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Alit Wines – Follow The Flow. Lava Flow

December 9, 2020 2 comments

Here is a question which can never be answered: where the wine is made, in the vineyard or in the cellar?

There are many arguments towards the vineyard being The Place where the wine is made. Mother Nature offerings are everchanging – they change every year, never repeating themselves. But it is not only the climate that never repeats itself – the land which seems to present itself as chunks of sameness is very far from it. Only identifying different pieces is the work of art – the mastery of the winemaker.

Alit Wines is a very young winery, by all means – it was founded only about 5 years ago, in 2016. You would not think that once you taste their wines, which come through elegant and mature – but we need to keep in mind that Alit is only one piece to a bigger story.

Oregon is often compared with Burgundy – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are stars in both regions, and both regions produce well ageable wines of finesse. Burgundy is built on the concepts of terroir and soils – I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of Burgundian vignerons going any distance to protect their soils from erosion and any sort of loss. The whole concept of Crus is based on terroir differentiation, and it took Burgundy centuries to find their best of the best parcels which earned the right to be called Grand Crus.

If you ever listened to the Oregon winemakers, they often talk about soils, first in monolithic terms, in terms of big blocks. But with every subsequent harvest, they start seeing differences between different plots in the vineyards, and those become specific plot-designated wines. This is Oregon’s path towards finding their Grand Crus.

We probably shouldn’t speak for the whole of Oregon, as Alit’s approach to this Grand Cru quest is different. Let’s get back to our “bigger story” around Alit. We usually think that wines are all about grapes, but they are actually all about people – people who stand behind those wines. In the case of Alit, the first person we need to mention is Mark Tarlov. After leaving his first successful wine project, Evening Land (a unique enterprise, if you ask me, making wines under the Evening Land label both in Burgundy and Oregon), Mark continued his wine endeavors with Chapter 24 Vineyards, which he started in 2012. Chapter 24 wines are extremely terroir focused – if you will look at the Chapter 24 Vineyards website, you will see that it produces only two wines –  one called The Fire which comes from the volcanic soils, and The Flood, with the grapes coming from vineyards planted in riverbed soils.

In 2015, Chapter 24 Vineyards opened the “last chapter” as it is called – Rose and Arrow winery, as well as the subsequent (2016) “sister” operation  – Alit. In case you are curious, the “About” page explains the Rose and Arrow name: “The “rose” and “arrow”, innately connected yet conflicting, each defined by the existence (or absence) of the other. Our favorite wines make us appreciate the harmony of opposites: acid/sweet, simple/complex, solid rock/sprouting vine. The latter is where our narrative begins, as every great wine is ignited by unique tensions in the rock of its origin.“. Also in 2015, Mark Tarlov was joined by Chilean winemaker Felipe Ramirez, who became the winemaker for Chapter 24, Rose and Arrow, and Alit wines, working together with consulting winemaker Louis Michel Liger-Belair.

Remember, we need to follow lava flow, as these wines are all about soils, basalt soils, rich in unique nutrients. Enters Dr. Pedro Parra, who wine writer LM Archer called Terroir Whisperer. Dr. Parra is one of the leading soil specialists in the world. Explaining Dr. Parra’s methodology would require a long, very long, and dedicated post, so instead, you should read Lyn’s article where she does a great job explaining what Dr. Parra does – but in essence, he is capable of identifying microsites, some can be 0.5 acres or less, capable of producing wine with very specific characteristics – all of it based on soil and climate analysis before (!) the vineyards are planted. To make it all practical, one of the first projects at Rose and Arrow was the vinification of about 100 wines harvested from such microsites – this is what makes Rose and Arrow wines unique.

When you think of “vineyard plots”, what image comes to mind? My imagination stops at squares or rectangles – but in our case, a correct answer is a polygon. Chapter 24/Rose and Arrow/Alit all operate with polygons, where the shape of microsites can be very complex. Here is the snapshot from our zoom call with folks from Alit where Felipe Ramirez shows the map of one of the sites (sorry that you can’t see Felipe):

How these microsites are identified? Using a method called electrical conductivity. Measuring the electrical conductivity of soil allows to create maps – this is exactly what the folks from Alit and Rose and Arrow are doing. Once you have a map, the rest is easy 🙂 now it is all about mastery of the winemaker – harvest each microsite (polygon) separately, vinify separately – and create the magic.

Now that we understand how the road to the Oregon Grand Crus looks like, let’s discuss the role Alit is playing in this quest.

Talking about Alit wines, we need first mention the Collective. Alit Collective is similar to the wine club, but it is very different from the typical winery club. To become a member of the Collective, you need to pay a $100 annual membership. After that, you can buy Alit wines at a cost – however, it is you who decide what to buy and when. To give an idea of the cost, Alit Pinot Noir (2015) costs $15.10 for Collective members and $27.45 for non-members – this means that once you buy 8 bottles, you will recoup your $100 investment, and every bottle afterward gives you great savings. How does selling at cost makes sense, you probably wonder? It wouldn’t if Alit would be on its own, but in conjunction with Rose and Arrow, it does make sense, as it helps to finance the overall operation.

What else can I tell you? Ahh, the wines, let’s not forget about the wines!

We tasted two of the Alit wines, Rosé (of Pinot Noir, of course), and Pinot Noir.

2019 Alit Rosé Willamette Valley (13% ABV) had a salmon pink color. Gunflint (volcanic soils!), strawberries, and onion peel on the nose. Nice touch of fresh strawberries and lemon, crisp, refreshing, nicely restrained, and well balanced with lemon notes on the finish (Drinkability: 8) – unquestionably delicious any time you want a glass of light, refreshing wine.

2017 Alit Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.6% ABV, native yeast fermentation, 10-12 months in oak) – beautiful bright ruby color – it is seldom for me to see a red wine of such a beautiful color. Beautiful nose, herbal, open, inviting, with mint, cherries, and a touch of the barnyard. Now, I have to say that the palate made me work for it. During the tasting, with the freshly opened bottle, the wine showed light, with red and blue fruit, good acidity, fresh, food-friendly, and restrained – we can even say “under-extracted” (Drinkability: 7+/8-). Over the next two days, the wine opened up, it obtained body, became round and supple, and became an object of pleasure (Drinkability: 8+). Definitely needs time, either in the cellar or in the decanter if you are in a hurry.

Alit Wines and Rose and Arrow enterprises are definitely something to watch. Mark Tarlov believes that sometime around 2030, it will be possible to understand if his quest for the Oregonian Grand Cru was successful. As for me, I practically always enjoy the journey more than the destination, so I will be happy to tag along, and yes, actually enjoy the journey with Alit wines – hop on, we can follow the lava flow together.

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