Dan Berger

His Malbec is good but give me his Syrah

There are numerous ways to gain the knowledge base to create a world-class winery, and one of them is to start with a template, a formula that has already been established, and build from there.

In this way, others have already done most of the heavy lifting.

For many wealthy individuals, this has taken the form of moving into a place like the esteemed Napa Valley and paying the freight, which can be substantial, and focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon, which long ago proved itself, and which, from Napa, has continued to be the gold-plated passport to the lifestyle that, to some people, is more important than mammon itself.

What’s curious about this is that the quality of the wine need not always be of the highest, but the price charged for the wine is a sign of quality, even if reality is akin to the emperor’s first-hand duds.

Of the several other ways to create a world-class winery, the most difficult is to research every last detail of where great potential lies, and then do additional research on how to make use of the fact that no template exists.

Moving onto a blank canvas may be effective, but it is not only risky; it is also amazingly time-consuming, and can prove extremely frustrating since all you have to go on is the homework you have done, and the fact that the research material you are using is not really “evidence” as much as conclusions from other free-thinkers who have a vision not based entirely on science.

Stephen and Gloria Reustle discovered the then-unknown Umpqua Valley in Southern Oregon nearly 20 years ago at a time when there were fewer than 10 wineries in the area, and before the region was known for which grape varieties did best in the local soils.

A number of good-sized grape-growing operations had already established there, but the main varieties they grew were those already in demand, such as Oregon’s calling card – Pinot Noir. So blank was the Umpqua template that some excellent grapes had never been planted locally.

And the only way to determine if such varieties had potential here was to see if they had the genetic propensity to do so properly based upon the kinds of soils and climates and sub-regions for which growers could gain the data.

To start this adventure, Stephen began to do various sorts of detailed research on the area, starting with soil and weather analyses. This took well over a year of tedious, mundane work that called for as much intuition as scientific evidence. Then came research on clones, rootstocks, and other esoterica that only a scientist would appreciate.

Occasionally an outlier would appear.

For instance, among the findings Stephen came up with was that this region displayed perhaps the potential for making a world-class Grüner Veltliner.

This was a fascinating if completely obscure finding.

For one thing, almost no one in the United States had any interest in this Austrian grape, which was just beginning to be imported, with all the fanfare of toenail fungus. Even if it turned out to be world-class, would anyone buy it?

Steven had tried this variety, liked it, and saw it as a complement to another white wine that showed potential here, Riesling. So he planted some of this grape and hoped for the best.

He also viewed Syrah most favorably for this region, seeing his cool climate as having the potential to possibly make a peppery version of Syrah.

What he did not realize, when the grapes were being put in the ground, was that the Umpqua was a special spot that allowed for a distinctiveness of character for numerous grapes, many of which would display this cool climate charm in more characterful ways than even the famed Willamette Valley could.

And one great benefit for the Reustles is that this region’s land costs were a fraction of those to the north, which allowed them to experiment with grapes economically enough to do something that no Willamette Valley grower could afford: test theories.

Perhaps the best example of this is in Reustle Prayer Rock Malbec, a variety that Argentina has made as its major contribution to the world red wine scene.

As an investigator of many grape varieties, Steve had tasted a number of examples of Malbec grown in warmer regions and concluded that the variety could be made just as concentrated and as potent a wine even if grown in a climate as cool as his.

But would the wine find favor with Americans? Would the consumer understand a cooler-climate Malbec when the vast majority of Malbecs that were already on the shelf showed such density?

I tasted some of Stephen’s first Malbecs and found them to be a bit too similar to some of those already on the shelf. It wasn’t until the decade 2000 to 2009 (perhaps allowing for vine age to kick in) that this grape variety began to show the personality that it does today.

One thing about Malbec that appears to be a truism is that as a young wine it can be remarkably boring, and that decanting it and even waiting a year or two after release benefits its varietal expression.

Reustle Prayer Rock Malbec seems to fit this mold rather neatly, from a cooler climate perspective. Aeration gives it a faintly earthy, olive-pepper quality, and its substantial tannins need the air to soften a bit.

Unlike how the grape is sort of brutish in France as Cahors, this version is actually somewhat graceful, although it may be thought of more along the lines of a Petite Sirah.

Which grape variety does the best for Steven and Gloria?

That debate could take hours, since everything at this property has won a gold medal at some competition or another.

If I had to choose, however, I would vote for Steve’s Syrah, since the expression of cool-climate fruit (white pepper) comes as close to the classic northern Victoria in Australia or Côte Rôtie in the Rhône, and rivals New Zealand’s Martinborough for most distinctiveness in the world of Syrah.

And as a concluding point, Reustle Prayer Rock Grüner Veltliner is among the world’s finest from this grape, validating all that homework and intuition.

This story was originally published March 13, 2017 12:00 AM.

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