The term terroir refers to the way a region’s climate, soil and winemaking techniques converge to express themselves in your wine glass. Terroir-driven wines reflect a region’s unique characteristics, meaning even wines made from the same grape variety can look, smell and taste very different depending on where they’re from. While it’s one thing to explore this concept by reading wine magazines, books or your favorite blog, it’s another to have a world-renowned Sommelier and winemaker come to town and demonstrate it for you. Using his own wines.
Such was the case recently, when one of the world’s most celebrated Somms hosted a wine dinner for lucky wine lovers at one of our favorite local restaurants here in Delray Beach. The multi-course meal at 32 East featured two-time James Beard Award winner and author of Secrets of the Sommeliers, Rajat Parr, and wines from two of his latest vinous projects, Evening Land Vineyards and Domaine de la Côte, hailing from Oregon and California respectively.
The sold out dinner featured a selection of Parr’s Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs paired with the cuisine of 32 East Chef, John Thomas. During the course of the evening, Parr shared details of his own personal journey. Born and raised in Calcutta, Parr was first introduced to great wines at the age of 20 by his Uncle who lived in London. He later made his way to the United States and studied at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America’s Hyde Park campus to become a Chef. After graduation, however, his love of the cellar prevailed and he proceeded to learn from the best. Parr honed his vinous acumen and tasting skills under the tutelage of Master Sommelier Larry Stone at his iconic San Francisco restaurant, Rubicon.
Parr later joined forces with Chef Michael Mina as Wine Director of what would become The Mina Group’s eponymous culinary empire, consisting of over 20 restaurants across the country. During this time, Parr’s travels to European wine regions and work as a Somm gave rise to a curiosity about winemaking. He developed a particular affection for the wines of Burgundy and its hallmark grape varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Santa Barbara winemaker Sashi Moorman shared Parr’s love of balanced, food friendly wines and in 2011, the two partnered on their first of many winemaking ventures, Sandhi, which focused on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from select vineyards in California’s Sta. Rita Hills.
While the Sandhi wines were crafted from purchased grapes, in 2013 Parr debuted the wines of his new estate vineyard, Domaine de la Côte, located in California’s western Sta. Rita Hills. In 2014, he and Moorman also took control of the acclaimed Seven Springs Vineyard in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills. Riding on the momentum of these projects, and the desire to focus on making wine, Parr recently made two major life adjustments.
In March he quietly (and amicably) parted ways with the Mina Group, sharing, “I’m officially retired from the restaurant, but they know they can call me any time.” Parr is also winding down the trend-setting, controversial, non-profit wine group, In Pursuit of Balance he co-founded with Jasmine Hirsch in 2011. As set forth in their Manifesto of Balance, IPOB favors, “balanced, non-manipulated incarnations of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.” By eschewing the syrupy, high octane versions currently being marketed to US consumers, some acclaimed wine critics viewed the group as “elitist” which made some waves in the wine world. “We started it for fun and it was supposed to be a small intimate tasting but it became this big thing,” he reflected. “It’s just too much work now, but it definitely showed people the different styles of wine.” The group’s final tasting will take place in mid-November.
After being introduced by 32 East Manager John Bates, Parr began the evening by reiterating his preferred style of wine, “I prefer crisp, clean, fresh and energetic wines,” while acknowledging, “I know the style in California is not necessarily that, but we make wine in a more European style…that’s the path we follow.”
We started with Parr’s Oregonian wines, specifically the enchanting 2012 Evening Land Vineyard Seven Springs Chardonnay which was lithe and crisp with a bright acidity. “2012 was an epic vintage in Oregon, but we made very little Chardonnay,” Parr stated. “We took over while the 2012’s were still in barrel, 2014 is the first vintage we had full control.” Chef’s Oak Roasted D’Anjou Pear with Whipped Goat Cheese, Spiced Pecans, Lemon Honey and Upland Cresse complemented the Chard beautifully, harmonizing with layers of citrus, stone fruit and pineapple accentuated by a kiss of toasty oak. The lovely white continued to evolve in the glass over the course of the next hour when I begrudgingly took my last sip.
We continued with a duo of Evening Land Pinot Noirs from Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills which Parr described as, “A beautiful place with rolling hills that looks like the southern part of Burgundy.” We began with the ’13 Eola-Amity Hills Pinot paired with Coriander Spiced Yellowfin Tuna with Chickpea & Grilled Onion Salad, Tahini, Pomegranate and Basil. The wine was bright and lively with ebullient notes of ripe red cherry, pomegranate and spice. While it paired nicely with the spiced tuna, this wine’s versatile acidity and medium body made it an equally good pairing with the bright fruit flavors of the next dish as well.
The ’13 Seven Springs Vineyard Pinot was paired with Roasted Long Island Duck Breast with Parmesan Polenta, Pinot Noir Reduction, Poached Plum and Local Greens. The single vineyard Pinot was more angular than the previous wine, exhibiting more minerality and tannin structure accompanied by similarly lovely notes of ripe red fruit, cherry and raspberry. It stood up nicely to the richness of the duck while synergizing with its delightfully fruity flavors.
Next were the two Domaine de la Côte Pinots from California’s Sta. Rita Hills. “The name means ‘State of Slopes,'” Parr explained, “and we have five different vineyards planted on different soils in an amphitheater setting right on the coast of Santa Barbara, 8 miles from the ocean.” When it comes to making wine, Parr stays true to his belief of minimal intervention in the vineyard and cellar, “We make the wines in a very traditional way, everything is fermented in whole clusters in large concrete tanks. The vines are all planted on virgin soils and grown organically with no additives.”
We enjoyed both Domaine de la Côte Pinots paired with Chef’s Grilled Filet Mignon with Roasted Fingerling Potatoes, Wilted Greens and Wild Mushroom Jus. The ’12 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot is a blend of different estate parcels, while the ’13 Bloom’s Field is a single vineyard offering. Parr explained, “2012 was a warmer vintage, while 2013 was cooler,” which was readily evident when tasting the wines. The warmer temperatures of 2012 resulted in a wine with more perfumed aromatics of black cherry, cola and cassis and riper fruit, while the cooler 2013 vintage Bloom’s Field single vineyard wine was more reserved with notes of spiced cherry, rose petal, earth and plum.
The opportunity to sample Parr’s wines from Oregon and California side by side revealed differences between the two terroirs, ‘The [Sta. Rita Hills] Pinots are lower in alcohol than the Oregon wines, yet they have more body, texture and aromatics. Oregon’s volcanic soils result in more jagged tannins with smokier flavors while the marine sedimentary soil of California’s Sta. Rita Hills results in wines that are velvety and fruity with notes of cola and Asian five spice that have lower tannins.”
When asked about aging these wines, he added, “The Sta. Rita Hills Pinots are probably best enjoyed when 5-7 years old, while Oregon Pinots are best 10-15 years old.”
Each wine we sampled during the course of the delightful evening, both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs, revealed its own distinct terroir reflecting its unique place of origin. Lucky dinner guests also got to enjoy a guided tour of these wines full of wonderful details and insights straight from the Somm’s mouth.
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