French soul, American soil. Maison Drouhin’s catchy motto for its Oregon wines.
Drouhin, better known in Burgundy as a giant winemaker and negociant, legitimized Oregon Pinot Noir in the 1980s by buying land there and making wine under the Domaine Drouhin label.
In a recent tasting of seven randomly assembled BYOB bottles, all Oregon Pinot Noirs, we serendipitously sampled this flagship wine along with Drouhin’s latest, Roserock, from Eola-Amity Hills. The occasion gave cause to ponder that motto.
The wines we tasted were all typical cold climate Pinots similar to Burgundy, but with some distinct differences. They were light in structure, lean in fruit and acidic like their French counterparts. They differed however in their noses, featuring understated aromas, as opposed to the bold, small berry fruit or earthy noses that are characteristic of Burgundy.
They also had one unmistakable New World feature: a hint of sweetness in their fruit, subtle but there nonetheless.
The two Drouhin bottlings, 2014 Domaine Drouhin and 2014 Roserock stood out from the rest, clearly richer. They had more fruit forward profiles (though still much less than any California pinot) and more overall complexity.
The Drouhins have been stalwarts of Burgundy for well over a century, their forbearer having started Maison Joseph Drouhin in 1880. The company continued with his son Maurice, who handed it over to Robert Drouhin in 1957. Under Robert’s tutelage Maison Drouhin grew into powerhouse branching into whites in Chablis as well as a variety of reds from different communes in the area.
While firmly planted in France, Robert also eyed America. In 1961 he visited California and heard a pitch from Robert Mondavi to invest in Napa, in those days mainly Cabernet Sauvignon country, as it still is. Robert Drouhin was a Pinot Noir man. He declined.
Drouhin then visited Oregon, a fledgling backwater in the wine world, where he met Lett and Adelsheim, two pioneers of Oregon Pinot Noir that were to achieve respectable reputations. Oregon seemed more like Burgundy in climate and topography, and held better promise.
In 1979 Drouhin organized a blind tasting of Pinot Noirs from America and Burgundy. A bottle of Lett’s Eyrie Pinot caught his attention, verifying his early hunches about the region. Subsequently, acting on a tip from Adelsheim, Robert Drouhin bought a 225 acre estate in the Red Hills of Dundee, in 1988. It was a Christmas tree farm and had to be converted into vineyards. Robert assigned his daughter Véronique, a recently minted enologist, as wine maker.
The arrival of a prestigious Burgundy name in Oregon instantly catapulted the reputation of the region, the Drouhins adding respectability to the Pinot Noirs that came out of Oregon.
Véronique is now in charge of winemaking for Maison Drouhin on both sides of the Atlantic. In a recent interview for Forbes magazine she pointed out that the climate of Oregon and sloping hillsides of the Drouhin estate are similar to Burgundy, ideal for high quality Pinot Noir. The soil in Oregon however, is different. Burgundy has limestone, rich in minerals, while Dundee is volcanic, very different to work with.
With more consistent weather, less disease and less legal regulations, winemaking in Oregon is much easier than in Burgundy.
Drouhin vineyards, Dundee
She adds the following. “The challenge in Oregon is to maintain elegance in the wine. The challenge in Burgundy, where the wines are always elegant, is to produce an elegant wine with some weight.
Véronique is clearly a French nationalist, for the Pinot Noirs of Burgundy are hardy “always elegant.” Many of us have given up on Burgundy because of the multitude of rough, undrinkable wines with fancy labels and expensive prices. The search for the occasional silky, elegant Burgundy is like that for the Holy Grail.
In the meanwhile, as Pinot Noir mania has overtaken the United States, fueled by the landmark 2004 movie Sideways, a
bolder, Syrah-like, in-your-face style has superseded the essence of the French Burgundian soul that the Drouhins sought in Oregon.
Today, if Robert Drouhin thought commercially, I wonder whether he would regret Mondavi’s suggestion to set up shop in California which is dictating the new Pinot Noir style of the New World.
The 2014 Roserock and Domaine Drouhin we tasted, represent New World variation on Old World Pinot Noir, brightly fruity as they were, yet still light and acidic, preserving the essence of the grape.
They did indeed have French soul while clearly products of Oregonian, American soil.
Too bad that not too many will notice, for aside from citizens of the state, Oregon remains a fringe for most American wine drinkers, Pinot Noir enthusiasts included.