Joyful Noise winemakers/owners Deven and Calli Morganstern. ##Photo provided

Teuton Its Horn

Joyful Noise crafts Germanic masterpiece

By Michael Alberty

Dornfelder is a grape. Dornfelder can’t help its name. Dornfelder can, however, light up the brain’s pleasure center like a pinball machine that won’t tilt. We need more Dornfelder in our lives.

Joyful Noise in McMinnville is owned by Calli and Deven Morganstern. They just made what I believe is Oregon’s first commercial 100% Dornfelder wine. Their 2018 “Was ist Das” is a lip-smacking proof of concept. 

The Dornfelder grape was born 65 years ago in Weinsberg, Germany, where Dr. August Herold created the variety by crossing Helfentein with Heroldrebe. He named his Teutonic cross in honor of a German bureaucrat and silkworm enthusiast who had been dead for 86 years: Immanuel August Ludwig Dornfeld.

The name Dornfelder is not as alluring as, say, Pinot Noir. To be honest, the name isn’t even as sexy as Lemberger. I’m convinced Dornfelder’s dud of a moniker is why I find it referred to in my old German wine books as “unspectacular, dependable and sturdy.” That is not the Dornfelder I’ve come to love and admire.

I have tasted stunning Dornfelder wines from Germany and British Columbia. Granted, a glass of Dornfelder tends to be darker and grittier than a sleek German Spätburgunder or a silky Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Dornfelder is for people who prefer Daniel Craig over Pierce Brosnan and think the dude in fishing gear is behind the best door to open when playing Mystery Date.

The Morgansterns discovered their Dornfelder grapes just off Highway 99W in Kathy and Lee Miller’s Tukwilla Vineyard. That’s where a whopping 42 vines have been waiting for their shining moment since 2014. Deven Morganstern discovered the vines courtesy of his day job.

He started in the wine industry working the 2011 harvest for Rob and Maria Stuart at R. Stuart & Co. in McMinnville, followed by stints at Anne Amie Vineyards and Sokol Blosser Winery. In 2014, he returned to R. Stuart, working full time as the business manager. R. Stuart has a long relationship with the Miller family, which is how Morganstern was offered a homemade bottle of Dornfelder.

Joyful Noise Was Ist Das Dornfelder ##Photo by Marcus Larson

“I think Lee made it in his garage,” Morganstern said. “Anyway, I was hooked. I jumped at the chance to buy those Dornfelder grapes.”

In 2018, the Morgansterns used their own deft four hands to pick and de-stem each grape. Fermentation was triggered with wild yeasts he collected from the vineyard.  According to Deven, the grapes were fermented on their skins and then “squeezed into wine” using a hand-cranked basket press. A small amount of sulfur was added after pressing. The wine remained in a neutral half-barrel for 14 months, followed by a year of bottle rest at R. Stuart.

The 2018 Joyful Noise “Was ist Das” Dornfelder ($38) makes an intimidating sight in the glass. The color is somewhere between Vibranium and lampblack. Only its tiny cranberry-colored rim saves you from disorientation as you stare into Bohemian infinity.

The aromatics are equally compelling. Dusty roadside blackberries and a Welch’s grape Popsicle hit first. Then it gets weird: An exotic floral note combines sandalwood with dried rose petals and spicy white stock flowers. Follow that up with a whiff of balsa wood and the talc-like powder you may recall from your chewing gum days.

After all that, I was ready to dive into this wine. Tart plum fruit mixed it up with flavors of bittersweet dark chocolate and Grand Marnier. Way off in the background, I tasted notes of smoke and cedar that made me hanker for a cup of lapsang souchong tea.

What truly impressed me was the wine’s power. This was like drinking a great California Zinfandel from the 1970s, before irrigation and Robert Parker made the scene. Yet its modest alcohol by volume falls below 12.5%. The acidity is juicy, and the massive tannins will have you licking the roof of your mouth for a good, long time. What a heady combination.

I was a fan of Dornfelder long before I tried this excellent Joyful Noise version. I’m now convinced Dornfelder merits a higher profile in Oregon. In my Dornfelder dreams, I see sparkling versions, blends with Pinot Noir and a nouveau style destined to rule Portland’s wine bars. My ultimate fantasy involves some brave soul making a Dornfelder piquette in a crown-capped beer bottle.

The Miller family says they have room to grow more Dornfelder in their Dundee Hills vineyard. My dreams require more. Winery and vineyard owners of Oregon, please make planting Dornfelder vines your New Year’s resolution. I will resolve to buy lots of your wine.

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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