Sunday, August 02, 2015

Knudsen Vineyards: Knowing Your Roots

When listing off the names of the Willamette Valley's wine pioneers one of the names that many consumers don't necessarily recognize is the name Cal Knudsen.

Cal, along with Dick Erath went on to found the Knudsen-Erath wine label, but that particular partnership stopped producing wines in 1987. Erath, a name we all know, took the winery and Knudsen took the vineyards. After parting ways amicably, Cal Knudsen went on to become a founding partner of the Argyle Winery operation when the company was started in 1987, and his Knudsen Vineyards became the source for nearly all of Argyle's wines, from their Pinot Noirs to their sparkling program.

Cal Knudsen though was one of those most important pioneers whether your average Northwest wine fan knows it or not. Cal was a Weyehauser executive who took seriously the "go big or go home" adage when he bought into vineyard land in the Willamette back in 1971, only a few years behind David Lett. He bought in at around 200 acres (it's closer to 230 these days) and planted in large plots of 20 to 30 acres, in 1975 the Knudsen vineyard was the largest in the state at 60 planted acres at the time. Today it's grown to 130 planted acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, all of which had become an important part of Argyle's sparkling program.

Cal Knudsen (courtesy Knudsen Vineyards)
Cal passed away in 2009 at the age of 85. He was a very accomplished man, both within the wine industry as well as beyond. He came from very humble means and left his mark on both his family and the growing Oregon wine industry. Cal's children have decided to revive the Knudsen name as a wine label with a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay bottling that is just recently hitting the market.

The wines are being made by Nate Klosterman who took the reigns at Argyle after Rollin Soles departed. The folks at Argyle, including the vineyard management team, are well versed in what the Knudsen vineyards are capable of as they've been working with them for years. For Cal's children, though this is more than just a vanity project and so they're working with Nate and other's at Argyle, tasting the wines and ultimately playing a role in the final wines that go into the bottles that bear their name.

I was fortunate enough to taste through the wines with Colin Knudsen and Page Knudsen Cowles. They have a sense of the importance that their father has played in the growth of Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley and the treasure that they have inherited in their father's legacy and the vineyard that their father planted. They've decided to build on their father's legacy and sort of revive their involvement as a family (there are four siblings total) in what their father created. While they live all over the country, the travel to Dundee a few times a year to taste through the wines, and  make decisions about what to do about the aging blocks of the vineyard.

The wines are outstanding, and they're certainly priced at a premium level, but the production is tiny and so they don't stick around for long. The inaugural release, the 2012 Pinot Noir is already gone, almost exclusively snatched up by list members. The first release was done on the strength of a gathering of friends, those friends snatched up every last bottle of the Pinot before it reached beyond the friends and family list.

2013 Knudsen Vineyards Chardonnay $45
This is a beautiful wine and demonstrates that by transitioning a winemaker, Klosterman who's familiar with the site and it's fruit there are zero growing pains from this new label. The Chardonnay would certainly stake its claim among those in the top tier of the Willamette Valley. Aromas of nutmeg, baking spice and poached pear hint at the time in new French oak (35%). It's rounded but the oak is very well integrated with a palate of honey, lemon creme and almond. The acid accents what is a very pretty wine, with weight and lift. (Only 100 cases were produced.)

2013 Knudsen Vineyards Pinot Noir $55 (Not yet released)
Classically Oregon, the acids are great, light to medium bodied, and loaded with those fresh bramble-berry aromas we all love and a dash of wet stone. The Pinot is a blend of a few different blocks, block 3, 6 and 8. The first two are 777 clones and block 8 is Pommard. The north facing block 6 imparts a lot of dark notes to the wine's aromas and palate. There is great minerality, it's a mix of 15-8 year old vines, the acid and finish with lots of fresh wintergreen, lasts what feels like a lifetime.

1985 Knudsen Erath Oregon Pinot Noir, Yamhill County
A thirty year old wine shows, for any fool who is still skeptical that this place is world class. This is a holy shit wine as far as I'm concerned. Aromas of peat moss, mushrooms and earth. Dollops of black fruit and acid that just goes on and on and on. For the record the wine is unbelievably pretty. The wine was liquefied brick in color and while the aromatics were completely muted upon opening it was a remarkable wine that even continued to develop as opposed to deteriorate over the course of a meal.

1983 Knudsen Erath Oregon Pinot Noir, Yamhill County
Some how even more aromatically lively than the 85. What I've learned over my somewhat limited experiences with older wines are that it's not always prudent to expect much in terms of aromatics but the 83 opens up with loads of red fruit aromas. It's insane how alive is wine still is while the palate doesn't pop as much  as the wine two years its junior, it's still showing lively red fruit, and berries for days, or in this case 32 years.

The Knudsen's have history on their side, and the prudence of their father's vision is apparent in these older wines. The site is just right ;and right there in the Dundee Hills. The wines make a case for this new venture of the next generation of Knudsen. Far from a fool's errand these two wines make a compelling case for what they hope to accomplish and the staying power of both the Willamette Valley and the vineyards Cal Knudsen laid down.


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