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Harvest Q&A: Oregon Pinot Noir

Domaine Serene winemaker Tony Rynders talks about making Pinot Noir in a year that's almost too good

Eric Arnold
Posted: September 29, 2006

Tony Rynders earned his master's degree in the viticulture and enology program at UC Davis in 1993, then worked at wineries in Italy, Australia, Washington and California. He settled at Domaine Serene, one of the most highly regarded producers in Oregon, in 1998, and ever since has made some of the Willamette Valley's most elegant and sought-after Pinot Noirs. The winery has five properties from which it sources grapes, three of which it owns outright (the other two were planted and are still maintained by Domaine Serene's vineyard manager), and produces about 20,000 cases a year. While the winery's primary focus is Pinot Noir, Rynders also makes a barrel-aged white Pinot Noir, a small amount of Chardonnay and a Syrah from the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley for Domaine Serene's second label Rockblock. He spoke with Wine Spectator on Sept. 27, during his lunch break from picking grapes.

Wine Spectator: Describe this year's growing season.
Tony Rynders: We had a really wet winter, and springtime was pretty normal. We were a little early as far as seeing the first bloom, and then by the end of bloom we saw our first shot of hot, 100-degree weather. It finished up bloom pretty quickly, so we had good uniformity at bloom time and good set. The clusters were fairly good sized, and berry size was pretty solid. And then we had a warm summer. [There's a] large crop potential, so most vineyard sites were thinned down to one cluster per shoot, which is not unusual here. We went out four different times and adjusted the crop.

WS: How is the grape ripening and picking proceeding?
TR: It's very uniform ripening. We're about 15 or 20 percent in right now, and we'll be making some pretty good progress by the end of the week--we'll be at least half done because everything's ripening at once. And that's across varieties, too. Right now I'm pretty optimistic. I like what I'm tasting. The fruit is in very nice condition from the nice, warm, dry summer we've had.

WS: Your vineyards are in the northern part of the Willamette Valley. What's different or special about where your grapes grow?
TR: For four out of the five sites, we're the sole winery getting fruit from those sites, and the fifth site we get about 40 percent of the Pinot--there's exclusivity. We have some [sites] that are 850 feet of elevation, and some as low as 250. If we have a warm vintage like this or a cool vintage, it gives us a lot of flexibility for making our wines, as we kind of pick and choose characteristics that suit each of the wines that we're doing.

WS: So Pinot Noir has the greatest potential in your region this year?
TR: The Chardonnay is absolutely gorgeous this year as well.

WS: Are there any vineyards from which you'll treat the grapes or the juice differently this year than you normally would?
TR: I got a little Chardonnay today, and I whole-cluster pressed it, whereas in a typical year I would de-stem and lightly crush the fruit and allow a little skin contact. But I'm concerned that the acids are a little lower this year, so I don't want to have that skin contact since I'd lose more acid.

WS: What gave you the most cause for concern this year?
TR: The timing of spikes of hot weather. Usually in Oregon we get one or two, but if it's earlier in the season when we have more daylight hours, the intensity of the sun can cause sunburn [to the grape skins]. So this year, since we had a lot of moisture in the soil, we deliberately left more cover crop out to try and pull away some of the excess moisture, and we also left the afternoon sides of the canopies a bit shaggier to prevent sunburn. But probably the biggest concern was the large crop potential that was set …. In Oregon, everyone is concerned about keeping the crop loads fairly small--tiny compared to some regions.

WS: What's the most exciting thing about harvest?
TR: Growing season is very much like a story. The story starts at budbreak, and it's completed when the grapes get picked. For me the most exciting thing is seeing what that last chapter is--that climax of the story. You've been waiting around all this time, and looking at all the variables and fine tuning, and this is pretty much when you know what you've got. It's the ultimate poker hand, really. It's figuring out how you want to play the hand, and hopefully you come out winning the pot.

WS: What's the scariest thing about it?
TR: Trying not to screw up. Just making the wrong decision with regards to picking too early. You really only have one shot with every block, and that's it.

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