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Oregon: The Latest French Invasion
By Michael Apstein
Aug 16, 2023
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The French have always played an important role in the American wine industry.  Burgundy-born Paul Masson started making wine in California in the late 19th century, followed by Georges de la Tour, founder of Beaulieu Vineyards, in 1900.  The second wave started in 1973 when Moët et Chandon established Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley.  Other Champagne houses—Taittinger with Domaine Carneros and Champagne Mumm’s Mumm Cuvée Napa—soon followed.  To me, however, the Burgundy-based Drouhin family started the most fascinating wave when they established Domaine Drouhin Oregon in 1987.  Over the succeeding 35 years other Burgundy producers, notably Louis Jadot and Méo-Camuzet, have spread the Burgundian concept of terroir to Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the results have been nothing short of sensational.

All the principals, Véronique Drouhin (the fourth generation of the family who oversees winemaking at Domaine Drouhin Oregon), Guillaume Large (the winemaker at Jadot’s project, Résonance) and Jean-Nicolas Méo, who is in charge at Nicolas-Jay, agree that they are not trying to make Burgundy in Oregon. Instead, they seek to express the unique Oregon terroir through the great Burgundian grapes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  When Méo hosted a tasting of his Méo-Camuzet Burgundies side by side with Nicolas-Jay Oregon Pinot Noir in Boston recently, the differences were striking.  Wines from both continents were stunning, though vastly different, reinforcing the concept that Oregon Pinot Noirs, even when made by Burgundian winemakers, are not Burgundies—nor do the winemakers want them to be.

The story starts with Robert Drouhin, the third generation of the family, who has a habit of being a visionary when it comes to finding prime vineyards.  In the 1960s, he engaged in what many of his Côte d’Or counterparts felt was “folly,” but which has turned out to be a spectacular decision, when he purchased vineyards in Chablis, revitalizing the appellation and, with their 95 acres, making Drouhin the most important Beaune-based producer there.  He did it again when he founded Domaine Drouhin Oregon in the Dundee Hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1987.  To their 125 acres of vines in the Dundee Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA), Drouhin went on to add another 125 acres in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA in 2013.  Both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from these two AVAs and made by the same winemaking team are wonderfully different, reminding us that Burgundy does not have a monopoly on distinctive terroirs.  

As though to emphasize the differences between the wines (and terroir), Drouhin opted to label the wines from the Eola-Amity property, Drouhin Oregon Roserock, not Domaine Drouhin Oregon.  The differences shine when comparing the mineral-y and firm 2020 Drouhin Oregon Roserock, Eola-Amity Hills Chardonnay “Maigold” ($80, 94 pts.) with the creamy and suave 2020 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Dundee Hills, Chardonnay “Édition Limitée,” 2020 ($80, 94 pts.).  The differences imparted by site are equally dramatic when comparing Pinot Noirs, even taking vintage and cuvée differences into account.  The charming and finesse-filled 2019 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Dundee Hills Pinot Noir ($47, 92 pts.) delicately marries red fruit and savory nuances and contrasts vividly with the glossy and more structured 2021 Drouhin Oregon Roserock, Eola-Hills, Pinot Noir “Zepherine” bottling (their top cuvée; $66, 95 pts.) with its black fruit and distinct dark mineral profile.  

Though Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noirs develop beautifully, gracefully morphing from the fresh red fruit notes of youth to the alluring mushroom-like savory flavors of maturity, they maintain their New World identity, at least to an experienced taster.  When I served a 1989 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir blind a couple of years ago—a 30-year-old wine—to a group of Burgundians, all marveled at its development and charm.  Anne Parent of Domaine Parent in Pommard, one of the Burgundy’s most talented winemakers, immediately identified a hint of sweetness in the finish that alerted her to its non-Burgundian origins.

Louis Jadot gingerly put a toe into the Oregon water, so to speak, in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA in 2013 when they purchased Resonance Vineyard, a never-irrigated 20-acre vineyard that had been planted with un-grafted Pinot Noir vines about 30 years earlier, in 1981.  (They have a dedicated tractor for this vineyard, so they do not inadvertently bring diseases into it.)  Initially they rented space in a winery because as Pierre-Henry Gagey, the recently retired longtime President of Louis Jadot who orchestrated the project, told me that they wanted to make sure the experiment would work before they built their own winery.  

Well, it clearly has.  A decade later, they’re all in.  Jadot has since added 60 more acres of Pinot Noir vines on the Yamhill Charlton site, with the potential to add more, and built a gravity flow, state-of-the-art winery there.  They added a gorgeous, seamlessly connected tasting room, meeting area, and private dining area all made from reclaimed local barnwood on the property.  They next purchased another 15-acre vineyard, Découverte, in 2014 in the Dundee Hills AVA and are building a small tasting room there.  Just last year, Jadot again expanded by purchasing the Koosah Vineyard, an 82-acre site, 44 of which are planted, in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA.  Currently, they produce wines from two AVAs, Yamhill-Charlton’s Résonance Vineyard, and Dundee Hills’ Découverte Vineyard, and anticipate producing wine from Koosah Vineyard soon.

After tasting three vintages (2018, 2019, and 2021) of the Résonance vineyard and Découverte Vineyard Pinot Noirs with Large, the differences between the Yamhill-Carlton and Dundee Hills AVA stood in clear relief, vintage after vintage.  The Résonance Pinot Noir from Yamhill-Carlton was always denser, more mineral-y with a more structured frame compared to the more elegant and lacier Découverte Pinot Noir from Dundee Hills.  While all six of these wines are balanced and graceful, a stand-out is the striking 2019 Résonance Vineyard, which magically combines power and elegance ($65, 95 pts.) and is a bargain for what it delivers.  But frankly, I’d be happy drinking any of them tonight.

Though Jadot is clearly focused on the distinctiveness of the different Willamette Valley AVAs, they also make a Willamette Valley blend under the Résonance label (without the Résonance Vineyard designation) with fruit coming from the Résonance and Découverte Vineyards that they find unsuitable for bottling under the vineyard name, the Jolis Monts Vineyard, which are newer plantings nearby the Résonance Vineyard, and from purchased fruit.  The stylish and fresh 2021 Résonance Willamette Valley blend ($35, 92 pts.), in my opinion, the best one they’ve produced to date, is a mini version of the 2021 Résonance Vineyard bottling and manages to combine dark fruited depth with finesse.  It’s rare to find a Pinot Noir of this stature at $35.

Focusing on terroir and perhaps drawing on his experience running the small négociant business that he recently added to his Burgundy portfolio, Jean-Nicolas Méo took a different approach.  As Tracy Kendall explained (she’s Associate Winemaker at Nicolas-Jay and the on-site full-time winemaker), Méo and music executive Jay Boberg, wanted to spend money on the vineyards, not make a castle or a shrine.  Méo wanted to learn about the various terroirs, so when they started in 2014, the partners purchased grapes from various well-regarded vineyards to learn the lay of land.  As for the winemaking, they rented space at Adelsheim for three years, and then rented space for another three years at Sokol Blosser.  

By 2017, they were convinced of the potential for excellent Pinot Noir from the Willamette, so they started looking to build a winery.  Finally, they found an old cattle barn in the Dundee Hills that had the skeletal potential for a gravity flow building.  Along with it came a north-facing slope for a vineyard whose exposure would minimize the effects of climate change and produce less ripe grapes that would translate into lower alcohol wines.  They transformed the barn into a modern winery just in time for the 2020 harvest, which they opted not to make because of lamentable smoke taint from wildfires.  Kendall’s eyes beamed and she became even more animated when she described how it felt to finally make wines, the 2021s, in their own place.

Méo’s model worked brilliantly.  The partners fell in love with the wines from the Bishop Creek Vineyard in the Yamhill Charlton AVA and eventually bought the vineyard, which sits at a 450-foot elevation and has own-rooted (not grafted) vines that were planted in 1988.  Wine from Bishop Creek, either bottled as a single vineyard or included in a blend, now accounts for half of their production.  Nicolas-Jay buys from seven other vineyards and has four single vineyard bottlings currently.  Their Willamette Valley blend, Ensemble, contains fruit from every AVA within the Willamette Valley except Chehalem Mountains and Ribbon Ridge.  The suavely textured 2019 Ensemble ($77, 92 pts.) is a stunning expression of the potential of what the Willamette has to offer.  All of Nicolas-Jay’s wines come from organically or biodynamically farmed vineyards, even though they may not be certified as such, and are fermented using native yeast.  

The superb Nicolas-Jay 2019 Pinot Noirs reflect the diversity of the Willamette’s AVAs.  The charming Nysa (Dundee Hills AVA) bottling ($114, 95 pts.) displays a captivating finesse and elegance, while the powerful 2019 Momtazi (McMinnville AVA) bottling ($109, 95 pts.) with its dense, black, mountain fruit tension is just what you’d expect from the area’s rugged wind-blown volcanic soil.  What’s unexpected is a meagre 13.2 percent stated alcohol and its marvelous balance.  The youthful and brooding 2019 Bishop Creek (Yamhill Charlton) ($110; 96 pts.), combining power and finesse, is truly an iron fist in a velvet glove.  

The splendid array of Nicolas-Jay’s 2019s Pinot Noirs is simply staggering.  It’s hard to imagine a leap in quality from this vintage for them, but I predict there will be one with the 2021s vinified in their own cellar.

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Email me your thoughts about Oregon Pinot Noir in general at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

August 16, 2023               

More columns:    Michael Apstein