Inside his studio/winery outside Sherwood, winemaker and professional potter Andrew Beckham stands among his amphorae, clays vessels for fermentation. ##Photo by Michael Alberty

Skin in the Game

Amphora Gewürz illuminates ignored grape

By Michael Alberty

Beckham Estate Vineyard’s Gewürztraminer debut is the best thing to come out of a clay pot since my Aunt Pat’s chicken biryani. It’s just too bad some people will miss out on this gem because they don’t think Gewürz is “cool.”

British wine writer Jancis Robinson summed up Oregon’s Gewürztraminer quandary: “It is clear that the Pacific Northwest is well suited to the variety, but it is just not fashionable enough to maintain its slender hold on vineyards there in any significant fashion.”

No kidding. Gewürztraminer vines are disappearing from Oregon vineyards faster than Clorox Disinfecting Wipes from grocery store shelves. There are now more commercial acres of kiwifruit and wasabi planted in this state than Gewürz.   

Andrew Beckham’s version, fermented and aged in giant clay pots at his Sherwood winery, shows Gewürztraminer can be as exciting as anything the hippest wine bar list offers. It energizes the legacy Richard Sommer started when he planted the variety 59 years ago at HillCrest Vineyard in Roseburg.

And yet, the 2019 A.D. Beckham Gewürztraminer almost didn’t happen. This fantastic Willamette Valley wine owes its existence to pure kismet.

2019 A.D. Beckham Gewürztraminer ($28)

“In past vintages, I liked to give interns ownership of a project that interested them. One year, it was a Banyuls-style fortified Grenache. Another year, it was a pétillant naturel made with our Riesling grapes,” Beckham said.

In 2019, Beckham hired sommelier Phillip Taratko to be his first full-time employee. He helps with everything from winemaking to sales, with a heavy emphasis on cellar work. At the beginning, Beckham opened and shared a lot of wines with Taratko, in order to calibrate their palates and assess the new hire’s wine philosophies and knowledge. When Beckham reached for a Gewürztraminer, Taratko announced he could not stand the variety.

“O.K., duly noted,” Beckham replied before moving on to the next wine. It wasn’t a big deal at the time, given the fact Beckham didn’t make Gewürz. That soon changed.

A few days later, Moss Bitner, viticulturalist for Montinore Estate in Forest Grove, asked Beckham if he wanted to buy some of their Gewürztraminer grapes that fall. Beckham jumped at the opportunity. “It was purely a coincidence, but I suddenly had a project [for Taratko] in mind,” he said.

Taratko plotted to make a Gewürztraminer he’d like to drink: one with dialed-back astringency and a palate that matched the aromatics. He had also never made wine in amphorae, the clay pot vessels Beckham makes in his winery workshop. Taratko decided to kill two birds with one clay stone.

The 2019 A.D. Beckham Gewürztraminer ($28) is made with fruit from Montinore Estate’s certified Biodynamic vineyard. Native yeast triggered fermentation, and maceration lasted for 15 days. Fermentation and aging took place entirely in amphorae. A small amount of sulfur was added to the unfined wine before bottling.

Prepare to spend several minutes staring at the color of this wine. Even if you are a veteran of the orange wine wars, you’ve likely never seen a hue like this one before. The hazy color is somewhere on the spectrum between an orange-flavored chewable aspirin and Circus Peanuts. Wackier yet, the color vibrates in the glass like a dime dropped on a Tudor Games Electric Football field.

The wine’s aromatic set is equally entertaining and bouncy. It begins with a honeysuckle burst, followed by a wave of pink grapefruit and grilled pineapple. Fresh-cut hay and spearmint float in the background. I could kill an afternoon just smelling this wine if I had a properly situated hammock.

The first sip is peachy keen. The flavors of white peach and quince combine for the perfect match Beckham describes as the wine’s “peachy-fuzzy” tannins. After stone-fruit-palooza exits your mouth, be on the lookout for notes of rose water, wet concrete sidewalks, sage and, I kid you not, butterscotch.

This is also one of those pleasant instances where a wine’s tannins and acidity levels are evenly matched. At 12% alcohol, it’s dangerously easy to sip throughout an evening.

The Beckham-Taratko Gewürztraminer experiment yielded a mere 130 cases, meaning it may be sold out by the time you read this column. Don’t fret. They both like the wine so much they plan to make it a part of Beckham’s regular amphorae series. Look for production to increase to 230 cases in 2020.

In the meantime, I’m placing a campaign sign that reads “fewer kiwis, more Gewürztraminer” in my front yard. 

The Changeup, a monthly column by Michael Alberty, 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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