Oregon insiders have been buzzing over Evening Land, a new project involving star Burgundy winemaker Dominique Lafon and Hollywood producer and wine entrepreneur Mark Tarlov (who has two other projects revving up in California). Partners include a host of big-name sommeliers. This week I stopped by to get a look at the vineyard and taste the full range of newly bottled wines.
A 2007 Gamay, called Celebration, came out last fall. A 2007 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made their first appearance at a La Paulée Burgundy blowout last month, but Tarlov told me I was the first outsider to taste all six 2007s in bottle: three Pinot Noirs, two Chardonnays and the Gamay. I also sampled enough barrels to get a pretty good snapshot of the 2008 vintage.
The wines all come from the 80-acre Seven Springs Vineyard. In my video, Tarlov talks about how the various portions of the vineyard fit into the wines. He bought it in 2007, reuniting it with the adjacent Anden Vineyards, which had been split off in a messy divorce. Seven Springs is in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, about 15 miles northwest of Salem. Some of Oregon’s top wineries had been buying the grapes from it, including Bethel Heights, Cristom, Penner-Ash and Domaine Drouhin, all of whom made excellent wine from it. Its nearest neighbor is Argyle’s Lone Star Vineyard, a key component in its reserve Pinot Noirs.
It's a classy site, with some vines dating to the early 1980s. And it’s a highly varied site, with lots of different exposures and streaks of different soil types. Mostly facing east and south, the vines have been trained in some decidedly un-Burgundian ways, with wide spacing between the rows and some of the vines' trunks positioned so high that the new team has been working to re-train them lower. I had never seen that before.
Tarlov has dealt with some of California's famous wine consultants, who, he says, insisted on their way of doing things. Not Lafon, his consultant for the Oregon project. "He scratched his head when he saw these wide rows and high vines," says Isabelle Meunier, a French-Canadian who is the on-site winemaker. "But he said, let’s see what they do. It’s really interesting, the differences in the wines."
In the end, Lafon and Meunier agreed that more traditional methods are better, but they are glad they tried it both ways first. "You never know what’s going to be best for a given site," Meunier adds.
They found, for example, that when they brought in soil scientists to map the vineyard, the patchwork of varieties, clones and training systems on the surface conformed with assuring accuracy to the underlying geology. "We fermented everything separately, tasted the pieces and put the blends together, and it happened to break just where the ridges are in the vineyard," says Meunier.
That kind of curiosity and diligence has paid off with wines that show dramatic distinctiveness, including a bracing minerality, even in a light vintage such as 2007. I will be tasting these wines blind in the coming weeks and months, as they are released, but for now suffice it to say that a strong mineral character runs through them all. I like the iron-basalt overtones to the dark cherry and tobacco flavors in the complex and refined Pinot Noir Estate 2007, which blends fruit from all parts of the vineyard and sells for $45 at retail.
The Pinot Noir La Source, which is destined for restaurants only, shows more ripe currant and blackberry fruit, with mineral character playing a supporting role. It reverses the polarity of fruit and mineral with the estate bottling. A super-premium bottling called Summum is tighter, more focused, and has a silkier feel to the texture, and seems to add some chalk to the iron in the currant-centered flavors. Both of these wines are for release in the fall.
In his Domaine des Comtes Lafon wines, Dominique is famous for getting the most out of the Burgundy region’s Chardonnay. I found the Evening Land Chardonnays stunning, not for their weight or power but for their finesse. Chardonnay La Source, just released, is bright and focused, straddling the gulf between steely and creamy. The pear, white nectarine, mineral, clove and nutmeg aromas jump from the glass and then drape silkily over the palate. It tightens on the finish but remains long and vivid. It it unlike any other Oregon Chardonnay. Heck, what California Chardonnay has this kind of depth and distinction at 12.8 percent alcohol?
The Chardonnay Summum is similar, but creamier, more like Lafon’s premier crus in style, with more curves to the frame and more citrus in the balance. They bottled only 460 three-packs (the equivalent of 115 cases). Tarlov hasn't decided how much to charge for it. La Source is $90.
It's tempting to think of these Chardonnays as game-changers for Oregon, but there will be so little of them and they will cost so much, they may wind up being an insider's secret. All those sommelier partners will have their work cut out for them hand-selling these babies.
From barrel, the 2008s show a bit more flesh, more fruit character and darker color in the reds, but they still impressed me with their transparency of flavor and elegance. They average just under 13 percent alcohol.
If you know your Oregon wine history, the arrival of another Burgundian, the négociant Robert Drouhin, helped establish Oregon as a region to pay attention to when he bought a vineyard in 1988 and started producing wines with his name on them. On a much smaller scale, the arrival of Dominique Lafon may have as powerful effect on the growing group of Oregon winegrowers aiming for the top in quality. From what I taste, he is showing how it’s done: vine by vine, plot by plot, lot by lot, and with an eye on transparency and finesse. It's a worthy lesson.
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