Thursday, July 30, 2009

More Oregon 2007 Pinot Noir

I have to ask for more indulgence here. Or not. I'm guessing though that many are tired of hearing the drum beat for the overlooked 2007 vintage. Here are four more from the last few weeks. In alphabetic order...

Amity Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley - Amity was founded in 1974 and is a well-established and respected producer, perhaps best know for their Gamay Noir. The grapes for this Pinot Noir come from the northern Willamette Valley. They use some estate vineyards from Yamhill County. Their estate vineyards are all certified LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) and their growers are either certified already or are working toward that goal. The color is typical 2007, red and bright with amazing clarity. Deep, red cherry fruit with some blacker bass notes on the nose along with perhaps a bit too much acidity. The palate is all silk and sensuality though leading to a finish that is light, but not weak by any stretch. The nose is opening up, and now shows better integrated fruit and acid notes with a hint of caramel, from oak. The wine is soft and pure from the instant it is poured. A slight note of earth comes with time. The wine is forward and perhaps a bit simple, but a complete pleasure to drink. $20-$25

Elk Cove Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley - Also founded in 1974, this winery produces some of my favorite Pinot Noirs on the planet. I am a member of their Roosevelt Club and receive mailings throughout the year - I do this with no other winery. Their style tends toward a bigger, chewier Pinot Noir although this bottling is designed to be accessible early. Adam Goodlee Campbell allows the fruit to talk though and earthy notes are often present. I was very excited to see how the wines fared in 2007 due to their generally bigger approach. I find pretty, red cherry fruit and forest floor on the nose. Again, the purity of color is striking. Although the wine is certainly lighter than usual its bright acidity and incredible purity of flavor is striking. It is very 2007, very Pinot Noir and very Oregon. There is solid structure and breadth as one would assume with Elk Cove, but with a lighter footprint than usual. $22-$30

Rex Hill Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley - A more recent arrival, founded in 1982, this winery enjoyed some wild success and then had some issues. Lynne Penner-Ash essentially put them on the map as they grew to be one of the best known wines from Oregon. She started in 1988 and left in 2001 to focus on her own label she had been producing for a few years. After her departure I felt the wines lost direction and quality suffered. In 2007, A to Z wines bought the winery and quality immediately improved. So, I looked forward to the first red release. Again, a pretty, bright color with a core of much darker fruit. The nose is deep, nearly a black cherry, that you can still 'smell' even when the wine is on your palate. Long, persistent, and focused but with some impressive depth, both for the vintage and for the wine's youth. This is really damned impressive actually, especially when taking into account some previous disappointing efforts. I like this a lot and look forward to more offerings like this one. $20-$28

Westrey Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley - Amy Wesselman and David Autrey (Wes-trey) have some solid history around the area. Between them, stints at Rex Hill, Adelsheim, Cameron, and Eyrie give them good groundwork for their own label; add to that some time with Domaine Dujac in Burgundy and the pedigree is strong. Their first vintage was 1993 and they have a devout local following, especially when it comes to their own Oracle Vineyard in the Dundee Hills. There is a bit of skepticism still, due to some apparently spotty efforts in the past. My experience has been positive each time, if not glowing. The 2007 is full of dusty cherry with lovely expansion on the finish. It worked well with grilled chicken wings. The fresh, intense nose leads to impressive weight and attack. It drinks well now but has room to improve in the short term. I find this to be a regular style now, a bit tight young, not so much you wouldn't drink it, but enough to reward cellaring for about two years. $20-$25

Friday, July 24, 2009

Same Producer, Pinot Noir vs. Old VIne Pinot Noir

An admission to open this post: these wines do not appear to be widely distributed. I could find no importer information except the small distributor local to Oregon that sells wine retail through Square Deal. But that's not the point of today's excercise. This is more of an experiment or exploration than a review to drive specific buying decisions.
People stress old vines over young vines nearly every time, especially when discussing grapes such as Zinfandel and Grenache. I also hear stress on age in relation to Pinot Noir but to a lesser degree.
The concept of age being important to flavor, complexity, etc. is based on a few ways vines and grapes change as vines mature. For one thing, roots dig deeper and travel through more strata which leads to extraction of more variety of compounds and therefore more complexity in the grapes. As vines age they become less vigorous leading to production of less, and smaller, fruit. That means all the flavor is concentrated in less juice leading to a richer wine. The small grapes have more skin to juice ratio and therefore emerge, eventually, as darker wine.
Rarely is one able to try similarly handled versions of old vs. young from the same vineyard. This is one of those opportunities.
Xavier Guillaume runs, Pepinieres Guillaume, a highly acclaimed nursery with 27 million vines planted throughout east and south-east France. They produce a variety of stock, budwood, and clonal selections within varieties. To test and explore the styles they produce microcuvees of clones. In this case they produced Pinot Noir under the label Vignoble Guillaume. Although information about specific wines is spotty, my recollection from my discussion with an employee at Square Deal was that they were handled the same way, the only difference is the age of the vines (I can not recall now how big the difference was).
A quick note: There is no law governing the use of the term Old Vines anywhere on the planet. Most producers are scrupulous but if you have five year old vines planted in one spot and ten year old in another you could label the ten year old as old vines. I'm not even sure you need two different ages planted to label that way. However, people do ask questions and eventually a producer's hoax would be uncovered. Most wineries I have spoken with over the years will not label anything as old vines until they are at least 35 years old. Still others use 50 as their standard.
These wines hail from Franche-Comte near the eastern edge of France, close to the little known appellation of Jura and about an hour away from the Cote de Nuits. They carry a simple Vin de Pays designation but still commanded prices of $17 and $24.
Pinot Noir 2006 - Light color, with an almost orange edge. Nearly smells like a meaty rose - with more rose than meat. Tart cherry dominates with a perplexing, engaging ethereal silkiness. I think of silky as more textural, this was more of an impression as the wine was fairly delicate in the mouth. You can smell the minerality, cherry deepening with air and some very fresh mushroom emerging as well. I found it enough to simply smell this wine for quite some time. With more air the earth notes became stronger as did the subtle woodiness.
Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes (Old Vines) 2006 - Similar color, but a bit deeper with crushed cherry and a bit of blackberry as well. Lovely, impressive wine that proved more intense with more mineral, nearly a wet stone smell. The minerality here is explosive, expanding in the mouth and giving the appearance of tasting the smell of stone in the summer after a strong rain. The fruit is sweeter with a touch of wood, but just a touch.
I found both wines to be on the lighter side, but with persistent finishes. They were also both fantastic with simple baked Sockeye Salmon.
Okay, the verdict? The old vine version simply took everything the first offered and made it bigger, more concentrated, turned it up to 11. Clearly, they were similar wines and I might have believed they were from the same producer but from different years, with the V.V. being a warmer vintage with, perhaps, a longer growing season. This is a potentially great lesson for buying Pinot Noir, Burgundy in particular. Assuming the sourcing is all estate you can test drive the winery's Bourgogne, or entry level Pinot, and get some idea of what's to come from wines made from older vines. This is a regular occurrence in Burgundy; less expensive wines made from younger vines while the older, prized vines make the best wines they have to offer. One word or caution however, often wineries handle juice from young and old vines differently, using more and newer wood with the bigger cuvees because they can handle it. To my palate that was clearly not the case with Vignoble Guillaume.
There are no absolute answers in the world of wine, only opportunities to hone your palate and become aware of more questions to ask in hopes of discovering the best wines for your palate.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

4th of July American Syrah

Back from Maine (ten fantastic days) and mostly dug out now. Not much to discuss from the last two weeks overall; we drank pretty well, but there were no real themes except for one night. On the 4th of July I found myself thinking we should be drinking Zinfandel. We ended up drinking two tasting sets of Syrah, plus one extra bottle, all from California, certainly patriotic.
My father had purchased some four bottle tasting kits put together by the Chalone Wine Group a number of years ago. They featured wines from the Chalone family of wineries, Echelon, Chalone, Jade Mountain, and Edna Valley. All of the wines were 2001 vintage and we were lucky enough to have another addition from Santa Ynez, also from 2001. (We also tasted an Aussie Shiraz, but it was from 2005 so I am not including it here).
The wines below are presented in the order we tasted. Although you will not find any of these available on shelves currently, it should give a good idea of viability for aging.
Echelon Syrah 2001, Clarksburg - Echelon was created in the late 1990's as a relatively inexpensive option in the Chalone Wine Group. Most (all?) of the fruit was purchased and the 2001 did not carry the current designation of Esperanza Vineyard. While Echelon has gotten more single vineyard focused, they now call this wine Shiraz, a classic California marketing move to capitalize on the more sellable style coming from Australia. My experience has been that Shiraz from California still carries a bit of a stigma and confuses more customers than it entices. At any rate, the grapes come from Clarksburg, well east of Sonoma, nearly all the way to Lodi. The wine was a bit tired, the fruit mostly faded. There was an appealing middle though, offering earth and tar notes. The finish faded quickly as well, leaving just the mid-palate. I enjoyed that middle, and it worked well with slabs of grilled beef, but it was no longer a pleasure to drink.
Chalone Syrah 2001, Chalone - Yes, the AVA (American Viticultural Area) is named after the winery. As if wine wasn't confusing enough. The appellation is located ESE of Monterey, in close proximity to Santa Lucia Highlands and Arroyo Seco. The famed Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producer Calera is NNE of Chalone. No surprise then that the specialties of Chalone are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They planted Syrah in the 1990's and according to the website, the 2002 vintage was the first release. I can testify that they either released small quantities of the 2001 or mislabeled some of the 2002 vintage. My bet is on a limited production of 2001. The 2002 vintage spent 18 months in French barrels, one third were new. They also blended in 3% Viognier. Perhaps a bit of explanation here. Viognier is very aromatic and traditionally in the northern Rhone was often co-fermented with Syrah. The result was, counter intuitively, a darker wine with more pronounced aromatics in its youth. Syrah, despite its intensity, is quiet on the nose when it is young. Viognier brings up some Syrah aromas, not Viognier aromas, when used in small quantities. Blending wine later does not alter the color, but still brightens the perfume. Unlike some northern Rhone Syrahs, California versions do not generally need more pigmentation.
The nose offered deep purple fruit and some moderate oak with red berries as well. I found this wine remarkably fresh on the front end with older, more mature fruit on the finish. There a more pronounced woody note appeared along with a hint of leather; the leather is new and almost sweet smelling, not weathered and slightly earthy. This would have paired well with mushroom based dishes and lighter grilled meats. Impressive, especially for a wine they did not release! I think it could have aged well for another two years, but I enjoyed it's mix of freshness and maturity.
Jade Mountain Syrah 2001, Napa Valley - Jade Mountain began in 1988 and produces only Rhone styled wines. Their style has always been a bit chewy in their youth and I always believed they would age, but had not had any of their wine more than a year or two past release. Some of the chewiness can no doubt be attributed to this approach, quoted from Diageo's website (Diageo owns Chalone Wine Group, who in turn owns Jade Mountain). "Jade Mountain practices high-risk winemaking by pushing the limits of grapegrowing and winemaking until the grapes have surrendered all the flavor and structure possible." This does not sound like a gentle handling to me and is therefore likely to extract more tannin.
The technical sheet states 100% Syrah, but then mentions co-fermentation with Viognier so who knows? Earth is a strong component, with minerality too, making this very reminiscent of the classic French style. I found it a bit rough on the palate, classic Jade style. It did work much better with food as one would suspect with a wine of this style. We had grilled fillet and I had mine with mushroom sauce. Mouthwatering acidity still thrived along with a subtly funky earth note. The 2nd bottle proved much softer and more drinkable on its own. The second was clearly a better example, even offering some intriguing notes of violets on the nose.
Edna Valley Syrah 2001, Edna Valley - In another stroke of brilliant marketing by the Chalone group, the AVA is named after the winery. Located just south of Paso Robles, but much closer to the coast (five miles or so) thus sharing more climate similarities with the AVAs of Santa Maria, Santa Ynez, and Santa Rita Hills. The Paragon Vineyard partnered with Chalone Winery to create the Edna Valley winery in 1980. Chardonnay led the charge, establishing their best known wine. Pinot Noir followed and then the winery made one of the first Syrahs from the area. According to the technical sheet for the 2003 vintage (no older vintage information was available), they produce 100% Syrah, but add "a small amount of Petite Sirah." They show it to be 100% San Luis Obispo County, which is not an AVA, but that allows them to add some fruit from the much warmer Paso Robles AVA. Confusingly, the wine still carries a designation of Paragon Vineyard, in the Edna Valley AVA. And people complain about French labels?
Anyway, the wine was a bit closed, but with lovely purple fruit - no better way to describe it. The color of this wine was the most intense, bright, and lively of the tasting (both bottles). A great silky palate with a touch of juicy earth. I know that makes little sense, but that was my impression. Clearly not dank, funky earth, but fresh loamy stuff, perhaps with berries growing in it. Sweet oak and some pepper, the only wine with that classic Syrah hallmark, made this the hit of the tasting for me. I found it classic and impressive. Well done. I look forward to trying a Syrah in current release to see how it compares. Despite the confusing labelling and somewhat misleading information on their tech sheet, I found this wine compelling.
Beckmen Estate Syrah 2001, Santa Ynez Valley - I have always enjoyed the wines from this winery, and I looked forward to tasting a wine with some age. (Note, we drank a wonderful 2002 Marsanne from Beckmen over the Maine visit as well. It went beautifully with cashews). They focus almost exclusively on Rhone varieties and have planted seven clones of Syrah over 18 vineyard blocks. Their tech sheets do not go back to 2001, but the 2003 is 100% Syrah, aged in French oak, 40% new. They were certified biodynamic in 2006, bravo!
I found an iodine/tar nose at first that faded a bit, but remained throughout both bottles. The palate, however, was gorgeous, silky, and full of ripe, pretty fruit. Although the wine was clearly not consistent in flavor throughout, I found it lovely and delicious. The nose was off-putting for many tasters, but everyone loved the rest of the wine. I found the nose interesting and mildly distracting, it was not a wine I wanted to simply smell. The palate so grabbed me though that I chose to overlook the nose and enjoy the rest of the ride. Perhaps drinking this a year or two earlier might have mitigated the intense aromas.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

J Ordonez Malaga Muscats

Alois Kracher made some of the best dessert wines I have ever been lucky enough to taste.  His passion led to fanatical devotion and an array of wines that sometimes made heads spin.  The yearly pre-sell offer on the wines often ran more than ten pages and I recall having outrageous numbers of dessert wines available from one vintage.  These were not all different grapes, they were sites within vineyards that developed differently, had varying levels of botrytis, etc.  Normal humans could not discern major contrasts between the various offerings (until tasting them), but Alois could and believed them all to be worthy of their own individual expression.  I often referred to him as a mad genius when trying to give customers a picture of the man behind the wine.  Unfortunately, he died in late 2007.  Fortunately for all of us, some of his wines are still available.  
Beyond his eponymous label from Austria, he collaborated on two projects, one in California and one in Malaga, off the coast of Spain.  While Mr. K Eiswein from Sine Qua Non in California can be impossible to find, and quite expensive (upwards of $150 for a 375ml bottle), his partnership with Jorge Ordonez created a trio of riveting wines that make for an unforgettable tour of Muscat de Alexandria.  They are also more reasonably priced.  
The wines are named after Jorge's father's company and come from the high in the mountains.  They are all 100% Moscatel (Muscat).  The soil is slate based and the vineyards are all farmed "using organic practices" but are not certified organic.  While it is certainly a treat to have these glorious nectars pass your lips, it can be enough just to inhale their scents...for a while.  I challenge anyone to smell and resist a taste.
Seleccion Especial #1 2006 - The vineyards are all at least 30 years old and are located at approximately 1,400 feet above sea level.  The grapes are harvested late, but do not develop botrytis and are stainless steel fermented.  The wine is clean and textural, with incredible juicy stone fruits leaping from the glass.  It smelled to me of ripe and candied fruits at the same time.  This one reminds me of non-fizzy, super concentrated Moscato d'Asti.  It would make a fantastic match with fruit deserts and whipped cream.  375ml - $20-$25
Victoria #2 2005 - These grapes come from vines in excess of 50 years of age, located at 2,250 feet.  Late harvest grapes are brought to the winery for drying, which concentrates the fruit, and are then stainless steel fermented.  More residual sugar remains in this than the first.  Creamier texture with wilder, more exotic fruits, especially peach, make this wine feel like some sort of reward for having lived a virtuous life.  Fortunately for most of us, no proof of that is required to buy a bottle.  Floral notes appear with more peach on the palate, the peach here is nearly animal wild and sauvage.  Man, what a treat.  Sleek and sexy, this wine gives me goosebumps.  There is intensity, but also delicacy and finesse.  If there is anything to complain about it might be that the finish seemed shorter than I wanted; however, part of that is simply being a rich wine, not a highly sugary one.  I am still searching for more descriptors, maybe fruit cream and maple sugar, but more delicate than that sounds.  This wine needs to come in bigger bottles!  375ml  $40-$45
Victoria #2 2006 - The nose returned to the clean freshness of the Especial, but with a touch of clove added and a hint of nuttiness.  Peach cream entices again.  This appeared to have botrytis to me on the aroma with a darker, nearly golden color.  Thick and unctuous, with a hint of sherry on the nose, the finish is all bright sunshine.  With all of the thickness implied by the entry, the finish is amazingly fresh with sweet lemon extract mingling with apricot and baking spices, nutmeg(?).  It is viscous but not cloying in the least.  375ml  $39-$44
Old Vines #3 2005 - 80-100 year old vines constitute the showpiece bottling.  They are located at 1,500 feet and the fruit is dried at the winery like the Victoria.  This is fermented in new French oak.  My notes here are less complete, perhaps due to my absolute infatuation with the Victoria #2's.  More Sauterne like, but with less nut notes and more fruit essence, this wine is more 'standard' dessert style.  Thick, rich and full in the mouth with more sugar and extract and general weight.  It is delightful and cries out for creme brulee.  The peach theme continues and this wine shows how old vines and oak can ratchet up the intensity level.  This wine makes me smile.  375ml  $65-$80