June 2008 Issue of Wines & Vines

Winemaker Interview ROLLIN SOLES

At Oregon's Argyle, making sparkling wine results in better still wine

by Laurie Daniel
Rollin Soles, Argyle Winery
After about eight years of making wine in California, Switzerland and Australia, Rollin Soles founded Argyle Winery in Oregon with Australia's Brian Croser in 1987. "I knew this was the place I wanted to live," says the Texas native, who visited Oregon while he was at the University of California, Davis. "My heart was in Oregon."

Soles' and Croser's original business plan was to produce sparkling wine, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, though since then Soles has added Riesling and a tiny amount of Merlot. He continues to be enthusiastic about Oregon Chardonnay, even as the grape has been overtaken by Pinot Gris. (It surpassed Chardonnay as Oregon's most widely planted white grape in 2000.) That passion led him to join six other vintners to form the Oregon Chardonnay Alliance (ORCA) several years ago. Now that Chardonnay plantings are increasing, Soles says the organization is considering expanding.

Argyle became part of drinks giant Lion Nathan in 2001, after its takeover of Croser's Petaluma group. Croser has since left the company.

Soles is Argyle's general manager and winemaker. He earned a bachelor's degree in microbiology from Texas A&M University and a master's in enology and viticulture from UC Davis.

W&V: Until recently, the acreage of Chardonnay in Oregon was declining, but even as a lot of Oregon vintners turned away from Chardonnay, you stuck by it. Why?

Rollin Soles: The clone of Chardonnay we were using in Oregon (known as Selection 108 in Oregon and UCD 4 and 5 in the rest of the world) was not the correct one, so extra effort was necessary for vine balance and a low, low crop. In addition, the winemaking was more difficult than for Pinot Noir, and competition in the marketplace was very tough for Chardonnay. But Chardonnay is associated with the great Pinot Noir-growing regions, so we felt that it fit into our Willamette Valley plans. At Argyle, we identified vine blocks in the warmest sites to make small volumes of high-quality, consistent Chardonnay. Also, sparkling wine was a high priority, so any sparkling-level Chardonnay that did not make the brut better was declassified into our Willamette Valley-level still Chardonnay.

Dijon clones, first planted here in 1990, ripen about 10-14 days earlier than the UCD 4 and 5 clones. Additionally, the fruit flavors are significantly different. In sparkling wines, the UCD clones obtain a ripe Golden Delicious apple character, while the Dijon clones show more Anjou pear. In still wine, the UCD clones will pass from apple toward tropical pineapple flavors, and the Dijons pass from ripe pear to white peach and melon, and often a note of roasted hazelnut. The UCD clones are great for retaining fruit acid, while the Dijon clones of Chardonnay lose acidity quickly with ripening, making the timing of harvest more important for Dijon clones. For the first time in Oregon history, Chardonnay can get too ripe using these Dijon clones.

A new, young region needs to have people who look to the future and set the region up for greater success. Worldwide, Chardonnay holds the highest respect of most any white wine, as well as the highest price and demand. The Willamette will benefit from early Chardonnay winemakers' efforts in the long run. Witness the success of the Oregon Chardonnay Alliance. We've gotten lots more Oregonians excited about making Chardonnay.

W&V: When others abandoned Chardonnay, Pinot Gris surpassed it as Oregon's most widely planted white grape. But you haven't jumped on the Pinot Gris bandwagon. Why not?

Soles: Pinot Gris in Oregon is priced at the same level as our Willamette Valley Chardonnay. I didn't need another wine at this price-point. More importantly, I had my hands filled pursuing world-class sparkling, Riesling and Chardonnay. Besides, I personally drink more Chardonnay and Riesling than Pinot Gris.

W&V: Do you filter your wines?

Soles: I have absolutely no problem with filtering wines if they need it. Either a winemaker knows how to filter to improve the wine, or they don't. Still wines that will not settle properly get filtered through pressure-leaf, which has just now been replaced by cross-flow filtration. Wines that require sterile filtration, such as our sparkling wine prior to tirage or our Riesling with residual sugar, receive sterile pad to membrane filtration.

W&V: Have you had any problems with Brettanomyces in your Pinot Noir?

Soles: No issues with Brett yet. It's important for every winemaker to take the threat of Brett seriously. We've made a real effort to keep up with cellar practices that help prevent a population of this little nasty: proper use of SO2, monitoring red wines for residual sugar, microscopic inspection, keeping alcohols under control, storing red wine at cool temperatures (12-13°C for barrels), inoculating with our own cultured yeast and malolactic fermentation organisms, and keeping everything very clean. Brett is death to Pinot Noir ageability and retention of that ripe fruit character we worked so hard to grow in the vineyard.

W&V: Considering your satisfaction with screwcaps, have you thought about using a crown cap on your sparkling wine, as Domaine Chandon does on its Etoile wines?

Soles: We've noticed an increased incidence of cork taint with sparkling wines and Champagne. It's not understood what might have led to this increase. One possibility is that with the advent of twin tops, the selection of quality discs has come under some demand pressure.

Crown caps are used to age the sparkling wines sur latte for many years prior to disgorging. But wine retailers are concerned that expensive bottles of sparkling wine sealed with crown caps could be easily opened by unscrupulous customers in the shop. We're concerned that shipping and movement issues might result in damage not found with sparkling corks and a muselet. If a better closure appears, we would look into it.

W&V: Is it hard to switch back and forth between making sparkling and still wines? Or has your experience with one helped with the other?

Soles: It's very difficult to switch back and forth successfully, for both technical and cultural reasons. We work harder on getting sparkling fruit and wines grown, processed, blended, aged, dosed and disgorged than on any other wines made at Argyle. Mistakes and missed opportunities show up with greater intensity in sparkling wine, if one is really intent on making the very best. Fortunately, the Willamette Valley is a very good spot for making high-quality, unique sparkling wines.

We say that because we are intent on making the best sparkling wines, our Chardonnay is better, and because we are intent on making the very best Chardonnay, our Pinot Noir is better. It's not the other way around. With Pinot Noir, once you find the right place to grow it, it's just a matter of making red wine. White wine is more difficult.

We have found that a very incremental change in the blend or dose can completely change the character of our sparkling wines. This has caused us to incorporate renewed respect for incremental changes to the blend of fruit or wine lots used to make our still wines. Gentle, patient handling of our sparkling wines leads to big results, teaching us that the same respect will be repaid if used with our still wines.

W&V: What are the biggest challenges in making sparkling wine?

Soles: In the vineyard, choosing the right vineyard blocks, controlling crop level, preventing sunburn while achieving sunlight on the fruit, preventing botrytis from late-season rains, hand harvesting. In the winery, some of the challenges are slow, patient pressing; clean, cool fermentations; a calculated malolactic fermentation to achieve the best balance of rich fruit character and minerality; low pH malolactic fermentations. Then there's selecting whether Pinot Noir or Chardonnay makes a better base in a vintage while retaining some consistency of Argyle character, blending the base wines--try to retain the enamel on your teeth!--sanitary tiraging, eliminating any chance of difficult remuage, proper dose selection and proper disgorging. And the biggest challenge of all is to work to learn something new about making sparkling wine every year.

At Argyle, we feel we are better grapegrowers and winemakers because we beat our heads making sparkling wines.

Cork trials and tribulations

Rollin Soles, Argyle Winery
Winemaker Rollin Soles is an ardent believer in screwcaps. His switch away from cork began with a bad experience with the corks used on one of his Chardonnays in the late 1990s.

He had bottled the Chardonnay with corks from two manufacturers, and every bottle closed with one company's corks developed serious oxidation problems.

At first, Soles tried setting up a more rigorous quality control program at Argyle for sample corks. But he says that in one instance, the corks that were delivered turned out to be "totally dissimilar to the lot ordered. Some years later, under new management, the cork supplier admitted to having sent a different lot than the one ordered."

Soles tried one last gambit. "Argyle offered a new program to selected cork suppliers: We would send through our specifications for cork; the cork supplier, using their quality-control labs, would select the lots that best fit the specifications, then brand the corks for Argyle. Argyle would run quality control on the branded corks, using techniques taught by the cork supplier. If a branded lot of corks did not meet specifications, the corks would be returned. No cork supplier would take the offer."

With the 2000 vintage, Soles started bottling a portion of his wines under Stelvin screwcaps; he switched all his still wines in the 2002 vintage. (He still uses cork on his sparkling wines.)

"So far, so good," he says. "I like the Stelvin a lot."

He hasn't stopped looking at the alternatives, and he continues cork versus screwcap trials on his wines. "We believe that today the best closure is screwcap," he says. "In the future, if another closure tests to be better, including cork, we would use the better closure."

L. D.
A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. Although she grew up in wine-deprived surroundings in the Midwest, she quickly developed an interest in wine after moving to California. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.
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