Monday, August 11, 2008

Oddities From Oregon

Vinifera grapes are not indigenous to the United States. Your pinot, your syrah, your chardonnay cuttings were all imported from Europe at one time or another. But why stop at these? Why would an American winemaker not graft still other varietals into her vineyards? The obvious answer is the marketplace — if you struggle to pay the bills bottling a hallowed and well-known grape like riesling, bottles bearing words like aligoté and arneis are surefire financial black holes.

And yet there are American winemakers who, bitten by one bug or another, insist upon cultivating obscure varieties despite the marketplace. There are even those wineries like the Santa Ynez-based Palmina that are almost solely dedicated to producing wines from refosco, malvasia, and other grapes that would draw a blank stare from most of us. So at the end of the day, I admire the dogged persistence of a winemaker who wants to do more than what is expected of him, who wants or needs to pursue his obsessions.

Here are a few whites I've experienced this summer from Oregon producers who have branched off from the more common pinot gris and chardonnay. Despite my admiration for the winemakers' willingness to embrace the different, not all the below wines are successful. Too many of them lack typicity and terroir — a problem typical of new world wines. That's not to say that these issues cannot be overcome in future releases. And one wine in particular is very good.

La Bête Aligoté Newhouse Vineyard 2005
I start with the saddest report. This Oregon producer actually sourced the aligoté — the other white Burgundian grape — from the Yakima Valley in Washington. It's yellow like watery piss, with blurred orchard fruit and oak on the nose; I presume that oak chips are to blame. It's unbalanced and flabby, with an unpleasant woodiness on the finish. As Charlie Brown might say, bleah!

Adelsheim TF (Tocai Friulano) 2006
Adelsheim produces a fascinating, killer pinot blanc but this tocai friulano — called TF to sidestep confusion with grapes actually grown in northeastern Italy — is not killer. It's a perfectly OK wine, but you'd never mistake it for the crisp yet substantial native wines that can pair so well with honeydew and prosciutto. It actually struck me as just generic, decent-quality white wine. Adelsheim is a good producer, though, so perhaps it's only time before they get this right.

Reustle Grüner Veltliner Prayer Rock Vineyards 2006
Have you ever heard of an American grüner before? Neither had I. It comes from the Umpqua Valley, well south of the Willamette Valley (it qualifies for Southern Oregon appellation status), and it's a good wine. Sweet and slightly smoky aromas of apple, pear, and citrus zest lead to flavors of the same, with the emphasis slightly on Meyer lemon. It has a nice round body, with clean and soft acidity, good presence on the midpalate, and a subtly persistent finish. So what's the problem? I discern no terroir, no special sense of place, or even varietal typicity. This is more like a pinot blanc than a grüner, as it's completely lacking the characteristic white pepper and young green vegetable notes. Still, it's a good teens-priced wine.

Ponzi Arneis Willamette Valley 2006
Arneis was nearly forgotten or extinct when, back in the '60s, Bruno Giacosa rescued it from obscurity, and it performs very well in the sandy Piedmont soils north of Alba. But though the Dundee Hills are somewhat distant from northern Italy, and though the soils are red volcanic soils rather than sand, Ponzi's arneis displays varietal typicity. Not only does it display the peaches and cream characteristics of a Rorero, it has a zingy spice (due, perhaps, to its whole cluster pressing) that really livens things up. Soft hazelnut and almond aromas add interest. Finally, it's clean on the palate and its sustained finish helps it match well with greens and other cold vegetables.

I should mention a few other Oregon wineries trodding less-worn paths — the tempranillo and albariño wines from Abacela deserve a post of their own — but these mentions will have to wait. Meanwhile, leave a comment about your own experience with oddities from the new world.

1 comment:

David McDuff said...

Hey Mike,
I tried a pretty decent Tocai at Stony Hill Vineyard a couple of years ago. They were producing it from fruit purchased from Larkmead. A quick check of SHV's website, though, makes it look like they may no longer be making it.