In 1987, Robert Drouhin of famed Burgundian negociant Maison Joseph Drouhin purchased land in Dundee Hills. Since then, a flurry of French vintners have taken up residence in Oregon, including but not limited to Dominique Lafon, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, Jean-Nicolas Méo, and Louis Jadot. With them, these seasoned winemakers brought centuries of acquired knowledge of growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in many of the world’s most lauded terroir. While respecting tradition, these vintners wholeheartedly embraced the freedom afforded to them by the New World. In the 1980s just a few dozen wineries were noted in Oregon, today there are more than 800 cultivating grapes across the state. Whilst the ‘French Invasion’ was by no means the origin of winegrowing in Oregon, it certainly shifted the way the world looked at the region. Now, after decades of research into soils, clones, and site selection quality has boomed. Off the back of a successful project in Napa Valley, in the spring of 2005, Dr Madaiah Revana, a cardiologist and wine enthusiast, began searching for the ideal plot and an experienced winemaker with the goal of producing Pinot Noir in Oregon that would rival great Burgundy. Following their launch into the UK, I spoke with Alexana head winemaker, Bryan Weil, about site selection, farming, winemaking, and more.
In a picturesque, isolated pocket of Dundee Hills, considered ideal for the estate’s restrained, gentle style of wine, Alexana’s three-story gravity-flow winery is a bastion of sustainability and considerate winemaking. The estate’s 56 acres of plantings sit within a fantastically diverse 80-acre property. Through careful geographic plotting, 31 micro-blocks have been identified, together boasting around eighteen soil types across a sweeping terrain of rugged hills and slopes ranging from 360 to 640 feet above sea level. These identified micro-blocks help the Alexana vineyard team pair ideal clonal and rootstock selections with the soil types of those micro-blocks. This level of attention to detail is a thread which runs through the core of the estate’s philosophy. Talking to us as his team processed the last of this year’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, winemaker, Bryan Weil is obviously enthralled by Oregon’s potential and committed to best expressing it through Alexana’s wine.
In Napa Valley, committed to quality above all else, Dr Revana looked to vineyard manager Jim Barbour (Screaming Eagle, Grace Family, Cakebread, etc.) and winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett (Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Grace Family, Barbour, etc.) This commitment remains unchanged in Oregon, where the teams farming strategy is multi-pillared. Underpinned by the desire to work organically, promoting biodiversity and strength of soil, the team treat each plot according to its individual requirements. A resource-intensive decision made possible by comprehensive mapping and precision viticulture. This approach maximises the potential of each site, giving each the ability to achieve maximum ripeness and for the needs of each vine to be met appropriately.
All of the estate’s vines are trained to vertical shoot positioning and cane pruned new each year. Extensive overhead photography of each block allows the vineyard team to work with vigour on a block-by-block basis. In blocks where more sunlight is required, the vines are pruned asymmetrically, leafing the morning side to maximise exposure. Depending on vintage conditions, a rather large amount of fruit is dropped from the vine, up to 50% in some cases. Roughly 2.5 tons per acre are cropped from a potential of 7 tons per acre with green harvest done on a selective, qualitative basis.
Whilst cover crop is used across the board, to what extent depends again on the individual block and its requirements. Exactly what is planted and in what quantity depends upon whether the intention is primarily nitrogen-fixing (for which legumes are the cover crop of choice), preventing erosion or to manage pests. In some cases cover crop is alternated on a yearly basis, in others it is more permanent and can be mowed in order to maintain. In some cases, the team also overseed where necessary. Overseeding cover crops gives farmers added flexibility to integrate new crops into established rotations in a fairly small window of time.
Weil notes the fairly small window for optimum ripening, and subsequently, picking, particularly in the case of the Pinot Noir. As harvest approaches, seed and skin maturity are assessed continuously by the vineyard team. Taking 5-10 berries from various plots, the colour of the seeds are assessed visually and the maturity reviewed by chewing of the skin and pulp. Interestingly, Weil also points toward a small dimpling which occurs once the berry is close to physiological maturity (supposedly a sign of the berry beginning to dehydrate) alongside the most distant leaves beginning to yellow. While chemistry plays a key role in the assessment of both quality and ripeness, it is not relied upon entirely, tasting also plays a crucial role at Alexana. As the climate changes, becoming progressively warmer, a more comprehensive understanding and management of ripeness will become crucial for winemakers in continuing to produce aromatic, elegant, balanced wines.
Additionally the entire estate is LIVE certified (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) and Salmon Safe. The former requiring members to complete a comprehensive checklist demonstrating that they are working in a manner congruent with the preservation of natural resources. The latter an organisation working with wineries to keep urban and agricultural watersheds in the Pacific Northwest clean enough for native salmon to spawn and thrive.
Though more often than not, it is their Pinot Noir about which Oregon’s winemakers make the most noise, there is indeed growing recognition that the state’s combination of northern latitude, occasional marine breezes and long hours of sunshine, creating an environment perfect for long, gradual ripening are ideal for Pinot Gris, which is now the most-planted white variety in the state. Weil describes Pinot Gris as the ‘swiss army knife of grape varieties‘ a nod to its ability to produce a wide range of diverse styles dependent on factors in both the vineyard and the winery. Alexana has around 2 acres of Pinot Gris planted on southwest-exposed slopes in Dundee Hills. The fruit is double hand-sorted, once in the vineyard and then again in the winery. Following careful sorting, the fruit is pressed whole-cluster and drained by gravity, with only the first press used. The juice is fermented using indigenous yeast until dry and allowed to sit on the lees for 4 months with stirring every two weeks.
Alexana’s rather expansive range of Pinot Noir includes single-vineyard bottlings, bottlings marked by their position in particular blocks, and a bottling vinified from 100% Pommard Clone. Amongst this range is the Terroir Series, a wine crafted from a patchwork of Oregon AVA’s. With grapes from every AVA (until 2 more were recently designated), the result is a well-constructed compilation of the character of Oregon Pinot. From the cooler, coastal-influenced AVA’s in the Willamette Valley to the warmer, riper AVA’s in Columbia Valley the finished wine has a broad aromatic range with a solid frame of fruit and acidity.
Much of Alexana’s estate Pinot is from classic Dundee Hills sedimentary sandstone soil, consisting of a total of 12 Pinot Noir clones, which Weil believes contributes substantially to the complexity of the finished wines. As with the Pinot Gris, the Pinot Noir is sorted meticulously, both by cluster and by berry, with a small percentage of whole cluster occasionally added but not commonplace. The juice is kept cool early to facilitate native fermentation with a little So2 added post-malo and some punchdowns throughout. As is the case in much of Burgundy, open-top upright wooden barrels are used for fermentation in most cases. These open-top fermenters evaporate a little alcohol and maintain a lower temperature naturally, without thermoregulation. The resulting wine is restrained with heaps of bright red fruit, expansive floral aromas, sweet spices and a pleasant, sapid finish.
Pointing readers toward the wines of Oregon is far from revelatory on my behalf. The state is already well-established as a premium wine-growing region. However, with that being said, I’m captivated by wineries like Alexana who continue to build upon the field of practical viticultural knowledge. Respecting traditional concepts of grape growing while working with tools of modern science and within the freedom-loving framework of the new world. The result is an intelligent, considered, and ecological approach to making great wine. Alexana wines are available to buy in the UK from The Vineyard Cellars.