Whenever someone makes Pinot Noir or Chardonnay with serious intent there are inevitable comparisons with Burgundy. Especially when one of the partners in the project is award winning sommelier turned winemaker and vineyard owner Rajat Parr, whose deep affection and knowledge of the wines of Burgundy is well known. Along with friend Sashi Moorman, owner and winemaker at several renowned US projects. In a 2014 Decanter interview Stephen Brook described Sashi as part of: “The new generation of winemakers, imbued with a bright intelligence and technical competence driven by a passion for wine”.
Raj and Sashi are bringing their formidable knowledge and experience to Oregon based Evening Land Seven Springs vineyard, a property they have worked on together since 2014, and describe as one of the most special sites in the Willamette Valley. So when I spoke to Sashi about his and Raj’s intentions for the project, I got a lot more comprehensive and philosophical answer than I was expecting.
Sashi: “[Raj and I] weren’t interested in owning wineries that were facsimiles of Burgundy”.
Their other joint ventures are California based Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte, which also focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “We believed that Oregon and Sta Rita Hills have distinctive personalities that needed to be showcased and celebrated”.
Sashi credits Raj with this realisation: “Raj has a bit of a crystal ball, he’s good at seeing into the future! Because of his extensive experience in Burgundy, so many visits, and familiarity with the great producers, he had been seeing and sensing a change in Burgundy that had nothing to do with one factor. He could see it and he could taste it.
“What he was witnessing was an inevitable step towards Bordeaux, in terms of pricing, exclusivity, and the Domaines outward stance to the wine industry”.
“Burgundy has become very fancy; it’s become very much like Bordeaux. The wine pricing has become ridiculous”.
“He was also sensing a change in the winemaking. Like in Bordeaux some Domaines became more conservative, they started taking fewer chances in their winemaking because the value of the wine was becoming so high. On top of that, what Raj couldn’t foresee, was global warming”.
“Raj was so perceptive in this way and knew that in Sta Rita Hills and Oregon there was an opportunity to makes wines, not imitations of Burgundy, but with the same culture and aesthetic as the wines that we fell in love with from the 80s and early 90s”.
“That made us focus on being faithful to our terroir. This is why in Oregon we harvest early to keep acidity high, in both the reds and the whites; we employ gentle extraction to make wines that are as elegant as possible. We don’t shy away from wines that might be considered backwards when released. Raj and I grew up with the great wines being austere on release, not the fleshy opulent wines you taste today. Nuits-Saint-Georges or Gevrey-Chambertin weren’t wines you opened when you got your first shipment, it was a wine you put in the cellar. That’s not a term people use about Burgundy today, they open them on release and drink them, because they’re fruity, and don’t have that tension that they used to, that was important for me and Raj”.
Inspiration not imitation
“When Raj and I say ‘we’re not trying to make Burgundy’ it’s a complicated statement. Of course we’d love to be making La Tache, Clos de Beze… who wouldn’t, those are the greatest vineyards in the world. We mean we’re not trying to make it taste the same, but we are trying to follow the same philosophy. In the world of wine Burgundy has the most beautiful aesthetic, there’s no other wine region that has come as close to making the perfect wine. Bordeaux is a blend, there’s a house style, it’s a totally different product. Burgundy due to the history, created a unique opportunity and environment for fully diving into the concept of terroir. This is why winemakers from all over the world travel to Burgundy for inspiration, including us”!
“To say we’re not trying to make Burgundy, isn’t to say we’re not inspired by Burgundy, we are DEEPLY inspired by Burgundy. We just want to take that inspiration and make sure we’re being faithful to our own terroir”.
“We’re working with the same plant material, the same grape, planted on the same rootstocks, farmed in many ways in the same way – the only thing that’s different is the climate and the soils. So when we say we’re not trying to make Burgundy, what we’re saying if everything else is equal, except for the climate and the soil, which falls into the Burgundian philosophy – it’s about making the most of your terroir.
“That’s very important for me and Raj, we want our wines to be considered in the same ilk as good Burgundy. You can’t say that about all Chardonnay from the US, if you drink a Chardonnay from Sonoma or Napa you wouldn’t have that next to a Mersault. Not to say that wine isn’t good, it’s a totally different interpretation of Chardonnay. Raj and I are trying to interpret Chardonnay with the same lens as a vigneron in Burgundy, but we want it to be authentic to our terroir and climate”.
A new era at Seven Springs
When Sashi and Raj took over management of the vineyards at Seven Springs in 2014 they continued working biodynamically but began to produce wines in a different way: “Dominique Lafon and the previous team were making blended cuvees from different parts of the vineyard. Raj and I wanted to step into strict vineyard focussed wines, so for example La Source and Summun come from very specific parts of the vineyard, we don’t blend, we try to be faithful to specific parcels at Seven Springs”.
This November they became part owners of Evening Land Vineyards, which will put in motion a new focus and direction. Sashi explained that him and Raj are ‘fine tuning’ Evening Land, to get it to a place where they really are making something special. They’re approaching this in several different ways: Replanting older vines, that have been affected by phylloxera; introducing some new genetic material and selections they like working with; and continuing to explore the potential for Chardonnay on the site: “In the seven years Raj and I have been working together at Evening Land we’ve learned the potential for Chardonnay in Oregon”.
Right grape, right place
I asked Sashi why he thought Oregon has such a reputation for Pinot and not for Chardonnay.
“The Oregon wine community has been marketing themselves as a Pinot appellation. That’s a very American perspective on the wine industry – red wines are better than white wines, most Americans would say that! I think that’s why so much Pinot Noir was planted, nobody considered Chardonnay to be as important as Pinot Noir”.
“Raj and I always follow our palates, and they told us that the potential for Chardonnay in Oregon was vast”.
And why in his opinion does Chardonnay work so well in Oregon?
“[It’s a] combination of everything, but climate is the most important factor. Even though Willamette Valley is on the same latitude as Burgundy, it has an entirely different climate: Willamette has a very short growing season; bud break is late; and typically harvest is early. It stays cold and wintery until April, and then it suddenly becomes like a Mediterranean climate, it’s hot, with many days over 30 degrees, and doesn’t rain all summer”.
“This short, hot and sunny growing season is excellent for white wine production. You preserve acidity because the growing season is short, and you get maturity in the skins because of the sunlight, and because it’s warm you get good yields. The plants are happy, they really grow”!
“Chardonnay can take bigger yields than Pinot Noir [and maintain quality]”.
However, he sees a challenge in communicating this alternative perspective of Oregon.
“We will plant more Chardonnay. There headwinds, the larger Oregon community isn’t promoting it, so it puts us at odds with the wider regional marketing effort. We’ll have to slowly build the reputation of our Chardonnay”.
That doesn’t mean they’re abandoning Pinot. They’re just taking a slightly different approach, based on the conditions in Oregon.
“Even though we love Oregon Pinot Noir our approach to it is a little different. We take a very light touch to our Pinot Noir production, an infusion fermentation method, no pump-overs or punch downs. [This is] related to the same climatic qualities, the short growing season makes it difficult to get lignified seeds, which is why a lot of Oregon Pinots have high tannin.
“Sta Rita Hills is the opposite, it has an early bud-break and a late harvest, and cold temperatures in the summer (average is 20 degrees), we don’t get a lot of sugar accumulation. This allows us to make wines that are 12.5% at Domaine de la Côte, but with tremendous ripeness of tannin and colour.
“In Oregon you don’t have the opportunity to ripen the tannins, but this isn’t an issue for white grapes, where you worry more about acidity and flavour development in the skins. Because of the climate Oregon is naturally gifted for that, it’s counterintuitive and one of the challenges of communicating to buyers”.
And what about the other key pillar of terroir, from a Burgundian perspective, soil? Countless producers are digging pits and having their vineyard soils mapped these days.
“That’s something we talk about, but we don’t spend a lot of time on (for Evening Land), there’s nothing idiosyncratic about the soils at Seven Springs compared to our neighbours. Within each plot there are areas of more or less clay which is important e.g. in Summum (less clay more rocks) and La Source Chardonnay. But it isn’t like at Domaine de la Côte, which is planted on diatomaceous shale, which is unique. We talk about that, and it’s part of the storytelling there. Does that mean we make better wine? No, there isn’t a rock that helps you make a better wine than another rock!
“The thing about soil that matters is that it’s directly related to the vigour of the vines, it’s critical to making a serious wine. If the soil is too vigorous and the vine produces too much, the wine is diluted, and if the soil is very poor the vine doesn’t producer truly ripe grapes.
“In the wine business everyone is trying to make their story a little more interesting. If you put your ear to the ground and listen to the noise in the wine industry it’s always changing, it was biodynamics, then rocks, now regenerative farming”.
“The wine industry has always been about storytelling, what I’ve learned is you don’t want to tell your story with the same language everyone else is using. You want a unique voice and narrative, and that takes years to build. It can take a lifetime to find that voice”.
Which begged the question: are they there yet (have they found the voice) for Evening Land?
“I think we’re part way there, right now we produce very distinctive Chardonnays, and I would like to produce more. I would also like to produce more distinctive Pinot Noirs. In my experience the only way to truly produce a distinctive wine, is to plant the vineyard. It’s your greatest opportunity to really understand what the challenges and opportunities are. It’s a slow process, you plant the vines and don’t have the grapes for 3-4 years, you make the wine and wait 4-5 years, you have to be very patient. When you inherit a great vineyard it’s different, you’re a steward to something created in the past, your job is to honour and uphold the tradition.
“In Oregon what’s exciting about being a winemaker, is our history is very young, there’s so much opportunity to discover what can be done in these great winemaking regions. I think we’re still in the discovery phase, I have no idea how long it’ll last, probably another 100 year or more before people really understand these terroirs and how to make the best wines from them”.
Jon Bonné had also picked up on this, in his 2013 book The New California Wine, he says: This marks the arrival of a mature American wine culture, where producers are confident enough not to mimic the Old World or obscure the nuances of terroir with clever cellar work, but rather seek greatness in a uniquely American context.
We’ve recently received a shipment of Evening Land including the intense, flint-laced Seven Springs Chardonnay 2017, plus the beautifully balanced La Source Chardonnay 2018. So don’t take our word for it taste some Oregon Chardonnay for yourself!