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“This is pressed directly, with no skin contact,” notes Bernard Lacroute of WillaKenzie’s tank-rendered, (virtually) lactose-free, lees-enriched 2011 Pinot Gris, “but, perhaps strangely enough, we like some oxidation, so we don’t add much SO2.” The succulent peachy fruit I associate with this grape (at least, at its best) is very much in evidence on the nose as well as on a refreshing yet subtly creamy palate. Wood smoke and mint accent the peach, supplemented by honeydew melon, and lead to a lusciously lingering finish. It can be done: a Willamette Pinot Gris recognizably of its grape; possessed of enticement, textural allure, and refreshment; and modestly priced. What’s more, based on my observation of a three and a half year old Pinot Blanc vinified the same way, I suspect that this Pinot Gris will have a correspondingly useful bottle life.
Former high-tech exec Bernard Lacroute acquired his dramatically sprawling 420 acres east of Yamhill in 1991; named it for the unique local marine sedimentary soil type; and began planting vines that would eventually reach 105 acres (two-thirds of them Pinot Noir), supplemented in 2000 by 25 prime acres five miles distant in the Dundee Hills that feature the Willamette’s other major soil type suited to viticulture, the basalt-based Jory, for which Lacroute duly named his second vineyard. Trained in organic chemistry, Auvergne-born winemaker and now co-owner Thibaud Mandet arrived at WillaKenzie in 2000 by way of stints in Champagne, Corsica, and Texas. Michael Rogers took over five years ago but was assistant vineyard manager for some years previous. This is one of those sure-footed, long-standing Willamette Valley wine growing teams whose consistency is admirable but doesn’t preclude an open and experimental attitude. Pinot is (thus far) always destemmed here, and there is a chamber in which, as Mandet puts it “we can get the cold, dry north wind of Burgundy” – famous for saving many a vintage – “at the flip of a switch.” Lacroute and Mandet feel strongly that acidification is not only undesirable but should never be necessary if the soil has been properly cared-for; enough canopy left to protect against possible over-exposure (“we learned from ‘03 and ‘06,” says Lacroute); and provided one picks at the right moment. Chaptalization, too, is eschewed, but musts are sometimes concentrated with an on-site vacuum evaporator. Having learned that, I was surprised when Mandet said he was totally adverse to adding water, “but then,” he added, “perhaps it’s because I’m French. In extreme circumstances, I would rather de-alc.” Fermentation is by inoculation, but the team here has high hopes for a culture of yeasts derived from their oldest vineyard, which was isolated and propagated for them in 2010, and which has already been subjected to an analysis that demonstrated both its efficacy and the hitherto unknown identity of two of its four strains. Fermentation in tanks and wooden uprights segregates parcels and clonal blocks because, as Lacroute puts it (without sarcasm), “In fifty years, we’re going to find out which vines work best where.” Punch-downs are mechanical but sparingly-applied, supplemented by occasional pump-overs and with limited post-fermentative maceration. Pinots are released only after a year or more after bottling, which normally takes place at 14-17 months and without filtration. (All WillaKenzie wines, by the way, are labeled with only the Willamette Valley appellation.)