With grilling and cookout season around the corner, it’s time to stock up on wines for summer entertaining. Second-generation Willamette Valley winegrower Kramer Vineyards produces both still and sparkling rosés. The winery’s General Manager and grilling enthusiast Becky Kramer shares her top picks for selecting wines for your next barbecue.
“Always have plenty of chilled sparkling wine and rosé on hand. They’re some of the most food-friendly wines out there! The combination of refreshing, bright acidity and fruity flavors really works with the savory smokiness of the grill. A dry rosé can pair with everything from shellfish to pulled pork sliders, ribs, burgers and sausages—even the potato salad.”
The Willamette Valley is synonymous with Pinot Noir, and Kramer has plenty of experience pairing this with salmon, pork chops, lamb, chicken and game birds. “Oregon Pinot noir is quite versatile with grilled foods too,” she notes, “it’s inherently earthy and smoky, often spicy, and the red or dark fruitiness pops nicely without dominating the meal.” If beef is on the menu, she’ll open something darker, like a Syrah or Rhône blend. “Beef usually needs wines with more tannins, so reach for something that will stain your teeth.”
At her own grill, Becky says she loves to cook meat of all types, but drumsticks are her favorite, “there’s something incredibly satisfying about standing over the grill with tongs in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.” Her favorite wine to serve? Rosé of course, “still or sparkling, as long as it’s dry.”
Becky’s fondness for grilling was fueled by her childhood growing up in wine country. “We have a hill that overlooks the vineyard and is our favorite spot to grill with friends. In the summertime, we’ll host causal cookouts and everyone brings good sides and wine to share while the meat or fish is cooking. It’s a wonderful communal experience in a relaxed atmosphere, and the view is amazing.”
Kramer Vineyards is releasing a new collection of rosé wines from its estate vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, just in time for barbecue season.
2017 Rosé of Pinot Noir
2017 Rosé of Carmine
2017 Rosé of Pinot Gris
2017 Celebrate Sparkling Rosé of Pinot Noir
2017 Celebrate Sparkling Rosé of Pinot Gris
Müller-Thurgau is a white grape variety created by Dr. Hermann Müller from the Swiss Canton of Thurgau in the 1880s. The goal was to cross Riesling, capturing its rich, complex flavors, with the earlier ripening Sylvaner. However, neither of these goals was achieved, nor was Sylvaner crossed with Riesling. DNA fingerprinting has revealed that Müller-Thurgau is a cross of Riesling and a grape called Madeleine Royale. The latter, as it turns out, is a cross of Pinot and Trolliger. Most widely planted in Germany, Müller-Thurgau is also found in Austria, Northern Italy, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Japan, and of course, the United States.
In 1980, vineyard owner Keith Kramer took a viticulture class at Erath every other Saturday for three months. The instructor Al Holstein, had some Müller-Thurgau planted in his vineyard. This was very exciting to another student in the class, who peppered Holstein with questions about the grape. Keith was not very interested in Müller-Thurgau initially, but the guy “made such a stink about it” that when the Kramers had an opportunity to buy some fruit from Courting Hill Vineyard a few years later they decided to try it. That first wine was a very fruity, off-dry white that had enough potential that they went ahead and procured some starts from Sokol Blosser in the mid-1980s.
Müller-Thurgau was among the first wines in our tasting room for our grand opening in 1990, and it quickly gained a following. We increased the acreage in our estate vineyard to three, which does not sound like much, but this variety routinely produces 4-6 tons to the acre, double or triple the yield compared to Pinot Noir. As our production grew, we experimented with assorted styles, including a sparkling wine, a dessert wine, a dry barrel-fermented wine, and a late harvest wine. The stainless, fruity Estate bottling is our most popular wine, followed by the Celebrate sparkling wine.
It is easy to see why Muller-Thurgau is a tasting room favorite. In a region full of Pinot Gris, and to a lesser extent Chardonnay and Riesling, Müller-Thurgau stands out. Its unique flavor profile with starfruit, lychee, melon, hints of orange blossom and gardenia, gentle acidity with a sweet and sour effect on the palate makes it easy to sip. Plus, Müller ripens at lower sugar levels, so the alcohols in the finished wines are lower than many table wines, usually around 11%.
I never really gave clonal choice too much thought until recently. As a second generation winemaker with an established vineyard, our clonal selections were made many years before I decided to pursue a career in wine. Why focus on this aspect when there are so many variables at play—soil type, elevation, vine density, vine age, slope, trellis system, own rooted or grafted? Aside from the differences in ripening time, are the clones of Pinot Noir really all that distinguishable, or is it mere trivia?
There are more known clones of Pinot Noir than any other grape variety. When we established our vineyard in 1984, there were three clones available: Pommard, Wädenswil and Gamay Beaujolais. The Dijon clones, such as 114, 115, 667, etc., began to come into Oregon in the late 80s and early 90s. These clones may differ in any number of ways—cluster size and shape, berry size, color, early or late ripening, etc. Now there are over 50 clones of Pinot Noir available in the United States, and we’re up to 9 at our estate.
As interest in these new clones has increased, we began to study them more closely in our vineyard. The higher crop levels in 2014 led us to introduce a series of single clone wines of Pinot Noir: Dijon 115, Dijon 777, and Pommard. For these, we followed similar winemaking protocols to allow for the clearest clonal expression possible. The fruit was harvested by hand and 25% whole clusters were layered on the bottom of 1-ton vats, and topped with destemmed fruit. After a 5-day cold soak, fermentation began. The must was pumped over and punched down twice daily and pressed at dryness. The wine was aged in neutral French oak barrels for 14 months and bottled.
It is too early to ascribe personalities to each of these clones based on one vintage. However, these three wines are quite different from one another, leading me to rethink perspective on clonal significance. The Dijon 777 clone is remarkably spicy, with dark berry fruit and black tea. Whereas the Dijon 115 is far subtler, with a delicate earthiness and minerality. The Pommard is the closest to what I would describe as a classic Oregon Pinot Noir, but perhaps that’s due to my familiarity with our Pommard-dominant vineyard? With this series and those to come in future vintages, we hope to further our understanding of each clone in the vineyard and in the cellar.
Vintage 2017 opened with a severe winter followed by a long, rainy spring. With five months of overcast skies and very few sunbreaks, the vines were slow to start. We observed over 50% budbreak by April 28, a bit late for our vineyard. The canopy started filling in when the sun finally came out in late May. Summer weather fully arrived the third week of June, and with temperatures in the high 80s, bloom rapidly occurred during the fourth week. Conditions were ideal for this growth milestone, contributing to excellent fruit set—the best we have seen since the 2009 and 2014 vintages. Veraison started on August 7, hitting the 50% mark two weeks later.
With our fullest crop in years, and a warm and dry forecast, we were on track for a big harvest. 2017 had some catching up to do for heat units, and by early September our GDDs were even with 2016. This, combined with low disease pressure, and an anticipated late September/early October harvest contributed to our decision to do minimal cluster thinning. In these conditions, carrying a heavier crop load forces the vine to work harder, slowing down ripeness, resulting in more balance.
We started to notice a shift in flavor development after Labor Day Weekend, and began sampling the Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay blocks for the sparkling harvest soon after. The sparkling harvest began on September 15, with the Pinot Meunier. The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay came in over the next several days. This was by far our largest sparkling yield, bringing in 10.3 tons from the estate, with an additional 9 tons from other sites. The increased crop load was due a combination of excellent conditions during bloom and fruit set, to our decision to thin minimally, and also due to heavier cluster weights. In a typical harvest, clusters from mature Pinot varieties will weigh `150 to 200 grams. In 2017, average cluster weights were closer to 300 grams, and some, as in the case of the Grüner Veltiner, tipped the scales at nearly two pounds! This trend would continue throughout much of the harvest.
Much of the rest of late September and early October was dedicated to harvesting and pressing grapes for white wine production—Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gruner Veltliner, and Muller-Thurgau. Pinot Noir from warmer sites started coming in on October 9, with our estate fruit being harvested in mid-October. Before long, every fermentation vessel in the winery was full, and we had to purchase a few more tanks and vats to accommodate the extra fruit. Harvest concluded October 28, with the Carmine pick. By then, we were at full capacity—every tank, vat, barrel, and carboy was full. Overall, we brought in nearly 94 tons of grapes—20 more tons than our biggest year to date in 2014.
Once the fruit is picked, it is delivered to the crush pad for processing. For white and sparkling base wines, the grapes are sorted then pressed; for red and roses, the fruit is sorted and destemmed. This year, the fruit was in excellent condition, so most of the sorting required was to remove leaves and other non-grape material. The sound quality and overall ripeness of the Pinots led us to continue with whole cluster experimentation in higher percentages than ever before. We also expanded the number of clones of Pinot Noir we are working with to nine total.
A combination of cool October nights and whole cluster fermentation extended maceration in the red ferments to an average of 30 days. We typically press at dryness, and that usually happens on a 10-14-day schedule when the fruit is all destemmed. With whole cluster ferments, sugars are trapped in the berries, limiting the sugars available to the yeast, prolonging fermentation. This meant that our fermentation management routine was extended by several weeks, and pushed our pressing dates further into November. Our last press was on the day before Thanksgiving, November 22. This is extraordinarily late compared to the last few years, when we were picked, pressed, and barreled down by mid-October.
For the white wines, fermentations were steady and healthy. Tank space is always a concern in years where yields are high, and in some cases, we elected to ferment in stainless or neutral barrels. In addition to barrel fermented Chardonnay, we also have Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir Blanc wintering over in barrels. These vessels will be stirred bimonthly through the spring, and either blended in with their tank counterpart to enhance mouthfeel and complexity, or be bottled on their own in the fall of 2018.
As we put another harvest behind us, the 2017s are wintering over in tanks and barrels. After the New Year, we’ll begin to taste the wines individually, and start to make blending decisions and form bottling plans. The first wines of the vintage will be available in a few months, some won’t be bottled until the spring of 2019. We are looking forward to what this record-setting harvest has in store.
Dosage is a finishing syrup added to most champagnes and sparkling wines after the second fermentation in the bottle. Adding very small amounts of sugar can help to balance high acid wines, emphasize fruit, and improve texture. For one of the best explanations on this subject, see A Seasoning for Champagne, by Peter Liem.
In the cellar, the first introduction to our sparkling wines is often a few months after it's been bottled, to see how the second fizz-creating fermentation is coming along. Tasting a sparkling wine for the first time in this raw state, dry, and dancing on cells of suspended yeast, is always a thrill.
Once the fermentation is complete, we begin to assess the necessity of dosage, and prepare a range of wines with sugar levels up to 10 grams per liter. In our history of making sparkling wines, the dosage levels have ranged from 3 to 8 grams per liter. However, these preferences aren't always clear cut, and we often have a fondness for the crisp, tart, and very dry wines without dosage as well.
The low to zero dosage movement is a relatively recent trend, and more commonly found among grower-producers than big sparkling houses. While we certainly identify with the grower model, our interest in the style is rooted the idea that with a great fruit source, followed by good fermentation and cellar practices, that perhaps the best course of action is to take none, and let the wine speak for itself.
Vintage describes the year of the grape harvest, and in the US, wines with a vintage year on the label indicate that 95% of the grapes were from that year. By contrast, nonvintage wines are blends of wines from grapes that were harvested from two or more years. Seventy to eighty percent of Champagne is nonvintage, with blending specialists carefully combining dozens, sometimes hundreds, of base wines together to reflect a house style, the signature of the producer. Vintage wines are rarer, and it is common for a sparkling house to produce vintage wines in years that are deemed to be of superior quality.
Our goals with the sparkling wines are different than that of many large sparkling houses. The two nonvintage wines we produce are estate grown, and therefore have site expression. The composition of the nonvintage wines are as follows:
So, while these nonvintage wines are wines of place, the 2015 vintage Brut is a wine of both place and time. 2015 was warm and early, with higher than average yields. The fruit was remarkably balanced however, with excellent structure. What distinguishes this vintage for the Brut especially is the amount of Pinot Meunier in the blend, 22 percent, up from just 15 percent in 2014. We are still learning what the Pinot Meunier contributes to the wine, but one of the early observations is the enhanced midpalate presence and fruity aromas. The fruit for this wine is sourced from blocks dedicated to our sparkling program, and the blend is determined by the yields at harvest.
With base wines of different vintages, blends, and dosage, these wines seem quite different. But, how does this translate in the glass? Early observations are that the nonvintage wines boast a finer, more delicate mousse, with pronounced yeastiness and an increased emphasis on tree fruit flavors. By contrast, the vintage wines are incredibly fresh and light, with a fine, yet plentiful bead, showing much more minerality and citrus notes. The tone and texture of these young wines will change as they evolve in the bottle, and it is always exciting to track their progress.
What is Whole Cluster Fermentation? This refers to the practice of fermenting entire bunches of grapes, stems and all. Typically, our grapes go through a destemmer, a machine that knocks the berries off the stems. In the process, many of the berries split and begin to release juice immediately. When we bypass that step, the fruit stays intact longer, releasing the sugar available to the yeast more slowly. This results in fermentations that take longer to complete, at much lower temperatures. The shift in fermentation kinetics, along with the presence of the stem has an impact on aroma, flavor, and structure of the wine. Are these features beneficial to the overall quality? How much whole cluster is the ideal amount, if any? Will our ideas about this change as the wine ages? With the vintage? These are all questions we hope to answer through our whole cluster series.
In 2014, we harvested five tons of Pinot Noir from the same part of the vineyard, and separated the fruit into five fermenters. We added a whole cluster layer in four of these vats, 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100%. The fifth bin was all destemmed. We proceeded with our typical fermentation management protocols, with pumpovers and punch downs twice daily, and pressing at dryness. The wines were aged in older French oak barrels and bottled the winter of 2016.
We observed differences in the fermentation kinetics almost immediately. The vats with higher percentages of whole cluster fermented at lower temperatures:
This also correlates with fermentation rate, as indicated by the rate of sugar depletion.
It seems that utilizing whole cluster fermentation as a technique results in a slower fermentation with lower temperatures. Cool, right?
We found that the chemistry of the finished wines was varied, although this could be due to differences in ripeness levels in the field, and/or clonal differences throughout the block. It is important to note that each vintage is unique, so for us to learn anything meaningful from this exercise, we will need to repeat the experiment over multiple vintages in varying conditions.
Our 2014 whole cluster Pinot Noir set includes one bottle each of the experimental wines, and the 2014 Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton, for a total of six bottles. This collection is a lovely gift, and fun to share at a dinner party or with a group of friends.
Update--the 2014s are sold out, but the experiment was replicated in 2015. You can find those wines here >>