Thursday, July 16, 2015

Cowhorn Viognier

I attended my first Wine Bloggers Conference in 2012 in Portland, Oregon. Obviously, there was just a bit of Oregon wine being experienced there. Prior to that vinous exposure, I can't say that I knew much about Oregon wines at all. I was aware that Pinot Noir was a big thing there and I'd heard of the Willamette Valley but not a lot more and I certainly didn't know that it's pronounced "Willamette, dammit." We just don't see much in the way of Oregonian wines up here north of the 49th Parallel - maybe the odd commercial wine or something from one of the better known producers in one of the specialty wine shops. There's certainly not much in the way of small producers to be found in Vancouver though (especially with the often dramatic currency differences between the U.S. and Canadian dollars).

Accordingly, it was a great pleasure to learn of some Oregon wineries that I likely never would have discovered otherwise. Cowhorn was one of my favourite finds during the opening night tasting and I certainly don't think we'd find an intriguing producer like this up here. Indeed, Wine Enthusiast magazine has named Cowhorn one of five "Must-Try Northwest Wineries You've Never Heard of" and  Wine Enthusiast magazine has proclaimed it "a Southern Oregon cult producer." We have a hard enough time finding our own BC "cult" wines.

I, therefore, made a determined effort to visit Cowhorn when Boo and I took our road trip to San Francisco in 2013. Perhaps it's not too surprising that we made a number of winery stops on that trip - Willamette, Napa, Sonoma, Anderson - but the wineries of southern Oregon aren't nearly as well known or as conveniently located next to each other. Luckily, we found Cowhorn - tucked away in seemingly the middle of nowhere - just before they were about to lock up the front gate.

Unfortunately, we were well over our limit of wines that we could bring home with us duty-free across the border - not to mention that the car was completely packed to the hilt - but I had to grab at least a couple of wines, border consequences be damned. Seeing as how I'm in the last 50 wines of this Odyssey, I think it's only fitting that I add a new fave.

1956.  2011 Cowhorn Viognier (Applegate Valley - Oregon)

The first note that drew me to Cowhorn at the WBC12 tasting was that it had gone the biodynamic route. For those unfamiliar with "biodynamics," I sometimes refer to it as "organic farming on steroids with a touch of mysticism thrown in for good measure." Knowing that one of the tenets of biodynamic farming involves the burying of a cowhorn filled with manure so that applications can be prepared from the fermented contents, they had me at the name.

It didn't hurt that Cowhorn makes Rhône-style whites and reds. Being a Rhône Ranger - on the consumer side - it wasn't that hard of a sell. Of course, the wines spoke volumes as well.

In 2002, Bill and Barbara Steele purchased a neglected 117-acre farm that's in the Siskiyou Mountains, not far from the Oregon/California border, and inherited a property awash in "20-foot tall blackberries, weeds and squatters." They then studied the lands and determined that they could grow grapes on the lands that were an old river bed. The rockiness of the property reminded them of the soils in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the Rhône and they slowly began transforming the land. Their first vintages saw them sell a whopping 40 cases in 2008. By the time we visited them in 2013, they were up to between 1700 and 2000 cases. Ultimately, they'd like to reach 3000 cases annually.

The 2011 vintage only saw 150 cases of Viognier produced and it's a full, creamy wine. Some of the richness results from being aged in oak (15% new) but Bill tries to let the fruit - and the land - talk as much as it can and he uses natural yeasts and adds minimal sulphites. After all, what's the sense in working so hard to bring the land to life if you turn around and mask the flavours of the wine.

The Cowhorn property also produces asparagus, cherries, artichokes and hazelnuts inoculated with Périgord black truffle among its crops. Bill told Boo and I that he's referred to as "Mr. Asparagus" at the county fair.

I certainly hope that we get another chance to visit.

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