Saturday, May 21, 2011

Helioterra: Oregon Pinot Blanc with a Northern Italian accent

You just never know when you're going to come across a really great wine.

This time I found a nifty one during...of all things...a single barrel bourbon tasting.

Yup.  I was semi-officiating...well more like sententiously a single barrel bourbon selection tasting for a sizable bunch of whiskey enthusiasts, wherein we were all tasting individual barrel samples to decide which would be selected for the final bottling, and I found myself between two winemakers.

It was hardly a choice of a rock and hard place though, because one of them was an internet wine buddy, Vincent Fritsche (he of the Vincent Wine Company here in Oregon, as well as being one of the four Guild Winemakers, also here in Oregon).  The other, as it turned out, was his partner in wine at Guild, Ann Hubatch, and also proud proprietor of her new winery debut, Helioterra.

Since several samples of bourbon (all in the name of serious science!) can make one loquacious---not that I need any lubrication for that, or so my wife frequently tells me---we all shortly found out that amidst all the many bottles of whiskey at the abounding bar, there was a bottle of Ann's Pinot Blanc.

"Aha!" said I.  Yes, I do actually say "Aha!" on occasions, and this was one of them.  A chance to continue my quest for the elusive but occasional good bottle of Pinot Blanc.  So I asked Ann whether hers was closer to a fruity California style or an earthy Alsatian style.

"Neither," she quickly replied.  "It's actually more like a Northern Italian Pinot Bianco---crisp, citrusy, lively, good acidity."  "Aha," I said again (see, I told you I say it, but usually to myself), and immediately headed over to try the Helioterra Pinot Blanc.

She was right:  decidedly Northern Italian in style, with lots of perky, zippy citrus fruit; crisp, nicely etched flavors; bright acids; a streak of green herbal (Ann said freshly shaved fennel, and I agree with her); and down deep a lovely earthiness, transmitted as both flavor and fullness in the mouth.  For the first vintage out of the gate with her new label she has a winner, a thoroughly drinkable and engaging Pinot Blanc at a nice under-$20 price.

How did she manage the crispness and the eathiness in the same wine? She fermented partly in stainless steel and partly (small partly) in wood, and blended them together!  Nicely done.  (She's also a University of Wisconsin-trained geologist, so maybe she knows stuff about getting earth in wine than us regular people do, whaddaIknow?)

Turns out the Pinot Blanc's not a one trick pony either, because once I saw the label it nudged a memory, so I went on the internet when I got home and checked---the Helioterra Syrah Columbia Valley had received some serious kudos from Palate Press, the online wine magazine I read with some regularity (basically because it's good).  You can read that review here.

So....rising star...ten year overnight phenom...puffs and points and prongs...blah blah blah.  In short, stay tuned to Helioterra, and check it out when you get a chance.  It's small production (by choice), so it may not be easy to find; but hey, nothing good is easy, right?  Make the extra effort.  You'll be rewarded.  And in this life too; you don't have to wait for that damned Rapture, which apparently keeps getting postponed anyway.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Walla Walla Buty treatment----with Champoux!

Went visiting last weekend over to Walla Walla wine country, in search of relatives, balloons, and wine.

Found the relatives, weather busted the balloon adventure---seems hot-air balloon festivals don’t work when it is heavy rain and high winds; go figure---and renewed my acquaintance with the excellent wines of Buty Vineyards.

I was supremely impressed with the entire operation last year at the World Wine Bloggers Conference held in Walla Wall.  The people, the vineyard holdings, and the wines all combined to make for a promising  future for this relatively new winery.

The rosé was a knockout, brimming with bright fruit.  The white blend of Semillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle was likewise shimmery bright and dancing with flavor.  And their red wines, both the Syrah-based and the Bordeaux variety blends, were compelling, with the epitome of the brand in their evocative “Rediviva of the Stones” releases.

This visit/tasting showed they continue on that path.  All the wines were a pleasure to taste, and there’s not a single one that wouldn’t grace any collector’s cellar or consumer’s table.

The 2010 Beast Rosé of the Stones from their promising young Rockgarden Estate Vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley (a site more reminiscent of Chateauneuf-du-Pape than anything else, with its fields of weathered river cobblestones; must have been ever so much fun to put that vineyard in!) was Grenache to the max, exploding with sweet fruit, lush and lovely and perfect for picnics and light summer fare.

The 2009 Semillon/Sauvignon/Muscadelle continued to show tight structure, with lush fruit well-restrained by acidity.  Can’t help but wonder why Semillon from Washington State isn’t raved about more; certainly the examples I’ve had over the years puts it up there with Hunter River Valley and the handful of California producers for the variety.  Suppose it’s just not a ‘sexy money grape’; more’s the shame, for it’s a grape worth focusing on, and does a fine job here of rounding out the flavor balance of this lovely white wine.

The Bordeaux blends were clamoring for attention in our tasting, though, so we hurried on to them.  First was the 2009 Merlot & Cabernet Franc from the Connor Lee and Champoux Vineyards, with purportedly the highest rate yet of Cabernet Franc in the mix.  Gorgeous wine; velvety rich and soft from the Merlot but bolstered beautifully (butifully? Sorry.) by the tobaccoey, slightly chocolatey Franc.  A lovely combination done well by winemaker Caleb Foster.

Second up was the 2008 Champoux Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon & Franc---similar to the previous, but with substantially more body;  higher acid for structure; noticeably more tannin; denser, tighter blackberry fruit; and a long, extended finish.  Short term: Merlot & Cabernet Franc.  Longer term: the two Cabernets.

There were two Rediviva reds on the tasting bar.  The 2007 Columbia Rediviva from the Phinney Hill Vineyard was excellent, but quite honestly the 2008 Rediviva of the Stones from the Walla Walla Valley was the attention-grabber here with its lush, just short of being over the top blueberry fruit contained within a Bordeaux-ish framework.

Caleb has been upfront in showing the world that the surprising blend of Syrah and Cabernet can be an altogether compelling combination, and this wine showcases exactly why that is.  The elements of Syrah are there (more in a new world ripe fruit way, admittedly) to provide fullness and a lush, rich mouthfeel; but the addition of the Cabernet is a masterstroke, adding tight structure and impressive longevity and elegance to the mix.

With the vagaries of varietal trendiness going on these days, and the ups and downs in popularity of Syrah, this combination may show the future of the Walla Walla Valley wine region: two excellent grape varieties characteristic of the region that, combined, create something truly distinctive and enjoyable.  This may just be the “Walla Walla Signature” that can vault a region into worldwide recognition.

I left with an even greater appreciation of what Caleb and Nina are accomplishing at Buty Vineyards.  I also left with some wine.  Buty remains one of the wineries to watch, from Walla Walla, Washington state and the Pacific Northwest.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cassoulet at the Kesslers 2011, Part 4

The 1998 Cote Rotie Jasmin is on the table.  At first sip it's a heady brew, firm and vigorous and full of black fruit and brambles and leather.  Should hold up well to the cassoulet.

And speaking of which, here's plates a-brimming with bean stew!

The smell is maddening, with mingled odors of duck and garlicky sausage.  Hard to resist digging in when there's cassoulet on the table.  Must. Wait.  Everybody served?  Go!

I always find it impossible to believe that BettyLu can manage to one-up herself from one year to the next.  And I end up being proved wrong once again.  This year she's upfront
about the major change: she wasn't at all happy with the quality of
the saucisse Toulouse---or would that be saucisson Toulousienne?---she was receiving from her purveyors, so she elected to go with a garlicky style of sausage this time.  It's a firmer sausage, less grainy and mealy than the Toulouse, more tightly packed, and, to me, better, with a chewier, denser texture and a more noticeable garlic flavor. I belong to the No Such Thing As Too Much Garlic Club, so that's a good thing!

Cassoulet is such a wonderful all-around soul-satisfying dish, with the beans still firm and toothy and not cooked to a paste; the succulent and chewy confit with its rich, oily flavor; and the contrasting nature and texture of the sausages.  And I love the salty, fat richness of the dish.  Speaks to the peasant in me, I guess.  Add one veggie for contrast---in this case some fresh and crunchy snap peas---and you've got a perfect meal for a frigid, damp winter day (and I don't care what the calendar says, it's winter out there still.)

The Cote Rotie is, once again and thank you Lou, a splendid match for the cassoulet.  As it opens out and responds to the flavors of the dish, it manages to keep its firmness but adds a specific soft blueberry fruit underneath--or simply reveals it, I suppose; in any case, it is there.  It is one of the more remarkable and enjoyable experiences in the world of wine and food to appreciate such an even match, where the full flavor of the food is equaled by the force and complexity of the wine.

I'm always intrigued with a great bottle of Cote Rotie:  it engages intellectually as much as viscerally. There's a touch of Viognier in this one, about 5% (and no, I can't tell that with my nose; I looked it up on the InterWeb) and I imagine there is a corresponding 'lift' to the aromas as a result.  But then, that could be my imagination more than a reality.  Whatever is at work here, it's working well.  What's not imagined but very real is the intricate complexity of the wine.

Jasmin itself is fascinating too, in the sense that the original Jasmin, who acquired the vineyards, was a notable chef in the region.  Fitting, then, that his heritage wine continues to grace fine tables and enhance fine dishes like this cassoulet.  Also fitting that the current Jasmin, Patrick, makes the wine as an assemblage of Cotes Brune and Blonde---perhaps in the way a chef would assemble and meld separate ingredients in a recipe?

Everyone makes the proper noises at this point.  Nils Venge, old Napa grape wrangler that he is, chimes in with his highest compliment, when he tells Lou, "For something that's not Cabernet, this is pretty good wine."

But of course, we know there's more in store, don't we?

When the Cote Rotie begins to run low, out comes a local wine from one of our favorite local boys (who couldn't be with us at dinner because he was living the extravagant life in New York), Edmunds St. John Syrah Bassetti Vineyards 2001, from San Luis Obispo County.

Steve isn't using this source vineyard any longer, and more's the pity for it, sez I, because this is one big herkin' lunk of a wine, if you like it that way, and it's just now beginning to show some civilization and softening around the edges, but with that same wild, untamed heart it always had.

Ten years on.  And still nothing but a gawky child.  Shame they can't make California wines that age well, innit.

Way less polished sophistication and complexity than the Cote Rotie at right this moment in comparative wine time, but still a goodly match for the cassoulet---did we mention seconds had gone around, and Kevin tends to have a heavy hand with the serving spoon?---and managing to hold its own.

But Nils did mention Cabernet, and word was he may have done a harvest or two of decent stuff back when, so Lou once again heads to his wine cellar and comes out with a bottle of Villa Mt. Eden Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley 1978.

Nils looks to be approving of this development.  He also looks impressed...although he doesn't look at all surprised to see it coming from Lou's cellar.  But then, no one gets surprised at what may come from Lou's cellar.

Once again, roll out all the tired old cliches about Napa and wines that don't age, and they don't make 'em like that anymore (except when they do).  Throw in an "alluvial plain" or "hothouse environment" for good measure.  Hard to sneer, belittle or condescend when you have a wine such as this in the glass.

Still vibrant, humming with tension, tannins softened enough to round it out and balance the still fleshy fruit, this is a raspbery and blackberry cabernet, that dark, tart fruit style that seems to have endless depth to it, sufficient acids to keep it interesting, and tannins to keep it long and lingering and ever-so-slightly bittersweet at the back of the mouth, going from berry to tobacco to herbs to cocoa dust in one unbroken line.

There's a bit of dolce going around for a pleasant little interlude; then, with a refreshed palate, it's pass the port time.  It's customary for BL to bring out the port glasses and pour, and so she does.

Fonseca Vintage Port 1977...and this makes an appropriate followup to the lovely red wines served with the cassoulet, because it has both deep blackberry and full-on licorice in excess, a fatter, sleeker, richer, more voluptuous echo of the syrah and reverberation of the cabernet.  Perfect!

I have many fond memories of the 1977 vintage, and this is one of the finest of that year, perfectly apportioned and balanced and only now beginning to reveal its treasures.  A remarkable bottle of port, and a more than fitting finish to a fabulous meal.

So the cassoulet season again comes to a pleasant close, tummies stuffed, appetites sated, good feelings all around; and even the rain has stopped, for now.  As the fortunate few of this last gathering of Cassoulet 2011 wend their way into the night, they're already already anticipating next year...