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Another Oregon-Burgundy Marriage: Nicolas-Jay
By Ed McCarthy
Jun 14, 2016
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Continuing a trend in Oregon’s short history as a premium source of excellent Pinot Noir, another leading winery from Burgundy, Domaine Méo-Camuzet, has come to Willamette Valley to produce a new Pinot Noir, named Nicolas-Jay.  I recently had the pleasure of tasting Nicolas-Jay’s first offerings, three different Oregon Pinot Noirs at three different price points, ranging from $65 retail to $125.

Oregon’s Willamette Valley, just south of Portland, became a wine region only in the mid-1960s.  David Lett’s inaugural vintage of Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir (in 1970) was quickly followed by others; Dick Ponzi, another pioneer, released his first Oregon Pinot Noir in 1974.  Soon, the world started taking notice of Oregon Pinot Noir, particularly one man--Joseph Drouhin, owner of Maison Joseph Drouhin, one of Burgundy’s largest and most respected wineries. 

it was shocking to the European wine community when Joseph Drouhin of Burgundy--one of the world’s most conservative wine regions, whose wine producers always preached about the special terroir of their region for Pinot Noir--purchased vineyard land in Oregon in 1987.  Drouhin built a winery there the following year, put his winemaker-daughter, Veronique Drouhin, in charge of winemaking, and named his son, Philippe, as the viticulturist of the new winery.

True, just as for Champagne producers, there was really no room for Drouhin to expand in the rather small Burgundy region.  And yet, when Champagne producers, led by Moët & Chandon, invaded California in the early 1970s to establish sparkling wine outposts, nobody was really very surprised.  After all, large Champagne producers already had the reputation of being growth-driven.  But for Burgundy to come to the U.S. to grow Pinot Noir?  Sacre bleu!  What is the world coming to?

Today, Domaine Drouhin Oregon (nicknamed DDO) is considered one of the finest wineries in Oregon.  Also of note, Maison Louis Jadot, another leading Burgundy producer, purchased an Oregon winery, Resonance Vineyard, in 2013.  The main difference with Joseph Drouhin’s and Louis Jadot’s Oregon wine operations and Nicolas-Jay’s is that Drouhin’s DDO and Jadot’s Resonance are wholly owned by them; Nicolas-Jay is owned by one Burgundian and one American.

The seed for Nicolas-Jay Winery was planted in 1988, when Jean-Nicolas Méo was studying in California.  Today, Méo is the owner and winemaker of Domaine Méo-Camuzet, one of Burgundy’s finest wineries.  Jean-Nicolas was fortunate enough to learn about wine from one of Burgundy’s greatest all-time winemakers, the legendary Henri Jayer.  It was Jean-Nicolas who turned around his family winery in the 1980s, when he took direct control of its operation.  Today, Domaine Méo-Camuzet produces some of Burgundy’s greatest wines, including Richebourg, Echézeaux, Clos de Vougeot, and various wines from Chambolle-Musigny and Gevrey-Chambertin.  Domaine Méo-Camuzet is imported into the U.S. by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant (Berkeley, CA.).

While studying in the U.S., Méo became good friends with Jay Boberg, who owned a record label, IRS Records.  The two shared a love of music as well as wine.  Jean-Nicolas Méo returned to France to run his winery, and Jay Boberg went on to become president of MCA/Universal Records.  During this time, both began enjoying the Pinot Noirs being made in Oregon, whose wines started becoming well-known in the 1980s.

After Jay made a trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 2011, he became enraptured by its Pinot Noirs, and asked his old friend, Jean-Nicolas Méo, if Jean-Nicolas would be interested in making Pinot Noirs with Jay in Oregon.  Jean-Nicolas was intrigued by the idea.  Together they began searching vineyard sites in Willamette Valley.  They were particularly impressed with the wines from Bishop Creek Vineyard, and when they later learned the Vineyard was for sale, they purchased it. 

Jean-Nicolas and Jay became acquainted with several other vineyard sites in Willamette Valley.  They were so impressed with one, Nysa Vineyard, that they are making a single-vineyard wine from its grapes, along with their single-vineyard wine from Bishop Creek Vineyard.  Nicolas-Jay’s third Pinot Noir is made from a blend of several vineyards.

A three-person team is responsible for Nicolas-Jay Pinot Noirs: Winemaker Jean-Nicolas Méo; Associate Winemaker Tracy Kendall (previously at Adelsheim Vineyards), and Co-Founder Jay Boberg, learning on the job (“I’m definitely the #3 person on the team,” says Boberg).

My experience from tasting the three Nicolas-Jay wines with the co-founders?  I was impressed with the wines’ elegance, above all.  They showed a lot of depth and fruitiness--but they definitely were not too fruity or too extracted.  Oregon Pinot Noirs, they are, yes, but on a higher level than many other Pinot Noirs from Oregon.  Their elegance and finesse are their trademark characteristics.

What is their secret?  Jay and Jean-Nicolas replied that they start with fruit from the best vineyards.  Their aim is to make “The kind of wines we love to drink.”

To briefly summarize a few of Jean-Nicolas’ vineyard practices:

--He does less leaf-pulling than other vineyards; this slows ripening and helps the grapes  retain more natural acidity;

--When thinning the fruit in the vineyard, Jean-Nicolas removes larger clusters with larger berries, to increase the intensity and depth of the juice after it is picked;

--Nicolas-Jay is one of the earliest Willamette Valley wineries to harvest its fruit, to attain freshness and balance.

The current vintage, 2014, is the first commercial release of Nicolas-Jay Pinot Noirs.  The wines are currently available in seven states, four on the East Coast (including NY) and three on the West Coast.  Distribution will increase as production increases.

The three wines I tasted are the following:

Nicolas-Jay Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley 2014 ($65):  This is the most available Nicolas-Jay; 1691 cases produced.  A great vintage in the Willamette Valley; sunny and dry.  The wine represents fruit from diverse vineyards throughout the wine region.  I was struck by the wine’s refinement and elegance, qualities I seldom associate with Oregon Pinot Noirs; beautiful fruit flavors, mainly cherries and dark berries. Great balance of fruit and acidity. The taste lingers on the palate.  A great beginning for N-J.  I was impressed.  93

Nicolas-Jay Pinot Noir, Nysa Vineyard 2014 ($95):  Only 45 cases produced this year.  Nysa Vineyard is high in the Dundee Hills, about 700 feet.  Vines are tightly spaced; they are 25 years old.  The wine shows red fruit flavors, with a hint of clove, along with a velvety texture.  Very elegant, and yet intensely flavored.  I would give Nysa Vineyard two or three years to fully mature.  94

Nicolas-Jay Pinot Noir, Bishop Creek Vineyard 2014 ($125):  Only 85 cases produced at present.  This is Nicolas-Jay’s home vineyard; it’s 100 percent organically farmed; vines are 25 to 27 years old.  You expect a lot from a $125 Oregon Pinot Noir, and Bishop Creek Vineyard delivers.  Very dark in color, with aromas of black fruit, primarily blackberry, that emerge in time.  The 2014 Bishop Creek impresses with its depth; this is a massive wine when first poured.  Although tannic, the wine begins to soften with 15 to 20 minutes of aeration. This powerhouse of a Pinot Noir has the promise of a great future, with a few years of aging.  96

The tasting ended with Jean-Nicolas Méo opening a Domaine Méo-Camuzet 2011 Echézeaux, to show how it’s done in Burgundy. Needless to say, it was magnificent.