Oregon

From The Alsace To Oregon

14 August 2013

Youngberg Hill Pinot BlancI still remember the first time I tried a Pinot Blanc. Some fellow students and I biked across the Rhein from Breisach, Germany, to Colmar in France’s Alsace region. After seeing Grünewald’s startlingly expressive and distressing Isenheim Altarpiece, we made our way to a grocery store, which, to our delight, was hosting a wine tasting. I tried a Wolfberger Pinot Blanc, among others, and was immediately hooked. We bought some bottles and sat down to consume them on the lawn in the square in front of the Unterlinden Museum. As we drank our wine and became a little tipsy, we decided it would be smart to (rather loudly) sing German songs. That way, no one would guess it was a group of Americans getting drunk in public and making a spectacle of themselves. We surely had everyone fooled.

Since then, I’ve rarely passed up the opportunity to try an Alsatian Pinot Blanc or a Weissburgunder (the German synonym for Pinot Blanc). But I’ve had very few domestic examples, most likely because, as The Oxford Companion to Wine notes, aside from about 700 acres in California, “Elsewhere in the New World, Pinot Blanc is largely ignored in favor of the most famous white wine grape.” (That would be Chardonnay.)

It was quite the treat, then, to receive a complimentary sample of  2012 Youngberg Hill Pinot Blanc from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I’d never tasted an Oregon Pinot Blanc before, and I couldn’t wait to give it a try. Surely Pinot Blanc, which flourishes in the rather cloudy and cool Alsace region, could also flourish in Oregon the way Pinot Noir has. The bottle did not sit long in my rack.

I did give myself a little time to read the press kit of the winery, and I was very pleased with what I discovered. The winery farms the Youngberg Hill vineyard, which is located just 25 miles from the coast, in organic and biodynamic fashion. Indeed, owner Wayne Bailey claims to go “beyond biodynamic,” working the land in a “seriously organic, holistic” manner. Healthier grapes make better wine, according to Bailey, and who could argue with that? In addition, the vineyard site seems primed to make excellent wine. Its proximity to the coast, according to the press kit, paradoxically provides it more rainfall than the rest of the valley as well as more sunny days during the summer season.

The care Mr. Bailey takes with his vineyard pays off in the bottle. This Pinot Blanc could go toe to toe with just about any from the Alsace. It smelled “fruity and floral” and “crisp and clean,” as two fellow tasters noted, and I detected some pear, apple, and even a little earthy funk  in the aroma (that’s a good thing). It tasted fruity, with a lush texture balanced by zesty acids which gave way to some focused gingery spice. It left me with a chalky aftertaste in the back of my throat, completing a most pleasant journey. Not at all a bad value for $20 a bottle.

The Alsace has a reputation for making the best Pinot Blanc in the world, but as this wine demonstrates, Oregon could give it some serious competition.

Note: This wine was a complimentary sample.

Five Unusual Wines For Spring

10 April 2013

Dr. Loosen Sparkling RieslingAt last, crocuses are poking their colorful little heads through the dirt, robins are bouncing along the sidewalks, and people walking outside have expressions other than a pained grimace. Spring has finally arrived, and in celebration of the season, I think I drink is in order.

Here are five bright, springy, and unusual wines sure to banish any lingering winter lethargy which might still be gumming up your system:

1. DEUTSCHER SEKT: Frankly, most Sekt, a German sparkling wine, tends to be unpleasant, with uninspiring flavors and bubbles the size of my big toe. That’s because most Sekt is made from bulk fruit grown outside Germany. Deutscher Sekt, on the other hand, is made with German fruit, likely Riesling, that tends to be of much higher quality. Deutscher Sekt tends, therefore, to be much more drinkable, and dare I even say delicious. The Dr. Loosen Sparkling Riesling, for example, has a fruity/floral nose, elegant bubbles and sweet fruit balanced by zesty acids. Available at Binny’s for $13.

2. SAVENNIÈRES: Because of this appellation’s favorable location on south-facing Loire hillsides and the low maximum yields allowed, Savennières produces “the world’s greatest dry Chenin Blanc,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. If you, like me, can rarely afford to drink the world’s greatest anything, this wine is for you. Because it doesn’t have a lot of name recognition, prices tend to be very low in relation to the quality of the wine. I recently sampled a 2008 Domaine du Closel ”La Jalousie” that I described as “Rich, spicy and tightly focused — sheer delight.” But I’ve never had a Savennières I didn’t like, so don’t worry if you can’t find this specific example. Expect a bottle to cost $20-$25 in a shop.

3. MOSCHOFILERO: If you tend to prefer your whites to be aromatic and dry rather than rich and spicy, seek out wines made from this marvelous Muscat-like Greek variety. Whole Foods carries the excellent Voyatzis Wineries Kyklos Moschofilero, for example, which is a smashing value for $12 or $13. Of the 2011 vintage, I wrote, “After a slight prickle on the tongue, flavors of ripe pears and apples led to limey acids, a brief pop of white pepper and just a touch of limestone.” If you can’t find this specific Moscofilero, look for one from the Peloponnese’s high plateau of Mantinía, where the elevation keeps the vineyards cool enough, allowing this late-ripening variety time to fully develop. (Or just ask your wine shop for a recommendation.)

Massaya Classic4. ANYTHING BY MASSAYA: I’ve had very good luck with this Lebanese winery’s entry-level bottlings. The red Massaya Classic – a blend of 60% Cinsault, 20% Cabernet and 20% Syrah — is perfect for a party, with big, ripe fruit and a black-pepper kick at the end. The white Massaya Blanc is also a blend. Familiar varieties Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc each account for 15% of the wine, with the remaining 70% evenly divided between Clairette (one of the 13 varieties allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape), and Obeidi, an indigenous Lebanese grape. This wine was a bit viscous but balanced with juicy acids. When I tasted the 2009, I wrote, “The ancient flavors of honey, wood and resin stirred a desire to experience the terroir — to see the… Bekaa Valley for myself.” (The Massaya Blanc induced me to write one of my more emotional and sentimental posts.)

5. MÜLLER-THURGAU from ALTO ADIGE or OREGON: The Oxford Companion to Wine doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to this cross of Riesling and Madeleine-Royale, describing the wines made from it as “fat, flaccid… too often with a slight suspicion of rot… extremely dull, flabby.” And it’s true, this humble variety doesn’t tend to excel in its German homeland. Transplant it to more favorable, climes, however, and suddenly you’ve got something worth drinking. Here’s how famed wine critics Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher described a Kofererhof Müller-Thurgau from Italy’s Alto Adige region: “Flinty, with some melons and dirt but brighter than we had expected. Earthy but not heavy, with real vitality. Surprisingly juicy, with some white pepper.” I discovered a tasty  2009 Montinore Estate Müller-Thurgau from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which costs between $13 and $17. Ripe pear and apple flavors were balanced with a bit of prickle on the tongue, and tart acids pulled it together for the finish. I’d avoid German Müller-Thurgau, but if you see one from elsewhere, especially Alto Adige, ignore the protestations of your sommelier and give it a try.

Beyond Flaccid Sugarwater

2 June 2012

Müller-Thurgau’s German origins haven’t done the variety any favors. I remember it well from the year I spent living in Freiburg, where bottles of the stuff would sell for about $3, with $3 flavors to match. German Müller-Thurgau incites thinly veiled feelings of revulsion in noted wine critic Jancis Robinson, whose entry about the grape in The Oxford Companion to Wine reads like a review of a Michael Moore documentary: “fat, flaccid… too often with a slight suspicion of rot… extremely dull, flabby… thin-skinned…”

Dr. Hermann Müller, born in the northern Swiss canton of Thurgau, created the variety in 1882, hoping to combine the nuances and flavors of Riesling with the early-ripening characteristics of Silvaner (itself an old hybrid of Traminer and Österreichisch Weiss). But according to recent DNA profiling, the Companion notes, Müller-Thurgau is actually a cross of Riesling and Madeleine Royale, a simple table grape (a grape intended to be eaten as fruit). Whoops.

Although Müller-Thurgau produces “oceans of sugarwater” in Germany, the variety “can be much more exciting” outside its Teutonic homeland. According to this 2006 article by wine critics Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, the “gold standard” of Müller-Thurgau comes from Italy’s northern Trentino-Alto Adige region. They tried a $36 Kofererhof Müller-Thurgau in a New York restaurant, giving it high marks: “Flinty, with some melons and dirt but brighter than we had expected. Earthy but not heavy, with real vitality. Surprisingly juicy, with some white pepper.” (Unfortunately, the sommelier looked at them like they’d ordered a bottle of Blue Nun and avoided their table the rest of the evening.)

The Companion agrees about Alto Adige, and also cites Oregon as promising Müller-Thurgau territory. A bottle of 2009 Montinore Estate Müller-Thurgau I found from Oregon’s Willamette Valley didn’t quite reach the lofty heights of the Kofererhof, but it certainly rose above German sugarwater.

This Müller-Thurgau smelled to me like very ripe pears. On the tongue, for a moment it just tasted like apple juice. Uh-oh. But then I felt the prickle of some acids, and the wine pulled itself together with a satisfyingly tart finish. It wasn’t the “revelation” that the Kofererhof had been for Gaiter and Brecher, but certainly I enjoyed drinking it. Paired with a spring risotto with peas, asparagus and baby artichokes, the acids became even more prominent, cutting through the richness of the dish.

I love to see serious wineries like Montinore experimenting with this oddly named variety with a bad reputation. We wine drinkers stand to gain much from their risk-taking. Müller-Thurgau may not flourish in Germany, but if you see one from Oregon or Italy, grab it. Your sommelier might look askance, but you’ll know better.

SUMMARY

2009 Montinore Estate Müller-Thurgau: Starts sweet, but the sugars are balanced by food-friendly acids. A fine pairing with risotto, pastas with cream-based sauces or lightly spicy Asian dishes. Serve well-chilled.

Grade: B

Find It: I purchased this bottle for $12 at In Fine Spirits, which isn’t carrying the wine as of this writing. The Montinore website offers the 2011 vintage for sale for $16.

The Advantages Of Wine Tastings

27 November 2011

Dave of H2Vino with some Mallorcan Callet

Though I don’t do it as often as I’d like, it can be surprisingly easy to go to wine tastings. Many wine shops and liquor stores host them on weekends, and even grocery stores occasionally offer samples. Tastings are a great way to get to know new wines and try things you would never consider buying a whole bottle of. More important, when you try an array of different wines in rapid succession, it becomes much clearer what kinds of wines you most prefer.

My favorite wine shop, In Fine Spirits, offers wine tastings Saturday afternoons, but every once in a while they’ll put together a big wine tasting shebang. Recently, they hosted a wonderful “Rare Vines” event focusing on limited-production wines, an exciting opportunity to try a wide range of wines made in batches of less than 1000 cases (most were under 500).

For just $10 per person — less than the price of a glass of wine in many restaurants — we sampled more than 30 wines and took good advantage of the gourmet cheese tray. (We should have taken better advantage of the spit buckets, however.)

Here are the wines I found most exciting:

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Picnic In Pink

14 July 2011

Hours-long picnics are one of the great joys of summer. When gathering up bottles of wine to accompany the pasta salads, cheeses and fruits, I invariably reach for a bottle of dry rosé. There’s something inherently fun and casual about pink wines; they’re difficult to take too seriously. And yet, the best of them are a far cry from insipid White Zinfandels, with luscious fruit and a reassuringly adult finish of stone.

Many of the most renowned rosés come from Provence, but wine regions all over the world now produce excellent examples. While browsing the unfortunately brief selection of rosé at Whole Foods recently, I discovered one called Murphy’s Law which comes 56% from Washington and 44% from Oregon.

Intrigued, I examined the back label and found a plea from the winemaker: “Please don’t jinx this fragrant and intense blend of ‘All-Star’ grapes from primo vineyards in the Pacific Northwest.” Although Pinot Noir (44.2%) is an A-List celeb, Counoise (45.8%), Grenache (5%) and Blaufränkisch (5%) are unquestionably David Hasselhoff varietals: Big in Europe.

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