Gettin’ Hygge with It

Gnomes, fire and wine unite to spread holiday cheer

The Changeup by Michael Alberty

The frenzy of the holidays can send you to that last nerve faster than an airplane filled with screaming babies. But, fear not, there is a remedy: hygge, the Scandinavian art of slowing down to smell the cocoa. To aid in achieving “total hygge,” Leah Jorgensen Jean recently released her 2017 Nisse + Hygge Red Table Wine ($16). Trust me, it is much more fun than cocoa.

Leah Jorgensen Jean ##Photo by Joshua Chang

Hygge (pronounced HUE-ga) is a feeling of coziness, togetherness and well-being achieved by reveling in life’s simpler joys. Hygge is curling up on the sofa to read stories to your kids by the glow of the fireplace. It’s about having friends over to help prepare a communal meal. Hygge also helps explain why Scandinavians represent the happiest people on the planet. Well, that and health care. But just imagine how much joy can be achieved by throwing a nice glass of red wine into the hygge mix.

Given the importance of candlelight and fireplaces in setting hygge ambiance, it is fitting the Nisse + Hygge owes its existence to wildfires.

In 2017, Jean found herself with extra Cabernet Franc and Malbec grapes from a vineyard in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley. Normally, she would have blended the grapes into one of her Leah Jørgensen Cellars (LJC) wines. There was only one thing holding her back: smoke taint.

Southern Oregon had plenty of wildfires in the summer of 2017. While Jean says most of her Rogue Valley fruit tasted perfect that year, her extra Rogue Valley grapes showed traces of smoke taint, which occurs when burning wood releases compounds, such as guaiacol, that settle on grapes and penetrate the skins. At sufficiently elevated levels, these compounds interact with grape sugars, making wine taste like someone dumped a cup of gas station coffee into a high school smoking area ashtray.

“It was a very low amount of guaiacol, but I didn’t want to risk blending it into my regular Cabernet Franc,” Jean said. “We don’t have enough experience in Oregon to know where even a small amount of guaiacol will go after three years in the bottle. We’re all kind of figuring it out as we go.”

Jean decided to steal a page from craft brewers and create a seasonal release wine to celebrate the holidays. “My family loves winter, and we’re celebrating our Nordic heritage, so I asked graphic design artist Andrea LaRue for a label with an owl, a hedgehog, a fire and a gnome.” The gnome — called nisse in Norway — is a small mischievous creature that, if treated well, will protect homesteads and even help with chores.

Nisse + Hygge is meant to be consumed within a year or two of release, and Jean decided to be brilliantly hygge and keep things simple. She added a tiny amount of Gamay Noir grapes from the Willamette Valley and allowed native yeasts to trigger fermentation. The wine was made using a combination of stainless steel and a few neutral barrels.

Jean’s first-ever natural wine is interesting given she is a long-standing critic of the natural wine movement. “I’m normally a low-intervention winemaker, but I use expensive non-GMO commercial yeasts for fermentation. I got nervous and decided not to spend the money to use them this with this wine.”

I shared a bottle of this wine with friends the other night, and Jean has nothing to fear. This is the perfect wine to get hygge with it this winter — sorry, proper phonetic pronunciation will never keep me from making a bad pun.

The Nisse + Hygge experience begins with its deep purple color. It’s so similar to looking into a nighttime sky in North Cape, Norway, I half expected to see an aurora borealis in my glass. 

 One whiff of the Nisse + Hygge is like walking into a Danish kitchen at breakfast time. I could smell rich, juicy blackberries reminiscent of brombærsnitter, aka Danish blackberry cakes. The wine also features an exotic aromatic combination of toast points, pork sausage grilling on a woodstove and an herbal note that reminded me of marjoram. Just smelling this wine made me feel cozy and warm.

The palate was filled with blackberry and red plum flavors. Its slippery mouthfeel and juicy acidity proved an excellent platform for the fruit, which was accompanied by traces of toasted walnuts and rooibos tea. Trying to get into the hygge spirit, we had the Nisse + Hygge with smoked salmon, chunks of black rye bread and butter. It made for a beautiful pairing. We even left a small plate out for the nisse, just in case. 

Nisse + Hygge started as a “one-off” experiment, but the reaction to the label and the wine has been so positive, Jean is considering making a red and a white version next year. Hopefully, they will be free of smoke taint issues. To help make that happen, a portion of the sales of the Nisse + Hygge will be donated to Oregon Wild, a nonprofit environmental organization currently researching the relationship among climate change, forest management and Oregon’s wildfires.

Forget about the holiday hustle for a few hours, kick up your feet in front of the fireplace and pour yourself a glass of this quaffable new wine from LJC. Hygge will take care of the rest.

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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