Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2018: Day 19

19 12 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

Well, well. We appear to have ourselves an Advent “Battle of Oregon” this year… of sorts. After the current favourite for “2018 wine of the calendar” made its presence felt a mere two days ago, another iconic Oregon Pinot Noir comes out swinging. The present bottle, the 2016 Cristom Vineyards Mt. Jefferson Cuvee, keeps taking the crown in an annual Wine & Spirits poll to identify the “#1 Pinot Noir in America’s Best Restaurants” (five wins in total). However, most fascinating to me is that this wine represents a very different vinification philosophy from the Ken Wright approach from Day 17. Wright bottles a single-vineyard Pinot Noir from 13 different sites in the northern Willamette Valley. His overriding goal is capture the unique character of each plot. At Cristom, however, blending reigns supreme. Although the winemaking approach is informed by a traditional Burgundian ethos, grower and owner Tom Gerrie and winemaker Steve Doerner believe that the Willamette shows best when grapes from different sites are woven together into a tapestry, as opposed to enjoyed as single strands.IMG_2469

Steve Doerner had previously spent 15 years crafting world class Pinot Noirs with Josh Jensen at Calera, on remote Mount Harlan in California. Although this collaboration was fruitful, Jensen, a staunch advocate of site specificity much like Ken Wright, retained ultimate control over the winemaking. Doerner began to tire of working in such an isolated, lonely locale and was unable to persuade Jensen that blending could afford possibilities that single vineyard wines could not. As he told wine historian Paul Lukacs, “I just liked the idea of making something better, something more complete, than any of its components”. Doerner found the freedom he was seeking when he moved to Oregon and began working with Tom’s father, Paul Gerrie. The Gerrie family considers Doerner to be a blending ninja, a man able to sculpt characterful wines using grapes from all five of Cristom’s estate vineyards as well as quality sites from nearby in the Willamette Valley. Doerner makes the entry level Mt. Jefferson Cuvee first, tasting wines from the different plots and then synthesizing the finished wine using a non-obsessive, intuitive approach based on his tasting instincts alone: “I don’t agonize over it at that point. I just try to make the best I can.” Cristom does make site-specific bottlings, as the market is of course enamoured with terroir, and the Gerries are understandably proud of their estate vineyards. However, each year’s blend is the first priority, with consistency from vintage to vintage the final goal.

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Doerner and the Gerries emphasize old-fashioned, non-interventionist winemaking. Only native yeasts are used for fermentation. Roughly half of the grapes are de-stemmed, as Doerner believes that including some stems in the fermentation contributes appealing non-fruit aroma elements to the finished wine. Acidification is used if pH is deemed to be  too high, but otherwise Doerner stands back and tries to meddle with the wine as little as possible. Consistent with this focus on what nature provides, much attention has been paid to clones. Early Oregon Pinots were obtained predominately from two clones, the fruity “Pommard” along with “Waldensville”, of Swiss origin. Such wines were deemed monolithic and top-heavy with primary fruit, lacking depth and scope. Interestingly enough, these two clones still appear in the Mt. Jefferson Cuvee, with Doerner lauding Pommard’s primary fruit even as he pans the clone as dull on its own. The Gerries sought a remedy for unidimensional wines in the form of Dijon clones, originally propagated in Burgundy’s largest city. This clonal material produces richer wines in cooler climates such as that found in the Willamette Valley. Voila. Six Dijon clones comprise the majority of the blend. Five estate vineyards provide the grapes along with six other Willamette sites. Fermentation occurs in open-top vessels, with punching down used to judiciously extract the temperamental grapes. The wine is moved using gravity and sees 11 months in French oak (23% new).

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Cork Score: 6.5/10 (great top … Sides underwhelming, although there’s a phone number for the winery.)

Here we go. The nose starts compressed but eventually shuffles like a deck of cards to reveal layers of raspberry and blueberry syrups, strawberry-rhubarb pie, dried roses, freshly lain asphalt, and smoky creosote. Quite dark, brooding, the serious side of aromatic complexity that flashes both smoky oak and stem aromas that recall capers and green olives. The palate coughs up strawberries, raspberries, and black cherries from a mephitic matrix of old ball gloves and footballs, singed forest floor, cacao nibs, a jar of old cassia bark, and ashtrays in the lobby a steakhouse serving as a time capsule for 1970s interior decor. This captures Pinot’s ornate, perhaps baroque side. The mouthfeel is pure inky velvet caress and there are shadowy tendrils to unfurl, different strands ultimately binding together as Steve Doerner intended. But hang on. The last few sips flash some vivid bright red: tart cranberries, pomegranate, and cherry Halls lozenge that (briefly) cause me to re-assess my overall impression. The forest winds back to more verdant times, the char replaced by pine boughs and ferns encased in fallen leaves. The forest remains haunted, yes, but new life emerges in parallel. There we are. This wine won’t surrender to holistic impressions, or to Ken Wright, without a fight.

90 points


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