Burgundy Vignerons in the Willamette Valley

This story originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register.

Often you will hear a domestic Pinot Noir described as Burgundian in style. But only Pinot Noir from Burgundy tastes Burgundian.

Each region has its own style. Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir has bright red cherry fruit aromas. Santa Maria Pinot Noir has darker cherry aromas as well as earthy spice and tea notes. Russian River Pinot Noir is noted for its cherry fruit flavor, bright acidity and earthy mushroom notes. Oregon Pinot Noir has raspberry, strawberry, cherry and floral aromas with earthy notes of mushroom.

What sets Burgundy apart is that it is a region driven by its terroir. Land is passed down from generation to generation and Josh Green of Wine & Spirits Magazine described it as a more spiritual way of dealing with vineyards. The vignerons (grower/winemaker) look to grow grapes in a way that represents the place from where it comes. They do not have a preconceived idea of what the wine should be. In comparison, in the U.S., a winemaker chooses the land they want to work with and are more driven by varietal.

While we should not compare other wine regions to Burgundy, an interesting panel discussion led by Josh Green took place at World of Pinot Noir. The panel consisted of three Oregon wine producers: Aaron Bell of Domaine Drouhin, Thomas Savre of Lingua Franca and Mark Tarlov of Chapter 24. Their wines were tasted side-by-side with Burgundy producers. Why was that? It was not to pick the best but to see if we could find parallels. The greatest parallel is that all three of these wines have ties back to Burgundy.

In the Dundee Hills, Domaine Drouhin was founded by third generation Robert Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin in Beaune. He had discovered Oregon in 1961 and then again two decades later. The estate was purchased in the late 1980s. Robert’s daughter Véronique Boss-Drouhin came to Oregon in 1986 after completing a masters in enology and today is the winemaker at both wineries. Her brother Philippe Drouhin joined in 1988 and is the vineyard manager at both wineries. Aaron Bell joined Domaine Drouhin in 2002 and is the assistant winemaker, working with Véronique who comes over from France.

Lingua Franca, located in the Eola-Amity Hills, was co-founded by Larry Stone, David Honig and Dominque Lafon in 2015. Dominque Lafon is the owner and winemaker at Domaine des Comtes Lafon in Meursault. Winemaker Thomas Savre, who has a master’s degree in viticulture and enology, joined the team in 2003. He shared a story of Dominique Lafon coming to the U.S. and meeting with Larry Stone who had the Occidental Vineyard in Sonoma. Dominique proceeded to try a number of Pinot Noirs and kept describing them as “prunes” and had no desire to help make wine in Sonoma. A year later, Dominque Lafon ran into Véronique Boss-Drouhin who told him about Oregon.

Chapter 24 was founded by Mark Tarlov in 2012. Mark, who works in the film industry as a producer/director, became enamored with Pinot Noir and began collecting it. He founded Evening Land Vineyards with Larry Stone in 2006 and was introduced to Oregon by Véronique Boss-Drouhin. Today, Chapter 24 produces wines from 48 vineyard sites in the five Willamette Valley viticultural areas. Collaborating with Mark is Louis-Michel Liger-Belair who created Domaine du Comte Liger Belair in 2000 but whose family winemaking roots extend back to the 19th century. His ancestor was a general in Napoleon’s Army and was given Chateau de Vosne where he makes wine today.

Like Burgundy producers, all three of these Oregon producers focus their attention on the soil. Aaron from Domaine Drouhin noted that the plants grow differently in the two regions. In Oregon there is more vigor, more vegetative growth and deeper, richer soils whereas in Burgundy, the plant is self-regulating.

But like they do in Burgundy, they have 49 blocks on 100 acres and Aaron “knows the personalities of each of the 49 different places on the 100 acres.”

Thomas from Lingua Franca explained that there are 42 premiere vineyards on 60 hectares in Beaune, the most diverse in Burgundy. In Oregon, they have 23 parcels in the one vineyard and keep every parcel separate to try to see what is happening.

“We need to be close to the wine and taste all the time. We want to let it speak as it should,” he said. The focus is on the expression of the place.

Mark from Chapter 24 said “Oregon is much more complicated to grow and make great wine than Burgundy. In Burgundy, you throw a stick and find limestone.” In comparison, Oregon is a “Swiss watch of terroir.”

Oregon and Burgundy are two different places both making Pinot Noir. The three wineries are not trying to make wines that taste like Burgundy, but they are doing things the way their French colleagues do, looking for the delicacy on the palate with aromatic intensity. They are concentrating on the soil that the vines grow in and finding the transparency that allows you to taste where the wine is from.

Wines tasted:

Joseph Drouhin Chambolle-Musigny 2013 – Biodynamic since early 1990s, the wine is rich with notes of dark red fruits and bramble. It is aromatic with a soft texture.

Joseph Drouhin Gevrey-Chambertin 2013 – Coming from limestone rock with marl/clay over soil, the wine, which is not biodynamic, is brighter with cherry and earthy notes and a lot of grip.

Domaine Drouhin-Oregon, Laurne Dundee Hills 2014 – An open wine with floral and spice notes and a softness on the palate.

Roserock by Drouhin Oregon, Zephirine, Eola-Amity Hills 2014 – Due to the volcanic soil, this wine has more structure with more tension.

Domaine des Comtes Lafon Beaune Epenottes 2015 – Coming from a shallow slope vineyard located on the border with Pommard, the wine is floral and elegant.

Domaine des Comtes Lafon Beaune Vignes Franches 2015 – In comparison, this wine has a darker component, more structure and more tannin.

Lingua Franca LSV Estate Eola-Amity Hills 2016 – A newer planting, this wine has floral and herbal notes.

Lingua Franca Mimi’s Mind, Eola-Amity Hills 2015 – This elegant wine with aromas of dark red fruit and spice is dense on the palate.

Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair Vosne 2015 – Made with declassified grapes, the wine has earthy and clay notes.

Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair Clos des Grandes Vignes 2014 – Ripe raspberry and black cherry notes blend with the clay and earth aromas.

Chapter 24 The Last Chapter, Willamette Valley 2016 – A blend of four sites, the wine has notes of pomegranate and violets, as well as earth.

Chapter 24 Stone Creek, Willamette Valley 2016 – A dark red color, the eye does not see what the mouth and nose feel. The wine has notes of menthol, cola and both bright red and dark red fruit and is soft and elegant, filling the palate with soft tannins.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.