Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
October 2004 The Alchemy of Riesling
Winemaking often seems like alchemy, a magic process by which grapes are coaxed into revealing the very secrets of the Earth: flavors of stone, wood, exotic fruits or flowers - and the hidden memories of one's soul: the forgotten scent of a love lost long ago or the touch of the breeze on that distant day when life's cares last melted away.
Jimi Brooks took the alchemy metaphor seriously when he created his own eponymous label of Oregon wines. A woodcut of a dragon taken from an alchemy book became his emblem; he put the alchemy symbol for sulfite on the back label and stamped the symbol for soil on the top of his corks. He bought grapes from vineyards farmed organically or according to biodynamics, the somewhat mystical theory that goes beyond organic farming to embrace the rhythm of the Earth, sun and moon.
"I like the whole concept of turning more ordinary things (grapes) into more precious and complex objects (wine)," Brooks told me in an e-mail exchange in July, when I contacted him for an article about a small group of Oregon winemakers who were banding together to save old-growth Riesling and promote the varietal as a "serious" wine.
Brooks' Rieslings are indeed serious. They burst with ripe flavors of stone fruit (peaches, apricots) with a hint of cake spice and a long, luscious finish that should shame anyone who dismisses this grape as frivolous sugar-water for neophytes.
Unfortunately, the alchemy of life itself can be cruel. Jimi Brooks died in early September of a massive heart attack. He was 38 and only beginning to hit his stride as a winemaker with his own label and with Maysara.
The effort to promote Oregon Riesling, though in its infancy, continues. Led by Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem Vineyards, the group now includes Myron Redford of Amity Vineyards, Rollin Soles of Argyle Winery, Brian O'Donnell of Belle Pente, Adam Campbell of Elk Cove, Jay Somer of of Hollaren and Paul Pujol of Lemelson. These Riesling renegades have been combing the state for patches of "old" Riesling vines (from the late 1960s or early 1970s, when the Oregon wine industry was in its infancy) and making sure the growers don't graft over or replant to more commercial varietals such as Pinot Noir or Chardonnay.
Then they apply the same techniques that have brought Oregon success with Pinot Noir: stripping leaves in the fruiting zone, green harvesting to reduce yields, and special attention to trellising. In the winery, the emphasis is on using different yeasts to draw out desired characteristics in the wine and keeping lots separate to allow them to express their individuality instead of blending them into a homogenous common denominator.
"Because Riesling can reflect terroir, we need to respect the differences we see from block to block or vineyard to vineyard instead of pouring it into a 5,000-gallon tank," Peterson-Nedry says. "Pinot Noir has taught us a lot that works for Riesling as well."
These techniques produce full-bodied wines with more alcohol and heft than most German examples, redolent with white fruit flavors and impressive complexity. They are not as crisp and citrusy as the Finger Lakes Rieslings I wrote about in WineLine No. 44, but they do have some muted mineral-oil flavors (a characteristic of the grape, though I would not describe it as "petrol" or "diesel" as some do, at least in young wines that are made properly).
Peterson-Nedry describes his ideal Riesling as a wine "to knit one's brows over," rather than a simple quaff for the blue-hair crowd or pool-side loungers. It's serious wine, at a serious price - some of these wineries are marketing their Rieslings in the $20 range.
"Riesling is in my mind at least the most noble of the white varietals, and it reflects so well the elegance, delicacy and complexity great wine should have," he says. His group hopes to correct "misperceptions" in the consumers' minds, because "people don't take Riesling seriously, and they should."
So far, this small group of winemakers is resisting any slick marketing gimmicks, most notably a name analogous to the "Rhone Rangers" who promoted Rhone varietals in California. For now they are relying on the wines themselves to spread the word, as it were, that Oregon Riesling is ready for the limelight.
When Jimi Brooks began making Riesling in 1998, he had to convince the growers to take him seriously. "I had to pay a lot of money for a ton (of grapes) so the growers wouldn't rip it out and plant Pinot Noir," he told me. "I figured if I couldn't sell it, I could drink it. My cellar's full of Riesling."
Due to his untimely death, Jimi Brooks may be remembered as a "what if" when the history of Oregon wine is written. Unless, that is, someone stumbles upon his cellar full of 1998-2003 Riesling and sets the record straight.
Here are my notes from tasting some Rieslings from these wineries now on the market:
Amity Vineyards 2001 Oregon Dry Riesling ($12). Amity has been making Riesling since 1976, and the experience shows in the nice balance of fruit and acidity. This is beginning to show some age as the mineral flavors emerge, but there's plenty of roasted stone fruit underneath.
Brooks 2003 Willamette Valley Riesling (n/a). Gorgeous, lush, full and ripe, featuring peach, apricot and a hint of jasmine with a long, opulent finish. From an unusually ripe vintage for Oregon.
Brooks 2003 "Ara" Riesling ($25). Fruity and full with aromas and flavors of tree-ripened peaches, apricots, with an undercurrent of raspberries. There's structure and acid on the finish, with some mineral oil characteristic to give added body. This wine picks up on virtually any flavor note in a dish and magnifies it. Bravo!
Chehalem 2003 Willamette Valley Dry Riesling Reserve ($17). Taut, dry, tightly wound and structured, this will appeal to lovers of dry German Rieslings. The stone fruit flavors are there, but they remain in bondage, straining for release with some bottle age.
Elk Cove Vineyards 2003 Willamette Valley Estate Riesling (n/a). Tight nose, with hints of cream, apple and pear; zesty acidity with lime and grapefruit flavors, soft texture. This will benefit from 1-2 years aging.
Lemelson Vineyards 2002 Adria Vineyard, Willamette Valley Dry Riesling (n/a). (The winery's Web site reports the 2003 is already sold out at $17 per bottle.) At 14.1% alcohol, this wine scared me. Yet it showed attractive orange blossom and citrus fruit (not zest) flavors, soft texture, good acidity and a medium-long finish. The weight from the alcohol is most likely a factor of the vintage.
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Dave McIntyre is Wine Editor of Foodservice Monthly, a trade publication for the restaurant industry in the mid-Atlantic region. His writings have appeared in Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Washington Life, Capital Style, the newsletters of the American Institute of Wine & Food, Decanter.com, Sidewalk.com and WineToday.com, among other publications. He has appeared on radio on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show and on WTOP's "Man About Town" segment. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food. Dave McIntyre's WineLine is archived on Robin Garr's WineLoversPage.com. E-mail Dave at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.