Next in our series on Snooth Vintage, Winery, Wine Region, and West Coast Wines of the Year is Winery of the Year. First, let's narrow it down to which region the winner is in: Oregon.
Oregon is going through some very exciting times this year. With back-to-back vintages that express the range of styles the finest vineyards are capable of expressing (2007 being rather more classic, lean and elegant; while 2008 is decidedly more fruit-driven and opulent) it’s a great time to be trying, and buying, these wines.
The industry as a whole is also going through a transition as wine producing takes on a more important and larger scaled role in the region’s economy. Sounds like a recipe for doom? Nah, it’s just a natural progression. What would be a recipe for doom would be if all the pioneers were no longer to get the attention they deserve once the “wine industry” completes its move in.
The truth is there are many family-run wineries in Oregon producing great wines. This past August I met so many lovely people, each touting their neighbors’ wines even more highly than their own, that I was taken aback by the friendly, collaborative nature of the Oregon wine scene. When I decided to name a winery of the year I knew it must be one of these very worthy wineries. But, which one?
Well, after careful deliberation I finally chose. I chose a winery whose legacy is clearly imprinted on the Oregon wine scene. A family-run operation that embodies the best of the romance of the wine business while producing great wines. Wines that are great for consumers, wines that appeal to the amateur and the connoisseur, wines that deserve to be better known. So, without further ado, Snooth’s inaugural Winery of the Year is...
Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards!
I was fortunate to stop in on the Lange Estate Winery
this past July. It was one of about 20 winery visits that I had planned to coincide with the International Pinot Noir Celebration, which is held each year in McMinnville, the heart of Oregon’s Pinot country.
I had been vaguely aware of Lange Estate for some years, having had exactly one bottle of their wine several years earlier. My curiosity was aroused, I was in the neighborhood, and I wanted to taste more.
You never know what a winery visit will be like. Sometimes I get to meet with marketing people, or hospitality folks, who follow a script and may get uncomfortable with questions that they do not usually encounter. At Lange Estate I met with the Lange family: all three of them. Don and Wendy founded the estate back in 1987, while their son Jesse has been intimately involved in the winery operations for years, or since he was three feet tall as their website claims. I bet he was closer to 2ft in all honesty!
Dan and Wendy established the winery in the Dundee Hills before most of their neighbors appeared, but the fact that the neighborhood is now packed with super-premium Pinot producers speak volumes about the Langes’ ability to choose a vineyard site, or just plain luck. I forgot to ask.
And so Lange Estate was established, and it was an estate in the classic sense of the word. Guests to Lange were treated to intimate tastings in the Langes’ home until 1999, though now you can still get to taste with the family, albeit in a modern if unassuming tasting room adjacent to the winery.
Before we began tasting, Jesse took me for a tour through the estate vineyards. The Lange family also sources fruit from vineyards in the Yamhill Carlton and North Willamette Valley appellations. I love touring vineyards as it can tell you so much about a winery. The attention to detail, and the care with which the winemaker not only tends his vines but the emotion he elicits when speaking about them, can reveal a passion that a modest and unassuming man may normally hold close to his vest.
These vines speak with that passion, and for that matter so do Jesse and Don in their way. The estate vines, planted in 1988, and expanded several times since then, now consist of 24 acres of Pinot Noir, two acres of Chardonnay, and two acres of Pinot Gris (the fourth-oldest planting of this popular variety in Oregon). These are healthy, vibrant vines surrounded by wild pines; sunny parcels well-angled to gain the warmth of the sun each day -- the perfect plan for producing the characteristically earthy fruit the Dundee Hills are famed for.
In addition to the estate vineyard, Lange Estate draws fruit from the Freedom Hill Vineyard as well as those in Yamhill. Each vineyard supplies a proportion of the Pint Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris the Lange Estate produces each year. Not surprisingly, the Three Hills Cuvees draw fruit from all three sites, producing wines with depth, body, and complexity -- wines that represent the best of Oregon. While the single vineyard wines really exemplify the best each appellation can do.
Ultimately it all comes down to the wine. No matter who much fun, how open and honest and passionate the Lange family might be, if the wines weren’t special, well, we wouldn’t be talking about them now. But fortunately for us all, they are special. They are rich, and bold, and elegant and complex and intense and subtle. They are contradictions in the glass, but that has always been the beauty of the best of Oregon’s wines. They confound people -- I mean who in their right mind would plant grapes to make wine in these cool, damp hills anyway?
Let’s just say, we are all better off that some people chose to question popular beliefs right around 1987. Setting out to do what shouldn’t have been done, and along the way producing wines that probably have no right being as good as they are. I am certain these wines have no right being as delicious as they are, for those of you willing to suspend belief along with me, I urge you to seek them out. They are testament to a family’s passion and a region’s potential.
Lange Estate current releases
A touch foxy on the nose with grapey, yellow fruit accented by a touch of raw almond. Intense in the mouth and rich with a touch of sweetness accenting the big, juicy, silken mid-palate. This is barrel-fermented and the wine does exhibit signs of this, in particular a bit of tannin on the moderately long finish. A large scaled, richly fruited Pinot Gris. 90pts
Quite reserved on the nose with light fruit tones over a clay rich earth note. In the mouth this is wonderfully bright and fresh with a pure, delicate, peachy mid-palate and a moderate finish full of light honeysuckle sweetness. 87pts
An initial note of banana greets the nose, followed by tropical fruits and key lime pie tones accented by notes of dried honey and lightly smoky mineral tones. Broad and soft in the mouth with acid-edged, almost tropical fruit that has a creamy note on the mid-palate but retains a nice mineral crunch on the finish. The flavors are almost tropical though pull back at the last moment to remain more in the orchard fruit end of the spectrum. Very layered and long with cleansing acids on the finale. 89pts
Very red-fruited on the nose with dusty soil tones, a touch of licorice and a coffee-cream top note. A bit fruity on entry with pure, glassy fruit. This is quite fruit-driven yet never becomes too fruity with a tense texture to the wild cherry, wild berry-laced mid-palate. The finish is long and crystal-clear with a nice spice tone on the finale. Obviously very young, this will benefit from cellaring. 88pts
Oily and ashy on the nose with a background note of herbal tones over slightly warm and toasty crushed blackberry fruit. Quite rich on the palate with a fine balance between tannin and acid keeping this lively and elegant. The fruit is quite red on the palate, with a delicate, almost-silky texture on the backend. The finish is long and light with great persistence of fruit and an airy bitter cherry finale. 90pts
A bit meaty on the nose with oak-driven aromas of spice and soy backing up dense, blue and black berry fruit that has a touch of a pie filling note to it. Opulent in the mouth with lots of weight yet plenty of acid as well. Dark and earthy toned up front before transitioning to a big, fruity mid-palate that is supported by succulent ripe tannins. Even though this is rich and weighty, it remains transparent and precise right through the long, lightly spicy finish. Tremendously drinkable, this does show signs of being a bit tight still, particularly on the finish, which turns a bit blocky with air. 92pts
Wow, this is aromatically intense and complex with huge spice notes joined by briary pipe notes, deep floral sweetness, blueberry tobacco leaf, black tea, earth and spice -- it just keeps growing in the glass. Big on entry with huge fruit, but still remaining very fresh with lots of soft tannins contributing some weight, yet this remains crisp and transparent. There’s a slight pomegranate seed edge to the mid-palate, which adds nice contrast to the gorgeous red fruits that are firm and focused from start to finish here. This tightens up nicely on the long finish and ends with layered notes of spice, earth and pure, sweet fruit. 93pts
A touch toasty on the nose with wood spice and blackberry fruit coming together over a lightly mineral, rusty base. This takes on a sweet, spiced pie-filling tone with air, full of warm blueberries and cherries. Soft and broad on entry, a touch of astringent tannins up front supporting rich mixed berry fruit on the mid-palate, with a balsam top note. Huge fruit rules the finish with great freshness and a seamless nature that gives this the impression of lightness. The mineral notes return on the finish, which shows complex spice tones over its long length. 93pts