14 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon
Belle Pente – When first visiting a wine region, I normally like to taste as widely as possible. This necessarily precludes appointments, which demand more attention and longer stays (the downside, of course, is that casual tasting cannot replicate the in-depth knowledge acquisition achieved by conversations with winemakers). However, some wineries are only open by appointment, and so it can’t be helped. Such is the case at Belle Pente.
I first encountered this winery years and years ago, on one of the online wine fora; some guy named Brian O’Donnell would occasionally post, and in-the-know locals would in turn laud the wines – mostly pinot noir, but also selections from the Alsatian palette – he was making. They weren’t available where I lived at the time, and later encounters here and there had left me…not so much underwhelmed as confused. I couldn’t figure out what the wines were trying to be.
But then there was another bottle, and another, and pretty soon I was as intrigued by the winery as those aforementioned locals. So when it came time to visit the Willamette Valley, there was just one person I actually called for a visit.
Craig Camp from Anne Amie guides us down dusty country roads to an unassuming property with a hillside vineyard, and…hey, wait, is that a llama? Well, yes, it is. He’s supposed to be on guard duty over other livestock, but mostly he appears to be hiding in the shade, well away from his charges. Bad llama. Bad, bad llama.
O’Donnell has squeezed us in on a busy day and at the last minute, but generously runs us through a quick tasting that gets less quick as time goes on. Like most winemakers, he’s reticent at first, but warmer later, and the wine conversation grows more effusive and expansive as we proceed. He explains that their property dates to the 1840s, and that they’re only the fifth people on it; at the time of their 1992 purchase, it hadn’t been farmed in thirty years.
The initial plantings were pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot blanc and gamay, though this mix has changed and grown over the years. About 50% of the fruit is from estate vineyards (totaling about 16 acres, 12 of them pinot noir), and the winery’s long-term commitment to organic viticulture has grown into the full biodynamic regimen that will begin with the 2006 vintage. O’Donnell mentions that there’s quite a “study group” on biodynamics in the Willamette Valley, led by Mike Etzel of Beaux Frères, and that we’ll be seeing more and more such wines in the future.
Belle Pente 2005 Muscat (barrel sample) (Willamette Valley) – Dosed with sulfites just prior to our arrival, and thus showing a little oddly, but the quality is obvious. All the muscat signifiers are there – flowers, yellow plum, exotic perfume – with a striking mineral core and a long, dry finish (the wine carries just four grams of residual sugar). It might be just a bit too dry for the average muscat fan, but I think there’s obvious potential here, and would like to taste it when it’s free of the sulfites.
Belle Pente 2003 Gewurztraminer (Willamette Valley) – Light and shy on the nose, with full, fruity orange and peach dusted with a little spice. The finish is long and equally fruity. O’Donnell seems unsure about the wine, but I think it tastes like a cold site Bas-Rhin gewurztraminer, which isn’t a bad thing at all. What it’s not is lush and full-bodied, as many people presume gewurztraminer must be. Still, it’s outclassed (in a sense) by the next wine.
Belle Pente 2005 Gewurztraminer (barrel sample) (Willamette Valley) – From chardonnay vines grafted over to gewurztraminer (virtually the definition of a universal good), showing honeysuckle and a long, balanced and dry finish. There’s still not the overwhelming “whomp” of highly-ripe gewurztraminer in the Alsatian style, but what this wine has – and the 2003 lacks – is coherence and harmony. On the other hand, at the moment the 2003 is definitely more fun to drink.
Belle Pente 2004 Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley) – Anise, leaves and mild residual sugar with faint minerality. The finish is long and soft. One wishes for a little more of…well, something. The wine doesn’t necessarily need size, but in its absence more nerve and clarity would be welcome.
Belle Pente 2004 Riesling (Willamette Valley) – O’Donnell labels this wine “the upper end of halbtrocken,” and notes that some of the fruit is from the third vineyard planted in all of Oregon. It’s a beautiful, late spring wine, showing crushed slate (between which flowers are blossoming) and honey, with great acidity. The minerality expands and sharpens on the palate and throughout the finish, giving this wine the razor-edge necessary for riesling, but in a somewhat smiley-faced and more immediately appealing fashion than its Germanic ancestors. Among North American rieslings, this is near the top of its class; in the Fatherland and its oenological brethren (Unclelands?), it would be about middle of the pack. That, lest its unclear, is pretty high praise.
Belle Pente 2003 Chardonnay “Reserve” (Willamette Valley) – Two-thirds estate fruit, spending eighteen months in barrel on the gross lees (O’Donnell calls it an “extended élevage experiment”). There’s great, spicy orange rind and candied tangerine on the nose, though the wine’s initial attack is a bit hollow. Things fill out on the midpalate, and build towards more tangerines just loaded with barrel spice and yeasty tingles. There’s even a bit of gravel. It’s very good in its idiom, though it tastes a bit more “made” than the other wines in this portfolio.
Belle Pente 2004 Pinot Noir (Yamhill-Carlton District) – These are young vines, and the fruit spends twelve months in barrel. The wine shows elegance, with dried strawberry leaves in the key of autumn, and gray soil in a cold fall light. Is that a hint of funk on the finish? A very pretty wine with some brief notions of complexity, but some rebellious elements as well.
Belle Pente 2003 Pinot Noir Belle Pente Vineyard (Willamette Valley) – Eighteen months in barrel, and adjusted to 24 brix before fermentation. Ripe strawberry and red cherry with a hint of fraise liqueur, an intense floral overlay, and a sturdy, tannic structure. The finish is very long. A wine more for the future than for now, and it should definitely reward careful aging.
Belle Pente 2003 Pinot Noir “Estate Reserve” (Willamette Valley) – O’Donnell explains that this wine stems from a “red fruit/black fruit” decision, with the Estate Reserve designed to express the latter. The difference is immediately obvious, with a heady wave of cassis and blueberry supported by great structure constructed of perfect, ageworthy amounts of tannin and acid. The acidity and the sheer stuffing of this wine quite literally buzz on the palate, especially as the finish lingers. Gorgeous, and highly ageable. However, there’s a caveat: for some people, the greater heft of this wine is what will define its quality. I quibble with that characterization. The wine probably is “better” than its red-fruited brethren, but not because of the red/black fruit divergence or its size and impact, but because of its overall balance and harmony. Further, it is a forceful wine that expresses the potential of pinot noir in a completely different way than its predecessors…which means that the wine will have different uses on the palate, at the table, and in the cellar. Those who appreciate the wonderful malleability and diversity of pinot noir will embrace both styles for what they are.