Monday, March 29, 2010

Amalie Robert - A Fine Example of Oregon Winemaking

If the difference between good wine and great wine is a distinct sense of place, and the passion of the winemaker expressed in the nose and palette of the wine itself, then Amalie Robert was destined for greatness from the beginning. The wines of Amalie Robert taste of the Willamette Valley terroir, tempered with a sense of humbleness that is inherent in the whole operation. My brother and I met vineyard manager, winemaker, and owner Dena Drews in her driveway, located several miles off any paved roads on one of those early spring Oregon days that are so beautiful the locals don't want us to know about them. Drews showed us her vines, her crushpad, her cellar room, even her bottling and shipping room (all of which is done by Drews and her partner Ernie Pink) all the while telling the simple but compelling story of Amalie Robert. Drews and Pink are former high-tech professionals from Seattle who found they were happiest on their frequent weekend excursions down to Oregon wine country, and particularly so when they had a good pinot noir in their glass. When the time was right, and with very little knowledge of exactly how they would accomplish this dream, they bought a 30 acre sour cherry orchard near Dallas, OR, and left Seattle. They befriended some good mentors, including Steve Doerner from Cristom, and set out planting their land. The first vintages' juice was sold to some impressive Oregon winemakers as the team at Amalie Robert invested further in their vineyard and winemaking capabilities. Eventually they were producing a couple of thousand cases, and in the past couple of vintages have not only garnered critical acclaim, but continued to grow in production and distribution. Amalie Robert is committed to only producing wine off the land that they own and tend, so there is a production limit that they will hit soon. But they are happy with their growth, and I would guess that most of their fans are just fine with the quality that is obviously enhanced by the limited quantity of their wines.

As an Oregon native, and a mid-Willamette valley one at that, I am intimately familiar with the culture and purveying attitude in the region. I must say after an hour and half with Drews, it is obvious that she and Pink seem to have incorporated seamlessly into the Oregon lifestyle. It tends to be a dressed down, eco-concious, friendly if not slightly skeptical, and humble place in general, and the 30 acres, simple structures (a modest house and impressive but simple winemaking facility/cellar), and 4 employee operation has embodied the spirit of the valley. I can say that something about the experience felt intimately familiar, and reminded me of childhood trips to select a pumpkin for Halloween, or a tree for Christmas. The wines also display the pride of winemakers who traded a fast paced life for a simpler, friendlier lifestyle. They are fruity but restrained, full-bodied but delicate, and the wines give a sense of purpose and structure that goes way beyond an attempt to garner critical attention.

The Wines
2007 Oregon Chardonnay Willamette Valley - This wine sees no oak and is expressly stopped from going through any malolactic fermentation. It displays a lot of citrus on both the nose and palette, with a few mineral notes across the mid-palette. The finish drops rather quickly and I prefer unoaked Chardonnays to have a bit more acidity to make them more interesting. Drews indicated that they are experimenting with some oak and malolactic fermentation on part of the 2008 vintage and I for one am encouraged that they are doing so. At $22 I give this wine a 3 (out of 5).

2008 Oregon Pinot Meunier Willamette Valley - This wine was an opaque light purple in the glass. The nose was very reminiscent of its cousin, pinot noir, and initially gave some hay, and earthy notes, opening up into more of a cherry and blackberry nose. The palette was full of lots of berries but with a nice earthiness that gave the wine good balance. The finish was medium in length, and overall this wine came across as simple and easy drinking. This wine was fantastic with barbequed burgers later in the weekend. There are currently only 11 producers in the US who produce Pinot Meunier as a still wine, so this is worth seeking out. This bottling retails for $26 and gets a strong 3.5 (out of 5).

2007 Oregon Pinot Noir Vintage Debut - Each year Amalie Robert puts out a vintage debut a couple of months ahead of their His and Her estate blends. Drew was justifiably defensive about 2007, a vintage that Robert Parker was very down on, and used to criticize Oregon wines in general. He implied that they have been overhyped and for him tend to have some consistent flaws that keep them from being great. I see this difficult vintage as an opportunity for winemakers to distinguish themselves and possibly a chance for consumers to get a break on the huge price increase that surround the mid-2000's success of the Willamette Valley. Either way, this wine was very light red in color and had a rather Burgundian nose of fruit and berries, some brambly notes, and a bit of that pine forest that can often be found in an Oregon pinot. The wine drank with some great fruit, primarily cherry, a little minerality, and fairly gentle but present tannins on the finish. This wine was delicious, highly recommended for the $30 price tag, and gets a 4 (out of 5).

2006 Oregon Pinot Noir Estate - Amalie Robert has a His blend and Her blend each year (His is Estate, Hers is Amalie's Cuvee) Both retail for $50, and both got 92 from Tanzer. We tasted His and found that the nose was quite fruity and red. It was loaded with ripe strawberry, and beneath this a nice layer of cedar. The palette also tasted of bright red fruits, and had the round, silky mouthfeel that only a great pinot offers. The tannins were firm, and the long finish provided a very nice tilled earth tendency. This wine is one of the best examples of Oregon pinot noir that I have had and gets a solid 4.5 (out of 5).

2007 Oregon Syrah - Amalie Robert produces only 25 cases of syrah, off of one acre of the grapes. It is a cold-weather syrah styled after some wines that Drews and Pink tasted in the Northern Rhone. It is a dark purple, fading to garnet on the edges. It has a complicated and beautiful nose of pine, and a musty eucalyptus and dark fruit presence. The wine initially tastes of forest and some river rock, but as it opens it has more indicative flavors of dark fruit and the peppery spice that I love in a syrah. This wine was highly tannic and would benefit from laying down for a couple of years, but when paired with a robust steak was a big hit with my family. This wine also gets a 4.5 and at $35 retail is my highest recommendation from Amalie Roberts.

If you want to know what Oregon can (and should) be I encourage you to seek out Amalie Robert. You can buy wine from the winery (from several states) here, and through an online retailer (to more states) here. Also, if you are lucky enough to be in Oregon over Memorial Day Weekend all wineries are open for touring and tasting, including Amalie Robert.


  1. Daniel FredericksonMarch 29, 2010 at 6:03 PM

    The 07 Syrah sounds like something I might be interested in! btw, great review post...It really sounds like the two of you had a great time visiting Amalie Robert.

  2. You will probably have to get the Syrah from Dina directly as it is very limited production, but it is delicious and so terroir driven that I can't really define a more widely available comparison. Thanks Daniel.

  3. I thought you handle the topic of vintage specific regarding the 2007s very well. There are some great '07s out there and some not as great, but they are all very different than what the consumer has been used to drinking over the last 3 to 4 years.Having said that, 'the 07s are beginning to age nicely and will be in many cases great wines in 4 to 5 years, if any one is lucky enough to have bought some.

  4. Thanks for the comment Youngberg. I can only say that this 2007 showed very well. We did get a sneak peek barrel taste of the 2008 and it does hold all the promise of the rave reviews that 2008 Oregon vintage is getting. Dina won't say when it is going to be bottled, only saying that her and Ernie won't bottle until they feel it is ready.

  5. I'm excited, I've never even HEARD of this winery! I really want to try those Pinot Noirs!

    FYI, I've been meaning to tell you about a Cabernet-Merlot blend from Southeast Washington. It's called Ruah (Hebrew for Spirit/Breath) from Desert Winds winery. It's FABULOUS - one of the best reds I've ever had for under $20. I haven't refined my wine-speak though, so I can't recommend it in a way that sounds like I know what I'm talking about... I just drink.

  6. Heh heh, my mom calls everything FABULOUS. I'll check it out.

    If you put in an order with Amalie you should drive out and pick it up. It is a pretty drive from Corvallis over to Dallas

  7. We were fortunate to meet with Ernie and Dena when they came to Seattle recently to introduce their wines to some of the better wine shops here. As you said, their wines are great, but it's their passion and commitment to do everything the best way they know how that really captured our attention. I look to these two to set a new standard for small scale wine making. Consider my wife and me as huge fans of their work.

  8. I couldn't agree more Larry. I hope I conveyed how passionate Dena was about what they are doing without coming across fake or over the top in any way. She just had this calm sense of assurance that they were doing something special that came through in her person and in her wines. Amalie Robert really was fantastic. Thanks for the comment.