90+ scores from Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. Tasty praise from great writers. Stories that make us blush.
10 Big, Heavy Reds to Drink While you Hide Under a Blanket
Recommended Reds to Stay Warm
El Enemigo 2014 Gran Enemigo Chacayes Single Vineyard Cabernet Franc (Mendoza); $120, 94 points.
El Enemigo winemaker/owner Ale Vigil is the master of Cab Franc in Mendoza, and this wine tops the charts. After some heat on the nose blows off, chili powder, leather, black-olive and black-fruit aromas settle in. This feels grabby and intense, while roasted, spicy black-plum and blackberry flavors are initially aggressive on the finish before turning more exotic and complex. Drink through 2026; contains 15% Malbec. Editors’ Choice. —Michael Schachner
Far Niente 2014 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $160, 94 points.
Sourced largely from the Martin Stelling Vineyard, this is a supple, soft wine, with refined tannins. A zippy nose of rose and spice scents paves the way for more powerful leather saddle, cedar and black tea elements. Its fruit is wild and brambly, recalling blackberry and dark cherry with enviable succulence. Editors’ Choice. —Virginie Boone
Sottimano 2014 Cottà (Barbaresco); $55, 93 points.
This wine’s iris, perfumed berry, truffle and baking spice aromas emerge in the glass as it opens, along with a whiff of crushed herb. The structured, elegant palate shows ripe Marasca cherry, vanilla and mocha flavors alongside fine-grained tannins and bright acidity. Drink 2019–2029. —Kerin O’Keefe
Cowhorn 2013 Reserve Syrah (Applegate Valley); $75, 92 points.
Black as coal, with a heavy, smoky, meaty nose, this is one of a growing number of excellent biodynamic Syrahs from Oregon. It marries tangy acids to chewy red and blue fruits, with streaks of coffee liqueur and caramel latté. Half was whole-cluster fermented, and it all spent time in 50% new French oak. —Paul Gregutt
Columbia Crest 2015 Grand Estates Syrah (Columbia Valley (WA)); $12, 91 points.
The aromas in this wine pop, with notes of dried herb, plum, vanilla and smoked meat. It brings a compelling sense of texture, coating the palate from end to end with exquisitely balanced fruit and savory flavors. It’s a knockout at this price. Best Buy. —Sean Sullivan
Four Vines 2014 Old Vine Zinfandel (Lodi); $13, 91 points.
This beautiful wine has aromas as ripe as dried figs, flavors as deep as blackberries falling off the vine, and a welcoming, broad texture that begs for another sip. While full bodied, it’s easy to relax into. Best Buy. —Jim Gordon
Garage Wine Co. 2014 Lot #61 San Juan de Pirque Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $39, 91 points.
Blackberry and raspberry aromas are spicy but mostly focus on good fruit character. This wine is evenly balanced, with firm tannins and bright acidity. Spicy, chocolaty flavors of black fruits finish with a not-too-forceful dash of brown sugar. Drink through 2024. —M.S.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2015 Indian Wells Merlot (Columbia Valley); $18, 90 points.
Barrel aromas are at the fore, with notes of vanilla, cocoa and milk chocolate out in front of blackberry and black cherry. The palate also mixes fruit and barrel, showing pleasing depth of flavors and intensity along with a silky texture. —S.S.
Mendel 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendoza); $25, 90 points.
Ripe aromas of cassis, prune and brandied black cherry indicate the concentration on this Cabernet. A palate that doesn’t hold back is jammy but a bit heavy. Ripe berry, toast and charred flavors take on a chocolaty note on the finish. This wine is all about full extraction and big fruit. Drink through 2022. —M.S.
And finally, if you really don’t want to have to brave the outside weather all the weekend, it’s never a bad idea to opt for the box.
Vin Vault NV Cabernet Sauvignon (California); $20/3 L, 88 points.
This may be the most serious California boxed wine on the market, showing great flavor concentration and an appetizing texture that’s laced with fine-grained tannins. It has a deep red-black color, blackberry and dark chocolate aromas and a lip-smacking finish. Best Buy. —J.G.
Cowhorn 2013 Reserve Syrah, 92 Points, $75
Black as coal, with a heavy, smoky, meaty nose, this is one of a growing number of excellent biodynamic Syrahs from Oregon. It marries tangy acids to chewy red and blue fruits, with streaks of coffee liqueur and caramel latté. Half was whole-cluster fermented, and it all spent time in 50% new French oak.
Cowhorn 2015 Reserve Viognier, 93 Points, $50, SOLD OUT
These biodynamic grapes, fermented with native yeasts, spent three months in 40% new French oak. It’s built like a precision watch, ticking off complete and balanced varietal flavors of citrus rind and juice, with light touches of fresh herb, lemon verbena and a delicate hint of vanilla.
Cowhorn 2016 Spiral 36, 92 Points and Editor’s Choice, $28
This is a co-ferment (with native yeast) of 45% Viognier, 30% Marsanne and 25% Roussanne. Exceptional details and mouth-pleasing textures lend extra pleasure throughout this Rhône white blend. Green melon, cucumber and tart tropical fruits carry the succulent and refreshing palate on through a deep dive into an immaculate finish.
Cowhorn 2015 Marsanne Roussanne, 91 points, $35
Bright straw. Aromas of nectarine pear nectar yellow plum and pungent flowers carry a hint of white pepper in the background. Concentrated yet lively on the palate offering expansive orchard and pit fruit flavors that are given a refreshingly bitter edge by a zesty lemon pith note. Clings with impressive tenacity on the silky finish which leaves a note of candied violet behind.
Cowhorn 2015 Viognier, 91 Points, $35
Pale gold. Highly perfumed incisive aromas of ripe lime white peach and white flowers lent vivacity by a chalky mineral element. Concentrated yet lithe and nervy on the palate offering intense citrus and pit fruit flavors and hints of honeysuckle and white pepper that gain strength as the wine opens up. Shows impressive tension and cut on the bright finish and leaves behind a suave floral note.
Cowhorn 2015 Spiral 36, 90 Points, $28
Pale gold. Aromas of ripe orchard fruits tangerine honeysuckle and minerals plus a hint of sweet butter in the background. Juicy and expansive on the palate offering concentrated Meyer lemon pear and melon flavors given spine by a vibrant mineral undertone. Displays very good clarity and spicy thrust on a long sappy finish that shows no rough edges.
Cowhorn 2013 Syrah 21, 92 Points, $45
Vivid ruby. A highly perfumed complex bouquet evokes black and blue fruits candied flowers smoked meat and incense plus hints of Indian spices and earth in the background. Sweet and expansive on the palate offering intense black raspberry and blueberry flavors that pick up a suggestion of cracked pepper as the wine opens up. Powerful but surprisingly lithe finishing sappy and very long with sneaky tannins framing the juicy berry fruit.
Cowhorn 2013 , Syrah Sentience 92 Points, $55
(40 percent new oak) Lurid ruby. Vibrant dark berry cherry and licorice scents hint at olive vanilla and woodsmoke in the background. Appealingly sweet blackberry spicecake and floral pastille flavors are energized by a spine of juicy acidity. The spicy quality drives a very long sappy finish that’s given shape by silky even tannins. There’s a distinctly Old World quality to this wine’s structure and texture but the fruit is all Oregon.
Cowhorn 2014 Marsanne/Roussanne, 90 Points, SOLD OUT
Green-hued straw. Fresh tangerine and Seckel pear scents are complemented by suggestions of honeysuckle and lime zest. Juicy and sharply focused on the palate offering bitter citrus pith and pear skin flavors and a deeper suggestion of honey that comes up slowly. Shows very good clarity and lift on the long minerally finish which echoes the pear and lime notes. This wine shows uncommon energy for such a blend from the New World where most examples are on the weighty side.
Cowhorn 2014 Viognier, 90 Points, SOLD OUT
Light yellow. Vibrant mineral-tinged aromas of ripe citrus and orchard fruits along with notes of jasmine and candied ginger. Sappy and seamless on the palate offering juicy nectarine and pear flavors and a subtle touch of fennel. In an ample but lively style delivering strong closing punch and very good subtly spicy persistence.
Cowhorn 2014 Spiral 36, 90 Points, SOLD OUT
Bright straw. Zesty sharply focused citrus and orchard fruit scents are complemented by suggestions of white flowers and dusty minerals. Tangy and precise on the palate offering fresh lemon and quince flavors and a hint of melon. Quite restrained given the blend showing no excess fat and strong back-end cut. Finishes minerally and long featuring building spiciness and repeating florality.
Cowhorn 2013 Reserve Viognier, 92 Points, SOLD OUT
Vivid gold. Deep-pitched citrus and pit fruit aromas show excellent clarity and suave floral and smoky mineral flourishes. Silky and concentrated offering intense nectarine orange honey and candied ginger flavors lifted and given spine by juicy acidity. Plays richness off vivacity with a deft hand and finishes very long and sappy featuring resonating florality and a hint of fennel.
Cowhorn 2013 Viognier, 91 Points, SOLD OUT
Light green-tinged yellow. Ripe expansive orchard and pit fruits and a touch of honey on the seductively perfumed nose. Densely packed but lithe offering mineral-tinged nectarine pear nectar and tangerine flavors that show excellent clarity and a sexy floral nuance that builds with air. The floral and mineral qualities carry smoothly through a sappy subtly spicy finish which hangs on with impressive persistence. I really like the balance of heft and vivacity here.
Cowhorn 2011 Syrah 42, 92 Points, SOLD OUT
Brilliant ruby. Highly expressive spice-accented blackberry cherry compote and incense aromas pick up a smoky nuance with air. Shows impressive depth and vivacity on the palate offering appealingly sweet black and blue fruit and violet pastille flavors and a touch of five-spice powder. Stretches out and becomes more lively with air picking up a peppery quality that carries through the impressively long subtly tannic finish.
Cowhorn 2011 Syrah Sentience, 91 Points, SOLD OUT
Deep ruby. Powerful mineral-driven dark berry licorice and violet scents along with smoke and cola accents in the background. Gently sweet blackberry cherry and floral pastille flavors are given spine and sharpened by a smoky mineral quality. Fine-grained tannins firm a very long focused finish that leaves bitter cherry and cracked pepper notes behind.
Cowhorn 2012 Reserve Syrah, Applegate Valley, $75
94 Points, Cellar Selection
Sleek and sappy, this was fermented with native yeast and aged nine months in 50% new French oak. There’s a spine of iron keeping it a bit stiff and compact, with concentrated fruit flavors of crème de cassis. Still young and slightly grapey, it’s best to cellar it a few more years, for a drinking window of 2020 to 2030.— P.G. (8/1/2016)
Cowhorn 2014 Reserve Viognier, Applegate Valley, $50
94 Points, Editor’s Choice
All biodynamically raised estate fruit comprises this marvelous Viognier, which spent four months in 40% new French oak. The full-bodied, perfect ripeness mixes apple, pear and apricot, with a gentle kiss of caramel from the short-term barrel aging. The length and balance set the standard for top-flight domestic Viognier.— P.G. (8/1/2016)
Cowhorn 2013 Grenache 21, Applegate Valley, $28
93 Points, Editor’s Choice
This stellar wine has a huge yum factor. Deliciously ripe and spicy, it’s loaded with cranberry and raspberry fruit. There’s an underlying tang of pink grapefruit acidity, along with aromatic highlights of violets and rose petals. Drink now through 2022. — P.G. (8/1/2016)
“To be honest, I am still waiting to be totally convinced that Southern Oregon can become a major player in the wine scene, though if it can produce fermented grape juice like the quality at Cowhorn, then it should have no problem. Like last year, winemaker and co-proprietor Barbara Steele came to see me at my tastings held in McMinnville. She is a very direct and tenacious winemaker, poring over my previous notes, asking plenty of questions about my observations. She is clearly very principled in terms of winemaking that concentrates upon Rhône varieties, the vines certified biodynamic by Demeter, partial whole cluster use, native yeast ferments and prudent use of new oak. And I have to say, I really admire the style of these wines that are some of the best for this part of Oregon: clean, focused, complex and full of personality. Moreover, for their quality I consider them exceptionally well priced. Perhaps my only quibble is that I find the numbering on the label confusing. (It refers to the number of frost hours suffered during the years, which is interesting, but maybe lost on some consumers?) Still, most of their current releases come highly recommended.”
2014 Marsanne Roussanne
The 2014 Marsanne Roussanne, an equal blend of the two varieties, has a clean, quite fresh bouquet with peach skin and frangipane scents that are neatly integrated with the 18% new French oak. The palate is balanced with a waxy texture, much more resinous notes than fruit-driven with a touch of fresh ginger on the finish. Like previous vintages, this handles these tickles with some aplomb. 90 pts.
2013 Grenache 21
The 2013 Grenache 21 (the number referring to the frost hours in the year) was cropped at three tons per acre, much more than previous years, though without depriving it of complexity and power according to Barbara Steele. This includes around 30% whole cluster fruit and matured in 29% new French oak. It has well-defined red cherry, red plum and attractive licorice scents coming through with aeration. The palate is medium-bodied with grainy tannin, blackcurrant pastilles mixed with truffle and garrigue-like notes. I like the acidity here and at 13.2% alcohol, it is fresh and easy to drink. This follows in a line of excellent Grenache from Cowhorn. 92 pts.
2013 Syrah 21
The 2013 Syrah 21 was picked 16-23 October and includes 38% whole cluster, matured for nine months in 40% new French oak. Apparently the fruit was so abundant that they could trim around blocks that were not totally ripe – the first time this has been done. It is quite closed on the nose at first, but you can tell that the fruit intensity here is just tightly coiled at the moment: blackberry, boysenberry, a touch of fig and a little garrigue. The palate is medium-bodied with juicy ripe black fruit. I actually prefer the previous vintage in terms of texture, though this has commendable weight and very fine balance all the way through to the finish, a touch of black truffle and licorice lingering on the aftertaste. Give this 2-3 years in bottle once it is released in November 2016. 92+ pts.
The 2013 Sentience was picked 16-23 October, a selection of barrels that has more structure. It includes 43% whole cluster fruit and is aged for nine months in 39% new French oak. It is tightly wound on the nose with blackberry, boysenberry and undergrowth scents accompanied by a sprig of wild mint. The palate is medium-bodied with juicy black fruit, good weight and structure in the mouth, a slight edginess towards the finish with tightly coiled energy. This is more masculine than the 2011 and there is more salinity (almost brine-like) lingering on the aftertaste. This has good potential.92 pts.
2012 Reserve Syrah
The 2012 Syrah Reserve was picked on 12 October and included 60% whole bunch fruit, matured for ten months in 50% new French oak. (Note: This was not released in either 2010 or 2011.) It has a very backward, slightly earthy character, a mixture of red and black fruit, touches of granite and flint surfacing with continued aeration in the glass. The palate is medium-bodied with potent blackberry and bilberry fruit, a grainy texture, firm backbone here with notes of clove and bay leaf developing towards the finish that grips the mouth. Very well crafted…I would like to see a little more personality come through with requisite bottle age.93 pts.
– Neal Martin, June 2016
Wine Enthusiast named our 2012 Cowhorn Syrah 20 as Editor’s Choice with a score of 94 points. See the April 2016 issue or their website for more details. This wine is currently still available for purchase on our website.
The Ten Best Wines 2015
Another year of drinking amazing wine reminds me that we have so many hard-working winemakers to be thankful for in this world. Each time I open a bottle of wine that gives me a thrill I offer up a silent word of thanks to the individuals who labored over the vine, who pruned, picked, hauled, loaded, stirred, schlepped and tasted, tasted, tasted, to make something of beauty. Each bottle that thrills me gets recorded in my book of tasting notes and at the end of the year I review them all. This is a “highlights” list of 365 days (well, minus a few days off for beer) of tasting wine. These wines made the cut because they rose to the top on the day I tasted them. Wine, like all things, has good days and bad days. I only wish I had space for the many other amazing wines I tasted this year. (Note: the list is in no particular order and prices vary.)
2010 Yangarra Estate High Sands Grenache: This Australian wine is so compelling, both in taste and in story. Crafted from a single, lonesome plot of old vine Grenache that dates back to 1946, the wine shows a sour cherry over dried herbs on the nose. It’s silky but not simple. We served a bottle at a big dinner party and the whole table loved this wine, both before and during dinner. ($75 -$100)
2010 Marques de Riscal Rioja Baron de Chirel Reserva: This (mostly tempranillo) wine is proof that Rioja is region to watch for ultra-premium wines. Decadent spice on the nose complimented by a satiny texture with great structure. The dried cherry, tobacco, forest and dark chocolate notes are sublime. Guzzle it now, or age for a decade or two. Wonderful with roasted lamb. ($75)
2003 Tenute Silvio Nardi Brunello di Montalcino: The 2003 vintage of this elegant wine is in its prime—scrappy and voluptuous at the same time with weight and seriousness but dancing fruit too. For interesting background on the winery, read my story on winery owner, Emilia Nardi HERE. ($45 -$55)
Red Wine Value of the YEAR: 2012 Aia Vecchia “Lagone” Toscana IGT: This blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc hails from the Bolgheri region of Tuscany. It’s a happy wine with abundant black cherry, dried herbs and spice over vanilla. Pop and pour this tonight and raise a glass to finding a delicious bargain. ($15)
White Wine Value of the YEAR: 2014 Cowhorn Vineyard Spiral 36 Southern Oregon: This beguiling blend of viognier, roussanne, and marsanne yields a ripe and succulent wine with notes of hazelnuts and lemon cream. Tropical fruits on the palate with good acidity to keep things intriguing. Made from Demeter Certified Biodynamic and Stellar Certified Organic vineyards. Will age beautifully too, you’ll get a lot of wine for $28.
2011 Suavia Le Rive Bianco Veronese IGT: This white wine is juicy and lush with peach notes, cardamom, exotic fruits and mineral threads. Made from over-ripe 100% Garganega grapes, the wine has some residual sugar, but it’s not obvious or cloying because of the good natural acidity. It was perfect with a spicy pepperoni pizza. ($35) Recommended by Forbes
2012 Buty Rediviva of the Stones, Rockgarden Estate: Buty was one of the first wineries in Washington state to blend interesting combinations of syrah and cabernet sauvignon. Cultivated from certified organic grapes in the Walla Walla appellation, this wine has lacy notes of lavender folded into rich earth and dark cherry notes. It’s pure elegance in the glass with a supple texture, complexity and richness. ($60)
2011 Don Melchor Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon: Wines from Chile don’t cross my path often enough, but this one did, and with the recent release of the movie about the Chilean miners, The 33, it seems quite fitting to recognize an emblematic wine of Chile. The wine is named for the founder of Concha y Toro winery, Don Melchor, and is styled like a French Bordeaux—intense and fragrant with black cherry and mocha on the palate. The sculpted and precise tannins and can easily tolerate a decade or more of aging. ($125)
2010 Fasi Crest Syrah, Private Reserve: This silky syrah made from 100% organic grapes was a nice surprise from a relatively unknown region in California: Madera. The San Joaquin River offers cooling influence on the vineyards, keeping the ripe blackberry fruit fresh and elegant. Loved the anise and tobacco notes too. Rich and complex with a nice freshness and long finish. ($29)
1994 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port: The 1994 vintage has been universally declared by growers and producers as one of the finest of the last century, and it also happens to be the year I married my husband of 21 years—so I’m a trifle biased. The wine earned 100 points from The Wine Spectator and shared the title of Wine of The Year in 1997. She’s waited 19 years in bottle and is ready for prime time enjoyment. ($400)
“Southern Oregon’s Cowhorn […] wines are exceptional—and largely unknown to a wider audience.”
– Matt Kramer, Wine Spectator, Drinking Out Loud.
“The wine they [Cowhorn] make are elegant, earthy, and vibrant, with a sense of the soil they come from.”
This wine spent three months in 38% new French oak, which softens and adds a bit of barrel-induced richness to the mouthfeel. It remains a fascinating mix of flower and citrus, with lightly-buttered toast and a lush, lemon-custard flavor. —P.G.
Paul Gregutt, Wine Enthusiast, August 2015
– Paul Gregutt
“One of the most promising portfolios that I came across from Southern Oregon was Cowhorn. Bill and Barbara Steele came up to see me in McMinnville to show their Rhône-inspired varietals that were a joy. “The 2013 vintage was a beautiful year from a climate standpoint, but the vines were a bit big, so you get more grapiness,” Bill explained before candidly commenting, “the 2012 is luscious whereas the 2013? If we had more winemaking experience I don’t think we would have had problems with the native fermentation for the Viognier. In 2013, we started to see a slide in the nutrition of the grapes and we have worked on the biological diversity in the vineyard. We have seen an improvement with the 2014. You have to keep the native yeasts happy.”
I also asked Bill and Barbara how the vineyards are progressing as the vines age. Barbara remarked that she is now happier with the Marsanne/Roussanne. Bill remarked: “We are entering the time when vines roots are going deep enough to express the terroir. We maintain a varied weed profile with biodynamic preparations such as fermented worm tea. They all combine to help biological diversity.” There was a sense of these wines being comfortable in their own skin: nothing here overambitious or trying to push boundaries, but simply delivering what you would expect from a great Syrah or Grenache. Perhaps the only weak link in the chain was the Viognier that seemed ambivalent about expressing its varietal character, as if embarrassed not to have been born Chardonnay or Pinot Gris. Otherwise, these are well worth seeking out and represent great value.
The 2011 Sentience is a new line that aims to express the darker fruit profile of the estate Syrah. This was picked October 27 at 23 Brix, employs 37% whole-cluster fruit and sees ten months in 40% new French oak. It has a well-defined bouquet with bilberry and boysenberry scents, dried fig and just a touch of raisin lending a little exoticism. The palate is medium-bodied with succulent ripe black cherries and dark plum, a keen thread of acidity and a tightly-wound, surprisingly reserved finish that gradually opens with time. I appreciate the reserve shown here, the restraint, and as such, I can imagine it drinking well for the next 8-10 years. Very fine. 91 pts.
The 2012 Grenache 20 was picked October 13 as 21 Brix from Block 5G, sees around 10% whole-cluster fruit and sees ten months in one-third new oak. It has an attractive bouquet with red plum, blueberry and violet-scents, well defined with touches of fresh fig coming through. The palate is medium-bodied with supple ripe red berry fruit and nicely judged acidity. Harmonious in the mouth, smooth and silky, this is a more restrained Grenache than others from the region, allowing the grape variety to shine through. Delicious! 91pts.
2013 Marsanne Roussanne
The 2013 Marsanne Roussanne, an equal blend of the two, was picked October 8 and aged for 3 months in 21% new French oak. It has a pretty bouquet with dried honey and melted candle wax scents that gently waft from the glass, but never become powerful or intense. The palate is medium-bodied with a saline entry. Crisp acidity here, lovely dried honey notes mixed with kumquat and pink grapefruit, slightly waxy in texture with a long and intense finish. The shaved ginger on the finish completes the deal. Excellent. 92 pts.”
– Neal Martin, April 2015
Wine Enthusiast’s Sean Sullivan named our 2013 Viognier & 2013 Marsanne Roussanne as Editor’s Choice! Both wines scored 92 points. See the February issue or their website for more reviews and details. All three wines are currently still available for purchase on our website.
Cowhorn 2013 Viognier, Applegate Valley, $35
92 Points, Editor’s Choice
Aged just three months in French oak (28% new), the wine focuses on the fruit, with rich notes of apricot, pear and tangerine. It’s full-bodied with sweet fruit flavors and a long, lingering, exquisitely fruit-filled finish. — S.S. (2/1/2015)
Cowhorn 2013 Marsanne Roussanne, Applegate Valley, $35
92 Points, Editor’s Choice
A vibrantly aromatic wine with notes of apricot, toast, nutty spices and cream displaying both detail and complexity. The palate is full-bodied yet still shows restraint with fruit and smoky flavors that keep the interest level high through the lingering finish. — S.S. (2/1/2015)
Cowhorn 2013 Spiral 36, Applegate Valley, $28
A blend of near-equal parts Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne, this is aromatic with notes of corn on the cob, dried apricot and tangerine. The palate is full-bodied with sweet apricot flavors and a smoky finish (20% new French oak). — S.S. (2/1/2015)
You can find the latest Wine Enthusiast ratings either online or in the June magazine, Buying Guide section.
92 Points, Editor’s Choice
Cowhorn 2012 Viognier, Applegate Valley, $30
Sean Sullivan: Coming from a single block of the winery’s estate vineyard, this 100% varietal wine provides a magic trick. The sweet, full-bodied white peach, honeysuckle and vanilla aromas and flavors do not show any of the oiliness or excess alcohol that might be expected at this level of ripeness. Instead, it’s all flavor, showing remarkable depth and concentration that persists through the last sip. — (6/1/2014)
92 Points, Cellar Selection
Cowhorn 2010 Syrah 58, Applegate Valley, $45
Sean Sullivan: A vibrantly expressive wine, with notes of pomegranate, ground cranberries, freshly blossomed wild flowers and incense. It’s puckering, rich and concentrated, with youthful tart cherry flavors. Near overwhelming in its intensity, it needs time in the cellar to fully stitch together but has all the stuffing to go the distance; best after 2017. — (6/1/2014)
Our 2012 Viognier was awarded the second highest rating by Wine Spectator for a domestic Viognier in their latest review (available web-only
“2012 Cowhorn Viognier 92 points: Sleek, supple, inviting and distinctive, balancing richness with an open texture. Offers ginger- and lychee-accented pear and lemon flavors, lingering with the expansive finish. Drink now through 2017. 250 cases made.” – Harvey Steiman
Top 100 Wines of 2013
This year’s Top 100 marks key moment for American wine
December 2, 2013
2012 Cowhorn Spiral 36 Applegate Valley White ($28, 13.6%): Cal grads Bill and Barbara Steele migrated to southern Oregon to chase their wine dreams. Their ambitious biodynamically farmed project in Jacksonville has transcended curiosity to make some of the Northwest’s most ambitious Rhone-style wines. Here the plump pungency of Roussanne – think agave nectar – bolsters Viognier and Marsanne in an opulent, exotic mix: orange blossom, juicy lime, barley, fresh peach. A remarkable complexity on display.
Reprinted with permission from Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate. Please see erobertparker.com about subscription services.
Friday | 10/31/2013
Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden
Bill and Barbara Steele’s Applegate Valley vineyard – for much more about which, consult my Issue 202 report – has been known for some years as Southern Oregon’s viticultural star (even if I personally came late to discovering them). But it’s clear to me from the recent releases tasted with them in July – not to mention from re-tasting their 2010 Syrah 58 – that their renditions of Rhone varieties need no longer shy from comparison with any in the world, even those whose authors are named Alban, Baron or Clape. Given quality this amazing – combined with a climate undeniably daunting, not to mention the assiduous pursuit of biodynamic viticulture – the prices that Steeles are asking are almost alarmingly low. If the potential achievable with Rhone cepages interests you – but perhaps just as much, if you have become jaded by the wealth of outstanding examples from multiple continents – do not put off any longer experiencing Cowhorn’s wines! (For those later than even I was in coming to Cowhorn, the digits that are a part of the name for certain wines indicate the number of frost days experienced in the applicable parcel that season, and as such serve as one reminder of the especially rigorous fire-and-ice nature of the local climate.)
When in praising Cowhorn’s 2010 Syrah 58 for my Issue 202 report I wrote that “it may well gain in intrigue, stimulation, and ultimate satisfaction,” I hardly anticipated what another 13 months – or else, a very lucky choice of bottle! – would bring, when I again encountered this wine last July. Ripe plum and cherry, beef blood and game, juniper berry and incense, allspice and pepper, are deployed with head-turning aromatic intensity and vibrant, persistent juiciness. There is a polish to the tannins here as well as a sense of lift (at 13.4% alcohol) that you’ll seldom encounter in young Syrah, and the finish now approaches kaleidoscopic interactivity and complexity. This is going to be awesome to follow through at least 2022, and I hope half expect well beyond that. And needless to say, it represents a rare value.
The Steeles’ 2011 Grenache 42 – treated to around 20% whole cluster (i.e. stems-included) vinification – delivers a forceful, fascinatingly complex nose of black raspberry, beet root, and raw beef, tinged with brown spices, white pepper, pungent herbs and horseradish. The palate impression is correspondingly multi-faceted and intense, with ginger and mustard seed adding to the incisive and invigorating impingements of pepper and horseradish. In terms of tannins though, this is polished and refined. There is a sappy, tangy persistence that left me licking my lips and longing for the next sip. Expect this fine value to prove intriguingly not to mention compellingly delicious through at least 2020, but only additional time can establish a relevant track record. (Incidentally, a co-fermented batch of Grenache with Syrah was attempted in this vintage, but Barbara Steele said only that they were not entirely satisfied with and so did not bottle the results.)
The Steeles’ 2012 Viognier represents a breakthrough for them, even given the fine quality of its predecessors. In fact, I have seldom if ever tasted a lovelier or better-balanced Viognier, and I’ve tasted an awful lot of them from France and North America over the past three decades (though granted, many wine lovers hold this grape’s solo potential in higher esteem than do I). A classic and effusive nose of acacia, honeysuckle and white peach harbors intimations of the marine breeze, cress, and lime zest that go on to add invigorating complexity on a palate at once silken and subtly oily, yet also mouthwatering and unaccountably bright. Its 14.4% alcohol (even with 4 grams residual sugar left behind) points to the extra measure of ripeness that contributes to this being so luscious and possessed of such headily persistent inner-mouth florality; yet there is not a trace of heat, harshness or, most surprisingly, heaviness. In fact, while its texture is silken and its richness enveloping, at the same time this positively dances on incisive high heels, leading to an exhilaratingly energetic finish. Barbara Steele confessed to me last year that “It is a stressful endeavor to get this grape right,” and my experience elsewhere in the world suggests that this is a universal problem. So there will be no coasting permitted the Steeles in future, but here’s hoping that this amazing 2012 represents not just an excellent value – that’s certain – but moreover a harbinger rather than just an incredible stroke of good fortune.
The barrel-fermented Cowhorn 2012 Marsanne – Roussanne is more than capable of standing comparison with the best such blends from St. Joseph or Hermitage, and as such represents an almost embarrassingly mind-boggling value. Inducing Marsanne to express its honeyed nature without becoming too fat is a perennial problem wherever that grape is grown, and Barbara Steele says it’s necessary to keep her vines hydrated to avoid berry-shrivel and consequent imbalance. She certainly avoided it here! There is lushness and honeyed richness allied to genuine vivacity and refreshment that you won’t often witness in the wider world of Marsanne-Roussanne blends. Musky narcissus, honeysuckle, and bittersweet iris rise alluringly and intriguingly from the glass, with cantaloupe, quince and papaya welling up behind them, then informing a subtly creamy and expansive yet persistently juicy palate. Mouthwatering salinity; invigorating bite of white pepper and cress; stimulating piquancy of raw hazelnut and almond combined for a performance of remarkable complexity bound to keep you on the edge of your seat through a lusciously lingering finish. How this might evolve in bottle is by no means a straightforward question, much less a foregone conclusion. Steele reports that the 2009 is tired now “but this (2012) might be different,” given that much older vines and more know-how on her part. What’s more, one expects St. Joseph or Hermitage to go through an oxidative transformation early on that becomes their patina. There’s no substitute for taking a chance yourself with some bottles of this beauty; and given its price and the way it’s behaving right now, it would be a fool who didn’t buy enough to enjoy it repeatedly over the next year or two and still have some left over!
Even granted that they don’t undergo malo-lactic transformation, it continues to be a mystery (not least to their authors) why the whites here – given the varieties and climate in question – sport such low pHs; but the effect of that is dramatically evident in the brightness, energy, invigoration and “ping” conveyed by Cowhorn’s 2012 Spiral 36, a barrel co-fermentation of slightly more Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. Scents of fresh lime and white peach pungently tinged with cress and acacia prepare the way for a correspondingly luscious yet incisively invigorating palate performance in which a subtly honeyed slick emerges to highlight the counterpoint between bright and energetic elements, and downright luxuriant ones. This lusciously persistent libation is perfectly reinforced by 4 grams of residual sugar that simply didn’t want to ferment out. A fabulous value, it will surely be worth following for at least the next 2-3 years, and quite possibly well-thereafter.
BEST OF OREGON
Oregon’s 50 Best Wines 2013
20 varietals, 11 AVAs, and 25 bottles under $30! We asked Portland wine experts to pick their favorite bottles of the year—and the results are delicious. By Allison Jones
THE PRO: Erica Landon
The powerhouse behind Walter Scott Wines is also an instructor for Portland’s Wine & Spirits Archive and crafts the wine lists at Bluehour, Clarklewis, 23Hoyt, Saucebox, Tabla, and Castagna. Here, she recommends five go-to bottles for indulging with confidence.
#3 COWHORN VINEYARD
2009 Reserve Syrah • Applegate Valley • $45
Bill and Barbara Steele broke ground in Southern Oregon in 2003 and quickly discovered that their land was covered in layers of river stones reminiscent of France’s Rhône Valley. They planted Rhône varietals like Syrah, grenache, and viognier—and today their wines are drawing national attention. This bottle offers a balance of power and elegance, with notes of blueberries, black plums, and black cherries layered with dark chocolate, baking spice, and hints of vanilla.
Friday, September 28, 2013
October 2013 issue
OREGON’S UNDISCOVERED WINE COUNTRY
Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden
In a mini valley, this spot feels delightfully remote and as wild as its biodynamically grown wines. Try the 2009 Syrah 80 ($35), with an intriguing savage side; you’ll find pepper, meat, leather, and spice under its juicy core of minted plum and berry fruit. $5 tasting fee; 1665 Eastside Rd., Jacksonville; cowhornwine.com
Rising stars and Picks of the week
Thursday, August 15, 2013
Cowhorn 2012 Spiral 36 White; $28
Half Viognier, 30% Marsanne and 20% Roussanne, co-fermented. Spicy with scents and flavors of ginger beer. Very fresh, startling depth and character. Great length.
Cowhorn 2012 Viognier; $30
Native yeast, four months in ¼ new French oak. Wonderful gin-like botanicals, great depth with citrus rind, pineapple and ginger. A bit riper than the 2011.
– Paul Gregutt
The editors of Wine Enthusiast recently rated and reviewed the Cowhorn 2011 Viognier with a 93 and the Editors’ Choice designation! You can find our rating in their online wine database and the following comments.
“Viognier is clearly a strong suit at Cowhorn, a biodynamic vineyard and winery in the Applegate Valley of southern Oregon. This is splendidly aromatic, wreathed in seductive scents of flower and fruit. Flavors are a mix of citrus and stone fruits, with a taste of honey that brings added depth, but not sweetness. “(3/31/2013)- 93 – Paul Gregutt
Cowhorn 2011 Spiral 36, Applegate Valley, $28
Bill and Barbara Steele began to create this biodynamic operation in 2002, and this blend of Viognier (40%), Marsanne (30%) and Roussanne is yet another example of the success Rhône varieties enjoy in Southern Oregon. The Viognier shows early by offering aromas of orange Creamcicle, and that’s joined by Lemonhead candy, dusty pear and Granny Smith apple. Tasty flavors of pear and apple follow, joined by Red Haven peach. The profile is dry with bang-on acidity of lemon juice, and the fresh-cut celery notes in the finish gives it food applications.
Production: 500 cases
“Syrah doesn’t exactly leap to mind when thinking about Oregon reds. But here’s a wonderful example from the tiny Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in Applegate Valley (that’s in southern Oregon). One sip and I was ready to buy a case. Why? Because it’s tremendously food-friendly, not overly extracted, a Syrah that’s graceful and poised, bright with flavors of cherry and cassis and sporting a snazzy bit of acidity. I don’t know what it is about the valley where the grapes are grown, but this wine is reminiscent of Syrah from the northern Rhone. This is a winery to watch.
Oh, I should mention the vineyard is biodynamic, the garden where they grow produce for restaurants too. And if you can’t find the 2008, the 2009 should soon be arriving on the scene. Keep and eye out for their Marsanne-Roussanne as well.
Drink the Syrah with braised brisket, coq au vin or a hearty bean dish with lamb shanks. Region: Applegate Valley, Oregon
Style: Rich and balanced” – email@example.com
Our 2009 Reserve Syrah was rated 91 Points by the Wine Spectator team! “Smooth, rich and focused, with juicy blackberry, plum and earthy spice flavors, hinting at licorice as the finish lingers easily. Has intensity and finesse, showing a sense of completeness. Drink now through 2017. 100 cases made.” – Harvey Steiman
Each year, Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer selects his favorite wines of the year. In the year end issue for 2012, Matt selected our 2011 Spiral 36 as one of his top three wines! Cowhorn is the only domestic producer selected and is noted for the excellence of all of our wines.
“Cowhorn Applegate Valley Spiral 36 2011 ($28). This small, biodynamic wine producer is located in a far-off spot in southern Oregon near the California border. Specializing in Rhone varieties, Cowhorn is, in my opinion, creating some of Oregon’s finest wines – and yes, that includes the state’s much applauded Pinot Noirs.
Spiral 36 is the proprietary name for a seamless dry white wine blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. More than most such blends, this one emerges as a classic sum-greater than its parts acheivement. Everyone to whom I’ve served this wine has been astonished at its zingy, refreshing, subtle flavor and texture. It shows, as does Cowhorn’s supberb Syrah and excellent Grenache, a true vocation of place for these grapes in southern Oregon. December 31st, 2012” -Matt Kramer
We are honored to be included in the August edition of Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate, with seven of our wines receiving 91 plus point scores.
“I can’t recall experiencing an array of Syrahs so alluringly original from one and the same winery and place other than Edmunds St. John – but Steven Edmunds has historically sourced from a striking array of microclimates, soils and Californian sub-regions, whereas Cowhorn Syrahs all grew in the same vineyard!” ” –David Schildknecht Wine Advocate #202 (August 2012)
2009 Reserve Syrah: 93 Points
2009 Syrah 80:92 Points
2010 Syrah 58:92 Points
2010 Grenache 58: 92 Points
2011 Spiral 36: 91 Points
2011 Marsanne Roussanne: 91 Points
2010 Viognier: 91 Points
“This is a remarkable dry white wine, brimming with apple and citrus flavors with delicious, refreshing acidity. It has character and originality.”
– Matt Kramer
Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden 2008 Reserve Estate Syrah, Applegate Valley, $45: “As one might surmise from the name, Cowhorn is a biodynamic grower and producer. This wine is as complex as it is delicious, with aromas of blackberry jam, leather, black pepper and exotic spices, followed by layered flavors of dense black fruit, coffee beans and peppercorns on the lengthy finish.”
– Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman
“Cowhorn concentrates on Rhone variety grapes, an unusual choice for an Oregon winery. Its substantial blend of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne gets a spicy lift from several months of aging in French oak barrels.” – Ray Isle
2010 Viognier – 90 Points “Polished, silky and effusive in its expression of spicy pear, flowers and lemon meringue flavors. Finishes with style. Drink now. 125 cases.” – HS
2008 Reserve Syrah – 91 Points “Spacious style lets its blackberry and black cherry flavors expand nicely against streaks of mineral and pepper, coming together smoothly on the ripe but contained finish. Drink now through 2015. 150 cases made.” – HS
All of these wines scored 92 points or higher in my reviews for Wine Enthusiast, and complete reviews are available on the magazine’s free database. This is NOT a Best Buy list, though you’ll find some excellent bargains. But most of these are special occasion wines, and some are already sold out, or have moved on to the next vinatage. Enjoy, and and let this serve as a shopping list for happy hunting as new vintages are released in the year ahead. – Paul Gregutt
#51 – Cowhorn 2009 Viognier ($30) 93
“And, Not Least, Get Relaxed – Don’t let wine jocks make you feel insecure. Sure, we writers get all lathered-up about delightful bits of esoterica (right now I’m excited by the biodynamic wines of tiny Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden in the Applegate Valley of southern Oregon). It’s what we do. We’re supposed to be on the prowl, ever lustful for the latest triumph…”
– Matt Kramer
The Sunset Western Wine Awards are recognized as one of the highest honors for Western winemakers and focus solely on wines produced in the West. Judging to start mid June. We will keep you posted.
– Bill Steele
ONE OF MY favorite wine rites of spring is the release of the new rosé wines. Most are from the 2010 vintage, made from interesting, non-mainstream grapes and blends, built for drinking now, drinking chilled, drinking outdoors and with picnic food. They are often relatively low in alcohol and sold out of tasting rooms as a special, springtime treat.
Line up a few different rosés on your dining table and you will find that they come in a rainbow of colors, from vibrant violet to ruby red to cherry pink to a range of russet sunset hues. There is no right or wrong here; just as there is no right or wrong about dry versus sweet styles. But if you want more serious wines (not too serious, but with more substance and depth than just sugar and fruit), look for dry rosés from local wineries.
Some things to know. Most domestic rosés are best enjoyed fresh, so you should be seeking out those from the 2010 vintage. That said, there are a few wineries here in Washington that hold their rosés back an extra year. The 2009s from Hard Row To Hoe/Shameless Hussy, Doyenne and Lullaby are all recommended.
There are different ways to make rosé, and if you visit a tasting room or wine shop, it’s worth asking about. Is this just a white wine with a little red blended in? That makes an OK beverage, but don’t look for finesse or complexity. Is it made by the saignée process? This means that the fermenting juice from a red wine was bled off quickly and finished separately, in order to give the red wine more concentration. Saignée wines can be good, but are rarely great, because the harvest and fermentation decisions were done for the big red, not the rosé.
The best rosés were designed from the start. The decision to go pink may have been made in the vineyard rather late in the season, when it became clear that the grapes were not going to get ripe enough to do anything else with them. But that is not necessarily a drawback. A rosé is a rosé is a rosé.
Tasting through a flight of Washington and Oregon rosés, I found them all quite different and distinctive. One was 14.5 percent alcohol, tawny in color and quite potent; another was a pretty violet shade, round and intensely fruity, with a hint of sweetness. Some were blends of grapes, some were single-grape/single-vineyard wines.
My favorite was a 2009 Cowhorn Grenache Rosé from southern Oregon. It was biodynamically-farmed, harvested at 18.5 degrees Brix (a very low number indicating marginal ripeness), vinified with native (eg. wild) yeasts, and finished dry at just 11.4 percent alcohol. Those are numbers I have never seen on a domestic rosé. I expected a watery wine with no fruit, possibly a bad case of the veggies and quite possibly already over the hill.
Au contraire! This was the bottle I nursed through the evening, drank rather than tasted and, happily, did not spit. The wine was fresh, tart and intense, with racy fruit flavors of cranberry and wild cherry, hints of orange liqueur, and a dusting of cinnamon spice. It developed intriguing grace notes while holding up beautifully over the course of a long evening.
I most enjoy rosés made with single or blended Rhône grapes such as grenache, cinsault and mourvèdre; or varietal rosés made from pinot noir, sangiovese or cabernet franc. Serve them chilled and you will find them most versatile with a wide range of picnic and grilled foods.
Spring is springing. It’s time to enjoy la vie en rosé.
The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt’s “Washington Wines & Wineries” is now in print. His blog is www.paulgregutt.com. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Paul Gregutt
Cowhorn Vineyards 2009 Estate Vineyard Viognier – A biodynamic producer from Southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley is producing one of the best domestic viogniers I have ever tasted. There is an intense minerality that is completely balanced by a rather sunny layer of orchard fruit. Underlying all of this is a savoriness that makes it a rather serious wine with immense appeal. This producers syrah should be taken quite seriously as well, really a spectacular group of wines, and this one is only $30. The complete Article
The success story in Oregon has been, and continues to be, the exceptional pinot noirs.
Pinot noir wines from almost anywhere have shown impressive – some might say relentless – sales growth for the past six or seven years. Although consumer interest was sparked by the movie “Sideways,” the persistent success of this particular variety has more to do with consumer tastes that are evolving.
To put it plainly, more and more wine drinkers are looking for wines that are more elegant, that keep the alcohol levels in the 14 percent (or lower) range, and that do not derive their flavors from super-ripe fruit and expensive barrels.
Oregon offers a treasure trove of such wines and, surprisingly, they reach far beyond just pinot noir. Many of these wines are produced in limited quantities, but that is true of almost all of the state’s wine production. You may not find every bottle mentioned in this column, but the intent is to get you excited to experiment. See what your local wine shop has to offer, and I think you’ll enjoy exploring some of the more unusual wines from our neighbor to the south.
Trisaetum is quickly becoming my go-to Oregon riesling producer. Across the board, Oregon rieslings tend to be light and elegant, deliciously aromatic, and peppered with flowers and fruits. Trisaetum makes several vineyard-designated rieslings. The Lassa is a late harvest wine that comes from a 40-year-old vineyard; the Pashey is off-dry; Josahn (the newest) is cellar worthy, and the estate bottling – the most widely available – perfectly expresses the mix of flowers, fruits and minerality that makes all these wines special.
Look for the Trisaetum 2009 Estate Riesling ($24) – an enticing mix of flowers, fruits and stone. The lively flavors include streaks of lemon, lime, nectarine and apricot, accented with citrus rind and wet rock, honey and lemon tea.
Other excellent Oregon rieslings are made by Amity, Anam Cara, Argyle, Brandborg, Chehalem, Coeur de Terre, Daedalus, David Hill, Elk Cove, Foris, Kings Ridge, Lemelson, Ponzi, Spindrift and Viento.
Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden, set in southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley, farms grenache, marsanne, roussanne, syrah and viognier biodynamically. These are all distinctive, balanced wines with deep colors, ripe tannins and complex, earthy flavors. Look for the Cowhorn 2009 Viognier ($30) – extraordinarily aromatic, loaded with luscious lemon, pineapple, orange and pear fruit flavors.
Tempranillo is catching on here in Washington, but it was an Oregon winery, Abacela, that pioneered the planting of the Spanish grape here in the Northwest. Along with estate-grown albariño, malbec, syrah, viognier and some Portuguese varieties, Abacela makes several different versions of tempranillo. The first vines went into the ground at this Umpqua valley winery in 1995, and have matured nicely.
Look for the Abacela 2007 Estate Tempranillo ($35) – scented with rose petals, pomegranate, sour cherry, hints of cumin and nutmeg, this expressive and elegant wine hits the palate and just keeps on going. The tannins are beautifully polished, and this lovely wine should improve for up to a decade.
Another fine Oregon tempranillo is made by David Hill.
Sineann’s Peter Rosback sources grapes from Washington, California and New Zealand as well as Oregon, but his unique Oregon zinfandel is a good starting point for exploring the wide-ranging Sineann portfolio. It’s sourced from a vineyard named The Pines, located in the Oregon slice of the vast Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area. The original planting dates from the late 1800s.
Look for Sineann’s 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel ($36) – low-yield, old vine fruit sets lush scents of chocolate, plum, cherry and baking spices against ripe fruit flavors of berry, cherry and plum.
More Unusual Oregon Reds
The Oregon side of the Walla Walla AVA holds many of the region’s best vineyards, rising from the dry riverbed known as the Rocks up into the Blue Mountain foothills just west of Milton-Freewater. Though the Washington side of the valley is better known, the vineyards and wineries that farm in Oregon exclusively are proving more experimental. At Watermill, along with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and viognier, you’ll find estate-grown bottlings of cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot – all 100 percent varietal.
Watermill’s Estate Petit Verdot is one of the smoothest and most deeply concentrated I’ve tasted from anywhere in the country. It’s packed with rich boysenberry and blueberry fruit flavor, with a luscious finish of coffee, loam and licorice.
Look for Watermill’s 2007 Praying Mantis Syrah ($30) – spicy and full of verve, it opens with blueberries and other wild blue fruits, adds layers of coffee, milk chocolate, moist earth and lead pencil, then into a nicely-focused finish with the promise of a long cellar life ahead.
Other recommended syrahs from Oregon are Cliff Creek, Cowhorn, Folin Cellars, Francis Tannahill, Griffin Creek, Melrose, Nuthatch Cellars, Quady North and RoxyAnn.
Paul Gregutt is a freelance wine writer based in Washington state. His column appears in The Spokesman-Review on the last Wednesday of each month.
– Paul Gregutt
Cowhorn 2009 Viognier (Applegate Valley) $30 – This small, family-owned, biodynamically farmed vineyard and winery is quickly becoming a southern Oregon cult producer. Certainly one of the finest Viogniers produced anywhere in the Northwest, this extraordinarily aromatic wine showers the palate with luscious and tangy lemon, pineapple, Satsuma orange and pear fruit flavors. Then the spices pile on, lending an exotic twist to a lengthy midpalate, and leading into a lightly toasty finish. Editors’ Choice. —P.G.
This is a new discovery for me, and it’s a stunner.
The Applegate Valley is in southern Oregon, about 40 miles from the California border. It’s an old gold-mining area that later became farm country. The area has a history of winegrowing, but what emerged was only episodically good, as growers groped to find what worked best in this sunny, dry, cold-in the-winter, hot-in-the-summer zone. (The cool, moist Willamette Valley is 200 miles to the north, effectively a world away.)
Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden (its full and proper name) is a new entry, dating to 2005. It’s the creation of Bill and Barbara Steele; both graduates of UC, Berkeley, and both MBAs, they left Wall Street, where Bill worked as a research analyst, to settle in Jacksonville, Ore., and create this 117-acre biodynamically certified farm and vineyard (which explains the Cowhorn name).
Cowhorn’s Rhône-inspired blend of Viognier (34 percent), Marsanne (33) and Roussanne (33) took me by storm—and by surprise, too. A pale lemon yellow with just a hint of green—an appetizing Chablis-like color that always seems to signal something special—it delivers scents and tastes of mineral, citrus, peach, mango, melon and a subtle spiciness.
It’s a rare white wine blend that’s quite so seamless, especially considering that Viognier, with its sometimes intense spiciness, can be bullying. Not so in this wine. It paired beautifully with sautéed scallops.
Apart from the sheer pleasure that this wine afforded, it reminded me of how many good, even extraordinary, wines are now created in America that most of us never see. Cowhorn Spiral 36 White Table Wine 2009, for example, is just 400 cases. So how many of us will ever come across it? The same could be said of hundreds of wines across the United States, never mind Canada. Here on the West Coast, I don’t see a single wine from, say, Long Island.
This situation suggests that in a strange way, we are slowly becoming like Europe, where in many cases locals are the near-exclusive audience for local wines, and the rest of the nation is largely oblivious to what’s happening just down the road. We’re not quite so extreme yet, but we’re getting there. The question is, is that good or bad?
– Matt Kramer
For the unfamiliar, the philosophies behind biodynamic winemaking can seem a little too left of center. Biodynamic farmers take a holistic approach, work their land based on the lunar calendar and use miniscule amounts of fermented herbs and manure in place of chemical fertilizers. The principles behind biodynamic farming were born out of the 1924 lectures of philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner who believed that healthier crops come from nourishing the entire ecosystem around a plant, not just the plant itself. Today, winemakers are among the many farmers around the world that are taking Steiner’s methods more seriously.
Interested in seeing these ideas put into practice, we recently visited the Montinore Estate in the northwest corner of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Nestled into the coastal foothills, Montinore was conventionally farmed until 2006 when new owner Rudy Marchesi began converting the vineyards one-by-one. Today, all 230 acres are certified biodynamic by Demeter USA, the American arm of the international crediting agency, Demeter. Assisted by biodynamic consultant Philippe Arminiere, Marchesi applies the various biodynamic principles including cow horn-fermented manure, chamomile-stuffed hog casings and valerian flower water either directly to the vines in tiny amounts (50 grams of manure can be diluted in enough water to spray an entire acre) or in enriched compost, with the phases of the moon helping determine when to plant, cultivate and harvest crops. Here are 10 biodynamic wines from estates around the world that offer delicious expressions of the thriving ecosystem around them.
Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio Dolomiti 2008
Northern Italian winemaker Alois Lageder began experimenting with biodynamic farming in the 1990s and in 2004 converted all of his vineyards. This Pinot Grigio is rich and flavorful with light honey aromas and notes of white flowers, orange zest and sweet spice.
Brick House Pinot Noir “Les Dijonnais” 2008
The Dijon-clone Pinot Noir for this elegant wine comes from a single nine-acre parcel of biodynamically farmed land in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Bright, red cherry flavors are balanced by snappy, food-friendly acidity and a light spice on the finish.
Cowhorn Vineyard Grenache 74 2008
Taking its name from the number of hours these vines were covered in frost before the 2008 harvest, this hearty, unfiltered Grenache offers fresh rhubarb and blackberry flavors with a hint of dark chocolate on the finish.
Domaine de Veilloux Cheverney “Argilo” Rouge 2005
Light and funky, this Gamay/Pinot Noir blend mixes a barnyard-y nose with fresh raspberries flavors and a white peppery finish.
Domaine Julien Meyer Pinot Gris 2006
Lively and expressive, this Alsatian Pinot Gris offers fragrant savory aromas of green olives and fresh herbs while balancing great minerality and bright acidity.
Foradori Teroldego Rotaliano 2006
In the capable hands of Elisabetta Foradori, this rare Italian varietal is one you’ll want to revisit time after time for its plum and cassis flavors, soft tannins and spicy finish.
Grgich Hills Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
This wine is approachable yet cellar-worthy with rich flavors of black cherry and licorice, chewy tannins and balanced barrel spice on the finish.
Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis Grand Cru “Les Clos” 2007
This 100-percent Chardonnay encapsulates everything we love about grand cru Chablis, from the chalky minerality to the honeyed lemon finish. Pair with fresh oysters or shrimp scampi.
Montinore Estate Almost Dry Riesling 2008
Certified biodynamic in 2008, this Willamette Valley Riesling is citrusy with notes of fresh lime and tangerine meeting bold minerality and a touch of peachy sweetness on the finish.
Nikolaihof Grüner Veltliner “Hefeabzug” 2008
Considered to be the oldest wine estate in Austria, Nikolaihof’s history dates back nearly 2000 years, and today is entirely Demeter-certified. Their Grüner is tart and tangy with notes of bright green apple and loads of stone minerality on the finish.
When you talk to winemakers, many of them — most, even — love making blended wines. It allows them to exercise, if not artistry (it is just wine, after all), then a certain amount of exacting craft. Not surprisingly, many are called to the business of blending, but relatively few are among the chosen who can pull it off to a high luster.
The two wines to follow achieve such a blending standard.
Cowhorn Spiral 36 White Table Wine “Applegate Valley” 2009 — You can make a pretty strong case that the hardest wines to find — at a palatable price, anyway — are distinctive dry white wines. We’re awash in too many dry white wines that are, well, stupid.
This is why when you taste a dry white that might be described as “intelligent,” you’re delighted. Cowhorn Spiral 36 White Table Wine 2009 from southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley is more than intelligent — it’s in the near-genius category.
What Cowhorn Spiral 36 White Table Wine 2009 has that makes it so exceptional is a successful melding of three grape varieties into a dry white wine of distinctive character and superb finesse.
A Rhône-inspired blend of viognier (34 percent), marsanne (33 percent) and roussanne (33 percent), the first thing that strikes you is the color: It’s pale lemon with a slightly greenish cast.
When you stick your nose in the glass what wafts up is a come-hither array of scents that includes minerals, hay, citrus, peaches, mango, melon and a subtle spiciness. That last note is from the viognier grape, famous for its spicy scent.
This blend is seamless, a rare accomplishment. All of the grape varieties were fermented together, and the wine saw no malolactic fermentation, which insures a bright, refreshing acidity. Although the wine has some oak aging (23 percent new French oak), there’s no apparent oakiness. This is very deft winemaking.
Cowhorn Spiral 36 White Table Wine 2009 is a dense, substantial, beautifully balanced dry white wine (from biodynamically grown grapes, by the way) that is characterful enough to serve with white meats such as pork or poultry, as well as grilled salmon and ripe, strong cheeses. Only 400 cases were made. Bottom line: This is one of Oregon’s finest dry white wines, bar none. Get it while you can. $21.95. (Distributor is Casa Bruno.)
Château de Valcombe “Tradition” Costières de Nimes 2007 — It’s hard not to be dazzled by the capacity of France to issue really good wines at bargain prices. In recent years, France has not received anywhere near the credit it deserves for this accomplishment, in part because France has done a shabby job of promoting itself.
A good example of just what France can deliver at a stellar price is the red wine called Château de Valcombe “Tradition” 2007 from the southern French district of Costières de Nimes. Never heard of Costières de Nimes? It’s far from famous. And the name itself is relatively new, dating only to 1989. Previously it was called Costières du Gard. Presumably the locals liked the association with the nearby city of Nimes, which boasts the best-preserved ancient Roman coliseum in France.
What’s interesting about Costières de Nimes is just how much wine this one district cranks out. It has 37,000 acres of vines, which is more vineyard area than, say, Napa Valley. Most of the production is either red or rosé.
Château de Valcombe “Tradition” 2007 shows what this district can do. An unusually rich, dense, even succulent red wine composed mostly of syrah (70 percent) with the balance in grenache, it’s surprisingly supple and irresistibly drinkable. This is a drink-now red ideal for just about any meat sizzling from a hot grill. It’s a barbecue red supreme. The price is as first-rate as the wine: $11.95 a bottle. (Distributor is Galaxy Wine Co.)
– Matt Kramer
2010 Spring Wine Guide
2009 Cowhorn Spiral 36 White Table Wine, Applegate Valley: This is great picnic food, warm or cold. The chicken (a recipe from chef Adam Sappinton’s granny) is a winner with the wine’s blend of marsanne, roussanne and viognier. The Spiral 36 has a subtle viscosity, a honey-and-ripe-fruit nose, and a balanced acidity that lingers on the palate. It also has legs to stand up to the rich chicken meat, and it carried my palate through to every finger-licking bite. Great value.
– Kimberly Paley
Wine Press Northwest gives Excellent rating for COWHORN 2006 Syrah and 2008 Spiral 36
Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden 2006 Syrah, Applegate Valley, $32
Review: It bodes well for the future of this Southern Oregon certified biodynamic site that mere second-leaf fruit produced a wine of this quality. Tones of blackberry, Rainier cherry, loganberry and citrus – a hint at the Marsanne (5%) – are met by chocolate, cinnamon and oregano. The combination of cherry skin tannin and shiny acidity will serve this well with braised meats, but it’s also worthy of slotting in the cellar.
Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden 2008 Spiral 36 White Table Wine, Applegate Valley, $18
Review: Bill and Barbara Steele sourced Blocks 3 and 6, hence the name, from their certified biodynamic vineyard in Jacksonville, Ore., for this crowd-pleasing Rhone-influenced blend of Viognier (35%), Roussanne (35%) and Marsanne. Restrained use of French oak allows for florals of Asian pear, passionfruit, banana and clean linen. It’s your grandmother’s apple pie – ala mode – on the viscous entry to the palate with gooseberry tartness in the middle. Next is a flurry of toast, vanilla extract and banana in the farewell.
There’s much buzz about biodynamics in the Northwest wine world. A kind of über-organic agriculture discipline, it sees the farm as a holistic energy system, and demands extra time, care, and commitment from the farmer. If you want to know how good biodynamically grown and made wine can taste, seek out this wine from Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in Southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley.
Spiral 36 (named for the winery’s logo and the two vineyard blocks the grapes came from) is Cowhorn’s Rhône-style white blend of Viognier, Roussane, and Marsanne. It is a delightfully complex wine, with clean pear, apricot, and apple fruit components surrounded by distinctive minerality and herbal notes. It is bright and fresh, with taut acidity and an almost electric character that evolves remarkably in the glass. A touch of new oak and plenty of fruit flavors make for an integrated and deliciously balanced wine.
Owners Bill and Barbara Steele purchased their property in 2002. After extensive testing and learning about their site, they established their 11-acre vineyard in 2005 on one soil type, followed in the next year by produce gardens and orchards on another soil set. The gardens, vineyard, and winery are all Demeter-certified Biodynamic®, the only such farm in Southern Oregon.
Though still a young enterprise, Cowhorn (named for the biodynamic practice of burying herbal tea-stuffed cow horns) has produced early wines that are impressive, regardless of how they farm. It is well worth a trip to visit their tasting room, if only to get your hands on some of their tiny production.
At this time of year, we all think back on what left an impression. Wine, obviously, occupies much of my brain, and even after I’m done with the Top 100 Wines, I still have notebooks filled with tasting notes that often never see the light of day. I write down nearly everything I taste, but sometimes the wines aren’t on the market anymore, sometimes they’re too hard to obtain, sometimes they just don’t fit neatly into the stories I’m working on at the moment.
As the year draws to a close, I start thinking back on which wines have left their mark.
My 10 most memorable wines aren’t a buying guide so much as a window on where my tastes were at in 2008. Looking back through my notes, the topics of fascination were clear: meticulously made Chardonnay, Marsanne, German Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir), Sherry. Burgundy, as always, was front of mind but in short supply. Barolo, which normally would be my own personal obsession, played a minor role. So much Pinot passed through with little impression; so much Syrah caught my eye.
Many of these are special and scarce enough to be made with extreme care. That means many – though certainly not all – weren’t cheap. Some are rare enough that I wouldn’t expect to find them again. All the more reason to consider them now.
There’s no direct overlap with the Top 100. We limit that list to the best wines we taste from the West Coast, which represents just a fraction of all the wines I taste in a year. Why simply repeat them?
I scoured the thousands of wines I wrote notes on – not only in our weekly blind panels but in public and private tastings and bottles opened with dinner. That yielded a list of about 80 wines that immediately stirred a fond memory.
These final 10 represent the wines that achieved true persistence of memory through the many months.
10 2005 Scarecrow Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon There’s something almost frustrating about a blockbuster Cabernet with such amazing provenance. From a bountiful vintage and the gnarly 60-plus-year-old vines of Rutherford’s J.J. Cohn vineyard, now overseen by Bret Lopez and Mimi DeBlasio, Celia Welch Masyczek crafted a pitch-perfect expression of Napa Cabernet that’s as seductive and perfumed as it is dense and wound in its tannic power. Even as Masyczek walked me through her outstanding lineup of wines in October – Hollywood & Vine, DR Stephens, Lindstrom and more – the Scarecrow stood clear, making its undeniable point about the virtues of vines from the pre-clonal, pre-rootstock era that have been given time to adapt to a very special patch of ground.
9 2006 Tahbilk Nagambie Lakes Marsanne The Tahbilk came in a fit of curiosity at Wine & Spirits’ Top 100 event this fall, in my momentary breath-catching moment between tasting grand cru Chablis and unctuous Beerenausleses. One taste and it was so darn evident: Tahbilk has more than earned its place among the top examples of Marsanne, that fine and often misunderstood Rhone grape. From Australia’s Victoria region, the winery claims to grow more of it than anyone else in the world, with vines dating back to 1927. This version is exotic and floral, bursting with jasmine scents and the almost slippery texture that Marsanne can have, yet ready to expand with some age. As well kept a secret as you’ll find.
8 2006 Nino Negri Ca’ Brione Terazze Retiche di Sondrio IGT White Wine Mostly I associate Nino Negri with its exquisite line of Valtellina Sfursat wines, made from semi-dried Nebbiolo in the Alpine reaches of Lombardy. This oak-aged white made from partially dried Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, indigenous Incrocio Manzoni and a bit of red Nebbiolo vinified as a white seemed like a fun curiosity when I first wrote notes back in May. Then I found myself returning to it through the year, recommending it to anyone who would listen.
The Ca’ Brione meshes the best of northern Italy’s explosive Sauvignon minerality with the lavish palate found in white Rhone and the opulent fig and honeycomb of ripe Chardonnay. With tons of endurance and character, it’s a unique creation that shows how much innovation lies in northern Italy.
7 2005 Mills Reef Hawkes Bay Reserve Merlot Malbec Half Merlot and half Malbec? Could New Zealand’s Preston family have picked any less fashionable blend? This radiantly beautiful bottling, tank fermented and aged in older barrels, was the final proof I needed that the Gimblett Gravels area of the North Island is meant to be a perfect home for Bordeaux varietals. It’s all about pristine berry fruit and subtle aromatic notes – sandalwood, tea and dried white flowers. A high-wire dance between a high-acid profile and fleshy texture made the Mills Reef one of the most appealing dinner-table bottles I found all year. Its many threads of improbability made it all the more special.
6 1998 Gaston Chiquet Special Club Brut Champagne A highlight from my Election Night lineup – and several other occasions, including a very good bottle shared at Nopa with Champagne sage Peter Liem. If the ’98 vintage didn’t quite stack up to user-friendly ’97 or powerful ’99, Nicolas Chiquet found a ripe but completely precise and firm expression for his Special Club (a special bottling that undergoes peer review from other growers in the Club Tresors de Champagne). The ’99 may be more opulent, but the ’98 is a jubilant, rich, spectacular Champagne. In a year with plenty of great Champagne – the 2000 Cristal Rosé and 1997 Salon left lasting impressions, for instance – the ’98 Chiquet remained top of mind.
5 2005 Guigal Hermitage Blanc Ex Voto In a strong Hospices du Rhone lineup of wines from this nonpareil vintner, including the red Ex Voto and a gobstopping 2006 Condrieu, this rare white Hermitage was what left me breathless. Ninety percent old-vine Marsanne (the rest Roussanne) from the Murets and tiny Hermite parcels, aged a full 30 months in all new oak, it is as ageless as white wine gets. In May, at least, the full depth of the white Ex Voto couldn’t even be approached from a distance. What came through was a flinty, drama-filled expression, lavishly silky and knotted in a ball of mineral power with grated orange, fresh peach and macadamia as accents. Philippe Guigal recommended a good 20 years aging at the time. Given the explosive power hovering below its surface, that seems perfectly reasonable.
4 2004 Meyer-Nakel Ahr Fruhburgunder Even as German Pinot Noir has finally made a cameo appearance on these shores, the powerful reds of the Ahr Valley outside Cologne remain an elusive presence. The exquisite Meyer-Nakel is among the rarest of all. All I had to do for this bottle was haul it back in my suitcase from the state domain at Marienthal in the Ahr, in which Werner Nakel now owns a share.
Can we even call it Pinot Noir? Fruhburgunder is an ancient early-ripening mutation that seems to have migrated to the Ahr. And yet … Meyer-Nakel’s expression is the very soul of Pinot. A galvanizing, rich expression of white mineral, violets, rum-soaked currant and wild strawberry, full of earth and fine-grained power. To buy another bottle, all I’d have to do is catch a flight to Cologne, drive about an hour south and pray there’s still one in the cellar. I’d do it in a second.
3 2006 Kongsgaard The Judge Napa Valley Chardonnay Along with a couple other talented hands, John Kongsgaard revived my faith in California Chardonnay this year. (It’s not bad; it’s just made that way, as a pastiche of real wine.) For the Top 100, I ended up siding with Kongsgaard’s more available – and affordable – Napa Valley bottling. But it’s the Judge that perfectly expresses his death-and-resurrection philosophy with Chardonnay, and his understanding of how timeless wines come from naturally low yields in the perfect site. The fruit here is powerful enough to put 100 percent new French oak in its place, and there is nothing short of inspiration from tasting the clear tension and power within. One drop of this in a sea of butter would do a ton to revive Chardonnay’s good name.
2 NV Bodegas Garvey Jauna Sacristia de Garvey Palo Cortado Sherry I bought this Sherry in July from the collection at Darrell Corti’s Sacramento store, utterly fell in love with it and promptly took the scenic route back through the delta to buy more – the hell with the fact it runs about $70 a bottle. Ever since, I’ve been sipping it, in tiny amounts, when I need a dose of the sublime to lift an otherwise mundane day.
Palo Cortado is a natural anomaly of Sherry – it begins with the freshness of an Amontillado until the protective layer of flor fails and it ages like a robust dry Oloroso. From one of Jerez’s older but less known shippers, Garvey’s Sacristia line is a limited bottling of wines kept for extra aging and traditionally served only to the house’s special guests. This one hails from a refreshed solera that, in Corti’s view, likely has a lineage back to Garvey’s 18th century roots – a continuum of Sherry history. An endless barrage of flavors hits me each time I revisit it: roasted almond, lavender sea salt, damp bark, preserved lemon peel and so on, all with perfect unity and endless broad presence. In a year when I’ve been on the hunt for exemplary Sherries, this has the honor of blowing them all out of the water. On its own virtues, probably my most perfect wine of 2008.
1 1985 Domaine Ponsot Griotte-Chambertin There’s no question setting plays a role in the enjoyment of wine. The circumstance in this case was pitch-perfect: at the end of a string of dinners at New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro in Talent, Ore., the quixotic restaurant run by Chez Panisse and New Boonville Hotel veterans Charlene and Vernon Rollins. It was the culmination of a completely unplugged summer vacation in the hills outside Ashland.
But setting aside, here was perfection, from one of the most rigorous producers, from the smallest and probably most obscure of Gevrey’s grands crus, from a ripe toss-up vintage. Scents of blood and cinnamon and earth, and fresh red cherry fruit – still fresh some 23 years later – emerged with extraordinary clarity. The only recent analogue from my notebooks this year might be the 2006 Faiveley Corton Clos des Cortons, a monopole bottling that signals that house’s current strength. There will always be Burgundies that rekindle the doomed love affair with these most difficult wines. But at a time during the year when I was brought low by the uniformity of too many wines, the ’85 Griotte was nothing short of a restorative act of faith.
20 unexpected pleasures
Winemakers, like ad execs, spend a lot of time trying to cut through the clutter. Some wines make an obvious impact – if a 2005 first-growth Bordeaux doesn’t knock you over the head, it hasn’t done its job – but the most exciting finds often appear from your blind spot. When you’re at a dinner party, with no notebooks or Blackberries to consult, you find yourself gushing about these wines and the unpredictability of discovering them.
What follows are my 20 biggest surprises of the year. After all, sometimes the unexpected pleasure is the best of all.
2005 Andrew Will Two Blondes Vineyard Yakima Valley Red Wine I don’t know that I’d say the young-vines Two Blondes was a better wine than Chris Camarda’s Ciel du Cheval, one of our top red wines this year. But the cooler vineyard site and 36 percent Cabernet Franc in the blend made it thoroughly compelling – and further evidence that Washington state has enormous potential to make world-class wines from Cab Franc.
2006 Betts & Scholl The Chronique Barossa Valley Grenache Nearly 15 percent alcohol Grenache from the toasty Barossa that’s channeling Volnay? Yep. This effort from master sommelier Richard Betts and art collector Dennis Scholl pulls it off, exquisitely.
2005 Big Basin Rattlesnake Rock Santa Cruz Mountains Syrah For several years, Bradley Brown has been making a name for the Syrah from his estate parcel near Boulder Creek, but after tasting it twice this year, it was clear that he’s found a perfectly expressive site for it – and may have given the southern Santa Cruz Mountains a reputation for spectacular Syrah.
2007 Cowhorn Applegate Valley Oregon Marsanne Roussanne Bill and Barbara Steele left San Francisco to found this biodynamic Rhone-focused project in a remote corner of southern Oregon. This inaugural, Marsanne-dominant white blend is precise and snappy, showing tons of promise.
1996 J.-A. Ferret Les Menetrieres Hors Classe Pouilly-Fuisse Importer Neal Rosenthal poured this in June to make a point both about the ability of the better ’96 white Burgundies to survive their downward-spiral reputation, and generally about the age potential of typically young-drinking Pouilly. He may have proved it too well, as this smoky, hay-inflected specimen blew away the Meursault next to it, and most other wines that night. Vive la Pouilly!
2006 Heggies Vineyard Reserve Eden Valley Chardonnay Peter Gambetta’s wines from one of Australia’s cooler sites would have made an impact in any case. But I happened to taste this at the same time as the 2005 Giaconda Victoria Estate Chardonnay, from one of Australia’s most sought-after names. The $20 Heggies won the empty-glass test over the $100 Giaconda, a happy result for all our wallets.
NV Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana Sherry If most Sherry is meant to rely on the virtues of blending, Hidalgo bottles this effort from the Pastrana vineyard in Sanlucar de Barrameda as a tribute to the expression of a single plot. It’s like Manzanilla amplified, full of salt and freshness but with gravitas and rich butterscotch-like notes.
2006 Karlsmuhle-Geiben Kaseler Nies’chen Spatlese Riesling Not the best known (or most pronounceable) among Terry Theise’s German wines, but the light-dark interplay of mineral and the amazing tension of this Ruwer bottling from a tricky year made it stand out in a January tasting with a lot of fantastic wines. Back on my radar, big time.
1979 Karthauserhof Kronenberg Eitelsbacher Karthauserhofberg Auslese Riesling True, I’m an absolute sucker for the wines of Christophe Tyrell’s historic Ruwer estate. This rerelease from an unremarkable vintage, opened for my father’s birthday, reminded me why. Still glinting green at 29 years old, its stone and fresh citrus notes were nearly overwhelming, with just a bit of classic petrol for subtle edge and the Auslese sweetness pleasantly dried out after nearly three decades.
2005 Kiralyudvar Tokaji Sec Dry Furmint from Hungary’s Tokaji region with the weight and amplitude of white Burgundy, and the opulence of an off-dry Vouvray. Just plain gorgeous.
2006 Leth Felser Weinberge Lagenreserve Wagram-Donauland Riesling The classic story of how a producer gets on my radar. From the Wagram area east of Vienna, really Gruner Veltliner territory, appeared this heretofore unknown Riesling, its stony rigidity and dense mouthfeel making it remarkable for the $20 price. Enough so that after our January tasting, I spent the year ordering Leth every time I found it on a wine list – and discovered its standout 2007 Steinagrund Gruner Veltliner as well.
2006 Meyer-Fonné Reserve Particuliere Pinot Gris A newish arrival in Kermit Lynch’s portfolio, Meyer-Fonné keeps stealing my attention away from better known Alsace names like Ostertag and Zind-Humbrecht. The foresty aromas in this remarkable bottle make you start reconsidering what you think about Pinot Gris.
2004 Morey-Coffinet Chassagne-Montrachet Rouge Morgeot A cool vintage and an appellation known for white wines, and yet this Chassagne Rouge was so stony, radiant and sublime that it kept me captivated over far more pedigreed Burgundies. This made me stop listening to everyone kvetching about how underripe ’04 Burgundies were.
2006 Pyramid Valley Vineyards Hille Vineyard Marlborough Semillon Mike Weersing’s project is turning out some of the most characterful wines in New Zealand, but even for the staunchly geeky, this Semillon is more an erudite pleasure than anything. But its herbal, mysterious profile was so compelling that I ran out to buy a bunch.
2005 Salinia WE Bottoms Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir When Californians use the word “Burgundian,” prepare to start rolling your eyes. Kevin Kelley, however, doesn’t invoke that word much himself but delivers the real thing in his Pinot, with lots of bloody tang and truffly earth, bolstered by almost electric red fruit that speaks to his high-acid preference and his wines’ high-toned beauty.
2007 Salwey Estate Dry Pinot Blanc From the long and languorous 2007 vintage in Germany, a returning name from Baden in Rudi Wiest’s portfolio made one of the most refined Pinot Blanc’s I’ve had in a long time. Its gorgeous, cutting mineral presence reminded me how spectacular German Weissburgunder can be.
2005 Scholium Project Nereides Guman Vineyard White Wine Among the most intellectual and rare of Abe Schoener’s Scholium wines, this is Chardonnay reconsidered. From stunningly low-yield vines, its saline character bursts forth, leading to an onslaught of flavors – some Chardonnay-like, many completely from left field – bolstered by a practically syrupy texture and an almost tannic grip.
2004 Cantina de Terlano Lagrein Porphyr No, no, no – this earthy, purplish red from Italy’s Alto Adige should be subtle and fruit-driven, right? The level of new French oak and extract makes the Cantina’s reserve bottling a bit hard to parse when young, but it also shows that Lagrein, so often misunderstood, has fantastic potential as a cellarable, serious wine when its intrinsic earthiness is allowed to blossom.
2005 Tre Viti Stolo Family Vineyard Central Coast Syrah The rows of vines stretching west from Paso Robles toward the coast are ever multiplying, but few can reach further toward the ocean than the Stolos’ parcel, just east of the fog-shrouded town of Cambria, perhaps 6 miles from the coast and just south of San Simeon. I first saw the vineyards in mid-2007, tasted the wine later that year, and didn’t put the two together until this spring, when I was dazzled again by its potential. It gives new meaning to the second word in Central Coast.
NV Mauro Vergano Luli Vino Chinato Sweet fortified Muscat made with an herbal infusion, a twist on Piedmont’s already obscure aromatized Barolo Chinato. This, plus Vergano’s buoyant Grignolino-based Americano, have been captivating all year both on their own and as fodder for Bay Area bartenders that have used them as a reconsideration of vermouth.
– Jon Bonné
– Jon Bonné, Chronicle Wine Editor
You’ve seen the word pop up here from time to time. I assure you it elicits the full spectrum of emotions from winemakers and wine lovers, from rage to reverence. The word is “biodynamic.”
Some rail against it as mystical voodoo. Others see it as a form of salvation, restoring vineyards and wine –and us –to a more naturalistic, balanced sensibility.
What is biodynamic wine? Simply put, it’s an extreme form of organic, sustainable agriculture, for wine grapes or any other crop, based on the writings of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), an Austrian philosopher and spiritualist. A term invented by Steiner’s acolytes after he died, biodynamics requires extreme and rigorous attention in vineyard and winemaking practices, involving homeopathic sprays and ultra-naturalistic winemaking, much of it centering on phases of the moon and references to astrology.
Biodynamics is quasi-religious in its faith-based beliefs that “explain” its methods. Practices that border on the proto-primitive, such as burying a cow horn filled with a specified compost during a certain phase of the moon, leave it open, understandably, to ridicule. Consequently, many wine drinkers and winemakers are skeptical of claims of superiority made for biodynamic wines.
Biodynamics is the “new kosher.” Unlike actual kosher wines, where no one suggests taste superiority by virtue of the process, biodynamic wines have attracted an ardent cohort of wine lovers who submit that both the process and the resulting expression are superior. British wine writer Jancis Robinson, for one, says biodynamic wines “seem wilder and more intense.”
There’s even a rabbinate, of sorts. An organization called Demeter –the American branch of which is based in Philomath –promulgates an orthodoxy of biodynamic rules and acts as a private certifying agency.
For this observer, biodynamic processes are a form of discipline, some of which may well actually work, some of which may be more sustaining to the practitioner than practical to the plant or wine.
What matters is that biodynamic cultivation signals a willingness to pay extreme attention to vines and wines. Like driving a race car, if you take your eyes off the road –or in this case, a highly vulnerable vineyard –an irremediable disaster can result. Ask any farmer: Attentiveness is always a good thing.
Are biodynamic wines actually superior? Here again, causality is hardly clear. What is clear is that biodynamic practitioners, by virtue of their practices, are much more likely to have lower yields in the vineyards (good), more deferential winemaking practices in the winery (good) and will be interested in wines that are anything but conventionally commercial (ditto).
Bottom line: If I see a wine that’s proclaimed as biodynamic, my ears (and palate) perk up. If nothing else, I know I’m dealing with a winegrower committed to something that often results in characterful, interesting and occasionally even profound wines.
Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden “Applegate Valley” Marsanne/Roussanne 2007: Southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley, near Jacksonville, has had a variable history of winegrowing, with both hits and misses. Local producers have struggled to find the right grapes for their sites.
Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden is the valley’s newest entrant, with 20 acres of crops such as barley, alfalfa and orchards, and a scant 11 acres of grapevines. Nevertheless, with this 2007 dry white wine blend of marsanne (77 percent) and roussanne (23 percent), it has hit something close to a jackpot of flavor and finesse.
Cowhorn is a biodynamic vineyard, certified by Demeter. If that isn’t reassurance enough, Cowhorn also is certified organic.
Whether the exceptional quality and sheer goodness of this first marsanne/roussanne blend –both grapes are mainstays in the white wines of France’s Rhone Valley –is from biodynamic cultivation I cannot say.
But I can say that this: Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden “Applegate Valley” Marsanne/Roussanne 2007 is eye-openingly good: dense-textured, dry and redolent of hay, with a touch of apricot, wildflowers with a lovely metallic zip and zing in the finish. In short: This is an Oregon white like no other. It’s rich, dense and flavorful enough to take on the likes of pork, chicken and turkey, as well as a good many Thai and Indian curries. This is worth hunting down. $17.95. (Distributor is Casa Bruno.)
Worth noting: Oregon has 339 acres of certified biodynamic vineyards, according to the Oregon Wine Board (www.oregonwine.org), but finding a comprehensive list of those vineyards and wineries is surprisingly difficult. You’d think that the certifying organization, Demeter (www.demeter-usa.org), would offer such a list, but its Web site is shallow and uninformative with no such list, nor even much substantive information about biodynamics itself. A better resource is the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (attra.ncat.org). Despite its official-sounding name, it has no government affiliation. Enter “biodynamic” in the site’s search box to learn about biodynamic practices.
– Matt Kramer
The name refers to the biodynamic practice of stuffing a cowhorn with animal dung and burying it on winery property during winter, then digging it up, adding water, and spraying the vines with the mixture. Taste Blueberry flavors set it apart from the syrah pack. Sip tip Another wine to wow your enviro pals, this all-natural syrah is a welcome guest at any vegan feast. Cellar life 5+
– Jessica Voelker and Condé Cox