Many of my wine friends are preparing to attend this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Penticton, British Columbia (yeah, they actually grow good wine up there!). While I will not be going, I am still enjoying the lessons learned from my time in Oregon last year. Truly, if you are a wine geek, this conference is so much more than a big drink fest (though there is ample opportunity for “tasting”). This conference provides the absolute, hands down, best opportunity to learn about wine – how it’s made, what contributes to the final outcome, the differences between climate, place, and soil, as well as the winemaker and vineyard manager roles.
Last year in Oregon I had two opportunities to learn something about blending. Blending does not, by the way, just mean different kinds of wine in varying percentages mixed together like a Rhone style Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre, voilà. Blending is also part of making a good varietal wine. Most varietal wines in fact are the product of blending. Different vineyards, different blocks, different rows, etc. can be crushed, or not, fermented together, or not, aged separately, or any number of other combinations where the winemaker’s craft takes place. Many winemakers will say that good wine is made in the field, and it does all begin with good grapes but the winemaker has so many ways to interact with the grapes once they are harvested, and so many decisions to make before putting their seal of approval on the bottle.
I have friends who are home winemakers, a couple really good enough to go commercial but just don’t want that much change in their lives (Jason). Other wine friends are in scientific fields and they are really into the processes and measurements of alcohol by volume, malolactic fermentation, residual sugar, cold fermentation, brix, etc. Some of us want to just enjoy the wine in the glass, with food and friends, and maybe be able to describe its flavors. I have learned that I am one of these people.
During the conference there was a seminar conducted by Gary Horne, winemaker at Erath Winery in the Dundee Hills. In this part of the world every vineyard visit comes with a comprehensive geology lesson. The soil type is Jory, a well-drained, red silty clay loam, three to six feet deep. It is also perfect for growing Oregon’s other cash crops – Douglas firs for Christmas trees, and hazelnuts. Jory is actually the official state soil of Oregon. Who knew that a state could have and official soil type?
Gary Horne told us about Pinot Noir clones and how Dick Erath, along with Oregon Pinot Noir pioneers David Lett, Charles Coury, and David Adelsheim experimented with them to bring out the best qualities in each. In winemaking clones are defined as propagation of a grape by asexual cuttings or grafting. The resulting plant carries the same DNA as the parent plant but with slight genetic variations. This allows for grapes to be developed that will adapt, thrive and achieve their own uniqueness in a specific environment. Remember that vinifera grapes (those associated with fine wines) are of European extraction and have been imported all over the world and propagated. This accounts for all of the differences between a Pinot Noir from Oregon and a French Burgundy. All vinifera grapes eventually trace back to their own Adam and Eve. Scientists today are still identifying the lineage of grapes and where they originated. Only in recent years was the Chilean grape Carménère identified as having been one of the original Bordeaux blending grapes that fell out of production during the Phylloxera devastation of Europe. It had been for years classified as Merlot!
Using the French Pinot Noir clones 115, 777, and Pommard (one of the first French clones to be grown in Oregon soil) we got to experience the nuances and layers of all the flavors achieved after blending. The 115 clone is associated with currant, balsam, cardamom, and smokiness – spices and bramble fruits. The 777 clone’s characteristics include cherry, cedar, vanilla, and orange zest. The Pommard clone shows sandalwood, and floral notes but also carries the tannic weight that the first two do not. Gary showed these grapes all vinified the exact same way – 15 months in 40% new French oak, with a final alcohol by volume of 14.5% The final blended wine, their Prince Hill Pinot Noir Dundee Hills expresses itself in many layers, with the dominant characteristics from each of the clones – the sandalwood, berries, baking spices, and vanilla are carried on a lingering finish. Very interesting multi-sensory exercise on how it all builds to a crescendo in the final wine.
Next was what turned out to be one of my favorite experience at the Bloggers conference. I was invited, post-conference, with a group of my fellow wine bloggers to take a ride out to McMinnville to learn how Rob Stuart blends his Pinot Noirs at R. Stuart & Co. And that will be my next post…