Domaine Drouhin Oregon: a profile and interview with Winemaker Veronique
A French invasion sent ripples through the Oregon winemaking community in 1988. They didn’t come en masse, the way Champagne producers came to California. Only one producer made the journey, but in the close, neighborly fraternity of Oregonian winemaking, they made a splash - like a Peugeot in a pond.
Okay, so maybe Maison Joseph Drouhin isn’t that big, but their impact on Oregonian winemaking was dramatic. Winemaker Veronique Drouhin-Boss feels that at the time, “Oregon was not a well-known region, and the fact that a famous producer from Burgundy came to Oregon brought some credibility to the area.” The state first caught the eye of Robert Drouhin, the head of Burgundy’s Maison Joseph Drouhin, during a visit to the Pacific Northwest back in 1961. He stayed in touch with the then-nascent winemaking community and got to know some of the area’s pioneers, like David Adelsheim and David Lett. Lett’s Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir would later bring worldwide attention to Oregonian Pinot Noir by taking first place at a 1979 tasting competition in Paris.
Meanwhile, Robert’s daughter Veronique had decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and completed her Enology studies at the University of Dijon in 1986. She visited Oregon with her parents that same year, staying on to work the vintage at Adelsheim Vineyards, Eyrie, and Bethel Heights. Around this time Robert also let slip to David Adelsheim that he might be interested in buying some land in Oregon and putting it through its paces. David responded not much later: a prime piece of land in the Red Hills of Dundee was up for sale; the 225-acre site – once a mix of wheat fields and a Christmas tree farm – had south-facing slopes perfect for catching the sun and ripening grapes. By the end of 1987 Robert and Veronique had decided to make a go of it and bought the property; Veronique was to be the winemaker.
Once they made the purchase their eagerness to begin making wine mounted rapidly. But they had only just begun planting vines in 1988, and the winery Veronique had designed would not be ready until the 1989 harvest. So in the meantime Veronique and her father decided to purchase grapes from local growers, and Veronique made their first wines by renting space at the Veritas winery nearby; 1988 became Domaine Drouhin Oregon’s first vintage.
Initial plantings used the Pommard and Wädenswil clones of Pinot Noir, spaced in seven-foot rows, an arrangement which was more-or-less standard procedure in Oregon at the time. But the following year Veronique called on her Burgundian background and began planting five or six different Dijon clones that she had obtained from Oregon State University. It was an important change, and Veronique is happy with their clone selections now. “We like the Pommard clone but never liked the Wädenswil very much. We pulled out the vines a couple of years ago.” She also planted the vines at a higher density than had been previously done in the U.S.; their vineyards have over 3,100 vines per acre, whereas Oregon’s norm is somewhere between 800 and 1,400. Putting the vines closer together makes them compete for nutrients and dig deeper in to the soil, concentrating the flavors in the grapes.
Until Drouhin arrived, Oregon’s winegrowers had planted their vines on their original rootstocks; the threat of phylloxera, a louse which destroys vines by infesting their roots, had not yet reached the state. But Robert Drouhin realized that it was only a matter of time, and as they planted they began grafting their new clones onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. While its progress was slowed by the cooler climate and the distance between individual vineyards, phylloxera did indeed become a problem for Oregon’s vineyards in the 1990’s, and many vineyard owners found it was time to follow Drouhin’s lead.
Today Domaine Drouhin Oregon has 70 acres planted with Pinot Noir, and 13.5 acres with Chardonnay. All of the vineyards are on the slopes of the rolling Dundee Hills, dotted with groves of Oregon’s State Tree, the Douglas Fir. They still buy grapes from other growers (although very few at this point), so Veronique has experience with grapes grown on the Hill’s Red Jory Clay, as well as on the Willakenzie soils of the flatter areas. She prefers the former: “I like the diversity of soils but think the red hills give grapes that lead to wines with incredible complexity, which is hard to achieve in Oregon.” The region’s soils also bring out a different set of flavors: “Usually more color than a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, more dark fruit flavors such as cherries and black berries, and more spicy nuances; Pinot from Oregon matches very well with fish such as salmon or tuna.” Portions of the estate are reserved for growing rootstock and cuttings for future plantings, so their source material is now self-contained and unique to their property. Another 50 acres of the Drouhin property remain to be planted and are destined for more Pinot Noir.
The vines are pruned ruthlessly so that each vine concentrates its energy on an average of eight clusters per vine. This means each vine only produces three-quarters of a bottle of wine. It’s expensive winemaking - Veronique also feels that their production cost “is certainly one of the highest in Oregon” - but it guarantees a consistently high level of quality. After the rigors of life in the vineyard, the gentle treatment in the winery might seem like luxury to the grape; nevertheless, the attention to detail here is actually as intense as the work outside. The grapes are harvested in shallow baskets that prevent them from crushing each other and fed into a gravity-flow system – there are no pumps putting undue pressure on the must (unfermented or partially fermented grape juice). Nor are the musts inoculated with yeast cultures; the yeast that ferments the wine and even the bacteria that cause malolactic fermentation are all naturally occurring. Eventually the wine is aged, using a low proportion of new French Oak – generally less that 20% - that will support rather than obscure the wine’s natural flavor profile.
Fruit from each section of the vineyard is vinified and aged separately; regular tastings of each individual lot - over 30 from each vintage - help Veronique learn even more about how each clone is responding to the different sites. A few barrels are eventually separated out from the rest of the vintage to be blended as the Cuvée Louise, and a few more are set aside for the Cuvée Lauréne (each named after one of Veronique’s daughters). The rest will be blended in varying percentages into the Domaine Drouhin Classic Pinot Noir.
Lauréne and Louise’s brother Arthur has not been left out; his name has been added to the winery’s Chardonnay. However, it only earned the name after Veronique changed her approach to the wine: “After a couple years making ‘classic American-style Chardonnay,’ my vision for Chardonnay in Oregon is now slightly different from the vision my colleagues have. I do not think Oregon should and can compete with Californian Chardonnay. My style for our Oregon Chardonnay is very French: beautiful fruit and mineral flavors and a long, complex mouthfeel. It works well; we are extremely happy with our last vintages. The wine is very food friendly.”
Oregon’s wines have been riding high on a series of fantastic vintages, the most recent being the hottest in some time. Veronique finds the 2003 Pinot Noirs to be “a little too high in alcohol and rather low in acidity,” but with “very good” tannins. “The wines will be very pleasant when young, but I am not sure of the extended aging ability. This is fine as we have a range of excellent vintages including the ‘98 that will last for a long time - 2001 can also wait a couple years.” Her judgement bespeaks a confidence, built on a family tradition several centuries in the making.
It’s a tradition that has attracted attention worldwide and provided a “how-to” example for the next generation of Oregon’s winemakers. Most of the skeleton crew that works full-time at the winery aspires to making their own wine some day; Scott Paul Wright, the Managing Director, already does. Other would-be winemakers, especially Pinot-philes, come from all around the world to work the harvest and see how it’s done. To accommodate less strenuous visits, the winery recently opened a beautiful tasting room at the winery; Hospitality Director Arron Bell enthusiastically guides visitors through tours and tastings, and even gives them a moment to enjoy the hilltop view. It’s amazing - you can see Burgundy from here.