Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Five Nights of Oregon Pinot Noir - Part I

I've been a bit neglectful of my Oregon wines lately. I've become such an old world wine nut that I seem to reach for a Burgundy every time I want Pinot. But I went to Portland recently, I will have to go several times again this year, I have a load of Oregon wines in my cellar, and I need to refresh my Oregon wine palate. You know, time to re-visit some old favorites and see how I feel about them nowadays.

In that spirit, BrooklynLady and I dug into the ol' wine fridge and sampled five Oregon Pinots from the Willamette Valley. We drank these wines with dinner, not all together in the typical tasting format. Why? Because I evaluate and enjoy wine better when I enjoy it with a meal. We were looking for some sort of continuity in the wines, though, so we decided to taste wines from the 2004 vintage.

2004 was a tough year in the Willamette Valley because a cold spell and then later on a rainy spell threatened the crop. Yields were lower and in some vineyards acids were also a bit low. Low yields can be a good thing, but low acids generally do not make for long aging wine. Many producers made very fruit forward wines in 2004 that need not be aged for too long in order to fully develop. There are exceptions, of course, but we figured that the wines we selected for our Five Nights would be ready to drink now.

We began our Five Nights of Oregon Pinot Noir festival by looking to Shea Vineyard, what must surely be considered one of the "Grand Cru" vineyards of Oregon, if there were such a classification. Dick and Dierdre Shea have been growing and selling Pinot grapes since 1989 in the Willamette Valley. Many of the region's big name producers source their grapes from Shea. I'm talking about Mark Vlossak at St. Innocent and Panther Creek, Josh Bergstrom, Craig and Claudia Broadley, Lynn Penner-Ash, Scott Paul, and Beaux Freres (the label partly owned by Robert Parker). Until recently Sine Quo Non, the cult California-based producer made Pinot from Shea grapes (and charged a whole heck of a lot more than anyone else did).

The Sheas began bottling their own wine under the label Shea Wine Cellars in 1996 and shared the Adelsheim facility for wine making. I have tasted Shea Wine Cellars wines from several vintages in the past and enjoyed them very much, notably the 2000 and 2003 Estate wines (a blend of grapes from many of the vineyard blocks). I remember being impressed the the light and elegant, yet powerful feeling of the wine, and the complex aromatics.

So is Shea vineyard a stamp of quality for any wine? Or is it more like Clos Vougeot, the village that gives its name to the enormous Grand Cru vineyard near Chambolle-Musigny in Burgundy, in that the wines of each vintage emerge with huge differences in quality depending on the producer working with the grapes? Not that our little festival will in any way answer that question, but for me it's a start...

We included two wines made from Shea grapes in our Five Days festival, and we started with the namesake - Shea Wine Cellars. The Shea 04's got a lot of attention from Wine Spectator last year, their Estate Pinot coming in 15th on their top 100 list. The other wines did well also with lots of 90+ point ratings. This is interesting in that they used a new wine maker for the 2004 vintage, Chris Mazepink. Also beginning with the 2004 vintage Shea reclaimed the plot Sine Quo Non was leasing and used the grapes to make their own wine, called Wädenswil Clone. I tasted this wine a year ago and re-reading those notes, I was clearly impressed, although the wine was not my favorite style of Pinot. Why not begin our little festival by re-tasting this powerhouse wine?

We drank the 2004 Shea Wine Cellars Wädenswil Clone (about $48 from the winery) with chicken thighs pounded flat and rolled with a grated Parmesan and flour mixture (hello umami), then fried until crisp, and a green salad full of sunflower and green pea sprouts. It was a Friday night and we were feeling pretty loose.

To be really blunt and honest, as is my main resolution for this blog in 2008, even if it means being negative, I just didn't care for the wine at all this time around. BrooklynLady was seriously underwhelmed too. Why? Well for one, it bore little resemblance to the liquid that comes from pressing grapes and then fermenting the juice. It seemed totally mechanized and manipulated, so artificial. The main flavors were wood and some dark fruit, but in a candied and artificial way, and a fleeting way too, as the wood kept banging me in the mouth. It seemed to me that there was little that was natural about this wine, and that bothered me. BrooklynLady just didn't like the taste.

Okay, so far so good. No, really - it's a good thing to understand if you no longer like a certain wine, and why you no longer like it. Everyone's palate changes over time, and accepting that and learning from it is part of what makes this fun...isn't it?

8 comments:

Steve L. said...

A few years ago we spent a long weekend in Portland, just checking the place out. On one of those days we toured the wine country nearest the city--a very pleasant drive--and stopped in a tiny town called Carlton where a wine shop housed in a small, old bank building on Main Street was having a big tasting of local Pinot Noirs. I'll admit that standing there and sipping along with an enthusiastic crowd was enthralling and may have shown the wines at their best. We lugged home eight bottles, from several producers and vintages, on the plane.

Over the next few years they were all opened and consumed with meals. For my taste they were really ripe, and the oak and alcohol levels were generally very evident. This, unfortunately, brought my experimentation with Oregon wines to a close. I'll be interested to read what you think of the wines you open.

Joe said...

My palate is also changing. What scares me is I have a cellar of 550 bottles, many of which may no longer please me...be careful about inviting Joe and his wife for dinner, you just may end up with a "gift"

Brooklynguy said...

hi steve - that sounds like a nice experience, anyway. i think i may have been to that same exact tasting room in carlton. i hear you - there are a lot of heavily oaked high alc. candy ripe wines. and if you happened to be in the thick of the 2003 vintage, fugedabadit. but there are a few producers, probably more that i don't know about too, who are making really nice balanced and delicious wines. combined with a good year of weather...very good wines. these are folks who make natural wines and they really do show some consistency in terroir.

hi joe - maybe you can auction off some of the dead weight on a wine website or something. or sell to a restaurant or winebar? you are not the opnly person with this problem. maybe try craigs list or something and see if there are people out there looking to trade? i hate that too.

Joe said...

Too much effort - I'll probably just drink it in some head to head someday. This just dawned on me over the holidays, after enjoying some nice burgs and then going back to my cellar...

peter said...

I've been lucky enough to own and drink several of the Sine Qua Non Shea pinots, and though they do charge a hell of a lot, the genius of their hands is readily apparent (as it is with all their wines.) At the end of the day, there are precious few New World pinots that I still buy; even SQN doesn't begin to resemble a great burg. And Burgundy, despite its maddening unpredictability and nutty prices, is, at its best, too damn good.

Having said that, Thackrey's Andromeda is to my taste the Cali pinot to beat.

cruxsola said...

i opened an 05 Shea Estate in November, decanted for hours and still flat and unimpressing. I wonder if these Shea Pinots need more cellaring or maybe going through a "dumb phase". I have opened some 04 St. Innocents 7 Springs lately that sure aren't as good as they were a year ago.

cruxsola said...

BTW, don't give up on Oregon Pinots. There are so many good ones in every vintage. Maybe we (Oregon fans) could list some of our favorites sometime.

Brooklynguy said...

hi peter - never tried SQN, not something i figured i would enjoy. there are some oregon wines that would give you equal pleasure that a good burg gives you, different flavor profile but equal pleasure.

hey cruxsola - yeah, i am no longer a fan of Shea wines either. i prefer the st innocent shea bottling. surprised to hear about the 04 SS, although they tend to nosedive after about 2 years in the bottle right? then they come back at like age 6 or 7. i still have a half case of 02s and that's what i'm hoping for anyway. please feel free to list your favs anytime here in a comment-