Sunday, 3 August 2014

US Pinot Masterclass

The countdown has begun - only 1 month until I arrive in Canada for my second vintage experience of 2014!

Part of the preparation for my trip has been to start tasting some wines from North America. Luckily, Grand Cru Wineshop and Cellar were holding a US Pinot Noir Masterclass. Now, I know this might sound irrelevant, as I am actually going to be working in Canada; but where I will be working is only 13km north of the US border. Plus, my husband and some other close friends will be joining me on a two-week trip through American wine country from Seattle to San Francisco, so some research into which wineries to visit was a compulsory prerequisite.

Reproduced from wine blog: Mumu les Vignes
Grand Cru Wineshop often holds wine education events, but I have never been able to attend before, so that alone was quite exciting. The host for the night was Stephen Naughton, who is the Managing Director of Pinot Now, a leading Australian importer of rare pinot varietal wines from both Old and New world regions. Since founding the company, Stephen has developed a reputation as Australia's leading figure on US Pinot, in particular wines from Oregon.

Grand Cru Cellar
Walking down the steps at the back of the wine shop into the cellar was like stepping back into an old Spanish bodega. The room is dimly lit in the corners, with each wall housing a beautiful display of wines. I surely could have spent hours in there perusing the racks. Each of the sixteen guests had a beautifully presented tasting mat waiting for them upon arrival, with all ten wines poured and labelled. There was also a lovely spread of salumi, olives and Italian breads to keep our palates sharp during the course of the tasting.

Tasting Table
The tasting format for the evening was fairly informal, with the ten wines being tasted across four brackets, guided by Stephen. He did not give away too much before we jumped into our analysis of each bracket, leaving his commentary for after we had tasted and provided feedback. Although there were a few distractions from people commencing their vinous discussions whilst others were trying to concentrate on tasting, I guess at least everyone was enthusiastic.

We kicked off with a grape variety I had never encountered before - Auxerrois (pronounced ox-e-wa). The winery of origin, Adelsheim Vineyard is a pioneer of the Oregon wine region, planting their first Willamette Valley vineyards in the early 1970s. The wine was highly acidic, with flavours of grapefruit and lemon pith and had some lovely floral aromatics. Interestingly, as it sat in our glasses, a hint of musty blue cheese flavour developed.

Next was a Chardonnay from La Crema. This is one of the larger players on the Oregon winemaking scene, with extensive vineyards across the subregions of the area. Stephen slipped two of their wines into the lineup to give us an idea of what larger-scale Chardonnay and Pinot production looks like. The Chardonnay had bold oak, woodiness and very little fruit. It was rich, full-bodied and creamy, so I can see why many Chardonnay drinkers would be happy to sit back with a glass, however there was little fruit or acidity left to support further aging of the wine.

abbreviated version of my tasting notes

The La Crema Pinot had a little more happening for it, however I again found that it was ready to drink now, as opposed to the King's Ridge Pinot Noir we tasted alongside it. There was toasty oak, ripe red fruit and pepper, in contrast to the chalky, smoky cherry flavours present in the King's Ridge (which I think will last longer).

I thoroughly enjoyed the third tasting bracket, as there were two wines from the same producer and one from another winery which they also part own. Thus, it was the different vineyards and vintages speaking from the glasses. Although you will see in my tasting notes below that I rated the Chehalem 3 Vineyard lowest, I think it is just biding its time and will become more expressive in coming years.  It definitely has the acidity and fruit there to last.

There were some interesting tidbits to learn from the fourth bracket. Beaux Freres is co-owned by revered and controversial wine critic Robert Parker who, Stephen commented, has been excellent in his media impartiality when it comes to the winery. I was very impressed with the characteristics and expression of this wine and would definitely kick back next to the fire with a glass (if I could afford/justify the price tag!). The Ponzi wines are the brainchild of Dick Ponzi, who was originally a rocket scientist, worked for NASA, then moved on to design many of the rides at Disneyland before following his passion for wine! Unfortunately, my sample (along with a few others) was cloudy in the glass - I had picked up a whiff of 'salami' which was a bit odd! Therefore, I have not ranked this wine but instead have mentioned the 'bonus' wine from Haden Fig that Grand Cru were considerate enough to provide us to make up for the issue.

After we had tasted through all the wines, Stephen gave us a quick climatic overview of the Willamette Valley. Being a marginal climate, there is significant reliance on rain arriving at the right time (it is often too close for comfort to harvest!) and also relies upon a natural wind tunnel to moderate the temperature. 

His tips for best vintages in recent times were interesting. Supposedly the winemakers consider 2011 as being one of the greatest yet, as it was a cooler year, allowing them to come closer to their ultimate goal of finesse and elegance of expression. On the other hand, he is fairly certain the wine press are on the verge of proclaiming 2012 as the 'Best Vintage Ever'. This was a much warmer year and, although the wines may have more power and intensity in their youth, he does not think they will stand the test of time as well as the 2011s will. Prior to that, you will not find much 2010 wines from the region, as there was a significant issue with 'bird ravage', however 2008 and 2009 were considered excellent vintages.

Although US Pinot is a limited commodity in Western Australia, Grand Cru Wineshop holds the largest range, with over 40 labels available. So if you are interested in branching out from your usual Central Otago or Burgundy Pinot, or you are keen to find a more affordable option, it's definitely worth a look in.