Friday, November 25, 2005

On The Road Again

So, the Riesling harvest is over, save a few vines waiting hopefully for exalted eiswein status. Time for a raod trip!. But first, Erni Loosen treated us to a thorough tasting of all of the J.L.Wolf and Dr. Loosen wines that his estates produce. This was followed by a fabulous St.Martin's Day feast (goose is the traditional dish) prepared by Eva Loosen - who was still welcoming after the scene we caused at her 50th Birthday the week before. The meal was paired with 15 or so wines tasted blind, starting with a 1969 Meusault-Perrieres and including some Oregon gems and rare gold capsule Loosen wines. A few days later, me and the Aussie boys and our German workmate Martin piled into the old company VW Golf and hit the autobahn with a list of phone numbers and thirst on our minds.

Firstly, we had to explore more of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region where we worked all harvest, and the neighboring Pfalz which is renowned for its dry style Rieslings. We tasted the new '05 wines with Günter, the winemaker at J.L.Wolf, and then visited the well-traveled Bernd Philippi at Koehler-Ruprecht for some '01s and '02s. The next day we were warmly received by the notoriously reticent Egon Müller at his Scharzhofberg estate in the Saar. After a chilly tour of the vineyard we sat and tasted blind through a number of wines, including a peppery 1990 spätlese and a floral, green tea 1976 spät. Egon's family have farmed the same hill for centuries, and he believes strongly that the vintage - the year - has much more influence on the wine than the terroir - or the land where it is grown. Minds slightly blown, we went to visit young gun and Bitburger Bier scion Roman 'Nivo' at his new Von Voxem estate where he throws off tradition and produces only dry white wines. Then, without so much as a quick wurst stop, we came back to the Mosel for a massive tatsing with Markus Moliter at his Klosterberg estate. Markus guided us through 17 different Rieslings created in his individualistic style - all natural yeast, on skin macerations, super long ferments and no stainless steel tanks, only wood. On a side note, Molitor holds the record for the highest Öchsele (sugar or potential alcohol) grapes in the Mosel - 331degrees (I will get a brix equiv. asap) in 2003. This would equal 800 grams of sugar for every liter of wine. My teeth hurt just thinking about it. It is still fermenting.

The following day we went back to the Pfalz and, after a great tour of the Willmes Press Fabrik, met up with Maik Ilgen. I met Maik while I was in New Zealand. He worked at Palliser Estate there, and is a winemaker in the Pfalz. He took us to visit his understated school chum Kurt at Weingut Dr. Deinhard. Deinhard is one of the old Big 3 of the region along with von Bassemann and von Bühl. We tasted '04 Rieslings from tank, along with some weißburgunder (pinot blanc) and grauburgunder (pinot gris). We followed that with a tour of Maik's current cellar at Castell Peter and a dinner of the local saumagen sausage before bedding down at J.L.Wolf. I know this is starting to read like a list, but I simply must continue.

It took us a bit longer than we anticipated to get to Alsace the next morning, so by the time we reached Bergheim the Marcel Deiss winery was closing for a typical two hour french lunch break. We soldiered on to an appointment at the Pfaffenheim Co-op which was mainly interesting for its new ten-press fully automated processing line. Then to Hugel et Fils for a tasting of one of the greatest houses in France. We were happily interrupted by Jean Hugel, the elder of the family, who spouted forth on the myriad mistakes of the New World (Australia and America) winemakers. He even had a few rough words for our Mosel friend Martin. His tirade that was softened somewhat by his wide smile and our glasses filled with Hugel's 1976 Vendage Tardive 'Grain Nobles' Riesling.

Off the next morning for Mecca = Bourgogne! The occasion was the annnual 'Vente des Vins', the auction of the wines of the Hospice du Beaune and a good excuse for a huge piss-up. Beaune is the center of Burgundy. The two growing areas - Cote du Beaune and Cote du Nuits - converge here in an old walled city simply abuzz with wine and food. The auction brings in buyers from around the world, and the mood is very festive. There is a market and a carnival and people dressed up in old-fashioned costumes. This is a Harvest Festival as well as a world-famous wine auction.

My first time in Burgundy was like coming home. Hectare after hectare of little low-slung Pinot noir vines crawl across the landscape in neat meter-by-meter rows. The landscape is broken only by the ocassional town, familiar names like Nuits St. George, Marsanny and Chambolle-Musigny. The church spires soar and the little stone clos (walls) hug the hills while the smoke from pruned vine wood fires add a misty tone and provides contrast for the acrobatic flocks of little blackbirds that reach and dive. We were greeted warmly by Erni's good mate Nicholas Potel, a local negociant. He says that the Hospice festivities are totally boring, so he throws his own party on the night before the auction. The party was anything but stuffy, and definitely not boring. Three rooms of an abandoned old building behind Nuits St. George were transformed with lights, bands, a DJ, open kitchen and long bars. I can't remember everyone I met, but most of them were like us - young wine industry folks out for a good time. The next day was for recuperation only.

We had the chance to visit quite a few wineries in Burgundy given our short time and lack of preparation. First off was Cyril Audoin at Domaine Charles Audoin. Cyril is a regular at the IPNC in Oregon, and it was good to see him in his native habitat. Marsanny has no Grand Crus (top-rated vineyards), but some are pending. Regardless, Cyril showed us that you don't need expensive land to make purfumey, rich and flavorful wines that will last. His 'Les Favieres' vineyard was a hands-down favorite. That afternoon Helene gave us a tour of the cllars at Domaine Pierre Damoy. The '04 Grand Crus out of barrel were superb. The Chambolle 'Clos Vez' was bold with plums and violets. The Chambertin was earthy, full and long. At Domaine Georges Mugneret we tasted 2004 Vosne Romanee, Nuits St. George 'Chaignots', Chambolle, Ruchottes Chambertin, a dark and evil Clos Vougeot, and Echezeaux from barrel. It was an eye-opening tour of Cote du Nuits. That afternoon , after a brief stop at the windy La Romanee vineyard, possibly he highest rated grape site in the world, we went to Domaine d'Ardhuy, where we tasted wines more in the 'international style.' Our tour was topped the next morning when Alex Seyesse tasted us through the '04s at Domaine Dujac and then surprised us with a spicy cherry1997 Clos St. Denis Crand Cru and a blind tasted 1976 Gevrey Chambertin Priemere Cru that had secondary aromas of smoke and blu cheese and a delicate orange peel finish.

With tired palates and stained teeth, we happily piled back into the Golf and headed off into the proverbial sunset. I know that I will be back in Bourgogne someday soon, and can't wait to continue this tasty exploration. Hey, the snails are good too!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Clean Slate

The western shore of the Mosel River, a busy tributary of the Rhine, are steeply banked sedimetary walls covered with a deep layer of blue and red slates. It is this slate, its southern aspect, quick drainage and the temperature moderating influence of the river, that makes the Mosel the top region for Riesling in the world. The other shore, flat and cooler, is also planted to within an inch of its life, but the grapes there don't rate anything more then good dry table wines. The king of the Mosel Riesling is the auslese, the late-picked grapes that have started to shrivel a bit, and may have some botrytis - a 'noble' rot - to add to the depth of flavor and concentration.

There is a story that has been passed down that in the olden times, the Prussian rulers would send word to the Mosel winegrowers when they deemed the time was right to harvest each year. One year, they sent their messenger out to alert the waiting farmers, but the horserider got sidetracked along the way by a few pints of good German beer. Long story short, by the time the farmers got the word to pick, the grapes had half rotted on the vine. They had no choice but to try and make wine from the ruined fruit - with now legendary results. The Spätlese Rider story may not be all true, but the history has held. The wine that results from these late-picked grapes is deep gold in color, low in alcohol, and the best have a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity that stays in your mouth long after the last swallow. Even if you don't like sweet wine, you've got to try this stuff.

Weingut Dr. Loosen owns blocks in some of the best Mosel vineyards, including the Ürziger Würzgarten (Ürzig Spicegarden), Erdener Prälat (Bishop of Erden) and Erdener Treppchen (Little Steps of Erden). These sites were deemed 'Grand Cru' in a Prussian survey of the 1860s (even before the Burgundy ranking), and although the Germans don't use a vineyard rating system, there is a movement underfoot to do so. Every ledge and crag of this land is planted to Riesling. The vines are doppelbogen (double bow, like a heart shape) pruned with no trellis and have grown for over 70 years on their own roots. (Phylloxera, a devastating root disease, cannot survive in the slate.) Our vineyard manager, Roland Orthmann, watches over them and runs a hard-working crew of Poles who do the back-breaking work of picking these hard-won grapes. I was volunteered to strap on one of the green fiberglass funnel-shaped backpacks that the strongest men wear to carry the harvested clusters down from to steep hillside. Scrambling for my footing on the loose slate, holding onto vine posts for support, I collected the carefully culled fruit and gingerly made my way down to trucks waiting at the bottom where I had to up-end the carrier over my shoulder into a big bin. It was no easy feat, and only later, when the pickers stopped laughing and pointing at me, was I told that my backpack had been only half-filled.

So, props to the mountain goat strength and balance of the men and women who nurse the Mosel vines. Because it still all boils down to the fruit. The best wines come from the best grapes. And our Keller Meister Berni Schug would be the first to agree (if you caught him in a good mood). He has been making world-class wines from these vineyards for over 20 years, using basically the same cellar techniques the whole time. It's not invasive nor manipulative of the juice. Sometimes it even borders on lax, but the eventual goal emerges every time, the true expression of these most unique of vineyards.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Land Ho!

It's hard to leave any party in the middle, when the bass is just starting to thump and upper lips are beading with sweat. But leave I must. And I did. Just before the last of the Cabernet was due in, I took leave of Mrs. Clean, The Captain, NayNay, Junior, El Rey de los Burros. They were sump deep in thrice daily pumpovers and pre-press pieage. Still working 14 hour days and eating meat between bread for every meal. I've heard from them and the Harvest finished off nicely. We brought in a total of 72 tons of fruit, 25% more than predicted, and most of the ferments were, in the fax parlance of Ms. Turley - F.F. (fuckin' fabulous).

A quick trip back to Portland to trade in my ragged t-shirts and pick up some long underwear. (A big thanks to my tolerant friends and their comfortable guest rooms.) The Oregon Harvest seemed good, though off to a slow start. Then winging on my preferred airline to The Old World (in wine speak) - Europe: Germany.

That's where I am now, just entering my second week of Vintage in The Mosel Valley. Harvest was two weeks in when I got here, so there was no time to get acclimated. I'm working for Weingut (winery) Dr. Loosen, which also includes Gebrüder (brothers) Loosen, an arm that produces less expensive wines like the 'Dr.L' Riesling that's in your local supermarket, and J.L. Wolf, an estate in the Pfalz region that has its own facilities. The winery, under Ernst (Erni) Loosen and his winemaker Bernhard (Berni) Schug, has redefined German Riesling across the globe. With more attention to vineyard sites and less manipulation in the cellar, plus endless marketing of what globetrotting Erni calls the 'Rocky Horror Riesling Show,' they have triumphed internationally both qualitatively and financially.

The wines have been made forever in a dingy cellar in Bernkastel-Kues, but this year the entire operation, offices, warehouse and bottling line included, has moved to new digs 20K west in an industrial suburb of Wittlich. That is where I'm working, and living - in a four room apartment next to the accounting ladies' offices. It's comfortable, though a bit remote and factory stark. When all the people go home at 5pm, I feel like we are little factory mice left alone in the half light to scurry about. But there's enough work to keep me and my two Aussie compatriots busy, and we can always pedal through the fields and past the steeples into Wittlich for a taste of culture and maybe a döner kebab.

The winery is impressive. We have over one hundred stainless steel tanks. Ranging from 25,000 liters (we have 11 of these) for the bulk wine, down to a wee 50 liters for the Trockenbeerenauslese - liquid gold that is treated as such. Oh yeah, there's that monster 100,00 liter tank just outside our balcony as well. Wine and juice is in constant flow here. There are three presses. Most grapes are pressed for a three hour cycle, with the green grapes for dry wine being crushed and left to macerate a bit before hitting the presses and the rest of the grapes going right in the hopper. The must (juice) goes directly from these machines to settling tanks where the next morning they are fined with bentonite and charcoal. We then add gelatine and do a floatation with nitrogen. This unique manipulation separates the juice cleanly from the schmutz. We then pump/rack the clear juice into fermentation tanks where it will be innoculated.

That's enough winespeak for now. I'm off to get some lunch before my evening shift begins. Cheers!

Monday, September 26, 2005

You've Got Merlot

I've discovered during my brief time in the wine industry, that every vintage is unique - and troublesome. The perfect year isn't perfect until it's over and we can look back at it. (And I've yet to meet one of those years). 2005 in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys is consistent with the inconsistency of grape growing. Spring was early, which led speculation of an early harvest. Late Spring rains damaged some flowers, reducing crop a bit. The Summer was perfect for setting the fruit, and the Fall seemed to follow suit with nice warm days and calm cool nights. Until now that is.

Most of the Napa fruit is still hanging from the vine while a long, unseasonal, cool spell is hanging in the skies. The plants need another hit of heat to push them to the proper sugar levels - which in Napa are usually notoriously high. This long final wait may lead to fruit that is more 'truly' biologically ripe, and lower alcohols in the final wines - A more European style if you must. What I mostly see is a lot of winemakers sitting around waiting for their grapes to come in.

Over at Blankiet this is thankfully not the case. We did wait a bit, and cleaned a little bit more, but our site in the Mayacamas toe hills is early ripening (though also later than last year) and as of yesterday the entirety of our Merlot - a grand 32 tons - is crushed. The first of our Cab sauv will roll across the tables mid-week and we may press off our first dry wine at week's end. I am especially pleased as I am expected in Germany mid-October and thought I might not get to see the whole process through.

It's been a kick to work in the World Famous Napa Valley. Wine is very serious business in these parts, and you don't take many chances with a bottle that will score 98 points and retail for over $100. It's still fun, but it's definitely different. Also different, is working for a Consulting Winemaker. Helen Turley is great (and tall and handsome and famous and humble) - she shares her thoughts freely while she works and will gladly take the time to answer our questions - when she's around. We take samples every morning from our tanks of juice and send them up to Helen's house in Calistoga along with their charts. Helen and Jon taste them, and fax their comments to the winery. There are written protocols in our manuals for additions, pumpovers, etc., and Helen's associates at Blankiet - Brian and Jeanne - are extremely capable winemakers in their own right. It's sort of a recipe, although you never know what kind of shape the ingredients (the grapes) are going to be in. Decisions about the wine are generally made only after a phone call or two.

What's the secret? There are so many of them, from the slow sorting to the splashing pumpover (just how it sounds). I think I've barely scratched the surface. That to me is one of the greatest joys of making wine. Everyday when I go to work I learn something new. And I don't know of many who can say that about their jobs, but I do wish it for everyone.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Paradise Hills

Everyday, with the morning mist still hanging over the Napa Valley, I make my way to the Mayacamas Hills of Yountville, through the archway of Domaine Chandon and onto the dirt frontage road that leads to Paradise Hills Vineyard, the home of Blankiet Estate. The track wends west, and follows the Dominus property line aquaduct back into the hills. The sloped vineyard here is planted entirely to Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot grapes - the winery produces no white wines. The Cab is planted on the north slopes, on steep ash soils covered with gravelly loam. The Merlot plantations to the south don't reach quite as high in elevation and their volcanic soils form a basin around the winery site before curving out of sight around the hill topped by the Blankiet home.

I was fortunate to be invited along on a recent pre-harvest vineyard walkthough with Jon Wetlaufer, the viticulturist who planned the plantings here, and Jaime Avina, the vineyard manager. We walked the rows, choosing different aspects of all of the various blocks. While Jon's wife, Helen Turley, was conducting a baseline sampling for sugar (brix) levels and acidity (pH), we surveyed the vines for signs of stress, vigor, defficencies. The general idea is to allow the vine just enough growth to ripen just enough fruit - around 3lb. per vine in this case. This can be achieved through fertilization, irrigation, canopy management and a variety of other methods. The best and least laborious method, is to choose the right vine with the right rootstock planted in the right spot. This may sound simplisticly obvious, but we are still sorting out how to do this consistently. Much relies on vine spacing - Paradise Hills is planted 1m (3ft) between vines and 2m (6ft)between rows. The close-planted Abel block at Escarpment was more like 1mx1.2m and most of the tractor-farmed Sauvignon blanc in NZ is 2mx3m.

We expect the first fruit will cross the sorting table of our virgin destemming line sometime at the end of this week. Then we'll find out if we've forgotten anything while setting up this brand new winery. I'm looking forward to getting my mitts on my first Bordeaux varietals. And getting to the job of making some wine.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Greetings From Planet Napa

It's still hard to believe that I'm here in Napa California. One day I was just kicking around in Portland, catching up with dear friends, dog and housesitting, getting ready for my Fall trip to Germany. Next day, I'm hauling down the highway (Hi 5, thanks Jean-Jacques) to a room I found on Craig'sList and a job I applied for on a lark. I'm really very happy to be here. It's great to be near family and old friends, and to be exploring the Northern California wine regions. Not to mention the winemaking.

The primary winery that I am working for is named Blankiet Estates. The past vintages were made at a custom crush facility called The Napa Wine Co., a slightly worn tank farm on the corner of Highway 29 and the Oakville Cross Rd. This year we'll be making the Blankiet wines at the new winery up in the hills behind Dominus Estate, just west of Yountville. They've dug out 6,000 sq. ft. of caves and are currently buliding a 6,000 sq. ft. winery in front of them. So, we'll be making wine in a construction site - should be a challenge.

I'll write more about that soon. Just let it be known that I'm having a good time down here. There's lots of cool toys around the winery for their poor Oregonian cousin to gawk at. My room is nice enough - my windows look out at a riesling vineyard, and, if I crane my neck, Bob Mondavi's Hill. I haven't received my invite for coffee and scones from him yet.

Gotta go before the librarian gets mad at me.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Time For A New Map

Well, that's it for the Antipodes for now. I will be getting pics up on my later entries real soon. I'm off to Napa Valley now for two months making Cabernet and Merlot in Yountville. I'm excited to be working with some different varietals and some highly regarded winemakers. I'm also looking forward to exploring California's most respected wine region - it's been a long time and I've so much to learn.