Friday, November 6, 2009

Get Off Your Phone Before You Miss Oregon's Wine Country!

Call me Scrooge; I’ve just never been much of a holiday girl (my birthday’s another story, now that’s a reason to break out the bubbly!). Nativity scenes, glutinous feasts and the thoughtless wasted energy on lights, trees, useless gifts and packaging just tugs at my heartstrings in a not-so-sentimental way. But I guess it’s officially November—wineries have begun winter hours, tasting room associates have already begun their “Pinot Pairs Perfect with Turkey” preach and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that dreadful, I mean cheerful, Christmas music and festive decorations lie just around the corner. But yes, it is true Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir Roses are the perfect complement to holiday meals—they’re light and pair well with a variety of foods, especially turkey.

I chose to explore the town of Amity this week (Amity means “The City of Friendship” and you will undoubtedly feel welcomed wherever you go in this small town) and made Kristen Hill Winery my first stop. Impossible not to notice the 100+-year-old, non-native Camperdown Elm tree which looked kind of like an umbrella but more like something out of an Alice in Wonderland tale. The friendly family-owned vineyard welcomes you to “Weinstube Aberg”, which is German for the Aberg Wine Room and was originally built as a second guesthouse.

Winemaker Eric Aberg and his wife Linda lived in Germany; traveled Europe and developed a deep passion for wine. They started Kristen Hill in 1985 with only three acres and now have over 24 acres planted to vine. The winery is named for one of the four daughters, who with a wicked twist of fate, is the only daughter who doesn’t actually drink wine. Kristen Hill specializes in a wine called Fizzie Lizzie; which was a sparkling blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay with a splash of cherry for color and sweetness. Linda described it as “A party in every bottle!” I concur!

I took the party to Amity Vineyards next, located within the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, due east of Salem. Founded in 1974 by one of Oregon’s early wine pioneers, Myron Redford. Amity has won numerous accolades and in 1991 produced Oregon ‘s first sulfite-free wine. With long, commanding views of the Oregon Coastal Range, Amity Vineyards had a laid-back feeling offering a comfortable picnic area and casual tasting room.

The tasting room’s bartop was like a time capsule featuring a collection of the winery’s old labels under glass with Tasting Room Manager Jo Powell behind the bar pouring wine. She poured a fantastic and perfectly balanced 2007 Dry Gewürztraminer with aromatics of lime, pear and cardamom and some minerals that lent for a hint of texture in my mouth. Amity Vineyards is one of the few producers of Gamay noir, and it was interesting to taste a cousin of my favorite varietal Pinot noir, of which there were several. The 2007 Sunnyside Vineyard Pinot Noir unfolded like a book—revealing bright red raspberry and pomegranate at the beginning, cherries and vanilla in the middle and finishing strong and memorable with some lovely floral notes and baking spice. We finished the tasting off with their 2007 Wedding Dance Riesling, which was about as sweet as the name implies. With 4.5% residual sugar, the wine still showed citrus zest, honeysuckle and the classic petroleum aromas of aged Riesling.

On my way out, I visited with Mae Mae the dog and then took my exit to visit some of the downtown wineries.

Be careful not to blink or you might miss downtown Amity and you certainly wouldn’t want to miss Coelho Winery. Founded in 2004 by Dave and Deolinda Coelho, both of Portuguese decent, the wines reflect both the region and their heritage. Their 30-acres of vineyards are located 3.5 miles from their winery’s facility that is housed in a remodeled 1930’s building utilizing many restored original timbers giving architectural appeal. Saddle up to the large bar supported by wine barrels or relax on the sofas by the fire and soak in the warm country comfort.

Teresa Wright, Wine Server and Outside Sales Associate set out a tasting map for each flight with all the wines in separate glasses, instead of using the same glass for tasting one wine after the other. Multiple glasses can be complicated on a busy tasting room’s bar, but it was a nice touch and a great way to taste different vintages side-by-side and have the option of revisiting certain wines. A homey touch, Teresa brought out a plate of fresh bread and dried Jack cheese from Rubiano in California. Called “Pour man’s Parmesan”, the story goes that during the war, this cheese was made for the Italians who couldn’t get their imported Parmesano Regianno. It tasted plenty rich to me.

Teresa kept referring to the wines as “him or guy”, as in “I just love him” or “this little guy….” At first it really threw me, I wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about (for some reason the Seinfeld episode where Elaine starts up a conversation with Jimmy who refers to himself in the third person and she thinks he’s talking about someone else comes to mind—you should probably know, unfortunately, I’m able to boil all life’s moments down to either Seinfeld or Simpson episodes). A little slow on the uptake sometimes, the light bulb finally lit and then I just went with it, letting Teresa show me a different side to the wines. To me wine has always been very feminine (except Cab Franc which is too smoky and leathery to ever be feminine). Like boats or cars and certainly the fruit-providing plants—they’re just primarily female. But I think Teresa may have it all figured out, because truth be known, I guess I wouldn’t mind being surrounded all day by a bunch of sexy men known by sexy Portuguese names either.

Coelho means rabbit in their owner’s native Portuguese tongue, which they have cleverly and abstractly depicted in their logo. The wines have all been given Portuguese names such as Renovacao (Renewal), Apreciacao (Appreciation) and appropriately, Paciencia (Patience) for the fickle Pinot noirs. With Winemaker Brian Marcy at the helm, the wines are all very expressive of both the terrior and his style. I particularly enjoyed the 2007 Apreciacao Chardonnay which was fragrant with Meyer lemon, white peach and white flowers, layered with the taste and feel of custard with subtle accents of nuts and vanilla. The wine was perky, crisp and clean making my mind spin with thoughts of magical food pairings (did someone say crab cakes?). They had a lovely estate Pinot Noir Rose that would indeed be marvelous for Thanksgiving, especially early in the day, prior to the big meal. And three vintages of Paciencia Pinot Noir to savor, of which the 2007 was my favorite (I’m finding this vintage though labeled by critics as a poor vintage, to be more true to the varietal—lighter and elegant as opposed to the big fruity wines of 2006), with red cherry, pomegranate and cola notes, the wine was elegant with a finish of dry earth and spice. In the Portuguese fashion, of course Coelho makes Ports, and they had a 2006 “port style” dessert wine made from the Marechale Foch grape which had a gorgeous, rich, deep dark plum color and would be absolutely decadent with a variety of blue cheeses, dark chocolates and roasted nuts for dessert. I left Coelho, but not without first getting a tip on a port-reduction sauce from Teresa I which can’t wait to make, thanks Teresa!

Practically across the street, but with some current construction going on, somehow not so easy to find is Mia Sonatina. In need of some better signage, Mia Sonatina had a very casual tasting room area set up in the winery. Sales and Marketing Manager Jo Spencer claims they have something for everyone who walks in the door, and I believe she may be right. Mia Sonatina strives to make affordable wine that is region-specific but different than others because of yeast selection, varietal or blending techniques. The Pinot Noir of unknown vintage (only because I took poor notes) was still pretty tight with firm tannins, but I picked up a lot of black fruit and smoky character. The Cabernet Franc was actually my favorite, with black cherry, roasted coffee beans and a peppery finish that made it an easy food pairing – think beef (mmmmmmm, maybe with Teresa’s port reduction sauce).

Jo gave me a quick tour of the winery, introducing me to the winemaker, her husband Vern Spencer, and then treated me to a barrel tasting of Gewürztraminer that tasted like rich, thick and yummy apple/pear cider.

Though these wineries are presented in a logical order, as if I was following an organized tour, I must confess I really didn’t visit them that way. You see, when I was driving to Amity, I was trying to multi-task, talking to my mom on the phone at the same time. After blowing past the first two wineries on my scheduled tour, I actually began my tasting downtown and went backwards to the other two. So, my lesson for the day, and probably pretty obvious, is get off the damn phone! Especially while driving but definitely when touring wine country. Aside from the obvious distraction from the road and the amazing scenic beauty, cell phone calls are a bad idea when traveling in wine country, Oregon or elsewhere. It may not only derail you from your intended destination, you will probably be cut off due to a bad connection anyway. So just wait until your back in the city, sit back and enjoy the country’s lack of technology… after all, how many chances do you have to escape and just enjoy it all? Until we sip again…



6512 and growing said...

I am amazed at all the adjectives you can summon for a glass of wine. I guess this is why you are the teacher and I am the student.

Wines like sexy men with foreign names...I like it!

6512 and growing said...

I'm always intrigued and impressed by all the flavors you pick up in a glass of wine (coffee, pomegranate, lemon, vanilla, black cherry...)Where are these flavors coming coming from? I'm assuming people don't add coffee beans to their fermenting wines. Educate me please.

Tamara Belgard said...

Thank you for your most excellent question Rachel. It's actually a very complicated and scientific process which takes years of study, but I will try to offer a simple explanation as I understand it. Depending on the flavor or aroma, it's either from the grapes themselves, yeasts added during the fermentation process or has been absorbed from the oak barrels. If it's a flavor imparted by the oak, it will be dependent on how much new oak has been used when aging the wine and how heavily toasted/charred the barrels are.

6512 and growing said...

So cool that such diverse flavors can come from just a few sources, and equally cool that you can discern them!

Rhiannon - Travel Oregon said...

I'm a huge fan of Mia Sontina. Jo came to an event we had at Travel Oregon not too long ago and I loved tasting her wines.