Friday, December 26, 2008

My Favorite Wines of 2008

It isn't my thing making New Year's resolutions, and if it were they'd likely be Drink More, Eat More, and Listen At Louder Volumes, but around this time of year I do like to reflect upon the highlights of the past. Perhaps you had some stellar moments that you would like to share here too. Below I've included the top five red wines, top five white wines and top five sparkling wines of 2008, many of which I've shared on this blog during the year. Please email or comment if you have any specific questions about the wines.

The main characteristics I looked for when choosing the favorites where those that they taught me something new, e.g. Stryker's Petit Verdot, brought out the amazing flavors of food, e.g. Ferrari Carano's Fiorella, and typified specific varietals, e.g. Imagery's Cab Franc. Kistler's 1999 Chardonnay (the vineyard of which I unfortunately cannot remember) made me specifically contemplative, as it did those who drank it with me, for when again would we be lucky enough to drink a white wine from the 1900's?

Top 5 Red Wines (in no particular order)

Chehalem Winery's 2002 Stoller Vineyard Pinot Noir
Stryker Winery's 2004 Petit Verdot
Imagery Winery's 2004 Cab Franc
Ridge Winery's 2005 Oltranti Vineyard Zinfandel
Wellington Winery's 2004 Merlot

Top 5 White Wines

Kistler Vineyard's 1999 Chardonnay
Chehalem Winery's 2006 Pinot Gris Reserve
Schug Winery's 2006 Sauvignon Blanc
St. Supéry Winery's 2006 Moscato
Ferrari Carrano Winery's 2003 Fiorella Chardonnay

Top 5 Sparkling Wines

Carpene Malvolti NV Prosseco DOC Extra Dry
Korbel Winery's 2007 Reisling
Perrier-Jouët NV Grand Brut
Scharffenberger Cellars's NV Cremant
(not surprising) Veuve Clicquot NV Brut "Yellow Label" Champagne

Top Dessert Wines

Arrowood Winery's 2005 Late Harvest White Riesling
Icardi Winery's 2007 Brachetto D'Aqui

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas! - Oregon's Christmas Wines

Wineries all like to celebrate the holiday season in their own way, and in Oregon's Willamette Valley several wineries were touting wines designed specifically for the holidays. Willamette Valley Winery's Made In Oregon's Nog was the first Christmas concoction that I experienced; a semi-sweet and very fruity wine made from grapes, blueberries and cranberries.

Argyle Winery offered a complimentary tasting of three of their sparkling wines in exchange for a donation of canned foods. The winery advertised in the Statesman Journal and on their own web site, but I don't think the word got around enough. When we arrived with our bag of food the donations looked pretty scarce though the tasting room was full. The gentlemen behind the bar said that Argyle hoped to offer the same exchange next year, and perhaps word of mouth will produce a larger turn out.

At the Eola Hills Winery, seven of their most popular wines bore holiday labels that featured Rudolf and other Christmas icons. Though I thought the labels were a fun idea, they were a bit tacky for me. I mean, who wants a wine for Christmas that looks like it came out of a gun-ball machine? The winery has the ability to print unique labels for their wines without much trouble because their wine production facilities are all under the same roof. In fact, Eola Hills's facility and staff bottles wine for five different wineries in their facilities.

I must admit that I hadn't expected much from Eola Hills when we decided to taste there, but this assumption was wrong. I really enjoyed some of the 23 wines they were pouring that day (no, I didn't try all of them), the 2007 "Lodi" Sangiovese was a particularly integrated wine. Also, the 2007 Reserve Pinot Gris had the unique character of being aged in Acadia wood, rather than oak. Perhaps the wood was the result of the smokey and creamy characteristics of the wine.

Well, I'm now in Maine enjoying a foot of snow and some of the mulling spices I purchased as Willamette Valley Winery. I've got a few weeks of rest before my girlfriend and I head to Italy, so I'll be sharing plenty of great wines in the new year. Stay warm wherever you are, and Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Why Cheap, Good Pinot Noir Doesn't Exist In Oregon... Or Anywhere For That Matter.

On my second visit to the Willamette Valley, located just outside of Portland Oregon, the beautiful, rolling countryside, made even more dramatic by threatening rain clouds battling against sun breaks, was quiet. Few of the tasting rooms we visited had anyone inside. Perhaps it was just a quiet Thursday in December, or perhaps wine lovers are staying at home due to the economy.

After all, Oregon's most famous grape is Pinot Noir, one of the most expensive wines on the market. It costs a lot to grow and a lot to produce. A 2005 study showed that only 7.65 tons of Pinot Noir grapes could be crushed per hectare (a hectare is around 107,639 square feet). Cabernet Sauvignon produces 12 tons, Merlot 18 tons, and Rubired 35 tons per hectare. The study concludes that "Pinot Noir’s low specific yield is second to none."

As I put my palate to the workout, I found some basic trends of Oregon's Pinots. First, the very good Pinot Noirs, such as those crafted at Chehalem Winery, Panther Creek Cellars, and Van Duzer Winery, were all medium bodied, and very dark and brooding. Achieving the rich characters of these wines takes time. Oregon winemakers use long fermentations at controlled temperatures and slow pressings to extract velvety "mouthfeel" and dark colors without bitter tannins. In the end, you get beautiful, plummy, earthy, complex wines.

The other trend I noticed, was that good Pinot Noirs could not be purchased for under $20. I know that some wine writers, such as Nancy Oakley, do not like any Pinot Noirs made in the States, but I think that's a little dramatic. The only one I tasted for under twenty bucks that was any good, was the Brandborg Umpqua Valley Bench Pinot Noir that I taste in the Barbur grocery store (the store is located a block from my girlfriend's mother's house, and has a tasting once a week that we try to get to when we're visiting. Just further proof that the good things in life can be had by everyone).

But I found that every other moderately priced Pinot that I tasted was a waste of money. The first one I tried was Ankeny Winery's 2006 Hershy's Red Pinot Noir, at $15.99. The wine was almost neon pink in color, produced a head when poured, and was so bright that I couldn't see for a while after the first sip. The wine was so bad that we returned it to Barbur Foods in exchange for Sass's 2007 Pinot Noir, which also cost $15.99. Unfortunately, the Sass was only a slight improvement, and by the time I was on my second glass I considered it the most expensive bottle of cranberry juice I'd ever purchased.

So what is the problem? Well, all the Sideways hype and marketing aside, nobody is going to give something away for less money than it cost to make, so cheap Pinot Noir necessitates cutting corners. Two of the most common ways to cut corners in wine making are over-extracting the grapes and padding crop yields, viz. allowing larger quantities of grapes to grow on the vines at the expense of their quality.

In the extracting process, winemakers develop a wine's tannins, color, glycerol, and flavor, such as the commonly experienced strawberry and cranberry. When winemakers over extract, these characteristics become messy, and cheap Pinot Noirs can often be distinguished by a very bright, sometimes neon coloring and a corresponding transparency. If your Pinot looks like an 80's windbreaker in the glass, you might want to return it immediately.

As for grapes that are not properly thinned, they do not receive the high amount of sunlight and nutrients required to make fine wines, but they do provide higher yields and therefore more wine. The grapes have thinner skins, again resulting in weakly pigmented wine, and are thin on flavor, making them incapable of creating complex wine and, ultimately, the perfect balance of plum, spice and earth that characterize great Pinots.

There are many other short cuts that ruin wine, such as harvesting over mature or young fruit in order to lengthen the harvesting season, quickly fermenting and pressing the grapes, or aging wine in the barrels for inadequate periods of time. Whatever the reason, the majority of the time it just isn't worth buying a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir for less than $20. You'll likely be stuck with a disturbing wine, as I learned the hard way.

To compare an inexpensive California Pinot Noir with those of Oregon, I tried the 2007 Mark West Sonoma County Pinot Noir, which costs a whopping $9.98. I preferred the Mark West quite a bit to the Sass and the Ankeny - it had more reserved fruit, a heavy dose of tannins and a fuller body - but ultimately it could not hold up. The Mark West quickly became a middle-of-the-road wine, with its main characteristics being tartness and again, cranberries.

If you know of a great Oregon Pinot Noir that I'm totally missing out on - please school me. Otherwise, leave the juice to the kids.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Designer Tasting Rooms - Van Duzer Vineyard

Perhaps the best dressed tasting room I've visited, Van Duzer vineyard knows what's in style. Its labels feature the wind-goddess Zephyr, and are drawn in much the same style as the trendy posters and magazine illustrations of Alfons Maria Mucha. Located down a dirt road, the winery is surrounded by the clean air and green fields of Oregon's Willamette Valley.

If you're looking for the winery, you can see it a long way off, perched at the top of a hill with rows of vines swaying down the slopes. The view from up there is exquisite, but once inside, visitors enter another visual playground:

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

La Poire Fizz - Perhaps The Best Drink In The World

My friend, who works at the Starlight Room in San Francisco, introduced me to the Poire Fizz the other day. Poire, in French, means pear. At my going away party (I will soon be traveling to Europe to taste wines from all over the continent, particularly Italy) he bore no restraint, and mixed some of the best Poire Fizzes ever to grace the earth.

I wanted to learn more about the Fizz, but no web site other than the Starlight Room's featured it with the exact ingredients we used. The Starlight Room or Harry Denton's Starlight Room is a dramatic night club located on the top floor of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco that features huge chandeliers, plenty of red plush fabric and a staff that knows mixology on levels that I aspire to. Perhaps the bar invented the concoction?

The drink involves pear-flavored vodka, St. Germain liquor, champagne or sparkling wine and pineapple juice. Living up to his title, Reym the mixologist whipped out Grey Goose la Poire and Veuve Clicquot as ingredients and went to work. The Fizz he created was perfectly balanced, mixing the wonderful pear and pineapple fruit with the succulent sweetness of the elderflowers used to make St. Germain. St. Germain liquor comes from France, and touches on the flavors of peach, pear, citrus and lychee. To make all of these flavor truly ignite, a topper of the Veuve Clicquot and its bubbles is added.

Here's the recipe so that you can make your own Poire Fizz at home.

Pour the following into a shaker:

2oz pear flavored vodka
2oz St. Germain
2oz pineapple juice

Mix and pour into champagne glasses leaving room for a sparkling wine or champagne topper, top off, and let the good times roll!

Celebrate the Holidays With New Washington Grape Varieties

Looking for a rare and unusual wine to sip with Christmas dinner or on New Year's Eve? It's easy to throw cash at a well-known bottl...