"It was a marginal place, with no track record."
Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman are the duo at the helm of Domaine de la Côte. If we could only choose one word to describe their place in the world of wine, it would be visionaries. Neither of them come from a wine background; both fell in love with wine via the restaurant industry. This has definitely influenced the way they speak about wine — their vocabulary is refreshing and devoid of old-school tasting notes, instead full of words that make you think twice. Cardamon seed and coriander shampoo are some of the more left field terms we’ve heard applied to wine.
They also place great emphasis on something that’s often pushed to the side in wine: texture. The textural element of food has long been celebrated and considered as important as aromas and tastes. Arguably what makes their wines so unique is their endless quest for intrigue: not just in terms of taste, but texture too. The Domaine de la Cote Pinot Noirs are perhaps the silkiest Pinot Noirs we have come across, and that’s not by coincidence.
We sat down with Raj on his latest trip to London, to hear about how a trainee chef from Calcutta became one of the world's most celebrated sommeliers, eventually leaving the floor to make wine himself. Hear it from him:
Meet Rajat Parr
The first time we meet Sashi it is on the telephone. We've been researching the brave (and slightly crazy) notion of planting grapevines from seed. He picks up the phone and we delve into an hour-long conversation about genetics and the need for human beings to start to return to more natural methods of breeding vines.
We realise quickly that Sashi is a no-bullshit, straight-up kinda guy. In a world where everybody else puts Burgundy Pinot Noir on a pedestal, Sashi isn’t afraid to knock it off, saying,
"When we talk about Pinot Noir, I think people do not understand that we are probably not talking about one plant; there are likely many different varieties within what we deem to be Pinot Noir, for example if you think of the radical difference of Pinot Droite in Chambolle-Musigny to the neighbouring Pinot Noir of Morey-Saint-Denis… Pinot Noir has been propagated for so long. That is the problem. It is likely why it is so frail; you are not refreshing genetic material. It is like a human being that is 300-400 years old, being kept alive.”
It is this honesty and inquisitive nature that led Sashi and Melissa Moorman to painstakingly plant 20,000 seeds of Pinot Noir in a section of one of the vineyards of Domaine de la Côte in 2007: Memorious.
NB: The other section of the vineyard is planted to more 'regular' Pinot (this is the section that makes the current Memorious wine - the seedlings are not yet used for wine)
It is so named after the “genetic memory” of Pinot Noir, which they are hoping to refresh by allowing a seedling to grow. This is a practice which is almost never carried out in our modern world, as grapevines are propagated via cuttings to reliably reproduce the same desired plant material, and phylloxera is likely to kill any seedlings that do come to fruition. Here, however, phylloxera cannot survive.
Out of their 20,000 seeds, 7,000 germinated and gave birth to the seedlings. 4,000 have survived, and they estimate that only 1% of the plants will be interesting enough to make wine from.
It is a brave, thrilling and crazy project in equal parts, and only one that could be carried out by someone with as much conviction, courage and unwavering belief in nature as Sashi.
The Sta. Rita Hills, in southern California, is largely uninhabited by human beings; but there is plenty of wildlife, even including the odd mountain lion from time to time. The area’s potential for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay was first explored by Michael Benedict and Richard Sanford in the 1970s, and they laid the foundation for what would one day become an appellation.
When you think of southern California, you probably think of sunshine, beaches and summer all year long. You might even wonder how Pinot Noir has found a home here; isn’t Pinot Noir supposed to be grown in cool places!? you might ask.
Well, surprise: the Sta. Rita Hills has a unique microclimate that means that it’s even colder here than it is in most northerly Californian wine regions. Where Domaine de la Côte lies - in a spot much further west from those vineyards originally planted by Sanford & Benedict - puts it even closer to the Pacific ocean and its cooling influence. It is even cooler than Burgundy. How did they find it?
"It was a marginal place with no track record."
— but it was one that they sensed could great something exceptional. Hear more about their journey and this unique, spellbinding place from Raj himself:
Learn About DDLC
In addition to the vineyards, there are also sheep, cows and alpacas on the property. The brave alpacas’ role is to protect the sheep from the aforementioned mountain lions. The sheep and cows graze the vineyards to naturally keep the grasses down, and the poop from all the animals is used for composting.
La Côte means the coast in French, and Raj & Sashi wanted to emphasise the proximity of the vineyard to the ocean. The word “côte” also doubles up meaning hillside, and it’s a word you often see used in wine regions; from the Côtes-du-Rhone to the Côtes-du-Nuits. Here, the two meanings of the word are combined: this is the vineyard of the coast and the slope.
The vineyards are all farmed organically. They are divided up into several parcels, each with its own unique mesoclimate and soil formation. The one thing that is continually present throughout each vineyard is the presence of diatomaceous earth. It looks like compressed crystal white sand, but it’s far more special than that: this earth is actually composed of the ancient skeletons of tiny aquatic organisms called ‘diatoms’ - a type of algae. Their skeletons are made of silica, which is why these soils are so white. It took Raj and Sashi a while to figure this out, and they only had their questions answered when geologists Pedro Parra and Brenna Quigley studied the soils and explained. Raj says,
“We had no idea what it would mean for the wines. It’s layered throughout the vineyard - sometimes just three feet deep but sometimes ten. We’ve discovered along the way that it gives a certain lightness and freshness to the wines.”
They already began vinifying the parcels of La Côte and Bloom’s Field as separate wines in 2009, but the inaugural release of the individual vineyard wines was in 2011.
They chose to do so as they could see and sense that the vineyard parcels were producing something very different to one another; comparable to the drastic differences you can notice between vineyards in Burgundy.
In California, the sunshine state, to have such drastic differences in site expression is extremely rare. It was so pronounced that it led them to create further individual wines; Memorious was vinifed separately, followed by Siren's Call, Clos Juliet and Sous le Chêne. These are near-mythical wines with only a few hundred bottles produced.
The La Côte single vineyard lies on a very steep southeast hillside. It sits in a little concave, and is more protected from the extreme ocean winds than its neighbour plots. It also has very varied soils; predominantly shale, but with the ever-present diatomaceous earth, as well as alluvium, and the soils change from shallow and stony at the top of the slope, to much richer at the bottom. The wine produced from it always has a distinct personality. Raj muses,
“It’s always lighter in colour, and always has finer tannins. It’s very exotic when it’s fermenting and in the barrel, but once it’s bottled it becomes shy; it’s always the wine that needs the most ageing to open up. When it does, its exotic personality returns - lots of rose petal aromas and bright red fruit.”
At the very top of La Côte lies an oak tree, and Sous le Chêne is a unique bottling produced from the vines that lie here.
Bloom’s Field, meanwhile, is southwest facing, therefore being influenced by the cool ocean winds much more. It sits on a mound of iron-rich clay, with shale bedrock. Raj says,
“Even if you treat the fruit from Bloom’s Field like the fruit from La Cote, it’s always darker in colour and more tannic. The wine has a darker fruit profile, too, and it has a smoky side to it - it’s gamey and there’s also some black pepper that always shines through.”
Memorious was the next plot to be vinified separately - not the seedlings (yet) but the plantation that borders them. This is the parcel that sits above Bloom’s Field, and hence it gets even more of a battering from the ocean winds. It’s always the first to be harvested. When we ask why, Raj says,
“I think it’s because it’s always in a rush to ripen. Because it gets so beat-up by the ocean winds, the canopy shuts down and the fruit ripens faster.”
He also adds that the wine always has the most pepper characteristic out of the three. Given that rotundone (the organic compound that gives the pepper taste) forms in the skins of a wine, this makes sense. When grapes are battered by wind, they grow thicker skins to protect themselves - and as a result, this means more pepper.
Raj and Sashi tried many things over the years, but have now settled on using whole bunch fermentations across all wines with a natural pied de cuve starter: they take some fermenting juice to ensure the other fermentations have a healthy yeast population. Punchdowns are done very gently only when necessary, just to homogenise the fermenting juice. The wines are then aged in barrels for approximately fourteen months, and bottled unfined and unfiltered.
'PURE' is a blend that was created partially by accident one year when any bunches and grapes that didn't fit in other fermenters ended up in a small spare closed tank. Harvest is a busy time, and full focus was on the other wines, so this small tank went somewhat unnoticed and the fact it has filled up was overlooked. This meant that it began a carbonic fermentation all on its own, giving the duo a little gift of intracellular fermentation Pinot Noir. The resulting wine was so surprising and so delicious that they decided to bottle it sans soufre. It is an utterly unique wine; delicious but compelling - this is the epitome of the "crunch" texture in Pinot Noir. It might be easy to drink and moreish, but it's also not to be underestimated; this is a serious carbonic Pinot Noir that feels somewhat like a long lost cousin of Guy Breton's Beaujolais Crus.
The Domaine de la Côte vineyard may only be celebrating its 13th birthday, but the wines made here are testament to Pinot Noir's capacity for greatness, and the site expression is testament to the individualism of this little nook in the captivating terroirs of the Sta. Rita Hills.