During a casual survey not long ago, I was struck by how many stores in and about Sacramento stock the pinot noirs of Domaine Drouhin Oregon, a Willamette Valley winery that otherwise isn’t getting much love elsewhere these days.
Not a single wine from Domaine Drouhin Oregon was included in any of several “Best of 2013” wine lists I scanned at the end of the year, with one exception. Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer included the Domaine Drouhin Oregon 2010 Dundee Hills Laurene Pinot Noir as one of four wines he found “most illuminating” during 2013, describing it as a top contender for the best pinot noir from an Oregon vintage that produced many outstanding takes on the varietal.
Over the years, Domaine Drouhin’s pinot noirs have stood as a benchmark of how well the grape performs in the Willamette Valley. The wines could be relied upon to deliver all the characteristics the grape is capable of yielding when it is grown and handled sensitively: Individuality, silken texture, a shifting complexity, balance, length and a kind of haunting grace rarely accomplished by other types of wine.
They are refined pinot noirs, all equilibrium and quiet persistence. They aren’t blustery, with the sort of deep color, assertive smells, luxuriant flavor and ample oak that push others to the top of the heap in a tasting. That could be why recent releases didn’t make the cut in year-end roundups.
The folks at Domaine Drouhin Oregon aren’t ruffled if their pinot noirs were overlooked at the end of the year. They’ve been at this winemaking game longer than most, and know that in both Europe and the United States their brand is long respected for wines of character and value.
In 1880, at 22, Joseph Drouhin founded the wine-merchant company Maison Joseph Drouhin at Beaune in France’s Burgundy region. In 1918, his son Maurice succeeded him and began to develop vineyards. In 1957, Maurice’s son Robert took over and continued to expand the family’s vineyards and wines.
Robert Drouhin visited Oregon in 1961 when the state’s vineyard prospects at that time were more anticipation than reality. He didn’t jump at a chance to get in on the ground floor, but others did, pioneers like David Lett, Dick Erath, Myron Redford and David Adelsheim.
Drouhin kept an eye on what others were doing, especially with pinot noir and chardonnay, the focus of the family’s operations in Burgundy, where their limestone cellars under Beaune date to the 12th century.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he conducted a series of blind tastings of pinot noir and chardonnay from California, Oregon and France and began to suspect that Oregon more than California had the soils and the climate to “unlock the complexities” of the two varieties.
In 1986, he dispatched his daughter Veronique, who had just earned her master’s degree in enology, to work the harvest with three families in the Willamette Valley. The excitement her experience generated persuaded him to buy land in the Dundee Hills southwest of Portland the next year, when the area still was mostly given over to the farming of wheat and Christmas trees.
Today, Veronique, one of four siblings involved in the family business, oversees winemaking at both the French and American estates. Maison Joseph Drouhin owns 182 acres of vineyard in Burgundy, including 93 acres of Chablis and 74 acres of Cote d’Or. Domaine Drouhin Oregon consists of 124 acres, the vast majority planted to pinot noir, though they also make chardonnay.
After a quarter-century making wines from pinot-noir grapes in both Burgundy and Oregon, Veronique Drouhin-Boss has a handle on how they differ and how they are similar.
Though Oregon is drier in the summer than Burgundy, both regions enjoy relatively cool nights – the “magic key” to unlocking the grape’s traditionally exquisite elegance, she says via email. She’s found that growing grapes in Oregon is less stressful than it is in Burgundy, largely because Oregon’s weather is less capricious.
“And I have always been amazed how fast the pickers pick,” she adds, referring to Oregon’s farm laborers, who apparently are much more efficient than their counterparts in France.
The soils of the two regions are vastly different. “Oregon soil has a majority of old volcanic elements like basalt,” she says. The soils of Burgundy, meanwhile, are characterized by limestone and clay.
In France she helps produce 45 pinot noirs, each intended to capture nuances of the highly variable “climats” or soil profiles on which vines are tended.
She’s found it much easier to make wines in Oregon than in Burgundy. She makes just three pinot noirs in Oregon, a basic model and two flagship wines, one called Laurene, the other Louise.
Broadly speaking, her Oregon pinot noirs tend to have dark fruit flavors, “with multiple nuances of spices that I find pretty unique to the region,” she says. Her red wines from Burgundy, on the other hand, run more to red-fruit flavors like raspberry and strawberry, but also with hints of spices.
“On the palate, the Oregon pinots can have a succulent velvety texture, while the Burgundy pinots offer an incredible elegance and long finish,” she adds. “It is interesting to note that with age wines from both regions tend to be much more similar.”