Tag Archives: Wine tasting

Wisdom from Jackson Family winemakers – Masters of Oregon Pinot Noir

Jackson Family wines in Willamette Valley
Jackson Family wines in Willamette Valley

If you’ve ever thought a Pinot Noir from Oregon tasted like a Burgundy, you’re not alone. Though half a world away from each other, both regions are located on nearly the same latitude and many winemakers in each area practice similar vinification techniques. Early makers of Pinot Noir in America had to go to Burgundy to study because no wineries here were making Pinot Noir at the time. Willamette Valley has been focusing on Pinot Noir for the last 51 years, and its capricious weather keeps winemakers on their toes.

Oregon, according to a panel of Jackson Family Wines Collection winemakers from there who visited Chicago recently, is a state of mind that’s slightly different for each of them, but all of them speak about the need to be flexible and creative and collaborative because of the challenge of Oregon’s cool, fast-changing climate conditions.
Chicago is 6th in the United States in consumption of Oregon Pinot Noir – consumption here is up by 26% in the last year. And one of the big reasons is the excellent quality of the Pinot Noirs produced in the Willamette Valley by these very winemakers.
Pinot noir grapes growing in the Willamette Va...
Pinot noir grapes growing in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Below is a glimpse into the collective wisdom of these passionate and skilled winemakers – a somewhat loose arrangement of interesting bits about winemaking from the half-dozen panelists – who were, by the way, having more fun up there than we’ve ever seen in a wine tasting program!

  • The soils in Willamette (pronounced Will-am-it, dammit) are actually oceanic, which is really good for growing Pinot Noir grapes. As the earth’s tectonic plates scraped against each other creating mountains in that area, they dislodged soil that was formerly at the bottom of an ocean and deposited that in the valley between the two mountain ranges, Cascade and Coast that both influence the environment and protect the grapes that grow here.
  • In 1988 there were only 49 wineries in Oregon. Now there are 700.
  • Unlike in Napa Valley where many owners don’t live, Jackson Family winemakers live on site. They also meet regularly and readily share information with each other. For example, when one grower decided to try earlier thinning than tradition, he readily passed along the results: vines mature better and the grapes have more flavor.
  • California, Oregon’s southern neighbor, is too warm to grow Pinot Noir grapes. It seldom has difficult growing seasons, whereas Oregon’s climate is a constant challenge to wine growers.
  • Julia Jackson, born in Sonoma, said her mother had a vision of going to Oregon, and then the whole family fell in love with wines grown there. Julia herself loves being out in the vineyards, being stewards of the land, a sense of discovery about the great wines.  Jackson Family winemakers also believe in educating visitors and so sponsor collaborative trips for that purpose.
  • The grapes in Willamette are more transparent than those grown in Burgundy, yet the finished wines can easily be aged 10 to 15 years. Burgundy has many different producers. Willamette offers multiple mesoclimates. Producers must be in intimate touch with the features of their terroir, and most consider their big markers as the specific site and the vintage – yielding wines with a rustic nature and a nice backbone of tannins. Even though Oregon Pinots have a darker profile, they tend to be fresher and more acidic than California’s.
  • Napa is most known for its Cabernet; Willamette is identified with Pinot Noir; Argentina with Malbec. La Crema was the first Jackson Family winery to move into Oregon. They definitely don’t try to make a California version of Pinot, but rather work on discovering what’s there and stay true to that. Willamette’s vintage-to-vintage variability necessitates constant continuing education. Jackson Family winemakers are required to dedicate 5% of land to biodiversity as part of the goal of keeping the land healthy.
  • Lots of volcanic soils are good for winemaking and viticulture. They have greater water holding capacity. Results in plush, fruit-driven wines. Sedimentary soil (as in Willakenzie) drains more freely. Vines struggle more, resulting in wines that are a bit more rustic, firm, structured. Oregon has only these two soil types – sedimentary and volcanic. California has many more soil types than France.
  • Wind is a moderating influence, and in Oregon it is significant. The last two wines listed below are grown in seriously windy areas. Zena-Crown is in the Van Duzer Corridor, where the same strong wind blows all year, even on 90-degree days. “We pick 2-3 weeks later, because vines shut down at night. It’s always been a truism that we can’t plant above 1000 feet, but now we’re considering it because the summers have been so much warmer. Skins get thicker from the wind – which helps grapes defend against weather. Keeps higher acidity, which equals freshness and tannins.” Read more about the cool-climate growing conditions in Willamette Valley.
The winemakers are taking their program to various destinations around the U.S., and they said the character of the just-opened wines changes with every location – influenced by such things as barometric pressure, humidity, and the altitude at which you drink them. Even being on an upper floor, as we were in one of the beautiful Kimpton Gray Hotel event spaces where the program took place, would make a difference. They all said the wines were giving off more florals and more spice here than they had in the previous city. Ha! Most of us can only dream of one day achieving the level of sensitivity of such highly educated noses and palates…
Jackson Family winemakers talk to each other and taste wines together. They are individual artists who make their own decisions. The Jackson Family does not prescribe that a winemaker must do something in a particular way. In fact, they even allow them to use blocks of land from partner wineries to make their blends.
Structure, texture, and aroma are the concerns when putting together a blend. All Jackson Family vintners use French wood barrels and must be instinctive about how many oak barrels to buy – a decision that’s made long before the harvest.
“Look out for the tannins,” said one panel member. “The fermentation process can get away from you. It’s not good to add salt later in the process – that amounts to ‘remedial winemaking’ and isn’t where we want to go.” In Oregon, it always rains during harvest, but every good winemaker will say that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. They know how to compensate.
One panelist said they don’t drink their own wines at home, but rather experiment with others. “We go to the grocery store and buy European wines for $18-$20 a bottle. We want to know what the consumer is buying and experiencing.”
Below are the names of the six wines the panelists provided for tasting, organized from lightest to most substantial in structure. Each is marked with our totally subjective star rating (remember, we tend to love highly structured wines) and a few winemaker tasting notes.
  • Siduri Willamette Valley 2015. ***1/2  This Pinot is made with a blend of three different regions, uses 25% whole cluster (means they keep the grapes on their stems) and is made using Burgundian vinification techniques. Winemaker notes: “Darker berry and currant flavors, along with hints of cherry joined by earth, dried brush, and even tobacco flavors.” SRP ~$24
  • WillaKenzie Gisele Willamette Valley 2014. **** Blended to produce a rustic, brambly fruit flavor. Winemaker notes: “Juicy acidity and flavors of raspberry, plum and a hint of white pepper. The mouthfeel is elegant and polished with a long, velvety finish.” SRP ~$24
  • Penner-Ash Willamette Valley 2014. ****1/2 A gorgeous dark purple color but transparent. Jammy flavor. Winemaker notes: “Experience ripe, fresh raspberry, red plums and strawberry compote with a hint of subtle cedar. The fine texture and silky tannins enhance the vanilla, brown sugar, and leather notes on the finish.” SRP ~$40
  • La Crema Dundee Hills 2014. ***** Purple/garnet color with a mid-palate richness. Grown by the independent Oregon contingent of this famed La Crema California winery from two clones in an area sheltered from the winds, so with a longer growing season. This vineyard has 18 different soil types within its 80 acres. Winemaker notes: “A nose brimming with violets, cherry pie and earth. Flavors of pomegranate, raspberry and anise. Nuanced yet concentrated.” SRP ~$50
  • Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton 2014. ***** Another wine made with 25% whole cluster. Lovely pink-purple color. Winemaker notes: “Cranberry and rose hips up front that transform into orange zest and Meyer lemon on the mid pallet. This is followed by morel mushroom, red cedar, and exotic spices as allspice and mace.  Precise but broad; exhibiting restrained power and elegance combined with immense aging potential. Finish lingers giving impressions of pipe tobacco, earth, white sage and pure cocoa. Shaped like a teardrop rippling outward at the point of contact with a still body of water.” SRP ~$45
  • Zena Crown Slope Eola-Amity Hills 2013. ***** Couldn’t put it better than Wine Spectator’s 93-point rating – “Rich and expressive, featuring black cherry and pepper notes set against tangy mineral flavors. Comes together smoothly as the finish gains traction, with a light bite of tannins. Drink now through 2023. 348 cases made.” SRP ~$100

5 splurge wines to consider for Father’s Day

The Father’s Day holiday is a great excuse to spend way more than you normally might on a bottle of wine. Perfect time to cook something special and blow him away with a truly unusual wine.

Comparing the effect on colour of oak aging wi...
Comparing the effect on colour of oak aging wine. Both are Penedès region Cabernet Sauvingnon 100% varietals; on the left, a two-year-old cosecha; on the right a six-year-old crianza. As the wine matures, its colour shifts from deep purple or crimson to a lighter brick red, taking on a more graduated appearance in the glass as it ages. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But it’s not easy to pick from among the thousands of choices. Recently our tasters—some more experienced and some less—tested five unusual wines with widely varying reactions to the color, aroma, body, taste and finish of each. These splurge wines are listed below in roughly the order of our collective favorites, along with a little story about each and the winemakers’ notes. Remember, lots of factors affect how a wine turns out. Barrels for aging are one of the many. Read more about barrels here.

  1. Le Dix de Los Vascos ~$65 – Le Dix, meaning ten in French, was introduced in 1996 to celebrate Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite)’s first ten years in Chile. Grapes for this wine are grown in the oldest vineyard at Los Vascos, 200 acres of up to 80-year-old vines planted in 100% planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. The vision of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) to expand their estate took them to South America in 1988, where they made the first French viticultural investment in modern Chile.
              Winemaker’s notes: Deep ruby red color. Expressive nose with fruity aromas of prunes, cherries and ripe raspberries followed by notes of tobacco, leather, and graphite. Ageing in French oak barrels gives the wine nice toasty notes that blend to perfection with rose and gooseberry notes and hints of hazelnuts and cinnamon. The broad range of plump tannins from the different varieties in this blend help to create a unique mouthfeel of outstanding complexity. Grape Varieties: 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Carmenère, 5% Syrah Acidity: 3.4 g/L – pH: 3.62 Alcohol: 14.5%

2. Marchese Fumanelli Amarone della Valpolicella 2009 ~$80 – The classic Valpolicella is young and fresh with high acidity. Amarone is the venerable edition from this area, and the price reflects the long nurturing process required to make this wine. After the late harvest, the grapes are left to rest on wooden racks for 120 days to dry and concentrate flavors. The wine is then made with a combination of traditional and innovative techniques. The grapes are de-stemmed and soft pressed in January and macerated for 25 days. First fermented in stainless steel, the wine is then aged for 30 months in French oak barrels and a further 8 months in the bottle. Read more about Amarone here.


          Winemaker’s notes: An intense garnet red color. The wine displays typical fruity fragrances of mature cherries and wild berry with elegant hints of sweet spices, cinnamon, tobacco and chocolate. A wine of great structure that is rich, rounded, soft and velvety. A richer, more powerful yet elegant style showing lots of ripe baked red fruits. Full-bodied with firm, structured tannins. Warm on the palate, with very long finish. Grape Varieties: 40% Corvina, 40% Corvinone, 20% Rondinella Alcohol: 15.5%


3. Bodegas Caro 2013 Cab-Malbec ~$63 – CARO was born of the alliance between two wine cultures— French and Argentine, two noble grape varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; and two renowned wine families—Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) and Nicolas Catena, both families vignerons since the 19th century. They applied their deep knowledge of the art of winemaking to the specific characteristics of Mendoza’s high altitude terroir to create a unique wine: CARO.


          Winemaker’s notes: Intense ruby color. On the nose, aromas of red and black fruit aromas, mingled with hints of mocha and spices. Evolves slowly, revealing layer after layer of elegant fragrances. On the palate, the acidity is refreshing and persistent. Well-balanced tannins contribute to the harmony and smoothness of the palate. Grape Varieties: 50% Malbec, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon Acidity: 5.18 g/L – pH: 3.7 Alcohol: 14.5%

4. Barons de Rothschild Champagne Brut Multi-vintage ~$100 – This cuvée combines 60% Chardonnay, primarily grands crus, and 40% Pinot Noir, mainly from three small villages in the champagne region of France. The Chardonnay of this champagne takes the wine into the unforgettable style of Barons de Rothschild champagnes.


          Winemaker’s notes: Strong, assertive opening that leads into a well-rounded wine—powerful yet restrained; the sign of long aging in traditional cellars. Exudes aromas of pear and nuts (almonds, fresh hazelnuts) marrying with hints of white flowers and faint toasty notes. Brilliant and clear with pale golden highlights, the very fine bubbles carry an abundant, persistent *perlage. Grape Varieties: 60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir Alcohol: 12% Acidity: 7.3 g/L – pH: 3.21


*Perlage: In a glass of sparkling wine, it indicates the chains of bubbles that ascend from the bottom of the glass to the surface of the wine. Perlage is an important quality indicator for a sparkling wine: the more numerous, the finer and the longer lasting the bubbles, the better and the more refined the wine. From the wine glossary at ClicksandCorks.com.


5. Chateau La Nerthe Chateauneuf du Pape 2012 ~$63 – The winter of 2011-2012 was cold and dry—including two weeks in February of freezing temperatures and a strong Mistral wind gusting up to 62mph that killed many buds and froze numerous old vine stocks. A cool and humid, rainy spring restored groundwater, but that summer was very dry in this region, unlike the rest of France. Two very hot weeks in August ripened the grapes so harvest of the small yield began early. Winemakers were able to bring out high concentrations of delicate tannins. Then they aged the wine 2/3 of the time in oak barrels and 1/3 in casks and wooden vats, and blended it just before bottling.


Winemaker’s notes: Dark red, with a purple border. The nose is rich, pure and complex, with black fruits and sweet spices. On the palate, lots of roundness, with nice refined tannins. Finish is very long, with notes of black cherry and black berry, with a silky touch on the tongue. A feeling of youth and freshness emerges. The aromas given by the ageing in oak are still visible, with hints of spices and roasting, but they will be soon integrated into the wine and will make it really complex. A wine with a great cellaring potential and with an impressing aromatic expression. Grape Varieties: 44% Grenache Noir, 37% Syrah, 14% Mourvedre, 5% Cinsault Alcohol: 14.5%

Wine terms and picks from Ste. Michelle fine wines

Ste. Michelle Estates winery
This is the picture that you see in most bottles of Chateau Ste. Michelle wines from Washington state. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Titled “Women in Wine: Sip Summer Tasting,” a recent portfolio tasting of Ste. Michelle Estates’ wines took place inside the cool and elegant confines of City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St. The showcase, meant to celebrate the influence of women on wine making, featured a series of booths designated by place of origin and staffed by experts in each of the wines displayed. Presenters offered generous samples of their wines to enjoy with unique and tasty appetizers chosen specifically by City Winery’s chefs to pair with each set of wines.

A couple of the experts manning (and womanning) the tables defined some terms we hear all the time but may not know the precise meaning of. “Fruit forward”–a term that’s become very popular recently–simply means, according to one expert, that fruitiness is the first thing you notice when you smell or taste a wine.
“Legs” refers to that phenomenon whereby when you swirl the wine in your glass you notice long “legs” of it remaining on the side of the glass after the main portion of wine re-settles at the bottom. The longer and thicker the legs, the fuller, more viscous the wine is–and that’s often the most noticeable visual difference between a $10 bottle and one that goes for $20. Wines with legs are said to have great staying power and can be aged longer.

Tannins is another term used constantly in the wine industry. Naturally occurring substances found mostly in grape skins, seeds and stems, tannins can give young wines a mouth-puckering bitterness and astringency, but some tannins are desirable in red wines to give them structure. Generally, wines with high levels of tannins can take a long time to mature. For more about the language of wine tasting, check out the Gallo glossary of wine terms online.

 The Ste. Michelle portfolio is extensive, so it can help to have specific recommendations when you shop:
 To find retailers who carry Ste. Michelle wines, use the handy “Find Our Wines” feature on their website. There are hundreds of outlets in Chicago that carry at least some of these wines, including many locations of Walgreens, CVS, Mariano’s and Jewel/Osco, among others.