Thursday, April 8, 2010

St. Innocent Winery

I attended a wine tasting this past Wednesday at Journeys Restaurant in Alaqua. The wines being tasted were the current releases from St. Innocent Winery in Salem, Oregon. Pouring the wines and providing running commentary and background on the wines and the wine region was the proprietor/winemaker – Mr. Mark Vlossak. Mr. Vlossak brought with him the wines currently available in the state of Florida, but by no means the entire portfolio. The wines included a single vineyard Vitae Springs Pinot Gris, as well as four (4) vineyard designated Pinot Noirs (from Zenith Vineyard, Temperance Hill Vineyard, Justice Vineyard, and Momtazi Vineyard) and one blended Pinot Noir, the Winemaker’s cuvee.

Mark hails from Wisconsin, and is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His original degree was in scenic design, but after a few years returned to school and received medical training that eventually was parlayed into an 18-year career as a Physician Assistant (PA) in Pediatrics. It was during his medical internship that he first travelled to Oregon, and he was hooked.

Mr. Vlossak had grown up in a home where wine was prevalent (his father imported wine) and he eventually decided that he wanted to make wine himself. He experimented for a few years, took classes at the University of California, Davis, interned with winemakers in both the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the Napa Valley in California and, in 1988 (with the help of investors), founded St. Innocent Winery (the winery is named in honor of his father, who was born on All Innocents Day and whose middle name is “Innocent”).He produced about 600 cases of wine his first vintage – production has grown 10-fold since then. Mark balanced his work in medicine and the wine making for several years (including making wine for both Panther Creek Cellars and St. Innocent for a period of 5 or 6 years during the mid to late 1990s.) Mark retired from the medical field in 1998 to concentrate on the wine.

Mark’s philosophy on his wines is that the wine should be an extension of the meal and should complement the food. His wines tend to have higher acidity levels and he strives to create wines that are balanced. His Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc wines tend towards the Alsatian style, with more textural weight, less overt sweetness of fruit, and sufficient acidity to accompany rich food. His Pinot Noirs tend to be Burgundian in style, and are meant to express their place of origin and the vintage. He exhibited this concept with consecutive tastings of three wines, the fruit for which are all grown within a mile of each other, but under different slope and soil conditions.

At the lowest slope position is the Zenith Vineyard which is planted on well-drained loamy soils. The wine exhibits red and black fruit flavors and a green peppercorn spiciness. The Temperance Hill Pinot Noir comes from the highest elevation of the three where the vines grow on weathered basalt (a volcanic soil) and there is concern annually for the grapes to reach full ripeness. The wine exhibits a floral character to the nose, with lilac, lavender, and cherry being the aromas I heard people mention most. The flavors tend toward black cherry, black raspberry, and perhaps a hint of anise on the finish. The Justice Vineyard Pinot Noir is located on the mid-slope and the vines grow on a thin layer of basalt. This is the “sweet spot” – the arguably perfect spot along the slope for Pinot Noir. Where the Zenith exhibited fruit and the Temperance Hill showed floral, the Justice is all about spice. Aromas included clove, allspice, ginger, and cinnamon, all complementing the wild strawberry and black cherry fruit. The finish on this wine went on seemingly forever.

The Winemaker’s Cuvee was an experiment in winemaking suggested by wine critic Pierre-Antoine Rovani. Grapes from two disparate vineyards were selected and co-fermented with the goal being an expression of Mr. Vlossak’s winemaking style rather than the expression of the vineyard as with his other wines. The resulting wine is both floral and fruit driven, with an underlying hint of earth or mushroom, and a crisp acidity that compels you to take another sip. Mark says his wife describes the wine as “hedonistic,” and I think that is an apt descriptor.

While not represented at the tasting, Mr. Vlossak also makes vineyard designate Chardonnays. The style is similar to white Burgundy with an emphasis on balanced ripeness, complexity, texture, and acidity. The Chardonnay is fermented entirely in used barrels. The lees are stirred weekly for 3-4 months and the wines are left on their lees for one year. Think Chablis meets Maconais.

The referenced St. Innocent Pinot Noirs and Pinot Gris are currently available in the Orlando market, and the Chardonnays are anticipated to be arriving within the next 6 months.

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