Jane Anson meets the winemaking team with high hopes for Santenay white wines in southern Burgundy, after visiting the estate there owned by Oregon's Domaine Serene.
It’s hard to keep an accurate count of how many French winemakers there are with estates in Oregon.
Among the most high profile are:
- Véronique Drouhin-Boss at Domaine Drouhin
- Dominique Lafon at Lingua Franca
- Alexandrine Roy at Domaine Marc Roy
- Louis-Michel Liger-Belair at Chapter 24
- Louis Jadot at Resonance
- Jean-Nicolas Méo at Nicolas Jay
- Bruno Corneaux at Domaine Divio
- Alexandrine Roy at Phelps Creek
- Gonzague and Claire Lurton at Trinité Estate.
And that’s not even getting started on the full list of French winemakers and consultants working on short or long term contracts.
Most of the traffic so far has been one way. So I was thrilled a few weeks ago to drive up in my red Renault Clio hire car to the gates of Château de la Crée in Santenay.
When Portland met Burgundy
It was the week of the Hospices de Beaune, and Burgundy was buzzing under a burst of wintry sunshine that everyone hoped would drive paddles upwards during Sunday’s auction.
Château de la Crée is the former estate of Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor of the Duke of Burgundy, who together with his wife Guigone de Salins founded the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune in 1443 (you might notice there is a Beaune 1er Cru barrel named after him at the auction).
But I’m not here as part of the official event schedule but to meet a team from Oregon who took over the 10 hectare property – with 18 vineyards in seven different villages including two monopoles and nine Premier Crus – in 2015.
I’ve just missed owners Grace and Ken Evenstad, who were here during harvest a month or so ago, but there is a pretty full contingency of the rest of the team, including winemaker Michael Fay, who works across both their main Oregon property Domaine Serene and the new addition in Burgundy.
Fay, whose laid-back Portland charm doesn’t quite hide his exacting approach, heads over here four times a year to work alongside full-time local winemakers Coralie Allexant-Manière and Pablo Bosch, who have Méo Camuzet and Domaine Leroy to their previous credits. The return journey for the French team is made once a year.
When I arrive, all three are over in Beaune tasting through the 2017 wines from the Hospices, so I’m met by Matthew Thompson, marketing director, and Maxime Provencel, in charge of wine tourism and therefore key to a company that in Oregon has seen 45,000 visitors to Domaine Serene in 2017 and sells almost the entirety of its production through its wine club – a trick that it would like to repeat over here.
That, of course, is if any of its wine is left after Oregon club members have made their selections – the top level Maison Evenstad wine is now is 90% sold in the US and the second level Château de la Crée 80% to both club members and restaurants.
For such a venerable Burgundy estate, that dates back to 1431 and is part of the Hospices de Beaune birthing story, it’s rather fascinating to detect the American influences at work.
The introduction of three levels of quality might be the most obvious one – although you could argue that it’s an approach already successfully used in Bordeaux – where the Maison Evenstad wines sit at one selection level above the main Château de la Crée, with Les Tourelles de la Crée below taking grapes from the négociant business.
And then there’s the focus on wine tourism and ‘direct to consumer’ cellar door programmes. But there are other more subtle signs also – the vast replanting programme that is underway for much of their premier cru vineyards, including those directly surrounding the château, uses clones that they say ‘advances viticulture in the region’.
They are raising the canopy across the vineyards to further phenolic ripening and ensuring 100% destemming in the winemaking.
Sticking up for Santenay
And in a further sign of confidence, the very image of Santenay is in their sights. This is an appellation that doesn’t enjoy the highest profile on the Côte de Beaune (described by French magazine L’Express as discrete), perhaps because it doesn’t contain a grand cru.
Tucked right down on the southernmost tip of the Côte, it is planted 89% to red grapes compared to 11% whites. Its history dates back to the pre-Roman era, when it was known for its thermal waters, rich in mineral salts apparently (hold that thought) – which in a weird French law gives it the rights to have a casino.
In 2011, Santenay got a publicity boost with the arrrival of DRC’s Aubert de Villaine, who not only bought 44 ares – almost half-a-hectare – of the premier cru Passetemps but also moved to the nearby village of Bouzeron.
He praised the reds for their ‘perfume of red fruit and undergrowth… with supple and tender tannins’ acccording to L’Express.
But it is not the reds that the Evenstads would like to concentrate on. Instead they believe that Santenay whites have huge potential for growth – something that has the approval of Pierre de Benoist, de Villaine’s nephew, who is on record as saying that the ‘superbly thrilling, saline-rich whites’ Chardonnay have been forgotten in the village.
Soil-wise, Santenay is one of the most mixed of the Côte, with three fairly distinct terroirs, but there is no doubt that the whites I tasted were among the best of the day, and I have long had a mild obsession with Vincent Girardin’s Santenay premier cru Gravières.
‘This is the Côte de Beaune, famous for its white wines,’ Thompson says as we are examining the Santenay replantings.
‘And there is a lot of poor soil with strong limestone content here. Where Meursault has clay with its limestone for power, here we have a more Puligny-Montrachet expression with tight, taut flavours and clear minerality.
‘This village used to be known for its whites, and we fully believe that it can be again.’
Santenay white wines from Maison Evenstad
Maison Evenstad Santenay Premier Cru Beaurepaire 2014
The first vintage under the Oregon team, but only for the ageing. From 0.56ha of the Bearepaire 1er Cru that has around 20 producers in total. On the lower part of the slopes, steeply sloped with a gradient of around 30% with clay gravels over limestone. Beautifully elegant, orange peel and tight citrus, just 20% new oak used for ageing. A subtle persistency that builds over the palate. 12.5% abv. 91 points / 100.
Maison Evenstad Santenay Premier Cru Beaurepaire 2015
The first full vintage under the Evenstads, this has just a little more focused minerality than the 2014, but still with the orange peel character that gives an attractive point of bitterness and zesty focus to the rich citrus flavours. It will not be released until September 2018, kept in bottle for one year more than under the previous owner. 12.5% abv. 93.
Maison Evenstad Santenay Premier Cru Beauregard 2014
Right next to the Gravières 1er Cru, the Evenstads only own 0.26ha of this, making 60 to 90 cases a year so again all goes into Maison Evenstad. Clear smokiness and white pepper spice, real intense personality, great structure and persistency, excellent wine. 12.5% abv. 93.
Maison Evenstad Santenay Premier Cru Beauregard 2015
The spice and white pepper is still evident in this vintage, but it is accompanied by greater creaminess, a richer texture and intensity of flavour. Luscious ripe peach flavours, the fruit becomes clearer as it opens, without losing the grip and focus. 12.5% abv. 94.