Anybody who’s either made wine or watched the movie Sideways knows that making great pinot noir requires more than gardening skills and a nighttime blanket of fog. Great pinot is created by great winemakers, modern day alchemists who know how to tease out just the right magic dust from rocky soil and apocalyptic weather, because, let’s face it, no one grows quality pinot noir grapes in an arboretum.
Pinot noir likes a good struggle. Willamette Oregon winemaker Maggie Harrison does, too. That’s why she’s obsessed with pinot noir, why she makes wine in two states simultaneously (California and Oregon), and why she often throws out barrels of perfectly good fermented grape juice when it doesn’t meet her rigid standards.
Spend an afternoon with Harrison, tasting her Antica Terra and Lillian wines while pairing them with equally delicious food (Michael Ehlert, the former chef of The Front Room, kicked ass in this department). Or meet her in the vineyards in Oregon, like FT33′s Jeff Gregory and Matt McCallister did last fall. You’re bound to come away impressed.
“I’m obsessed with a lot of things, but I’m really obsessed with pinot,” Harrison told me and a handful of local somms over lunch earlier this week before Harrison headed to a winemaker dinner she was co-hosting at FT33 that night.
Harrison is the winemaker of Willamette’s Antica Terra and Lillian wineries, which produces stunning chardonnays, pinots and a thrilling pinot rose. Each of her current releases is a tightrope walk of mouth-watering acidity, muscular structure and plush, ripe fruit.
Tasting though her wines, the group of us paused to catch our breath over her 2012 Antica Terra Angelicall pinot noir rosé, a powerful, expressive beauty that elicited more than one “wow.” It’s one of the rare red table wines that goes well with everything, from oysters (Ehlert’s oyster stew, for example) to roasted chicken to scallops to seared wagyu beef (Ehlert again). It’s a wine you can drink with every course of a meal and never reach for something bigger.
“It’s incredibly food friendly,” agreed certified somm Jennifer Ehlert, whose firm represents Harrison’s wines in Texas.
“If someone wants one versatile bottle at the dinner table, this is it,” added Madeleine Thompson, the top somm at Dallas’ Stephan Pyles
. “This wine will take you through a meal,” said Cox.
“So often pink wine isn’t made with the same intensity of a flagship red or white,” Harrison told us. “Rosé really means something to me. If you’re a thoughtful farmer or a thoughtful winemaker, you can make great roses from thick skinned grapes. But you can’t always do that with thin skinned pinot. It’s too finicky. I’ve thrown away more disappointing rose wines than good ones I’ve made.”
A self-described “mad scientist and rule-breaker,” Harrison uses both estate-grown fruit and purchased lots, relies solely on finicky natural yeasts for fermentation, and blends the final product from only the best barrels.
“There’s always a time about three or four days into natural fermentation that you open the top of the fermenter and get your first glimpse of how the grapes are going to work and how the wine is probably going to taste,” Harrison explained. “The aromatics are barely cracked and you just go, ‘Wow,’ because it’s a $90 rose that’s made like a $90 pinot” instead of a $15 run-of-the-mill rose.
Her uncommonly good Lillian roussanne, made from California grapes grown in San Luis Obispo, tasted of honeyed pears, ripe peaches, roasted nuts and fresh white flowers — more delicious than any bottle of roussane you’ll find in Provence.
“I only grow an acre of roussanne,” said Harrison, “so some of the fruit ripens at different times, but because it’s a small vineyard, we have to pick it all at once. Some grapes will be a bit green, some will be perfect and some will have a little boytritis. We collate it out on the sorting table so just the super perfect fruit gets pressed and fermented.”
Similarly, Harrison’s 2011 flagship syrah, the Lillian Gold Series No. 1, is made from an intensely flavorful blend of SLO and Paso Robles syrah grapes that produce equally flavorful, balanced wines. Even though the grapes for her Lillian wines are grown in California, they’re pressed, fermented and turned into wine at Antica Terra in Oregon.
“When I first moved from Santa Barbara (where she was the winemaker at Sine Qua Non
) to Oregon, I decided to keep making wines in both places. I fly to California for the harvest, then fly back to Portland while the grapes are loaded into a refrigerator truck and put on the road. We meet again in Portland.
“People ask me what I do differently when I make Syrah, for example, rather than Pinot. Nothing. I just stare into a vat of grapes without a plan and ask myself how I can I execute a wine with lift and restraint from these powerful grapes. It doesn’t matter what the varietal is. It’s about refinement. It’s about blind blending from barrels. But honestly, sometimes Mother Nature totally throws us a bone.”