I’ve now run out. I find myself running out of adjectives. I’ve heaped praise on wineries and breweries and distilleries for almost ten years, now, in this blog and now website, and I need some all-new verbiage. I have to describe a box of wines I recently received and am struggling because all the old ones like “superb” and “stunning” and “exceptional” really don’t cover it when you taste stuff from some winery you never heard of and it completely rewrites what you know about their region, its grapes, and the goals of the winemakers who work there.
I doubt my ability to do a good job of this, frankly.
But let’s try it because you want great wines and…damn!
When I first tasted samples of wines from a relatively unheralded Oregon appellation called Rogue Valley AVA, it had been an American Viticultural Area for less than four years. Grape-growing and winemaking there was not new. In fact, the first winery in the state of Oregon was located in Rogue’s Applegate Valley AVA sub-region and that one has now been reopened under the name of Valley View Winery. But the only winery we ever saw on shelves in Seattle was Abacela and Abacela was…weird. They seemed to deliberately thumb their noses at all those prissy Willamette Valley/Dundee Pinot houses with their nuance and subtlety and “Burgundian” affectations. They bottled Tempranillo, for God’s Sake!, that adamantly Spanish grape that can make wines with the lightness and sophistication of the Pinot houses…or head-bangin’ monster wines that swamp your palate like motor oil. Abacela certainly embraced the motor oil end of that equation, back there in the seminal mid-90s, and their other reds were of similar scale (that’s now changed…a bit) and were almost defiantly NOT Pinot Noir.
I had never even heard of Ledger David Cellars before a box of their wines showed up via FedEx. David Traul? Lena Varner?…no clue. The box said Oregon on it, so I braced myself for yet another box ‘o Burgundian duality. Instead, I found a Red Blend – a Super-Tuscan! called “Sublimus” – a bottle of Viognier(!), Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. Not a drop of Pinot. (I checked, just to put my mind at ease) I didn’t expect Pinot but, y’know, Oregon, wine, stubborness, myopia…ya just never know…except for one important factor…
The Rogue Valley is HOT – California hot. WRONG climate for the reflexive Oregon Pinot. It’s what’s kept me fascinated by Rogue for two decades+: the idea of some long-lost chunk of Napa or Lodi that broke off in the receding Ice Age and rolled up into Oregon, winding up lodged between some small mountains. The Lodi comparison is especially apt. Rogue was always the Brute Squad region of Oregon. Its BIG generous, sometimes even overblown wines were rarely, if ever, mentioned in the escalating celebrity of Oregon wineries. I spoke to a legendary OR Pinot house winemaker, back in 2002, who responded to my mention of the Rogue AVA with an eloquent (and predictably faux-French) roll of the eyes and a big sigh and, “Yeah…Rogue. Well…what can ya say?”
Before tasting the Ledger David wines, my idea of what “Rogue AVA” meant was a just slightly refined version of the early 00s Big Gawky Reds. I had tasted ONE Rogue red that made me sit up and bark at all, a Del Rio Vineyards Syrah that was balanced and dark and lush and reminded me mightily of some of the Charles Smith/K Vintners Syrah from Walla Walla. But even that was big and boisterous and a little extracted. So, what I tasted when I opened the first of the Ledger David reds was nothing less than a flat-out pantsing of my jaded old palate.
The Ledger David Cabernet Franc 2014 was, to put it simply, one of the two or three best NW Cab Francs I’ve ever tasted. It compared in complexity to the Sheridan Vineyards CF that has been my personal yardstick for PNWCF for the past eleven years and is maybe, to me, a cut better than my old Cali fave, those turn-of-the-millennium bottles from Behrens & Hitchcock (now Behrens Family Winery). What has been the hallmark of all these Ledger David wines is the shocking purity and freshness of the aromas. No stewed notes, as is common from hot climate reds. No barrel-aided attempt to adjust or compensate for holes in the flavor profile. Most importantly, NO rampant acidity of the type that, for me, has been the main thing that screams “OREGON!!”, even in some of the old Rogue vintages. The nose was like taking a handful of Cab Franc grapes off the vine, crushing them in your hand, and taking a big, lingering sniff. It was heady and powerful and seductive and I found myself stalling before that first sip because I’ve tasted many, many wines that smelled wonderful but failed to deliver on that promise. My wife actually left, went to the bathroom, was gone about four or five minutes and came back, and said, “You’re still swirling that wine? Are you planning to maybe taste it, anytime soon?”
So, I manned up and took the sip…I was immediately transported back to the first time I ever tasted Cab Franc and why I fell for it almost instantly. Bounteous fruits not so much exploded on my tongue as just announced themselves: red berries galore, cinnamon, sumac, rhubarb, red currants, dried cranberries, plums, rosemary, wet stones, teaberry gum, apricots, blackberry liqueur, loam, Bing cherries…all vivid and engrossing and delivered in a framework of firm but pliable tannins, an appropriate acidity that makes it food-friendly but not pucker-inducing, and a glycerine-like silky viscosity that changes not a thing about the hallmark transparency and relative lightness of this chameleon-like grape. If anyone asked me what Ledger David wine should be their first purchase – or even what Northwest Cabernet Franc – this one, out of the four I tasted, is that perfect choice. This is outstanding Cabernet Franc; a near-perfect expression of the varietal and a tremendously pleasurable wine, even if you know nothing at all about Cab Franc. 99 Points
A bottle of Ledger David Viognier 2016 was next and I am one of the biggest Viognier freaks on the planet, so I was excited to taste this baby. As it turns out, this was my least favorite of the four bottles and even this was VERY good. It’s a BIG example of a West Coast Viognier, showing mammoth fruit and nice, ample acidity, and a balance that was maybe one millimeter less ideal than the other three bottles. It was kinda endearingly clumsy and had none of that baby aspirin orangey bitterness on the finish that I associate with great Viognier but did show the over-ripe pears, baked apples, apricots, and star fruit that are the core of any good Vio. My criticisms, I want you to clearly understand, are minor in comparison to the simple, hedonistic pleasure of drinking this juicy, viscous wine. If it’s not MY idea of the ideal Viognier, there’s nothing saying that it won’t be yours. If you like California Chards with no or muted oak, Oregon Pinot Grigio, a great Italian Verdicchio, or a vibrant blended white, you’re gonna LOVE this wine. It’s graceful, for all its puppyish lack of sophistication, but damned tasty and a KILLER companion for a WILD variety of foods, including entrees that would normally be Red Only pairings. 93 Points
Ledger David “Sublimus” is what’s colloquially know as a “Super Tuscan”, which is an American-baiting term that we (and certain less-insular Italian winemakers) decided to apply to what evolved from a 1970s vintage mini-revolution in Italian wines that grew out of a designation the Italian government was more or less forced to make to avoid losing MILLIONS in tax dollars from winemakers who were sick of being told what grapes must be in which wines. IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) wines were originally classified as those whose compositions remove them from appellation designations like Chianti and Brunello. Basically, a Super Tuscan is any wine that’s a blend of the root grape of almost all Tuscan wines, Sangiovese, and some French grape. BUT…it can also be 100% Sangiovese, just like a higher-end DOCG wine that is usually the estate’s spendiest bottle. “Super-Tuscan” has become, basically, whatever the winemaker says it is. Today’s Italian laws have changed to allow, for example, Chianti producers to dose their appellation wines with a bit of Merlot or Cab or even Syrah, which would have touched off an International Incident even fifteen years ago. Ledger David’s owners and winemakers said that Sublimus is a Super Tuscan and that it shall be Sangio and that bewitching Cab Franc, with a fat dollop of Petit Verdot. And I am All In on that definition. I don’t even want to get all fancy and wine-geeky about this: Sublimus is as fine a blended wine – of any description – as you will taste from ANY PNW winery this year. It’s just about perfect: superb balance, bounteous and pure fruit, a nice touch of acidity, supple and unobtrusive tannins, and a mouth-filling viscosity that paints your tongue and lingers sweetly. Want a flavor run-down? Blackberry liqueur, black plums, blueberries, raspberries, cinnamon, rosemary, red and black currants, wood shavings, leather, and wet stones. Allow for the FACT that any description I can give you will fall waaaay short of the actual pleasure of drinking this wine but DO drink this wine. You can thank me later. 96 Points
Last was the Ledger David Syrah 2014. Folks, I have sampled exactly ONE bottle of Syrah in my life as a professional wine salesman, writer, and general Juice Geek that surprised me to the same degree as this wine. That was a bottle of 2010 Man O’ War “Dreadnought” Syrah…from Waiheke Island…in New Zealand. The places we normally think of as sources for GREAT Syrah do NOT include New Zealand and Rogue Valley, Oregon. Great Syrah comes from the Rhone Valley and Sonoma and Walla Walla and Red Mountain. Not from some quasi-Californian valley tucked into the petticoats of a “lesser” Northwest appellation. Well, obviously the take on “Rogue Syrah” is due for a massive revision. This stuff measures up to any top-tier Syrah I’ve sampled from Washington or California in the past five years. This is an inkwell of jet-black, viscous, complex, unsweet goodness. My God, what a freakin’ bottle of Syrah! I would dearly love to slip this baby into a blind tasting and take bets that those folks attending could not name the source region. I would CLEAN…UP. This is a mouth-filling, tongue-painting, fascinating, engrossing, decadent show pony of Syrah Completeness. The first moment of the first sip exploded with shockingly understated flavors of dark black fruits, plum jam, lanolin, black pepper, blueberries, cafe au lait, cherry compote, dates, figs, cocoa, wet wood, loam, and licorice. I say “understated‘ because nothing slaps you across the face. It’s all just there, suddenly, beautifully, with stunning clarity and seamless balance. It has acidity but it’s nicely muted. It’s just tannic enough to have structure but refuses to weld your lips to your eye teeth. It is, without exaggeration, a landmark achievement in Oregon wine; a Big Deal Syrah from a place where Syrah is supposed to be an afterthought, adamantly NOT possessing the virtues we normally associate with glamour spots. This is a staggering wine and, if it had been the only Ledger David wine in that box, I would still be saying what comes right after this gaudy score… 98 Points
Ledger David Cellars is one winery that Northwest – and American! – wine lovers skip at the peril of their own taste buds and their complete Wine Journey. Their website and promotional materials are weirdly cagey about who actually crushed and tanked these things, but, to me, whomever made the wines is the winery’s business and my interest is more academic than practical. I don’t actually care, frankly, if they were made by elves. The Pour Fool is based on one bedrock principle: It’s What’s In The Glass.
I want to drink these wines repeatedly and for as long as David Traul and Lena Varner can manage to find any way to get them made. I want more of that Cab Franc and that swoon-inducing Syrah, NOW, this moment, and it bugs me that I even have to wait long enough to find them in a store. This was one of the most exciting, memorable, engrossing, game-changing boxes of wine I’ve received in years and I URGE YOU to reexamine the Rogue Valley and catch up on what ELSE is being made besides the Burgundy Wannabes in that Pinot-saturated wonderland of Oregon wine.