Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Chrismas Spirit's Alive in Oregon Wine Country

Oh the weather outside is frightful, but wine tasting is still so delightful. Since you’ve no place to go, let them pour, let them pour, let them pour wine for you. Yes, with a little forethought and planning, wine tasting during not-so-idyllic weather can be the perfect outing. However, on days when the rain, ice or snow is coming down (yes, it actually does all three in Portland… sometimes at once), I tend to avoid the back-country dirt roads that turn into seas of mud and lakes of quicksand, preferring to access those tasting rooms situated along paved roads. I know, it doesn’t sound as romantic, but again, with a little planning, you’ll be amazed at the winter wine tour you could arrange.

Tying Portland to Willamette Valley wine country is the Highway 99 corridor. The Yamhill County sign is the first indication that you’ve left the big city and civilization behind and entered Oregon’s wine country. Immediately past that sign, and just shy of the town of Newberg, is the very first winery you come to along this stretch… August Cellars. I’ve driven past it over a hundred times and yet never stopped. Many years ago, I heard a bad guest review (from someone I respect), which I sadly let influence my decision to visit. I’m glad my quest finally brought me there because it was nothing like I had imagined. The winery’s structure is immediately impressive with what must be 50-foot-high ceilings and rustically urban cement and wood all around. It took over two years to complete the gravity flow facility, which was finally opened for production in 2005 and is now home to six boutique wineries producing small lots of wines. In fact, each winery has their own individual cellar for aging and crafting wines. The real unique thing about August Cellars’ tasting room is their tasting flight changes every week, so guests could stop by frequently and always taste something new and can taste a sampling of these small producers as well. The owners, the Schaad family, don’t have any vineyards planted, but do have 20 acres of farm with Italian walnut and prune orchards (the walnuts are for sale in the tasting room and are amazing… fresh and not bitter at all).

August Cellars produces some interesting wines, which John poured for me in their loft-style tasting room. The 2007 Riesling had amazing aromatics, but I took special notice of the 2007 Pinot Noir Oregon Oak Barrel Select, aged in Oregon White Oak barrels made by a local cooper in McMinnville. I’ve heard some winemakers experiment with the Oregon barrels, blending them with French Oak, but this is the first “All Oregon” wine I’ve personally seen—Oregon fruit, Oregon winemaker, Oregon production and Oregon Oak barrels… fantastic. The wine was a lovely lighter style, but perceptibly complex at first smell. It made its grand entrance, swirling with sweet cherry pie, juicy plums, soft vanilla, and it ended with a deep bow of exotic and spicy cinnamon. Also of particular appeal was the 2004 Pinot Noir Aubre Vert Vineyard; the only Pinot noir August Cellars produced from grapes actually located within their Chehalem Mountain AVA (American Viticultural Area). It was a worthy ambassador of the region… big, dark and a bit jammy with rich and earthy aromas of fig and cocoa (one of my most favorite combinations) and an explosion of wild black raspberries, black plum and vanilla filling my eager taste buds. This wasn’t your classic “pair with salmon” Oregon Pinot… though delicious, it would perhaps hold up better with heavier foods like meats, pastas and stews. While I’d passed by August Cellars countless times without stopping, the next winery on my tour I had visited prior, and it figured both warmly and prominently in my memories.

Conveniently located just a half-mile or so down the highway is Rex Hill which is built around the carefully preserved original fruit and nut drying facility. On my initial visit to Rex Hill, my six-month-old son sleeping in heavenly peace next to my husband and I while I consumed and enjoyed my first few post-pregnancy sips of wine. Memories alone can be intoxicating—but back to Rex Hill in the present day.

Open Rex Hill’s magnificently hand-carved wooden cellar door and enter into an arena where, in addition to sipping premium wine, you can also learn to hone your sniffing skills by studying and identifying individual smells around Rex Hill’s essence table. Imagine a circle of glasses, each filled with a unique essence… raspberries, rose petals, lavender, clove, ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, and even moist earth and wet stones sharpen your sense of smell and educate your palate. I’ve seen some experts describe a wine’s aroma as cat pee… I’m glad they didn’t have that essence. Tasting Room Associate Hugo Gutierrez admits the table’s not easy to maintain, but appreciates how uncommon it is and recognizes the importance of having an accessible yet serious wine education component within the tasting room.

A warm fire cozied up the tasting room’s intimate seating area adjacent to the central bar where Hugo and I engaged in a meaningful conversation about freelance writing and his passion to bridge the weak relationship between the wine and the Hispanic communities. All the wines were tasting quite good, but Rex Hill makes a number of single vineyard designates that really shine. That day I tasted a 2006 Rex Hill Jacob Hart Pinot Noir that was focused and well balanced with lush red fruit, floral rosehips and a rich, dark, moist earthiness underneath it all. The supple round tannins lent that silky feel as the wine slid gracefully across my tongue, almost sneaking down my throat. Rex Hill (owned by A to Z wineworks) biodynamically farms 17 acres of Pinot noir and keeps one row of Muscat that is tended to by the staff. Each staff member adopts a few vines and tends to them throughout the growing season ensuring everyone has a connection to the plant and to the earth.

Well, the weatherman was wrong again (surprise), the expected ice and snow never came and I was easily able to continue on my quest to conquer Newberg in a day. At the Dark Horse Wine Bar (offering new tasting flights each week), I tasted cult favorite Sineann Wines, some older wines from Medici Vineyards as well as some exciting Merlots, Cabernets and Zinfandels from Ferraro Cellars. Another easily accessible downtown winery worth stopping in even if the weather is good is Chehalem. The visually interesting tasting room’s set in a refurbished automotive repair shop from the 1940’s with massive, old-growth Douglass Fir beams juxtaposed against updated bright colors and modern fused glass art. The wines were stellar, and being in the mood for a good white, I found one in the 2008 INOX Chardonnay. Stainless steel fermented and stunning with a crisp, not overly tart citrus fruit flavor coming through. It was a great evening sipper all on its own, though it did pair perfectly with my husband’s charming company.

This particular wine tour taught many lessons, some of which I thought I already knew. First off, and almost obvious, I was reminded to have an open mind about everything and always form my own opinions. Secondly, I learned to never listen to the weatherman when planning my day (Did I really need to learn that lesson again?). Lastly, and most importantly though, it got me thinking about the hectic holiday season. Between the shopping and the parties, it’s easy it is to lose track of the real yuletide message. So, while I’d love to ask Santa for a trip to someplace warm and tropical, a good stable job or the Cellar Crawl Collection (Five winemakers, five barrels, five vineyards… 25 different expressions of Pinot noir!), all I really want for Christmas (if I celebrated Christmas) is peace—for me, for you and for the rest of the world. So have yourselves a merry little Christmas—and a glass of wine. Until we sip again…



Anonymous said...

That dark horse wine bar sounds cool! How far down 99W are they. In inlaws live in Tigard and I'm always needing an excuse to escape.

Josh @nectarwine

Sip with Me! said...

Hey Josh, Good to hear back from you. Dark Horse is right off 99W in downtown Newberg, 15-20 minutes from Tigard - and a perfect escape. If you're lucky, one of the propriators from Medici (Hal) or Ferraro (Dick) will be there. They could entertain you with both there wines and their HUGE personalities!!

6512 and growing said...

What would you recommend with a hearty elk stew?

Sip with Me! said...

Oh my Rachel… thoughts of your hearty elk stew have me salivating!! Very easy to pair, think big and red! Cabernet Sauvignon would be great (even a Cab/Merlot blend would work well) a Zinfandel or Malbec would be yummy and even a fuller bodied Oregon Pinot Noir would be amazing. So wish I could come join you at your table! Happy holidays to you and the fam!!