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'Great Pinot Noir Whispers': Discovering Oregon's Pinot Noir Pioneers

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Rosie Allen Rosie Allen / 09 January 2019

'I returned to wine convinced that it is the most profound expression of the story created between a plant and its surroundings', says Jason Letts, a winemaker with a legacy so inextricably linked to the Oregon landscape – via his legendary winery, The Eyrie – that wine critic John Atkinson MW said 'If an alien asked me: 'What can Americans achieve?' I'd sit him down with a glass of Eyrie Pinot and a copy of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying'.

But while Oregon's pure, mineral-driven pinots have started to win acclaim in recent years, you're still unlikely to find a bottle on a restaurant wine list. While California's world-famous blockbuster reds and seductively ripe whites represent US wine's Hollywood persona, Oregon is very much the indie outsider. It's a land of dense redwood forests and craggily beautiful wildlands. Portland, Oregon's principle city and the consumer hub of Oregon's wine trade, is a bohemian's dream, making a deliciously rugged counterpoint to the glittering urban sprawls and glossy seascapes of Oregon's more famous southern cousin.

But for philosophising winemakers such as Jason this is entirely the point: Oregon is beautifully defined by its otherness.

Oregon, with its beautiful mountainscapes and dense woodland, has a unique terroir
Oregon, with its beautiful mountainscapes and dense woodland, has a unique terroir

The Eyrie: Oregon's first fine wine pioneers

Oregon was established as a wineland proper in the 1960s, when a handful of maverick winemakers – restrained by the warm climes and sheer unaffordability of California's trendy Napa valley – looked to the north, with an aim to cultivate grapes capable of achieving elegance and purity.

David Letts, aka 'Papa Pinot', a pioneer of the Oregon wine scene
David Letts, aka 'Papa Pinot', a pioneer of the Oregon wine scene

David Letts was one of the most prominent of these winemakers, convinced that the relatively cool climes of the Willamette Valley would prove to be the perfect terroir for growing pinot noir. He brought with him a philosophy of minimal intervention in the vineyard and winery, coupled with a painstakingly holistic approach to the relationship between soil, vine and wine. 'When my father passed the management of the vines over to me I had a tremendous foundation to work with,' says Jason. 'I inherited an incredibly unique vineyard: vines that were never treated with herbicide, even back in the 1960s and 1970s, the heyday of chemical agriculture. These vines had never seen systemic chemicals against mildew, only Bordeaux spray (and the gentlest versions, at that.) Insecticides, of course, had been absolutely forbidden as well.'

David's revolutionary approach brought success – his nickname 'Papa Pinot' is testament to his influence as the man who brought the two pinots (most famously noir, but also blanc) to prominence here, earning the Willamette Valley its rightful place on the fine wine map. Pinot noir is a grape that's still very close to Jason's heart, both as a wine that earns The Eyrie its greatest plaudits, and because of the connection it gives him to his late father: 'The greatest praise my father could offer a pinot noir was, 'this tastes like pinot noir'. By this he meant, it wasn't obscured by winemaking. It's almost a Taoist approach. My father taught me that pinot noir whispers, and in order to hear it you need to turn down your ego, and the urge to mark the wines with a signature or a style. It's ironic that the outcome of all this conscious restraint of 'style' is that both he and I have made wines that are very distinctive, and couldn't be mistaken for anything other than Eyrie pinot noir.'

Jason Letts continues his father's incredible legacy
Jason Letts continues his father's incredible legacy

But while Jason has inherited an impeccable legacy, he's not content to rest on his laurels when it comes to pushing The Eyrie to new and ever environmentally-conscious levels. 'I put the plough away,' he says. 'I view the soil of the vineyard as a skin: deliberately cutting the skin weakens the organism. Deliberately turning the soil destroys the delicate biological networks that nourish the vines and help them avoid drought stress. I also immediately retired the use of copper in our Bordeaux mix, since while it is organic, copper is also toxic to soils. I moved our spray mix to elemental sulphur, milk whey, kelp powder and pine sap, which is even more effective'. These methods may sound extreme, but Jason insists that his methods have made his wines better than ever.

'It's amazing how successful these changes have been, in terms of vine health and especially in the expression of the wines. Our approach is the result of two generations who have focused not just on the long-term health of the vines, but the entire ecosystem of the vineyard. Both my father and I have worked with vision that fostering the deepest connection between the vines and their ecosystem will result in the profoundest expression of the wine. Is that visionary? No, we're just coming from a place of common sense.'

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