The Biodynamic Estate We've Been Waiting For - Wines from Montinore Estate in Oregon

When I first moved to Oregon after graduating from undergrad in Colorado in 2009, I lucked out with an internship at an amazing non-profit, the Oregon Environmental Council, working on a program that helped wineries become carbon neutral. It was a unique and exciting introduction to both the wine industry as a whole and the challenges they face in becoming more sustainable entities. I was only working part time as an independent contractor, about 20 hours a week at $12/hour, and as a result, didn't have any expendable income. I was able to taste a good amount of Oregon wine because of my everyday interactions with the wineries but I rarely had the luxury of being able to buy my own bottle. I spent a lot of time scouring wine shops and grocery stores for extreme deals and super sales (important note - I still do this today). My saving grace was the local selection from Montinore. If I got lucky, I could find a bottle of Montinore's 'Red Cap' pinot noir for $12-13, an insane steal back then and an equally good deal at $18-20 today. For this reason alone, Montinore is a special producer for me, but there are many others as well. 

Montinore's 200 acre biodynamic estate in Oregon's Willamette Valley       © 2017 Montinore Estate

Montinore's 200 acre biodynamic estate in Oregon's Willamette Valley       © 2017 Montinore Estate

There is a lot of fuss in the wine world right now. While millenials have made great progress in de-stygmatizing the aura of pretentiousness around wine, making the beverage as popular as ever in the US, there is still too much specificity in our discussion and recommendations of wines. "This wine pairs PERFECTLY with grilled salmon," or, "this rosé should only be consumed on a 95-degree summer day in your hipster blow-up pool." Some wine rules and recommendations are helpful but these type of statements lead us inevitably toward a finicky and unsatisfactory experience because we are rarely, if ever, able to recreate the recommended scenario. These recommendations are intellectualisms that rarely have a place in the everyday enjoyment of wine. The solution to all of this jibber-jabber is to drink wines that are affordable, sustainable, and food-friendly. Versatile wines that don't require overthinking the occasion. Most of Europe's wine-producing countries had this figured out centuries ago but we are still working on it. And that's where we come back to Montinore. 

Montinore's Roots Collection of wines is the embodiment of versatility in domestic wine. High in acid and food-friendly but unique and full of character, each bottle delivers great value and an authenticity and transparency that is rare at this price point. If you want to ponder, there is plenty to wax philosophical about, but more importantly, these will pair effortlessly with the vast majority of food. And even better, the wines are produced by a family-owned, 100% biodynamic and organic estate that has been producing wine for almost 35 years in Oregon's Willamette Valley. There are maybe, just maybe, two or three similar producers in the US that can claim such credentials. Affordability, environmental sustainability, terroir-focused, and a damn fine story. This is what we need and this is why these wines kick ass. They are available in most major markets and if you haven't had the pleasure of tasting this fine juice, make an effort to seek them out. Reviews for each wine below!

Montinore's Roots Collection - Pinot Noir, White Blend, and Pinot Gris

Montinore's Roots Collection - Pinot Noir, White Blend, and Pinot Gris

2015 Red Cap Pinot Noir
Willamette Valley, Oregon
13.9% Alcohol
100% Pinot Noir
100% Certified Biodynamic + Organic
$20

Before and during the recession of 2009, it was difficult to find any Oregon pinot noir for under $20. Some was available in Portland and Oregon markets, but it was largely non-existent and generally not very good. Oregon pinot noir was purely a premium product, and while it still is in many regards, the post-recession environment has required that most larger Oregon producers, and some smaller, offer an "entry-level" option. I can now find more than fifteen bottles in the Denver market that are under $20, some closer to $12, and I couldn't be happier. Montinore was well ahead of the game and was producing affordable and interesting Oregon pinot noir for under $20 far before the recession. 

2015 was one of the hottest seasons on record in the Willamette Valley with most wineries in the region picking their grapes earlier than ever before. That being said, September was remarkably cool and dry which allowed producers to pick whenever whenever they felt appropriate.  I tend to like more moderate vintages, such as 2010, 2011, and 2013, so I was a bit worried that Montinore's Red Cap pinot noir would be too alcoholic and ripe for my liking. Boy was I wrong. Somehow this winemaking team manages to produce a well-balanced, intriguingly complex, and Burgundian wine every year. I've been drinking Montinore wine consistently since 2008 and had multiple bottles of the Red Cap each year and this is one of the best.

Tasting note: Dark garnet in color with a heady nose of red and black cherry, dried fruits, dried flowers, baking spices (clove?), a pleasant earthiness and refined and well-integrated wood and cedar notes as well. Palate is energetic with healthy acidity and flavors that mimic the nose. Particularly well-balanced with the alcohol in-check and a medium finish. Despite alcohol pushing 14%, the wine is very fresh. Overall, one of the best $20 and under Oregon pinot noirs on the market. Where else can you get this kind of quality and typicity in a pinot noir for $20 and under? And it's biodynamic too (!!).

2016 Pinot Gris
Willamette Valley, Oregon
13.5% Alcohol
100% Pinot Gris
100% Certified Biodynamic + Organic
$16


I've always thought it was odd that Oregon picked Pinot Gris as its premier white wine. I'm not alone in this sentiment. Chardonnay seems like a natural pick given pinot noir and chardonnay's ancestral home of Burgundy but it's also not difficult to make the claim that the riesling coming from some Oregon producers, like Trisaetum and Ovum, is as good as anything else in the world.  While I see pinot gris' market share decreasing over time in Oregon, pinot gris from the state has won me over as a consistently affordable, food-friendly, and generally interesting white wine. Aside from non-plunk pinot grigio from northern Italy and beefier exotic versions from Alsace, Oregon is making some of the best pinot gris in the world. This bottle from Montinore is a testament to what affordable pinot gris from the state can offer. At $16 or lower, it is a steal. 

Tasting notes: Heavy dose of fresh citrus stone fruit with a hint of lees aging. You can tell that it has some heft to it but is still light on its feet. The palate is lively and energetic with more citrus, yeasty components from the lees aging, and some mild melon notes. Medium bodied and super friendly but somehow manages some richness to it which I've found characteristic of most Oregon pinot gris. Finish is relatively short but overall a great bargain.

Sexy bottle, sexy wine

Sexy bottle, sexy wine

Borealis 'The Great Northern Whites' Non-Vintage
Willamette Valley, Oregon
12.3% Alcohol - 1.6% residual sugar
38% M
üller-Thurgau, 32% Gewürztraminer, 19% Riesling, 11% Pinot Gris
100% Certified Biodynamic + Organic
$16

The new label on this bottle is killer. I hope a similar rebranding occurs on the other bottles. Secondly, this is the type of wine we need more of in the US.... $15 wines that are food-friendly, biodynamic/organic, low alcohol, and interesting. And third, don't fear an off-dry bottle of wine. A long history in this country of crappy German riesling and sappy white Zinfandel from California's Central Valley has forced us millenials to ask - is it sweet? - as our first question to the server at many establishments. But this wine only holds 1.6% residual sugar and I think is better for it. 

If there was ever a bottle of domestic white wine made for pairing with Asian cuisines, this is it (very similar and equally good is Sokol Blosser's Evolution White). The Borealis is a non-vintage blend of four grapes with Pinot Gris being the smallest portion. The Müller-Thurgau, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling bring a riper, more exotic and floral profile to the wine and the very mild hint of residual sugar is... yes, a welcome addition. 

Tasting note: More exotic nose than the 100% Pinot Gris with a freshness that will make your mouth start watering before it even touches your lips. Notes of honeysuckle, lychee, kiwi, orange blossom, melon, stone fruit, could go on and on. Very inviting. Palate is high in acid, lively as shit, with just a kiss of sweetness and flavors that mimic the nose with a load of citrus and richness to it that is surprising. Because of the exotic notes on the nose and palate, it tastes sweeter than it is. This wine needs food and food needs this wine.

 

 

Natural Wine takes over beer-soaked Denver

It is a testament to the natural wine movement that there is any sort of event in Denver dedicated to exhibiting its wines, let alone a full week jam-packed with tastings, dinners, and fundraisers. This beer-soaked town's wine resume is growing and I couldn't be happier. I was able to attend several of the events but wanted to highlight the grand tasting, a showcase of hundreds of natural wines, from small boutique vignerons in Sonoma like Martha Stoumen to centuries-old Alsace producers Marcel Deiss.

Before I get to the main event, I want to include a short note about how little patience I have for critics of natural wines and the movement behind them. There seem to be a lot of them coming out of the woodwork these days, as if the corporate wine overlords started dispatching them once they realized these wines might affect their market share. The vast majority of these writers are ill-advised blowhards who have either 1) been paid by others to inaccurately depict one of the most exciting developments in wine in the last 100 years or 2) their anecdotal experience with one or two "extreme" natural wines has led them to believe that all natural wines are oxidized, sulfite-free, funktastic, orange wines made by a hermit who lives in a cave on a side of a hill in southeast France.

Attending a single event like the grand tasting in Denver will show any sentient being that the average level of quality in this diverse group of wines is incredibly high. Are there bad natural wines? Damn straight. But there are far more bad conventional wines in the world. Bad conventional wines commit a far more egregious crime. They are most commonly fit the trend of homogenous, manipulated juice that all tastes the same. It'll get you drunk but that's about it. A writer who ignores this fact is trying to hide some pre-conceived belief or intention and I think they should be scratched from the record entirely. Not only are most natural wines incredibly good, they are painstakingly more interesting and this benefits seasoned wine snobs and new wine consumers alike. The idea that natural wine can't and doesn't cater to new wine drinkers is a pile of shit. And natural wines aren't simply about going "back to the roots" to farm and make wine like they did hundreds of years ago. Many of the producers I tasted, some of which for the first time, are making wines that no one has ever made before. They are discovering new terroir, revitalizing long-forgotten and obscure varietals, and doing so without Mega Purple, oak chips, or stabilizers. 

All of Ovum's Wines are $25-35 depending on where you find them.

All of Ovum's Wines are $25-35 depending on where you find them.

Now that I have that off my chest, let's start off with what I thought were the most exciting wines at the tasting: Ovum Wines. I can't remember the last time I tasted 6 wines from the same producer and was blown away by all of them. Let me just say, OVUM WINES IS A TOP 5 PRODUCER OF WHITE WINES IN THE US. John House, the owner and winemaker, earned his chops at Chehalem Winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley and his wines reminded me of the first time I tasted the riesling portfolio of Trisaetum Winery, another phenomenal riesling-focused winery in the area. Ovum's focus is also riesling, with a dash of other varietals like Gewurztraminer, and a laser focus on specific soil types/terroirs in the Willamette Valley and southern Oregon. These wines are absolutely dripping with terroir: incredible minerality, a unique saltiness on some of them, a flinty/smokiness akin to some of Europe's best riesling, generous acidity, and some insane flavor characteristics that I haven't tasted in any other domestic rieslings. Best of all, these could age for decades, my guess is easily 20+ years. One of my favorites was the "Off the Grid" riesling, a gem from the Rogue Valley in Oregon. The wines range in price from $25-35, so not your everyday picnic wine but a great value for a wine you can store away for decades. If you come across these wines, buy them, you will not be disappointed. 

Fireworks!

Fireworks!

My next stop was Marcel Deiss, who had 10+ wines on offer. The winemaker, Marie-Hélène Cristofaro, flew all the way across the pond just to spend the week in Denver. Despite the event being busy, she took me patiently threw a number of the wines, noting differences in soil and terroir. She also spent a good amount of time elaborating on their commitment to biodynamics. While most of their wines are far out of my price range, her Premier Cru and Grand Cru bottles were unsurprisingly some of the best, if not the best, wines at the event. I don't drink Alsace too often and as a result, I forgot how lush and rich these wines can be. The 1998 Premier Cru Englegarten and the 2005 Premier Cru Gruenspiel were top notch but the 2000 Schoenenbourg Grand Cru was my favorite of the bunch and, again, out of my price range at $100. That being said, if good values exist for $100 bottles of wine, this is it! 

Next up was a somewhat surprising flight of 3 Aussie wines. I don't drink a ton of Aussie wines. I'm simply uninformed about the high quality natural producers that make it to the states. Also, I'm very aware that the Aussie's are smart enough to drink all of their best wines themselves, leaving little for us. That being said, I've had 3 or 4 in the last year that were phenomenal, one of them being from Ochota Barrels. I was introduced to them through a mystery case from Garagiste and every time I've drank them since, I've been blown away. Their wines are immensely drinkable yet thoroughly intriguing, a tough balancing act, especially in the natural wine world. Most of their red wines also have a unique medicinal component that I really enjoy. The "Green Room" Grenache/Syrah blend comes from the McLaren Vale and clocks in at under 14% alcohol. Very silky and juicy on the palate with an incredible perfume of roses, bright red fruits, and pepper that carries through to the palate. A great wine for both high-volume summer drinking or slow contemplation.

The other two wines were equally interesting. The BK Wines Syrah from Adelaide Hills was phenomenal, nearly a carbon copy of some northern Rhone syrahs I've had recently. Equal parts barnyard funk and purple fruit, I could drink this all day with a cassoulet in the winter. In a blind tasting, I would have been completely fooled and thought it to be authentically French. The Jamsheed Harem La Syrah was not my favorite, as it seemed overpowered by green/herbal components without much fruit. I'd have no problem drinking it but I wasn't sure what to think of it. All in all though, some great Aussie wines.

BK Wines = new world northern Rhone to perfection. Jamsheed Wines = intriguing but so full of unfamiliar funk I didn't know what to think of it. Ochota Barrels = I haven't found a wine of theirs I don't love.

BK Wines = new world northern Rhone to perfection. Jamsheed Wines = intriguing but so full of unfamiliar funk I didn't know what to think of it. Ochota Barrels = I haven't found a wine of theirs I don't love.

Stoumen's 'Post Flirtation' bottle of Carignan/Zinfandel deliciousness. A steal at $20.

Stoumen's 'Post Flirtation' bottle of Carignan/Zinfandel deliciousness. A steal at $20.

The next wines I came across were made by the one-and-only Martha Stoumen. I think it's important to highlight her wines because her focus is almost entirely unique in the US, "to work with sun-loving grapes: either those historic to California Viticulture, or those that flourish and maintain elegance in California's warmth, such as Carignane and Nero d'Avola." She has previously worked at Broc in Berkeley and COS in Italy so she couldn't be more prepared to make natural wines from these grapes. The three wines she was pouring-Carignan, Carignan/Zinfandel blend, and Zinfandel/Nero d'Avola blend-were not only incredibly pure and utterly drinkable, I've had few like them from the US. Certainly some similarities to the minimalist winemaking of Broc and to the style of the Italian varietals I tasted at Idlewild's tasting room in Healdsburg but I kept coming back to the incredible nose on all of the wines. So vibrant, so alive, so much to ponder. She has a few other wines she makes, including two rosés and a 100% varietal Nero d'Avola. She's got some solid talent crafting her label art too so be on the lookout for her wines!

I was so glad to see Oregon well-represented by Johan Vineyards at the tasting. Johan has always been a favorite of mine, going all the way back to my time living in Oregon. From my experience and unscientific guess, Oregon has some of the highest concentration of "natural" winemakers in the world. While some large of Oregon's original wineries have grown to become quite large, I still see a big commitment to natural viticulture and winemaking. Johan's vineyards at 100% certified biodynamic and they make some great pinot noir. They had several great wines on offer: Farmlands pinot noir, Estate Pinot Noir, and Nils pinot noir. Farmlands is one of the better "entry-level" Oregon pinot noir available today under $25 and the Estate and Nils bottles were classic Oregon pinot noir. Earth, berries, a nice little funk, everything I look for in Oregon pinot noir. Best of all, Johan is now making a pet nat (!!) from pinot noir. It was real good.

Other notable wines:

Jack Rabbit Hill Riesling
I live in Colorado so I'm well aware that there are actually some great wines made in the state but I was still surprised by this riesling. This comes from a working farm and is farmed 100% biodynamic. One of the highest commercial vineyards in the world at 5,000+ ft.

Foradori Nosiola
This was one of the few white Italian white wines at the tasting and boy was it a stunner. Tons of minerality and richness while only at 12% alcohol. This hails from Trentin-Alto-Adige in northeastern Italy. If you think that Pinot Grigio is all that Italy has to offer for white wines, give this a try. AWESOME.

COS Nero di Lupo 
COS is a widely recognized natural wine producer in southern Italy and this bottle is probably the most enjoyable Nero d'Avola I've ever had. Decidedly smooth tannins with generous notes of black and red cherry and a type of southern Italian garrigue of leather, licorice, and spices. Very, very well-balanced and dangerously gulpable. Wow. 

Whitcraft Winery
This winery was entirely new to me and I'm mad that I didn't know they existed when I was in Santa Barbara at the end of last year. They make a variety of wines but only had a pinot noir and syrah available for tasting. These wines were two of the most restrained and elegant California wines I've had in awhile. Very low alcohol in the 13-14% range but health acidity and great complexity. 

A few of my other favorites from the USA: Omero Cellars and Minimus Wines, Broc Cellars, Idlewild Wines, and Scribe. You can scroll through the photo carousel below to see photos of most of the wines I discuss in the article.

Cheers!