Oregon Chardonnay is certainly on the rise. Years ago a Chardonnay clone called 108 was brought from California to Oregon and planted widely. It would stand to reason that if Burgundy was the home of the most sought after Chardonnay in the world then Oregon could follow suit. Unfortunately the 108 clone was perfect for the warm areas of California because of its propensity to ripen slowly, but was hard to get fully ripe in the cooler Willamette Valley. Fortunately new clones appeared in the 90's, the so called "Dijon" clones giving new breath to Oregon Chardonnay.
Three years ago we planted some Chardonnay up on the most difficult part of the vineyard called Kill Hill. Its called Kill Hill for a reason as the shallow, poor sedimentary soil has very little to sustain a young vine. While the young Chardonnay plants up on Kill Hill struggled, we decided to supplement that and graft some of our 777 clone of Pinot Noir to the 76 clone of Chardonnay.
Grafting starts with cutting the existing Pinot Noir plant below the cordon or shoot. Then the bark is stripped and the crew comes in and cuts a notch in the plant. They take a bud from budwood brought in and cut out the Chardonnay bud placing the cut wood in the notch of the original plant. The bud is wrapped with Teflon tape and covered with tree paint. Whala, Pinot to Chardonnay!
Well not quite so fast. The plant must be scored at near the base for the rising sap to weep and not rise and push the graft out. But with any luck we should have enough crop to produce our first Chardonnay from the 2016 vintage. We can't wait to add another to the growing list of beautiful Oregon Chardonnays.
Context may be everything as Matt Kramer writes in a recent article. I tend to agree and Matt Kramer goes on to say, "Obviously this is not always the case—and certainly not for truly great wines, never mind from where. They somehow protect themselves by enveloping you in the embrace of their complex world. Lesser wines, however, have no such powers."
Sometime a wine becomes great in a moment, regardless of the context. It doesn't happen very much to me anymore and have lost my wide-eyed, idealized notion of wine. It was easier to be enthralled with the few distinct, well made wines that rose above a sea of nondescript and often flawed wines that were the norm in my youth. Thankfully wines today are well made, fruit driven and offer basic pleasure if not many profound revelations. Science has fixed the flaws that plagued wines thirty years ago and we have a sea of drinkable if not homogenized wines.
But some wines open my eyes again and this year it was the Lenné Estate 2007 Pinot Noir. You remember 2007, that shower laden vintage which was immediately panned by all the critics. Yes, they got it all wrong. In our brief history, at this moment in time, this is the best wine we have produced. Will the 2008 or 2010 wines be better and will the 2011 Lenné Estate turn out as good? I don't know with respect to the 08 or 10 wines but I have a sense the 2011 will go down the same track.
Accuse me of having a house palate, I don't care. It was a sublime wine and cements the unarguable fact that there is no substitute for a little bottle age with Oregon Pinot Noir. This wine started the same way the 2011's are now, lean and mean with very little mid palate texture. What happened in the bottle was amazing. The wines took on color and the mid palate just blossomed like a flower. Aromatically they did what all vintages do, even the ones that are approachable early on; they got more complex.
Wines always start off full of primary fruit and as the oak, alcohol, tannin's and fruit work magic the wines develop secondary aroma's, aromas other than fruit. In the case of Lenné Pinot Noir those aromas reveal themselves as sandalwood, leather, truffles and orange peel. This combination of fruit and secondary aromatics can only be born from bottle aging. You don't have to age your Oregon Pinot Noir's forever, but 3 to 4 years after we release them make a world of difference.
The 2007 Lenné Estate Pinot Noir caught my attention like no other older vintage we opened over the holidays. It reminded me of an old adage about Pinot Noir, "the iron fist in the velvet glove." It's deep black fruit, fine leather, spice and sandalwood aromas, the velvet mouthfeel and the long drawn out finish made me remember what I had forgotten about wine.
Back in 2011 I was dreaming about a vintage like this, a vintage that started early, was warm and harvest took place under warm, dry conditions. A vintage just like they have in California. In 2011 we harvested almost all of the vineyard in one day on November 1st. This year we began harvest on September 15th, the earliest ever. It must be global warming.grapes
But what about 2010 and 2011 when harvest was pushed to the end of October and the beginning of November respectively? What extremes we have here in Oregon and in each desparate year we have managed to make some very good wine. Is there any more interesting place to make wine in America than the Northern Willamette Valley? I'm not so sure but the vintage variation in Oregon is something unique to American wine and something that should be embraced by wine lovers everywhere. In a sea of homogeneous wine you could argue the Northern Willamette Valley sticks out as a beacon for individuality in wine. Couple that with the amazing amount of single vineyard, terroir driven wines in this part of the world and I think you have an argument for this being on par with the most recognized wine growing areas in the world.harvest
What will the 2014 vintage bring? I think very fruit forward, moderate aging wines. What I don't know is what kind of depth they will have. In warm vintages there is a possibility of sacrificing depth because we can't let grapes hang as long as we would like, at least not until 16% alcohol wines come in vogue. The proof will be in the pudding when we start tasting the finished wines at the beginning of next year. But there is no doubt our wines will be closer to California than Burgundy this year.
After a comparative tastings of some 10 year old French Burgundies a while back I complained to a retailer about how hard and acidic the wines were even after that amount of bottle age. He told me I didn't understand and that I need to wait at least 15 years before drinking Burgundy. Really? Do any of us want to have to wait for 15 years before we drink a wine?
Why not turn up the cellar from 55 to 65 degrees. If you are cellaring wines to drink this might be a great option. We recently re-released our 2008 Lenné Estate Pinot Noir in the tasting room. I consider the 2008 vintage to be an epic one for Oregon and I bit the bullet and held back one third of my production in 2008. If you know anything about the 2008 Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs you know they closed up after bottling and are only know starting to open back up. They were effusively fruity in the barrel but the fine grained tannins took over once we bottled them and they haven't been very enjoyable wines until now. Maybe a little like those Burgundies I complained about.08LEbig
But after trying some from my cellar in the last three months, I decided it was time to bring the 2008 out again. So I brought in some stock for the weekend from the warehouse where I store my wine which is kept at 55 and below. Interestingly enough the wines from the warehouse weren't as developed as the ones from my cellar which fluctuates from about 60 to 68 degrees. The cellared wines had shed the reductive notes that characterized the 2008 wines recently and started to exhibit the secondary flavors I have been waiting for. The wines from the warehouse were a little further behind and had the reductive aromas when opening but shed them to reveal a beautifully balanced wine whth a long life ahead of it.
But it got me to thinking that if you aren't storing collectable wines for resale, if you are aging wine to enjoy, maybe its time to turn up the cellar temperature. Maybe I won't have to wait until my old age to enjoy those Burgundies afterall.
Over the past two months people visiting our tasting wonder why I do the things I do. They have seen me covered in mortar, clay and paint. In January we started on an addition to our tasting room as we needed more indoor space for events. We have always hosted wine club and now we have a great space to do that. Now we will be able to host events for groups under 50 people and are hoping to have a number of small corporate groups come and enjoy the vineyard and our new space.SONY DSC
But nothing comes easy and after the county told me I had to put a seven thousand dollar fire alarm system in, I had to jump in do some interior work myself. Not that I didn't have enough to as the life of a vintner isn't nearly as bucolic as you would imagine. So I greeted many people this spring with a smile but covered in dust and grime.
Since we bought this piece of dirt in 2000 I have spent well over 1000 hours on a tractor, pounded posts, strung wire, planted grape vines, repaired equipment, built an arbor, a deck, a pizza oven and a monument sign just to name a few. But I am not sure I ever worked harder than the last 6 weeks. I have been putting clay on walls, staining concrete floors and doing some interior rock work.SONY DSC
Yes, I do it to save money but I do it for the satisfaction I get as well. There isn't a piece of this hillside I haven't touched. I can look up at the vineyard and remember the early days when I was walking down a row stringing wire and followed cougar tracks down the hill. I can remember getting multiple yellow jacket stings during the 2008 vintage when we were building the pizza oven. And in the future, when the new room is filled with people laughing, drinking wine, leaving their daily lives behind and enjoying this place, I will look around and see myself in all those stones on the fireplace. SONY DSC
This place has my dna everywhere and thats why I do what I do.
I attended the Pigs and Pinot event put on by Charlie Palmer and the Hotel Healdsburg. The annual event was a benefit for the Share our Strength's, No Kid Hungry campaign. I can tell you that no one went hungry at this tasting, or thirsty. There were over 60 Pinot producers mostly from California but also a couple of standouts from New Zealand, Oregon(including the Lenné Estate 2010 Pinot) and even a French Burgundy or two.
There was plenty of incredible food to match the plethora of wine, most of it pork based. I always hope to hit the holy grail at a tasting like this, find some incredible gem that turns my perception of Pinot Noir upside down, brings me to my knees and makes me have a religious moment. Of Course this never happens for a couple of reasons. The first is that it is incredibly difficult to really ascertain wine's quality in a taste. The chances are improved if you are tasting it blind with producers from the same region and the same vintage. When you are comparing Pinot Noir's from such disparate regions as Russian River and Burgundy it is nearly impossible to make any definitive judgements about one wine being better than the other. This is even more true when you are tasting 60 wines(I probably tasted 40 and spit the first 30).
But the other thing that struck me is that the real holy grail with Pinot Noir was right in front of me; the holy grail were the wines as a whole. Collectively it is astounding how Pinot Noir has evolved in the United States. My guess is that if you took any one of the wines(at least from about three quarters of the wines there) and went back 30 years in time, that wine would have become a cult wine. Today the wine is just more of the same.pig and pinot
Pinot has come a long way and that is true in California and true in Oregon. Thirty years ago I used to taste Oregon Pinot Noir and think, "so this is the mecca for Pinot Noir?" Back then only about 2 out of 10 wines intimated that the chalice of American Pinot Noir would be found in Oregon. Today I don't question Oregon, it has become the mecca for American Pinot Noir along with the Sonoma Coast Appellation and a few other areas in California. With so many good wines, the trick now for consumers is deciding which ones to buy. But as wines become better so are the consumers drinking them and I hope more will discover real terroir in wines. It's blended out of so many wines but there in others if you learn how to find it.
Regardless, there is no denying that the state of Pinot Noir has never been better.
I was thinking the other day about cult wineries and why I can only think of one Oregon producer who qualifies and they don't make Pinot Noir. Okay, maybe I can think of one small Pinot producer in the Dundee Hills who is in the realm. But it got me thinking about the bias in mainstream wine media towards bigger, specifically Cabernet based wines. I think the scores in general for Pinot Noir don't match the scores for bigger California Cabernets. Why is that? Is Cabernet better than Pinot?
Are California Cabernets better wines or just bigger wines? I am admittedly Pinot Noir biased and the fact is that even after a glass of really good Cabernet I once again turn my sights towards Pinot Noir. Most Cabernet drinkers eyes rolled after reading that but the fact is that my palate gets more satisfaction from Pinot Noir. Maybe I'm just not drinking enough Screaming Eagle. Sure, the wine press gives cult status to Romanée-Conti but what about Oregon? And haven't you seen that Oregon winery who advertises that it routinely beats Romanée-Conti in blind tastings?
Maybe I am placing the blame in the wrong place. Maybe Cabernet is just the easiest type of wine to rally around. Lets face it, there is nothing subtle about the flavor explosion you get with the first glass of a California cult Cabernet. I just like the way really good Pinot Noir feels on my palate, dancing across it, really good ones stopping for a visit on the mid-palate, but never forcing you to sucumb to its power. Apparently though, Cabernet is where the real demand is and perhaps why they get so much press and generate more cult brands. Give the people what they want? They are rich, bold, flavorful, full of alcohol, in your face and make a big first impression.
Lets face it, Pinot Noir is different and I say vive la difference. I don't think I have ever heard it said much better than Miles to Maya, in the movie Sideways, describing his passion for Pinot Noir:
"It's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet."
I guess thats the part I get, haunting, brilliant and thrilling. Now if we can only get the wine press and consumers to feel the same.