Our tour of wineries has exposed us to a number of top-flight wines and a few clunkers, reinforced our opinions of much-loved favorites, and occasionally surprised us.
Oregon's modern wine industry dates back 40 years, and along with wines the state has produced a number of eclectic and visionary people. Fortunately, the quality of their wines has matched the strength of their vision. I will look at three producers through their pinot noir over the next three weeks, tell you why you should try their wines, and tell you what makes them special.
I may write about other producers later - Adelsheim and Ponzi quickly come to mind among the old hands - but they will have to wait for our next visit to Oregon.
Pinot noir is my favorite among wines, for it offers complexity and pleasure unmatched by other wines. Noted critic Robert Parker has referred to pinot noir as "hedonistic," which is a good start.
First on my list is Medici Vineyards, in Newburg, Oregon. I've never met Hal or Dotty Medici, owners of the vineyards for the past 30 years, and my estimation of their wines flies in the face of my resident wine expert. The Medicis do not have a website, though their wine is available online, and they appear to be happy to let the limelight fall on others.
As with a number of vineyard owners, the Medicis do not make their own wine, but they do have an excellent wine maker in the person of Peter Rosback. Rosback makes Medici wines and wines for his own label, Sineann, in a large two-story barn on the Medici property. From less than 40 acres - the remainder are planted with lavender and riesling - Medici produces a small amount of pinot noir that sells for $20-$26 per bottle.
A person could be excused for making the mistake of assuming that the Medici wines are close relatives to Rosback's other creations. Think of them as distant cousins who share no more than an ancestor.
In 2005, we tasted all of Medici's offerings and passed on most of them, except for a light dessert riesling. The pinot noirs were blown away by the intensity of the Sineann reds, some of which were placed earlier than the Medici wines in the tasting. Our broad approach to Oregon wines during that year may also have influenced our perception.
My experience in 2006 gave me a different perspective on their wines, causing me to nudge the Butter Bitch to their table and toward specific wines. I had realized something unusual about the wines that makes them eclectic among the crowded field of contenders.
I would like to say that Medici's grapes are raised following organic practices, but I do not remember for certain, and the bottles have no indication that they are organic. Since the 2001 contains added sulfites, I assume that it is not organic.
Most Oregon pinot noirs are fit to drink for no more than five years, after which time most are not fit to drink. Medici pinots are different, in that the wines are not impressive during their first few years, but gain considerable character by their fifth year. I noticed this in 2005 with the 2000 vintage, and again in 2006 with the 2001 vintage.
Mature wines show their age with a brown tint at the edge of the meniscus - tilt your glass of wine to one side to see if if there is a faint brownness at the edge of the reddish-purple liquid. This coloration was visible on the Medici Vineyards Pinot Noir 2001 Block I, II estate wine, which I bought for $26 a bottle.
The block numbers refer to the sections of the estate that provided the wine. A convenient map on the back shows shows that these blocks are the two fields to the right as you drive up to the winery.
The nose offered the smell of barnyard straw in late winter, after the rains and wood smoke have come, hanging over the deep, rich scent of black cherry.
In the mouth, the wine tasted of soft fruit with a gentle tartness, a creamy honeyed berry sweetness.
The combination of smells and flavors are not new to pinot noir, but they are increasingly rare in pinot noirs from the United States, and rarer in wines of this age. The also are welcome, and I hope that as each Medici vintage reaches its fifth birthday, it follows in the footsteps of its elders.
This is the first in a three-part series.