History is, of course, an important subject and shapes much of the present in so many endeavours. But in the wine world, we have learned, history plays an even more important role than in most fields. Perhaps that is because making fine wine is more art than science. The art of making wine has history very much at its foundations: it is passed down from generation to generation, very often within the same family. Such is the case of Burgundy’s Drouhin family, who first began in the wine business 137 years ago in Beaune when Maison Joseph Drouhin was founded. It did not take long for this domaine to prosper and successive generations of Drouhins took it from strength to strength. Today Maison Joseph Drouhin is a Burgundy powerhouse; a domaine that it has grown to become a significant business in the area and one that also holds some of the best vineyard lands and produces some of Burgundy’s top wines.
It was Robert Drouhin who was the first in the family to discover the potential of Oregon’s Willamette Valley for producing fine Pinot Noir, back in 1961. But the region really caught his attention in 1979 and 1980 when Robert was judging Pinots from around the world at blind tastings in Paris and in Burgundy when David Lett and a few other Oregon pioneers had their wines rated among the very best.
In 1986, Robert’s daughter Veronique came to Oregon after obtaining her master’s degree in enology, where she worked harvest at the Eyrie Vineyard, Bethel Heights and Adelsheim Vineyard. The sense of community among the winemakers and growers in the Valley, which we have written about in all of our articles about this region, also struck Veronique. Obviously Veronique was reporting back to Burgundy with the some very good things to say as the next year her father came out to Oregon and purchased what is now their estate. Domaine Drouhin Oregon, or DDO as it is often called, began planting grapes in 1987 on the beautiful gently rolling slopes of the Dundee Hills.
Veronique was appointed head of winemaking while her brother Philippe was head of viticulture. In 1988 they made their first vintage from purchased grapes and in 1989 they built their state of the art gravity flow winery. We pulled up to this winery on a cool, misty day in March, in typical spring weather for the Willamette Valley. Somehow the grey mist clinging to the tree tops that line the rolling vineyards adds to their beauty. The beige-coloured winery sits on top of one of the highest points on the estate, its architecture, guided by Robert Drouhin to take advantage of the slope, so that the wine can be moved down its four stories of production facilities all by the flow of gravity. It was the first purpose-built winery in Oregon, as opposed to converting and retro-fitting an existing building into a winery. We arrive at the tasting room and take in the beauty of its views as we wait a few moments to meet Arron Bell, Assistant Winemaker and Operations Manager to join us.
Arron is one of those instantly likeable people who greet you warmly with a big smile and an outstretched hand. Aaron has a relaxed manner and he is clearly very passionate about wine. After university in Hawaii and Oregon he studied philosophy and finance (a very odd combination; the exact same odd combination that Advinetures’ Chris studied!) before taking a job in the cellar at DDO. He went to France and participated in harvests at Maison Joseph Drouhin and credits the connection to France for much of his learning and the resulting winemaking style at DDO. Arron works closely with Veronique getting the wines ready for her to taste and to receive her final input. Veronique finishes supervising the crush and fermentation of 400,000 cases at Maison Joseph Drouhin in Beaune in September and then immediately flies to Oregon to do exactly the same thing at DDO in early October.
Arron tells us they strive for balanced elegance at DDO. The winery’s tag line is “French soul, Oregon soil” and the philosophy it represents shows in the house style. We hear and read a lot of comparisons of New World Pinot Noir to Burgundy. And why not? Burgundy is certainly the Holy Grail for Pinot Noir (and possibly Chardonnay as well). But Oregon can stand on its own when it comes to producing world class Pinot and consumers will be rewarded for embracing the Willamette’s unique style and not chasing some idea of a Burgundy look alike.
Winemaking is hands off, just as one would expect from this type of pedigree, allowing the terroir to be expressed as opposed to the winemaker’s hand. This is accomplished through largely free-run juice with only gentle pressing. Fermentations are started with indigenous yeasts. Grapes are de-stemmed and go through a cold soak for 2 – 5 days followed by a long fermentation of up to 12 days. As is done in Burgundy, gentle punch-downs and pump-overs assist in the extraction process, giving the wines their intensity.
Elevage takes place in 20% new and the balance neutral barrels. The wine is racked off of the lees from barrel to barrel, all via gravity for the gentlest handling. Three different Pinot Noirs and one Chardonnay are made. Veronique and Arron taste the wines after a year in barrel and from this selection Cuvée Louis and Cuvée Lauren are selected as the reserve lots. The balance of the barrels become the Dundee Hills labeled bottling, or what is referred to as “Classique” at the winery.
DDO was originally 100 acres of land but it has now expanded to 225 acres, of which 127 acres are planted. 115 acres are planted to Dijon Clones of Pinot Noir and 12 acres are planted to Chardonnay. These Dundee Hills Vineyards are meticulously tended. Looking out over their Dundee Hills vineyards, Arron points to the Eola Hills where they have created a new project: Roserock Vineyards. Arron tells us that Roserock is a different expression of the Willamette Valley, that grapes from Eola “have a little more personality, are darker, spicier, more brooding”. He finds the resulting wines “a little more Gevrey than the Dundee Hills”. Roserock occupies 279 acres and was purchased in 2013 and is about 25 miles away from the Dundee Hills winery.
At both of these estates we found excellent expressions of the Willamette Valley showing balanced wines, whether they were emphasizing finesse or emphasizing strength. The 137 years of experience in Burgundy shows through making this a very valuable French connection.
2016 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Rosé
Copper/orange in colour. The nose shows strawberry and cranberry, which follow on to the palate. There they are joined by flavours of cantaloupe and slight citrus notes on the juicy finish. Zero residual sugar, but a nice fruit-driven flavour experience, makes for a perfect summer aperitif.
2014 Domaine Drouhin Arthur Oregon Chardonnay
Medium gold in colour, this wine gives up layers of apple and pear, then finishes long and juicy with notes of citrus zest and minerals. Medium plus body and medium plus acidity; there is a lovely balance to the unique profile. We have seen a real move up in quality from this variety in general in Oregon over the last 5 years. This wine is leading that charge.
Excellent US ($35 at the winery)
2015 Roserock Chardonnay
Medium+ gold in colour. The nose is floral and apple infused. Flavours of golden delicious apple and melon are delivered in a medium + body. With a bit of air we pick up almond notes too. There is a lovely round texture to this wine, evoking a Meursault with its slight nuttiness.
Excellent (US$35 at the winery)
2015 Cloudline Pinot Noir
Cloudline is their negociant wine (made form purchased grapes) which they have been doing since 2002. Notes of bright cherry, cherry cola and vanilla come through on the medium body. Pepper and spice show on the long finish.
Very Good + (US $20 at retail in Oregon)
2014 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Dundee Hills Pinot Noir (Classique)
This is the workhorse of the winery, usually producing 10,000 cases. 2014 is a terrific example of this wine, in our books the best since 2006 and 2008. Medium red in colour it has a perfumed nose of cherry and hints of baking spice. On the palate there is loads of dark cherry flavour that gains great complexity from the earth notes (a Dundee Hills signature) together with dusty minerals. The tannins are ripe and while it is delicious now, we would guess it has at least another decade of further development (A 2008 DDO Dundee Hills we had recently was drinking on point).
Excellent US $45 at the winery – This is particularly good value for this quality level. The wine was first released at $35 30 years ago. It stands right in there with other reserve and single vineyard bottling priced from $65 – $90.
2013 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir Cuvée Laurene
Earthy cherry notes are delivered on a medium frame that shows hints of vanilla along with brown spice notes. The balance is exceptional and creates an impression of great finesse. More elegant than past vintages of Lauren that we have had; this would be a great accompaniment to fine cuisine where the wine’s understated elegance would allow the food to take center stage. Pepper notes stay on the long finish.
Excellent (US$70 at the winery)
2014 Roserock Pinot Noir Classique
Bright red cherry flavours are accompanied by dry tannins on the medium plus body. This has a fuller more modern expression than the DDO Classique and works in the more powerful end of the spectrum. Barrel notes of vanilla and spice add to the complexity.
Very Good + (US $35 at the winery)
2014 Roserock Zéphirine
Here the dials are turned up. Bright red cherry, vanilla and baking spice all weave together and are carried along a tannic backbone. The flavours are intense; this is the wine that knows how to make an entrance into a room. Wait a year or two on this wine and expect development over the next 10 year or longer.
Excellent (US$60 at the winery)