In a previous post (Lessons in wine blending in Oregon) I wrote about blending Pinot Noirs in Oregon. Gary Horne, the winemaker at Erath taught a lesson on what goes into blending a great Pinot Noir. It was an excellent classroom style lesson and I left with a deeper understanding of how a winery achieves their personal style of the varietal. My next lesson on blending was much more experiential and I came away with a deeper understanding of the winemaker’s influence on the final product. As previously noted many winemakers will say that a good wine is made in the field. While it true that you need to start out with great grapes the winemaker is just being modest.
At the end of last year’s bloggers conference a group of us were treated to a trip out to McMinnville, a sub-appellation of the Willamette Valley AVA, about 40 miles southwest of Portland. Rob and Maria Stuart own a winery and tasting bar, R. Stuart & Co. An entire year later I still remember that visit as one of my favorite wine experiences. I cannot rave enough about their gracious hospitality, and the valuable experience they offered. Rob is a smart winemaker. He allows others to deal with the worry and anxiety of getting good grapes to harvest. Then he buys his pick of the best of several AVA’s and blends them into his personal expression of Oregon’s signature varietal.
First we were treated to a sumptuous walk around lunch at the winery, with food and wines at stations set up throughout. We all got to relax, get to know each other, ask questions. Then Rob had us sit down in groups at tables that looked like individual laboratories.
There were beakers and bottles, pipettes, and notebooks to record our data. He offered us six different fermented single vineyard Pinot Noirs to work with. We were told about the distinct characteristics of each wine, similar to the Erath lesson. He gave us basic instructions and an hour to work as a team to come up with our own custom blend. To back up a minute Rob asked us what style of PN we liked – more acidic, tannic, or fruit forward. I was in the group that identified as more acidic. My bloggers in crime were Kelsey Ivey of OregonWinette, Michele Francisco of WineRabble, and Julia Crowley of WineJulia.
Our group had enough trouble trying to decide our own little division of labor. Who would do the measuring, who would do the proportions, etc. We did a lot of tasting. In the end we had to also come up with a name and tasting notes. Maria and Rob were going to treat us to a bottle of the finished product. My big contribution to the group (because I am not good wielding a pipettes or doing proportions) was an idea of the name. I had in mind that I would drink this wine on Thanksgiving because I always serve an American Pinot Noir with my turkey and this would be the perfect way to honor this occasion. I actually think someone at another table shouted out the name Gratitude but it was a good one and it stuck.
Soon enough our time was up and we had decisions to make. Fortunately we had made several blends and had choices. The greatest lesson learned that day was knowing when to stop blending. I know an hour was not enough time but once you get involved in it a little mad scientist kicks in and it seems difficult to know just when to say ok this is the one.
The wines we had available as our raw material were:
HirschyAVA: Yamhill-Carlton Soil: Willakenzie Clones: Dijon 777 and Dijon 667 on 101-14 rootstock Perspective: South facing 400-450’ elevation Characteristics: Floral components of roses and spring flowers. Juicy mid palate with red and black fruit flavors. An edge of acidity.
Courting HillAVA: Willamette Valley Soil: Volcanic Windblown Clones: Various Pommard and Dijon clones, multiple plantings in mid 1980’s Perspective: South facing 400’ elevationCharacteristics: Dark plum flavors with fruit tree blossom aromas. Elegant.
Elkhorn RidgeAVA: Willamette Valley
Clones: A mixture of mostly Dijon 777 clones with a small proportion of Dijon 113, 114 and Pommard, all on 101-14 rootstock
Perspective: South/Southeast about 350’elevation. Very warm site.
Characteristics: Dark plum flavors with roses in the nose and a little spice. Very soft and round texture, nice soft tannins and very delicate acid.
Temperance HillAVA: Eola Hills
Clones: A mixed planting of Pommard, Dijon 777 and 115 on 101-14 rootstock
Perspective: Due south, 750-800’ elevation
Characteristics: High acidity with flavors of crushed fresh raspberries and blackberries on a cool morning. A hint of herb in the nose.
Daffodil HillAVA: Eola Hills
Clones: Dijon 667 and 114 on 101-14 rootstock
Perspective: West facing, about 350 – 500’ elevation. Very warm site.
Characteristics: Very round, soft, and rich on the palate. A definite black cherry component and the smell of fresh rain on dusty earth. Herbal aromatics of lavender and fennel.
Our final result was 40% Elkhorn Ridge, 45% Daffodil Hill, 5% Temperance Hill, and 5% Hirschy. The Courting Hill and Weber didn’t make into our final blend, but for no particular reason. The small amount of Temperance Hill and Hirschy definitely contributed to the acidity of the wine while the Elkhorn Ridge and Daffodil Hill kept it in balance.
So you think it was easy? Think about these things when you question the price of the next wine you buy. R. Stuart’s Big Fire wines are all modestly priced under $20 and I would highly recommend them to anyone. Rob doesn’t believe in ratings and awards so you won’t find them on anyone’s 100 point scale but I can tell you that these wines are crafted with love and joy by people who care about the experience you will have when you open the bottle. I can’t wait until the next opportunity I have to visit Oregon again and I will absolutely have a trip to McMinnville at the top of my list of things to do.
The entire group agreed that it would be a good idea to open our bottles at the same time and have a virtual tasting. Due to weather events like Sandy and the east coast Blizzard of ’13 in February we didn’t actually get to have our tasting until April. The folks who were nearby were able to join Rob and Maria at their Wine Bar while the rest of us received a wonderful package with two bottles of our blend along with several bottles of their wines. Big WOW factor. We all enjoyed complimenting the wines, Rob and Maria, and each other. For me this experience has an incredibly long lasting finish because I will be saving my second bottle of Gratitude for Thanksgiving this year, as I originally had hoped. Deep Gratitude indeed to Rob and Maria for such a memorable time.