Monday, April 08, 2013

Phelps Creek Vineyards: Oregon Wine, French Twist

With such great progress happening in the Portland urban winemaking scene, and the usual spotlight on the Willamette Valley, it’s all too easy to forget about the many wineries and producers in the Gorge. A short hour east of Portland proper we can find a similar, slightly nuanced wine country with just as much exploring to be done!

Phelps Creek Vineyards runs their tasting room on the Hood River Golf Course, with the vineyards not too far away in Hood River, Oregon. Owner Bob Morus relocated his family to the Gorge in the late 80s and planted the first Phelps Creek vines in 1990. For years, PCV supplied grapes to Willamette Valley wineries until 2002 when they began bottling wines with the Phelps Creek label. They currently produce wines using their estate-grown grapes, which truly utilize and exude the Columbia Gorge terroir they were harvested from.

In 2007, Bob was introduced by a mutual friend to Alexandrine Roy, a fourth generation winemaker from Burgundy, France of the Domaine Marc Roy. Alexandrine was touring the Gorge AVA with a group of French winemakers prior to attending the International Pinot Noir Celebration that year, when Bob asked Alexandrine if she would join the Phelps Creek staff to make a Cuvee of their Pinot Noir, which she has been doing since. With their 2012 vintage, Alexandrine becomes the Director of Winemaking for Phelps Creek and will oversee all aspects of their production. She visits 4 to 6 times per year to check in on the progress of the grapes, and finishes bottling wines in France just in time to come out to Oregon for harvest at PCV.

Phelps Creek recently hosted a wine dinner for their Wine Club members during one of Alexandrine’s regular visits. Alexandrine and Bob anecdotally introduced each wine alongside food pairings at Nora’s Table, a quaint location in downtown Hood River. Chef Kathy Watson spent time with each of the PCV wines to develop the six-course menu, each course more inventive and delicious than the last. While incredibly difficult to narrow it down, my favorite wines and pairings of the evening have me hooked and excited about the future of PCV wines…

Coeur de Roy Blanc de Noir – this crisp white Pinot Noir was a new, and might I add successful, experience for Alexandrine. Paired with prawn fumet, grilled prawns, saffron spaetzle, romesco crouton “dunker.”

2010 Cuvee Alexandrine Gevrey-Chambertin Pinot Noir – wonderfully bright on the palate for pinot noir, this wine was made from use of grapes with thicker skin, and vines with deeper roots, truly isolating unique features of the Gorge terroir. At the time of the dinner only 18 bottles were left of this vintage! Paired with provencal lamb shank, olives, parsley, preserved lemon, roasted Saur Farm Red Norland potatoes.

Vin Dore Gewurztraminer – this wine, a perfect complement to a sugary dessert, was made especially sweet by cranking the heat on the grapes and nearly turning them to raisins for concentrated sweetness before pressing for the juice. Paired with panna cotta, pistachio meringue, candied kumquat, pineapple and sage.

I was able to snag Alexandrine during her visit and get some of thoughts on her experience thus far making wines in Oregon…

How is the Gorge different from Willamette Valley?
Alexandrine decidedly notes a different kind of “perfect” acidity in the Gorge, which has higher altitudes and longer maturation periods than the Willamette Valley experiences. The climate in the Gorge, specifically the wind off of the Columbia River, cools and controls the sugar levels in the grapes grown there.

What new things are you getting to do making wines in Oregon?
With winemaking so heavily regulated in France, experimentation is hardly available to winemakers. Alexandrine was excited to try her hand at the Blanc de Pinot, and generally about the prospect of purposeful experimentation. With the Blanc de Pinot she was able to choose the grapes and use them to make this specific wine – the wine was not an afterthought of another bottle.

How would you compare the wines you are making here in Oregon to wines you make in France?
“I don’t compare, they are completely different!” says Alexandrine. She finds she cannot make this comparison with such different controls in place. She notes what truly stands out in the Oregon wines she’s making is the strong expression of terroir, and significant flavors that take new and exciting turns than as expected.

Alexandrine finds the wine world in the Pacific Northwest welcoming and very community-oriented, and is excited to continue her work with Phelps Creek as their Head Winemaker. Bob Morus expects Alexandrine will continue to drive their emphasis on spontaneous fermentation during the winemaking processes, making serious use of the flavors and acidity the elements of the Gorge provide the grapes. 

Phelps Creek Vineyards currently offers tours on-property in addition to their tasting room and Wine Club activities. Visit them here.


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