Monday, October 17, 2011

Angel Vine: From Pinot Noir to Zinfandel

A few Oregon wineries and winemakers source fruit from many of the warm sites in Washington State. While many of them made their way to the Willamette Valley for their love of Pinot Noir, their enological tastes and interest often expand to varietals that are not possible to properly grow in the Valley. That is the story of winemaker Edward Fus and his label Angel Vine.

Ed's educational background is in horticulture; when he started exploring wines seriously in the late 80s the idea of having his own vineyard naturally appealed to him. Through his wine exploration, Ed honed in on three varietals that he really enjoyed, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Zinfandel. A series of events led Ed and his wife Laureen to the Willamette Valley area, and Ed and Laureen put down roots. I mean that literally, in the form of a Pinot Noir vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills where their three-acre parcel is composed of three separate one-acre blocks of different Pinot clones on Jory soils.

Initially, Ed sold the fruit (and continues to do so) and assisted the wineries and winemakers who harvested from his vineyard, gaining experiencing at the sides of winemakers like Joe Dobbes of Dobbes Family Estate and Dean Sandifer at Domaine Couteau. As Ed gained experience and career changes took place, the idea of starting his own winery held more and more appeal. He and Laureen created their own brand but wanted to do something different from their neighbors. They fell back on that mutual love for Zinfandel and similar varietals and thought it would differentiate them in the Pacific Northwest, and certainly in Pinot Noir country.

The resulting label, Angel Vine, named for Ed's wife and two daughters, has a focus on Washington-sourced Zinfandel and to  lesser degrees Primitivo and Petit Sirah. Though it represents a 180 degree shift from the home-grown Pinot varietal on his vineyard, Ed used what he knew in considering his Zinfandel sources. Ed cites his experience in Pinot as indispensable because of the appreciation it gave him for the importance of site selection and the role it can play in winemaking, though he notes it took some adjustment to understand the amazing differences in vineyard management between each side of the Cascades. He says, "Having experience with my vineyard helped me find good vineyards and good vineyard managers – which I think is perhaps the largest single contributing factor to any success we've achieved."

In a more specific sense, Ed is a big believer in the transparency of Zinfandel and the importance of site to taste is what he wants to display in all Angel Vine wines.

The note on the back of the Angel Vine wines says "Angel Vine is committed to producing wines with character, individuality and spunk." The varietals that Ed and Laureen have landed on are certainly known to bring spunk; Zinfandel and Primitivo have a reputation for dark fruit character and spicy qualities like anise and black pepper. In each of the Angel Vine wines I've tried, the varietal character is true, and the distinct variance in the wines lends credence to Ed's focus on the individuality which comes from site selection.

Where his single vineyard bottlings are concerned, Ed is making a Stonetree Vineyard Zinfandel from the hot Wahluke Slope site as well as a cooler bottling from one of my favorite vineyards, Walla Walla Valley's Les Collines. In the 2011 vintage Ed hopes to have four single vineyard Zins, as well as a Columbia Valley blend or cuvee Zinfandel. The single vineyard bottlings are small and the focus on the three varietals gives Angel Vine variety yet focus. In addition to the Petit Sirah, Primitivo and of course, Zinfandel, Angel Vine also does a small bottling of Pinot from their estate vineyard's north block.

Ed sent me several bottlings of the Angel Vine wines and I've focused on my highlights below. Across the board these are quality wines and one thing that Angel Vine certainly delivers on is quality to price. This is a lot of wine for the dollar, with most of these wines landing just one or two dollars north of $20 on the high end. The Pinot is the most expensive at $28. I'd also say that we, the Northwest wine geeks, owe the good people at Angel Vine a debt of gratitude. They're making three different Zinfandels for us to explore from Washington, all in the $20 neighborhood. This is a wine that is not all that common and we're granted the opportunity to explore its possibilities throughout Washington for a song.

2009 Zinfandel, Columbia Valley. A classic Zinfandel comes from this "cuvee" blend of four different Washington vineyards. Sites included the Stonetree vineyard in Wahluke Slope, two Horse Heaven Hills vineyards and Walla Walla's Les Collines. This Zinfandel, which contains 13% Primitivo is classic in that California sense, particularly in comparison to the Les Collines. A bigger wine, fruit forward aromatics with a hint of black-strap molasses in the background. On the palate you get dense ripe flavors and concentration, raisins and plums, loads of smoke with a spicy finish. A ridiculous bargain at $20.

2009 Les Collines Zinfandel. A 180 degree shift from the Columbia Valley; lighter in color, the wine certainly appears aromatically with that beautiful funkiness that is this vineyard's signature. In the place of big dark fruit you find a more balanced, nearly elegant wine in comparison. Herbs, most notably sage and earth, as well as a floral note of violets appear in addition to that Les Collines funkiness. The palate gives you a hint of minerality, violets and stone. It's with this wine that Angelvine has won me over. We're seeing a markedly different Zinfandel being produced by different AVAs and vineyards and if you're not excited by the variety these wines show in this Washington varietal, what the hell are you doing reading a wine blog? $22 for single vineyard Zinfandel? Yes, please.

2009 Hellion. This wine is a blend of Primitivo, Zinfandel and Petit Sirah all from the Stonetree Vineyard, Ed's warmest source in the Wahluke Slope. This is a blending of two classically ripe flavored varietals and the super structured Petit Sirah. The resulting wine is fairly large but very enjoyable. The nose opens up with cloves, raisins and plums, as well as leather and spice. The wine is a warm rounded blend that allows us to experience a smart combination of some still rare varietals in Washington. $22.


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