Oregon Pinot Noir 'The French Connection'

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | jan. 2018

In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte erased the old Roman law of primogeniture in France, under which the eldest son inherited the entire estate and instituted the Napoleonic Code, which divided the estate equally amongst all the male offspring regardless of age. This seemingly innocuous, egalitarian act created a bad situation which survives to this day where the vineyards of Burgundy have been bisected and trisected as each succeeding generation divided up their properties until, for example in the prestigious 125 acre Cote de Nuit, Grand Cru, Clos de Vougeot, there are 80 owners — some of which only make a few cases of wine; all entitled to use the iconic Clos de Vougeot label.

Napoleon unwittingly set in motion a powerful force, which affects the wine trade in Oregon 200+ years later. The complex inheritance laws and the difficulty of expanding their businesses in France have recently compelled the Burgundians to find other areas in the world that will support growing such a difficult grape as Pinot Noir. Oregon became that promised land and the migration started more than 40 years ago.

The American expatriate Becky Wasserman is considered the world's authority on the wines of Burgundy. She had lived in the French city of St. Romain more than 10 years when, in 1979, she packed two bottles of Oregon Pinot Noir in her suitcase and set off to return to her home in France. No one could have anticipated what would happen next. Wasserman had encountered Oregon wines while she was in the US selling French wine barrels to American vintners. Wasserman entered two bottles, the Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve 1975, in an international Pinot Noir blind tasting known as the Wine Olympics sponsored by the well-known French restaurant guide “Gault Millau.” The wine placed in the top 10 amongst some of the rarest and most expensive French Burgundies. While the press paid little attention to the event, one man took particular notice. Robert Drouhin of the well known Burgundy negociant Maison Joseph Drouhin had been to Oregon's Willamette Valley once before in 1961, four years before David Lett planted the valley's first Pinot Noir vines at the Eyrie Vineyards. He was struck by the climatic and topographical parallels with Burgundy's Côte d'Or. The showing by David Lett's Eyrie Vineyards Pinot convinced him that he needed to grow grapes in the Willamette Valley.

In 1986, Drouhin's daughter Veronique worked a harvest in Oregon. The following year, the Drouhin's purchased 100 acres in the Dundee hills, just north of the Willamette River (If you have never been to this area of the country please go; it is achingly beautiful in the summer and still relatively undiscovered). In 1988, Oregon Governor, Neil Goldschmidt, visited Burgundy to encourage investment by Drouhin's fellow Burgundians. Since then the number of wineries has grown from 17 to over 500 this year. Pinot Noir accounts for more than 60 percent of the planted grapes.

While Robert Drouhin's idea did not catch on right away, the relentless rise in the prices of land in the Côte d'Or prompted others to make the move. In 2012 the average price of a hectare (2.47 acres) rose to $5.2 million. (That's $5.2 million for a parcel of land about the size of two football fields). In 2005 the prestigious Meursault producer Dominique Lafon started consulting with Evening Land Vineyards and soon started their own label (Lingua Franca). A few years later, the beautiful, tomboyish Alexandrine Roy of Domaine Marc Roy of the famed Gevrey-Chambertin started working at Phelps Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge, soon becoming director of winemaking.

In 2012 Vosnee-Romaneé superstar Louis-Michel Liger-Belair began consulting with Chapter 24 Vineyards; while his neighbor Jean-Nicolas Méo of Méo-Camuzet partnered with long time Oregon friend Jay Bolberg to found Nicolas-Jay debuting with the 2014 vintage. Bigger Burgundians are on board as well with Louis Jadot acquiring Résonance Vineyard in 2013 (their 2015 made the Wine Spectators Top 100 this year) and Maisons & Domaines Henriot owner of Bouchard Peres et Fils buying a majority stake in Robert Parkers vineyard Beaux Fréres.

With all this buying and selling going on, what does it mean for the average wine drinker? The answer is surprising and bodes well for the quality of wine from Oregon as well as France. Instead of one party imposing their culture or ideas on the other there has been cooperation and sharing of best practices. Doug Tunnel of Brick House Vineyards has adopted the Burgundian practice of planting vines one meter apart and has stopped using cultured yeasts in favor of naturally occurring yeasts that are floating around in the air. Méo Camuzet has taken a trick for securing equipment during pump-overs back to France, and he has shared video of the Oregon grape picking method with his workers in France.

While you may think that this may lead to homogenization of the tastes of the wines from Oregon, nothing could be farther from the truth.

David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards said it best when he expressed, “The best way to pay homage to Burgundy was not through mimicry. We want the best descriptors of our wines to be Oregonian.”

Josh Bergstrom of Bergstrom wines said, “While we revere Burgundy, we want to define our own sense of place.”

The Drouhin patriarch, Robert says, “Oregon Pinot doesn't have the same earthiness of Burgundy. It's darker and spicy.”

While Veronique adds that, “Oregon wines are more saturated in color and broader-shouldered on the palette.”

In both cases the Burgundians and Oregonians are embracing the unique characteristics of Oregon Pinot Noir and that is good for the wine drinking public. The wines I've selected for this essay reflect that diversity of thought and taste.

The Erath 2015 Pinot Noir $13.50 at Woodman's and Costco is 13.5 percent alcohol. Dick Erath was a pioneer in Oregon. He produced his first wines in his garage in California. After completing his wine-making courses at UC-Davis in 1968, he moved his family to the uncultivated hills of Dundee in the Willamette Valley. An unheated logger's cabin would serve as his home and ad hoc winery for several years. The style Dick created was one of elegance and fruit forward wines that are very aromatic, and the 2015 is no exception. The wine is rated 89 by “Wine Spectator.”

The Ponzi 2015 Tavola Pinot Noir $25 at Ridgeview liquor is 13.6 percent alcohol. This wine was rated 91 points by “Wine and Spirits” magazine and a “Best Buy.” Dick and Nancy Ponzi also moved their family to Oregon in the 1960s with the same idea as the Erath's. Today the winery is run by their two daughters Maria and Luisa, who my wife and I have met. They are rugged farmers who grew up in the vineyards and don't suffer fools gladly. This Tavola is from a great year that was warm early then cooled at harvest time. This wine has concentrated aromas of blueberries, Bing cherries and peppercorns. Complex flavors of coffee, baking chocolate and freshly-turned earth follow with bright fruits and soft tannins. This is a wine for roasted duck.

The Cloudline 2015 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir $16.50 at Woodman's is 13.5 percent alcohol. This was and is my favorite. I bought half a case. It is produced by Dreyfus Ashby, a wine importer that works closely with the Drouhin family. In fact this wine was produced with Véronique Drouhin as consulting wine maker. James Suckling rated it at 92 points and called it “A real Oregon pinot with walnuts, plums and hints of chocolate. Medium and rounded tannins and a delicious finish cap off a lively reasonably priced wine.”

I couldn't agree more.

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