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.

Off the Beaten Path: High Value Old School Wine

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Picture Credit: Chris Yarzab/FlickrChris Yarzab/Flickr

When I look for high quality wines under $25, I find it hard to beat imported wine. The usual suspects that come to my mind include Cotes du Rhone, Rioja, Piedmont and Kamptal. Each of these offer many great options in that price range, whereas, while one can find great wines under $25 from nearly anywhere in the world, the wealth of options tend to be more limited elsewhere.

However, I’ve received a few samples of what I found to be high value wines that come from slightly off those beaten paths I mentioned above, yet still in the Old Word style, despite a set of them coming from New Zealand. So, I decided to wait until I had tried them all to run a piece on value old school wines from off the beaten path. Below are the reviews, and if you’re so inclined, each is hyperlinked to their wine-searcher.com page.

Of all of these, the two clear standouts include the 2012 Bodegas Godelia Mencia, which gives any wine in the world a possibly winning challenge for best value, and the 2013 Domaine Ostertag Pinot Gris Barriques, which just crushes the texture category. What’s more, finding wines that are six and five years, respectively, post-vintage at these prices is insane. They’ve clearly benefited from the aging, and frankly a gift that the wineries are offering them at these prices. If I were recommending a white and red for a big event like a wedding, I’d happily suggest these two as both are not only stellar values, but suggest wide adaptability in food pairing and seemingly universal appeal.

Bierzo, Spain:

2015 Bodegas Godelia Bierzo Blanco – Quite the aromatic nose, it offers high toned yellow and green citrus, honeysuckle and peach pit. The body is medium in weight, with a lushness entering early and a more streaky acidic finish coming out towards the end. There’s a undercurrent of bitter greens to go with Meyer lemon, stony minerality, white peach and vanilla. It’s a pretty easy drinking, easy enjoying wine. 88 points. Value: B

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2012 Bodegas Godelia Bierzo – Made from the Mencia grape. It begins to blossom from the first pour, but it does benefit from decanting. The nose is a cornucopia of berry aromas, featuring crushed blackberry, raspberry, dark cherry and brambleberry. The bouquet also offers hints of sweet tobacco, pastel Spring flowers and black pepper. It strikes a medium weight on the palate, and despite some age still offers thorough fine grained tannin to go along with juicy acidity. There is a similar berry flavors that is augmented by strong orange juice and black plum, darker tobacco, moist soil, slight mushroom and strong cocoa. This is a compelling, strong wine and that is drinking beautifully. The value is off the charts. 92 points. Value: A+

Wairau Valley, New Zealand:

2016 Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc – Classic modern sauvignon blanc nose: racy minerality, lemon-lime, cantaloupe, white smoke, white pepper and just a hint of mint. The body strikes a crisp and lean profile, with nice acid and some grit offering some texture. Flavors touch on bitter lemon, apricot, white peach, buttered white bread toast and gravel. 87 points. Value: C-

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2015 Wairau River Pinot Gris – The nose, moderate in strength, is stoney and mineral-driven with slate, smoky flint, under ripe white peach, sour lemon, parsley and marzipan. The body has nice weight and balances creaminess and acid with skill. It brings Meyer lemon, white pepper, apricot, lime zest, salty minerals and just a bit of honeysuckle. A nice, serviceable, lean and crisp pinot gris. 89 points. Value: B+

2015 Wairau River Pinot Noir – No mistaking this as anything other than a Marlborough pinot. The nose is very high toned with red plum, bitter cherry, orange rind and fungal underbrush. The palate is fairly slight but the flavors are deep enough. There’s slightly sour cherry, cherry pit, huckleberry, orange rind, dandelion green and a bit of rose. A nice, easy drinking pinot that is very food friendly with its bright acidity and slightly grippy texture. 88 points. Value: B+

Alsace, France:

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NV Domaine Allimant-Laugner Crémant d’Alsace Rosé – Fairly delicate bubbles for a cremant, it pours a very pale pink. The nose is clean, crisp and reticent. Bit of lees on the nose along with crushed raspberry, white pepper, dandelion greens and fresh Spring flowers. The palate is medium bodied with crisp and slightly bitter acid that harmonizes well with the slightly sweet fruit. Raspberry, huckleberry, cranberry and strawberry. There are hints of lavender and rose as well as a nice streak of limestone minerality. Overall a fun bubbler that is sure to be a crowd pleaser no matter the room. 89 points. Value A

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2013 Trimbach Gewurztraminer – An extremely aromatic wine, the tropics burst out of the glass: pineapple, mango, papaya, starfruit and guava. Vanilla custard, white florals and some slate. The body is medium in stature, the acid is lean but crisp and balances the modest residual sugar. Clean minerality forms the core of the straightforward profile, which is filled out with tart pineapple juice, bitter apples, bitter greens and white pepper. It starts out sweet and finishes bitter, though the variance isn’t entirely resolved. A fine and perfectly pleasant simple table gewurztraminer. 87 points. Value: C-

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2014 Louis Sipp Pinot Blanc Nature S – Pretty quiet nose, offering white peach, Granny Smith apple, lime zest, white flowers and loads of slate. The palate is very fresh with juicy acidity, offering Granny Smith apple, starfruit, grapefruit, sweet Meyer lemon, slate, white pepper and dill. Overall a very pleasant, enjoyable wine with an interesting, if not relatively simple, profile. 89 points. Value: B+

2013 Paul & Phillippe Zinck Riesling – No fooling anyone with the nose, this is all riesling. It kicks tennis ball can gas, straw, cut grass, pineapple, sweet lemon and honeysuckle. The body is medium and the acid very, very bright and sharp. There’s plenty of heft to the structure. It boasts flavors of Meyer lemon, white pepper, Evergreen, dandelion, peach and apricot. Overall a really nice, bright riesling with a sneaky personality – the more you engage it, the more it gives you. 89 points. Value: B+

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2013 Domaine Ostertag Pinot Gris Barriques – This has plenty of life ahead of it, it’s just coming into its own. Driven by minerality, the nose offers flinty crushed gravel, chalk, lemon zest, smokey white pepper and dandelion. The palate is full bodied with a lushness that belies the lean nose, though there’s a just a bit of chalky texture that adds depth. The texture takes center stage, and that’s a good thing. The juicy acid is nicely integrated and cuts any mount of residual sugar that might otherwise show it’s sweet face. The flavors boast big guava, mango, pineapple, Meyer lemon, creamy Granny Smith apple and honeysuckle. A very fun wine, this has the stuffing to evolve for a few additional years into a serious wine. It already has an immense friendliness with food. 91 points. Value: A-