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Setting a New Bar for Oregon Pinot: Brittan Vineyards

Expressed briefly, making a great wine is rather simple. You find the right piece of ground; you put the right grapes in; you tend them well and harvest them at the right time; and then you smash them together and nudge the product gently away from its tendency towards vinegar.

For some people, the most important step is finding the right piece of ground, and for anyone looking to start a winery, it is certainly the first step. It’s really important. If you get it wrong, the rest of the stuff doesn’t matter.

At least, that’s the way that winemaker Robert Brittan approached it when he packed his bags and closed the chapter of his life that might have been entitled Man Meets Cabernet: 25 Years in Napa.

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Brittan first started making wine for the same reason many do: to get chicks. He was a physics major at Oregon State University, and like many in the same situation, he couldn’t get a date. But one day he noticed that the guys across the hall had removed all of their furniture and replaced their couches and chairs with two important items: a Harley Davidson motorcycle and a still. They’d brew a batch of whiskey during the week, and on the weekends their room would be crawling with girls.

Brittan couldn’t afford to compete with free everclear and a Harley, but the envious and enterprising young man thought he might just do one better by going highbrow: he would make wine instead. So Brittan got a 2.5 gallon glass demijohn and started fermenting everything he could get his hands on, wrapping his electric blanket around the jug to keep the fermentation going. And wouldn’t you know it, the first time he actually managed to make something drinkable, he got a date.

Of course, then he had to take it to the next level. Thinking that if he made better wine, he might get better dates, Brittan took a job for a harvest in California’s Central Valley, and not only learned a thing or two about how to make real wine, but discovered, as he puts it, “an entire lifestyle that I immediately knew I wanted.”

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It was 1974, and California wine was at an inflection point in its growth that would forever change the state, the country, and even the world. Some of the legendary winemakers of Napa were still plying their craft, and people like Robert Mondavi were busy convincing a generation of Americans to drink wine instead of martinis.

“It was just an exciting time to be in the wine business,” says Brittan. “There was the whole science aspect of it that appealed to my monkey mind, and then the creative component that felt very artistic, and then there was this lifestyle — a way of living that wasn’t about getting rich, but was about living really well.”

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Brittan enrolled in U.C. Davis, and upon graduating, began his career as a winemaker, eventually ending up at St. Andrew’s winery at the very southern end of the Silverado Trail in Napa. When the winery was sold, Brittan agreed to stay on for the new owner, but his heart wasn’t in it. Brittan had passing fantasies of heading back north to Oregon. But then what was just going to be a casual conversation with Carl Doumani about a new vineyard that he had acquired turned into a job offer and a 16-year stint as the winemaker for Stag’s Leap Winery.

But after those 16 years, Brittan found himself wanting a new challenge, and decided that he wanted to try his hand at Pinot Noir, a grape that he had flirted briefly with in his career, but never fully explored.

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So in 2004, after looking as far afield as France and California’s Central Coast Brittan and his wife Ellen returned to Oregon and fell in love with a windy, overgrown knoll in the McMinnville AVA (American Viticultural Area) of the Willamette Valley. There Brittan found an exposed, cold 128 acres with nutrient-poor soils that he thought would be perfect for Pinot Noir. An 18-acre vineyard had been planted, but only about nine acres was still alive and salvageable. Coddled, nurtured, and coaxed, those nine acres yielded their first wine in 2006.

“I came to Oregon to make Pinot Noir, but it didn’t have to be Oregon,” says Brittan. “I was at one point going to buy a place in Anderson Valley, but then we saw this property with a 200 foot elevation change and 5 different types of soil, and I was hooked. I want the place to drive the wine.”

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“I don’t do anything to shape the wines,’ says Brittan, “they are true to what the property offers. If I have a hand in the wine at all it is in helping the wines build structure, which I do primarily with acidity by choosing when to pick, and how I manage tannins and phenolics during the fermentation.”

The grapes are picked when Brittan thinks they’re ready. He believes in the concept of physiological ripeness, but is quick to admit that the phrase has been used to the point of cliché. He tastes, and when they taste ripe, he picks. Simple as that. The fact that his grapes are lower in sugar when he picks (compared to most of his neighbors) he simply chalks up to having found “the right piece of ground.” The grapes are crushed and given a five-day cold soak before fermentation is started. After the wines have fermented dry they are racked into French oak barrels, of which roughly 35% are new, and aged for approximately 9 months following the completion of a secondary fermentation.

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The combination of lower sugar levels and relatively minimal exposure to new oak give the wines a more classically Burgundian complexion. Even in the warmth of recent vintages such as 2012, the wines rarely top 14% alcohol, and are relatively pale, even for fine Oregon Pinot Noir. Perhaps most compelling, this lack of extraction and oak-driven facade means that the wines clearly show vintage variation — not in wild swings of quality or character, but in the subtle accents that show a little more sun here, a little less rain there. This kind of honesty and transparency in the wines makes them as endearing as they are delicious.

The property continues to expand bit-by-tiny-bit as Brittan plants more acreage, and re-grafts some poorly-performing blocks. The two main sections of the vineyard that end up expressed in the wine are the convex hillside below Brittan’s house known as Gestalt Block, and a narrow, rocky roll of hillside sandwiched between forest and a bramble-choked gully, that Brittan calls Basalt Block.

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Recently Brittan has decided to add Syrah to his portfolio. I asked him why.

“In 1982 I took my first trip to the Northern Rhone,” he says in answer. “I had lunch with a tiny producer there that is sadly no longer in business. His son spoke good English and I spoke little French. We were deep in the cellar after many barrel samples, and the kid was really nice, but he started apologizing that the wine we had at lunch was only 15 years old. ‘If I had known how serious you were,’ he said, ‘I would have opened one of my grandfather’s wines, which is what we’re drinking at home. Giving you a wine like that is as bad as opening one that had just been bottled. It’s an insult.’ And I said to myself, someday I want to make Syrah like that.”

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Brittan currently produces a meager 1500 cases of wine from his 26 acres which yield less than a ton per acre on average. He farms with a mix of conventional and sustainable methods, reserving the right to use conventional sprays for botrytis and mildew, the two things that he feels keep him from being able to fully practice organic viticulture. The property features deliberately cultivated biodiversity, however, including wildlife corridors to allow the local animal populations to move through without encountering fences.

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I tasted Brittan’s first efforts when they were initially released, and the wines were impressive, expressing a profound level of savory minerality and depth, almost to the point of austerity. I was very excited to not only catch up on the recent vintage from Brittan but also to revisit some of these earlier bottlings which, as you will see, have blossomed in the cellar to express a wonderful level of complexity. If you’ll forgive the somewhat highbrow wine metaphor, these wines might be the Oregon version of Comte George de Vogue’s Bonnes-Mares: brittle and somewhat impenetrable in their youth, but with age slowly yielding their floral treasures. Of course, this is Oregon we’re talking about, so impenetrable doesn’t quite mean the same thing as in chilly Burgundy, and instead of 20 or 30 years to get a peek into their brilliance, we’re only talking about 8 years.

To put a finer point on it, I believe these wines to be among the finest Pinot Noirs currently being made in the Willamette Valley.

At first, Brittan struggled to come up with a name for his winery, and resisted his wife’s suggestion that he call it Brittan Vineyards. He’d been around the block enough times to know that putting someone’s name on the label was a no-no from a brand perspective because it makes the winery impossible to sell. “So you have plans to sell?” asked his wife. And that’s when Brittan realized he didn’t have to think like a businessman anymore. He could think like someone who makes it his life’s work to figure out a little patch of ground, and make the best wine he possibly can from it. So the wine now bears his name, and Brittan is clearly well on the way to unraveling the puzzle of his little piece of earth.

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TASTING NOTES:

2012 Brittan Vineyards Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Pale yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and lemon zest with a touch of pine resin and buttered toast. In the mouth, juicy bright lemon curd and pink grapefruit flavors burst with fantastic acidity. Nicely silky mouthfeel and wonderful persistence. 14.2% alcohol. Barrel fermented with 40% new oak. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $ click to buy.

2012 Brittan Vineyards “Gestalt Block” Pinot Noir, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium purple in the glass, this wine has a remarkable nut-skin dustiness to its aromas, backed by a hint of dark fruit. In the mouth, deep and dark wet earth and wet chalkboard minerality underlie black cherry and plum flavors tinged with a hint of raspberry brightness. Powdery tannins, and deep minerality, with a nutty, dusty finish. Excellent acidity. 14.3% alcohol Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $ click to buy.

2012 Brittan Vineyards “Basalt Block” Pinot Noir, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, sagebrush, black plum and black cherry. In the mouth, bright plum and plum skin flavors have a wonderful deep stoniness that is tinged with sage and other dried herbs. Fantastically bright acidity and length. Faint powdery tannins. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $ click to buy.

2011 Brittan Vineyards “Basalt Block” Pinot Noir, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of brilliant, bright raspberry and black raspberry fruit. In the mouth a crystalline, pure raspberry and black raspberry flavors seem welded to a wet stone and wet chalkboard minerality. Lean pure, and very long. The acidity is extremely bright, and the powdery, fine-grained tannins are muscular and tight. Quite pretty now, but built for 20 years of aging. 13.2% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $ click to buy.

2010 Brittan Vineyards “Basalt Block” Pinot Noir, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of gorgeously floral black raspberry and raspberry leaf backed by dark wet earth. In the mouth, incredibly bright raspberry and plum skin flavors mix with a deep stone and wet earth quality have an incredible purity. Gorgeous acidity and stony depth, with a fantastic finish. Barely perceptible tannins. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $ click to buy.

2010 Brittan Vineyards Syrah, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis, white pepper, and violets. In the mouth, gorgeously smooth and stony cassis and wet earth flavors. Deeper blackberry and cassis seems filtered through wet earth. Deep powdery tannins have defined muscles and a burly presence in the wine that promise, along with the acidity, offer a decade or two more of aging. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $ click to buy.

2009 Brittan Vineyards “Gestalt Block” Pinot Noir, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of brilliant raspberry and plum fruit with a hint of citrus oil in the background. In the mouth, rich raspberry fruit has a remarkable brightness and depth. While this very hot vintage doesn’t have the herbal and mineral depth that cooler vintages do, this wine is stunningly delicious, in part thanks to phenomenal acidity. Faint tannins. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $ click to buy.

2007 Brittan Vineyards “Basalt Block” Pinot Noir, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of green wood, raspberry leaf, raspberries, and wet stones. In the mouth the wine has a gorgeous purity of raspberry fruit that hangs suspended in a crystalline lattice of wet stone. Gorgeously silky, pure, and long. Faintest powdery tannins, fabulous acidity. 13.6% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $ click to buy.

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