Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Del Rio Vineyards: From Pears to Grapes, via the Loire

A journey from the Loire Valley to Southern Oregon....

After previously posting about the Ten Things You Should Know About Southern Oregon, I want to get into some specifics, to discuss some of the individual wineries I visited there on my media trip. Our first winery visit was to Del Rio Vineyards & Winery, one of the largest wineries of Southern Oregon, though they actually only produce about 20,000 cases, which wouldn't make them large by any means in many other regions. It is also a winery set within a historical area, one important to the Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon.

The Del Rio tasting room occupies an old building which once was the Rock Point Stage Hotel, founded in 1865. In addition, one of the first telegraph stations in the region was also established here back in 1853. These are important historical matters, some of the first in the Rogue Valley. Much of the building has been restored to its original state and on the walls of the tasting room you can find numerous old photographs, depicting this historical period. Yet this is not the only historic building on the premises.

The winery itself is located inside the former Del Rio Orchard packing house. In 1907, the hotel and lands were sold and about 800 acres were transformed into fruit and nut orchards. Probably the most important fruit were pears, which saw a huge surge in the 1920s, the "pear boom." Though apples had been previously popular, nearly all of them were uprooted and replaced by pears, which then became the most popular fruit in the Rogue Valley. Pears are still important in the region, though not to the same degree as they once were almost a hundred years ago.

In 1997, the property was purchased by Lee and Margaret Traynham, who decided they wanted to plant vineyards so they removed all of the pear orchards to make way for the grapes. In 1999, they took on Rob Wallace as a partner, as he had plenty of prior farming experience, though mostly in California. Initially, they sold their grapes to other wineries but, in 2004, they constructed their own winery though still currently sell about 5% of their grapes, such as Sangiovese grapes to A to Z Wineworks.

They currently grow about 15 different grapes, from Pinot Noir to Viognier, from Malbec to Chardonnay. Under two labels, they produce around 20,000 cases annually, with roughly 70% under the Del Rio label. Their other label is Rock Point, and constitutes their less expensive, more value based wines. We did not taste any wines from that label but I am glad to see that they are producing some wines under $15, something I believe is needed more from Oregon.

At the gates of Del Rio Vineyards & Winery, you'll be initially greeted by Barry the Barrel Man, a jovial sort who drinks right out of the bottle. He is not a guard, merely a symbol of the joys of wine.

Jean-Michel Jussiaume, the wine maker at Del Rio, is from the Loire Valley in France and his family produces Muscadet, providing Jean-Michel with an early interest in wine. He first came to the U.S. in 2001 as a student but returned to France in 2002. Three years later, he returned to the U.S., spending some time working with Dr. Konstantin Frank winery in the Finger Lakes. In 2008, he began working for Del Rio Vineyards, bringing his youth, experience and passion to the Southern Oregon wine industry.

He believes that his greatest challenge is to maintain the quality of the wine, as well as its more artisan style, despite the winery's rapid expansion. For Jean-Michel, he finds it much easier to produce white wines as that is where he possesses more experience. During his time at Del Rio, he believes that the quality of his white wines has continued to increase, while the red wines have had their ups and down as he has grown in his knowledge and experience. Each year, he adapts to the grapes, especially because of the vintage variation in Oregon wines.

This year's harvest began 11 days earlier than last year as it was a warm year, with the grapes ripening earlier than before. The Viognier had already been picked prior to our arrival, which is unusual, though there were still plenty of other grapes on the vinse that they had yet to harvest. Over the years, they have moved toward machine harvesting and this will be the first harvest that is 100% machine harvested, which is unique as most Oregon vineyards are hand harvested. Jean-Michel believes that machine harvesting is easier and more efficient, allowing them to get their grapes from harvest to the fermenter in about fifteen minutes. The winery has future plans to plant more vines, though not any other varietals.

Terroir is important to Jean-Michel and he believes that the Rogue Valley is an excellent place for grape growing. However, he believes it is a challenge for all of Southern Oregon to find an identity, to determine which grapes grow best in the area. The Willamette has its Pinot Noir but Southern Oregon does not possess such a singular identity yet. Probably because of the fame of the Willamette, the market clamors for Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, but that does not mean those grapes are the best for the Southern Oregon region. Though the wineries of Southern Oregon are cooperative with each other, there is really no industry group which works together on larger community issues, such as trying to establish a more singular identity. Maybe that will change with time.

On the left is Rob Wallace, one of the owners, who stopped by briefly as Jean-Michel gave us a tour of the winery. There are about 400 barrels in their cellar, and that amount is growing, and not all of the barrels are oak. They use some acacia barrels, mainly for their Viognier, which is a newer practice in the U.S., though it has a longer history in Europe, especially for white wines. It helps to avoid oakiness in white wines, though providing some floral elements and a richer mouthfeel.

Besides barrels, Del Rio produces wine in kegs, primarily to sell to restaurants, which is popular in Oregon, and starting to grow in popularity elsewhere too. Restaurants, which can sell wine on tap, benefit in numerous ways, from saving on costs to minimizing oxidation issues. In Boston, I recently visited a new restaurant, Beat Hotel, which serves over 20 wines on tap, though Del Rio wines are not yet available in Massachusetts. Interestingly, Del Rio exports about 5000 cases to China, about 25% of their production.

I was most impressed with Del Rio's white wines, which generally showed a nice depth of flavor, plenty of complexity and which were simply delicious. The 2012 Chardonnay ($20) spends about 8 month on the lees and is 80% barrel aged, 10% new. It undergoes partial malolactic fermentation, has an alcohol content of 12.8% and only 916 cases were made. It is fresh, crisp and dry, with delightful fruit flavors of green apple and pear, and subtle mineral notes. The 2011 Viognier ($20) spends about 6 month on the lees, has an alcohol content of 12.6% and only 224 cases were made. From its alluring aromatic smell, this wine also presents as fresh, crisp and dry. Lemon and pear flavors accompany floral and herbal notes, ending very satisfyingly. The 2012 Pinot Gris ($16) spent about 9 months in neutral oak, under went 10% malolactic, has an alcohol content of 13.5% and only 1040 cases were made. Aromatic and fruity, there was a melange of flavors including pear, lychee and apple. It possessed a round mouth feel, with mineral notes and a pleasing finish. I would recommend all three of these wines.

Of their red wines, I had two favorites. The 2010 Pinot Noir ($28) was aged for 10 months in French oak, 25% new, has an alcohol content of 13.5% and 1180 cases were produced. It has a light red color with red fruits and a bit of spice on the nose. On the palate, there is a pleasing mix of juicy red and black fruits, with spicy notes, hints of herbs and a touch of earthiness. Nice complexity, a pleasing taste and a lengthy, satisfying finish. The 2011 Syrah ($35) was aged for 13 months in French and American oak, 10% new, has an alcohol content of 13.9% and 579 cases were produced. This is a wine that screams out for lamb or beef. It is dark and intense, with concentrated black fruit flavors, peppery spice,and touches of herb. The tannins are moderate, there is nice acidity, and it possesses a lingering finish. A complex and appealing wine, this is worth the price.

I catch a glimpse into the future of Southern Oregon wine at Del Rio. I see youth and passion, a willingness to experiment. I see a concern for terroir, a concern for the identity of the region. And I tasted delicious wines, especially their whites, showing that all of Oregon is not just about Pinot Noir. Kudos and best wishes to Jean-Michel.

1 comment:

Shaina said...

One of the many reasons I enjoy visiting vineyard is the rich history behind some of them. Of course, I also appreciate tasting the various wines.