Medium ruby with nice aromatic intensity. Violet pastille, candied cherry, energetic raspberry, and a pinch of oak spice make a compelling statement. The body shows Oregon meeting German Spätburgunder, lithe with vivacious acidity and a low-level of grippy tannins. Tart cherry takes the command here. True to its source, even in warm vintages. (MW, May 2017)
Pale lemon with subtle, youthful aromas of green apple, Bartlett pear, and slate. Dry leaning in to off-dry with noteworthy, well-integrated acidity. Length lacked luster, perhaps due to age. (MW, February 2017)
Three wines. Each providing a thumbprint and insight into a winemaker’s style. All under one roof. A tour of the Willamette Valley typically provides the curious connoisseur an experience with Pinot Noir, soils and AVA variations, winemaking style, and brand image. The preeminent role of site, however, leaves the taster wondering what effect the winemaker had in comparison to the plot of land and farming that raised the grapes.
Enter Bella Vida Vineyard. Located in the rust-hued hills of Dundee, the motherland of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Bella Vida contracts three noteworthy Willamette winemakers to each craft a Pinot Noir that highlights this site and the essence of their winemaking style. As a 26 acre vineyard, each winemaker works with very similar fruit tended by the same vineyard manager. This culminates in a memorable and deeply informative tasting experience.
In the middle of the tasting, owner Steve Whiteside poured a trio of 2012 vintage wines from his three winemakers—Jacques Tardy of Torii Mor, Jay Sommers of J. Christopher, and Brian O’Donnel of Belle Pente. Each wine demonstrates that winemaking impacts our experience with a wine profoundly.
2012 Bella Vida Tardy Pinot Noir
Pure ruby in color, lifted aromas of red cherry and spice leave no doubt that this is Dundee Hills wine. In the background, a hint of mushroom adds intrigue. With lithe body, medium-plus acidity, and a finish that carries memories, this wine will clearly benefit from aging. I have a bottle in my cellar to investigate. Excellent.
2012 Bella Vida J. Christopher Pinot Noir
A darker-hued wine with a blue rim, this wine leans into the darker fruits with spiced blueberry melding with tilled earth. A balanced wine all around. While my least favorite of the three wines, it undoubtedly sings of Pinot Noir while holding its head high. Delightful.
2012 Bella Vida O’Donnell Pinot Noir
Minimalist winemaking creates a suave-textured wine with black cherry, bramble, and floral kisses. My tasting crew unanimously declared this their favorite, in large part due to the mouthfeel. Excellent.
With production at about 150 cases for each of these wines, visitors to the valley will likely never touch these gems unless they visit the vineyard personally. The opportunity to taste the decision-making and ethos of each winemaker will captivate any wine enthusiast. The fact that the fruit hails from such a stunning site—both visually and viticulturally—makes this a must visit tasting room on your next trip.
Last week’s Oregon Wine Symposium provided plenty of fodder for this curious mind. A few tidbits for you, my beloved readers, to ponder and peruse:
2015, the warmest vintage on record in the Willamette Valley, will become the norm between 2035—2045. The wine industry and many others (NASA, ski resorts, Inuit villages, farmers more broadly) take the projections seriously. We should all abide. While we often focus on air temperature increases, ocean and soil temperature rise both pose unique risks, many of which we do not understand well (or at all). Microbial life in the soils, for example, will change with the soil temperature increases we see today.
The Willamette Valley and western Columbia Gorge, two of the only true cold-climate growing regions in the United States, are better suited for the warming future, though varietals will have to shift over time to accommodate the changing environment. Large diurnal temperature swings* have set the Willamette Valley apart from most growing regions in the United States. Unfortunately, average low temperatures have risen faster than average high temperatures, which will result in the Willamette Valley losing its diurnal edge.Some cool climate, Columbia Gorge fruit
Consolidation within the wine industry, nationally and globally, inserts agitating slivers into the healthy flesh of Oregon wine. Large distributors have merged (Glazer’s and Southern should concern us all, for example), and the pace of vineyard and winery buy-outs has accelerated. This challenges the heart of Oregon wine, known rightly as the land of small, family wineries and vineyards with a keen interest in sustainable, life-giving operations. 5,000+ case wineries represent but a quarter of the Oregon industry, and vineyards over 50 acres hardly exist. You juxtapose this to California or even Washington, and Oregon looks like the land of peasant farmers on petite parcels. However, Oregon wine has justly earned a reputation for serious quality. The small-scale often allows winemakers to craft wines that sing siren songs to our passing ears.
The fellowship and collaborative spirit within the Oregon wine industry sets the state apart from the rest of the wine world. Global wine industry folks have interned, settled, or partaken in the Oregon wine scene, and the outsiders and insiders unanimously rave about the familial nature of the Oregon wine industry. When combined with the small-scale production noted above, Oregon wines truly offer something unique to the world.
What do we mean when we say we smell “minerality” in a wine? This word appears to serve as a catch-all to describe any aroma or flavor that doesn’t fall into the fruit or oak categories. Wine reviews and tasting notes have seen a significant rise in its use, and yet tasters disagree over what minerality actually means. Are the aromas actually reductive sulfides in the wine, or do vines transport mineral compounds from the soil into the wine? Science tells us that vines cannot carry soil minerals to the grapes, and yet savvy tasters frequently speak of smelling granite, flint, or wet stone in their wine. While the origin of the aromas remains elusive, know that higher acid wines more frequently carry these mineral notes, and Old World wines more commonly contain this needed acidity. I suggest tasting Chablis or Mosel Riesling to experience minerality yourself.
*Diurnal temperature swings refers to the gap in temperature between the daily high and daily low. The larger the diurnal shift, the more acidity the grapes will maintain in the evenings while still allowing for ripening thanks to the warm daytime highs.
I, like any good wine shopper, seek out producers over-delivering for their price point. In the nearby Willamette Valley, this means $20-$35 Pinot Noir that tastes like the giants at $50-$80. Last weekend I stopped by Bergström Wines, a hallmark producer in the valley. What I found buckled my knees. The first swirl and smell of three of the four Pinots I tasted left me staggering. Life paused, oh my word, there is a fourth dimension kind of wines.
It started with the 2013 Le Pré du Col Vineyard Pinot Noir. The aromatics took me to another realm. Nothing I have tasted has touched this wine. Strawberry, earth, and pine forest mingle seductively and profoundly on the nose. The mid-weight palate adds cherry cola and soft tannins. This is a knee-buckling, tear-inducing wine—memorable and awe-inspiring. Stellar.
Having tasted the Le Pré du Col, I honestly didn’t care what the rest of the wines tasted like. I could have simply basked in the afterglow of that singular experience. However, the line-up continued to caress my interest, never letting me down from my cloud. The 2013 Silice Pinot Noir followed with its own unique path to Pinot Noir enlightenment. Chocolate covered strawberry and cherry aromas lead with silky, pure, red-fruit on the palate. The fine-grained tannins and strawberry preserve acidity weave smooth layers into the medium-bodied core. An eye-brow raising wine that floats effortlessly between density and buoyancy. Stellar.
This is the first time I have rated two wines as stellar at one tasting. I still encourage all to seek the hand-crafted gems over-delivering at affordable price points. Bergström Wines reminds me, however, that some (only some) have earned the hefty tariffs they charge. If you have the opportunity to taste their wines or purchase a bottle, do not hesitate.
Last Saturday I ventured to the motherland of Oregon Pinot Noir, the northern Willamette Valley. The Saturday before Thanksgiving has become an insider’s haven. Wine club members and guests come to barrel sample, pick-up shipments, and celebrate the upcoming releases without the throngs of Thanksgiving embibers seeking liquid relief from extended family. A brief photo tour highlights the day.
As a new “insider” to the wine trade, I walk the hallowed halls with antennas tuned for insight. For one, I hope to uncover the vineyard gems that supply the best value Pinot Noirs in the valley. I, like many of you, spend most of my nights sipping wines in the $10-$20 price range. The Willamette Valley, however, only seems to deliver $20-$60 Pinot. How can we reconcile this dilemma?
Nearly half of Oregon producers purchase all of their fruitº from independent vineyards or significant estate vineyards owned by others. These wineries do not own vines, and as a consequence pay the market prices for their fruit. Pay $1600 per ton for your Pinot Noir, and you will get your $15 bottle from the Willamette Valley. Unfortunately, it will taste like it too, as these vineyards often rest on the flat lands outside of the blessed zones for primo Pinot Noir. Pay $3000 per ton for your Pinot, and you will start producing wines that sing. . . and you will charge $30 per bottle to cover the cost. Many have touted, “Great wine is made in the vineyard.” This is a truth, and as a consequence winemakers pay for quality wine. There are no short cuts.
Unless. Unless the producer owns an estate. Those who own a vineyard and make wine from it have unique opportunities, especially when they have owned portions of their vineyards long enough to bury the loan notes. Through ownership, they have fixed their costs for fruit*. If this estate is on ideal vineyard land, and if the owner and winemaker value producing value, and if they have volume enough to sustain a business**, and if they do not build a lavish, over-the-top winery and tasting room, then they could possibly produce memorable $18 Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley. This estate likely needs to be outside the sexiest AVAs, or the allure of that name will tempt the hands in control to charge the prices they can command. Importantly, the $18 bottle will only be one of many wines offered by this winery, and the rest will fall into the $25-$60 price range to support a balanced ledger.
The odds of the stars aligning for you, the hopeful consumer? Minimal. Reality leaves me craving $15 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir that inspires, and thankful I receive industry discounts. Quality cannot come from wine cellar magic. “You can make a bad wine out of great fruit, but you cannot make a great wine out of bad fruit.” For the $10-$20 seekers of quality Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, a handful of producers do compassionately craft affordable, insightful Pinot. Ultimately, though, the economic winds of this challenging varietal blow, like a February gale, against us.
*Fixed cost is not 100% literal here. Tax payments will rise as land values increase, and labor costs for tending the vines will increase over time. However, you purchased the land at a set price, and you have locked in that value.
**5 acres of Pinot Noir will not allow you to produce $15-$20 Pinot Noir of quality if you want to sustain a livelihood, rather than take a vow of poverty (very few fit this bill).
July has produced a preponderance of news and excitement here at Wagon Wine. First, the wine industry has called my name. The family at Fullerton Wines has hired me to manage public relations and the wine club, maintain and acquire accounts in the Portland area, and help in the cellar. I begin in August. Integrity matters. Consequently, after this post, I will not review or mention Fullerton Wines, or their second label Three Otters (formerly Bull’s Eye), on this blog. However, I will say this today: I would never work for a winery I did not respect both for the quality of the wine and the integrity of its mission. Find more information at Fullerton Wines. To my readers’ benefit, I will use the knowledge and insight I acquire with Fullerton Wines to inform my posts on Wagon Wine. I have thus far written as an industry outsider with a focus and passion for northwest wines. Although I will now work within the industry, I will continue writing at Wagon Wine for the consumer–you. I also received news in late June that the Wine Bloggers Conferenceawarded me a scholarship to attend this year’s conference in the celebrated wine region of Finger Lakes, New York. Held in Corning, the conference uniquely allows me to network with fellow citizen and industry bloggers, explore a wine region I have yet to visit, and learn from industry professionals, including Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible (I have previously recommended this essential book). Thank you to the generous sponsors who made this possible. I am thrilled and humbled. I cannot depart without briefly sharing two wines I have recently tasted and devoured due to the stunning QPR*:
2013 Lone Birch Red Blend, Yakima Valley ($10): I love a good second label wine, and Airfield Estates’ Lone Birch fits the bill beautifully. Fresh, fruit forward aromas of plum and blackberry greet you along with a kiss (big smooch) of toast and dark chocolate. Smoothly textured with mild tannins, and gentle, balancing acidity. The wine struck me as surprisingly complete. While not huge on “blind tastings,” I would put money down on this wine against many other Washington red blends at higher price points. Delightful.
Un Autre Monde Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley ($13): Thank you Bruce of Vino, Portland for turning me on to this wine (Bruce’s notes). Best value Pinot Noir I have tasted to date. A blend of 2011 and 2012 fruit from esteemed (unknown) vineyards–one within Dundee and the other Yamhill-Carlton. The cool and ideal weather conditions of these two vintages meld into a stunning Willamette Valley NV blend. Cranberry, cocoa, and spice align on this linear, piercing frame. Nuanced, surprising, the wine evolved provocatively over the course of the evening. Unfortunately, we can’t expect to see this wine again. Excellent.
Un Autre Monde Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Finally, I spent over two weeks of July back in Minnesota, the motherland for the Wieland family. While home, my mother married her partner, Kevin, in a lovely lakeside wedding. Cheers to the couple–may the wind be always at your back.
Me and my Mother, Lisa, on her wedding day, July 18th
The Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association (CGWA) recently hosted a Grand Tasting at Castaway in NW Portland. After a few days of pondering and reflecting on my notes, I feel more confident than ever that the Columbia Gorge AVA has a bigger and brighter future ahead (though perhaps we shouldn’t hope for “bigger”). This AVA garners relatively little press from regional and national press. As a consequence, it is a spring lilac, under-appreciated, that forces your attention when you get within proximity. Your senses awaken.
Why the Columbia Gorge? The breadth of styles and varieties, in conjunction with quality, provide consumers with a dreamy array of wines from a small geographic area–40 miles west to east. The Columbia Gorge quickly transitions from forested foothills with significant annual rainfall to elevated, sloping desert overlooking the Columbia River. You can taste sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, sangiovese, barbera, nebbiolo, chardonnay, zinfandel, cabernet franc, syrah, grenache, and blends both traditional and path forging, all while only scratching the surface of this AVAs offerings. This blessing of diversity may also provide one of the confounding factors–what grapes thrive where? Experience, often through trial and error, has helped uncover the “spirit” grape(s) of many parcels of land. What works at a vineyard 2 or 3 miles west will likely pan out quite differently, or even fail, at your vineyard. All factors impacting terroir change drastically in short distances here. Wines and Wineries of Note:
2012 Phelps Creek Cuvee Alexandrine Pinot Noir: The Columbia Gorge need not play second fiddle to big sister Willamette Valley next door. Let the Gorge play a solo show! This age-worthy pinot opens with aromatic intrigue–strawberry, cherry, and aromas of a cool walk in a damp woodland. This wine is alive! Medium tannins and a wonderful balance of acidity keep us dancing instead of lounging. Pinot lovers, take note of this wine, and Phelps Creek. Stellar.
Viento 2013 Savvy Sauvignon Blanc Allegre Vineyard: My mind immediately travelled to New Zealand. The zest, the brightness of this sauvignon blanc aligns wonderfully with my ideal for this varietal. A zip of lemon welcomes your senses, accompanied by melon and pineapple notes. This is summer in a bottle. Delightful. In the words of head winemaker Rich Cushman, expect “honest wines.” No enzymes, stabilizers, etc.
The Pines 1852 2013 Estate Old Vine Zinfandel: Wow. A ripe, lush sensory experience with blackberry and resin. Avoids jaminess while plushly coating your mouth. Medium-plus tannins. Length abounds. Sourced from some of the oldest vines in the northwest, planted in the late 1800s. Stellar.
Memaloose 2011 Mistral Ranch Estate: Southern Rhone blend of syrah (60%) and grenache (40%). Red fruit, caramel, earth, and fresh forest growth create a provocative wine. All wines produced now come from estate fruit. Excellent. Expect only neutral oak, and an Old World winemaking style when you drink Memaloose.
If you live in the Portland area, consider attending the Columbia Gorge Grand Tasting in the future. Head to tasting rooms on a typical weekend, and you often have 30 seconds to hear the shtick from tasting room staffers before they must move on to the throngs of other guests. Understandable, but also disappointing if you appreciate discussing the details of the wine in your glass. However, attend this tasting, hosted by the CGWA, and you will have a unique opportunity to talk directly with many winemakers, owners, and/or heads of sales and tasting rooms (especially if you arrive early). These pillars of the industry can provide the details and stories behind the wine you enjoy. Cheers!
A recent weekend in the Chehalem and Ribbon Ridge AVAs of Oregon has eloquently reminded me of the importance of context. My bride and tasting partner, Stephanie, and I spent two days sipping our way through 2011 and 2012 pinot noir cuvées, reserves, single vineyard selections, and 2013 futures. While critically discerning aromas and tastes at the second winery, context finally descended upon me–nearly all of these pinots rise to the realm of exceptionality. Truly. Many wine regions, great and small, have crawled into bed with pinot noir, but nearly all have found her a coy mistress. Most fail to bring out the best in her, making instead either a simple, light table wine, or a juicier, one-dimensional slurper. Respected producers in the Willamette, however, have teased this mistress into delighting wondrously. How fortunate we are. A handful of Willamette wineries fail to inspire, but a little research will lead you to one of the plethora of noteworthy pinot producers in the valley. Take advantage, even if only for an afternoon of tasting.
Wines of note:
2012 Beaux Frères Willamette Valley Pinot Noir: Always a joy when a winery’s entry-level pinot delights as much or more than single vineyard or reserve tiers. Beaux Frères has earned its acclaim. Structure, beauty, and nuanced complexity coexist.
2012 Chehalem Corral Creek Vineyards Pinot Noir: Blue fruits and blackberries balance well with gentle tannins. 2012 provided an abundance of heat, allowing this typically gentler vineyard to produce a larger, but still well-balanced wine.
2011 Trisaetum Coast Range Estate Pinot Noir: A reminder that I love elegance. In 2011, cool conditions dominated, but many outstanding wines exist despite the challenges. Add this bottle to that list. Red berries, acid, and agile weight meld delightfully.