Winemaker Graham Markel of Buona Notte “at home” in the kitchen. ##Photo by Joshua Chang

Montalcino Memories

Winemaker wishes a “good night” with superb Sangiovese

The Changeup by Michael Alberty

I had my first bottle of Brunello di Montalcino 24 years ago while vacationing in Italy and always attributed the magnificence of the wine to the setting: a romantic table under the stars in a picturesque piazza. I recently discovered I could recreate that magic in Tualatin, courtesy of a Sangiovese from the Columbia River Gorge.

My wife and I had just spent hours standing in a downpour attending a high school cross-country meet, and we were in no mood to make dinner. Instead, we picked up a pomodoro pizza from Roman Candle and headed home. Waiting there was a bottle I had been meaning to try, so I popped the cork. What a brilliant idea that turned out to be.

“Cento per Cento” is 100 percent Sangiovese Grosso, aka the Brunello clone. ##Photo Provided

The skies had cleared, and the temperature was reasonable, so we took our pie and bottle to the back patio. The first bite of pizza collided with the initial sip of Sangiovese like Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling in “The Notebook.” This was pure gastronomic lust, and I felt the pang I felt that night in Italy, the feeling of neve wanting the moment to end.

This feat of wine magic was performed by Graham Markel. His new winery, called Buona Notte, represents a family affair in which he partners with his father, mother and girlfriend to create wines with Italian flair. Given his background, it’s no accident he was able to create a poetic Sangiovese, one of the finest New World versions of the grape I’ve ever tasted.

His mother, Peggy Markel, is a chef who has spent decades leading cooking tours of Italy, Morocco, India and Spain. Together, the whole family traveled the world, sharing those fantastic travel and culinary experiences. By the age of 10, Graham Markel was drinking Campari and sodas in Florence — he swears his family didn’t know they contained alcohol — and learning how to cook side by side with his mom at a Tuscan culinary school.

By the time Markel was 21, he was holding down his first cooking job at a restaurant in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Eventually, he shifted to bartending — by now, he realized there was alcohol in a Campari and soda — and this began his fascination with all kinds of fermentation, including wine.

An interesting side note: Markel is the best winemaker to ever graduate from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder. Evidence of that education is found in the poetry he bottles and the words he makes visible in his winery blog.  

Markel’s wine journey led him to the Willamette Valley, where he spent seven years assisting Maggie Harrison at Antica Terra, followed by a stint with Nate Ready at Hiyu Wine Farm. “The number one thing I learned from Maggie and Nate was to think deeply about winemaking and how to add beauty to every step of the process,” he says. “No matter how arduous or tiring, every action must be taken to make the best wine possible.”  

That dedication and critical eye for detail are on display in Markel’s Buona Notte 2016 Columbia Valley “Cento per Cento” Sangiovese ($30).

 “Cento per Cento” is 100 percent Sangiovese Grosso, aka the Brunello clone. Sangiovese may be Tuscany’s signature grape, but this clone, the lynchpin of Brunello di Montalcino, ranks as the most coveted signature of all.   

There’s very little Sangiovese planted in Oregon, so I asked Markel where he found his grapes. “Honestly,” Markel confesses, “I found them on wine I drove out there because it was Sangiovese, but once I was in the vineyard, I fell in love with the grapes.”

Michael Alberty

Michael Alberty is a wine writer based in Tualatin. He prefers writing about wine over past efforts writing about international environmental politics and major league baseball — because you can’t drink a baseball game and no one has ever professed their undying love to another human after reading about the Montreal Protocol. Michael’s work has appeared in Edible Portland, Willamette Week, Sprudge Wine, Terre Magazine, Wine & Spirits Magazine, The Octopus and on Jancis Robinson’s “Purple Pages” website. He also edits the Oregon section of the annual Slow Wine Guide and covers wine for The Oregonian.

The vineyard is The Grand Dalles, a plot of land in the Columbia River Gorge owned by Scott and Stephanie Elder. Markel knew the spot, with its deep calcareous soils, warm temperatures and minimal disease pressure, was potentially a good one for the late-ripening Brunello clone. Markel also claims if you squint hard enough, the rolling hills of The Dalles look a bit like the hills of Chianti.

The wine Markel made with Eden’s grapes has a deep magenta color, and the aromas emerging from the glass are reminiscent of a walk through the woods on a fall day. Scents of purple flowering Bluebells, crumbly duff and dry, crunchy oak tree leaves mix it up with dark plums, mushrooms, various brown spices and a whiff of the worn leather of your hiking boots. 

“Cento per Cento” has a wide variety of flavors that materialize over the course of the evening, from desiccated red cherries and a sandstone-like mineral note to dried rose petals and pipe tobacco. The star of this Sangiovese attraction, however, is its acidity. All you acid lovers out there need to track down this bottle, stat. This wine waters your mouth like an over-zealous gardener.

Buona Notte translates to “good night,” and, I guarantee, you will have one if you pair this wine with anything involving tomatoes, cured meats, or a chunk of Pecorino cheese and a crusty baguette.

I swooned over this wine, which made me slightly nervous. Was I smitten because of my romantic memories? Just to be safe, I asked Park Avenue Fine Wines co-owner Neil Thompson, a person known for being a stern critic of American wines made with Italian grapes, for his opinion.

“It’s rare, if ever, that I taste a Sangiovese Grosso grown anywhere outside of Montalcino that is able to carry this sort of inimitable variety character,” Thompson states. “The Buona Notte is a dead ringer for the noble wines of Montalcino and at a much better price. I feel like Graham has struck the perfect balance between ripe Gorge fruit and a terroir that I honestly did not know existed in the Columbia River Gorge.”

Enough said. Find some quickly because Markel made only 250 cases.

THE CHANGEUP is a baseball pitch designed to disorient and confuse. It’s the perfect representation of the unknown and its mastery over those who think they know what to expect. This column is devoted to those unorthodox Oregon wines you never saw coming.

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