Sara’s VINTAGES Preview – April 29th, 2017

Humanism in Oregon & Washington, plus Top New World Reds
By Sara d’Amato

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

In many respects, the US continues to be a divisive nation with respect to political inclinations, progressive attitudes, a deep-rooted sense of independence and competition. This is seemingly counter-intuitive given its cultural imperative to assimilate and integrate. However, as we have seen, this form of integration has not been entirely successful. On a less sobering note, with respect to wine, I was thus encouraged by a national initiative taken on by the USDA to bring international media for a first time on a “national wine tour” of the US. While not all 50 wine producing states were included, the trip took us on a coastal tour of the four largest producers: California, Washington, Oregon and New York. This unified wine front seemed hopeful in the lead up to the most recent US presidential election. Despite the outcome of that election, I continue to be heartened and stimulated by the personality-driven wines of these various states whose geographic proximity belies their unique sensibilities and climates. The notion of terroir in the US is as much driven by the human component as it is geographical distinctiveness.

This leads me to highlight the theme for next week’s VINTAGES release that puts a spotlight on Oregon and Washington. Oregon has been further promoted this past week as the Taste Oregon trade and consumer tasting which took place at the Fermenting Cellar showcasing the wine of over 40 producers. I think it best to first visit the deferential and pastoral wine region of Oregon before embarking on the elaborately organized yet divisive region of Washington.

Understated Oregon

If you are a lover of pinot noir, then your Mecca is no doubt Burgundy, but with the proliferation of Oregon pinot noir, it is no longer the only benchmark. Oregon’s quality wine producing history began much more recently than the historic centuries of Burgundian production. In fact, it wasn’t until the repeal of US prohibition in the early 1930’s that the modern industry took root. The momentum that followed was led by pioneering individuals with a grass roots, non-profiteering sensibility — a spirit that very much prevails among Oregonian wine producers to this day.

A distinguishing feature of Oregon is that the pioneering individuals who defined this region and its terroir also become an integral part of its cultural landscape — individuals such as:

– Richard Sommer who is widely credited as having jump-started quality wine production in Oregon with the risky move of planting seven different vinifera varieties in the Umpqua Valley in the early 1960s. His Hillcrest Vineyard site is Oregon’s oldest estate winery;

– Two trailblazing couples: Dick & Nancy Pozi and Jim & Loie Maresh who, in the 60s, sought out and invested all they could muster in what they had hoped would be top viticultural sites;

– Dick Erath, who, freshly graduated from University of California, Davis, confidently had business cards printed for his winery a year ahead of planting his first wine grapes in 1969;

– Individuals like Susan and Bill Sokol Blosser who abandoned fruit farming in favour of clearing land for grape vines weeks before their first child was to be born in 1970; and

– David and Ginny Adelsheim whose commitment to Burgundian grape varieties in the early 70s helped established Oregon as a premier producer of cerebral wines.

The list goes on and on. The people of Oregon have imprinted themselves on the very soil on which they grow. They have truly become integral components of that terroir.

Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES April 29th:

Editor’s note: Our intrepid master sommelier explorer, John Szabo, was unable to attend the VINTAGES tasting for this release. It’s important that our critics travel the world to keep their palates sharp and knowledgeable. As a result, our First-In-Line feature will be truncated. Fortunately, we employ multiple critics to ensure as many of the wines as possible get reviewed. David, Michael and Sara were able to taste many of the wines and their reviews are available or will be shortly.  

Oregon & Washington

Although the burgeoning wine-growing climate in Oregon was largely a locally-appreciated treasure for much of the last century, fine wine aficionados were quick to sniff out greatness. In 1973, the London International Wine Fair awarded Tualatin Vineyards pinot noir and chardonnay best in show. From there, international recognition spiraled with Burgundy finally taking notice of this overseas oasis for their homegrown grapes. Instead of challenging the merits of this region, Burgundians set down roots of their own in Oregon. One of the first to take the plunge was Véronique Drouhin in the late 1980s who established the Domaine Drouhin Oregon winery in the Willamette Valley. The well-known negociant Louis Jadot is newly in the mix as well with their limited release of Résonance 2013 Pinot Noir launched in VINTAGES this week.

Drouhin’s pioneering Burgundian sensibilities have been modified over the years and have adapted well to the new world landscape of the Dundee and Eola-Amity Hills. For example, densely planted mature pinot vines of up to 10,000 per hectare are common in Burgundy where great quality fruit is enhanced by encouraging competition for scarce resources among vines. In Oregon, vines have been more commonly planted at less than 5,000 plants per hectare due to issues with water rights, onset of phylloxera and different soil types, among many reasons. Drouhin is now optimally planted with Dijon clones at a compromising 7,500 plants per hectare. These offshore clones seem perfectly at home overseas with quality results. Well worth a try is the release of Drouhin’s 2014 Cloudline Pinot Noir from grapes carefully chosen from plots throughout the region. The result is nicely representative of the overarching Willamette style that combines both elegance and wildness.

Caroline Bergström

Bergström Vineyards, in the Chehelam Mountains AVA are growers who have come together from a Burgundian match. Owners Josh (American) and Caroline (French) met while studying in Dijon and built this awe-inspiring winery from the ground up sourcing their grapes from the appellation’s hilltops and ridges that peak high above sea level. The high elevation soils are a combination of volcanic and sedimentary with a unique loess named Laurelwood that give the wines distinctive spiciness, nerviness and a wealth of aromatic character. It is remarkable how connected they seem to the land, as if they were themselves rooted in the earth. It is this type of innate intuition of the land that sets Oregon winegrowers apart.

Although pinot noir is the darling of these unique Oregon landscapes, white wines are on the rise despite a challenging start. Pinot gris’ success was largely due to the failure of chardonnay early on due to an unfortunately widespread clonal selection which yielded bitter and highly acidic wines that relied on sweetness to compensate. Chardonnay has much improved now that growers are steering clear of the Napa clone (Davis 108) in favour of much more suitable Dijon clones. However, in this VINTAGES release, chardonnay plays second fiddle to pinot gris. Recommended is Elk Cove’s 2015 Willamette Pinot Gris that is lush and voluminous with very little apparent sweetness.

Résonance Pinot Noir 2013Cloudline Pinot Noir 2014Elk Cove Pinot Gris 2015

To know in advance of next week’s release: Oregon’s wine growing region is characterized by small producers, in fact, 70% of wineries produces fewer than 5,000 cases of wine a year. Over 700 wineries make up the individualistic landscape of Oregon with 72 different grape varieties planted. There are now 18 distinct appellations that are recognized within Oregon, two of which are shared with other states. One of the region’s biggest challenges today is not selling premium-priced wine but dealing with an ongoing phylloxera crisis which hit the state in 1990.

Finally, like most of the world’s best winegrowing regions, Oregon is a fringe climate, known for huge vintage variation. Frost is a problem late into spring as well as early in fall. It is a climate that is best suited to premium production as much care is required. The climate itself thins the grapes and naturally enhances their quality capping any overproduction. It is an area where sustainable production is a given with organics and biodynamics becoming more prevalent. Mostly what is so special about Oregon is that it doesn’t pretend to be anything but what it is. It even takes the pretense out of pinot noir, a grape variety that has been imbued by affected ornateness but whose personality is ultimately truthful and woefully expressive of the place and time that it is grown.

Colonialism in Washington

Although geographically just north of Oregon, Washington could not be more different than its neighboring state. Despite the obvious affection just displayed for the pinot noir state, I have a similar respect for this absolutely beautiful country whose arid conditions are perfectly suited to Bordeaux grapes and untamable syrah. The personality differences between these two states may be generalized by personifying their most populated cities: Portland and Seattle. Portland is a city of individualists, demonstrative of creative and sometimes subversive culture. It is cerebral, a city of artisans with a unique sense of style and poetic thinkers, devoid of big business culture. Seattle is a landmark city and the largest in the Pacific Northwest. It is a significant port and a gateway for commerce with Asia and was previously an important shipbuilding center established to help fuel the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska. It is known for aircraft manufacturing and the establishment of hugely successful companies such as Microsoft and Amazon. Despite its modern and industrious nature, the state has a significant and lengthy Native American history and a more recent jazz and alternative music culture. It is a city where people came to make their fortune and one that is very much divided between urbane culture and agricultural abundance. The line between the two remains segregated and this has had unique consequences for the winegrowing industry in Washington.

It is no secret that wine growing and wine production is a labour of love that requires a huge capital cost with little return. Because of this, it has become both a status symbol for some and an altruistic endeavor for others. Both of these facets are represented in Washington. This segregation and disparity in the state is not just cultural but it is physical too. The state is geographically and climatically split in two by the Cascade Mountains whose foggy passage is majestic and crossing over is an almost mystical experience. The western coastal portion of the state where Seattle is located is wet and somewhat dreary. It is almost always cloud covered but it is also lavishly green earning it the nickname of the “Evergreen State” and Seattle the title of “The Emerald City”. Most of the Cascade Mountains are equally green until an almost immediate halt of vegetation and humidity. There is a point in this crossing when the sun appears and sandy, dusty dessert becomes the only reality. The transition is so stark during this crossing that it feels as if the lush forests were merely a mirage.

It is this arid land, with its nutrient deficient soils and underlying of volcanic material that are ideal for grape growing. Plenty of sunshine beats down upon the vast Columbia Valley that was carved out by the torrential floods during the end of the last ice age. Its soil is unique and heterogeneous with boulders and a unique silty loam known as “Warden” is deposited throughout the river valleys of Washington. Where the mountainous lumber industry stops, the abundant growth of hops, fruit and of course grapes, begin.

Chateau Ste. Michelle

Interestingly, many producers have decided to build their wineries on the western side of the mountain where wealth and commerce is abundant but agriculture is less. It is easier to market your wine and lead a culturally enriching lifestyle closer to Seattle than it is on the more rustic and sparsely populate side of the mountain chain. A curious community was therefore formed on the western edge of the mountain passage called Woodinville. It is a unique area best suited for white wine production but is primarily known as a spirited wine and gastronomical community. It is here that 108 wineries have been built, the majority of which source their grapes from their own vineyards (or purchased fruit) from the other side of the mountain and vinify them in Woodinville. This is the location of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s gorgeously manicured production facilities as well as the prolific Columbia Valley’s winery. This separation of viticulture and viniculture is a distinctive feature of Washington. Even pioneer winegrower Charles Smith, known as the “rockstar of wine” has finally separated his longstanding wine production operation in Walla Walla to Seattle having taken over an old Dr. Pepper Factory in the city.

Yet, a significant amount of producers still choose to grow and vinify on the arid but agriculturally abundant eastern side of the state. In particular, Yakima Valley’s Airfield winery who we are fortunate to see occasionally in VINTAGES is located within this agricultural haven. The winery takes advantage of the appellation’s varied climate to produce fresh whites and firm reds on an old WWII airbase. Hedges winery is another winery located in the east with a family connection to the Champagne region of France. This elegant family has built a French countryside estate in the Red Mountain AVA, Washington’s warmest growing region and produces dynamic red blends and inspiring syrah. Another of many producers is L’Ecole 41 whose original, iconic label, the schoolhouse drawn by an elementary school student launched them into fame.

Hogue Riesling 2014Underwood Oregon Grown Pinot Noir 2014Lone Birch Syrah 2013

Down to the nitty-gritty, the Washington feature in VINTAGES next week includes several personality-fueled selections that are worthy of attention. A great surprise was the value-priced Hogue Estate Riesling from Columbia Valley that showed great verve and balanced sweetness. Another reasonably priced selection hailed from the progressive Union Wine Co. with their Underwood Pinot Noir that is delicate, lightly smoky and pleasantly understated. Finally, a shout-out to the stand out syrah from Lone Birch in the Yakima Valley for their lively and compelling syrah that showcased the pepper, meaty and highly drinkable nature that can be so well-expressed in Washington. 

Top New World Reds

SIMI 2013 Merlot, Sonoma County, California, USA ($23.95) – This multi-regional assemblage of Sonoma merlot was a delightful surprise among California heavy-hitters in this VINTAGES release. Less a generous and widely appealing style and more a focused, structured and savory approach reminiscent of good quality right bank Bordeaux.

El Esteco 2012 Ciclos Malbec Merlot, Cafayate, Argentina ($19.95) – High in the sun-drenched, colourful desert of the Calchaqui Valley, El Esteco’s vineyard are protected and nourished. This is a special terroir for cabernet but its plantings of malbec and merlot are distinctively perfumed and worthy of attention. A riveting find at under $20.

Simi Merlot 2013Ciclos Icono Malbec Merlot 2012Penley Estate Hyland Shiraz 2014Hess Collection 19 Block Mountain Cuvée 2013

Penley 2014 Estate Hyland Shiraz, Coonawarra, South Australia ($18.95) – Although cabernet gets a great deal of the spotlight in the unique, red soil terroir of Coonawarra, the spicy shiraz of this region deserves much praise. This excellent value find offers explosive flavours on the palate with distinctive notes of evergreen, iron, smoke and mint.

Hess Collection 2013 19 Block Mountain Cuvée, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, California, USA ($49.95) – The volcanic, mountain soils of Mount Veeder consistently produce some of the most compelling cabernets of Napa and this example from Hess is no exception. I am particularly keen on the price of this low-yielding drought-affected vintage that has resulted in a sleek and ageworthy gem.

That’s all for this preview. David Lawrason will lead the way next week with the ‘best of the rest’.


Sara d’Amato


Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014