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.)





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 »





Wine Review: Cloudline Pinot Duo

2 03 2016

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

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OK, yes, I totally had a glass of the PG before taking this picture.

The flourishing Pinot Noir vine of Oregon’s wine history is largely rooted in a man named David Lett, the founder of Eyrie Vineyards, the first person to plant Pinot Gris in the United States and the trailblazer who cemented Oregon’s place as a safe haven for Burgundian varietals.  Known as Papa Pinot, Lett entered his 1975 Eyrie Vineyards Reserve Pinot Noir in a prestigious 1979 blind tasting competition in Paris called the Wine Olympics, which featured hundreds of entries from around the world.  Absolutely nobody outside of Oregon in 1979 thought of it as a wine region, let alone a globally competitive one, but that started to change when the Eyrie Pinot placed in the top ten, beating many top Burgundies along the way.

One person who noticed the result was Robert Drouhin, third-generation head of Burgundy’s renowned Maison Joseph Drouhin.  The following year, unbeknownst to Lett, Drouhin set up his own Burgundy/Oregon rematch, pitting Eyrie Vineyards blind against a field of some of his top wines.  The Eyrie Pinot came in second in the group, just a hair behind Drouhin’s legendary 1959 Chambolle-Musigny.  As if that wasn’t feather enough in Oregon’s cap, Drouhin then proceeded to buy the cap too.  He visited Oregon, noted that its cooler, more temperate climate was a more welcoming environment for Burgundy’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay than neighbouring California, had his daughter Veronique come work harvest with the Letts and others in 1986, then purchased land himself in the Willamette Valley’s Dundee Hills to grow the Pinot that had impressed him so much. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2009 Evening Land “Blue Label” Pinot Noir

9 01 2012

 

One of my favourite labels in recent memory, and a great bottle to boot.

As I mentioned last post, although buying and drinking Burgundy is my top mission for (at least the first half of) 2012, in order to go about it the right way and actually learn something, I’m going to be deferring much of my Burgundy tasting/writing for a few weeks while I source wines and firm up a drinking plan.  Since I tasted a 2009 Bourgogne Rouge last week, I thought it would be an interesting contrast to follow it up with what is effectively its New World equivalent:  a 2009 Pinot Noir from Oregon, from the Burgundy-inspired rising stars at Evening Land Vineyards.  Even though Evening Land’s first vintage was in 2007, less than five years ago, it has quickly gained attention and critical acclaim for its lineup of true-to-the-land wines from the classic Burgundian varieties of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  I had known them as an Oregon producer (I tried two of their Oregon Pinots in WSET class) and was quite surprised to discover that they actually make wine in 4 different Pinot/Chard heartlands around the world:  Oregon’s Willamette Valley, California’s Sonoma Coast and Santa Rita Hills, and Burgundy itself.  While I’m sure that other wineries must do this too, I can’t think of another one off the top of my head that produces wine from different countries under the same name and label.  Colour me intrigued.

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