What is Coeur Blanc? Why is Coeur Blanc Special? How is Coeur Blanc Made? Why is Coeur Blanc Made?
These are the questions posed in the context of a full page ad which appeared in the December 15, 2007 edition of Wine Spectator. They’re repeated in similar terms on the branding page for Coeur Blanc, the latest stroke of genius from Oregon’s Domaine Serene. The last question is actually my snidely paraphrased version of another question posed on the product’s website, “Why do we make Coeur Blanc?” Why indeed?
“Coeur Blanc (White Heart) is a one-of-a-kind, barrel-fermented white wine made exclusively from mature Pinot Noir grapes. Gently pressing whole clusters limits contact with the red grape skins so that only the purest essence, or “white heart” juice, is expressed. This delicate approach creates an unprecedented dry wine from red grapes. Coeur Blanc is aged for 15 months in French oak barrels and a further 12 months in bottle prior to release. Enjoy!”
– Tony Rynders, Winemaker
Domaine Serene has already glommed plenty of attention for marketing the most expensive Oregon Pinot in history, the 2002 “Monogram,” released and sold-out at $200 per bottle. With the introduction, and subsequent sell-out, of their latest "new idea," I can’t help but believe that Serene is pulling the wool over its customers’ eyes. In the estate’s own cleverly spun words, “Less than half of the available juice is taken from each grape for Coeur Blanc, making it a rare and delicate style of Pinot Noir.” Hmmm, why didn't Roumier think of that? Or Domaine Romanée-Conti? The whole concept strikes me as suspiciously similar to one of the most typical ways of producing rosé wines, the saignée method, which has the inherent bonus of further concentrating the red wine from which it is bled via an increased ratio of skins to juice. Coeur Blanc is intentionally bereft of pinkness, through a total avoidance of skin contact. But do you really think they’re tossing more than half of the “available juice,” along with all those Pinot Noir skins and pips? I seriously doubt it. What better way for Domaine Serene to beef up a batch of red and build upon its reputation for producing a big, opulent style of Pinot Noir?
If Coeur Blanc was indeed Coeur Rose, and sold for – given US pricing standards – around $25 per bottle, I’d be absolutely fine with it. Willamette Valley Pinot Noir rosé? Why not? But a “barrel fermented white wine from Pinot Noir grapes” that is “extremely limited” and sells for sixty bucks? With that I take issue.
Lest I be accused of going on an unjustified slamming spree, let’s do a little research. According to the Spectator’s Harvey Steiman, writing on Domaine Serene’s own website, “The idea [for Coeur Blanc] came from a northern Italian vintner who makes a dry white wine from Pinot Noir by pressing the grapes, barrel fermenting them like a white wine, and letting them age on the lees like a Chardonnay.” The north, especially the northeast, of Italy happens to be one of the globe’s hotbeds of vinicultural experimentation. A cadre of wine makers there seems intent on trying out new and unusual things, or upon returning to the traditions of long ago. It’s also an area, particularly in the far north, where in a difficult year Pinot Noir might not darken sufficiently to make a satisfactorily colored red wine. So why not give white a try? It’s been done in Champagne for ages, after all.
Oregon, though, is hardly known for its place on the cutting edge of the wine frontier. Its producers are not, as in northern Italy, growing a dizzying array of autochthonous vines – they don’t have any – and experimenting with vinification techniques in an effort to produce wines of either regional character or international appeal. Oregon is known, however, for a growing group of small to medium-sized producers who are attempting to push the esteem level of their wines by styling increasingly rich, heady (and expensive) red wines from a grape, Pinot Noir, which is more naturally inclined toward high acid, moderate alcohol and delicacy of color and aroma. It’s also known for its white wines, usually slightly more moderately priced, from varieties like Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chardonnay.
But white wine, barrel fermented, from Pinot Noir, marketed as a great, new, stand-alone concept? Perhaps it’s just Tony Rynders’ way of saying that Chardonnay does not have great potential in the Willamette Valley. However, it strikes me more as an extravagant demonstration of wine making ego, as the epitome of human interventionism, done simply for the sake of being able to market a new, luxury product. Some might think it’s the wine making equivalent of being the first person to step on the moon. But it’s hardly a giant step for mankind. And I’m not buying it.