On the 40th anniversary of the ‘Judgement of Paris,’ the United States has once again proven the best place to grow classic French varieties is not always in France. Oregon Pinot Noir has shaken expectations with the announcement that Domaine Serene’s 2012 Winery Hill Vineyard grabbed the coveted Platinum Best of Show for Pinot Noir over £15 at the 2016 Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA). The wine from the Dundee Hills AVA in Oregon’s Willamette Valley beat out 6 grand cru and 26 premier cru Burgundian Pinot Noir.
The competition began with more than 16,000 wines. A panel of 240 of the world’s most renowned wine experts, including 69 Masters of Wine and 26 Master Sommeliers conducted the blind judging. Less than 2% of all international medal winners were from the United States; and only 5 out of the total 539 gold and platinum medal-winners were American. Domaine Serene took home a total of eight medals from the competition, including one silver medal and six bronze medals, the most of any American winery.
Ryan Harris, President at Domaine Serene and their Burgundy winery Château de la Crée, foresees even greater recognition of Oregon as a world class Pinot Noir producer. The more people who experience Oregon wine, the better, and this level of recognition increases Oregon’s global reach. “Once they taste, the wines will speak for themselves,” predicts Harris. Harris once placed Oregon Pinot Noir on a continuum between California Pinot Noir and red Burgundy. He now believes that Oregon Pinot Noir can rise above both regions.
Oregon Pinot Noir is positioned, according to Harris, to offer the ripe fruit characteristics commonly seen in sunny climates such as California, combined with the complex, terroir-driven characteristics for which Burgundy is famous. “The best of both in a glass of Oregon Pinot Noir in a style that Erik Kramer [Director of Winemaking and Viticulture], calls Oregundian.’”
Domaine Serene’s path to success is based on a focus on quality that includes care for the land, meticulous winemaking, teamwork from the top down, and the tenacity to follow advice on a selective basis.
Quality begins in the vineyard and the story of Domaine Serene begins with site selection in the late 1980’s. Harris explains, “When founders Ken and Grace Evenstad purchased their first 42 acres in Dundee Hills they were told grapes would not ripen above 600 feet elevation.” Winery Hill Estate is one of the highest vineyards sites in Dundee Hills, stretching from 775-930 feet. Ken Evenstad often says, “The enemy of the unknown is the known.” The reason people thought grapes would not ripen above 600 feet is because nobody had done it before. The standard at the time was to push for high yields from vineyards. The Evenstads’ goal was to maximize quality, not quantity, so the elevation works in their favor. In fact Domaine Serene employed a classic Burgundian vineyard technique and dropped fruit limiting the crop to two tons per acre insuring concentrated flavors plus phenolic and sugar ripeness. The well established, dry farmed vines root deeply absorbing just enough water to keep the plant health, but the fruit concentrated. The volcanic jory soils for which the “red hills” of Dundee are nicknamed, are said to produce red fruit scented wines with a sophisticated integration of tannins and acid. All of these factors produced extremely well balanced fruit in the dry, concentrated vintage of 2012.
Domaine Serene’s most valuable asset is their vineyards which are LIVE certified sustainable. Domaine Serene is being placed into a dynasty trust so it will never be sold, but will stay with the family and must be sustained for future generations. According to Harris, vineyard decisions are made based on a 200 year impact plan. Of the 750 acres owned by Domaine Serene, only 250 are planted to vines to maintain natural habitat and balance.
The careful winemaking process begins with hand picking. Pinot Noir is a very thin skinned grape. Gentle handling prevents bruising the fruit and premature breakage of the skins that can be detrimental to quality. Hand harvest is followed by hand sorting. “Ken and Grace are on their feet for hours working the sorting line,” shares Harris. The Evenstads work harvest both in Oregon and Burgundy, lending their 27 years of experience to train the teams and ensure that only the best and ripest fruit passes through to fermentation. This is one of the most important and difficult steps of the process because a few bad clusters can have a large negative impact on wine quality.
Processing takes place in Domaine Serene’s five level gravity flow winery. The gravity flow facility eliminates the need for a pump which Ryan explains can adversely affect the quality of the wine.
Each block of Domaine Serene fruit is fermented separately. Sometimes there are 250 small lot fermentation vessels active at once. This meticulous attention to detail ensures that the winemaking team has the best individual components at their disposal to blend in the end. Harris explains, “Once blended, wines can never be un-blended. It’s like a chef keeping all ingredients separate until she composes her dish on a plate.”
Under Kramer’s leadership, the team practices what they call “drinking and thinking.” This means the winemaking team tastes all of the individual barrels regularly so they can understand their evolution. The blending process is highly involved and takes about a year. Careful thought is applied to how the blended wines may develop and how each component may enhance the finished wine.
Unlike many directing winemakers, Kramer does not have the pressure of travelling to represent the winery. This freedom from travel allows him to be present for all aspects of the winemaking process. Instead the important customer and trade interface is handled by a very experienced sales team and the principles of the winery Ken and Grace Evenstad and Harris.
Specific techniques used for the winning wine included cold soaking the grapes for ten days to extract flavor, tannin and color nuances – aspects that Harris says were noticed by the judging panel. The winning wine was barrel aged 16 months in French Oak, 57% of which was new, with an additional 18 months of bottle age before release.
Harris credits the success of this wine and others to the stellar winemaking team and the involvement of the Evenstads. “Diversity, breadth of knowledge and experience make this Domaine Serene’s strongest winemaking team in 27 years.”
“At Domaine Serene there is no ego, just collaboration, focus on quality and attention on the future,” said Harris. The business philosophy at Domaine Serene is “continuous improvement. ”According to Harris, after a little celebration of this great accolade from Decanter the team basically said, “This is great. What next?” The “next” category includes building a “visitor experience” opening May 2017, building a Chardonnay only winery, and launching a series of sparkling wines in 2018.