September 29, 2008

Another vineyard visit

Recently I had the chance to visit an out of the way vineyard I had previously never heard of. It’s on the west slope of the Portland hills, northwest of downtown some miles out near North Plains. Twenty year old pinot noir vines, own-rooted Pommard clone, with some ten year vines as well. Volcanic soils. High elevation. Organically farmed. Healthy vines but maybe needing some TLC to show their best.

The shoots aren’t carefully positioned or tied up on the trellis wire. Some hedging would be in order. Second crop needs to be removed. This time of year, leaves should be pulled off the morning side of the grape clusters for light exposure and better air movement. Maybe on both sides, to maximize ripeness in this challenging spot. Clusters still weren’t fully colored, and harvest was weeks away. The weather’s turned warm again, but this vineyard probably still has a long way to go.

I’m technically still looking for grapes for this harvest, though I think I have a line on the vineyard I purchased from in 2006. It’s my first choice, though it’s not cheap. I’m a homebrewer who’s going after vineyards otherwise in commercial production. I don’t have priority. I went up to this vineyard thinking maybe I’d have it as a back up, and it still may be if I need it.

The real discovery though was the thought that next year, when I’m planning to make a small amount of wine commercially, I might rent a few rows at this promising, out of the way site and take care of them myself. The owner has a crew that sprays and does other work. Clearly more is needed to see what this site could produce. The raw materials are there. I’d love the opportunity to get out in the vineyard and get my hands dirty. I drove away excited about next year, about working with vines after so many years focused on the wine cellar.

September 23, 2008

Barrel buying and harvest talk

Last week I stopped by a local winery to buy a used barrel for this year’s homemade wine. For the past few years I’ve been buying five-year-old French oak barrels here for around $50 each, and I’ve been pleased with what I’m getting. That is, a well made barrel that’s been treated well and is still more than sufficient for winemaking, especially if you aren’t looking for new oak flavor in your wine.

I’ve actually found that these so-called “neutral” barrels still give a bit of wood flavor to the wine, though it may be the effects of slow oxidation in cask that I perceive as oakiness as much as oak flavor from the wood itself. Older barrels don’t give anything close to the flavor of new or one-year barrels. Yet when you smell one of these “neutral” barrels, they still have a toasty sweetness that I pick up later in the wine. Seems reasonable to think some of that really is getting into the wine. When I hear more experienced winemakers scoff at that, I wonder if they just don’t hang around new oak so much.

While waiting for one of the French harvest interns to get the barrel down to my car, I talked with the cellar master about the upcoming harvest. Apparently, this particular producer usually starts harvesting around September 19. We’re past that already, and this year things will likely wait until early in the second week in October. That two to three week delay is pretty much what I’m hearing from others in the area.

Later harvests can produce the best wines, but they’re nerve wracking. Around here, October sees the most dramatic change in temperature of any month in the year. In Portland, our average temperature is still 70F (21C) on October 1. By the end of the month, it’s in the high 50s (15C). You simply can’t count on good weather for too long in October, but that’s really what we need for an exceptional vintage.

Nevertheless, talking with this cellar master, it’s clear he’s genuinely excited for a great harvest. The vines are very healthy, the fruit clean and disease free. I’m finding this to be true almost everything here in the northern Willamette Valley. Acids are still high of course and some mild sunny weather into October should give wines with great freshness, fragrance and nerve. Just what more classically inclined producers are looking for.

Still, I can’t deny my stomach’s churning. We had a warm start to September but recently it’s been cool and a little wet. Nothing bad really. The vines could use a drink. We’re just losing time for nice ripening weather. By the end of the week, things apparently should turn sunny and warmer. Longer term forecasts, such as they are, call for rain in early October. We’ll see. As I wrote before, pay attention to the weather and you’ll know how the mood is around here.

At least this isn’t Burgundy. The intern who brought out the barrel told me about the reports of dreadful weather back home. Nevertheless, as wine people tend to be, he was excited about our upcoming harvest, and perhaps more excited about heading to the southern hemisphere for harvest 2009 this spring.

September 20, 2008

Sunday at Armstrong Vineyard

Friends Doug and Michele Ackerman planted the new Armstrong Vineyard last fall on Ribbon Ridge just off Lewis Rogers Lane. Last Sunday they hosted a barbeque that gave me a chance to check out the new planting up close.

The vineyard was planted last fall in two main blocks, the south block oriented north/south and the north block oriented east/west because of a strong slope in the northwest corner of the property. North/south rows in that area would be too precarious for the tractor.

The vines are a mix of Dijon clones, with a new area to be filled in this fall with Wadenswil, a spicy scented clone from Switzerland. The soils here are typical sediments of Ribbon Ridge, old ocean floor pushed up by tectonic movement that gives a well draining, silty medium for grapevines.

So far the vineyard seems to be the talk of Ribbon Ridge. The vines are extremely healthy, with very few of the plants having problems in this first year. I’ve heard grumblings from another grower who wonders how so few new plants have failed.

The issue with new vineyards is largely about grafting pinot noir clones onto rootstock. Bad grafts mean dying plants. The few that the Armstrong vineyard has are typical, evident by red vine leaves. But other vineyards often have lots more failed grafts, so Armstrong seems quite healthy by comparison.

The vineyard manager was at the barbeque and showed a few of us what a bad graft looks like. Young vines produce sugar through their leaves that goes down to the roots to promote strong root growth. A bad graft a few inches above the soil line prevents the sugars from getting to the roots. What you see is a bulge above the graft point, where the sugars build up when there is no where else to go, leaving the very bottom of the vine trunk thin like a toothpick. The few problem vines will be replanted this fall when the Wadensvil plants are put in the ground.

Looking ahead, the new vines will be “two-budded” this coming winter, meaning they will be pruned nearly to the ground, leaving only two buds to grow next year. Those two buds will grow into two canes next summer, neither of which will produce fruit. The goal is to pick the stronger of the two canes to become the trunk for the vines going forward. The weaker cane will be removed, the stronger bent over and tied down to a trellis wire. The following year (two years from now), buds on upper half of that that cane will provide the first crop of fruit.

At least, that’s how I understand things. Now that I think of it, Doug mentioned that they will do a “double Guyot” meaning there will be canes going in both directions from the trunk. But I’m not sure how you get one trunk and two canes from two budding. Wouldn’t you have two trunks? I’ll have to study that one. Nevertheless, the vineyard’s two years away from producing fruit, but I look at the healthy vines and imagine that many growers would push the vines to fruit next year. The Ackerman’s are playing it smart by allowing for another year to promote strong roots and uniformity in the plants.

The barbeque of course was a nice chance to catch up with lots of old friends of acquaintances. There was lots of nice wine, of course. I sampled a few things, including two things I brought. One was the 2004 Drouhin Chassagne Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche, from the 1er cru Morgeots. This was more oaky than I remember but otherwise pure and delicious. I also brought the 2000 Siduri Pinot Noir Pinot Noir Hirsch Vineyard from the Sonoma Coast. Nothing like California pinot noir at an Oregon vineyard. This wine was not small scaled, but it’s always more subtle compared to most other California pinot. Mature, rounded and lush, this was drinking nicely if not showing great complexity.

All in all, it was a great afternoon. The future is promising at the Armstrong vineyard. Keep an eye on this site.

Visiting Zenith Vineyard

A few weeks back I visited Tim Ramey down at the Zenith Vineyard in the Eola-Amity AVA. Zenith is the home of Tim’s Zenith wines, which are made by his partner Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent Wines, also housed in the big, gleaming winery at the center of the property.

Zenith is the renamed O’Connor vineyard, bottled for many years by St. Innocent through the 1998 vintage. That wine and the 1994 St. Innocent O’Connor were favorites of mine before I moved to Oregon, so it was a pleasure to make my first visit this site.

Driving onto the site, I saw that the vineyard is a fairly large planting in a bowl near the valley floor with mostly south and some east exposures. The elevation here is low as vineyards in this area go. As such, the soil is mostly alluvial, typically not something wine geeks prize because it’s so fertile. Grapevines produce best in poor soils that keep down vigor and crop yields. However, the results here suggest that we shouldn’t be so dogmatic about soil. Zenith is a terrific vineyard

Tim and his family bought the property several years ago and have been gradually replanting the site. From the parking lot outside the winery there’s an old chardonnay block, apparently rife with phylloxera (root lice) that is next to be torn out and replanted. Above the parking lot to the west are acres of newly planted vines, soon to come into production again. Behind the winery up the hill are numerous blocks of mostly pinot noir, with a few other things like auxerrois and tempranillo scattered throughout. See a vineyard map here.

A tall, lumbering figure, Tim met me in the large tasting room and showed me around the crush and fermentation area, the underground barrel room, and cold storage room. Then we went up to the the main hall over the barrel room, site of one or two weddings every weekend. Zenith is a rare facility making extremely serious and high quality wine, and hosting weddings. Usually the two don’t go together. We ended up in the large kitchen, well stocked for putting on weddings of course, but probably other great dinners and who knows what.

Back in the tasting room, Tim and I sampled through the Zenith label wines. The lightly sweet 2007 Pinot Gris was fine, and the 2006 Estate Pinot Noir rich and chunky, showing the warmth of the vintage. I preferred the 2006 Select Pinot Noir, with more perfume and depth. We also tried the 2006 Tempranillo, fragrant and medium bodied more like a pinot noir but finishing with some gripping tannin. Tim calls it ok for a first try. I like it a bit more than that. 2006 was the first year of Zenith labeled wine, and they’re doing a nice job already.

Then we tried a couple of St. Innocent Pinot Noir from 2006. First the St. Innocent Zenith Vineyard, which showed lots fruit and not the tannic structure I usually associate with St. Innocent pinot noir. This seemed more elegant than the Zenith Zenith. Then the St. Innocent Justice Vineyard, a nearby planting. Tim said he thought this was the best St. Innocent red he’s ever had. It’s so primary and lush, I can’t agree or disagree. It’s clearly very nice wine with the ripeness of 2006 but still great finesse and perfume. This should last a while despite its forward nature.

Tim then had to go deal with wedding issues. He was amazingly amiable (and willing to spend time with a stranger like me) despite the large production event soon to begin. Maybe he just has the temperament for holding weddings on his site.

I love this part of the Willamette Valley. With Zenith and St. Innocent here now, along with Bethel Heights, Cristom and Witness Tree, among others, you really ought to come down to the heart of the Eola Hills. Getting there from Portland can take a while though. Tim’s adamant that the Eola Hills are no further from where I live than most other northern Willamette Valley wine areas. As a bird flies, maybe. You can get here by way of Salem, or by taking 99W through Newberg and Dundee, then continuing maybe 20 more minutes south from there.

My choice, which can be quicker if you time it right, is to take the pastoral Wheatland Ferry west of Woodburn. Exit I-5 at mile 271 and head southwest to the Willamette River. The car ferry is an old school way to cross the river, allowing you to slow down for a few minutes and enjoy the water. Once on the other side, you’re very close to Zenith and its neighbors. You’ll be happier for the journey too.

September 19, 2008

Old school Rioja

I came across a well-priced bottle of 1996 Campillo Rioja Reserva, and it restored my faith and interest in traditionally styled Spanish red wine.

For the past few years, I’ve heard lots about how Spain is doing great things with red wine. People love all the inexpensive stuff from Yecla and Toro, not to mention the pricey stuff from Priorato and elsewhere. Me? I’m just not that excited.

Then something like this Campillo wine happens into my glass and I’m renewed in my passion for what made Spain great.

Apparently Campillo isn’t an old producer, like my Rioja favorites including Lopez y Heredia and CUNE. It just tastes old, in a good way. This wine is a perfect example. It’s not purple hued and smelling of new French oak. Instead it’s ruby red, youthful for 12 years old but showing a little rust.

Then the aroma. Sweet dried cherries with pepper and earth notes. The integrated wood spice is turning into a fresh dried tobacco aroma that’s classic Rioja. With air there’s great intensity and depth to the perfume. I could smell this wine all day.

In the mouth the acid is fresh and brisk, the red fruit and clean earth flavors long and taut. This is medium bodied and lacking only the palate intensity of a gran reserva. Everything else is there, and while notes I’ve seen about this wine suggest drinking it sooner than later, I think this wine will age effortlessly for another decade and probably longer. These old school wines seem to get just the right amount of oxidation young to preserve them longer than you ever think possible, all the while remaining fresh and lively.

I’m going back for more of this one. If you’re local and interested in where to find it, let me know.

September 09, 2008

Oregon harvest update

I've been thinking since last spring that this might be another 1999 vintage for the northern Willamette Valley. That was the year of the "bummer summer" where steady warmth never really set in, until September and October, where consistently warm and sunny days lifted winemakers' hearts and broke a few records.

Well 2008 isn't exactly 1999. Summer wasn't that bad. Yet we find the grapes maybe two weeks behind schedule after a cold spring, a late bloom and crop set, and an only occasionally warm summer. Portland hit 100 three times this year, which is a lot for us. We just probably had more than our usual number of days below 80.

Sure enough, September has brought warm and sunny late summer weather that's about as perfect for human beings as it is for grapes. Cool but still pleasant nights. Warm sunshine all day long. Here at home, we're even back to eating outside. The tomatoes are finally ripening. If only the kids were back in school and things would be perfect.

Wait, they are.

Looking at the seven-day forecast from Portland's more reliable tv forecaster Mark Nelsen (he's actually really good, and not just for tv), the sunshine is here for another week, perhaps longer. This coming Sunday and Monday might get back into the low 90s, which is nice this time of year because the heat only lasts for a few hours. The intense summer heat is gone. The nights cool off. You can sleep.

The old winemakers always say that September makes the vintage. This year's shaping up beautifully, though that late start to the growing season means we need good weather into October. With that, and the apparently only average sized crop out there that allows the vines to focus energy on what fruit it has, quality could be tremendous.

If you want to see how it plays out, pay attention to the weather. Rain isn't a killer, unless it's endless. For September, we'll pretty much take whatever heat we can get. Once October comes, I've learned you really just need 70 or better to finish off ripening well. Those days can be rare, though in 1999 they came regularly. We needed them in '99, and we'll probably need them this year too. I'll be watching. How about you?

September 06, 2008

1999 Shubert Syrah New Zealand

Tonight, with homemade pizza, I opened a bottle of 1999 Shubert Syrah from New Zealand. I'd seen this bottle languishing on a local store's shelf for a while. Then it hit the bargain bin and I grabbed one.

Reading through the Auswine forum, which is a great resource for all things down under, I learned that this producer is well regarded for pinot noir as well as syrah. Tasting this wine, it feels like a pinot producer's syrah. All fragrance and texture, without the meat or structure you might expect from the northern Rhone's signature grape.

This Shubert wine is sourced from three different regions, Gimblett Road, Hawkes Bay and Martinborough. It's dark crimson in color with a hint of maturity. The aroma reminds me of filling a new French oak barrel with wine, which isn't a subtle fragrance but can be extremely pleasing.

Time has allowed the barrel aromas to meld with pie cherry fruit and toasty, earthy notes. From the smell, I might expect this to be extremely wooden and tannic in the mouth. Instead, this has pinot's silky texture with fine but unobstrusive tannin.

Cornas this isn't. But fragrant, silky new world syrah this is, accented but not overwhelmed by its barrel ageing. There's no need to hold this wine furthe. But at nearly ten years old it's delicious and a testament to what New Zealand can produce, beyond the usual sauvignon blanc, Bordeaux blend reds and pinot noir.

September 05, 2008

Wine labels and wine

I feel so excited as I near the end of the label design process for my homemade wine. I wish I could share an image of where we've gotten to so far, but I'm going to wait until it's just right.

Doing a label is a tedious process for me. Honestly, I hate most wine labels. OK, I'll be reasonable. I dislike most of them. To the point where I don't even notice them really.

The few I do find interesting are usually the most old school of things, totally not commercially acceptable I'm sure. Marc Olliver's red wine from the Loire Valley, for example. Of course, I can't find an image online anywhere and I'm too lazy to take a picture of it. Nevermind. I heard he's changed the label. It probably didn't help sales.

Really, I want something old school France, but without all the text the French require for AOC and other purposes. So I'm going with something very simple, classic but still unique. I'm hopeful for that, anyway. Stay tuned.

For inspiration, I opened a bottle of 2002 Vincent (love that name) Prunier Auxey-Duresses, from a less exalted town on the Beaune side of the Burgundy's Cote d'Or.

First, I like the simplicity of the label and the classic script font. Hint, hint.

Second, this was really nice, little wine. It had a beautiful cherry and mushroom aroma, showing some maturity. The flavor was brightly acidic with clean cherry fruit and earth notes and great subtlety.

What pretty wine, not a powerhouse or blockbuster, rather fragrant and silky and not unlike some more Burgundian wines from here in Oregon. The main difference was the acidic spine that we rarely get, naturally anyway. The acid probably scares people away, but I like it.

My 2006 pinot noir doesn't taste anything like this. Not that it should. I'm making Oregon wine.

But my 2007 is much more bright and, yes, acidic. I'm a little scared of it myself, but a good friend in the wine business tried it and was very reassuring. He likes what I'll call the nerve in this wine.

That 2007 is still in barrel, hopefully adding some flesh to its prominent bones. We'll see where it ends up. I do know this. It's going to have a label with similar nerve.

September 04, 2008

Wine Therapy: End of an era

Internet wine discussion lost a favorite site this week with the demise of Wine Therapy.

With its founder Robert Callahan unable to maintain the site after struggling with illness for a number of years, the decision came down early this week to shut the site down.

Callahan is infamous in some internet wine circles for his feud with the well known critic Robert Parker. Without recounting old flame wars from the 1990s, the story apparently goes that Parker responded to Callahan's contentious internet persona by challenging him to a blind wine tasting. The goal was to see if Callahan would identify wines he championed as superior to other wines he criticized mercilessly. The night apparently didn't go in Callahan's favor.

I wasn't around the wine internet then. I knew Callahan as a champion of natural, artisan wines from less commercialized regions. I may not have always liked his biting sarcasm (maybe I was jealous), but his passion for wines I've come to love was truly an inspiration for me in my wine education. It was Callahan who turned me on to wines like Baudry's Chinon and Texier's Rhones.

Let's not forget that Robert was the object of anticipation in Chris Coad's legendary "Waiting for Callahan" post.

The end of Wine Therapy was not swift. Albanian spammers wiped out the database months ago, so much good wine information lost because of poor security and an outmoded bulletin board platform. Lately there were as many posts about erectile enhancement products as wine. [editorial note: my apologies to the Albanian community and all Albanian sympathizers, among which I include myself, for suggesting that actual Albanians were the source of Wine Therapy spam issues. I'm tempted to put "Albanian" in "quotes" to signify the wrong that was done to them by spammers posing as Albanians. Who would do such a thing? However, it's been clarified in the comments below that precisely "little of the spam had anything to do with Albania." Of course, that means Albanians apparently were involved in some way. So the post remains unedited.]

Now Callahan's Wine Therapy, the nurturing service of the oft misunderstood, is gone. Another site has emerged as a haven for many patients of Wine Therapy, but it seems things have changed. The mold is broken. There's no chance to replicate the old site, if that were even desirable.

I'm partly wistful at the loss, but partly glad for the nudge to move on. I tried a few times to register for the new site, but either there are technical issues or this isn't a club that will have me as a member. It's just as well. I keep telling myself I should focus more on this site and less on wine discussion groups. Thanks for everything Callahan.

September 01, 2008

Oregon Vineyard Maps: Eola-Amity Hills AVA

The Eola-Amity Hills AVA map shows an area due south of the Dundee Hills stretching all the way to Oregon's capital city, Salem. The AVA is really two distinct areas, the Eola Hills in the central and south, and the Amity Hills in the north. The dominant soil type here is volcanic, specifically the Nekia, which is similar to the red Jory soils of the Dundee Hills. The distinction is that, where Jory soils are up to twenty feet of red clay eroded from the basalt bedrock, Nekia soils feature but a few feet of soil before you hit bedrock.

The two areas were combined when the Eola Hills winery apparently objected to an AVA with their exact name, which would have forced them to use grapes only from the AVA for anything they bottled under the Eola Hills name. Seems reasonable, mostly. An AVA doesn't mean much if there's a winery that uses the exact name but gets grapes from elsewhere. Nevermind that Eola Hills winery isn't actually in the Eola Hills, rather down in Rickreall to the southwest on OR Highway 99W.

So we have the Eola-Amity Hills conjoined AVA. The Amity Hills to the north are a distinct east-west range with some nice, rocky south facing exposures. Myron Redford's Amity Vineyard is perhaps the most historic in the area. Antica Terra is a nice, again rocky site. To the east is the large Willakia planting from Premier Pacific, another investment of the California State workers' pension. To the east, there are a number of other independent vineyards, among them the Jesse James Vineyard that's now a single vineyard bottling from Bethel Heights.

Below Amity Road, the Eola Hills begin. The range is largely north-south, with lots of eastern and southern exposures. South facing sites are obviously attractive for catching maximum sunlight. Eastern exposures are attractive for getting morning light that wakes up the vines early but avoids some of the most intense rays of mid- to late afternoon. Western exposures are notable in the Eola-Amity Hills for their direct exposure to the winds coming through the Van Duzer Corridor to the west. That gap in the Coast Range to the west brings in cool air from the Pacific Ocean that complicates ripening. Aside from west-facing sites that have some wind protection, you tend to see mostly southern and eastern facing vineyards in this AVA.

From the north, we see the aptly named Eola Hills vineyard. Also, there's Elton, known best for its bottling from Ken Wright Cellars. Moving to the south, we find the Jerusalem Hill vineyard bottled by Cristom. Then Seven Springs, perhaps my favorite in the state, once bottled by a number of great producers, now a monopole of sorts of a high dollar California concern.

Moving further south, we come to the heart of the Eola Hills, a broad opening to the south that's the most densely planted area in the AVA. There's Witness Tree and Cristom to the east, Temperance Hills high up to the west, Bethel Heights below it along with their Justice Vineyard, and the old O'Connor Vineyard that's been renamed Zenith by its latest owner Tim Ramey. More on that site, where I visited recently, in an upcoming post.

To the southwest, we find a variety of sites including Cherry Hill, Holloran's La Chenaie, the large Eola Springs Vineyard, and other notable sites such as Carter Vineyard, Canary Hill, and Cubanisimo. I'm sure there are sites not included on this map -- I'm not familiar with every one by any means. However, one notable omission is the Chemeketa Eola Viticultural Center's test vineyard at the very south of the AVA, off Doaks Ferry Road. This site is home vineyard of Chemeketa Community College's viticulture and winemaking program, run by Oregon wine veterans of Barney Watson and Al MacDonald.

Finally, to the southeast, we come to the outskirts of the city of Salem. There's Redhawk vineyard, a fine site, but really the jewel here is Evesham Wood's Le Puits Sec vineyard. This small east-facing site is the estate vineyard of inarguably my favorite Pinot Noir producer in Oregon. Proprietors Russ and Mary Raney are absolutely delightful people making elegant wine that are all about finesse. The vineyard itself, however lovely, doesn't quite suggest the beauty of the wines it gives. Check these out if you can find them.