Sunday, February 21, 2016

2016 #AlsaceFest Seminars Show the Love for the Many Faces of the Four Alsatian Noble Grapes - Part 2: U.S. Dry Riesling Winemakers

More than 160 people attended the sold out educational seminar at the 2016 Alsace Festival in Boonville
John Winthrop Haeger's morning session on Riesling featured dry Riesling winemakers and wines from four different U.S. wine regions. Included were:

• Oregon
Willamette Valley: Brooks Wine (which has a Biodynamic estate; it makes a few Biodynamic estate wines)

• California - Central Coast
Santa Barbara County: Tatomer  

• Washington State
Yakima Valley, Washington: Pacific Rim (it makes two organically grown wines)

• California - North Coast
Anderson Valley, Mendocino County: Balo Vineyards

Wines from Brooks and Tatomer in the dry Riesling flight
Winemakers Chris Williams/Brooks, Greg Tatomer/Tatomer, Nicholas Quillé/Pacific Rim and Alex Crangle/Balo Vineyards

First up was Brooks Wines, which is at the forefront of the reinvigoration of Oregon Riesling.

Winemaker Chris Williams, who took over the winemaking reins when founder Jimi Brooks died (all too young in his mid 30's) to keep Jimi's winery alive, has grown from making a few Rieslings - including one Estate Riesling from old vines (dating back to the early 1970's) that Jimi loved and wanted to preserve - to today offering 14 different Rieslings from Brooks.

Chris Williams of Brooks
"We've been approached with more Riesling fruit from growers with small Riesling plantings," Williams told the audience. In response Brooks has created a single vineyard designate program that showcases these many site-specific flavors. (None are organic except for the Brooks estate vineyards). These makeup most of Brooks' 14 different single vineyard designate Rieslings.

"Two years ago we made only eight Rieslings," Williams said. "I've got one nearby farmer, Bob Bailey, who planted an acre of it a few years back. He said he'd been thinking of me when he planted that acre."

Crop levels are in the 2.5-3 tons per acre range.

Williams said the estate Riesling vines were farmed Biodynamically as early as 2002, and were certified in 2008. The winery was certified in 2015, and new vintages going forward will be bottle labeled Biodynamic Wine.  

Asked about native fermentations, Brooks said he does about a third of Brooks overall production on native yeast fermentation. (All of the wines that are certified Biodynamic Wines are - and must be -fermented on native yeasts.)


By contrast, Greg Tatomer in Santa Barbara County is not blessed with many local Riesling sources, but manages to make three different wines from his one and only source (not organic), a 1.6 acre section of a local Riesling vineyard. 

After making wine in Austria for a number of years, he follows what is a common practice there - making wine from several different passes in the vineyard, using increasingly ripened grapes in one wine (his Kick-On Riesling), while reserving less ripe grapes picked earlier for a second wine (his Vanderberg Riesling). (In addition to his two dry Rieslings, he also makes one sweet riesling from grapes with Botrytis.)

Tattooer says he hand sorts his grapes right in the vineyard. He gives credit to vineyard owner Steve Lyons for supporting Tatomer's three waves of picking. 

Riesling is making a bit of a comeback on the Central Coast, he said. "Riesling is started to get a little buzz on down here," he said, with others now competing for grapes. "That Summer of Riesling event really helped us," he said. "Every sommelier wants people to grow and drink Riesling."

Asked if one can make dry Riesling from vines with Botrytis, he said yes, that could be done. Haeger added that that practice was more labor intensive. "The tolerance for Botrytis has gone down for making dry wines," he said.


The local representative on the panel, Alex Crangle, of Balo Vineyards, a leading advocate for organic farming practices in Anderson Valley (but one who does certify his vineyards nor those of his vineyard management clients), featured Balo's wines from Wiley Vineyard (not organic), presenting two different vintages for the sake of a 2013 to 2014 comparison. 

From left to right, Greg Tatomer/Tatomer, Nicholas Quillé/Pacific Rim, Alex Crangle/Balo Vineyards
and John Winthrop Haeger

French born winemaker Nicholas Quillé, who has been the winemaker of Pacific Rim ever since it was started by Randall Grahm (who later sold it to Banfi Wines), represented the U.S.'s largest Riesling region - Washington State, where giant Chateau Ste. Michelle (CSM) is by far the biggest producer, making more than a million cases a year. CSM's "Johannesburg Riesling" style - a sweetish Riesling - "has defined Riesling in the U.S.," Quillé said. 

Pacific Rim makes a few single vineyard designate wines, including two from organic vines, which were not presented at this tasting. (Both are sweet or slightly sweet; one, Pacific Rim's dessert wine Vin de Glaciere, is quite delicious). Quillé featured two contrasting vintages of dry Rieslings from Solstice Vineyard, comparing the agreeability of the 2008 with the 2014.

Francois de Melogue's lovely food pairings

After the morning tasting, the seminar continued with a wine and food pairing menu, created by the very entertaining chef Francois de Melogue, author of a new self published cookbook called Cuisine of the Sun.

De Melogue expressed his love for Riesling as the wine that is easy to pair with food and pairs with a wide variety of dishes.

Let to right; Michael Ireland, Evan Goldstein  

The final morning session, entitled Grand Cru Grapes, Globally Interpreted, was led by MS Evan Goldstein with Michael Ireland, the former sommelier at the French Laundry. (Ireland has now started a new wine bar in San Francisco called High Treason.)

Goldstein presented a brief overview of the four noble grapes of Alsace and the criteria for the 51 Grand Cru vineyards in the region.

"Most have been recognized as outstanding from the 14th century," he said.

Goldstein characterized Alsatian wines as "wonderful expatriates," saying they show their colors well around the world where they are planted.

Their history in the U.S. goes back - way back, said Goldstein, "The first bonded winery in the U.S., in 1860, was in the Finger Lakes."

A flight of eight dry and sweet Alsatian wines circled the globe, from Chile to Michigan, and from Mendocino to Sicily.

The most surprising was a Gewurztraminer from Michigan's Old Mission Peninsula - a 2011 Manigold Farm from Left Foot Charlie - which wowed the audience.


Although this wasn't presented at the educational seminar (some of it may have been part of the Friday night Welcome Dinner which I did not attend), for most in Anderson Valley, the money's in Pinot Noir; the Alsatians, except for Navarro and a few other wineries, rarely get the limelight. Out of the county's 67 acres of Riesling, just over half - 38 acres - are in Anderson Valley.

As Haeger writes in his new book, Riesling Rediscovered, "Sadly the runaway success of Pinot Noir since the 1990s has all but eradicated Riesling from Anderson Valley, despite local winegrowers' nostalgic and symbolic attachment to what they call 'Alsace Varietals' and to the International Alsace Varietals Festival."

The original 1968 vines planted in Anderson Valley by Tony Husch are still bearing, Haeger says. The main Reisling vintner is Navarro, which makes a dry cuvee that Haeger describes as quite variable from vintage to vintage.

Elsewhere in Mendocino, Haeger mentions Cole Ranch as the source of 30 acres of Riesling, along with McFadden Vineyards in Potter Valley, a cooler valley than other inland areas closer to Ukiah, where some vines are thought to be the oldest Riesling in the county.

McFadden, which makes only organically grown wines, was not included in the morning's festivities, as they are not located in Anderson Valley and did not take a booth at the afternoon Grand Tasting.

Today McFadden's Riesling grapes are the exclusive source for Chateau Montelena's Riesling. In addition, Dashe Cellars make a single vineyard dry Riesling from McFadden's vines. In some years, McFadden makes a regular, dry Riesling and, less frequently, a lovely late harvest sweet Riesling dessert wine.

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