Sunday, January 2, 2011

Oregon, The Other Northwest: Beaux Freres

The Willamette Valley wine producing community, like much of Eastern Washington, is comprised of people passionate about place. These people who want to produce wines that have their own character and individual traits rather than being innocuous commercial products. Obviously this is not true of all producers in either region; a winery on the level of Chateau Ste Michelle needs to make a sound product at a reasonable price level. However, both regions are blessed with a high percentage of winemakers and vineyard managers dedicated to their soil, their climate, and the concept of minimal processing.

This isn’t always an easy thing to do, though the idea of doing less work on your product in order to increase its quality seems counter-intuitive. Take for example, though, the reasoning behind spontaneous fermentation, one of the methods used by winemakers trying to develop complexity in their wines.

Spontaneous fermentation is exactly that: fermentation that occurs spontaneously, as opposed to occurring due to an inoculation of commercial yeast strains into the wine by the winemaker (or whatever assistant, cellar rat or lowly unpaid intern to whom the task is assigned). Imagine the nerve-wracking anxiety associated with waiting for your fermentation to just start happening with no assurance whatsoever that it will ever take off, no knowledge that it will occur to completion (stuck fermentations being the bane of a winemaker’s existence), and no certainty that you haven’t just completely wasted the several thousand dollars worth of premium wine grapes you have before you.

In what other industry is such prima facie risky behavior encouraged in order to increase the quality of the product?

Enter the protagonist of our story: Beaux Freres. To quote the winery at length:

“Since our first vintage in 1991, the Beaux Frères philosophy remains the same; to produce a world-class Pinot Noir from small, well-balanced yields and ripe, healthy fruit that represents the essence of our vineyard. In pursuit of these goals, the Beaux Frères Vineyard is planted with tightly spaced vines, and yields are kept to some of the lowest in our industry. The grapes are harvested when physiologically (rather than analytically) ripe. Our winemaking philosophy is one of minimal intervention with clean fermentations utilizing indigenous yeast. The wines are stored in French oak for 10 to 12 months adjusting the percentage of new oak to compliment [sic] the wine the vintage has given us. Beaux Frères is never racked until it is removed from barrel for bottling, which occurs without fining or filtration. These non-manipulative, uncompromising methods guarantee a wine that is the most natural and authentic vineyard expression possible. Previous vintages demonstrate that these methods also allow our Beaux Frères to develop significant perfume, weight, and texture in the bottle.”

You’ll notice that they use the term ‘indigenous yeast’ rather than ‘spontaneous fermentation.’ Beaux Freres states on their website that fermentation “is typically allowed to occur spontaneously (usually within five or so days) with indigenous yeasts though we will intervene and inoculate with cultured yeast strains under certain conditions.” I assume that ‘certain conditions’ means ‘if spontaneous fermentation doesn’t occur within the first five days.’ Other wineries cultivate in a laboratory the yeast strains found in their estate vineyards, and then use those strains to inoculate their lots. This is a compromise position taken in an effort to have the best of both worlds: complexity and location-specific character, but also assurance that fermentation will occur.

I find their emphasis on spontaneous malolactic fermentation intriguing; I don't hear many winemakers talking about that, and hadn't really considered it as a feature of noninterventionist winemaking. It makes sense, though; if you're not going to mess with the wine in so many other ways, why not that one, too?

Not racking their wine is an interesting point as well, but I think it's an obvious choice for a Pinot Noir producer. The wine is delicate, without the heavy phenolic load of wines made from Syrah or Cabernet. Why risk oxidation? They even refer to it on their tech page as "reductive winemaking." By the way, their website has some detailed things to say about their methods of production and philosophy in winemaking. I found it to be a fascinating read.

So why the long, rambly post about BF? Because I just had a chance to try a fantastic wine from them: The 2009 Les Cousins Pinot Noir.

Beaux Freres decided to declassify barrels of their other 2009 cuvees, and blend them into this early-release second label. I can only assume that they selected barrels that were showing high levels of maturity, because this wine is a showstopper at this early age. It is grand and delectable; the fruit is buxom, dark, and robust- very expressive. At the same time, it tastes like Pinot - no Syrah-ized glop here.

The price is the kicker: $25.99. While that doesn't make it the cheapest thing in the world, the quality makes it well worth it. I've had other wines that they've made, but at $60-$80 a pop, who can afford them? I also consider its early drinkability to be a positive feature; cellarability is great and all, but sometimes you want a wine that you can just drink and enjoy.

Go! Find it, drink it, love it.

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