Thursday, January 7, 2010

Oregon's 2009 Vintage Weather

2009 was nothing if not a challenging vintage in northern Oregon, as it was characterized by extreme heat spikes in late July and late August, a record number of 90+ degree days (24 vs. the usual 13), and hot conditions in late September when many were harvesting. Sifting through the official industry harvest report (PDF) I see mentions of dehydrated berries, high sugar and alcohol levels, and promises of "flashy" and "lush" pinot noir — egad!

Of course, that's not the whole story.

After September 28, high temperatures in both Salem and McMinnville were more apt to be in the middle 60s, so those who could wait to pick and those with cooler sites had more breathing room. And Rudy Marchesi of Montinore Estate notes that "acid and pH levels were perfect" for later-ripening varieties like riesling, thanks to a long stretch of cool October weather.

And of course, good winemakers make good wine even in difficult vintages. It was relatively easy for Oregon winemakers to make excellent wine in 2008, but 2009 required the winemaker to really rummage through her toolbox. Some 9 to 18 months from now we'll see how the wheat separates from the chaff.

Monday, January 4, 2010

This Was Not Supposed To Be the New World

Those of us who love balanced, complex, traditionally-proportioned, terroir-focused, affordable wines tend to flock to the Old World. This makes sense to a large degree. The history of wine production "over there" spans centuries and more, whereas winemaking in the New World goes back but a single century, and then usually not even that. So many of the most conscientious of winemakers here are still figuring out what works where.

Then there are the factors such as warmer climates, UC Davis's heat summation scale, critics' 100 point scales, a culture that frequently equates wine with wealth, and the influence of corporate agribusiness which set up a dynamic in the New World that favored — and usually still favors — the production of simple, manipulated, and/or ridiculously opulent and alcoholic wines. Heck, Randall Grahm goes so far as to say that "the manifest non-expression of terroir in our wines is the greatest source of anguish in my winemaking life."

On top of that, importers of European wine such as Dressner, Rosenthal, Theise, Chadderdon, De Maison, Headrick, et al offer us reliable portals to some of the most interesting wines on the planet, but to my knowledge, domestic producers have no such portals. So those who do make reasonably-scaled, subtle, complex, specific wines are at a disadvantage, as they are less likely to find their natural audience. This sets up a vicious circle: people like me reflexively seek out Old World traditionalists because — excepting producers such as Edmunds St. John, Renaissance, and The Eyrie Vineyards, to name a fistful — I find it difficult to find worthy New World traditionalists and I'm well skeptical of those who market their wines as balanced and terroir-specific. (Your "cool climate" pinot flirts with 15% alcohol? No thanks! Not even if your wine were $40 less than it is...)

All this was made more apparent to me over the holiday period, as I drank two New World wines that if not as specific and terroir-driven as I'd like still delivered far more than I expected.

Of course, I doubt that few of you would blame me for assuming that a 1996 sangiovese from Napa Valley — particularly one that my parents stored for years in a closet at room temperature — would be DOA in 2009, a swampy hot mess. Yet the 1996 Villa Helena Sangiovese Napa Valley was as fresh as a daisy, very well proportioned, and most remarkably, varietally correct. That is, it was quite light-colored, showed aromas of violets, and the cherry flavors had really nice lift. I'm not sure where its peppery spice came from, but in any case it went very well with a sausage and tomato-festooned pasta. What it lacked in complexity it made up for in elegance. Unfortunately, this winery is no longer, so I guess that's that.

The 2006 Yalumba Barossa Bush Vine Grenache was perhaps an even bigger surprise. It was fine and decent on the first night, obviously nicely made but not terribly interesting, yet it really improved on the second night, showing bright and dense cherry flavors, unconfected acidity, and long undercurrents of thyme, black pepper, fennel, and umami. I never thought I'd tell anyone that they could hold a four year old, $15 Barossa grenache — not even one made from 30 to 70 year old vines — for another five years so it shows even greater interest and complexity, but that's exactly what I'm telling you now.

One of my new year's resolutions is to more proactively research, track down, and drink well-proportioned New World wines. I want to break the vicious circle. Sure, it won't always be easy to find the good stuff at prices I can afford, but isn't that part of the fun?