Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2019: Day 23

23 12 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

“Great wines taste like they come from somewhere. Lesser wines are interchangeable; they could have come from anywhere.”      – Matt Kramer in “Making Sense of Wine”

YES. Just yes. Last year we were universally astounded by the Ken Wright Cellars Shea Vineyard bottle from Day 17, a mind-blowing flashpoint of the sort you might not expect in a wine Advent calendar, even ones as carefully curated as these have been. I open today’s squat bottle almost reluctantly, flooded with fatigue and all kinds of associations that converge on how done I am with wine blogging, at least for a month or so, because DAMN, this is a labour of love but still requires fortitude in what is already a busy December for me… And poof. All that is gone, burnt away like a flammable fog suddenly detonated by a struck match. I remember why I love wine. My whoop of delight startles the cat in the den where my wine fridges live, and Ken Wright is BACK, baby. And it is not the cuvee from last year.

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Ken Wright has been described by friends as a “brinksman”: someone who can pull off miracles just when it seems all hope is lost. Wrestling competitively from the 6th grade until his first year of college, Ken discovered wine while waiting tables in Kentucky, suggesting to the restaurant owner that they could likely sell more bottles if they knew how each wine actually tasted. A fascination with Burgundy and Pinot Noir was born, with Ken and his roommate Alan Holstein cutting their teeth on such bottlings as La Tache and Richebourg. I am trying to fathom the very notion of university students being able to afford such wines, and this only serves to reinforce the oft-present feeling that I was born in the wrong era. In any event, Ken gave up his pre-law studies to pursue enology and viticulture at the University of California, Davis. He struggled with the chemistry components of this program, although for the quiet but shrewd Ken that was no real obstacle when it came to learning how to make wine. He got by with a lot of help from his friends. Dying to leave California after concluding that the place was simply too hot for top-shelf Pinot Noir, Ken arrived in Oregon in 1985 with barrels of Cabernet Sauvignon to sell as the inaugural offerings of his own winery, Panther Creek. Selling such undocumented wine was illegal, but the silver-tongued Ken got a pass.

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Alas, Panther Creek fell upon hard times and had to be sold. Ken got a divorce, fortunately an amicable one. Financial difficulties associated with the sale of Panther Creek got sorted, and Ken Wright Cellars was born in 1996. The mission? To showcase Pinot Noir from 13 single vineyard sites, wines with precise flavours and sharpshooter finesse, unencumbered by booziness or excesses of other structural components (tannins, acid). All wines are made using the same cellar regime, so that terroir is maximally accentuated and facilitating direct comparisons across the sites. Grapes are hand sorted and always de-stemmed, as Ken states that including the stems with these various sites yields wines that are too angular. Fermentation takes place in open vats, with the wines seeing around one year in new French oak barrels (albeit barrels specially treated with salt and hot water to mitigate resinous notes from the wood). Supple and seamless. “Grippy and tannic does not provide pleasure”, he says. Ken encouraged growers to farm for quality by paying them for each acre instead of by the ton. He introduced vertical shoot positioning in Oregon to expose grapes in the relatively cool climate to more sun. He continues to use research links between microbiological activity and soil quality to rehabilitate tired old sites such as Bryce, working closely with vineyard owners so the latter can sell quality fruit to wineries across the state. To top it all off, Ken himself petitioned growers to create six sub-appellations in the Willamette Valley: Yamhill-Carlton, Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge, Dundee Hills, McMinnville, and Eola-Amity Hills. Yes we Ken. Burgundy comes to Oregon.

IMG_1417I should be careful with such statements. Oregon Pinot will probably have more bright fruit than your average Cote d’Or. But one cannot escape the comparison when it comes to such fine-grained mapping of vineyard sites. The 2015 Ken Wright Cellars Freedom Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir hails from a Willamette Valley AVA site said to yield the most firm and structured Pinots in the Ken Wright stable. Occupying a gentle southeasterly slope that is conducive to ripening, the soils are known as “bellpine”, a mixture of uplifted ancient seabed and siltstone that is said to contribute to the aforementioned structure in the wines, even as freshness is preserved. Ken states that such soils yield more floral and spicy characters in the finished wines, as compared to nearby volcanic soils that enhance fruit. One might be forgiven for wondering if this site manages to capture the best of both worlds.

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This is darker than expected colour-wise but not opaque. The nose does pop with Bing cherry and black raspberry, high-toned wild blueberry and plum, but there they are as advertised, a few floral squadrons filling the skies of my Burgundy Zalto glass with Thrills gum, Parma violet candies, lilacs, rose hips, iris, cinnamon toothpicks, allspice, cola, cinder blocks, warm pavement, and an earthy verdant wreath of Irish moss, English breakfast tea and old growth underbrush. Less cerebral and pretty than the Shea Vineyard, this is more bold and powerful, a Pinot Noir Tony Soprano…but do not confuse power with a lack of complexity. The finish lingers with watermelon Jolly Ranchers and a few dirty pan drippings. What more can I say? The calendar has probably peaked. I’ll see you fine folks next year, barring unforeseen circumstances. Bring it on home, Peter.

91+ points

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Cork Rating: 4/10 (Nomacorc plus washed-out graphic. Ken Wright has to do one thing wrong, I suppose.)





Volcanic Hills III: Igneous Miscellany

25 10 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

With the core whites and reds now in the rearview mirror, we conclude our extensive coverage of the Volcanic Hills Estate Winery with some odds and ends, various bottles that fit less neatly into the relatively clear-cut categories explored in the last two posts. Wine’s endless diversity has at times been under threat by homogenizing forces, including bottom line-based agricultural and business practices, public demand and the allure of the almighty score as supplied by major critics. Fortunately, the spectacularly mutagenic grapevine refuses to stop reinventing itself (sometimes with human assistance), and the tide has turned away from standardization and towards treasuring the diversity we have across wine-growing regions.

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Enter the Okanagan Valley, a wine region that is home to more than 60 grape varieties but that has yet to put all of its chips on any one vinous genotype. It can seem as if growers there will give anything a shot: the classic cool-climate grapes, hybrids, strange German crosses that haven’t stuck in their homeland (e.g. Optima), and more recently warm-climate grapes such as Sangiovese and Tempranillo, on top of the Bordeaux and Burgundy menu options that crop up everywhere. Some decry this diversity as emblematic of a lack of focus and an unhelpful disregard for the important match between varietal and terroir. In my view, there’s room in the expansive space that is world wine culture for both the perfect lock-and-key matches between land and grape and pockets of “throw caution to the wind” experimentation. And besides, how does one map out terroir in a newer area without taking a few risks? On that note, let’s bring our Volcanic Hills coverage home. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: The Reds of Castoro de Oro

14 08 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

[These wines were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Welcome back for part 2 of my coverage of a cross-section of the current lineup of the Golden Mile’s Castoro de Oro, following on the heels of last week’s assessment of a trio of their whites. Those wines were fun, clean examples of how a savvy winemaker can produce something that is capable of appealing to a rather broad swath of the wine-drinking public. One can simply enjoy such wines in a purely casual fashion, equal parts pleasant taste and social lubricant, or one can, likely on a different occasion, plumb and probe for something deeper. Will the reds (and a rosé) paint a similar picture?

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Before I attempt to answer that question, a few words about the winery name (see my last post for more about the vineyard conditions). The name “Castoro de Oro” is a tribute to how Canada was founded and gives a nod to our majestic country’s national animal. Yes, the pictures on the label and your phrasebook Spanish do not deceive you: “Castoro de Oro” really does mean “golden beaver”, with a nod towards Canada’s roots in the fur trade.  Back in our colonial days, beaver pelts were deemed “soft gold” because they were in tremendous demand on the market. Additionally, it was none other than beavers who created the small lake that helps provide a key moderating influence on the climate at Castoro de Oro’s vineyards. The top hat seen on the winery mascot above embodies the fashion that was vaunted at the time of the soft gold rush. Truly, what fantastic branding. Ultimately, though, what matters to me is in the bottle. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Moraine Winery Spring/Summer Set

28 06 2019

[These wines were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Wine is indelible.  It can leave impressions and fasten itself onto moments or events with surprising, graceful ease.  Show me a bottle or producer that I’ve had before and I will often be immediately taken to the scene where I had it last, even if it was otherwise unmemorable.  In the case of Naramata’s Moraine Winery, the scene already had memories to spare, and every bottle since has carried them back to me.

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My first encounter with the wines of then-up-and-coming Moraine was almost exactly six years ago today.  I remember because Calgary was underwater, as the great flood of 2013 wreaked havoc on the heart of my hometown.  I also remember because I had become a dad for the second time ten days prior, on Father’s Day; the power and energy of the tempests that made the waters rise seem to have imbued themselves in my son Max ever since.  The white, black and red labels of Moraine marked my first return to the blog after Max’s birth.  He just finished kindergarten two days ago.  The wheels of time continue to spin, but our wines mark our occasions.

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Moraine was founded by current owners Oleg and Svetlana Aristarkhov, ex-Albertans who headed west to follow their passion into the world of wine.  Their two estate vineyards, the older and larger Anastasia and the younger Pinot Noir-devoted Sophia, are named after their two daughters; the winery name reflects the glacially deposited rocks that form a key part of the terroir at their Naramata site.  When I first came across Moraine it was in its early stages of life, just finding its way as a new winery.  In this current encounter it is in a different phase of life, and in the midst of a significant transformation:  a new winemaking facility and cellar is being built, a new larger tasting room and hospitality centre has just opened, and as of last year the wines are being crafted by a new winemaker, albeit one who is a familiar face on the BC wine scene.  Dwight Sick, who spent the last decade as the winemaker at Stag’s Hollow, came to Moraine just before the 2018 harvest, the final critical piece to this next stage of the winery’s growth and development.  Yet Moraine’s focus still remains anchored in Anastasia and Sophia, and the ever-maturing vines they hold.  I got the opportunity to taste some of Sick’s first Moraine releases, as well as an early single-vineyard Pinot Noir from Sophia, to get a sense of how far Moraine Winery has come. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: A Field Guide to the Wines of Albert Bichot

10 02 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

Peter has kicked off the 2019 blogging campaign in style, with an intriguing comparison of wine preservation methods that will make a significant contribution to the annals of Pop & Pour science. And me? Well, I’m back doing one of the things I do most frequently on this blog: covering a tasting. This one was a casual drop-in scenario, bypassing the formal sit-down presentation, and on this date that was just fine by me. The frigid weather has left me irascible and more than a little crabby. Fortunately, we’ve got a prescription for those blues… and its not more cowbell. It is glorious, glorious Burgundy.

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I’ve mentioned my love affair with Burgundy (and Pinot Noir more generally) enough times on PnP, so I won’t belabour the point here. I had not tried any wines from Albert Bichot before, but I was promptly faced with 15 (!) of them, in a carefully curated sequence of whites and reds, from Chablis to Grand Cru, complete with a bonus round detour into Beaujolais Cru territory. Fifteen! I was titillated and daunted in approximately equal measure. How the hell is a guy supposed to keep these all straight, what with the small pours, limited analysis time, and numerous distractions around the table? I like to meditate on a half-bottle or more, savouring and seeing how the wine develops over time, as one’s palate habituates to the initial impressions. This is another kettle of fish entirely, with a pace more like Whac-A-Mole than a game of chess, although I do have my tricks, particularly a powerful secret weapon: “Beginner’s mind”. This is an application of mindfulness, where one deliberately pays attention to the present moment, concentrating the attention into a laser beam focused only on the wine in the glass, and then seeing what associations are dredged up. With beginner’s mind, you explicitly adopt a form of make-believe in which you imagine that the liquid in the glass is foreign, entirely novel, never before encountered, and see what this clean slate provides. Might sound hokey, but give it a try during a tasting. It’s like a palate cleanser for the brain. All this aside, I will not take much credit for the fact that I WAS ultimately able to keep all these wines distinct in my mind’s eye. This was more testament to the artistry of the 6th generation producer Domaines Albert Bichot. Read the rest of this entry »





Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2018: Day 21

21 12 2018

By Peter Vetsch

I will admit it, Advent team:  I am nearing the end of my blogging rope.  The culmination of the calendar, Christmas shopping, pre-holiday work deadlines and child sport activities has me completely drained, so as half-bottle Advent peaks to its climax, I am beginning to wear down.  Nevertheless, we aren’t about to stop with the end so near.  We fight with words and persevere.

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So out of the wrapping paper tonight comes…ANOTHER Pinot?  That oddly makes three in five days, after Monday’s Day 17 Ken Wright Oregon masterpiece and Wednesday’s Day 19 Cristom Oregon encore.  This one is…not from Oregon, I guess?  That’s not entirely fair.  If I had pulled this from the calendar on Day 4, or in the midst of the weird run of 2013s, I suspect I would have been pretty psyched about it.  The 2016 Shaw + Smith Pinot Noir from Adelaide Hills is a $50+ bottle retail, from an exciting new-wave producer known for quality.

The winery was founded in 1989 by Michael Hill Smith and his cousin Martin Shaw, both of whom were impeccably credentialed for the venture:  Smith was initially part of the family ownership of Yalumba before being bought out in 1986, and is also a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and Australia’s first-ever Master of Wine, while Shaw was himself a well-known wine consultant who was sought after by many producers needing winemaking assistance.  They grounded their venture in the chilly Adelaide Hills, which is in central-southern Australia near Barossa but 4 degrees cooler on average during the day and a whopping 8 degrees cooler at night, allowing for longer, gentler ripening and the preservation of precious grape acidity.  Grapes have been planted here for two centuries, but it wasn’t until my lifetime that viticulture really came alive on a global scale (not that I can take any credit).  “Higher, colder, wetter” is how Shaw + Smith summarize their Mount Lofty Ranges subregion as compared to nearby Barossa; while only a half hour from coastal Adelaide, it is at 700 metres above sea level…things go up in a hurry. Read the rest of this entry »





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. Read the rest of this entry »








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