Arts and Crafts Were Never This Fun

Sparkle and Fade

A Cabernet Experience

Exploring Terroir with Forgeron Cellars

Oregon's French Connection

Maison Louis Jadot's Résonance

The French Connection

Rhone to Columbia Valley: The Syrah Doctrine

C'mon Get Happy

New Growth at Matthews Winery

Who We Are

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Monday, December 29, 2014

All Horses Go to Heaven...The Horse Heaven Hills AVA

the view from Coyote Canyon Vineyards
Whenever I'm out in the Yakima Valley I always look to the south side of the river along highway 82 at those beautiful rolling hills and think, "those are the Horse Heaven Hills." And sometimes I even say it out loud, if someone is with me in the car. I suppose it makes me feel smart or informed, but in reality, while that is technically correct, that's really just the tip of the Horse Heaven Hills AVA and nowhere near where all the big work in the growing region is being done.

To get to the Horse Heaven Hills, really get there, you gotta go up over those pretty hills just behind Prosser and then drive for sometime. You'll pass some conventional farmland and then eventually you'll come to the Columbia River. This is important because as you note along your drive, much of the Horse Heaven Hills is arid, high desert. It's the Columbia River's moderating influence that even makes quality wine grape growing something you can consider out here.

It's a confluence of conditions, the Columbia, the canyons that run up from the river into the plateau above and the dry, sandy soil. In 1972 Walter Clore approached Don and Linda Mercer and convinced them to take a chance on wine grapes. Their family had been farming the Horse Heaven Hills since the 1930s growing a cornucopia of crops, wheat, onions and carrots, to name a few. The Cabernet they planted in 1972 has gone onto 100 point greatness in what is now known as Champoux Vineyard as an important part of the Quilceda Creek reputation.
Mercer Estates Spice Cabinet Vineyard
Horse Heaven Hills has certainly grown since then, McKinley Springs planted in 1980, and in 1991 Chateau Ste. Michelle planted what has become one of the AVA's most signature sites in their Canoe Ridge Vineyard. The AVA has really grown up, it's total acreage is 570,000 so it's an expansive region with only about 12,000 acres planted to vineyards. I say only but the HHH AVA comprises 25% of Washington's total wine acreage.

The wines from the area have developed a style certainly that has become a signature of the AVA, Raymon McKee the winemaker for Chateau Ste Michelle's Canoe Ridge finds the signature to be "an expression of the soil, particularly in the tannin." The tannins tend to be the most notable, they bring a real sense of elegance, and add a dusty or powdery backbone to the wine. The palates are marked with redder fruits like cranberries, or red cherry. As warm as the area is, there's definitely a structure to the wines that leans more towards Old World wines like those from Bordeaux than you'd expect.

The region is in good hands and its reputation only continues to grow as it benefits from seeing how its older vines produce outstanding fruit. The pioneering vision of the Mercer family, the talents of someone like Paul Champoux and reach of Chateau Ste Michelle, along with the fine wines the region has gone on to produce will make it a region, that while perhaps a bit out of the way, is deserving a noteworthy stake on any map of the American wine landscape.

2013 Mercer Estates Reserve Chardonnay, Horse Heaven Hills While the Horse Heaven Hills seem heaven sent for Cabernet; Chardonnay from the region can be outstanding. The Mercers are the original wine growers in the HHH,but they haven't rested on their laurels and continue to push the region forward as both growers and a winery. Jessica Munnell shows a skill set where Chardonnay is concerned with this wine, it's opulent and oaky without being buttery and boring. Aromatically rich with hazelnut, toasted bread and baked apple, the wine carries through on the strength of it's fruit and acidity. The palate is rich, balanced and ripe. $32

2012 Columbia Crest Reserve Chardonnay Horse Heaven Hills Columbia Crest has over 2,000 acres of vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills and with their H3 line has showed an incredible commitment to the AVA. That line of wines represents one of the state's best values year to year and in the sub $20 price point is a go to Tuesday night wine for many serious wine aficionados as the quality is just so high. This Chardonnay is another case maker for the wine in the HHH. Aromatically round and ripe with notes of vanilla, nutmeg and ripe pear the palate shows a vibrancy that is too often lacking in American oaked Chardonnay along with rounded fruit flavors of pear and creme brulee. $20

2010 Double Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet is king of course, and that holds true here in the Horse Heaven Hills, whether it's Champoux Vineyards or just across the street at Phinny Hill it's Cabernet that made this region famous. The Double Canyon Vineyards are just north of the Champoux Vineyards at a total of 88 acres and the connection to Phinny Hill is not just as neighbors. (Family is a thing that you hear time and again here in the Horse Heaven Hills and so Will Beightol son of Phinny Hill's Dick Beightol is managing the vineyards for this label with Napa and Willamette Valley roots.) The quality is present from the start with the fine tannin and superb structure that the more you familiarize yourself with it, you come to expect from HHH Cabernet. Aromatics of anise, black tea and dust, the wine is offers depth, and a elegant structure along with a present acidity. Flavors of mocha, red fruits and barrel spice. $40

2013 Chateau Ste. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc, Horse Heaven Hills While Cabernet and Chardonnay show so well from the HHH this wine is ridiculously good each year. Stainless and a heaping dollop of acidity make this vibrant white from one of the states warmest growing regions pulsate with citrus and stone fruit aromatics. The palate is cut fresh fruit and wet stone. For the price one of the state's best white wines year in and year out. $18

2010 McKinley Springs Malbec, Horse Heaven Hills There are many different varieties planted in the region and Malbec is one you're really seeing distinguish itself. This wine is elegant and while it offers plenty of blue and black fruits it is structured (again those dusty tannins) and very lively. (I tasted it beside a well regarded Argentinian Malbec which frankly seemed down right dumb in comparison) This wine shows aromatics, acidity, earth, spice and stony minerality along with it's dark fruits. $24

2012 Columbia Crest Reserve Malbec, Horse Heaven Hills This Malbec is a part of the limited release wines from Columbia Crest and the wines are made with an incredible amount of care. An inky black wine to behold as well as on the palate. Black fruits, smoke, earth and clove spices. Fantastically structured, with a core of black fruit. $45

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Feels Like Family: Jasper Sisco Wines

In May of 2012 one of our writers Megan, visited with a guy named Justin Paul Russell who had come to the Willamette Valley from the Alabama. He brought with him a dream of making Oregon Pinot Noir. Two years have past and Justin has successfully launched Jasper Sisco with his first wines, including a 2012 Pinot Noir and a 2013 Riesling.

Jasper's story, sorry, Justin's story is illustrative of the kind of community that the Willamette Valley has always been and frankly remains, in spite of it's growing stature in the wine world. The California wine giants' land grab hasn't done any damage the family fabric of Oregon's Pinot Paradise. Quite the contrary; what Justin has found is an extended family in his home away from home.

Justin has landed at Portland's SE Wine Collective, a sort of "maker space" of the city's young wine talents. The Collective allows those interested in making wines, who also aren't land barons, to take a stab at making Pinot in Portland's city limits. In my opinion some of the wineries working out of there, are making some of the most imaginative wines in the Northwest right now. The collective gives them a sense of community, a little help with labor and equipment borrowing and a library of shared experiences to draw from to tackle any challenges they might see in wine production.

Justin has also benefited from a fantastic extended family relationship with the Momtazis of the Willamette's Maysara winery. It's there that he really got his foot in the door, working harvest and crush for two years as well as developing relationships with the broader Willamette wine community.

Now that his vision for Jasper Sisco has become a reality, that family feel remains important. Whether that's choosing his fruit sources or where he makes his wine. "Biodynamics are important to me, but at the core sustainable farming and the growers are what drive the vineyard choices. I want to be able to connect with the people I purchase fruit from, I want them to be people I'd have dinner with or better yet a beer... Momtazi is a site that I feel connected to in a lot of ways, I love the entire family and owe a deep amount of gratitude to them for all the help along the way."

"Cherry Grove was about being in the right place at the right time, in 2013 Tom of Division Wines and of SE wine Collective was sourcing Pinot Noir from there and he knew I was on the hunt for Riesling. He knew that Bob had just opened up a parcel that used to be contracted by Matt of Love and Squalor."

2012 Jasper Sisco Pinot Noir, Momtazi Vineyard  A warm vintage that has been the recipient of many accolades given its fruit forward results. I find the Jasper Sisco Pinot to be overtly aromatic with aromatics of dried violets, dirt and white pepper. A bit more complex than many of the "fruity" 2012 Pinots I've come across this wine's got a high sense of minerality, the acid is soaring and the wine is leaner than it is robust. Which I dig personally. Dried figs, cocoa powder and earth driven minerals. Justin on where the fruit comes from: "I source from two blocks on the site BD (clone 114) and JJ  (Pommard) both planted in 2001 both mostly Jory Soil based." $32

The label is an interesting story that ties back to that family theme. "That's Jasper in the middle of the photo. The photo was taken in West Virginia when he worked in a coal mine. The two people with him are relatives but nailing down who they are with the family I have left that knew Jasper has been dicey. The consensus is that they were cousins. The use of his name as the parent label is a tie not only to family, but work ethic, wit, and a persnickety nature that were central to his personality."

2013 Jasper Sisco Clara Estelle Riesling, Cherry Grove Vineyard A wine as pretty and distinguished as the woman who graces its label. Beautiful aromatics of wet stone, coriander and lime zest. The wine's palate is zippy and alive, flavors of wet stone and grape fruit, and thirst slaking acidity. One of my favorite Northwest wines I've had all year. In Cherry Grove Justin is rubbing elbows with some of the Valley's heavy hitters in terms of sourcing fruit from there. "Cherry Grove Vineyard is in Gaston, Oregon. The others who source from it are Antica Terra, Boedecker, Andrew Rich, as well as Love and Squalor. The riesling portion of this vineyard is just .8ths of an acre. It's a twenty three year old planting at the base of the site. An amalgam of soil types, the site is Live certified." $18

The woman on the label? "Clara Estelle is the great grandmother of my dear friend Wesley Sloman who helped with harvest in 2012 and has remained closely connected with the vintages since then. Clara was the first lady of Tarrant, Alabama in the sixties. She was the lady you went to if you needed to get something done, or needed to know something about someone in Tarrant. I've spent time connecting with Wesley's mother for stories." 

In his first go-round Justin has produced a pair of impressive wines. He thinks though the best is yet to come. "The largest feedback loop I find myself in is the one at the Collective.  We share info on production and the business aspect of things almost daily.  As far as the wines go, I think my stylistic choices in the cellar draw the most feedback, People tend to think my style is risky. But as I was once told that what you risk reveals what you value."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

New School Cool (Climate): Brandborg Vineyard & Winery

photo from the Brandborg Vineyards & Winery
The newest AVA in Oregon, having been granted in early 2013 is found in the Umpqua Valley's town of Elkton and its surrounding hillsides. The Elkton AVA designation was sought to make sense of the larger Umpqua Valley's diversity. It was simple according to Terry Brandborg whose Brandborg Vineyard and Winery opened as the area's first winery in 2002. "As people learn more about Oregon wines, that AVA (the Umpqua Valley) promotes itself most commonly as warmer and drier than the Willamette Valley.  Most people therefore are not aware of our area or the Illinois Valley which lie within this very large AVA, that are both cool climate regions.  So, when we are in market, it is always a bit confusing to people that we make cool climate whites and pinot noir.  The Elkton AVA gives us something to talk about that helps us differentiate our wines, adding that validity that comes with AVA approval."

The town of Elkton is a tiny one (only a 195 residents as of the 2010 census), but beautiful. It sits in Oregon's coastal range and gives off a sort of classic Northwestern vibe, reminiscent of the town of Hope, Washington. Hope, Washington is of course the fictional town in First Blood, the classic Rambo film. I really wanted this Brandborg story to follow the same arc. Long haired California winemaker shows up in town, small town sheriff gives him a hard time, he flees into the woods and makes terroir reflective cool climate Pinot Noir. First Crush would have been a great title. Alas, once Terry Brandborg had relayed the story of his arrival in Elkton I had to change gears completely, bummer for all of us.

Terry and his wife Sue came to Elkton in 2002, founding Elkton's first and only winery at the time, though vineyards had been planted in the area nearly thirty years prior. They were motivated by Ken Thomason's pioneering planting of Pinot Noir, Gewurtztraminer and Riesling dating back to 1972. (Thomason planted the area's original vineyards which have since been acquired by the River's Edge winery.) These were varieties that Terry had been working with since his days in the Anderson Valley in the 1970s and were a big part of his early success as a garagiste winemaker.

These days there are twelve vineyards in Elkton but Brandborg is working with three of them most notably; making wine from Bradley Vineyards, Anindor Vineyards and his own estate fruit. He finds that Elkton wines are definitely showing a sense of terroir. "I certainly do believe we have identified terroir, with distinctive differences in the wines we make with Bradley fruit, Anindor fruit and our own site.  At our Ferris Wheel Estate (which is at 1,000 feet elevation) we get less ripe flavors of blueberry and pomegranate with a softer tannin structure, whereas Bradley and Anindor show more dark cherry with more tannin structure.  Our soils are very similar to Willakenzie and Bradley and Anindor are similar to Nekia."

Elkton is certainly a cooler climate, and in fact, based on growing-degree-days is as cool or cooler than most of the Willamette Valley. Terry Brandborg as an established and talented winemaker who has been focused on cooler climate varieties throughout his career found it a perfect fit.  Though his arrival did turn a few heads. The opening of the Brandborg winery and tasting room right in "downtown" Elkton was another pioneering moment in the still growing Umpqua Valley. They got some strange looks on the crush pad, which is just across from the Post Office. The front and center placement  certainly made people curious about their new neighbors, but there were no Sheriff Will Teasle moments. In fact, Brandborg's selection of Elkton not just for his vineyards but his winery, (as opposed to choosing nearby and much larger Roseburg) drove a bit of renaissance in downtown, with several businesses updating or renovating their store fronts.

Since that time Terry and Sue have been out to make cool climate whites like the Riesling and Gewurztraminer which has a strong following. As well as Pinot Noir. They've added Sauvignon Blanc from a vineyard east of Oakand, Oregon. Brandborg would also love to explore a few other aromatic whites like Chenin Blanc and potentially see how Elkton grown Chardonnay fits within the exploding tide of high quality Willamette Valley Chardonnay.  

2012 Brandborg Oregon Riesling, Elkton Oregon This Riesling is more than meets the eye. A historic bottle in many ways as the first wine released with the Elkton AVA designation. Aromatics of honey, chamomile and a touch of diesel ( usually a signature of older Riesling). Flavors include loads of minerality, cut pears and coriander. The acidity zips rather than soars and the wine has a very nice mouthfeel. $16

2012 Brandborg, Ferris Wheel Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir, Elkton Oregon From 13 year old vines at 1,000 feet elevation this warmer vintage Pinot from Elkton is giving up ample aromatics of dusty red berries, and a touch of clove. The palate is distinguished as opposed to rustic, balanced with fruit and earth flavors as well as a dab of barrel spice. $38