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Is It Terroir or National Origin? Burgundy in Oregon
By Michael Apstein
Dec 6, 2016
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What’s more important in determining wine quality—terroir, or the nationality of the winemaker?  Almost everyone agrees on the importance of terroir, the idea (best exemplified in Burgundy) that where the grapes grow is critical in determining the character of a wine.  Equally important in the estimation of many wine experts is the role of the winemaker or producer.  But what is driving the winemaker--conscious decisions or some subconscious force, such as national origin?

The Burgundians’ foray into Oregon offers a chance to explore this question. 

As Véronique Drouhin tells it, her father, Robert, then the head of the leading Burgundy négociant, Maison Joseph Drouhin, decided to buy land in Oregon in 1987 after visiting and seeing its potential for making distinctive wines.  Drouhin was in the front rank of what would turn out to be a mini-French invasion, when the family purchased land, planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Willamette Valley, and established Domaine Drouhin Oregon. 

Other Burgundy producers have followed either by buying directly or collaborating with Americans.  Another star Beaune-based Burgundy négociant, Maison Louis Jadot, purchased Resonance Vineyard (and subtly renamed it by adding an accent: Résonance) in August 2013. Jean-Nicolas Méo, head of Domaine Méo-Camuzet, a top-notch estate in Vosne-Romanée, and music mogul Jay Boberg have just released the first vintage of their joint Willamette Valley-based Pinot Noir project called Nicolas Jay.  Dominque Lafon, who specializes in white wines as head of the Meursault-based Domaine Comtes Lafon, is working with Larry Stone at Lingua Franca, Stone’s new winery.  As has often been the case in Burgundy with winemakers, musical chairs has been played in Oregon with filmmaker Mark Tarlov collaborating first with Dominque Lafon at Evening Land in 2006 and then in 2012, with Louis-Michel Liger-Belair at Chapter 24 Vineyards. (The name derives from the last chapter of Homer’s Odyssey.)

The Burgundians clearly believe the projects are working out, as Drouhin is now releasing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from its recently purchased property in Eola Amity, an AVA distinct from their home base in Dundee.  Jadot, though a newcomer to Oregon, has already purchased additional land intending to focus on specific bottlings that highlight Oregon’s diverse terroir.

(In an example of turn-about being fair play, Grace and Ken Evenstad, owners of Oregon’s Domaine Serene, purchased Château de la Crée in Santenay and its 25 acres of vineyards in 2015.  Château de la Crée’s current winemaker Aline Beauné--is there a more fitting name?--will work with Erik Kramer, the winemaker at Domaine Serene.)

Before turning to the tasting that was conducted to answer the question at the head of this column, it is worth noting that conscious or unconscious winemaking decisions may not be the only explanation for stylistic differences.  The logistics of who’s managing the project may be even more important.  Pierre-Henry Gagey, President of Maison Louis Jadot, explained to me that he felt that part of Drouhin’s success in Oregon has been the presence of a family member, Véronique, to oversee the project.  A fundamental problem for Burgundians in Oregon is that the harvest usually occurs at the same time as in France, and even the most talented winemaker can’t be in both places at the same time to supervise the harvest.  Jean-Nicholas Méo told me that he was lucky this year that the harvests did not coincide, so he could, in fact, oversee both.  That timing is rare, which is why having family members in both places is an enormous asset, according to Gagey, and helps explain why Jadot expanded to Oregon when it did.  Jacques Lardière, their talented winemaker of 42 years, had just “retired,” and Thibault Gagey, Pierre-Henry’s son, was available to work with Jacques in Oregon.

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In an attempt to answer the question whether the nationality of the producer influences the wine, I organized a blind tasting of 2014 Oregon Pinot Noir divided into three categories: 1) those made by Burgundians themselves (6 wines made by Drouhin or Jadot), 2) one made by a Burgundian collaborating with an American (Nicolas Jay) and, with the help of the Oregon Wine Board, 3) 20 wines made by five Oregon producers without any overt foreign input.  Just for fun, I included five wines made by Thomas Bachelder, who makes Pinot Noir in Oregon, Canada’s Niagara Peninsula and in Burgundy.  All of the wines included in the tasting are listed at the end of this column, organized by producer, although we tasted them in random order.

I was joined in the tasting by three other tasters all of whom have extensive experience with either Burgundy or Oregon Pinot Noir: Fred Ek, an importer who was responsible for introducing Comtes Lafon wines, among others, to the U.S. market, Tom Schmeisser, the former wine buyer for Marty’s Liquors, a major Boston retailer, and Lloyd Foster, who worked at Grapevine Imports and was largely responsible for bringing Oregon wines to the New England market.

The tasting had the potential to answer the question whether there is an inherent difference among the wines as a group depending on their ownership and winemaking (French, French/American, or American).  Is it winemaking philosophy that determines style or does the Oregon terroir trump everything?

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We all agreed that the most striking result was the overall high quality of the wines.  All had identifiable Pinot Noir character and were easy to recommend. None of these Pinot Noirs fell into the all-too-common trap of over extraction and over ripeness that resulted in what I refer to as the “Pinot-Syrah” category. 

Not surprising, none of us were completely correct in identifying which wines fell into which category.  Although we identified the riper ones with more apparent oak as falling into the “Oregon without overt foreign input” category, we misidentified a surprising number in that category that had a lighter, more savory profile, thinking that the Burgundians had made the wines.  Schmeisser wondered whether the overlap could be explained by Oregon winemakers who had studied in France adopting a philosophy to make more delicate wines.  And of course, many Pinot Noir producers often, consciously or subconsciously, try to imitate Burgundy, at least initially.

The wines from Domaine Drouhin Oregon were delightfully lacey, with the ones from Eola-Amity showing more ripeness than the ones from Dundee, which had more savory notes.  Their special cuvées, Zéphirine from Eola-Amity and Laurène, from their Dundee vineyards, had more complexity and intensity, without being heavy.

Jadot’s Résonance from Yamhill-Carlton, their top wine (and the only 2013 included) was more robust, but still nicely balanced, compared to Drouhin’s, similar to the stylistic difference these houses exhibit in Burgundy.

Nicholas-Jay Pinot Noir was riper still, but nowhere near the “Pinot-Syrah” category.

The six Pinot Noirs from Division taught us a fascinating lesson in the diversity of Oregon’s terroir:  The Willamette bottling was delicate and fruity; the one from Dundee, delicate, but more savory; the two from Eola-Amity were bigger and riper, almost chewy; the ones from Ribbon Ridge and Red Hills had stony, tarry notes. All were nicely balanced and none were overdone.

The beautifully balanced wines from Lange did not break down strictly according to AVA with some bottlings from Willamette (Willamette and Three Hills Cuvée) being fruitier, while others (Lange Estate, and Freedom Hill Vineyard) showing a bolder, more complex interplay of ripe dark fruit and savory notes. 

Lemelson’s wines were distinctive, but also reinforced the complexity of rigidly associating a style with an AVA.  Their two from Willamette, Thea’s Select and Jerome Reserve, had a darker profile compared to theirs from Stermer Vineyard (Yamhill-Carlton), Meyer Vineyard (Dundee Hills) and Chestnut Hills Vineyard (Chehalem Mountains). 

It’s not surprising that that all wines from an AVA do not adhere to a similar style. Lloyd Foster pointed out that within most Oregon AVAs, there are two fundamental areas--a valley floor, formerly a seabed, versus a hillside--which are likely to produce very different kinds of wines.  Certainly in Burgundy there’s a wide range of wines from Volnay, for example, depending on the location of the vineyard. Similarly in Oregon, location within an AVA, in addition to things like the age of the vines and the producer’s hand will all influence the style of the wine.

Benton Lane’s focus seemed to be on sweet ripe fruit with a hint of that in the finish.

A toasty accent to Gran Moraine’s Pinot Noir added to the intriguing interplay of sweet and savory notes.

Bachelder’s wines were fascinating because they all conveyed a similar style--a delicate blend of fruity and savory flavors--regardless of origin.

*       *       *

The bottom line:  A “national style,” as reflected by ownership, did not clearly stand out in this tasting.  The results may have been different if we had compared wines from other Oregon producers.  Or perhaps many Oregon producers are eschewing over ripeness and over extraction, instead focusing on the ability of Pinot Noir to deliver, what I call, “flavor without weight.”  Nevertheless, Laurent Drouhin, with far more experience than I on the subject, is concerned that many producers are moving in a wrong direction, toward overly muscular wines, at least from his tastings of recent vintages.  He believes that Oregon must be at the forefront in crafting elegant Pinot Noirs, not over-extracted ones.  He thinks that there are plenty of other sites in the world for that kind of Pinot Noir, but he believes that Oregon, like Burgundy is unique for allowing the elegance and delicacy of Pinot Noir to come out.

What definitely stood out in this tasting was the overall high quality of the wines.  And that’s good news for Pinot Noir lovers everywhere.


Résonance (Louis Jadot), Willamette, 2014
Résonance, Résonance Vineyard (Louis Jadot), Yamhill-Carlton, 2013
Lemelson Vineyards, Stermer Vineyard, Yamhill-Carlton, 2014
Lemelson Vineyards, Meyer Vineyard, Dundee Hills, 2014
Lemelson Vineyards, Chestnut Hills Vineyard, Chehalem Mountains, 2014
Lemelson Vineyards, Jerome Reserve, Willamette, 2014
Lemelson Vineyards, Thea’s Select, Willamette, 2014
Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Roserock, Zéphirine, Eola-Amity Hills, 2014
Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Roserock, Eola-Amity Hills, 2014
Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Dundee Hills, 2014
Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Laurène, Dundee Hills, 2014
Nicolas Jay, Willamette, 2014
Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards, Reserve, Willamette, 2014
Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards, Willamette, 2014
Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards, Freedom Hill Vineyard, Willamette, 2014
Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards, Three Hills Cuvée, Willamette, 2014
Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards, Lange Estate Vineyard, Willamette, 2014
Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards, Yamhill-Carlton Assemblage, Yamhill-Carlton, 2014
Division, “Un,” Willamette, 2014
Division, “Deux,” Vista Hills Vineyard, Dundee Hills, 2014
Division, “Trois,” Temperance Hill Vineyard, Eola-Amity Hills, 2014
Division, “Quatre,” Bjornson Vineyard, Eola-Amity Hills, 2014
Division, “Cinq,” Armstrong Vineyard, Ribbon Ridge, 2014
Division, “Six,” Red Hills Vineyard, Red Hills Douglas County, 2014
Benton Lane, Willamette, 2014
Benton Lane, “First Class,” Willamette, 2014
Bachelder, Nuits-St.-Georges “La Petite Charmotte,” 2011
Bachelder, Johan Vineyard, Willamette, 2014
Bachelder, Wismer Parke Vineyard, Twenty Mile Bench, VQA, 2014
Bachelder, Lowrey Vineyards, St. David’s Bench, VQA, 2014
Bachelder, Willamette, 2014
Gran Moraine, Yamhill-Carlton, 2014

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December 7, 2016

Please email me your thoughts about Oregon Pinot Noir at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein