Willamette Valley, Oregon, The holy grail for Pinot lovers

Aerial view of Revana’s Willamette estate, Alexana

Oregon’s Willamette Valley attracts noted Burgundy domains and Indian vintners, Rajat Parr and Dr Madaiah Revana, reports Mira Advani Honeycutt

For passionate Pinot-philes, Willamette Valley is the holy grail. Located in the northwestern state of Oregon in the US, the wine region has drawn esteemed Burgundy vintners, the likes of Robert
Drouhin, head of the Burgundy négociant Maison Joseph Drouhin.

Drouhin’s arrival was not accidental. In 1979 David Lett, Oregon’s pioneering winemaker submitted his Eyrie Vineyards 1975 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir to a blind tasting at the Gault-Millau Wine Olympiad in Paris. It placed third. Drouhin was intrigued. He restaged the blind tasting the following year, but this time replaced the Burgundy entries with wines from his domaine. Eyrie finished second by a single vote. By 1987 Drouhin was the first Burgundian to acquire land in Willamette Valleys Dundee Hills AVA to plant vineyards and establish Domaine Drouhin. The wine world was shocked: A Burgundian domaine acquired land for a winery in America! “Burgundians did not usually buy land outside of Burgundy — they didn’t need to,” said David Millman, president and CEO of Domaine Drouhin, on my recent trip to Drouhin’s expansive estate in Dundee Hills. Pointing to the now pristine vineyards in front of us, he said, “They also had nothing here at the time, no equipment. Just dirt.”

Soon after Maison Louis Jadot followed with Résonance vineyards, and others like Domaine Divio and Lingua Franca to name a few. Later, wine writers started to visit, including Robert M Parker Jr, America’s influential wine critic who would go on to establish a partnership with his brother-in-law Michael Etzel and a French- Canadian investor, for an Oregon vineyard called Beaux Frères (French for Brothers-in- Law).

Is it any wonder then that passionate vintners like Rajat Parr and Dr Madaiah Revana with multiple vineyard estates in California would branch out and acquire vineyards in Willamette Valley?

Rajat Parr pictured at a tank of fermenting wine in his winery

Rajat Parr, Evening Land Vineyards, Willamette Valley “I love Oregon Pinot, but more, it was the love for Seven Springs Vineyards; it’s a historic vineyard,” remarked Parr when I met him on a crisp fall morning at his newly acquired Stolo estate in Cambria on California’s Central Coast. The Seven Springs Vineyard was planted in 1982 in Willamette Valley’s Eola-Amity Hills sub-appellation. The vineyard has long had a great reputation as the source for some of the finest winemakers in Willamette and that’s what drew Parr to branch out in Oregon.

“I had tasted older vintages of Seven Springs and when opportunity came I wanted to be a part of it,” he said. That opportunity presented itself in 2014 when Parr and his co-winemaker and business partner Sashi Moorman, acquired the Evening Land Vineyards winery (ELV) and its esteemed Seven Springs Vineyards. “What’s special is the soil, older vines, and an east facing vineyard. It’s one of the few vineyards that are east facing, it’s magical,” Parr commented about the 80-acre vineyard, which was partially impacted by phylloxera, and had to be to replanted. “We slowly replaced it, and now we’re back to 80 acres.”

A selection of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Gris are under vine, producing 8,000 cases annually of ELV. “We continue to sell the grapes,” Parr explained, of the prized vineyard.

Commenting on Willamette Pinots, Parr reflected: “It’s much warmer in summer so the skins are thicker, wines have more tannins and you have to control the extraction, a little bit more.” Although there are vintage variables, Oregon Pinots express more black fruits like plum and blackberry.

“The tannins are slightly more chewy and sinewy, it’s got little more grip, and acidity levels could be higher in many vintages. Nowadays there’s a string of warm vintages, but still acidity is slightly higher.”

Bottles of Seven Springs wine from a historic vineyard

On my recent visit to Willamette I visited the ELV tasting lounge where our wine educator guided us through current 2021 vintages of Pinots and Chardonnays. Among the three Pinots, the typical flavours of black fruit, tea and mushrooms came through, as did Willamette’s signature sous bois (forest floor) on the nose. The Seven Springs was aromatic with rose petals; La Source rocking with wild blackberries and the textural Summum, effusive of violet notes.

Among the Chardonnays, we savoured the fruit-forward La Source, expressing a zippy minerality; the Seven Springs showing hints of baking spice; and Summum, a heady carousel of stone fruits on the palate. Paying homage to blended wines of Burgundy was the cherry-laced 2019 Passetoutgrain, a co-fermented blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay.

As in all his vineyards, Parr adheres to organic and biodynamic farming at ELV which also holds the Low Impact Viticulture Enology (LIVE) certification, focused on the well-being of Oregon’s aquatic life and food system by banning the use of copper in vineyards.

Rajat Parr’s vineyard in Willamette

In addition to ELV in Willamette, Parr’s portfolio of vineyard estates stretches along California’s Central Coast with Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte in Santa Barbara County’s Sta. Rita Hills appellation, renowned for Burgundian varieties; and in the cool coastal town of Cambria (midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco) where he produces his Phelan Farm Wines of the Pacific and the recently acquired Stolo wine brand.

It might seem bit of a stretch for Parr to manage vineyard estates in various locations. “I’m involved [in the wineries] but not on a daily basis,” he says. “During harvest, I do the picks and taste the tanks.” And he’s trained his team well.

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With climate change looming Parr, based in Cambria, has carved out a niche for planting vineyards and acquiring estates in cool-climate appellations. “We are planting new vineyards here with no irrigation; it’s a unique planting,” he commented about Stolo vineyards.“We have to think about the future when planting vineyards.”

To that extent he is committed to conscientious farming, and to incorporating regenerative farming practices to secure vineyard health in the long run.

Madaiah Revana pictured with a glass of wine in his hand. Revana owns three wine estates in three different regions in the US

Dr. Madaiah Revana, Alexana Winery
Houston-based cardiologist Dr. Madaiah Revana has all bases covered: Bordeaux-style Revana wines in California’s Napa Valley, Burgundy- style Alexana in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the Corazon del Sol Rhône programme in Argentina’s Uco Valley. He is the first Indian vintner in the US to own three vineyard estates, and wineries in three distinctive regions.

Why Oregon I asked? “I always enjoyed Burgundy,” answered Revana in our phone conversation from his base in Houston, Texas, “and I had heard of Willamette’s similarity with Burgundy.” Serendipitously, he met Lynn Penner-Ash, co-founder of Willamette’s renowned Penner-Ash Winery, who encouraged him. “This property became available and I jumped at it,” he said of the Dundee Hills location, a prime sub- appellation in the heart of Willamette.

Revana acquired the 80-acre property in 2005. “It was a forest, there was nothing there. We started from scratch, cleared the land, planted vineyards, then built the winery,” he said. Fifty- five acres were planted to 11 clones of Pinot Noir, two of Chardonnay and one of Pinot Gris. “First harvest, we sold the fruit.”

What makes the estate special is the 18 different types of soil ranging from Dundee’s signature red soils to marine sedimentary soil, as winemaker Tres Burnes informed me when I met him on my recent visit to Willamette. On a cool summer morning, we were seated on the terrace, taking in the expansive 180-degree panorama of the vineyards stretched over rolling hills and rugged terrain. Burns pointed at the hodge-podge of 18 soils in the middle block, a result of landslides over thousands of years. This geological diversity is what gives the wines its structure, complexity and age-ability.

While there is Chardonnay and Pinot Gris produced at Alexana, its Pinot Noir is the star of the portfolio with seven different bottlings, three of which are soil-specific, while others are clone-
designate (as reported on the label).

We began our tasting with a 2022 Pinot Gris expressing brilliant acidity and moved on to the flagship Estate Pinot Noir, the ethereal and spicy 2019 and a savoury 2021, both expressing the classic Willamette sous bois and barnyard on the nose. We visited older vintages, the 2011 Block 8 and 2014 Block 6, both pale-hued in an Old World style, yet showing bright fruit on the palate and supple tannins.

Willamette wines continue to score top ratings in US wine publications. Alexana’s Estate Pinot Noir both 2010 and 2018 made Wine Spectator Magazine’s Top 100 and ELV’s 2012 La Source ranked number three with a score of 98 points in the 2015 issue of Wine Spectator Top 100 wines in the world. (ELV’s Isabelle Meunier was the winemaker of the 2012 vintage with Parr and Moorman selecting the final blend.)

Revana’s Willamette wines continue to score top ratings in US wine publications

Oregon’s production output contributes a mere 1.5% to US total wine production with California contributing 90%. Yet, Oregon wines are responsible for 20% of the scores of 90 points or higher.

“So we’re in this little pocket,” Burns commented. Small production but high quality is what brings in high scores. “So it’s an outsized ratio of quality to production, we have quality but a higher price point than other regions.”

Revana is bullish on the Willamette region and in 2019 acquired 65 acres across from Alexana, naming it Kinney. “Like children, I love them all,” he commented of his three wineries. “But Napa, where I started, will always be my favourite.”

BOX — Willamette Valley Facts
Fifty miles from the Pacific Ocean, Oregon’s Willamette Valley is today the heart of the state’s wine industry. Twenty to 40 miles wide and 120 miles long, the valley is a long, level, alluvial plain with scattered groups of low basalt hills. Oregon’s largest AVA, from the Columbia River in the north to the city of Eugene in the south, Willamette was established in December 1983. At that time Willamette was still an old farming community with some 50 wineries. That family camaraderie vibe still continues, but the region has expanded to some 700 wineries spread throughout the 11 nested AVAs: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinville, Yamhill-Carlton, Ribbon Ridge and Van Duzer Corridor are among the key appellations.

Pinot Noir is the king of this region, followed by Pinot Gris. In recent years, Chardonnay and Riesling have been gaining traction. In 2021, the EU granted it the coveted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, the second American wine region after Napa to receive this recognition. The PGI system protects iconic names of agricultural products, spirit drinks and wines that have links to their geographical origins.