Wednesday, 27 April 2016

RWF 2016 US Wine Masterclass

L to R, John House (Ovum), Chad Stock (Minimus), Phillip Hart (AmByth), Deborah Heath (Chair-person), Dierdre Heekin (La Garagista), Hank Beckmeyer (La Clarine).

Deborah Heath is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon and with her on the panel were an appropriately distinguished collection of natural winemakers from California, Oregon and Vermont.

Hank Beckmeyer  was asked to speak first. As with all the speakers he stressed the fact that in the New World experimentation was the order of the day; 'Figure out what you can grow where'. He grows an eclectic range of red varietals (Tempranillo, Syrah, Tannat, Grenache, Negroamaro and Cabernet Sauvignon) and buys in others from vineyards he says he wishes he owned (Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache) but surprisingly he says he prefers not to put the varietals on the front label and reluctantly on the back: 'it's not that important.'

He also says he doesn't care how the alcohol level is - he just wants to get the flavours. La Clarine is highly thought of and available from the best wine shops.

Dierdre Heekin, 'La Garagista' was next. Dierdre and her husband have a farm and restaurant in Vermont where they also grow and make their own wine. We are aware that wine is now made in every single state in the US but the opportunity to taste wines from most of them is practically nil thanks to the still restrictive shipping laws left over from Prohibition and the innate conservatism of most wine drinkers, American or not.

We had made a beeline straight for La Garagista's stand with 15 minutes to spare before this seminar so when Ms. Heekin spoke we knew that she has managed to make not just drinkable but in some cases delicious wines from hybrids we outside the USA and Canada know practically nothing about: Frontenac Gris and Noir, La Crescent, Brianna, Saint Croix and Marquette. These are hybrids obtained by Elmer Swenson for the University of Minnesota in the last century.

We thought the most successful of all was the Grace and Favour Pet Nat made from La Crescent grapes. On this showing, La Crescent is one of the most successful hybrids we know of. Slotovino recommends it for the attention of British growers.

What Dierdre Heekin had to say echoed Hank Beckmeyer in the matter of freedom to innovate. 'There are no Wine Libraries in Vermont!' Nonetheless the varieties she uses are those she found already there. In fact she has planted Riesling and Blaufraenkisch ('because they are varities I like') but they didn't do well in the wet, humid climate. Vermont's winters are famously cold but the vines don't mind that, she says. In the summer temperatures can reach 90 - 100 degrees Farenheit. La Garagista is located on Mount Hunger at the edge of the Chateauguay and in the Piedmont chain of hills in Barnard, Vermont but they are not allowed to put their terroir on the label. They choose not to put their hybrids on the labels due to 'negative associations'. We think they can relax on that score.

Phillip Hart

Phillip Hart is an expat Welshman who has made AmByth into one of the most recognizable names in Californian natural wine the world over (it is Welsh, meaning 'Forever'). he farms 11 varieties over 16 acres and describes his 15 years as a tremendous experiment. His production is small because he doesn't irrigate even though there is no rain between May and September. He may be the only vigneron to dry farm in California. Some years he produces very little. He describes his operation as 'Progressive, regressive'. Patience is his watchword. He once planed a variety which failed to produce year after year until suddenly it delivered extravagantly. He said 'Vines adapt to their site in 10 years and become something else.

Chad Stock's operation is very different from the others on the panel; he doesn't own any land buys from sites all over Oregon. He says he looks at what is possible in the State of Oregon and always tries something different. 'In the US there are no rules. Grow what you want where you want.' the wines of his company 'Minimus' include a Mueller-Thurgau petillant naturel, a Gruener Veltliner, a Sauvignon Blanc in Amphorae and another under Flor. Chad Stock believes Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Cardonnay from Oregon are 'less interesting.' He sees Oregon wine has suffered 'from a commercial driven market; mediocre wines for people who don't know better.'

an egg and John House and Ksenija Kostic of Ovum Wines
The last guest was John House of Ovum. You may have guessed that the wines are fermented in cement Eggs (these, by Nomblot of Beaune, "The World Leader in Concrete Eggs"). This occasioned general approval among the panelists for Amphora and Eggs. John House stated that fermentation in barrel lasts 4 weeks and takes away floral flavours whereas in eggs, the fermentation is still active in 6 months. He uses barrels as well as eggs incidentally; his 2014 Riesling is barrel fermented for example. As well as Riesling, Ovum make Gewuertztraminer and Muscat.

One of the participants said emphatically at one point "You may have noticed, we are not out to make a lot of money here!" We found that charming. What all the winemakers were out to do was to make the most natural possible product with the least intervention. To allow the maximum expression of terroir and vintage. Honesty, genuineness, faithfulness..... O si sic omnes!

No comments: