VINE CUTTINGS December 2001

News and Notes from the World of Wine



Published:

Keeping Up with the Joneses
Abacela Winery Opts for Tempranillo in Oregon

Spanish Tempranillo was popular when I was in college back in the 1960s, but none of us knew its proper name. To us, it was just Rioja, it was usually good and, most importantly, it was cheap—even cheaper than the California jug wines that were our other mainstay. "Varietal" meant nothing to us. Once we graduated, we left behind the red wines of Spain, along with the other more dubious trappings of college life (roommates, spontaneous parties, short romances and bad beer). The more sophisticated pleasures of France, perhaps even Italy, beckoned.

One couple not only acquired a taste for the variety back then, but grew up loving it so much that they've recently gotten it into their heads to grow the stuff.

But in Oregon?

Let Hilda Jones explain. Hilda and her husband, Earl, are the winemakers at Abacela. "Earl was still a student in San Francisco when he discovered Tempranillo from Spain about 35 years ago," says Hilda. It was a very affordable wine—about $1 a bottle—with great flavors, body and structure. Well, Rioja kindled our interest, but Ribera del Duero ignited the flame. The nuances in the old Riojas are so subtle yet profound, while the fruit-driven Riberas told us that Tempranillo had promise that had not been tested outside of Spain."

In the early 1990s, the couple left the eastern shore of Alabama's Mobile Bay (and their comfortable jobs in the medical field) for the Pacific Northwest. "We wanted to do something different that we loved and that was a challenge, and Earl had always thought about a winery all our own," she recalls. "So in 1989, with thoughts of retirement one day, and weather without humidity, fire ants, mosquitoes, poisonous snakes and hurricanes, we began our search for land where we could pursue our dream."

Tempranillo? Why would first-time winemakers pick such a relatively unknown variety?

"We felt that the consumer was ready for something different," explains Jones. "If you were going to start a winery, would you go to California and try to break into the market by making Cabernet and competing with all the big guys, or would you plant grapes that would produce something stellar for a niche market?"

And niche it certainly is. It took the Joneses three years to find the perfect site to start their winery. Studying climactic data that helped them match varietal and climate brought them to the Umpqua Valley, in southwestern Oregon. Here, near the town of Roseburg, modern (i.e., post-Prohibition) winemaking began in 1961 when Richard Sommer established his Hillcrest Winery. David Lett followed with Eyrie Vineyards
five years later and, soon after, Dick Erath and Dick Ponzi (who, like Sommer, hailed from the University of California at Davis) reclaimed the Willamette.

"The hundred valleys of the Umpqua," as the region is known locally, run north-south for 70 miles, in a twisted ribbon of small, lightly forested hillsides falling away to fast-moving river drainages. Fed by the snows of the Cascades, the Umpqua flows through the Coastal Range to the ocean, thus allowing maritime air to return upriver, bringing cool evening breezes in summer. "The climate in the Umpqua offers a growing season that's very similar to that of the Ribera and the upper Ebro-Rioja Alta area," says Hilda, "including, most importantly, a long, cool ripening period to preserve the fruit intensity." Hilda and Earl planted their first vines here in 1995, on shallow, south-facing slopes.

How best to grow the variety was the next problem, especially because they were the first ones to do it in this area. "We experimented with the right trellising system, pruning of plants, hedging and thinning of canes to produce superior fruit," says Jones. The vines took so well that in two years they released their first commercial bottling, the 1997 Tempranillo.

Since quality is the couple's number-one priority, the grapes at Abacela are picked by hand in the early morning, brought to the winery in small lugs, destemmed but not crushed, cold-soaked for three to four days, then fermented in small batches for 10 to 14 days. The three-story gravity-flow winery allows the juice to travel from one level to the next simply by hose with no need for harsh pumping.

The opulent, concentrated Abacela 1997 Tempranillo ($29), already showing hints of licorice and leather, is more precocious than the deeper, tightly packed '98 ($29), but both are highly aromatic and already delicious. These blackberry and black-cherry-flavored wines display beautiful balance and elegance, with lively acids and fine, ripe, firm tannins. They are full-bodied but not massive. Their levels of extract and acidity, as well as their long finishes, indicate age-worthiness (especially the 1998), but only time will tell. "We can't wait to find out what Abacela's Tempranillos will taste like in 10 or 15 years," beams Jones.

Since those first plantings of Tempranillo, Abacela's eclectic roster of varietals has grown to include Grenache, Dolcetto, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. My favorites of the 1998 vintage are the big, currant-flavored Malbec and the crisp, strawberry-scented Dolcetto.

—Ed Brivio

 

 
Message in a Bottle
Top Winemakers' Corks Are Speaking Volumes


While some winemakers debate the merits of real versus synthetic corks, and others like PlumpJack are abandoning corks altogether in favor of screw-top enclosures, corks remain the most popular ways to seal bottles of wine. they're a simple, utilitarian devices, sometimes left blank, more often imprinted with the vineyard's name and the vintage. But a few winemakers see the cork as a blank canvas for their creativity and choose to adorn it with a wide array of quirky material, sometimes funny, occasionally mysterious and sometimes serious.

I first noticed the trend with a cork plucked from a bottle of Frog's Leap: instead of the usual routine information, it said "Ribbit." "I Presume!" say the corks at Livingston Moffett, a nod to the famous explorer, as is the winery's Stanley's Selection Cabernet. Daniel Gehrs' corks declare "High Fidelity Wines Since 1976," while Fess Parker, one-time star of TV's Davy Crockett, emblazons his corks with coonskin caps. And Honig (which means honey in German) features a small bee on the top of its cork, plus the words, "Give us a buzz" and the winery's toll-free number.

Fetzer's reserve series features pithy wine-related quotes from a variety of philosophers and others, including Baudelaire ("Within the bottle's depths, the wine's soul sang one night") and Plato ("Nothing more excellent nor more valuable than wine was ever granted mankind by God"). Callaway Coastal's bottles cover similar territory, from Euripides ("Where there is no wine, there is no love") to Thomas Jefferson ("Good wine is a necessity of life").

Benton Lane's logo is a postage stamp, and the corks in its Pinot Noirs are stamped with a circular "Benton Lane" postmark, indicating its home counties in Oregon (Benton and—you guessed it—Lane).

Sullivan Vineyards Winery imprints its corks with a few sayings, including "Poetry in the bottle" (paraphrasing Robert Louis Stevenson's description of wines from Napa Valley) as well as two original phrases from the founder and his daughter, "Kiss of the vine" and "Upon thy lips of love pass the wine."

Francis Ford Coppola, well known for his love of music, prints the name of one of composer Francesco Pennino's songs on each bottle of his Edizione Pennino Zinfandel from Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery. Pennino was Coppola's maternal grandfather, and his Senza Mamma is heard in the wedding scene of the first Godfather film.

And finally, one cork that few of us will ever see: Screaming Eagle's, which reads, "Fly high and proud."

—Chris Rubin

Are Corks Getting Screwed?
New Zealand Wineries Opting for Modern Screw Caps

There's a new revolution in the New Zealand wine industry—it's the revolution in the twist of the screw-cap wine seal. Once looked upon by consumers as a sure sign that a bottle contained cheap plonk, the metal screw cap (which, from a distance, looks like an ordinary capsule), is a 21st-century revolution in wine packaging that now signifies quality wine.

Twenty-eight New Zealand producers have already committed to the screw caps marketed under the brand names Stelvin, Auscap and Supervin. They have formed a group called the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative; the wines they will be capping with the seal include Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.

One of the reasons for this change is the effect that cork taint, or TCA (2,4,6-trichloranisole), has on wines. TCA has an obvious affect on about 5 to 8 percent of wines, according to New Zealand experts. It introduces wet-sack, mildew-like aromas and a flat, dull taste. The other major factors driving the abandonment of cork are random oxidation, premature aging and discoloration, all of which can cause inconsistent flavoring among different bottles of the same wine. Now the winemakers are working alongside the bottle producers, screw-cap suppliers and bottling companies to ensure successful implementation of the initiative.

"There are very few things you can do that will have an overall affect on wine quality across the board," says Master of Wine Michael Brajkovich, winemaker for Kumeu River Wines, commenting on the unacceptable degree of cork taint and bottle variation in the 1998 Kumeu River Chardonnays. "Screw caps are proven and reliable but failed 20 years ago because the public was not ready for them," he says.

While New Zealand's export markets in the United Kingdom are readily accepting the new screw-cap wine seal, distributors in the United States are more wary. Most that have been offered a choice of cork or screw cap have opted for the traditional closure. Who knows, though? Jackson Estate's U.S. distributors may start a trend: They visited New Zealand this past August and, after tasting screw-capped wines, they now favor the new seal.

Kumeu River, Forrest Estate and Lawson's Dry Hills are other brands that will be distributed in the U.S. with some or all of their wine closed with screw caps. The winemakers are confident that the consumer will receive wine in premium condition—no taint, only even and graceful ageability inside.

—Sue Courtney

 

All The Wine In China?
Wine Distributors Look East
for Emerging Market

Wine enthusiasts are accustomed to reading about wine fairs in France, Italy, California and England…but China? Yes, this December 5-9, the first China (Zhuhai) International Wine and Spirit Trade Fair will take place in the seaside city of Zhuhai, in Guangdong Province.

Guangdong, China's most developed and liberal (in the market sense) province, leads the nation in economic growth and exports, as well as gross domestic product. Situated on the mainland near Hong Kong and Macao, Zhuhai was one of the Communist nation's earliest experimental "special economic zones."

The wine and spirits trade show is scheduled to feature producers from China and 30 other nations. Global beverage firms and individual wineries want to become players in this potentially huge beverage industry—China is, after all, the world's most populous country and has only recently begun to open its doors to the rest of the world. On the heels of China's recent approval for membership in the World Trade Organization and Beijing's recent victory in its 2008 Olympic Games bid, the fair's promoters see the Wine and Spirit Trade Fair as another sign that the country is coming of age.

Though still a restrictive and tightly controlled society by our standards, China has come a long way from the virulent anti-Western—and especially anti-American—sentiment that wracked the country during the Cultural Revolution just a few decades ago. And now who knows? The next big little red book might just be a little red wine book.
For more information, visit www.sino33.com.

—Mark Mazur

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