Monday, November 29, 2021

Utopia Vineyards Crafting Heavenly Pinot in Oregon’s Ribbon Ridge AVA

Ribbon Ridge is the smallest Oregon winegrowing region, but its reputation for great Pinot is boundless.

Dan Warnshuis of Utopia VineyardHorse Pasture To Pinot Paradise

“Utopia means trying to achieve perfection,” says winery founder, owner, and winemaker Dan Warnshuis. “What else would you aim for?” That’s what Warnshuis has been doing since Utopia Vineyard and Winery’s first commercial vintage in 2006. It is a family-owned producer of small-lot, premium wines specializing in world-class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The estate is located in what many wine lovers certainly consider utopia – the Ribbon Ridge AVA in Northern Willamette Valley, Oregon, known for its high-quality wines. Ribbon Ridge is a six-mile ridge in the Chehalem Mountains region, located about 20 miles southwest of Portland and 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean.

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Warnshuis’ route to winery ownership is a circuitous one. After growing up in California’s San Joaquin Valley, he attended Michigan State on a full scholarship for swimming. After graduating he relocated to Silicon Valley to begin a successful career in the technology sector. It was living in wine country that changed the trajectory of his life. He began as a collector, amassing thousands of bottles. Deciding to look at wine from a business perspective, he dreamed of creating his own wine label.

What was a horse pasture became Utopia Vineyard in 2002. “I knocked on the owner’s door and he sold it to me,” said Warnshuis. “It wasn’t on the market at all…[but] this place checked all my boxes.” After the soil tests confirmed the plot’s potential and the serendipitous sale went through, Utopia Estate Vineyard was born.

The soil is indeed special. The 18.9 acres of southeast-facing slopes has marine sedimentary soil. The region was a seacoast some 50 million years ago and, as Warnshuis puts it, it’s like a strip of coastline got left behind. The finely textured soil provides excellent drainage and conditions, including ample moisture from the Pacific Ocean, and results in grapes with exceptional complexity. As the vines struggle to get nutrients, they gain concentrated flavors and spice and floral accents.

Utopia Vineyard 2014 Pinot NoirDiversity Works In The Vineyard Too

Clonal diversity is another key to the wine that is capturing awards and the hearts of Pinot Noir aficionados. After three major plantings in 2002, 2005, and 2010, the vineyard today is comprised of 12 different Pinot Noir clones and three low-yielding Dijon Chardonnay clones. In addition to Dijon 115, 667, and 777, Pommard, Wadensville, and Swan Pinot Noir clones, five different Heirloom clones are part of the plantings.

Warnshuis personally oversees management of the vineyard, the harvesting, and winemaking process. Utopia is 100% dry-farmed and the fruit is always painstakingly harvested by hand using only small snip tools to pick one bunch at a time. The notoriously finicky Pinot Noir grapes arrive at the winery in less than an hour and are placed in temperature controlled storage until ready for processing.

Utopia is known for high-quality wines and a large percentage of its output is sold to restaurants. The annual production is 2,500 to 3,000 cases, all done onsite. The winery makes a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir Rosé, and a Pinot Noir Blanc each year, but is best known for its four estate Pinot Noirs, each created with a distinct blend of vineyard clones.

Utopia Reserve Pinot NoirEstate Pinot Noir Excellence

The Estate Pinot Noir ($48) is a blend of 12 different clones, something that sets it apart from most other Pinot Noirs. In many Oregon vineyards, two to three Pinot Noir clones are the norm. To sip it is to experience the breadth of the vineyard in its bright cherry and berry flavors, perfumed bouquet, and outstanding balance.

Paradise ($65) is a reserve estate Pinot made from the best barrels from the three best blocks in the vineyard. Grapes are whole-cluster pressed, adding texture and character to the wine. This has a dark cherry profile with plum and savory notes and a dash of vanilla. The current vintage is 2018, but we sipped the 2016 at the winery tasting room and it was divine. Wines are available at the tasting room or online and past vintages are available, including the 2016 (for $75).

The Clone 777 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir ($65) is a single clonal bottling of the Dijon 777 clone, one of the most important clones in the Utopia vineyard. It is savory with spice and floral notes and its structure lends itself to extended aging.

Visitors to Utopia (or online purchasers) get to experience Eden firsthand. Eden Estate Reserve Pinot Noir ($100) is the pinnacle of Utopia winemaking, crafted from the 100% Pommard clone, the building block for many of Burgundy’s Grande Cru Classe wines. This is bold power Pinot that is 100% Pommard, 100% whole cluster, and 100% new Burgundian oak. We tasted the 2015, a complex wine with layers that open up as you savor it: black cherry, oak, vanilla, and spice float over notes of leather.

Wine barrel chairs in Utopia vineyardThe Utopia tasting room is located 30 minutes outside Portland and has a daily tasting flight hosted by Warnshuis. It offers a sweeping view of the vineyard as well as outdoor games like bocce. There are comfortable Adirondack chairs crafted out of wine barrels if you choose to simply soak in the surroundings and enjoy your wine.

Friday, November 26, 2021

L’Ecole Perigee Premium Red Blend A Case Study In Wine Aging

L'Ecole PerigeeThe wheel of time makes  a big difference in wine body and flavor.

Lessons Learned

As time marches on, my wine knowledge and style have changed too. Decades ago my preference was sweeter white wines. As my wine tasting expanded, a drier palate evolved and dry reds rose to the top of my list.

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Learning about drinking windows (the ideal time to open a wine – and I don’t mean “Tuesday”) and decanting wine represent another level of wine knowledge. I’ve experimented with aerators, which I’ve found really can perk up a wine – especially a “day after” bottle. Mostly I prefer to decant my bottles, pouring the wine into a glass container to allow it to breathe for an hour or two before we drink.

How Aged Wine Is Different

Recently we opened bottles of the L’Ecole No. 41 Perigee – the flagship red blend of this beloved Walla Walla winery. We had two vintages: the 2018 and the 2015. It allowed me to apply a lesson I learned about decanting wine.

At one time I opened a bottle of red that was 10 years on from the vintage date. I poured a small taste and proclaimed it awesome. I decided to decant it to make it “awesomer.” Why, oh why, did I do it? The beautiful hills and ridges of flavor had flattened out and the magic had been lost.

So at the cost of missing out on the full pleasure of one bottle, I learned an important lesson. Young, robust reds should be decanted, but older vintages can lose their mojo if decanted. With the Perigee, I decided to decant the 2018, but after a sip of the 2015, I decided that it was drinking beautifully and required no decanting.

As a side note, a poor quality wine will not improve with age. A $12 bottle of Cabernet won’t transform into Screaming Eagle if left to age for 20 years. As one California winemaker explained to me, carefully crafted winemaking is like building the foundation for a house. With a poor foundation, the house will crumble. A good foundation will stand the test of time.

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Perigee is a Cabernet-focused Bordeaux-style blend. For 2018 the mix is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Franc, and 9% each of Petit Verdot and Malbec. In 2015 the blend stays true to the style, but the percentages vary slightly. Both vintages were aged for 22 months in small French barrels and have ABV of 14.5%.

Another important note on the differences of aged and newer wine: your food selection is key. For big, bold reds with a heavy tannic structure, you need to match it with bold flavors, perhaps a grilled steak. The fat and juices help soften the tannins. With an aged wine, you are dealing with subtle and delicate flavors that could get bowled over by strong flavors. Go for roasted or baked dishes with subtle sauces that won’t compete with your fine wine.

Head To Head

The first thing to note is that both of these bottles are wonderful. At a price point of $57, Perigee delivers an upscale wine experience and won’t break the bank. The grapes come from the award-wining Seven Hills Vineyard using the most distinguished blocks. It is one of the warmest vineyard locations for L’Ecole and it allows even the late-maturing grapes to ripe fully. That’s important since more than a third of the blend comes from Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec.

The 2018 has a bold start with blackberry and violet components. Upon opening up, you experience the refined, laid back aspect. The 2018 vintage in Washington is hailed as universally great and the Perigee is an elegant wine built for aging. The Merlot adds nice black cherry and cedar notes that leads to a velvety finish. This is a lovely wine that will only gain by extra years of aging.

In 2015, Walla Walla experienced its warmest vintage on record. The heat means the 2015 Perigee has lower acidity, but what is lost there it gains in aromatics. Aromas of blueberry and tobacco lead into toasted oak, leather and cranberry characteristics. This is a fully-realized, gorgeous wine to savor.

Both wines have limited production of less than 1,500 cases. The 2018 is the current vintage and thanks to L’Ecole’s library program a small number of 2015 bottles are available for sale at $73. You’ll need to contact the winery and there is a two-bottle limit.

In closing I’ll share my most important lesson on aging wine. Buy multiple bottles. We don’t host galas for hundreds of people, so it doesn’t make sense for us to purchase cases of wine. However, buying two or three bottles allows you to enjoy one now and let the others age gracefully in your cellar or cooler.

Full disclosure: These wines were received as a marketing sample.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Italian Wines Sparkle At Festive Meal

Bubbly and the queen of Italian wine are perfect matches for a four-course meal.

Antipasto 3 _Italian meals mean family and festive times around the dinner table. When our daughter Rachel arrived in town, it was the ideal time to host a special meal with four Italian wines imported by Mack & Schuhle and distributed nationally. We dubbed the affair the our “pasto festivo” (festive meal).

Quartet of Italian winesThere’s no better way to greet dinner guests than with a glass of sparkling wine. Our arrival wine was the Ca di Prata Prosecco DOC Brut. Prosecco is made primarily from the Glera grape and is made using the Charmat or tank method. Prosecco gets its bubbles from a second fermentation, but unlike Champagne, the second fermentation takes place in a tank and not the bottle. The process is less labor-intensive and so the final product is less costly (yay!).

Pasto Festivo

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The Ca di Prata has fine streams of bubbles with citrus and apple notes. The finish is crisp and dry. It was a perfect foil for our antipasti which featured garlic crostini and olive tapenade, plenty of tomatoes and salad, and even some vegan Italian “salami.“

It was time to transition to white wine as we prepared for our second course. We opened the Barone Montalto 2020 Pinot Grigio to pair with baked polenta stacks with grilled vegetables. The subtle flavors of the polenta and roasted notes of the veggies were a tasty match with the Pinot Grigio which leads with citrus and mineral components. The stainless steel aging keeps the flavors fresh. It finishes with a light pear note.

Risotto has been the downfall of many contestants on cooking competition shows. When done wrong, it’s a puzzling mess. When done right, it is a melt-in-your mouth delicacy. Rachel is a vegan chef, and after studying the wines, decided on crafting a scrumptious mushroom risotto.

Polenta Veggie StacksOur red wine was the Riva Leone 2017 Barbaresco DOCG. Barbaresco is considered the queen of Italian wine (while Barolo wears the king’s crown). Both are made with the Nebbiolo grape. This wine was softer than I was expecting with floral and earthy components to the taste. It is aged for 12 months in French and American oak which contribute to a long, complex finish. This is a medium-bodied wine that matched well with the savory notes of the risotto.

RisottoWe closed our festivities with the pop of a cork as we opened the Acquesi Asti Spumante. It has 9.5% residual sugar so finding the right food pairing is important. Our selection was vegan tiramisu and it was a classic pairing. The sweetness of the dessert ratcheted down the sweetness of the Asti, enabling us to enjoy its delicate spice, persistent bubbles and honeycomb flavors. At only 7% ABV, this is a splendid end to a great dinner.

TiramisuThe pricing of the wines is as tasty as our meal. All are under $20 with the exception of the Barbaresco, which is $25.

Full disclosure: These wines were received as a marketing sample.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Oregon’s Umpqua Valley Wineries Deliver Boutique Excellence

The second of our two-part look at Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, a region ripe with innovation and diverse grape varieties.

Cooper Ridge

Our trip to Umpqua Valley during the Wine Media Conference was a true eye-opener. The WMC, held in Eugene, Oregon, featured an excursion hosted by the Umpqua Valley Winegrowers, and we gleefully hopped on board.

See Part 1 of our Umpqua Valley feature here.

What surprised us was the diversity packed into this relatively small AVA, sized 65 miles north to south and 25 east to west. The microclimates varied drastically as we traveled from cool maritime regions to warmer inland areas.

It is said that this region, that boasts 23 wineries (mostly family owned and operated), should rightly be called the Hundred Valleys of the Umpqua due to its unique topography. We loved this unique aspect  of the region and the bountiful boutique wine.

Here we continue our look at Umpqua wineries:

Cooper Ridge Vineyard – 1389 Old Garden Valley Road, Roseburg

Cooper Ridge would make our list of top wineries on its smashing location alone. Perched on top of Dynamite Ridge, the tasting room has a sweeping view of the 25-acre estate and scenic mountains. The winery makes limited production premium Oregon wines from estate-grown Merlot, Viognier, Syrah, Tempranillo, Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Noir.

Favorites here included the vibrant 2020 Vineyard Cuvee, a fresh blend of Viognier, Grüner and Riesling. In red wines, we loved the 2016 Tempranillo, which had lovely savory notes with dried fig and mocha. The cooling breeze in the valley allows the production of robust reds, like the 2016 Syrah, that just aren’t possible in northern Oregon.

Spangler VineyardsSpangler Vineyards – 491 Winery Lane, Roseburg

Visiting Spangler Vineyards is akin to taking a masterclass in premium red wines. Winemaker and owner Bob Spangler has been making wine for 32 years with a focus on big, bold reds. After becoming enchanted with Pacific Northwest wine, he purchase a what is now Spangler Vineyards in 2004. The rest, as they say, is history.

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He makes wine from all six major Bordeaux varieties and also includes Italian and Rhone varieties in his range. He produces a blockbuster 2017 Claret with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. This is a balanced wine with rich cherry, herb, and spice notes. Another standout is the 2016 Khayan’s Block Dolcetto, which enchants with blackberry, pepper and violet flavors.

Abacela – 12500 Lookingglass Road, Roseburg

Abacela Winery

Abacela is a pioneering winery that produces world class wine. The conditions were perfect for our visit as we enjoyed a charcuterie plate and sipped in the superb wines and panoramic scenery. Owners Earl and Hilda Jones launched a quest to see if the Spanish grape Tempranillo could be grown in the US. In 1995 Abacela became the first commercial Tempranillo vineyard in the Pacific Northwest. The winery’s name derives from the Spanish verb “abacelar,” which means to plant a grape vine. In 1998, the Tempranillo won double gold in an international competition against all Spanish Tempranillos.

The winery has 30 different combinations of soil types and elevation changes across its 76 acres of vines. Another Spanish grape, Albariño is also grown. The crisp and light wine rivals that of Spain’s finest region: Rías Baixas. We sampled two Tempranillo: the 2018 Fiesta and the 2017 Reserve Tempranillo. The Fiesta is a lighter, fruit-driven wine. The Reserve is from the oldest block of Tempranillo and, in the Spanish scale, would fit between a Reserva and Gran Reserva. It is a spectacular wine. If you are looking for a unique grape, try the Tinta Amarela which features flavors of blueberry, vanilla, and dried raspberries.

DelfinoDelfino Vineyards - 3829 Colonial Road, Roseburg

Delfino is a 160-acre boutique winery growing Tempranillo, Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernet, Dolcetto, Merlot and Müller-Thurgau grapes. Owners Jim and Terri Delfino also have 10 cows and 22 chickens. Jim was asked if he was going to farm or have a winery to which Jim responded, “Why can’t we do both?”

I was very pleased to see Müller-Thurgau on the wine list. Leading with peach and citrus flavors it has a crisp finish and is a delightful change of pace from Riesling. We tasted the 2017 vintages of Dolcetto, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah – the later hitting it out of the park with blueberry and plum notes and integrated tannins.

Melrose Vineyards - 885 Melqua Road, Roseburg

Melrose VineyardsMelrose is a landmark winery in Southern Oregon. Located on the bench of the South Umpqua River, it is on the site of an early French settlement and since the 1880s a variety of crops have been grown there. Today, luckily for us, the crops are a dozen grape varieties used for premium wine.

The tasting room is located in a 100-year-old barn rebuilt to maintain its structural integrity and with breathtaking views. Our roasted vegetable lasagna meal showed that Melrose is an unforgettable location for food and wine experiences. We found some great surprises in the wine with Pinotage, Baco Noir, and the 2016 Parker’s Pinot – perhaps the best Pinot we enjoyed on the trip.

HillCrest Vineyard – 24 Vineyard Lane, Roseburg

With all the attention focused on Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, it’s tempting to overlook the unique premium wines of Umpqua Valley to the south. That would be a mistake, since Oregon Pinot Noir originated here – at HillCrest Vineyard to be more specific. Founder Richard Sommer is credited with planting the first Pinot Noir in the state in 1961 and is also home to the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines (1964). HillCrest is the first post-Prohibition winery in Oregon.

HillCrest VineyardWith current owner Dyson Demara, the heritage of the winery is in good hands. He focuses on “slow wine” with dry-farmed vines, low yields and traditional techniques. “If it wasn’t used 100 years ago, I don’t use it,” said DeMara. The wines are simply superb with the 2007 Pinot Noir having bright cherry notes with light body and subtle oak. The 2016 Old Stones Teraldago is a rare grape with intense blackberry and plum flavors.

Paul O’Brien Winery - 609 SE Pine St., Roseburg

The first thing to know is that there is no Paul O’Brien. The winery is a collaboration between Scott O’Brien Kelley and Dyson Paul DeMara, winemakers and good friends. Together they launched Umpqua Valley’s first urban winery in a historic Chevy dealership building.


Paul O'Brien WineryThe wines represent Old World traditions and New World techniques. We love Sauvignon Blanc, especially when it is offered as Fume Blanc. The 2020 vintage is smoky with tropical fruit notes and crisp finish. We tasted the 2020 Pinot Noir as a barrel sample. It has a long way to go, but the prospects are intriguing. The 2016 Tempranillo is rich and oaky thanks to two years of French oak aging. The flagship wine is the 2014 La Dame, a Merlot-focused blend with Cab Franc and Malbec. It is a wine fit for royalty.

More Umpqua Wineries To Savor

There is so much to see and experience in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley wine county. Be sure to check out these wineries we also tasted/visited during our trip along with two “can’t miss” Umpqua restaurants.

Knostman Family Winery – Enjoy small lot wines along the scenic North Umpqua River.

Lexème Wines – Exceptional wines with a European flair. Tasting room in Elkton.

Trella Vineyards – Vines from the base of the Callahan Mountains produce an array of wines including Grüner Veltliner, Baco Noir and Sangiovese. Tasting room in Roseburg.

Triple Oak Vineyard – Micro-producer of fine wines located in the historic community of Oakland.

The Parrot House – World-class cuisine served in a historic home and restaurant in Roseburg.  Established in 1891. Features Reform Bourbon Bar.

Catch 22 Fish and Chips - Specializing in British style "Fish n' Chips" with a focus on fresh, local fish and sustainable seafood with a Pacific Northwest styling.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Cameron Hughes Lot 841 Reggio Emilia Lambrusco

PXL_20211011_221709595It’s been years since we’ve had Lambrusco. Here’s what we discovered.

The Italian Experiment

I was faced with a dilemma. Good friends Ken and Janet were coming for dinner and the Green Dragon was out of town for an extended stay.

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Ken also shared that they eat just about anything – anything, that is, except salmon and beets. That ruled out my idea of teriyaki salmon with a beet salad. I decided I would give lasagna a go.

The wine selection was another challenge. Ken had expressed his affinity for sweet wine and recalled with fondness a certain peach wine he had a few years ago. There are some excellent fruit wines produced by North Carolina wineries, but my wine collection is lacking in that department.

I did have months to plan and certainly could have picked up a bottle of fruit wine, but critical things (like playing tennis and procrastination) interfered. They, my eyes alighted on the perfect selection: the Lot 841 Reggio Emilia Lambrusco from Cameron Hughes.

Lambrusco Redux

In my early years of imbibing, I had a fair amount of Lambrusco. In fact, in the 1970s and ‘80s, Lambrusco was the number one imported wine in the US. My palate later morphed and I sought drier wines and different styles. Lambrusco was left behind. In fairness, Riunite might not have been the pinnacle of Lambrusco wine excellence.

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For my Italian dinner, the Lambrusco was just the right pick. The wine has a sweetness that appealed to my guests, but had complex flavors that paired well with my meal and gave me a renewed appreciation for the grape.

The Cameron Hughes Lambrusco stands apart from the mass-marketed and overly sweet Lambrusco that has hit American shores. It is a rustic expression of Lambrusco Salamino and Lambrusco Marani grapes and is on the dry side of off-dry. It has the trademark frizzante bubbles that always add an interesting twist in a red wine.

In the glass the wine is a deep, deep ruby with its signature foam. It has definite fruity notes of cherry, blackberry and rhubarb. On the finish there is a touch of leather. This isn’t a dessert wine, but is traditionally an aperitif or dinner wine.  Pizza would be another great pairing.

I slaved over my lasagna. Who knew it required so many layers! The results were worthwhile and the Lambrusco proved a nice choice. My guests appreciated the fruit-forward profile and I enjoyed the unexpected complexity.

The SRP is $15 and may be found on the Cameron Hughes website.

Full disclosure: This wine was received as a marketing sample.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

“Merlot Me” With This Pair From Washington State’s L’Ecole Winery

L'Ecole Merlot and Beef BourguigonFall weather is the perfect setting for expertly crafted Merlots from Washington.

Magnificent Merlot

October is Merlot Month and we’re squeezing under the wire to tell you about two wonderful bottles we recently uncorked. L’Ecole No. 41 is recognized as one of Washington State’s masters of Merlot. This pair certainly magnifies that claim.

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As the weather dips lower and the frost is (almost) on the pumpkin, we decided we needed a nice warming meal. It was time for some beef beef bourguignon as only the Green Dragon can make it.

Beef bourguignon is a rich beef stew in a thick wine sauce. The dish includes onion, carrots, garlic, celery, and mushrooms. We added some creamy mashed potatoes to make this a true comfort dish. For the wine we tried two L’Ecole Merlot, both 2018 vintages: Columbia Valley Merlot and the Walla Walla Valley Merlot.

L'Ecole Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley MerlotContrast In Excellence

As we savored the succulent stew, the first sip of the Columbia Valley Merlot opened our eyes with delight. This is a smooth wine bursting with bright raspberry and black cherry flavors. It is 80% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec and a dash (2%) of Petit Verdot. This has beautiful ripe flavors of berries that entrance without becoming heavy or ponderous. A wonderful blend with the bourguignon.

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The Walla Walla Merlot is the same, but different. By that I mean that it is also an exemplary wine – but it is a deep dive into the darker side of Merlot. It is the electric bass to the Columbia Valley’s acoustic guitar.

Blackberry and black cherry rise to the forefront and chocolate and plum paint the mid-palate. The finish is plush and balanced with cedar and savory accents.

Twelve percent Cabernet Franc and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon are blended with the Walla Walla Merlot. The grapes for this wine come from two prestigious estate vineyards: Ferguson and Seven Hills. Both the vineyards are certified sustainable and certified Salmon Safe. Aging was in small French oak barrels, with 35% new, providing structure without being too heavy.

L’Ecole is a leader in Washington State wine and one of our favorite producers. The Columbia Valley Merlot retails for $25 while the Walla Walla Merlot has an SRP of $36.

Full disclosure: These wines were received as a marketing sample.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Umpqua Valley A Surprising Find In Oregon Wine Country

The first of our two-part look at Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, a region ripe with innovation and diverse grape varieities.

Umpqua Valley Wine CountryOregon wine continues to grow in popularity and reputation. The state has 21 AVAs and contributes more than $7 billion annually to the Oregon economy. Much of the buzz focuses on Willamette Valley and its Pinot Noir, but further south in Umpqua Valley there is a a world of quality wine unknown to most wine lovers.

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The Umpqua Valley sits between the Cascades to the east and the Coastal Range to the west. It stretches 65 miles from north to south and is 25 miles wide and is nestled between Willamette Valley to the north and Rogue Valley to the South.

Its wine history dates back to the 1880s, when German immigrants established the first vineyard and winery, producing an estimated 22,000 gallons of wine. The region has quite a few firsts. Between 1959 and 1961, Richard Sommer, a winemaking pioneer in the Umpqua Valley planted 36 acres of vinifera grapes, including Oregon’s first Pinot Noir, despite warnings from his U.C. Davis educators that grapes will not grow in Oregon.

The Umpqua Valley AVA was founded in 1984 and innovation continued. In 1984, Abacela winery planted the first Tempranillo in the Northwest. In 2001 the winery planted the first Albariño vines in the Northwest. In 2003-2005, Steve Reustle of Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards planted and produced the first commercial Grüner Veltliner.

The region historically was home to vineyard plots of five to 30 acres. Today larger vineyards from 100 to 200 acres are planted. The number of grape varieties has expanded to include Syrah, Tempranillo, and Grenache. In fact the 30 family-owned wineries of Umpqua Valley grow 40 different wine varieties.

We recently had a chance to tour Umpqua Valley during the Wine Media Conference in an excursion hosted by the Umpqua Valley Winegrowers Association. Here’s a look at five impressive Umpqua Valley wineries and we’ll continue with winery reports in our second part.

Meadows Estate WineryMeadows Estate Winery - 175 Hogan Road, Oakland, Oregon

Formerly MarshAnne Landing, this winery was purchased by Dexter and Marilyn Meadows in 2019. Meadows Estate Winery is 17 acres of deep, cobbled volcanic soil and features 10 varieties. We tried the first two wines that are “their own,” the 2017 White Grenache and the 2017 Syrah Rosé. The focus is on Rhone and Bordeaux varieties. Be sure to check out the Cote du Umpqua, a Rhone-style blend of 50-50 Grenache and Syrah.

Their goal is to produce “out of this world” wines. With a stylish tasting room that features a deck with scenic views and beautiful estate wines, Meadows Estate Winery is ready for liftoff.

Brandborg WineryBrandborg Vineyard and Winery - 345 First Street, Elkton, Oregon

Brandborg Vineyard and Winery is located in Elkton, the coolest and most maritime climate in the Umpqua Valley. I was familiar with their elegant Pinot Noir, but got my introduction to their Alsace-style white wines during my visit. With just a touch of sweetness, their Bradley Vineyard Riesling is one of the top-sellers in Oregon. The 2015 Bradley Vineyard Gewürztraminer is an award-winner with citrus and green apple notes.

The array of 11 different Pinot Noir includes the 2014 Ferris Wheel Pinot Noir, limited to 465 cases and supple with blackberry, spice, and cherry notes.  The Ferris Wheel Vineyard is the most westerly in Umpqua Valley and stands at 1,000 feet and just 30 miles from the ocean. For a treat, try the 2018 2018 Fleur de Lis (White) Pinot Noir.

Bradley Vineyards and River's EdgeBradley Vineyards and River’s Edge Winery - 1395 River Drive, Elkton, Oregon

We tasted wine from these outstanding wineries at River’s Edge. Bradley Vineyards was founded by John and Richard Bradley and sold almost all of the crop to wineries around Oregon. When friends opened the River’s Edge Winery, it provided an opportunity to begin producing a small amount of wine under the Bradley Vineyard label.

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Our tasting began with the River’s Edge 2019 Aligoté. There’s not much of this white grape to be found in the US market. It’s light and crisp with a delicious minerality. In a bottle with a distinctive piece of art, the River’s Edge Cascade is a Pinot Noir pet nat wine with just the right amount of bubbles and a nice unfiltered texture.

The 35th Leaf Edition (it’s their 35 harvest) 2018 Skin Contact Gewürztraminer from Bradley takes Gewürz and stands it on it’s ear. The unique orange color comes from skin contact during primary fermentation. The bouquet is a blast of roses, which gives way to tree-fruit and spicy flavors. Their 2018 My Bon Pinot Noir uses Pommard and Wadenswil clones. It’s a classic beauty.

Reustle Prayer Rock VineyardsReustle Prayer Rock Vineyards - 960 Cal Henry Road, Roseburg, Oregon

Our lunch stop was at Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards and, if I had my way, I would still be at the winery! Owner and winemaker Stephen Reustle has carved an impressive wine estate in the shadow of Tyee Mountain. There are 14 grape varieties planted among the 40 acres of vines. The complex includes a winery and tasting cave as well as an observation deck and amphitheater.

Inside the wine cave, we were treated to a gourmet meal with a salmon entrée. In 2005, Reustle became the first winery in the US to commercially produce Grüner Veltliner. The 2018 Grüner has a big mouthfeel and round mineral flavors, perfect for our fish dish. We closed with a cheese course that featured the 2019 Syrah. Their 2012 Syrah took the title of Best Syrah in the World in the 6 Nations Wine Challenge. It’s a  savory wine with blackberry and cocoa notes.

There is indeed a Prayer Rock, a large boulder at the top of a south facing slope that served as a meeting place for Stephen and his son. Reustle Prayer Rock is an answer to a wine lover’s prayer.

More fun in Umpqua Valley in the second part of our story, coming soon.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Cantine Ermes Quattro Quatri Nero D'Avola Sicilia DOC

Cantine Ermes Quatro Quarti

One of the best bottles in months!

Nero D’Avola Impresses With Dinner

Nero D’Avola is the most important red grape in Sicily and one of the most important indigenous grape in Italy. The dark skinned grape is often compared to New World Shiraz and has the depth and body of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

When I let the Green Dragon know about the wine, the wheels started turning to determine the proper pairing. She decided on Beef Florentine Pinwheels with sautéed kale and roasted potatoes. It’s a hearty wine and quiche definitely wasn’t going to cut it!

Cantine Ermes is one of the most important producers of organic grapes in Sicily. An added bonus to the wine is the appassimento process of partially drying the grapes. This gives it amazing depth.

 

Cantine Ermes Nero D'AvolaRaisinated Wine Rocks

We taste a lot of wine during a year (it’s an important job that someone has to do!) but this one was remarkable. The wine was the most expressive and memorable that we've had in months. The flavors are deep red cherry, minerality, and some coffee notes at the finish. The finish is smooth as this is finished in stainless steel to keep the fresh fruit flavor.

Surprisingly, this bottle retails for a mere $16 to $18. Each sip mingled perfectly with the juicy steak. It was a succulent addition to our meal. Truly beautiful and highly recommended!

Full disclosure: This wine was received as a marketing sample.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Ziereisen 2016 Talrain Spätburgunder, Baden

2016 Talrain SpatburgunderPork and Pinot – it’s a beautiful thing, especially with a gourmet-prepared smoked pork shoulder.

A German Surprise

When we arrived at our friends’ house, our hosts were befuddled. I announced that I had brought a bottle of Spätburgunder, Tony and Amy exchanged puzzled glances.

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They aren’t alone. Even though Spätburgunder is Germany’s most popular red wine, most people haven’t heard of it. They haven’t heard of it, that is, until you tell them that Spätburgunder is German for Pinot Noir.

Spätburgunder is a delicious secret to most people. While the prices of Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Carneros, and Russian River Valley continue to escalate, German Pinot Noir represents a marvelous value. I’ve also found the quality to be excellent.

The True Star

Smoked Pork Shoulder and Talrain SpatburgunderWhile the 2016 Talrain Spätburgunder is indeed newsworthy, the true star of the evening was the smoked pork shoulder prepared by Tony. Tony, who teaches physics at a local university, has developed his own scrumptious technique for smoking pork.

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The secret is in the sous vide technique. The meat is vacuum-sealed in plastic then placed in a water bath where it is cooked with a low temperature immersion circulator cooker. This allows precise control over the temperature.

It’s a two-part process with the final cooking being done in a smoker to give the meat a nice “bark” and the smokiness we all crave. When the meat came out of the smoker (and after a brief rest) the meat fell off the bone – ready for the hungry guests.

The Pairing

While Amy and Tony took care of the many details of the dinner, I focused on the critical task of uncorking the Spätburgunder and pouring!

Talrain is a vineyard located on the lower hills of the Black Forest in Baden. It is layered with limestone and iron-rich clay with an elevation of nearly 2,000 feet.

Fermentation takes place in stainless steel and 30% of the grapes are pressed whole-cluster. The ABV is a low 12%, meaning it won’t overpower your meal. This is a light and fresh wine with good acidity and aromas of forest and flowers. On the palate there is wild strawberry and spice with juicy mineral notes. It’s an elegant wine.

In case you are wondering about the sauce, it started with a base of sweet sauce which was precisely attuned with hot sauce, vinegar, and some mustard. The meal was over the moon good.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Dry Creek Vineyard 2019 DCV Block 10 Chardonnay, Russian River Valley

DCV Block 10 2019 ChardonnaySophisticated Chardonnay rounds out our pasta meal.

Changing Seasons

As the pages flip on the calendar and the seasons change, we know that meals on the patio may be fewer and farther between. The fates intervened and we had a perfect evening. We decided to move our dinner outside.

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The dinner was linguine with white wine clam sauce. Rounding out the meal was a nice spinach sale with mandarin oranges and some homemade beer bread.

For our wine pairing, I selected the 2019 DCV Block 10 Chardonnay. The Green Dragon is not a fan of oaky Chardonnay – but I reckoned this was balanced perfectly and would be ideal for our dish. (Turns our I was right!)

Whole Cluster Goodness

This is a fresh and expressive wine. There are peach and floral notes flowing with minerality. The aging is in 100% French oak with 28% being new oak. That keeps the oakiness at a very refined level – blending nicely and not overpowering the delicate flavors.

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We also dig the complexity that comes from whole cluster pressing. We enjoy that technique in wines like Pinot Noir and in white wines, it adds character that the juice alone can’t produce. The pairing with the linguine was spot on and, of course, it helped that the sauce was made with the DCV Chardonnay. The only part of the meal that was a bit offbeat was the beer bread. It was slightly sweet and so didn’t really fit with the wine – we enjoyed it all the same.

This limited production with 825 cases and the grapes come from 30 specially selected rows in the vineyard. the winery has since released the 2020 DCV Chardonnay. Cost is $40. It's from one of our favorite AVAs: Russian River Valley in Sonoma. Sophisticated and a great food match!