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Oregon wine country, part 13
The Eyrie Vineyards, with Jason Lett

Website: www.eyrievineyards.com

David Lett, previously a textbook salesman, came to Oregon with 3000 cuttings and a degree in enology from University of California Davis. He located a site with promise as a vineyard in the Dundee Hills, and purchased it for US$600 an acre in 1965 (currently, land here sells for as much as $75 000 per acre). The first vines were planted that year, and this patch of land was formally named The Eyrie Vineyard in 1966. Now in the hands of Lett’s son, Jason, the Eyrie Vineyards today cover 49 acres split among four different vineyards all in the Dundee Hills. 

I met with Jason Lett (above), initially in the wonderful old cellars in downtown McMinville (originally, the plan was to have built a winery on the vineyard, but no one would lend the money), and then for a tour of the original Eyrie Vineyard. Jason has an interesting background himself: he trained in Ecology in New Mexico and then worked as a researcher there and in Oregon, before returning in 2005 to head up the family winery.

All the vines here are own-rooted, and herbicides have never been used in any of the vineyards. Another defining feature of the Eyrie vineyards is that they aren’t tilled – instead, there is a full natural cover under the vines. They are also unirrigated: the vines have developed their own resistance to drought, and being ungrafted likely helps here. American vines (which form the rootstocks currently used) evolved near streams, whereas Vitis vinifera evolved in drier environments where the roots had to compete hard for moisture. Jason reckons this might be a factor in helping his vineyards deal better with drought stress.  

While many people are opting for close spacing for their new vineyards, the Eyrie vineyards have wide rows with vines quite spread out (10 foot spacing for most of the vineyard, with 12 foot spacing for the South Block). The vines seem to have great balance, though, between the leaf and fruit. Jason explains that the size of the fruiting cane is a good indicator of this. For Pinot, a cane the thickness of a little finger is ideal; if it is as thick as a thumb, the vines are too vigorous.

David Lett was influenced by the work of Werner Koblet at the Swiss Federal Research Station at Wädenswil. Koblet helped with ideas such as optimising the canopy (hedging at 14 nodes) and leaf removal in the fruit zone. His research also showed the importance of secondary shoots in ripening fruit.

At Eyrie, white winemaking is simple. Fruit is lightly crushed and then pressed using a basket press. ‘It is not terribly efficient or fast, and we don’t have a great juice yield,’ says Jason. ‘But we do get beautiful, gentle extraction.’ The juice goes to 43 hl tanks (1200 gallons), which are unjacketed and therefore not temperature controlled. He points out that wine has been made without temperature control for thousands of years, but ‘now it’s almost heretical not to have a 10 ton chilling unit in the back of the winery.’ After fermentation the wines are aged sur lie. Jason says that they don’t need to measure nitrogen in the must. ‘Yeast is a dynamic organism with a whole variety of yields. Lots of problems of reduction are due to winemaking interventions.’

Jason says that they haven’t had many problems with reduction, and is opposed to the use of copper sulfate, now routinely used in the new world as a fining agent to clean up wines showing slight reductive tendencies. ‘Copper additions are one of the worst things you can do to a wine, especially early on. Copper is oxidative.’ In 2005 there were some reduction issues in the winery. ‘With some of the barrels, you pulled the bung out and had to run away,’ recalls Jason. ‘Dad said “be patient”. We tracked the wines with a lab and as long as the sulfur species were simple I was not too concerned. When malolactic fermentation was over we did a rack and this was successful: I’m glad I was patient.’

The Eyrie Pinot Noir style is for high-toned wines, light in colour. Small fermentors are used with no temperature control. There is lots of exposure to ambient air, and these fermentors radiate or convect off most of their heat – it is rare to get to 80 °F. ‘There was always a quality of silkiness to my father’s wines,’ says Jason. ‘For someone who was a great fan of Burgundy, he was not a great fan of tannins. Tannic Pinot Noir is not necessarily ageworthy because as it ages the tannins become more pronounced. Our winemaking is geared to less tannin extraction.’  Old oak is used more than new here: of 250 barrels in the cellar, just 10 are new. And even some of the original 1970 barrels are still being used! 

As well as Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris is a focus here, accounting for 60% of production (23 out of 49 acres are planted with this). When Lett arrived in Oregon, he brought with him some Pinot Gris cuttings from four vines from the UC Davis experimental vineyard. In all, he had 160 cuttings and planted them in four rows. The first vintage, five cases of wine, was made in 1970, and Eyrie have made it ever since. This was the new world’s first Pinot Gris, and before long Lett grafted over all his Riesling and Gewürztraminer to this variety.

I came away deeply impressed by both Jason Lett, and also the wonderful Eyrie wines. They’re elegant and expressive. The Eyrie philosophy, to interfere as little as possible with the processes of nature, is producing some superb wines that are sometimes overlooked for more obvious, up-front styles. But I love them.

The wines

Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris 2006
Really interesting smoky, spicy nose with some herbiness. Lovely richness on the palate which shows herby, melony fruit. Beautifully expressive with great depth. 92/100

Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Blanc 2006
Lovely depth on the nose: herby and fresh with canteloup melon fruit and creamy, spicy notes. The palate has depth, freshness and balance with a lovely creamy texture, some smokiness and a bit of spice. Finishes quite dry and savoury. 94/100

Eyrie Vineyards Chardonnay 2006
Mineralic, tight nose is refined and fresh with a bit of toastiness. The palate is bright and quite broad – a bit Chablis-like, even, without a big depth of fruit. Lovely minerality and good acidity. 92/100

Eyrie Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay 2006
Both Chardonnays are made with neutral oak, but this is a selection of the five best barrels. Tight, smoky, mineralic nose with focused but broad fruit. The palate is crisp and fresh with some minerality. There’s real poise and minerality here. Very fresh and focused. 93/100

Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate 2006
A blend from the four different vineyards. Focused, bright and elegant with smooth cherry fruit. Light and expressive with beautiful transparency and elegance. Lovely. 92/100

Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve 2006
Exclusively from the original vineyard site, and 40 year old ungrafted vines. Focused, bright, fresh nose with tight red fruits backed up by some nice spiciness, with subtle herby notes. The palate is expressive and elegant with a lovely subtle earthy quality and great depth. Texturally rich and structured. 93/100

Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve 2004
David Lett’s last vintage as winemaker. Highly aromatic, fresh cherry fruit nose with a complex spiciness. Fresh and beguiling. The palate has beautiful expression, real precision and a subtle earthiness. There’s some tannin, but it is seamless and elegant in a lighter style. 95/100

Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve 2003
This was a hot vintage in Oregon. Aromatic, fresh nose with lovely herb and cherry fruit. Expressive, spicy and earthy. The palate is smooth with lovely elegant rounded texture. Beautifully expressive with some herby complexity and light cherryish fruit. This is compelling and silky. 94/100

Here is a short film from my visit:

See also:

Wines tasted 07/08  
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