At first sight, Burgundy and Oregon seem more than just half a world apart physically. Oregon sits high up in the Pacific North West of the Unites States of America, a former frontier colony founded on fur and pelts, Oregon is the very model of the Wild West.
Oregon is a Pacific coast state, just north of California and the wine country of the central and Napa Valleys, in effect, extends northwards to Willamette Valley and the Dundee Hills where the best Oregon wine is made.
It is also, crucially, on a latitude similar to that of Burgundy and it was perhaps this latitude and cooler climate that drew a few adventurous wine makers in the 1960s in the US, northwards, away from California to Oregon.
David Lett, founder of Eyrie Vineyards, is regarded as the pioneer of serious wine in Oregon and the grape he wanted to begin with was Pinot Noir.
This was in 1965.
However, another winemaker had already had a look, Robert Drouhin, then head of the revered Burgundy House, Maison Joseph Drouhin, who visited in 1961.
On his return in 1986, Robert Drouhin purchased 225 acres of the very best south facing slopes in the Dundee Hills region.
The incline of those hills is similar to Burgundy, the climate is reasonably similar, but the underlying soils and rocks are very different. Oregon is full of basalt, volcanic material and more than a few meteorite craters, Burgundy by contrast is essentially limestone.
Nevertheless Robert Drouhin and his daughter Veronique, just after graduating from the University of Dijon with a higher degree in Oenology, both saw something exciting and potentially world beating about the terroir of Oregon.
Veronique Drouhin stayed and began working on a harvest with local winemakers and essentially never looked back from Oregon.
This was hugely adventurous at the time and odd from a region that was considered to be falling behind modern standards and practices in the 1970s in the wine business, but Burgundy and cautious behaviour have served the region well and today, may be its saviour.
Back To The Garden
Only one winery even really featured in the sights of the financial behemoths who entered the wine market and decided it was ripe as a tradable commodity, a truly exotic investment vehicle. That was Domaine Romanee Conti, the problem there was that even this very well known and highly revered winery made so little that it was hard to build a market out of trading the tiny amounts that dribbled onto the world wine market. Of course another hugely crucial factor was that Robert Parker never seemed to take to or get, Burgundy. Parker scores on Burgundy wines have almost no impact, in Burgundy no one cared. Without Parker scores any sense of a market and fluctuating valuations so necessary to make a stock market, seemed to evaporate.
In addition as the vineyards are all tiny and split up amongst dozens of owners, there has never been any monolithic harvesting as a result the large transport and wineries of Bordeaux and Tuscany, and the super-sized industrial cathedrals of wine in Australia and California have never been built.
So the villages, most now UNESCO protected have never been altered and the roads are picture-postcard quaint meandering, stone walled delights in Burgundy.
In addition because all the plots are relatively small, raising and ageing is deliberately small scale, even by major players.
Many wineries and negociants revel in, reverse-snobbery, priding in just how ad hoc, and loose their operations are.
Of course for the vast majority of Burgundy producers this is also a necessity, they are in reality small businesses, where half of the employees are sons, daughters and cousins.
On the agricultural side it has meant being entirely resistant to anything that smacked of either flashiness, or expense or both.
This has kept vast tracts of Burgundy organic and lightly mechanised in the cellar.
Maison Drouhin – Four Is The Magic Number
In Burgundy, because the sizes of vineyards are so small, their ownership so complex and the quality so diverse certain families, mostly based in Beaune developed a secondary role of buying and bottling the wines of others, over time these family firms began to sell both their own wines and the bought wines together under their own name which became a brand.
In order to maintain quality and consistency those families, now called negociants began to simply buy the grapes of others and actually make all the wine themselves.
These firms were called negociant houses and it is largely thanks to them that Burgundy and it deliriously complex system of village names, communes and vineyard names, vineyard quality from Grand Cru to Premiere Cru to regular all became common place on wine shelves across the world.
The most important negociants, mostly based in the wine capital of Burgundy Beaune are Maison Louis Latour, Maison Bouchard Pere et Fils, Maison Jadot, Maison Chanson and Maison Joseph Drouhin.
Maison Drouhin is one of the youngest negociant houses founded in 1880 by Joseph Drouhin, the great grand-father of the three brothers and a sister that are the present fourth generation to run the business.
The importance of Drouhin is that it owns more than half of the vineyards and wine that it sells under its name and controls through close and lengthy contracts the rest of the vineyards it uses.
Drouhin is therefore one of the largest owners of Burgundy’s Grand Cru and Premiere Cru land. What they do and what style of approach they adopted became hugely influential on their neighbours.
It is fortunate then that very early on in the wine renaissance of the 20th century Drouhin opted for quality over every other consideration. Under the leadership of the father of the present generation, Paul Drouhin from the 1950s to today their entire land portfolio was switched to biodynamic farming, up to and including the use of horse drawn ploughing as it does not compact the soils like tractors and other mechanical devices.
Today all Drouhin wines are organically farmed, all self owned vineyards are biodynamic.
The three Drouhin brothers are Frederic, Philippe and Laurent, and their sister Veronique have all allocated roles, Veronique is the oenologist, Frederic the president directing the board, Philippe the vineyard manager and biodynamic disciple, Laurent their man in the US, living in New York.
Veronique as oenologist directs a team of winemakers across Burgundy, but is solely responsible for the winemaking at the Drouhin US winery, Domaine Drouhin Oregon.
“ I fly back and forth between Oregon and Burgundy, it works well however because we have such an experienced team.” Says Veronique Drouhin.
“Being a woman has never been an issue, even in somewhere as traditional as Burgundy. This again is also due to my father who was amongst the first people in the French wine business to employ as a senior oenologist a woman, Laurence Jobard.” Says Veronique.
Jobard was the oenologist or chief winemaker of Drouhin from 1976 until 2005 and Veronique is keen to acknowledge that debt she and Drouhin owe to Jobard
Veronique’s father Robert was an innovator and slightly maverick throughout his entire tenure at Drouhin where he stepped down in 2003, though he is still chairman.
Apart from breaking up the masculine world of Burgundy farming with a woman, he also, pushed Burgundy Biodynamic, made it fashionable to own directly the majority of your vineyards, drove serious winemakers into Beaujolais as a high quality aspect of Burgundy wines, re-embraced Chablis which had been abandoned to generics in the 1950s and of course bought and set up a winery in America. All this marked Robert Drouhin as one of wine’s most important forces.
Of course many of these innovations saw Burgundy shy away from advances of modern, scientific, chemical or industrial winemaking. To some this was Burgundy being left behind. Also in scale deciding not to build up single dominant companies but to maintain the complex old fashioned family structures looked like antique business thinking too. Add horse and organic manure and you can see why many go ahead regions looked aghast at Burgundy and feared for its commercial future.
Well the future is now and today, agile, debt free, organic, family run Burgundy looks very, very attractive. So far behind, they’re in front.
Wines of Maison Drouhin
Maison Joseph Drouhin, Laforet Bourgogne Chardonnay 2007 (88) around €14.79
-This is the Drouhin entry level white wine, it is a cross regional blend with a crisp, lemon driven wash, hints of golden apple sweetness initially then a Macon like light nut aspect mid palate and a shorter finish.
Maison Drouhin, Chablis 2007 (89) around €20.69.
-The Drouhin entry level Chablis is very austere and steely, but quite aromatic. The willowy grassy and lime touches are very attractive the core of minerality very prominent on what is their populist Chablis offering. Accomplished, uncompromising wine.
Masion Drouhin, Macon Villages 2007 (88) around €13.99
-While the regular entry level Drouhin white wine has a feel of Macon about it in the lime and steel wash, it is made by the apple sweetness, but here there is only the lime and steel, surrounded by vigorous acidity.
Maison Drouhin Rully Blanc 2006 (91) around €21
-This is where Drouhin excels, in slightly left field and more competitively priced appellations. This is a gorgeously perfumed white, the chardonnay here is dense and heathery, honey like with touches of nut specifically crushed almonds, the finish has succulence but also firm acidity. It has the hints of a Puligny Montrachet but at a fraction of the price. Farming is biodynamic, horses, natural predators and hand picking in tiny baskets.
Maison Joseph Drouhin, AC Fleurie, Beaujolais 2007 (89) around €18.25
-One of the most familiar sights on Irish wine lists and shelves, it is still the benchmark for great Beaujolais. The violet perfumed notes of the nose are replicated in the pink, light purple colour of the wine. The damson and raspberry like wash is clean and medium bodied the finish, meatier and more grippy than expected, cutting and complimentary with food. Again all hand harvested and traditional in its construction.
Maison Joseph Drouhin, Chambolle-Musigny Premiere Cru 2006 (92) around €41.59
-At just three years old this is still an infant, it is a wine all about the word finesse, meaning restraint and balance. Nothing jumps out, the cherry, kir, raspberry tones of this red wine simply grow on the palate giving way to chocolate and mushroom with time. With age these fuller flavours will build. The persistence, the length of time the taste stays with you after you taste the wine is immense. The price however reflects this complexity and the expensive nature of the vineyards and lavish care of the grapes.
Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Pinot Noir 2006 (93) around €50
-This is Veronique’s own unique project. The Oregon winery is her and her family’s home. We do not see them here in Ireland but Veronique makes three reserve wines here named after each of her children that are highly prized and priced in the US market. This is very expensive wine and just the kind to suffer at present, but it is also very fine wine. The deep darker colour is brooding, but the wash is light and energetic, raspberry and maraschino cherry with a spicy streak and meaty tannin. The fact that it would be a €100 Burgundy Grand Cru is the key to its price.