Anam Cara Cellars...A Truer Sense of Place

Six years ago, Gwynne and I made our first trip to Willamette Valley as new oenophiles. We were eagerly slurping down Oregon Pinot Noir, and enthralled with its elegance and its seemingly heightened sense of terroir when compared to much of the Washington wine we'd experienced. However, our youth came with certain monetary realities, and our ability to stockpile this gem in a bottle was somewhat limited. Nearly all of the wines we were tasting were over $20 and six years ago that was a stretch for us. With fish hooks sharpened in our pockets we made one last stop at August Cellars as we headed back to Seattle.

There was a lot going on at August Cellars: they were celebrating their recent grand opening and there were Oregon creameries and chocolatiers to round out the offerings. In the back of the facility sat a table with a Pinot Noir. One taste of Anam Cara Cellar's Pinot Noir and we were infatuated with the wine. We dug deep past the fish hooks. This was a wine we had to take home with us, price be damned. That wine - their first vintage - stayed in the wine rack for a few years, and when we did open it with friends, we relived that trip and those days when we had a sane wine budget.

Since that trip Anam Cara Cellars has always been the exemplar of Oregon Pinot Noir in my mind. On our recent trip to Willamette Valley we had the opportunity to visit with Sheila and Nick Nicholas of Anam Cara at their estate vineyard and home, located atop the 36-acre vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains AVA. Sheila invited us for a stroll through the vineyards and Nick talked a little about the work he had ahead of him with bud break coming. There was bud thinning to be done, but the weather had been miserable after a mild winter. The vineyard had been an orchard, planted in 1906 with hazelnuts, walnuts and plums. Those all, Sheila pointed out, lend appealing character to the soil that gives Anam Cara a unique element of terroir. She'll get no argument from me.

To get started, we tasted through a flight of cool-climate Rieslings by Trisaeteum, Argyle and Brandborg as well as the Anam Cara Riesling. Anam Cara is a part of a movement in the Chehalem Mountain AVA to promote Rieslings grown in cooler climes. The flight of Rieslings showed the range of this varietal often dismissed as a sweet wine. The cool climate wines ranged from sweet honey notes to a refreshing smack of green apple and other bright fruits. A number of the winemakers are also putting a slide gauge on the back label of their Rieslings to indicate how sweet the wine is on a range from dry to sweet.

As we moved into their Pinot Noir I had to chuckle a little. Here I was with the owners and viticulturalists for a wine that we enjoyed so much and which held so much nostalgia for me and I was drinking their wine with them, and hanging out in their dining room.

Anam Cara Cellars makes a few different Pinot Noirs. They consult with winemaker Aron Hess from Daedalus Cellars but are heavily involved in the crafting of their wine. Nick spends a lot of time and thought on the clones they grow, managing the growing conditions and the cooperage selection. A full 20% of their total barrel inventory is new oak, which Nick likes a medium to long toast to pair with his fruit.

The 2008 Pinot Noir marks their fifth vintage, and they did some screw caps on this release. Nick and Sheila did the math on that first vintage we took home with us, and it cost them a fortune at almost $900 a bottle. Our splurge that day looked quite meager in comparison. In addition to the Nicholas Estate Pinot, there is an Estate Reserve, the 2007 of which Nick feels is almost ready for release after 17 months in the bottle. They also make two wines that are single block or barrel select wines. The Heather's Vineyard Pinot is a single block 114 clone Pinot Noir. The wine is elegant with brighter fruit character and a beautiful ruby color. No new oak is used on the Heather's Vineyard so you get a real sense of the fruit and floral aromatics on the nose. Like its namesake, their daughter, the Nicholas were looking to craft a beautiful and expressive wine, highlighting the elegance of the grapes. In contrast, the barrel-select wine, the Mark I, is a broad-shouldered Pinot Noir that speaks to the new oak and toasted notes that come along with it. While the Heather is chosen based on the block, Mark (so named for their son) is a barrel selection. When you compare the earthen characteristics and deep dark color of the Mark I to the light fruit character of the Heather, it goes a long way toward showing the versatility of the Pinot Noir grape.

The two wines produce a Yin and Yang effect. Using different clones, the Nicholas' have been successful in demonstrating the versatility of their fruit and site. Nick has crafted wines that speak not only of Oregon in a way that shows reverence for the terroir but also of his skill at producing Pinots that allow different elements of the fruit their chance at the spotlight.

Our time with Sheila and Nick was really incredible. We got to experience a wine that we really love with the people who know it best. We made new friends that morning and were thrilled and thankful for their hospitality and generosity. The name, Anam Cara, is Celtic for "friend of my soul" and is really the only applicable name for this wine made by these friends who clearly put their heart and soul into their vineyards, and ultimately their wines. We look forward to seeing Sheila and Nick again, and highly recommend you check out their wines, or pay them a visit when you're in the neighborhood.


Josh Gana said...

Sounds like an awesome place. As they are "just up the street", figuratively speaking, we'll have to get up there.