Pinot Noir

Oregon Pinot Noir Reassessed

27 July 2019

Winemaker of The Four Graces, Marc Myers

I don’t buy Oregon Pinot Noir, and I haven’t written about Pinot Noir from Oregon on this site. Not once in Odd Bacchus’s eight years of existence. The problems I had with Oregon Pinot Noir were twofold.

First, I couldn’t afford anything that was more than merely drinkable. As any wine writer will tell you, Pinot Noir is a “finicky” grape, and it’s very difficult to produce good Pinot inexpensively. Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal just wrote a column about this very fact (she did find two Oregon Pinots that each cost $20 that she liked, the 2017 La Crema and the 2017 Stoller Family Estate Dundee Hills).

Second, when I did drink an Oregon Pinot Noir, more often than not, I detected a certain meaty quality. I didn’t care for it, and I saw no reason to shell out $20 (or more) to experience it.

Nor did Oregon Pinot Gris, one of the state’s signature whites, ever dazzle me. Only the occasional Müller-Thurgau or Pinot Blanc caught my eye.

And so it was with rather low expectations that I went to a recent tasting of Oregon Pinot Noir, held here in Chicago. The PR representative who invited me was very kind, even remembering that I had been traveling during last year’s tasting, so I felt I had to at least give it a try.

No stranger to the Pinot Noirs of Burgundy — I’ve had the fortune to visit the region on four separate occasions — I wanted to know what the argument for Oregon was. So I decided to ask every winery representative I met that very question. Why drink Oregon Pinot Noir, rather than an example from Burgundy, New Zealand or somewhere else?

The “Pinot in the City” tasting in Chicago

I got a lot of fascinating answers:

Rebecca Oliver, the National Sales Manager for Lemelson Vineyards, sounded two notes that I was to hear more than once over the course of the tasting: “We have such camaraderie here in Oregon, and the sense of place is unlike anywhere else; Oregon Pinot tastes different from Pinot in other places. We’re all farmers, and we’re all here promoting Oregon first, then Pinot, then ourselves.”

Megan Joy, Associate Winemaker for Goodfellow Family Cellars, had this to say: “The beautiful thing about Pinot Noir is that it’s an expression of place. It’s not about one or the other. There are lots of beautiful Pinots out there from different places, but I happen to love the ones from Oregon.”

Heather Early, the Illinois State Manager for The Four Graces winery, did not mince words: “Oregon — it’s like the Wild West. We don’t have the rules and specifications they have in Burgundy. We do whatever the f*** we want.”

Ashley Campion, Assistant Winemaker of Lemelson Vineyards

I also asked The Four Graces’ Winemaker, Marc Myers, what he thought: “I would say passion. Everyone I know who works in Willamette is passionate, and I haven’t seen that everywhere. And second, I would say collaboration. We’re all working together [to promote Oregon wines].”

Jessie Bates, the National Sales Manager for Trisaetum, didn’t necessarily care for the comparison with Burgundy: “I wouldn’t say to buy [Oregon Pinot Noir] instead, buy it alongside. We know what our relationship to the Old World is; I don’t say the “B” word. It’s very different. It’s America, it’s Oregon wines. Americans are much more sophisticated now than they’ve ever been. And the message is that we can make wines as good as any in the Old World, in spite of the relative youth of the region.”

The Director of Sales of Dusky Goose, Natalie Sigafoos, echoed what some of her fellow Oregonians had to say: “It’s a matter of style. No matter who the winemaker is, we have a central core, even with different soils and climates. Also, we’re very supportive and we lift each other up. The collaboration and cohesiveness is amazing. Whenever a problem comes up in a vineyard, vineyard managers talk about it with each other. Winemakers have each other on speed dial. I moved from Napa 15 years ago, and it was not like that at all.”

But what is the central core of Oregon Pinot? And is it worth the money? I tasted examples from the above wineries, wineries chosen entirely at random. (Or more accurately, chosen because there weren’t many tasters crowding their tables at the time I approached.) I didn’t detect any unpleasant meatiness in any of the wines. In fact, I didn’t find a stinker in the bunch. Every single wine was obviously very well made, and most of them were even to my taste.

The 2015 Lemelson Vineyards “Thea’s Selection” Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($34) is a fine example. It had an enticing aroma of ripe cherries and spiciness, and I loved its texture: simultaneously full and light on its feet. I mentioned this to Oliver, who agreed. “Texture is paramount to us,” she said, and those are welcome words to this mouthfeel queen. I also very much enjoyed its ripe fruit flavors, focused white-pepper spice and precise sour cherry acidity that kept the bottom from ever falling out. What a delight.

Goodfellow Family Cellars’ 2016 Whistling Ridge Vineyard Heritage No. 7 Single Block Pinot Noir ($70) was similarly delicious, with a hint of violet in the aroma and some pie crust mixed in with the cherry fruit and focused acidity.

The 2017 Four Graces Dundee Hills Estate Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir ($45) was more brooding and dark; a sexy wine that had just a hint of spicy funk mixed in with the expected dark-cherry fruit and refined white-pepper spice.

Dusky Goose also made a wonderful wine from Dundee Hills fruit (this region is regarded by many as one of Oregon’s best). The 2014 Dusky Goose Dundee Hills Pinot Noir ($70) had those delightful notes of purple flowers and ripe fruit that bordered on cough-syrup cherry. But the focused spiciness and lively acidity had such force, the wine maintained excellent balance. It was at once pretty and strong.

Nor did the 2017 Trisaetum Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($30) disappoint, with its juicy dark-fruit aroma, flavors of cherries and pie crust and well-integrated tannins. This was also a wine that balanced its ripe fruit with aplomb, developing with deliberateness and obvious structure.

In addition to these wines, I highly recommend trying Dusky Goose’s 2015 Chardonnay ($60) — dare I say it felt Burgundian? — and Trisaetum’s 2018 Ribbon Ridge Estate Dry Riesling ($49), redolent of dark citrus and pear.

Well, it seems there is a whole state’s worth of delicious wines that I’ve denying myself. It’s not often that I spend $30 to $70 (retail) on a bottle of wine, I must admit, but if that is within your budget, Oregon’s wines should definitely be in your sights. I’m still unconvinced that the state’s less-expensive offerings are worthwhile, but in that price range, the wines are a delight, pure and simple.

Beyond Cabernet: Sensational Sparkling Wine In Napa

11 June 2019
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Domaine Carneros Winemaker Zak Miller

After meeting with Ivo Jeremaz of Grgich Hills winery in Napa, I resolved to give the famous valley more of a fair shake on this blog. I’ve mostly ignored Napa for the entirety of Odd Bacchus’s eight years of existence, and it’s time I gave one of the world’s most important wine regions a bit of attention. It didn’t take long for an opportunity to present itself.

Along with two other writers, I sat down to (a complimentary) lunch with Zak Miller, one of the few winemakers I’ve met whose name appears nowhere on his winery’s website. That’s no reflection on the quality of his work, however, as my dining companions and I were about to discover.

Miller doesn’t make Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, as one might expect from a Napa winemaker. Instead, he crafts superlative sparkling wines, wines that could compete with top Champagne any day. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a blind tasting, the bottlings he makes for Domaine Carneros might even top those of Taittinger, the Champagne house that founded the winery in 1987.

If you’ve ever driven between Napa and San Francisco, you’ve almost certainly seen Domaine Carneros. It stands at the southern end of the valley, marked by an imposing chateau that looks transplanted straight from the Loire (in fact, the building dates from 1989). The Napa Valley is climatically a bit counterintuitive; it’s cooler at its southern end, where breezes from the Pacific have more of an influence. Cooler weather makes for better sparkling wine, because it’s important for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes to retain ample acidity. If they ripen too much, the resulting bubbly will be unbalanced.

The Champagne region, in north-central France, famously uses Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in its sparkling wines, just as Domaine Carneros does. Pinot Meunier is also allowed in Champagne blends, but Miller uses none of it. “We don’t need insurance in Carneros,” he explained. In the less-predictable climate of Champagne, Pinot Meunier ends up in the wine when Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir fail to ripen properly. “Something like 50 percent of the Champagne region is planted with Pinot Meunier,” Miller said, “and yet you’ll almost never see it listed on the label!” Domaine Carneros uses only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir because they tend to make higher-quality sparkling wines.

I knew California was capable of producing very good sparkling wine — reasonably priced Chandon regularly finds its way into my glass — but I hadn’t tasted very many truly great California sparklers. That changed with the first wine Miller poured, a 2012 Domaine Carneros “Le Rêve” Blanc de Blancs. The 2012 is the current release of this 100-percent Chardonnay, the “tête du cuvée” (top wine) of Domaine Carneros.

All that time aging on the lees (yeast) gives it a sensational richness. One whiff, and I immediately knew I was about to drink something special. It had an enticingly toasty aroma, but it smelled lively as well. “This sees no oak,” Miller told us. “All the toastiness comes from the bottle-aging.” Lengthy bottle-aging is expensive — it costs a lot of money to wait for seven years to sell your wine — but the payoff in this case is huge. I loved the focused green-apple acids, the round fruit, the rich undergirding of toast… And the pin-prick bubbles felt thoroughly elegant. Le Rêve is expensive at $115 a bottle, but its flavor and texture live up to its price tag. What a gorgeous pairing with some tangy sourdough bread topped with fresh, creamy butter.

Miller tasting the Domaine Carneros Estate Pinot Noir

If you’re looking to impress someone, this bubbly is an ideal choice. On the other hand, if I happened to have a bottle of Le Rêve on hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself drinking the entire thing alone. I’m an only child. Sharing is hard.

The less-expensive 2015 Domaine Carneros Brut Vintage Cuvée would be something that I might consider sharing, but only with someone I really, really like. At about $36 a bottle, this sparkler overdelivers in terms of flavor. I’ll take this wine over a $47 bottle of Veuve any day. “This has immediate sex appeal,” my friend Liz Barrett rightly noted. It smelled brighter than Le Rêve, but it still had some toastiness. It tasted juicy and clean, with some minerality on the finish (and some lime curd, as Liz detected). Another food-friendly wine, this bubbly blends 51 percent Chardonnay, 47 percent Pinot Noir and 2 percent Pinot Gris, which “lifts the aroma,” Miller explained.

Domaine Carneros also makes some excellent still wines. I thoroughly enjoyed the 2016 Domaine Carneros Estate Pinot Noir, fragrant with black cherry and fresh herbs, like sage and bay. When I took a sip, it first felt rather ethereal, hovering over the palate before grounding itself with some focused baking spice and a touch of earth. It was an ideal pairing with some roast chicken breast. Good Pinot is expensive, and at $44, this wine isn’t cheap. But compared to Burgundy of similar quality, it’s an excellent value.

Meyer lemon tart with toasted meringue, frozen yogurt and chiffon “croutons” at Somerset

We finished lunch with a sparkling rosé, a style of wine I don’t ordinarily seek out. Rosé Champagne is terrifically expensive, and other sparkling rosés tend to leave me underwhelmed. The NV Domaine Carneros Cuvée de la Pompadour, however, was racy and exciting. It smelled of lemon, red currant and rose, and it had zesty, sharply focused flavors of juicy lemons and pink apples. This bubbly was superb with our lemon tart dessert, which made the wine feel creamier. Madame de Pompadour introduced Champagne to the French court, and I’m sure she would have been very pleased with this selection.

Over the course of our lunch, Miller explained the effort that goes into making wines like these, but it really wasn’t necessary. The work was obvious as soon as I took a sip (or really, even as soon as I gave the wine a sniff). Champagne and Franciacorta arguably have the best reputations for bubbly, but as these bottlings by Domaine Carneros show, Europe does not have a monopoly on top-quality sparkling wine.

For more on Domaine Carneros, check out Liz Barrett’s article about these wines here.

Note: These wines and the lunch were provided free of charge.

What Vintages Are Best?

28 February 2019

As I poured a glass of wine for a friend, she asked me a surprising question. “So, what makes a wine vintage? If it’s five years old or older?” I was taken aback at first, but I realized the question was quite reasonable. Vintage clothes, for example, don’t come from a specific year. “Vintage” in that case just means old.

Most wine drinkers already understand what a vintage wine is, but the question of which vintages are best is far less clear. Of course, vintages vary according to region. And certain authorities ascribe quality ratings to each year, which means that there must be general agreement on a region’s good years and bad years, right? Well, sort of.

If someone tells you to avoid a certain vintage, take that advice with a grain of salt. Just because the 2016 vintage in Burgundy was bad for growers, for example, it doesn’t mean that the bottle of 2016 Burgundy in front of you is bad. In our latest Name That Wine episode, we explain why.

We also tackle the challenge of chronologically ordering three different vintages of Alloro Vineyard Pinot Noir. As we blind-taste the 2015, 2014 and 2013, we talk about how wines change over time, and do our best to put that knowledge into practice. Alas, the wines we’re tasting aren’t very far apart, so we’ve set ourselves up for quite a difficult task! Well, if nothing else, we can laugh at ourselves:

Note: We received these three bottles of wine as complimentary samples for review on Name That Wine.

A Forgotten Style Of Champagne, Resurrected

27 November 2018
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I love it when someone reaches back into history for inspiration, and resurrects a wine or spirit that has been “lost” for years. A while back I wrote about how Robert Cooper of Charles Jacquin et Cie reintroduced Crème Yvette, and I’m proud to say that my article about some sparkling red Gevery-Chambertin, made in the style of a long-forgotten Burgundian AOC, won me a Millésima Blog Award.

So it was with no small measure of delight that I sat down, with my cohost Liz Barrett, to interview Champagne maker Delphine Vesselle of Champagne Jean Vesselle. First, she produces Grower Champagne, which means that she makes Champagne from grapes grown in her own vineyards. Most Champagne labels, including almost all the famous ones like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Krug, blend grapes from across the region to make their sparkling wines. Vesselle has full control of her grapes, from spring pruning through to harvest, pressing and fermentation.

Second, Vesselle produces a now-unusual style of Champagne called Oeil de Perdrix. Once common in and around the Pinot Noir-rich town of Bouzy, home to Champagne Jean Vesselle, Oeil de Perdrix translates as “eye of a partridge,” the color of which this amber Champagne apparently resembles. What makes Oeil de Perdrix different from a standard rosé is that the latter results from purposeful skin contact at the time of pressing in the winery. Oeil de Perdrix happens more en route from the vineyard. Bouzy’s warmer sites can really ripen Pinot Noir, and if the grapes are ripe enough when picked, they gently press themselves and start to macerate before they even make it to the winery. Hence the orangey tinge that’s not quite a rosé.

Early in the 20th century, big Champagne houses decided they wanted Champagne that was either rosé or not, not something in between, and so Oeil de Perdrix fell out of favor. It was Delphine Vesselle’s father who resurrected the style, as she relates in the interview. And my word, it is absolutely delicious.

You can watch our interview with the charming and very funny Delphine Vesselle here, filmed at the headquarters of Chicago importer and distributor H2Vino:

And to learn more about Grower Champagne, check out my articles about it here and here. If you want to impress a wine lover this season, Grower Champagne is a perfect gift!

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