What makes a wine good? I think the answer to that is different to everyone. Personally, for me the most important thing is balance. Ideally a wine should be a harmonious balance of acidity, fruit and tannin.
Acidity will help the wine age gracefully and makes it pair well with food. Too much acidity and it might be a little sharp to drink by itself. Too little acidity may mean that it just doesn't have what it needs to bring out the best in the meal that you drink it with. Personally, I tend to favor wines from cooler climates since the cooler temperatures, especially at night, maintain the grapes natural acidity and I like some acid in my wines.
While a wine needs tannin, too much can be overwhelming. A Cabernet Cauvignon with big tannins might be great with a fat juicy steak, but can be overwhelming with some other less robust foods, and might be too grippy to enjoy by itself. So, while I like a wine with tannin, I personally enjoy it's in balance with other other elements of the wine.
I like a wine that is complex, with subtle flavors of herbs and spice, but I need some fruit flavors too. Too much fruitiness can get in the way of tasting some of those other secondary flavors but without some fruitiness the wine is not enjoyable for me. And isn't that the primary purpose of wine, to be enjoyable? If you enjoy drinking the wine, it's good for you, and that's the most important thing.
If you're interested in spending some time exploring what you like in wine, consider joining one of our classes at the new wine bar in Vancouver.
What is the best wine to pair with family get togethers. It really doesn't matter just so long as you have some...
But seriously, here's my two cents on what wine pairs with what over the holidays.
Holiday Parties: You can't go wrong with bubbles. The carbonation means the alcohol is delivered to your system more quickly. Hand your guests a small taste when they come through the door and you'll have them in the party spirit in no time. Our Jezebel Pinot Noir is another great party wine. It's fruit forward and easy drinking but still a lovely, well balanced example of an Oregon pinot noir, and it pairs with just about any kind of food. Go for our Willamette Valley Pinot Noir if you want a bit of an upgrade from the Jezebel.
Christmas Eve: Our family has a seafood buffet on Christmas Eve and my favorite wine to pair with it is our Ribbon Ridge Chardonnay. The creamy texture and bright acidity are a wonderful match for Bacon Wrapped Scallops and Crab Dip.
Roast Turkey: Maybe it's my English heritage, but I can't make a turkey dinner without a glass of dry sherry to sip on while I'm doing it. A few marcona almonds and a glass of sherry makes the perfect breakfast while I'm stuffing sausage up the birds rear end. For the dinner, I like Pinot Noir. It's such a versatile wine. It's lighter weight and acidity pair respectfully with such a wide variety of foods. If you aren't overdoing the sweet stuff with the sides (yes.. I'm talking marshmallows in the yams - WTF?!) then I'd pour a really nice Pinot Noir. Our Winemaker Cuvee Pinot Noir is lovely, or any of the other pinots like the Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir. And if you really must shove fluff in your sweet potatoes, try a wine with a little residual sugar in it, like our Jezebel Blanc. It's a refreshing Alsatian blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris with just a hint of sweetness. The Blanc is also great with ham.
Christmas Pudding. As ridiculous as it is, I make English plum puddings every year and ship a couple back to the UK to my family. No one else seems to take the time to make them since my grandmother passed on and I kind of like doing it. But what wine to pair with it? I have no idea. By that time in the day, I'm just ready for a nice cup of tea...
This last week I’ve been a pinot geek.
Last Sunday, Kyla (assistant winemaker) and I drank our way through the wines at the Passport to Pinot, which is the last event of the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon. The event brings pinot noir producers and enthusiasts from all over the world to celebrate their love of this finicky yet beguiling grape. I had a huge crush on a 2017 Gevrey-Chambertin offered by Domaine Marc Roy, and not just because they have a female winemaker. The wine was a little lower I alcohol, which was much more agreeable in the heat that we had on Sunday, and it had a gorgeous, supple mouthfeel and perfect balance. Pretty much all of the wines being shown were just lovely.
Throughout the rest of this last week, I’ve been working on my reserve pinot noirs from the 2021 vintage, trying to ascertain which barrels I like better, and which ones will work together to create the single vineyard pinot noirs and the Winemaker Cuvee blend this year. Although, the vintage as a whole is a little boozier than I prefer (just over 14% alcohol), I really like the wines. The vintage reminds me of 2005, with big, expansive tannins, presumably a result of thicker skins from the extreme heat spells we had last summer. This brawny framework supports wines that still have a lot of grace and complexity though. I think the wines will age well.
Probably my favorite wine at the moment is two barrels from Nysa Vineyard. The vines are 20 years old and the block I picked from is planted to Pommard clone pinot noir and is at a higher elevation and east- facing. The wine is just 13.4% alcohol with natural bright acidity, sexy mouthfeel, and such intensely focused bright red fruit flavors. It’s a baby still but, oh my, I can’t wait to see how it evolves.
If the idea of blending sounds interesting, or if you’re a pinot geek like me, consider coming to our last Blending Workshop this year on August 27th. And do check out the single vineyard wines that we currently offer at www.willfulwine.com/shop. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to email us at email@example.com or call us on 503 577 8982.
Pam Walden, Owner/Winemaker, Willful Wine
When I was a little girl, I remember thinking about what my life would be like at the turn of the millennium. I’d be 32 years old – ancient! I’d have a husband and two children, and that’s as far as my imagination got. I was your "typical" girl in the UK, wearing dresses and playing with dolls. My parents had three girls, and no boys, and when I asked my father if I could help him in his mechanics shop, so I could spend time with him, he said yes, and I got to learn how to fill in dents in cars. I don’t know that this one thing changed my expectations for my life, but it certainly showed me that I could do more than I perhaps thought I could.
Throughout my life, I’ve had many opportunities to explore how much I can do. Our small winery starting in 2000, when we made just four barrels of wine. My then husband was working a full-time job at Rex Hill winery, so I had to do all the punch downs and day to day stuff in the winery the first couple of years. I had no idea what I was doing and just did what he told me to do. We had a copper heat exchanger that we’d fabricated, and it broke a couple of times during harvest, and the only way to mend it in a hurry was to weld it myself, so I learned to weld, and so added welding to my skills list.
In 2011, I took over sole ownership of the business, started the “Willful” label, and became the winemaker. I crushed 54 tons for my first vintage as the winemaker. I had a lot of support, from my ex-husband and from friends in the industry, but it was indeed a trial by fire. And I learned to do all sorts of new things….
Twelve years later, I have finally moved in to my own production space, and the winery is going from strength to strength. I’m working with some fabulous vineyards and new varietals and couldn’t be happier. So .. thanks Dad.. for saying “yes” and opening up what I thought was possible for a girl.
2020 sucked. I’m sure it sucked for pretty much everyone. OK.. maybe Jeff Bezos was skipping all the way to the bank, but for many businesses 2020 was a bust. Like many small business owners, I survived on savings, keeping things lean and working my ass off, which makes the success of 2021 all the sweeter. My sales have increased and are the highest they’re been since I took over the winemaking and began the Willful brand in 2011.
When I started the business with my then husband in 2000, he was the winemaker, and I was the sales manager and sometimes cellar grunt. It was after we split in 2009, that I took over the winemaking. My first vintage in the cellar full time was 2011 and I usually describe it as learning how to swim by being thrown in a swimming pool. I crushed 54 tons that year, went to enology classes at night twice a week to fill in the gaps of my education, and finally heaved a sigh of relief after the first wines were in bottle. But then I had to convince our distributors that the wines were still going to be saleable now that the person that they knew as the sales manager was in control of the winemaking. I’m pretty sure our bank manager thought that my ex-husband was still making the wines behind the scenes up until he died in 2013 (and who knows, possibly beyond that…?) I felt constantly apologetic, wanting it to work, and yet always wondering whether what I was doing would be good enough. Even when my wines started to get good scores in the press, I would brush it off.
Now, having just finished my 11th vintage as the winemaker, I finally feel comfortable in the cellar. Every vintage still provides unique challenges. Every year there is something new to learn, different things to experiment with. It’s one of the things I love about my job. Not everyone will prefer my style of winemaking, and there may be times when I will wish in hindsight that I had made a different choice about something in the cellar. There is much that I can still learn, but I am very happy to present my wines now. I’m exploring more single vineyard pinot noirs, and getting to work with new vineyards and varietals. And I’m selling more than ever apparently. Like the little bird on my logo, I am taking flight and it’s pretty exciting.
A "punch down" is the term we use for when we push the grape skins back down in to the juice during fermentation.
When we make white wine, we usually press the grapes as soon as we receive them and ferment the juice in tanks or barrels (unless we’re make a “skin-contact” white wine, but that’s another blog post…)
When we make red wine, on the other hand, we ferment the whole grape, juice and skins altogether (sometimes even the stems too!). Those lovely grape skins are what gives us the intense color, the tannins and some of the flavors. It’s basically a big soup of juice and grape skins in our tank or open top fermenter, which we call “must”. When the must ferments, it produces carbon dioxide gas as by-product, and that pushes the solids to the surface of the must. If we let it just hang out there, we wouldn’t get all that yummy goodness that we want in our wine, so we “punch” the grape skins down into the juice regularly. The amount of punch downs a winemaker chooses to do each day will have an impact on the tannin profile of the finished wine, so the method and the frequency of these punch downs is an important stylistic decision as a winemaker. More frequent punch downs will generally result in a more tannic wine. Less frequent (or no) punch downs will generally yield a lighter wine.
All of my red wines at Willful Wine are fermented in small, open top fermenters that hold about a ton and a half of grapes. I like smaller fermentation vessels as it allows me to be more creative with the grapes I receive. I can ferment individual clones from a vineyard source separately and do some as whole cluster fermentation and some destemmed from the same source.
With fermentation vessels like this, the usual way to do punch downs is with a punch down tool, which is basically a long pole with a disc or rectangular shape on the end which you use to push the skins down to the bottom of the fermenter. At the start, or even before fermentation starts, this is hard work. The grapes are such a solid mass you could easily lean on the tool without hardly moving it and it’s a workout to push the grapes down and pull the tool up to try and get some air in to the must to support fermentation. As fermentation progresses, the skins break down, less gas is produced, and it gets a lot easier. Lastly, you have to hope that you didn’t overfill the fermenter, because then you may get a …. muffin top.
A “muffin top” is guaranteed to wreck my day during harvest. It’s all too easy to say “sure, we can squeeze those last few pounds of grapes in’’ when they’re falling off the conveyor and in to the destemmer, but if the vessel is over full and you have a yeast that is very active, you’ll get Mt Vesuvius in the fermenter, spewing grape skins over the side of the fermenter and leaving you with a tasty mess to clean up after what was already a 12-hour day. Want to see what it looks like? Click here to see a video of our 2021 muffin top mess.
The first time I fermented pinot noir with 100% whole clusters, it was by accident. In 2015 I contracted for just one acre of pinot noir from Lia's Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountain AVA. The vineyard is dry-farmed and it was a warm year and the yield from that acre was almost exactly two tons, which presented me with a bit of a dilemma. One macro fermenter bin holds about a ton and a half of destemmed fruit. If I’d removed the stems the fermenter bins would have been only two thirds full, leaving lots of “head space” above the grapes, which isn’t good for a healthy fermentation. Leaving all the stems on would give me two fairly full fermenters, so instead of running the grapes through the de-stemmer, we just loaded the whole clusters into the fermenters. Which left me with another dilemma… how to get fermentation going?
When you pull the grapes off of the stems, the must is fairly juicy and it’s easy enough to get a punch down tool in there to move the grapes around and get fermentation going. With 100% whole clusters they just kind of sit there: just a huge pile of grapes, so I had to get my shorty shorts on and tread the grapes with my feet to juice them up a bit. Here’s a clip of me doing “pigeage” in 2015.
Two years later, the wine had the additional tannins and spicy flavors that I was expecting but it also had some beautiful floral aromatics. I’ve been choosing to do some degree of whole cluster fermentation most vintages since 2015. The 2019 RIbbon Ridge Pinot Noir has a fair amount of whole clusters in it. I like the additional structure and spicy characteristics it gives the Wadenswil clone pinot noir from that vineyard.
Sign up for our annual Blending Workshop on June 5th and June 10th, and I’ll tell you more about whole cluster fermentation and some of the other choices I make as a winemaker to create the Willful pinot noirs. During the workshop you’ll taste through eight barrel samples and then blend your own bottle of Pinot Noir. Space is limited and by reservation only.
The classic wine pairing for a big juicy steak is Cabernet Sauvignon. But why?
Well... if we look at it the ZiNG way, we'll think about what is the dominant element in the food. The eight food elements are: salt, oxalates, acidity, umami, fat, sugar, spice and protein. Clearly a steak doesn't have acidity or sugar, and it doesn't have oxalates (you'll just have to trust me on that, or come to the workshop...). I guess it could have salt or spice depending on how you season it but you'd have to really go over the top with the sauce to overwhelm the dominant element which is... protein.
So what about the Cabernet Sauvignon works well with protein? The elements of wine are acidity, viscosity, fruitiness, sugar, alcohol and tannin. While a Cabernet Sauvignon may have acidity and most likely a good amount of alcohol, it also has a lot of tannin. Those tannins bind with the protein in the steak and those mouth puckering tannins just disappear so you can taste the fruit and other elements in the wine. The wine and the food enhance each other.
During the ZiNG! workshop next month we will taste Cabernet Sauvignon with all eight of the food elements and see how each of the interactions work. Do they zing! like the protein, or are they a train wreck, making the wine taste awful and leaving us reaching for the bread to take the experience out of our mouths?
The ZiNG workshop is $40 in person at the winery or $100+shipping if you join us online. Last order for the online participation will be next week so we have time to ship you the four bottles of wine and worksheet you'll need. So.. book early! There's enough wine in the package for you to invite your friends to join you too!
Click here to get tickets.
And you can read more about ZiNG and it's creator, and our workshop host, Trish Rogers here.
Chaly and I love lentils. We have enjoyed this recipe with the simplest and most accessible Oregon Pinots and also some of the most coveted Oregon Pinots. While we are Dundee Hills people, the earthiness of lentils lends itself really well to some of the wines from our Yamhill Carlton or Ribbon Ridge natives. During quarantine, we could not find lentils at the store for 2-3 weeks and I got so nervous that I found a Washington state grower that sold online via amazon and bought a bulk amount of Lentils. We just finished them off a week ago.
Balanza Family Lentil Soup
2 cups Lentils
5 cups chicken stock (we like better than bouillon low salt with water)
Linguica Sausage (11 oz package)
1 green pepper
2 medium carrots
1 medium yellow onion
2 stalks of celery
2 roma tomatoes
2 large cloves of garlic
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp smoked paprika (we use Bolivian Ahi but when we don’t have it smoked paprika is nice)
1 tsp cayenne pepper
3/4 tsp tunmeric
1/2 tsp ground coriander
2 bay leaves
pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
Dice all vegetables (including the tomatoes)
Slice the sausage links
In a large stock pot, sauté the green pepper, carrots, onion, celery, garlic in a little bit of olive oil until the onions are soft but not brown.
Add diced tomatoes, broth, spices, and lentils.
Bring everything to a nice simmer
Add the sliced sausage and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour
Salt and pepper to taste
Stir in some chopped parsley (1/4 cup)
Garnish with parsley
Serve with crusty bread
Note: if you prefer lentils as a side dish rather than a soup, don’t add as much broth.
What is native fermentation?
Native fermentation is using the indigenous yeasts from the vineyard to cause primary fermentation i.e. the process where the sugar in the grapes turns to alcohol.
When I’m working with grapes that I know are going to go to the Jezebel pinot noir, I usually inoculate them with yeast. There are a few that I tend to use more often and they’re mostly designed to highlight the fresh fruit flavors of the wine and contribute to a fleshy mouthfeel. The fermentations with these yeasts tend to be fairly uniform each year, and shorter than the wild yeasts I use for the Willful pinot noir. The yeasts are one of the tools that help me to maintain consistency each vintage.
I approach the “willful” pinot noir grapes a little differently. I do a “cold soak” for at least a week, where I keep the grapes in a chiller (usually around 48F). This allows the grape juice to be in contact with the skins for longer and builds structure in the wine, especially the more elegant type of tannins that I prefer. Then I let the fermenters warm up and whatever yeasts came in from the vineyard with them go to work and turn the sugar in to alcohol and the juice into wine. The native ‘wild’ yeasts generally ferment at lower temperatures and take longer to convert all of the sugar in to alcohol and this gives me yet more skin time to build structure in the wine, and also tends make the wines a little more aromatic. Naturally fermented wines tend to have a particularly supple, velvety texture.
I often refer to my wines as children. You have an idea of what you're going to get, but they also often surprise you, and that's one of the things I love about winemaking in general, and about native yeasts. I find they do require a little more work in the winery but I think the variety of terroir and nuance that can be expressed and the impact on the texture is well worth it to me.