I have been fortunate to meet many of my fellow wine lovers in person after getting to know them on Twitter and Instagram. Sommelier Peter Miscikoski and I share a love of organic, biodynamic, character driven wines from small producers and a love of post-punk and goth music. [Follow him here peterm_99 ] In addition to his usual duties as sommelier, Peter hosts a “Sommelier Series” of winemaker dinners and events at Gedney Farm in the Berkshire mountains in Massachusetts. Two restored Normandy style barns crafted for the finest stallions and Jersey cattle during the Berkshire’s “Gilded Age” are the backbone of Gedney Farm. Surrounded by 200 acres of rolling pastures, the barns [one a 16 room boutique hotel, the other a restaurant and event space] are both exceptionally preserved and strikingly modern. Check out their innovative and extensive amenities here.
I was super excited when Peter invited my husband and I out to Gedney Farm for a winemaker dinner with Brian O’Donnell, owner/winemaker at Belle Pente in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. Accompanying the selection of Belle Pente wines was a specially curated tasting menu from Executive Chef Rob Burnell. Chef Burnell expertly crafted a menu reflecting the notes of Spring, yet with a hearty richness as the temperatures are unseasonably cold. He particularly included root vegetables to compliment the earthy character in the wines. A true farm to table menu, all ingredients are organic, sustainably sourced and local.
Brian is incredibly knowledgeable and down to earth, he happily chronicled the story behind each wine, along with his 20+ year journey in winemaking, answering all questions along the way. The title stems from this East Coast/Western Europe girl being enlightened to the correct pronunciation of Willamette. Brian, himself originally from New York, was informed immediately upon his arrival in Oregon that it is pronounced “Will-AM-it, dammit”.
Estate: Passionate about crafting high quality wines with respect for the environment, Brian O’Donnell, along with his wife Jill, founded Belle Pente in 1992. They purchased a 70-acre farm in what is now the heart of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. Belle Pente [bell-pont’] means “beautiful slope” and refers to the estate’s hillside vineyards, along with reflecting “the inspiration that we draw from the exquisite wines of Burgundy and Alsace”. The 16 acres of vineyards are 240-500 feet in elevation, planted with Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay. For more information on the estate vines, terroir and the dedicated, neighboring vineyards that additional fruit is sourced from, click here.
Winemaking: Both organic and biodynamic viticulture is used, along with dry farming and intensive canopy management. Sheep, goats and cows roam the property, providing natural weed control and compost. Cover crops are rotated, grasses planted for biodiversity, and forest left for buffer. Almost everything they use is generated on the farm.
All grapes are hand harvested. The winery has a 3 level gravity-flow facility “designed for gentle, natural winemaking in small lots, with minimal handling and manipulation, to preserve varietal integrity and the unique attributes of the time and place in which the wines were grown”.
Philosophy: “Great wine is made in the vineyard and merely nurtured in the winery.”
Belle Pente Muscat Willamette Valley 2015
Tasting Notes: Super aromatic, with lush peach, apricot, candied ginger and white flowers. Juicy apricot and pear with a squeeze of lemon accented by a floral hint and balancing acidity. Finishing dry and fruity, keeping you reaching for more. Dry and refreshing, a perfect companion to hot summer days.
Winemaker’s Note: Brian recommends this as an aperitif, or with first courses, and that it is fantastic with asparagus!
Belle Pente Pinot Gris Willamette Valley 2014
Tasting Notes: Enticing aromas of marzipan, golden fruit, wildflowers and a drizzle of honey. Fresh acidity frames yellow apple, apricot and a trace of ginger spice, finishing dry and fruity. Easy drinking and fantastic on its own or at the table.
100% Pinot Gris
Winemaker’s Note: Aged half in neutral wood barrels [a combination of oval barrels that are 4 years in age, and larger barrels 10 years old], half in stainless steel for about 10 months. This combination allows for richness and weight but retains freshness. Can be paired with everything, a terrific food wine.
Belle Pente Chardonnay Willamette Valley 2012
Tasting Notes: Summery aromas of lemon, subtle tropical fruits, fresh herbs and a hint of brioche. Layers of bright citrus and tropical fruit glide over a trace of buttery toast, woodsy oak and lemon linger between each sip. Graceful and agile, each glass will disappear rather swiftly.
Winemaker’s Note: This is the “modern style of Willamette Valley Chardonnay”. It has the freshness of Old World, tropical fruits of the New World. Brian has been making Chardonnay for 20 years, experimenting with all different combinations of wood and stainless steel, and has found that old barrel fermentation with modest new barrel use is the best. For example, if there are 10 barrels, 2 will be new oak. This allows for a little bit of oak influence, but not overbearing. Grapes are from a 2 acre vineyard planted in 1999, 300-400 cases are made each year. The wine spends 12 months in barrel, several months in tank, than at least a full year in the bottle before release. Fresh garden pesto is one of his favourite parings with this Chardonnay.
The following two Pinot Noir were presented side by side as a fascinating example of the wide range in character Willamette Valley Pinots can have.
Belle Pente ‘Murto Vineyard’ Pinot Noir Dundee Hills 2013
Tasting Notes: Bright ruby in colour with aromas of dusty earth, licorice, soft cigar box spice and red berries. Silky tannins and fresh acidity frame strawberry, raspberry, cranberry and pomegranate, along with a shake of black pepper. Clean minerality sculpts the lengthy, dry, fruity finish. Elegant and refined, sumptuous on its own or as a companion to a wide variety of dishes.
100% Pinot Noir
Winemaker’s Note: Planted in 1978, Murto Vineyard is in the Dundee Hills, it belongs to their friends. It is located at 800 feet in elevation, with volcanic soil with huge chunks of basalt and layers of red clay. 2013 was a cool year with high amounts of rain, the grapes had to be picked earlier than usual. As a result, the wine has an Old World character, with more acid and tannic structure than usual. Aged for 18 months in French oak [50% new] Unfined and unfiltered.
Belle Pente Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton 2014
Tasting Notes: Bright garnet in colour, with aromas of black cherry, anise, black pepper and woodsy oak. Plump blueberry, plum, black cherry and blackberry glide over a plush backbone of earth, wildflowers, woods and soft, round tannins. An herbaceous streak accents fruit and spice notes on the lengthy, dry finish. A well-structured, fruit forward delight.
100% Pinot Noir
Winemaker’s Note: Grapes are from their estate vineyard planted 1994. The vineyard is at 400 feet in elevation, with sandstone and marine sedimentary stone soils[it was an ancient ocean floor]. Aged for 18 months, fewer than 15% of the barrels used were new, and over half were at least 4 years old, allowing time and place to take center stage, rather than the oak. 2014 was a warm year, resulting in a very fruit forward wine.
Belle Pente ‘Estate Reserve’ Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton
Tasting Notes: Red-violet in colour with aromas of cherry, strawberry, candied violet and a hint of graham cracker. Pomegranate, cherry, peppery spice and earth are highlighted by fresh acidity and supple tannins. Soft clay minerality drives the plush fruit finish. A cozy sip to curl up with.
100% Pinot Noir
Winemaker’s Note: Grapes are from the oldest estate vineyard, planted in 1994. The soil is ancient ocean floor, a mix of sandstone and loam over rock. The soil is very shallow, only about 12-18 inches deep. Complexity from the old vines and the concentration of flavour from the shallow soil is the combination that Brian is looking for the Estate Reserve. Made every year, although the quantity will vary, it is always a selection of the best parts of the vineyard, along with grapes from a steep, southwest facing slope planted in 1998. Aged for 18 months in French oak barrels [50% new] prior to gravity bottling , than aged for an additional 18 months in the bottle before release. 228 cases + 120 magnums produced.
Belle Pente ‘Vendange Tardive’ Riesling Willamette Valley 2002
Tasting Notes: Wonderfully aromatic, with dried mango, apricot, honey and petrol. Fresh citrus acidity fuses with concentrated apricot, peach, candied ginger and a wisp of warm summer hay. Honey drizzled fruit lingers between each golden sip. Splendid on its own, or with just about any type of desert [or gamey cheeses].
Winemaker’s Notes: It’s always an extraordinary occasion when a winemaker breaks out a special bottle. As such, we were all highly anticipating the dessert course. At the bequest of Peter [who was fortunate to have enjoyed this a couple of years ago], we were treated to a one of a kind, a “gift of nature”, late harvest Riesling. The unique conditions needed to make a late harvest wine has only happened once in Brian’s entire 20+ years at Belle Ponte. Normally it rains from October to Valentine’s day, however, in 2002 it rained briefly then got gorgeous in October. Half of the grapes on each bunch were perfect juicy grapes, the other half were the moldy, shriveled botrytis grapes. They were crushed together, the juice from the healthy grapes rehydrated the raisin like ones. It is the combination of the two that made this rare wine. High level of sugar, acid and alcohol, a great synthesis! Every year they leave grapes on the vine hoping for the right conditions, it still hasn’t happened. Only 100 cases made.