before resurrecting his talents in his garage in San Jose. This eventually inspired a full-on career change and a move from Silicon Valley to Oregon. Brian is active in the industry as well, serving as the president of the Yamhill-Carlton Winegrowers after having been on the board of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association for a few years. With over 25 years of Willamette Valley experience, he’s a widely respected winemaker, strong and active advocate for Oregon wine and all-around good guy.

If you’ll indulge me in a bit of a thought experiment, scientists have studied the phenomenon of dogs that look like their owners, and vice versa, and a good number have found surprisingly high correlations – up to 80% – between dogs and owners on their respective appearance and physical personalities. While the explanations vary, they are consistent in finding that yes, it appears to be true that dogs and their owners share a great deal in common physically.

It would be fascinating to conduct a study that looks into whether the personalities line up between winemakers and their wine. Tasted blind, does Caduceus wine from Arizona remind us of its maker, heavy metal band Tool front-man Maynard James Keenan? Is Drew’s Blend, a pinot noir from Carmel, California, as sweet and innocent and chaste from afar as its namesake, Drew Barrymore? Pretty hard to quantify personality this way, I know, but Belle Pente and Brian O’Donnell seem like a good enough case upon which to pontificate as any.

Brian is a pretty low key guy (at least he was with us), and brings a laisse-faire kind of serenity to discussing wine. He begins with basics, and as time goes on gets more in-depth. It seems like the conversation never has to stop if you keep asking questions and offering prompts because he has an incredible depth of knowledge, is thoughtful and indulges hypotheticals (though he deftly dismisses to the bad ones). This isn’t to say he’s long-winded or boring – quite the opposite – but rather that with time, you continue to learn. Yet, at any moment in time, the snapshot of what you’ve experienced to that point is substantive. His obsession with wine isn’t worn on his sleeve, but it is very plainly that wine is a cause in life. He certainly has the experience and library to prove it.

Belle Pente’s wines strike me as similar in personality to Brian. While the current releases are beautiful, nimble wines, he is still recommending his first vintage as a wine that is drinking well. These are quietly layered and complex wines, almost to the point that if you’re not paying attention to them, you’re missing their brilliance. If this sounds like a critique, that’s exactly wrong. These are wines made by a thinking winemaker, and seem likely to be enjoyed most by thinking wine lovers. Having no experience with aged Belle Pente, I’m kicking myself for missing the opportunity to pick up a few late 1990s bottles from auction a few months before our visit.

We were presented with ten wines, all good and some great. I’m going to call out my five favorites here. The very first pour was the 2015 Muscat, which is bottled with a screwcap. Not the most popular variety, it’s done particularly well in this case. Acid driven, minerally and completely dry, the profile of honeysuckle, jasmine and tropical fruits is exceedingly pleasing. Brian recommends it as a great wine to have on-hand for difficult food pairings like asparagus.

The 2009 Riesling (2010 is the current release) was among the very best domestic versions of this variety that I’ve had. It is just beginning to show secondary development as nuttiness, honey and slight creaminess are showing through as the acid, which remains the backbone, softens ever so slightly. We discussed riesling’s history in Oregon, which Brian called “checkered.” He explained that in its first incarnation, riesling was sweet and worked out pretty good. Then, as Washington State’s Chateau Ste. Michelle began producing larger and larger quantities of inexpensive stuff, Oregon riesling began to go out of business. About twenty years ago, however, it was resurrected by several wineries that wanted to define and establish an Oregon-specific style closer to the dry styles of the big three A’s: Austria, Alsace and Australia. Belle Pente falls squarely within that kind of riesling profile.

A producer of numerous pinot noirs, I found two particularly captivating. The 2013 Estate bottle shows nice tannin integration and balanced acid, and is earthly, floral and slightly herbaceous. It built depth with as oxygen exposure ramped up, revealing subtle layers and drawing you deeper into the wine with time. This bottle typically sees about 25-30% new oak, which is a combination of majority French and minority Oregon.

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The 2014 Estate Reserve, which sees about 50% of new oak of a similar makeup, has a downright elegantly structured that is based as much on acid as it is on tannin, which is what I think makes for the best pinot. That this the case is striking given the warmer-than-usual vintage, which didn’t develop Oregon’s standard pH levels. The minerality is complex and seems predicated on sarsaparilla and birch roots, and the fruit is gorgeously ripe without being heavy. At most Oregon wineries, I tend to prefer the 2013s to 2014s because they skew closer to the prototypical Oregon style of high doses of earth, fruit and acid. Much of the 2014 vintage drops a lot of the earth and acid in favor of fruit and alcohol. Belle Pente is more resistant to that style drift that most I’ve had.

Finally, the chardonnay from the same year (poured last), showed beautifully. The tropical and juicy fruit, which rides a nice acid wave, paired advantageously with sweet lemon curd to create a texturally dazzling mouthfeel that led to a wonderful honeyed finish. While it’s evident this is from a warm vintage, like the Estate Reserve pinot, it retains the acid and mineral vibrancy that sets Oregon apart.

These are beautiful wines that remain, in region that is charging an increasingly high barrier to entry, fairly priced – even the Reserve bottle. The ageworthiness is obvious, and an appreciation for aging runs deep with Brian, who offers limited back vintages without surcharges (he’s currently selling the 2010 riesling and 2006 gewurztraimer). The tasting experience, the winemaker and the wine at Belle Pente is classic, old school Oregon.

As we finished up our time with Brian, our thoughts began drifting to dinner and our dinner companion. We stopped by Northwest Fresh Seafood in Newberg to pick up a variety of sea-based protein and raced back to receive Shane Moore, whom I’ve written about several times on this blog. Shane is the winemaker for Gran Moraine and Zena Crown and has made wine all around the world, including in Israel.

Unlike Brian, Shane “looks” less like his wine. I tend to think of Gran Moraine as elegant and pretty, and Zena Crown as starting with those attributes as a base but turned up just a bit on the power scale. Extraordinarily knowledgeable, Shane is a big personality from the opening moment: full of energy and peppered with the best kind and amount of crazy. What they do share in common, though, is thoughtfulness, intelligence and enjoyability. Whether Shane ages as well as his wine, though, remains an open question. Shane was the winemaker who completely changed my opinion on winemaker dinners (I’m now a yes vote) to the point that I was compelled to write a piece about it.

Shane was a vital part of planning this Willamette trip. Many of the wineries covered in these posts were Shane’s suggestions. He and I have discussed many aspects of wine and the industry over the last year or two, and he has helped me understand some pretty confusing wine stuff along the way (like tannins). So, when he suggested places I had no hesitation visiting them. I’m a big fan of Shane, and I wanted my wife (then fiancé) and friends to get to spend some time with him outside his winery, so I invited him to join us for dinner.

Dinner was great. Shane brought some great Canadian chardonnay (turns out he’s been pouring it blind all over the Valley in an effort to wow people) and local charcuterie (“it’s totally overpriced, but it’s so good I keep buying it in spite of myself”), all of which was great. Shane told us the story of how he became a winemaker, which is hilarious and probably rated inappropriate for this website. I’ll talk more about Shane in the last post about this trip. The next post will feature visits to Penner-Ash and Trisaetum.

Obsession in the Willamette Valley, Part One

Anthony Bourdain on a Washington State ferry. Picture credit: Facebook/@PartsUnknownCNN via Geekwire.com

In the introduction of the No Reservations episode filmed in Seattle and Portland, the late Anthony Bourdain searched for a line that captured the Pacific Northwest. He tried out a few before deciding on one word. They were:

“Under steel grey skies, sheltered from the rain by majestic Evergreens…nah, trite.”

“Jacked up on java the petri dish from which Starbucks..naaaaah, how clichéd is that?”

“To the pounding riffs of flannel-clad grungoids…ehhhh, that’s so totally over.”

“Screamingly fresh King Salmon flies…didn’t Bobby Flay do this scene?” [A reference to the showmen fish stand in Pike Place Market who throw fish and back and forth for the crowds’ enjoyment].

“Heavily inked chefs and cooks, culinary lone wolves, maniacal attention to detail: something’s happening here and I don’t know what it is….yet….”

He finally settles on:

“Okay, I know what the Pacific Northwest is about. It’s about obsession.”

I am a big Bourdain fan. I preferred No Reservations to Parts Unknown because it seemed like he checked out in the latter. It had a feel similar to what I think The Chapelle Show would’ve had had Chapelle not chosen to step away when he did. I appreciated Bourdain because he seemed to capture the essence of a place well, although there, too, I can knit pick. I’ve spent a lot of time in Israel, including a year living in Jerusalem, and his episode there was a disgrace. It was done by a guy who in this case didn’t know how to handle the politics of the area. He tried to find a middle ground, which is a straight, inevitable shot to absolute failure in that part of the world. You either go there, or you don’t. He did neither.

But episodes like the Pacific Northwest showcase Bourdain at his best. Having grown up there, I enjoy the PNW episode. I also think he got it reasonably right as a region of obsession. His disregarded caricatures aren’t inaccurate, though they are cliché: 300ish days per year without sunlight, beautifully lush and tall trees, an addiction to caffeine, grunge and flannel (the latter, however, the opposite of “totally over” – PNW hipsters, I see you), and salmon all were and remain quintessential PNW (though Amazon’s presence is significantly and unfortunately changing the cost, way and feel of life there). These elements, and many more, have combined to create a region of utmost quirkiness in which people tend to find one or two things and obsess over them to an extent that the people I’ve lived around in the Midwest and East Coast would find peculiar.

Bourdain was no wine lover, a fact he mentioned frequently in his shows, so it came as no surprise that his PNW episode made no substantive mention of either state’s world class wine scenes. It’s a shame, because there’s no better example of obsession in the PNW than it’s winemakers. And just like that, I’m stealing the concept of obsession to frame this article on a recent trip I took to Willamette Valley (it’s like you hardly noticed).

I landed in Portland on a Monday with enough time to meet up with Jesse Skiles, the owner and winemaker at Fausse Piste, a Portland-based winery that sources grapes from Oregon and Washington. Along with Seattle friends of mine who drove to Portland to join us for the trip, we met at Ok Omens, a self-described “naturally focused wine bar” and favorite among the wine-making crowd. This was my first time meeting Jesse, and over what turned out to be a multi-bottle dinner and, afterwards, an impromptu cocktail session with a group of winemakers who happened to be hanging out at the restaurant, I enjoyed getting to know him.

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Commiserating at Ok Omens

Jesse sells his wine in my area (Washington, DC) through Weygandt Wines, which makes perfect sense given his wine proclivities. While Weygandt sells a good deal of wine from classic Old World regions like Burgundy and Alsace and the Wachau Valley, it also brings in small, niche domestic producers like Fausse Piste, Arnot-Roberts, Cameron, Ceritas and others. These are small producers with, as Bourdain would say, a maniacal obsession of unique personality for whom winemaking is a cause. Attention to details – all of them – is rarely sufficient. Exploration and experimentation are constant, a total and humble fixation on trying to understand and do their craft better.

Take, for example, Jesse’s Duck Sauce, an insane skin contact viognier. The current vintage is 2013, which should raise eyebrows: it is fermented on the stems and skins for thirty days, basket pressed into 2 older French barrels where it sat on the lees for 3.5 years before enjoying a final six months in barrel without the lees, and is finally bottled unfined and unfiltered. Talk about an effort-riddled and unusual wine.

Our group closed Ok Omens down after many rounds of wine and cocktails, an unanticipated effort for a Monday night. The camaraderie among the Oregon wine scene is pretty extraordinary, as this night intimated and the following couple of days confirmed. On this evening, everyone knew each other, also a sign of the relative size of the state’s industry. Portland is roughly an hour from the northern area of the Willamette Valley, and many from the industry live in Portland. Fausse Piste isn’t the only winery to go one step further and set up shop in the city, though Portland remains a relatively small incubator of wine production.

The following Tuesday morning, after my fiancé arrived, we made our way down into the Valley for three winery visits before checking into our Airbnb. The remainder of this post will discuss our first stop, Martin Woods Winery. Part two will fill out Tuesday’s stops at Tendril Wine Cellars and Belle Pente Vineyard and Winery. Part three will cover Wednesday: Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, Trisaetum Winery and an introduction to Shane Moore. The final and forth part will cover WillaKenzie Estate, Zena Crown and Gran Moraine, the latter two labels that Shane produces.

The owner and winemaker at Martin Woods Winery is Evan Martin. I couldn’t keep the respective names straight leading up to the trip, but once I arrived there it became clear: Evan Martin owns a nice plot of forty acres, much of which is hillside covered by trees at high elevation, and so it’s Evan Martin’s woods: Martin Woods Winery. Set high up on one of the Valley’s mountains, by the time we got to the top of the steep, winding gravel road, we were without phone reception.

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Evan Martin and his woods

Evan doesn’t produce vitis off his land yet, though it is in his future. He intends to plant at 500-600 feet, which he thinks is the ideal elevation for his property. At that level, the land is Ritner soil series and exposed to cooling breezes that come from the Pacific Ocean via the Van Duzer Gap, a break in the Oregon Coastal Mount Range (and the heart of a proposed new AVA) that allows vineyards access to Ocean winds that cool the vines. This exposure helps keep the vineyards cooler and builds thicker grape skins, which is desirable for the kind of wine Evan wants to produce.

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Staves are stacked outside and left to season for roughly three years

Evan does, however, produce barrels from trees on his land. How many wineries do you know that do that? The idea is to make a truly Oregonian wine. Obsession. The theory is that wine leaches terroir when something foreign is introduced to it. Oregon grapes in French oak, which is the standard in the Willamette Valley, makes for wonderful wine, but it’s less Oregonian than Oregon grapes in Oregon oak. Evan chose the Quercus garryana tree for its particularly tight grain, which does not allow as much oxygen to pass through to the wine as French or standard American oak. This creates an oxygen poor environment that produces more reductive wines.

The barrels create a unique tannin structure in the wine that Evan is still figuring out. He has yet to fill his barrel room entirely with his own barrels, in part because it takes at least three years to season (dry) the wood before it is ready to go to the cooperage, and Evan hasn’t been doing it long enough to make enough barrels to replace his French ones. The other reason that he isn’t fully Oregonian oak is that he hasn’t had enough experience with them yet to gamble his entire production on going 100% Oregon oak. But time is on his side, and it seems inevitable that he’ll get there if he wants to.

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Evan is a meticulous, thoughtful guy and we had high expectations when we got to the tasting portion of the visit. The juice did not let us down. We started with the 2017 Hyland Vineyard riesling, which is made with Coury clones from Alsace that were planted in 1973. The vast majority of Willamette Valley riesling is from German clones, so the Alsatian roots of his helps to differentiate the wine. Bracingly young, it’s texturally driven by the acid backbone. The skins were macerated at 50-55 degrees for four days and the juice fermented in flex (plastic) tanks that, unlike stainless steel, allows breathing so that the wine can develop, but without the impact of oak, which Evan believes overwhelms the variety. Flex tanks also prevent evaporation and the release of carbon dioxide, which helps keep the wine fresh and capture more of its nuances than stainless tanks. Though Evan isn’t sure flex tanks are the best vessel, they’re the best he’s found so far. The resulting wine is a serious one that will develop over time into a classic expression of the variety with a lot of depth, something that I don’t believe can or should be said about most American riesling.

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The next wine was the 2017 Eola-Amity Hills chardonnay, which came from a single vineyard of fifteen year old Dijon 76 clones. Due to the contract, he can’t designate it. This one was aged half in Oregon oak and half in French puncheons. I found it to be substantive, delicate and quietly elegant, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that a bit of lees were left in for the aging but not stirred as it settles into a very reasonable spot between lean and fat in the mouth. The layer of lees creates a reductive zone in the barrel that creates a flintiness that really set the wine apart.

We followed this with a 2016 chardonnay from the Yamhill Valley Vineyard. Perched on a very steep slope with a lot of sun exposure from a sparse canopy, it’s a particularly stressed vineyard. The berries are small, and develop thick skins. They appear burnt, but are actually bursting with acid. He ages the wine in third to sixth fill oak, all of it Oregonian. It’s a texturally tense wine that begs for twenty to thirty years of evolution. Restrained at this stage, it does already exhibit a mean streak of twitchy, nervous and zesty acid that tantalizes. Evan told us that in its youth it’s best enjoyed over a week of being open as the extended oxygen exposure fattens it out. I’d be thrilled to rediscover one of these, lost in the back of my cellar, after a couple of decades.

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From there we moved on to the reds, beginning with the 2017 Gamay noir. This is a blend of four vineyards, though in 2018 he will forgo this wine to create two vineyard designates. Evan goes full carbonic and full cluster, which initially produces a “tannic monster” that over ten months it barrel softens dramatically. It’s ripe and acidic with loads of bright red fruit and florals creating a pretty and ethereal wine.

And then it was time for pinot. The 2016 Yamhill Springs is made from Vadersville clones planted thirty years ago that tend to go through rather slow phenolic ripening on that site. Evan shies away from using whole cluster because he wants to keep the juicy acidity that this vineyard tends to produce. It has a lot of baking spice and dark fruit on the nose, which comes off chocolaty in nature. The wonderful texture sets up seriously layered flavors that are presented well on the back of sharply focused acid.

The final wine was the 2016 Jesse James vineyard pinot noir, which Evan describes as his “power and grace” wine. This one is almost entirely Oregon oak (7/8ths). It has a rich, full mouthfeel but maintains an elegant tension established by bright acid and dense, fine tannin. “Power” and “grace” are appropriate adjectives for it.

As we discussed the Jesse James, Evan gave me one of my favorite quotes from the trip: “acid is like salt in winemaking,” a statement that pairs well with another favorite quote about acid, given to me by a coffee roaster in Syracuse, New York: “acid is flavor.” There is serious substance to these wines, and it seems to come largely by way of the acid, which I believe contributes to the structure, flavor and feel more than the oak, which is delicate and refined. I think. After all, this was my first run-in with wines with Oregonian oak, and perhaps at least some of what I’m giving credit to the acid for ought to be fondly ascribed to the native wood.

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In a similar vein, the other theme that contributes to Martin Woods’ signature is the reduction that seems common among many of the wines. Not only does this enhance the balance and elegance of the wines, but when combined with the acid (and/or oak?) it builds wines that are set up for a long and mesmerizing aging curve.

My hope is that I have more run-ins with Martin Woods wine. With additional experience, I would hope to discern better what I’m tasting in Evan’s wines. Between the acid, fine tannin and reduction, these are wines that stand out as unique among the crowd. I’m just not sure now, yet, what each of these three factors are bringing to the party. Regardless, they’re doing well together, and Evan’s obsession with improving each element promises even better wines in the future.

In my mind, the ideal customer for Martin Woods wines is one that has copious amounts of two things: patience and cellar space. These are seriously underpriced wines given their impressive quality, ranging from $27 to $37 per bottle. This makes them no-brainer case purchases if you have the room. They will go through a fascinating evolution with long-term aging and therefore benefit from extended cellar time. True wine obsession embraces the living nature of wine and an appreciation that it thrives when given its best chance to live out its fullest and best life. Martin Woods is made for those obsessed with wine.

The visit to Martin Woods was a great way to kick off three days in the Willamette Valley. Look for part two, a completion of this first day of the trip, soon.

On Cork Report: Top Wineries in Monticello AVA, Virginia

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Stinson Vineyards estate vineyard

Note: This article was originally published on The Cork Report.

There is a debate among Virginia winemakers and wine lovers about where the best wine in Virginia comes from, but those are some rough seas for a wine writer to navigate (many have told me that there is no debate, yet they don’t all say the same thing).

Certainly among the most cited is the Monticello American Viticultural Area (AVA), Virginia’s first established AVA. Referencing Thomas Jefferson’s historic home, its name pays homage to that most famous and early proponent of Virginia grown and made wine. The AVA covers some really beautiful country. Dotted with several small to medium-sized urban areas, themselves quite lovely, most of the land is taken with large, upscale horse ranches, farms, and estates. This atmosphere certainly boosts the AVA’s pedigree.

Although I’ve lived in Arlington, Virginia for most of the last twelve years, I haven’t spent much time at Monticello’s wineries. Earlier this summer, I set out to begin rectifying that and chose five to visit. During the long weekend trip, I also held a winemaker roundtable to discuss how Virginia tannin is built, which will I’ll report on in a future The Cork Report post.

For now, I’d like to talk about each of these wineries, some of the wines of each that stood out, and why each is worth getting to know as they all speak, in their own way, to what it means to make and drink Virginia wine.

Continue reading here.

When is Wine Conceived?

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Credit: sayingimages.com

On July 11th, I celebrated my 35th birthday with a birthyear 1983 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf de Pape, one of my favorite French estates. Though it drank well and was special because of its vintage, it would have probably shown its best, not unlike myself, ten or so years ago. As an unreasonable comparison, the 1995 Seven Hills Klipsun merlot from Washington State we drank later that evening was more prime-like. Over the wine and grilled lamb chops, my fiancé and I debated what was actually older: myself or the birthyear wine? My birthdate is July 11th, 1983, but what was the actual birthdate of the Beaucastel?

The question can be put another way: when does wine become wine? I certainly had my theories, as did Kayce. One potential answer is the day fermentation begins because wine is alcoholic, and we couldn’t consider pressed grape juice to be wine, right? I’ve never heard someone make the argument Welch’s grape juice is wine.

If one grants that fermentation is birth, there remains an important question: is the beginning of fermentation the point of wine’s conception, or when fermentation completes or somewhere between? If I can reference the abortion debate for this discussion (CONTROVERSY ALERT), some people argue that conception is the beginning of life, while others say life doesn’t begin until birth. If we want to use those respective logics, life at conception means wine is born at the beginning of fermentation, whereas life at birth results in wine being born at the completion of fermentation.

My fiancé hypothesized that a wine’s birthday is the day no more additives or methods are introduced because that is the point at which it receives no more human nurturing and stands, if you will, on its own legs (get it?). Prior to that, the required human support means it is not matured yet into wine. For a wine that goes into barrel and then bottle without any additions or further manipulation (even racking), its birthday is the day it is put into barrel. If a wine receives a hit of sulfur prior to bottling, then bottling is its birthday.

Neither of us was able to convince the other, and it became clear Kayce and I weren’t going to settle the debate. So, I decided to put the question to a few winemakers. The breadth of responses were akin to a joke we Jews make about ourselves: two Jews, three opinions. That is to say, no consensus (so thanks, winemakers, for your “help”). Below are the responses, which I found very entertaining to read. I hope you do too.

If readers have their own opinions, I’m on board with doing a subsequent piece featuring thoughtful reader responses if a sufficient number are received. Please email them to goodvitis (at) gmail (dot) com.

Charlie Smith of Smith-Madrone Winery on Spring Mountain in Napa wrote, effectively, that wine is born when fermentation ends:

“The  consensus opinion, of course, is that the year the grapes are picked is the year that the wine is born. It’s always seemed to me, though, that within that year the day that the last yeast cell stops converting sugar to alcohol [is the birthdate]. Or, to put it another way, the day the primary fermentation ceases, is the first day in the life of the wine. It is the first day grape juice is fully, finally converted to wine and day-one in the life of the wine. It becomes ‘finished’ wine on the day it is bottled, but as wine, it was born days, weeks, even years, before.”

Adam Lee of Siduri Wines and Clarice Wine Company in California had, as is wonderfully typical of Adam, a philosopher’s answer:

“I’ve been on a Julian Barnes kick lately, re-reading many of his works, and I came across this quote in The Sense of an Ending: ‘Someone once said that his favorite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant something new was being born.’ I thought of this quote when you described a somewhat too old birth-year wine and asked when is a wine actually born.

“A wine dies most often when the cork is popped, or the cap is unscrewed and the wine drunk. I have participated in a wine’s death in joy with friends, and killed an entire bottle myself in sadness and depression. The occasions change, and I interact differently with them each time and with every bottle. And yet every time, wine remains a constant for me in all of life’s moments. As someone who makes wine, the death of those bottles inspires me every year to take what nature provides and birth that into wine. For me, the wine is born in my mind and in my memory’s museums (thanks Kanye) before a new season’s grape is ever grown.”

Mattieu Finot of King Family Vineyards in Virginia not only answered the birthday question, but outlined a wine’s lifespan:

“The period of bud break to harvest this is the pregnancy stage. The process of birth, which is fermentation, takes a little bit longer than it is for humans. Once alcoholic fermentation is complete, then it becomes wine. When alcoholic fermentation is complete, that is the wine’s birthday.

“Malolactic fermentation is like losing your baby teeth in that it doesn’t really change who you are because you’re human already.  Receiving an ‘addition’ [e.g. sulfur] is like having braces because it is optional and doesn’t say anything about whether you’re human (or wine) or not; not everybody needs them and at the end this is just esthetic.

“Once the wine is bottled this is when the wine is an adult and it can take care of itself. Wisdom comes with age…. not when you are 20…. still crazy, strong and all over the place! But, when you get too old, you are losing your muscle and sometimes forget things… a little less substance, even if you were a strong brilliant person!”

Fellow Jew, Garry Cohen of Maryland’s Mazzaroth Vineyard, called it a “nice question” and included a bit of spirituality in his answer:

“I maintain that it’s wine once the fermentation has finished. From then on, it will always be changing. Whether through the use of oak, ml, additives, aging, etc. But at the risk of being a bit spiritual, once it’s finished fermenting and you can do a blessing over it, then it is born.”

Amen.

Barboursville’s Luca Paschina in Virginia answered, mostly, with a story and a wicked curveball:

“When is a wine birthed? What an interesting question it is. Well, let me tell you what happened earlier this year. The daughter of very dear friends, which we have not seen in a while, came to our house for dinner. Since her parents have hosted us at their home several times with great food and wines, I decide to serve her a wine from her birth year, 1990.

“I searched in my cellar, which is predominantly occupied by Barboursville Vineyards wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, but could not find any good ones from 1990. After initial disappointment, suddenly I realized that since she was born in March of 1990, she was conceived/born in summer of 1989 and happily I reached for a 1989 Barolo which, by the way, was one of the most fantastic growing season of the past 40 years in Piedmont. The wine was beautiful, meaningful  and truly appreciated by all of us.

“Therefore, when is a wine born? Perhaps the Beaucastel was born at bud break on April 8th 1983.”

Not far up the road from Barboursville, Ben Jordan of Early Mountain, began with an analogy:

“For me the best analogue is when the fruit is cut from the vine. Before that the flowers are fertilized, the fruit is formed and develops with a connection to the plant, and the time on the vine is basically gestation. Like birth, harvest is a dramatic change, because the fruit will never be connected to the vine again, and it begins the (hopefully slow) march through life to death. If the vineyard is well cared for, then the point that the grapes hit the picking container marks the point when the microbiome can begin to transform the fruit into wine. This is its birthday.

“Like a newborn, the wine grapes are most fragile right when picked and the winemaker/parents must work attentively, focus on little else, and spend every day (and night) with the newly forming wine. It is the decisions and approach during this short but critical time, along with the fruit’s genetic makeup, that will determine the personality of the wine.

“Fermentation is the childhood. Early on it is almost unbearably charming as the wine is rapidly changing into something more recognizable, becoming more stable, yet still vulnerable and needing of constant attention. The wines emerges from fermentation as the awkward teenager. No one really loves them, except their winemakers, and some days even they are not so sure.

“After that, the wine must grow up, and there is less and less the winemaker/parent can do. They can intervene, yes, but it becomes harder and harder to effect change in a positive way. Once the wine is bottled, it leaves the house, there is not much else winemakers can do other than hope that it will go out into the world and make them proud.

“As a note: If we are trying to make this analogy only with the plant and fruit (and not wine), I would still say that birth begins when the fruit falls or is plucked from the vine. At that point the offspring is no longer connected to the parent, and the question of whether it survives no longer depends on this connection. At this point the fruit and seed have the ability to grow up into a plant. Apologies to biologists.”

Drew Baker of Old Westminster in Maryland went the fermentation route:

“Wine is alcohol made from fermented grape juice. When looking at the tense of the verbiage, you notice that ‘fermented’ is in the past-tense – meaning that the fermentation of the juice has been completed. With that being said, I believe a wine is born when the fermentation is complete – aging in oak, concrete, stainless steel, bottle, etc. does impact a wines flavor profile, but to my mind the wine is already born.”

Finally, Forge Cellars’ Rick Rainey in the Finger Lakes weighed in:

“I will give you the short version.  The wine is ‘birthed’ once we put it into bottle.  Then it is finished and can be enjoyed as we exactly intended it.  Yes, it may not be ‘optimum’ and need aging to give the full pleasure but ideally it is ready, give or take a few weeks to recover from bottling.”

Late addition: Brent Kroll, Sommelier and Founder of Maxwell Park, one of DC’s most respected wine bars, and one of Food & Wine’s 2018 Sommeliers of the Year:

“I believe a wine is birthed when the grapes are harvested from the vine.  Wine can always be manipulated or adjusted past that. Often what happens past that is beneficial to protect the wine but sometimes they are over enhanced and that year of the harvest can be hidden. Those grapes are what speaks for that year in my opinion and lines get too blurred if you open the door past that. On the other hand, the only exception I might grant, even though I wouldn’t, is sparkling wine. I can see how something being 10 years old past disgorgement or being disgorged 10 years after the harvest are completely different. It’s hard then to judge the age by the vintage but I still stick to my initial thought. If you have to put a vintage on mixed vintages I would take the average based on the quantity of each vintage in the wine.”

And there you have it: no consensus on a wine’s birthday. Like the abortion debate, it rages on.

Try this Wine: 2015 Hess Select North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon

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The 2015 Hess Select North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon is riding a strong commercial tailwind. It’s cabernet sauvignon, which is second in popularity only to chardonnay in America, and it’s from California, which dominates America’s wine production, store shelves (commercial demand) and exports. If one’s focus was on making wine that would sell easily and in large numbers, they’d make cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in California.

If there’s a headwind against this wine, it’s that at a suggested retail of $19 it is too expensive for the mainstream (though I wouldn’t be surprised to find it for $12-15 in many grocery stores nation-wide). Even at $12, it’s outside the 78% of total domestic wine sales that come in under $10 per bottle. However, the tide is turning. In 2017, purchases of bottles priced $15-19.99 saw double-digit growth. Things were never down for the Hess Select cabernet sauvignon, but they are nonetheless looking up.

With so many Americans buying California cabernet sauvignon, this instance of Try this Wine aims to be a twofer. First, for those who regularly buy grocery store cabernet sauvignon, I’m hopefully drawing attention to a particular wine that over delivers. And second, for those who normally eschew under $20 cabernet sauvignon, I’m hopefully drawing attention to a wine that demonstrates real quality can be had for a lower-than-expected price that is also available in serious wine stores.

I visited Hess last December during an epic five days in Napa, not knowing much about the producer and walking in with a critically wrong assumption about them. Here’s a line from the post that I wrote about Hess:

“I had sort of assumed that because of its size, its quality and personality were going to be, um, uninspiring. After trying the samples, I knew the only ass in that assumption was me.”

Hess was awesome. A medium-sized producer, which by California standards is pretty large, they poured me nearly their entire range, beginning with several Select wines. The Select series is the winery’s entry point, and accounts for 65% of total Hess production, making it the company’s financial backbone. The series begins with the $12.99 Select chardonnay, and tops out around the $20 mark. We slowly climbed the ladder until reaching the top: the $185 Lion cabernet sauvignon. There wasn’t a bad wine in the bunch, and I found several to be inspiring. More than anything, though, I was impressed with the Select chardonnay because I was shocked that anyone could make a chardonnay of that quality that could retail for $12.99 – I’ve had many $25-30 chardonnays that are on all accounts no better than the Select.

I vividly remember asking Hess’ winemaker how they made such a good thirteen dollar wine and learning that they have vineyards dedicated to the Select line that get the same attention as their more prestigious vineyards, and an assistant winemaker who focuses on the Select line, giving it as much attention as the head winemaker does for the more expensive wines. Since then, I’ve included the chardonnay in several tastings I’ve led and talked it up on many occasions.

This is why it was fun to revisit the Select line with this cabernet sauvignon, which I received as a sample. They produce 175,000 cases of the Select cabernet, which represents 35% of the total Select series production. That’s serious quantity, so achieving equally serious quality is no small order, and rare at this scale. This alone is reason enough to try this wine.

Tasting note: This fresh, ripe nose gives off aromas of cherry and blackberry compote, toasted oak, potting soil, graphite minerality and blood orange zest. The body is very polished and lush, balanced nicely by good acidity that keeps it from becoming cloying or heavy. Flavors are focused the dark and juicy cherry and boysenberry, though tobacco, wet dirt and lavender peak through. 88 points. Value: A.

Where to buy:

This is a widely distributed wine – available in all fifty states and twenty-three countries outside America – and is available at serious wine stores, grocery stores and online retailers, including wine.com. Below are a few places where it is available. As always, you can head over to wine-searcher.com and input your zip code and a radius to find nearby stores.

Chicago area: Sal’s Beverage World with locations in Addison, Elmhurst and Villa Park.

Denver: Argonaut Wine & Liquor, 760 E. Colfax Ave, Denver CO 80203. 303-831-7788.

Florida: Crown Wine & Spirits, nine locations on the Pacific Coast.

Los Angeles: Wally’s Wine & Spirits, three locations.

Memphis: Buster’s Liquors, 191 South Highland, Memphis TN 38111. 901-458-0929.

New York: Garnet Wines & Liquors, 929 Lexington Ave, New York NY 10065. 212-772-3211.

Try this Wine: 2015 Smith-Madrone Riesling

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Note: This is the inaugural edition of Try this Wine, a series we hope to make regular on the website. You can’t know more than you taste, and knowledge is what builds a palate, so exploration is key to developing an appreciation for wine. Each edition will spotlight a wine that we believe has, whether we happen to like it or not, a compelling reason or two for people to try. Some of the wines will be harder to find and/or more expensive than others, but the one theme that will be constant is our belief that the wines we feature will improve your appreciation for wine. At the bottom of each Try this Wine post, you’ll find a list of places to purchase the wine.

Most wine drinkers aren’t going to like the Smith-Madrone riesling because they don’t like riesling, or so they think. “It’s too sweet” is the variety’s reputation, and the industry hasn’t done much to help itself in this regard. People see the grape and think ‘sweet’ and there’s nothing, except the occasional demi-sec or sec label (which doesn’t mean anything to most people anyways) to clue them in to the reality. Smith-Madrone’s 2015 riesling carries 0.68% residual sugar, which is for all intents and purposes a dry wine. But you wouldn’t know it from the label.

The other thing you wouldn’t know from the label, unless you knew the winery’s reputation already, is how good it is. The rieslings with the most widespread and greatest reputations aren’t grown in the United States, but I’d put money on a few domestics to place well in a Judgment of Paris styled event in Alsace or Wachau. Good Vitis hosted a blind tasting of thirty-two American rieslings with a couple of esteemed wine professionals about a year ago. All of us were more impressed than we expected with the overall quality, and super impressed with a handful of them, including Smith-Madrone. Stu Smith, a General Partner and winemaker at Smith-Madrone, dropped in and tasted with us, nervously hoping his wine would show well. It did.

There are a couple of things that combine to make riesling a special grape like no other. The versatility of the grape is, I would argue, without peers. It can be grown in so many different soils and climates, it’s remarkable. It also picks up terrior as well as any grape, and better than most. Multiply its ability to grow in so many different places by its ability to represent each unique location and you end up with a massive range of differences. With its racy acid, focus and complexity, riesling is also an incredibly versatile and nimble partner of food. On top of that, it ages gracefully and for decades (when grown and made to do so). In the collateral sent with the Smith-Madrone sample, Stu writes that “we think this will have a lifespan of 20-30 years” and there’s no doubt that he is right. The best-made riesling in Germany and Austria is known to gain complexity over decades and decades. Stu’s been making riesling long enough to know, when he says his will go twenty to thirty years, that it will do so while improving.

When you have a really good riesling, it’s impossible to objectively say there is better wine in the world. The kicker is, the best riesling is outrageously cheap by the standard of any other variety that can come close to riesling’s quality. You have to search far and wide to find a riesling that will cost you, off the shelf, over $100, or even $50. For a third of that ($32), you can get the 2015 Smith-Madrone, and it just might be the best $32 white wine you’ll find, and a wine that’s far better than many other varieties costing significantly more.

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Some of Smith-Madrone’s vineyards. Picture credit: Pull That Cork.

They ferment it in stainless, and keep it there through clarification, aging and filtration. It’s 100% riesling that is kept from going through malolactic fermentation and gets no lees stirring. This is all to say, it’s really well-grown estate riesling from a really great mountain site that showcases terrior and talent. Stu boasts of “a proud history with this varietal, from our very first vintage. That 1977 vintage won the Riesling Competition of the 1979 Wine Olympics, a tasting organized in Paris by the food and wine guide Gault & Millau.” Bring on The Germans and Austrians.

Tasting note: What a wonderful nose with elevated florals, dried apricot, tangerine, wet stones, chalk, margarita salt and white peach. Medium in weight, the acid is racy with a lush texture. The ripe flavors hit on tangerine, yellow peach, lime, rhubarb and tobiko. The finish goes for ages. Another brilliant vintage of this stuff, the 2015 should have an excellent fifteen to twenty year lifespan, at least. 92 points, value A.

Where to Buy

The 2015 is still finding its way to shelves around the country. Smith-Madrone sells a lot of direct-to-consumer, and you can purchase this wine from them now. As this vintage gets distributed (there is often a lag time between winery release and completion of the distribution process), it should be available around the country in discerning wine stores. Right now, wine-searcher.com is listing only one store:

Truly Fine Wine, 4060 Morena Blvd., Ste K, San Diego, CA 92117. Phone: (858) 270-9463.

Direct from the producer: Smith-Madrone, 4022 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, CA 94574. Phone: 707.963.2283. (You can also call them to inquire about where you might find it locally).

You can find other locations for other vintages here.

Arizona Continues its Evolution at Aridus

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Arizona’s wine scene remains a bit of a black hole for me. I’ve written about visits to AZ Stronghold and Fire Mountain, which began to clue me into the state’s potentially bright wine future, but beyond that and a few bottles of the state’s most famous winery, Caduceus, that had been it for me. When samples arrived from Aridus Wine Company, I was excited for the opportunity to try another producer.

In preparing to write this post, I wanted to see how much wine the state was producing, and it is paltry. In terms of bulk wine, Arizona produced less in 2017 than Arkansas. Florida produced five times more in the same year than did Arizona. Indiana nearly quintupled Arizona’s production. In total, the state produces 0.0000003% of the nation’s bulk wine. In terms of what goes into bottle, the percentage drops a bit to 0.00000026%. Though I don’t have numbers, I know a decent amount of the state’s wine comes from grapes sourced outside the state. Still, that Arizona has any national reputation for wine, and it does have a budding one, is staggering giving its contribution by volume.

Having had good wine from Arizona, when I spoke to Aridus’ winemaker, Lisa Strid, I asked her the same questions I’ve asked other winemakers from the state: is Arizona ready for the national stage, and what’s keeping it from mainstream conversation? She boiled it down to the state’s biggest limitation, water. Arizona has long had water issues, and it’s scarcity, especially where grapes grow best, limits volume and quality. Water availability hasn’t been an entirely solvable problem for the state in general, so marshaling more for the luxury that is wine production hasn’t been a winnable fight. Without sufficient water, they can only make so much wine. Full stop.

Working with what water they do have available, Aridus gets juice from its own vineyard and other sources both in and out of the state. Right now, only some of its whites are coming from estate fruit, while the reds haven’t come online yet, though Aridus is making a concerted effort to ramp up planting and production of more of its own vines. Their vineyard is in Pearce, located up against a stream-fed hillside where there is slightly less water pressure. The site is also at a higher elevation than the rest of the AVA, which helps to moderate the temperature a bit. All of this helps the site do a better job at retaining acid in the grapes, a constant challenge faced by Arizona wineries in achieving lower pH levels. As more of their estate fruit comes on-line, hopefully the wines will hit lower pH and achieve more brightness.

Aridus produces a wide range of wines, and the four I tried are best described as “big.” All of the reds get oak treatment, typically around 18 months in anywhere from 40% to 100% new oak, most of which is French. On the white side, they go for “a lot of expression of the grape – bold aromas and flavors.” They’re bold in structure, too.

Lisa is high on their Malvasia, which I tried along with the Rosé (of mourvedre), malbec and petit sirah. I was able to confirm that the house style described came through in the wines. The Malvasia was indeed expressive, and had an interesting texture that gave substance to its volume. The Rosé was a very nice full-bodied sipping wine, and one that I think is probably best had on its own due to its lower acid. Both the malbec and petit sirah are big bodied wines that show their extensive oak, which dominates at the moment. While alcohol levels on both are modest, I do wonder if the higher pH can facilitate better integration of oak and drive more expressiveness with age.

What I find most exciting and interesting about Aridus is the evolution it could take as more estate fruit is cultivated, which sounds like promising material from which to make wines of increasing quality. Lisa is working with a big variety of grapes, not all of them from Arizona, and so she’s having to deal with a plethora of evolving challenges and conditions. This is standard for experimental winemakers in emerging wine regions. Lisa recently returned from a harvest in Australia where she learned a few new tricks that she wants to try out at home. More vines will go into the ground at the Aridus vineyard. She’ll have another vintage under belt at the end of this year. Other Arizona winemakers will try and share new knowledge with each other. All of these are necessary to developing a wine region and house styles, and it’s fun to watch it happen.

2016 Aridus Malvasia Bianca: Ripe, tropics-drive nose of honey, melon-dew, cantaloupe and big pineapple. Rich vanilla curd swirls around the edges, while there’s just a wiff of green vegetalness. It’s medium weight on the palate. The acid is modest and well-integrated into a slightly sweet and round structure that has a bit of a grainy texture that’s diversifies things nicely. Flavors are bitter-sweet lemon, vanilla, Starfruit, green papaya, apricot, white flowers and dandelion flower. A pleasant sipper with an interesting texture. 88 points. Value C-

2016 Aridus Rosé (of mourvedre): Classic Mourved rose nose of crushed blackberry, cherry and bramble berry, pepper and a little vanilla. Towards the end of the full body rose spectrum, it’s round and lush and well-polished – a velvety mouth feel. The acid is light but enough to add needed mid-palate lift. The tannins get slightly grainy on the finish. Flavors are all sorts of crushed berries – red, blue and black – along with vanilla pudding, marzipan and a slight hit of saline. Downright lovely, it’s probably best on its own rather than with food. 88 points. Value: C-

2014 Aridus malbec: The reticent nose boasts a hedonistic compote of blackberry, blueberry and cherry that is lifted by heavy baking spices. This one is medium bodied with a bit of extraction, it wears its malolactic fermentation and oak influence on its sleeve: baking spice, oak vanillin and a buttery finish. Acid is modest. The fruit is modest cherry, red currant and Acai. With air it develops some very welcomed graphite minerality. Not quite sure what to make of this one, the oak influence is dominating at this point. It may have enough acid to survive some evolution, which hopefully would allow the oak to better integrate. 89 points. Value: B

2014 Aridus petit sirah: What an inky nose, it saps with wild berries, high-toned orange zest, cracked pepper and sea brine. Closer to full-bodied, the acid is bright and the tannins grainy and chewy, likely smoothed out a bit by the oak. The fruit is a bit darker on the palate, coming in the forms of blackberry, cherry, strawberry and blueberry. Oak baking spices are quite prevalent, while black tea, pepper and cocoa finish things off. As time goes this gets more savory. It develops mesquite and iodine. While this has under half new oak, it has a big impact. Not the truest to type, it is nonetheless well-done and enjoyable. 89 points. Value: B

What Role Should Vidal Blanc Play in the Future of Maryland Wine?

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Note: this article appears in full on The Cork Report

There is a tension in the Maryland wine market. On one hand, consumers want the wines they know – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and the Vitis vinifera like – while on the other hand, Maryland doesn’t necessarily produce versions of these varieties that meet consumer expectation.

The Mid-Atlantic shares very little in common climatically with the more popular areas producing the baseline vinifera for these consumers – places like the American West Coast and Europe – and that makes it quite difficult to hit the structure and notes that people expect (unless a winery is willing to manufacture it with special winemaking techniques and additives, or source the grapes or juice from out of state and bottle it as “American wine” as some do).

The fantastic Maryland wines made with state-grown Bordeaux varieties that do exist are fantastic because they embrace the state’s terroir, not because they’re exceptional renditions of more popular styles, which makes them distinctly different from those other places. I’ve found these differences are particularly acute in red wines because warmer weather is especially beneficial in developing the fruit flavors and structure that are so directly associated with red wine. I’ll get more into this in an upcoming article on East Coast tannins.

On the white grape side, however, Maryland wineries are showing a slightly more pioneering attitude and venturing further afield to discover grapes might help them hit their own goals of quality while offering appeal to customers. Keep reading here.

The Black Magic of Winemaking: Tannins

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Credit: Gerald Hoberman, Getty

Last December, I took a trip to Napa and visited a ton of wineries throughout the Valley. Though not the purpose of the trip, it became a study in tannins. The experience reminded me just how impactful vineyard and winemaking decisions can be on a wine’s profile. The largest differences in the wines came in the size, shape and structure of tannin, and I realized I should know more about why those differences exist because I clearly had preferences about them.

To learn more, I reached out to three winemakers whose wines I love in large part because of their tannins: Richie Allen of Rombauer in Napa, Shane Moore of Zena Crown and Gran Moraine in the Willamette Valley, and David Larson of Soos Creek in Washington State. Richie’s Napa cabernets are highly structured wines, but were also among the very small minority that do not overload the tannins. I found this remarkable because most of the Napa cabs I had, including many from esteemed wineries that receive (incorrectly, I believe) higher scores from the big reviewers than do Richie’s, hit you upside the head with dense, chewy and often times coarse tannins that prematurely dry the mouth and kill the flavor.

Shane’s pinots (and chardonnays) from Oregon are complex and rewarding at every price point they hit, and though one doesn’t talk about tannin in the same way with pinot as is done with other red varietals, I’ve found his pinots to achieve captivating textures.

For more information on Richie, Shane and their wines, you can read about my visit to Rombauer here, a profile of Richie here, and a profile of Shane here.

David’s Bordeaux-varietal wines from Washington, a state whose climate can develop ample tannin, go through a wonderful evolution as they age. He’ll tell you that he prefers at least five years on most of his reds, if not ten, largely because it takes time for the tannins to resolve. When his wines hit their target balance, they offer classic Washington flavors combinations and textures. I recently had an 8-year old Soos Creek and loved it.

The first thing to know about tannin is, well, what it is. Tannins are chemical compounds, and the term originates from leather tanning, as leather workers used them to preserve the leather. Tannins bind proteins together. The physical sensation we associate with tannins in our mouths when drinking a wine is the actual process of proteins being bound in real time.

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Phenolic tannin. Credit: WineLand Media

The next thing to know it is that the term “tannin” encompasses two components: anthocyanin and phenolics. Anthocyanin is the color in the wine, and it’s the main focus for Richie at Rombauer because “it’s a very good indication of quality: the higher the color, the higher the potential quality.” Color is finite; there is only so much color in fruit and only that amount available can be extracted. Phenolics, of which there is usually higher quantities than anthocyanin, are chemical compounds, of which there are potentially hundreds of varieties.

Richie aims for full extraction of color. If he can hit that, then he and his team can build the desired tannin structure because there’s usually more phenolics than they need. Put another way, if they have really high anthocyanin then they can push the tannin structure without throwing the wine out of balance. However, if the anthocyanin is moderate and they try to push the tannin structure by ramping up phenolic extraction, they end up with a highly tannic wine that has a hole in the mid palate, something Richie and his fellow Aussies refer to as “donut wine” (lots of tannin around the sides and nothing in the middle). Shane, too, is focused on color. He describes one of his priorities as achieving good “color stabilization,” which is another term for the same thing: the bounding or conjugating of anthocyanin and phenolics into “complexes.”

Tannins, as David explained, “are very specific to each batch of grapes. Like everything else in winemaking there’s a lot of variability between varieties, vineyards, and even blocks within vineyards.” David is looking for great mouthfeel. His ideal tannins are the kind “that caress the mouth. It’s one of the best attributes of a wine, but hard to achieve. I’m looking for abundant but fine grained tannins, which create elegant wines.” These, as will be explained below, are long-chain tannins formed by the binding of anthocyanin and phenolics.

When speaking to a pinot noir producer, you enter a different tannin realm. Pinot’s tannins are very different than any other varietal because physiologically, the tannins and structure are unique. “You have skin tannins, your anthocyanins, and then you have seed tannins, and not a whole lot of other phenolics involved like you do with cabernet or the Bordeaux varietals,” Shane said. “This makes both tannin extraction and the mouth feel very different.” The differences in tannin that we experience in drinking pinot noir are unique tannin experiences when compared to other reds.

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Credit: EnoViti

Anthocyanin is developed in the vineyard and lives in the skins of the berries (the term used to refer to the grapes). Richie looks at many things in trying to influence color accumulation in the skins. If the berries get too large, color gets diluted. Too many berries on the vine can lead to less color. Sun exposure is key: too much sun and the berries get sun burnt; not enough sun and they don’t develop much anthocyanin. “Think of anthocyanin as sun block,” Shane explained. “If you’re giving the berries less sun, they make less sun block.”

This makes canopy (the leaves) management critical. The act of picking leaves from the vines, called “leafing,” is part of this. In Shane’s vineyards, they begin leafing right after flowering and fruit set in most cases. This approach is suited for the cooler climate of Oregon where sufficiently warm sun, needed to develop anthocyanin, isn’t in always plentiful. “More sun produces more and riper anthocaynins for us,” Shane noted.

Richie focuses on berry weight and size. Smaller berries tend to have higher anthocyanin levels. That said, Richie has his outliers. “I have a couple of vineyards that, on paper, should be terrible when you look at the numbers, but when you taste them, they’re really good and the numbers don’t match. I always say, you can graph it and draw your correlation line, but there are always outliers, and that’s why we taste.”

Shane expressed a strong desire to produced “balanced crops.” If there is too much fruit hanging, “you often get more green tannins, meaning seed, or short-chain, tannins.” Over the years the average crop of Willamette pinot noir has settled into the 2.5-3.5 tons per acre zone, “and when you hit that tonnage,” Shane says, “you’re ripening your seeds, and ripe seeds equal ripe tannins and you’re not extracting shorter tannins; you’re getting longer chain tannins and that’s your desired starting point” in achieving good texture and mouthfeel. “Balanced vines are going to give you ripe tannins and balanced wines.”

A common theme among these three winemakers is that they approach winemaking looking primarily at the structural elements of the wine, not flavors or aromas. Shane’s approach is to make wines “texturally” because texture shows through in the wine for a longer period of time than other elements and “is more of the wine itself then flavors or aromatics. Texture is the most stable part of the wine.” Therefore, when Shane extracts tannins, he’s doing it in the context of achieving that desirable texture.

Richie has been accused of making wine by numbers, and he admits that to a certain extent, he does. “All I’m doing is stacking the deck in my favor. It’s like counting cards – you’re working the probability to get a desired outcome. That’s all that we’re doing, and with fruit that’s $10,000 or more per ton, you want to make sure you nail it every time. In high end winemaking, you can’t screw it up one year and say, well, we’ll do it better next year. That doesn’t fly.”

Winemakers can’t rely on taste alone in the tannin context because of the presence of sugar during fermentation. “The reason we’re so interested in the numbers is when the wines are fermenting and you still have sugar, you can’t taste or feel tannin in your mouth. It’s all hidden by the sugar,” Richie told me. “So the only way to see if you’re heading in the right direction is to run analysis. You don’t know if you’ve gotten all the tannin out, you don’t know what the tannin level is when it’s at even three Brix. You can’t taste it. And if you keep pumping it over and you overshoot that mark, it’s too late. You can use strippers [like egg whites or gelatin] to lean the tannins, but you can’t just strip tannin without getting rid of stuff you want to keep. Fining agents are not as selective as they’re portrayed. The analysis is a good indicator of potential quality, though it doesn’t replace actually tasting either.”

David strives to balance alcohol, tannin, fruit, oak and acid. “This is largely a function of the grapes you get,” he says. In Washington, David believes the most impactful adjustment to make to find the sweet spot in the balance is tweaking sugar levels. “It matters a great deal because it determines the alcohol level, and I want a relatively low-alcohol wine.” For age worthy wines – read high(ish) tannin and high(ish) acid – alcohol is be the sticking point because while tannins and acids soften with age, alcohol remains exactly the same its entire life. A wine with great tannin and acid at bottling will fall out of balance with time if the alcohol is too high.

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Credit: Wine Folly

Fermentation is a key phase for tannin development, even though, as noted above, you can’t detect the tannins by taste, because, as David explains, “the higher the temperature the more tannin extraction you get. The longer the juice stays on the skins, the more extraction of tannin (up to a point). The tannins will start to soften as they get longer.” He starts his fermentations off at usually around 65 degrees and allows them to creep up slowly to the mid to upper-80s. This translates into fermentations usually lasting around 20 days, though they’ve gone as long as 30. He added that the shape and size of the fermenter matters as well in that it determines the juice to solids ratio as well as the flow, or interaction, of the juice with the solids.

Shane approaches fermentation with temperatures that are considered on the lower side for pinot noir. Whereas most are toping top out at around 86-90 degrees, Shane doesn’t go above 78-80 degrees. Temperatures matter for tannin extraction – warmer temperatures help to extract heavier tannins. Therefore, if he’s getting a higher extraction than desired, he will lower the temperature, and vice versa.

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Punching down the cap. Credit: Willamettewines.com

Management of the cap, meaning all of the solid bits that float to the top during fermentation, also plays a big role because the cap is where the tannins – anthocyanin and phenolics alike – originate. The two most common ways to manage the cap are “pump overs,” which involves keeping the cap where it is while pumping the juice below it up and onto the cap, and “punch downs,” which refers to pushing the cap into the juice. The former adds more oxygen to the juice, which functions to elongate the chain of the tannins. As Shane describes it, short chain tannins are coarser drying tannins whereas longer chain tannins are “umami tannins and not as drying.” Shane uses pump overs early on to elongate the tannins as those are his preferred variety. Once fermentation is over, so too is grape-based tannin development.

Phenolics drive more of the textural element than anthocyanin. When there is an excess of phenolics, winemakers strive for high levels of bound anthocyanin and phenolics because it helps to reduce coarseness. I asked Richie if determining the chains by taste is as simple as, if the wine is coarse, it’s heavy on the short chain, and if it’s smooth, it’s heavy on the long chain. “More or less yes,” he said, adding that I was “basically correct, [but] when you start to look at the types of tannins and their interactions it becomes very complicated and our understanding is in its infancy. Thus is the art of winemaking.”

Untoasted wood chips can help in this department, as do additives like enological tannin. Richie has played around with these methods in trials, and while they’ve offered some interesting outcomes, he hasn’t felt like it’s boosted quality and hasn’t deployed it in production Rombauer. However, if using highly cropped, lower quality fruit, the use of chips or enological tannin can really help develop a wine of superior quality. “I’ve known people who do it really, really well,” Richie said. “And I’ve done it myself [at other wineries]. If you don’t understand how to use exogenous tannins correctly, you’re really limiting your ability to make quality wine. Especially in the cheaper bracket. At the higher end, you don’t need to do it.”

I asked him if it’s possible to pick up on the use of these tools in a wine by taste, and he questioned whether one could. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I don’t have the ability to do it and I don’t know of anyone who does. However, to make wines taste more palatable texturally and give them more palatable mouthfeels, especially in the lower price tier, their use is a sure way to improve your quality.” Dispelling any notion that it’s a New World thing, Richie explained that it’s very common in Europe, and referred to an unnamed friend in France who “is really well versed in how to use enological tannins and phenols to build wines to make them significantly better in that lower price bracket, and he’s really, really good at it. If I were making $10 wine, I’d be calling him to learn more.”

Measuring anthocyanin levels in the vineyard is challenging, and naturally Richie and his team have found that the most labor intensive way to measure gives them the best data. I promised not to spill the beans on this method, but after the explanation it’s understandable why those not using it are a step or two behind. These measurements, however, don’t necessarily mean anything because there is often a difference between the amount of anthocyanin in the vineyard and the amount that can be extracted in the winery. Determining the factors that drive that difference would be a holy grail in winemaking, and one that Richie is chasing in earnest. Richie does not believe that any of the theories about anthocyanin extraction hold up to scientific scrutiny, though he believes this is the direction high end red wine is going: “how you maximize color accumulation and color extraction drives wine quality.”

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Credit: Wine Folly

How one extracts anthocyanin from the berries depends on the varietal. “You always hear about cold soaks with pinot noir, and that’s not something you really hear about with many other red varieties. Syrah, maybe. Some winemakers working with Bordeaux and Rhone varietals are doing cold soaks. Nebbiolo, too. But when it comes to red varietals, when you hear cold soak you think pinot,” Shane said. David is one of those doing cold soaks with Bordeaux varietals. During that process, both make no qualm about using appropriate levels of sulfur, which they find critical to tannin development because it helps to stabilize the anthocyanin complexes in both stages.

The goal as Shane explains it is to build stable anthocyanin-phenolic complexes by bringing as many together as possible to form the longest chains they can “because these are the good tasting tannins.” Oxygen, as explained in the paragraph above on cap management, is critical for this to occur. Most red varietals require doses of oxygen exposure for these chains to form and grow longer. If you’ve ever had a reductive syrah, for example, chances are it was not racked (a method for adding oxygen to the wine post-fermentation) because syrah requires a relatively high amount of oxygen to avoid reduction. In a reductive wine the tannin complexes are scavenging for limited or non-existent oxygen in the wine, which reduces the vibrancy of the wine’s aromas and flavors. This is why, when one aerates a reductive wine, it can snap out of its reductive state.

Pinot is unique among red varietals in that it has a naturally high anthocyanin-phenol ratio. Therefore, if it’s exposed to sufficient oxygen, it does a great job on its own of building beautifully tasting tannins. “Somehow,” Shane noted, “they figured this out over 1,000 years ago in Burgundy. If you start with great pinot fruit and age it in French oak, which breathes perfectly for the varietal, and don’t mess too much with it, you get great wine.” He continued, “once it’s in barrel, all you need is once-a-month topping and the wines won’t go reductive.”

When Shane gets his pinot harvest into the winery and destems, he’s aiming to maintain whole berries (he destems roughly 80% of his clusters) to allow for a longer cold soak. “Crushed grapes tend to ferment faster because, I think, it releases more nutrients [for the yeast to feast on].” Whole berry fermentation allows for maximum anthocyanin extraction while protecting the seeds longer before their harsher and more abundant tannins begin to enter the juice. “Pinot noir is a low tannin wine in general. Almost all your tannins are in your seeds, and it’s also a relatively low anthocyanin grape.” With that in mind, Shane does long cold soaks (~5 days for Gran Moraine and ~8-10 days for Zena Crown) to maximize anthocyanin extraction before fermentation “so you can really control tannin [phenolics] extraction during fermentation using punch downs, pumpovers and temperature, the principle being that seed tannins are highly extractable in an aqueous alcohol environment (alcohol dissolved in water), whereas you don’t need alcohol to extract anthocaynins.” Since there is no alcohol in the cold soak, there’s no risk in extracting phenolics while anthocyanin is seeping into the juice.

Richie describes the profile they seek at Rombauer as an “iron fist in a velvet glove,” which is driven by the color and phenolic binding. Wines cannot achieve a high level of binding unless there’s a lot of color already in the wine, which makes it the limiting factor in driving quality if you follow Richie’s logic. When Rombauer does in-house trials, they look at the free anthocyanin, bound anthocyanin and phenolics [a.k.a. complexes], and they find that more often than not, the wines with the highest bound anthocyanin are the ones they score the highest in double blind tastings.

Quality wine evolves with age, and to many palates it improves over time. I asked Richie about older wines and why the color loss during aging didn’t necessarily lead to losses of flavor and structure. He explained that bound color, which tastes good, is stable and resists oxidation and changes in pH. Unbound color that exists in wine is unstable, and as wine ages it’s the unbound color that drops out while the bound color remains. Therefore, a wine with a higher level of bound color is going to keep its color, and its desirable flavors, longer in the bottle.

Referring back to his holy grail of winemaking, Richie noted that “tannin is kind of like the black magic of winemaking at the moment, and not everyone understands it. A lot of high end wineries run [the data], but they don’t actually do anything with it because they don’t understand it. They run it because it’s the latest cool thing to do in winemaking. ‘What tannins do you have?’ It’s like, ‘what does it matter? What are you going to do with them?’ If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, the data is useless.” Shane doubled down on the difficulty of understanding tannins. “I took a whole graduate level course on tannin chemistry. It’s incredibly complicated and possibly the most difficult college course I took. I think it was called “The Biochemistry and Physiology of Horticultural Products” or something, and we still have open questions about tannins.”

Where our understanding of tannins goes from here is up to people like Richie, Shane and David who make it a focus of their winemaking. I do think it’s important, though, too, for consumers to educate themselves and maybe even do a bit of purchasing based on their tannin preferences. I would sure love more winemakers to focus on developing those long chain complexes.

 

On The Cork Report: Orange Wine Trials at Veritas Winery

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Note: This article was originally published on The Cork Report on February 26th, 2018.

In May of last year, I went on vacation to the Republic of Georgia. Most people are surprised when I use “vacation” to describe my time there, but for me and, for a lot of people, it’s a bit of a fantasy world. Between the breathtaking beauty, geographic diversity, outdoor activities, history, gregarious and caring people, and delicious and unique cuisine, it has it all — in a one-of-a-kind way.

Archeology has proven that the Georgians began making wine more than 8,000 years ago, making them the oldest known winemakers in the world. They made red and white wine, but at some point were also the first to make orange wine, which I’m referring to in this article as “skin contact” wine. Red wine gets its color from the skins of grapes, which interact with the juice and over time leach their color (as well as textual, structural, flavor and aroma components as well). Although no one I know refers to red wine as skin contact wine, it could be labeled as such.

When white grapes are put through the skin contact method, they often times come out orange(ish) in color, hence the term “orange” wine. Continue reading here.