From Oregon with love

Sometimes really good things happen. In the early hours of the morning a few weeks ago I lamented on the loss of my wonderful red Burgundy collection, swiped from my (ex-)cellar based in Morey-Saint-Denis. A lovely Oregon winemaker, Toddy Hamina, asked if having some wine to review would cheer me up. I was so touched by the offer it felt like someone had kneed my depression in its rude bits and made it collapse in terminal pain.

A few weeks later six bottles arrived fresh from Biggio-Hamina vineyards. They are all from McMinnville American Viticultural Area. This is entirely within the Willamette Valley and is the only AVA that is defined by the elevation of the vineyards. They all have to lie in the elevated strip of marine sedimentary and volcanic soils. It is excellent that such precision is being applied to AVAs.

The Biggio-Hamina wine that we tried first was the Youngberg Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir. This was fermented with 47% whole clusters and was not subjected to any new oak. The vineyard is dry farmed and Toddy says:

If you want to get into the nitty gritty of things I would wager it falls into the realm of “natural” – whatever the fuck that means.

“Natural” maybe, but he does use some sulphur dioxide, which pleases me, but he tries to use an absolute minimum, which pleases me even more. I am also incredibly charmed by his capsules:

Biggio-Hamina Youngberg Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 capsule

Is not that lovely? The top of the cork has a little cornflower (I think) motif on the top of it too.

Trying an Oregon wine from a small producer is an incredible treat; so few make it to UK. Whilst my frame of reference for Pinot Noir is Burgundy, I am more than happy to explore the qualities of what is obviously the best red grape variety from other parts of the world. Huge thanks, Toddy!

Biggio-Hamina Youngberg Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014Youngberg Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Biggio-Hamina Cellars

This is really lively and energetic on the nose, the fruit effulgent with life and vigour. Christ, it is lovely. There is also a character there that is Burgundian in style, but very different in aspect.

That being said, if someone poured me a glass of this blind and asked me to identify it I would give it a sniff they say, with incredibly smug self-confidence, Lafarge Volnay Vendages Selectionee 2012.

How wrong I would be! A taste would show that the tannin/acid/fruit structure is radically different from a Volnay. And yet, that structure very much gives me a sense that it is a product of where it was grown – it was not cooked up in the winery.

His minimal invention strategy, which is also used by most of the top Burgundy producers I know, really allows the quality of the vineyard to shine through. I would not call Toddy’s wine natural, as it is too good, but it is a transparent expression of the vineyard – and by arse it is a serious piece of land!

The fruit is very scrumptious, ripe and energetic, giving it a solid medium bodied character that has quite nice refinement. There is a good amount of acidity too, it is a lively little number.

Unlike the unspeakable Lafon red we tried recently, this has good, crunchy tannins. The elements of fruit, acid and tannin are in excellent harmony. It is a distinctly impressive combination of flavours and textures that really engage your palate and give you something to think about as you race your way through this delicious wine.

All too often when tasting US Pinot Noirs I have had appalling, overwhelming, soupy fruit bombs that have been ripened to buggery and fermented to wild levels of alcohol. As such they are completely anonymous (as well as being disgusting) – Toddy’s wine comes from a specific plot of land; you can smell that and feel it in the structure as you swirl it around you mouth.

I can only see one real problem with this wine, and I do not think it is a problem as such, more a character of the wine in the style it is made. I suspect you will want to drink this within the next 18-24 months. If Toddy wanted to, bottling this with a screwcap would keep it in its energetic, exciting state for three years or more.

But there is no need to do that, there is no shame in drinking wines young, especially when they provide such an exciting, compelling experience as this one does. It is certainly not Volnay, but it has as much of a regional character to it as a Lafarge does.

Toddy made 104 cases of this and it sells for $40. For such an undoubtedly fine, and really quite rare, wine, this is a real bargain. Go to the Biggio-Hamina website and see if there is any left!

  • Tom Blach

    It sounds delicious, David. I’m wondering why you think it would retain its initial loveliness for longer when closed by screwcap rather than cork, assuming the cork is sound. Which is only a hopeful assumption. Screwcaps have often seemed to me to be poor at allowing reduction to dissipate though admittedly I am talking out of my arse.

  • No, Tom! You always talk perfect sense! I’ve found screwcap wines retain their youthful freshness a bit longer. The winemaker himself says his 14s are for early drinking, much like 14 Burgundy….

    The Yarra Valley Pinot I had from Mac Forbes around Christmas time (a 2012) was perfectly preserved, even though I would normally have expected a wine of that style to have been dead by now if it had been under a cork. I’ve had a few really top Australian Rieslings that have shown similarly glacial development under screw cap.

  • I really would like to thank you for the wonderful write up for this wine. The McMinnville AVA is one which is all twisted up in terms of soils and how they splay out over the land. We are primarily working with old sea floor (Marine sedimentary) which was shoved around by volcanic activity. Depending on which part of the area you are in there could by such well defined color difference in just a few steps. And with Oregon being at the edge of volcanic activity we do have a tremendous amount of underlying Basalt. This really does make a difference when comparing our fantastic state with Burgundy and all its Limestone.

    I do disagree with your notion of this wine’s life expectancy. While 14 is a warm, dry vintage it did set a very large crop, and will provide for nice short to mid term drinking. Rather than 18-24 months I’d reckon that this tart beauty could go easily to year five, but 18-36 may well be the top of its bell curve. We shall see.

  • I’m quite prepared to believe this would last longer than I said in my note, you have more experience with how your wines age.

    One thing I’m sure of is that this was a fine, fine wine. By sending us this wine you have done more than give us some free wine, more than given me some material for my blog, more than put a bullet through the head of my depression: you have opened up (for want of a better phrase) a new world of experience of our favourite red grape variety for us. I think I would be optimistic to expect every bottle of Oregon Pinot I pop to be up to this standard, but it is going to be enthralling drinking everytime we find a new Oregon Pinot on the shelves of a wine merchant. Oregon Pinot, in this instance at least, is not just striving to be Burgundy, it has a totally different personality and that personality is a winning one. It is so exciting to try new things and find out that they are really good – Dani and I had a hoot drinking this and so we will be watching David D-J’s list with great Interest!

    Thank you, Toddy!

  • Oh, and when you try the Gewurztraminer, not too cold please. Thanks!