Domaine Serene Sets the Standard for Oregon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

Oregon wine has definitely arrived, and these superb examples help maintain the region's reputation

Great Pinot Noir and More from Oregon

I still remember the gist of the headline on the front cover of The Wine Advocate, 10 years ago or so: “Oregon: America’s Next World Class Wine Region” (I paraphrase, on account of my ossifying brain). Whatever the details, that issue put Oregon on the U.S. wine map and guaranteed a steady stream of international wine trade visitors as well.

Oregon wine had arrived. Since then, it has gotten better and better. One of the pioneering wineries of the state’s foremost region, Willamette Valley, is Domaine Serene. Founded in 1989 by Ken and Grace Evenstad, Minnesotans who had fallen in love with the wines of Burgundy, the winery has won acclaim from all quarters. The 2013 Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir was named the No. 3 wine in the world by Wine Spectator. The 2008 Grace Vineyard Pinot Noir scored the highest score ever awarded to an Oregon pinot noir by Wine Spectator (97 points, or "classic"). Its wines routinely earn over 90 points in critical industry publications. They haven’t proclaimed a policy of only releasing wines that they expect to earn over 90 points, but on the evidence that I see that would be the unspoken mantra (for example, they report that, over the past 12 months, they have received 83 scores of 90+ and only one 89 and one 88 score from major critics).

Recently, Ryan Harris, president of the winery, came through Dallas and took me through a tasting of some of the wines at Hibiscus restaurant (where sommelier, Alan Simants, has Domaine Serene is on the wine list), along with winemaker Erik Kramer and Ken and Grace Evenstad. The executive summary is that Domaine Serene has a mission to produce the best pinot noir and chardonnay possible in Oregon. Kramer is never given any production (quantity) goals as that might compromise quality. Ken and Grace Evenstad want wines that rival Burgundy's in finesse and complexity. This singular and rigidly pursued philosophy has prevented the winery resting on its laurels for over a quarter of a century.

We tasted some finished wines, starting with the 2013 Evenstad Reserve Chardonnay ($55) from Dundee Hills. Despite being routinely one of the highest scoring Oregon chardonnays, this wine almost did not come to exist. The Evenstad family purchased the Côte Sud Vineyard from the neighboring Kirschner family, intending to strip out the chardonnay for pinot noir. The Kirschners inveighed on them to make one vintage from the chardonnay first. The results scored 91/100 in Wine Spectator and started the Domaine Serene Chardonnay program (the latest vintage scored 95/100 in the same magazine). Nowadays, all the chardonnay is Dijon clones (clones 76 and 95 are used in the reserve), grown 600 feet plus above sea level (despite advice not to try this) in Jory soil. The winery considers all three of these conditions to be prerequisites to great chardonnay in Oregon.

The grapes now come from the Clos du Soleil, Clos de Lune, and Côte Sud vineyards. The winemaking uses full malolactic fermentation, batonnage (lees stirring) and 25-35 percent new oak (the 2013 vintage used 27 percent). The oak, says Harris, gives texture to the wine rather than an overwhelming oaky flavor. The result is a chardonnay with bright acid, intense fruit flavors that are nonetheless not so ripe as to border on tropical fruit, solid phenolic backbone, and a long creamy and vanillin finish. A stylish example of chardonnay indeed, and good value relative to Burgundy and California comparables.

(I should admit that I did not know what to expect from the chardonnay, as Harris had let slip that Ken Everstad’s preference in Burgundy wine is for the Chablis style, while Grace prefers Meursault. She won in this case.)

The 2013 Coeur Blanc Pinot Noir ($95) was a wine unlike any I have had before: a white (still) pinot noir. It came about when an Italian intern at the winery gave a white pinot from his family’s winery in Italy to Ken Evenstad. Evenstad was blown away, and so Domaine Serene came to make the first example from the United States. A few more do it now, but the style is still a rarity.

The 2012 Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir ($70) is the winery’s flagship wine. On the nose and palate it is defined not by power but by finesse and elegance. A very feminine wine. The soft raspberry and strawberry fruit on top of a forest floor layer of herbal notes made for a wine that paired perfectly with one of its classic accompaniments at Hibiscus, duck breast. A quirk of Oregon AVA law does not permit "Estate Grown" to appear on the label when the grapes come from more than one AVA (in this case, Jerusalem Hill Vineyard is in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, while the remaining vineyards are in the Dundee Hills AVA).  

One hundred percent of the chardonnay grapes in Domaine Serene's wines come from estate vineyards. Some 96 percent of the pinot noir is estate fruit and this will increase to virtually 100 percent. The rest is from one vineyard owned by a friend of the Evenstads who farms it to Domaine Serene specifications. Grapes come from six estate vineyards spread across three Willamette Valley AVAs. This is partly a portfolio measure to protect against the highly variable and harsh weather that results in vast differences across vintages. By blending from different vineyards, Evenstad hopes to ameliorate vintage variation and maintain a more consistent house style. Although separate, all of the vineyards are within 15 miles of the winery.

Harvest is done at daybreak and stops at 11 a.m., thereby avoiding the worst daytime heat. The field crew has a refrigeration truck to keep the harvest cool on hot days. At the winery, a 25-foot-long sorting table allows eight people on each side to remove imperfect grapes and "mog" (matter other than grapes). A proprietary "vacuum cleaner" that sucks mog from the grapes is also employed.

Pinot noir is the primary grape variety and Domaine Serene is seeking silkiness and softness in the wines. They consider that the fruit quality is set in the vineyard and that winemaking is focused on textural development. Cold soaks play an important part here, as does dry ice in the fermentation process. They find that it breaks open the grape skins and starts the extraction process at a very slow, gentle rate. No whole-cluster fermentation is used, as it can impart harshness; whole-berry fermentation is the order of the day.

While wild yeasts are tolerated if they arise; a customized inoculated yeast program is at the heart of the winemaking. Specifically, different yeasts are chosen based on how high an alcohol level the winemaker expects fermentation to yield. This is calibrated down to the vineyard block level. Riper blocks are given more resilient yeast strains to survive in the higher alcohol environment. Harris is canny, but I wonder if the choice of yeast regimen is not dictated, at least in part, by the organoleptic properties of the wine produced by specific yeasts. The fermentation environment is not exotic. No concrete tanks or eggs with a sense of humor. Temperature-controlled stainless steel does the job. However, for around 10 percent of fermentation, macro bin fermenters are employed.

One architectural feature is of note. The winery is on five-level gravity-flow system. The idea is that wine should not need to be pumped anywhere. The building also looks twice as large as it needs to be for a winery with an output of only about 25,000 to 30,000 cases a year. The reason for this is so that each fermenting tank undergoes only one turn per harvest (in many wineries it is three or four). Thus, a winemaker need never change a harvest date based on tank supply. Each grape has a dedicated tank that belongs to it until it has finished fermenting.

As the physical fermentation containers are simple, the aging containers are complex. The winery works with 15 different coopers who each supply multiple types of barrels based on degree of toast, fire vs. water bend, and oak type (Alliers, Vosges, Nevers, or Limousin). Mathematicians will be delighted to know that it amounts to over 200 barrel choices.

I was delighted myself to find that Domaine Serene decided to invest in chardonnay rather than Oregon's more common, and, in my view, disappointing pinot gris grape. I probed Harris about the next logical progression for a winery that makes pinot noir and chardonnay: Would they be making a sparkling wine, along the lines of what's made from those grapes (plus pinot meunier) in France’s Champagne region? He could not confirm such plans but agreed that a lot of the logistical spadework for such a development was in place. If they did go with it, I would expect the same kind of regard for quality that one finds in their still wines.

Domaine Serene wines are available in national retail and via the winery website. If you love pinot noir or chardonnay, they deserve serious consideration for your cellar.