Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Pale at Heart

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.


Anonymous said...

Having had this wine several times I can't agree with your position, which as you have never had the wine is a little indefensible.

This wine is not a chardonnay stand in, but a unique wine in its own right. Also, the process has nothing to do with saignee in technique or result.

David McDuff said...


Thanks for stopping by. I know, of course, that my write-up could easily be viewed as indefensible. That's why it's filed under Rants, after all. You're right, as well, that I have not had the wine. You'll notice that I never suggested that it might not taste good.

I also know, from reading the semi-technical specs on Serene's website, that the wine is not a saignee. That said, I still pose two very serious questions: What's happening to the other 50% of the juice and 100% of the skins? And what's the point of making a wine like this other than sheer ego satisfaction and, again, creating a market sector where there wasn't one already in place?

Anonymous said...

We made a similar wine this year, more due to the reality of the vintage in one vineyard than pre-planning. We made the wine by putting whole clusters in the press, then pressing very, very lightly. The bunches were then removed and put through the destemmer and used to make rose. Next time I see Tony I'll ask him what he does with the rest of the juice. As you might imagine, after the pressing and destemming there is little or no whole fruit going into the destemmer, which would make for huge tannin issues if you tried to make a red wine out of them.

Brooklynguy said...

hey david - if the point you're making is that it is very expensive, and that as an unusual wine, it requires the average consumer to take a big leap of faith in shelling out that kind of dough, i agree. i have tasted maybe four bottles of domaine serene pinots and i have never been very impressed.

but i disagree with two things you say about oregon: i think that 35-40 years ago oregon winemakers were extremely cutting edge. they created something out of nothing, something pretty amazing.

also, its true that some producers are making fruit bomb juice with lots of alcohol and little individuality. but there are a bunch of producers making amazing, delicate, interesting wines that have character. how about Thomas, Belle Pente, St Innocent, Brick House, Evesham Wood, Cameron, to name a few? These can be truly lovely wines, wines that can often exceed village or 1er cru Burgundy in the QPR dept in my book.

sure, i just got back from portland today - can you tell?

David McDuff said...

You speak exactly to my point. If I'm reading your comment correctly, you produced both a white and a rose, in both cases because you were faced with a difficult vintage. Perhaps you were faced with cooler than typical temperatures, heavy rainfall at harvest or just insufficient pigmentation or ripeness. This makes perfect sense, although I do wonder why you chose to make a white as opposed to just a rose.... The human interest in doing something new and different is certainly understandable and absolutely has its place in the wine world.

My issue is more with the presentation of Domaine Serene's product, as well as the apparent fact that Coeur Blanc is not the product of making something -- anything -- from a bad vintage but rather a planned experiment, one that apparently will continue year in and year out.

I'm guessing that Anne Amie is not planning to run a full page ad in the Wine Spectator or to charge $60 a bottle for their white Pinot Noir....

Finally, I'd love to know what you find out from Tony in your next conversation with him. I'm always happy to be proven wrong, right or just worked up, as the case may be.

David McDuff said...

My issue with the wine, not having tasted it, goes way beyond its price point. It's tied more to its craftiness, designed exclusivity and its intentionally unusual character.

My comments about the cutting edge, or lack thereof, in Oregonian wine making was meant primarily in the context of the comparison with and influence by the wines of northern Italy. I was also speaking of today's environment, not that of 30-40 years ago. And of course there are some great producers in Oregon that are producing subtle, well-balanced wines. The same is true of California. Regrettably, they're not the producers who are getting attention -- or running absurd ads -- in the major wine periodicals.

Anonymous said...

I would say winegrowing thirty years ago in Oregon was cutting edge just in the fact that they tried. The wines themselves left much to be desired.

As far as the 07 vintage I think it's an excellent vintage for those with proper yields, who waited to pick and were on top of their spray programs throughout the year.

I've talked to Tony many times about this wine, which he made because he believed in the idea and wanted to pursue it. The marketing came after the wine. That's just Domaine Serene's way. A full page WS ad for a few hundred cases is an extravagance you won't see from us or any other Oregon winery for that matter. However, I would not confuse Tony's passion for making wine with the DS marketing machine. We'll make about 150 cases of ours, which we'll sell direct to our mailing list.

Wicker Parker said...

Hope you get a chance to try the J. K. Carriere Glass Willamette Valley White Pinot Noir, which excepting La Suffrene and Pradeaux (Bandols both) is perhaps the finest still rosé I've had.

It's made somewhat similarly to the Coeur Blanc except: 1) it's an intentional rosé, the color of a gris de gris, 2) the winemaker adds Chardonnay (!) lees and then subjects the cold-fermenting brew to battonage, 3) it's released on rosé time, the immediate following spring, and 4) it sells to the tune of $21 per bottle -- not an MC5 tune, but maybe a Sonic Youth tune.

Is Domaine Serene limiting production in a cynical attempt to drive up price and demand? Sure seems that way from here.

David McDuff said...

Thanks for the suggestions, WP. I'll keep an eye out for all three but particularly for the Carriere.

The full page ad placement, which was repeated in the most recent edition of WS, would definitely seem to reinforce your thoughts about the "cynical" marketing strategy behind Coeur Blanc.

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