Burgundy represents the pinnacle of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Yet, prestigious Burgundy producers are spreading their winemaking skills across the pond to Willamette Valley. What lures these world-class winemakers to the new world? “There is a soul, an inspiration, a source of energy in Willamette Valley, it is engaging,” explains Burgundy-born Guillaume Large, winemaker of Résonance Wines.
Founded by the Jadot family in 1959, the same year Oregon became a state, Maison Louis Jadot has a reputation for producing world-class Burgundian wine. It came as a surprise when Thibault Gagey, Director of Operations, and winemaker Jacques Lardière, who had retired after 42 years of making Maison Louis Jadot wine, left Burgundy to explore Willamette Valley in 2013.
An ungrafted Pinot Noir vineyard planted in 1981 in Yamhill-Carlton captured their imagination. “They felt a true energy on site, a unique ‘somewhereness’—Résonance was born in summer 2013”, exclaims Large.
Excited by the challenge of producing world-class wines in a new region fueled the endeavor. They adapted the Burgundian approach of dry, organic farming for high-quality and low yields. The goal remains the same, “not to make Burgundy wines in Oregon, but to express through the wine the complexity and the harmony of this promising terroir, the truth of the place,” shares Large.
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Maison Louis Jadot did not set out on an uncharted path. The first Burgundy tied-house in Willamette Valley was established almost thirty years prior, by Maison Joseph Drouhin.
In the early 1960’s, a decade before David Lett planted the first vines in the Dundee Hills, Robert Drouhin visited the region as a young Burgundy salesman. Although he recognized the topographical similarities between the two regions, he never believed he would make wine in Oregon.
In 1986, Robert’s daughter, Véronique, came to the region through an enology internship. The following year, Drouhin spoke at the inaugural International Pinot Noir Celebration. At that time, David Lett and David Adelsheim, hoping to convince Drouhin to expand to the area, introduced he and Véronique to a property high in the Dundee Hills.
Upon seeing it, Véronique recalls her father turning to her and saying “I believe in Oregon. If you are willing to make the wine, I think we should try it.” She adds, “I was very young. There was no winery, no vineyard. I didn’t realize all the work that was involved so I said, ‘Let’s Do It!’”
In 1988, Domaine Drouhin made 96 barrels of wine. Not wanting to be seen as “lucky,” Véronique explains the following year they decided to make another batch, taking completed samples back to Burgundy for their friends to try. Laughing, she recalls them saying, “You are crazy because no one is going to buy Oregon Pinot Noir, but we have to admit, the wine is good.”
Making wine in Willamette Valley requires a different philosophy. “In Burgundy we seek to enhance a terroir we already know. In Oregon we are working with different soil and a slightly different climate. The idea, however, is the same: To make elegant wines that speaks to the terroir. But, discovering the terroir is what I find fascinating in Oregon.”
The first ten years proved challenging for sales for the entire region. In keeping with the Willamette Valley spirit, the region banded together to sell the wines. “One of the strengths of the region is the community.”
Véronique Boss-Drouhin has been making wine in both Willamette Valley and Burgundy for 33 years. Early on her biggest challenge was making wines in both regions while raising a family in Burgundy. Today, her daughter, Laurène is following in Véronique’s footsteps.
In 2013, the family added Rose Rock Winery in Eola-Amity Hills to their portfolio. When asked if she has any regrets, Véronique quickly replies, “No. Not one.”
The same time Gagey and Lardière were exploring Willamette Valley, former music entrepreneur, Jay Boberg was convincing his long-time friend, Jean-Nicolas Méo, winemaker of Domaine Méo-Camuzet in Burgundy, to consider a joint venture in the region.
Their journey began in 2012, with an in-depth exploration of the Willamette Valley. In 2014, Domaine Nicolas-Jay was born.
Producing top-quality Burgundy poses a risk on winemakers seeking to expand to Willamette Valley. The new world wines must be equal in stature to their old world counterparts. “We have to believe we can make world-class wine here. After spending two years carefully tasting and studying to region, Jean-Nicolas turned to me and said ‘I think we are going to be fine,’” shares Boberg.
Méo sees parallels between Burgundy and Willamette Valley through the wide variety of Pinot Noir expressions produced by both regions, posing challenges for wine buyers because two wines crafted from the same grape grown in adjoining vineyards expresses itself so differently in the glass. This diversity and sense of place excites both men.
Willamette Valley offers its own set of challenges, including the distance between regions, extensive travel, and technical differences requiring winemaking adaptations. “Making wine in Willamette Valley is a lot of fun, however, the wines are more fragile,” explains Méo.
While their co-owner-partnership is key to tackling challenges, Boberg shares, laughing, “Starting a record company and starting a winery are not that different regarding brand building. I am getting old; I don’t want to keep working this hard.”
One issue they tackled resulted in their “vine to vat” protocol, which aims to maintain the grape’s integrity from the vine to the vats in the winery. The solution incorporates shallower cherry pins that keep the grapes from crushing each other while not slowing down pickers.
“Every harvest we try to refine this process more to achieve our goal of getting the grape off the vine and into the vat without being bruised or crushed,” share Boberg. “This has translated to wines that are silkier,” adds Méo.
As they look to the future, the desire is to maintain their boutique size while also continually seeking new expressions of the region’s terroir and expand relationships within the industry and with consumers. The key, for Boberg is fun. “As long as we are all having fun it’s all worth it.”
After almost forty years of practicing environmental and wine law, native Oregonian Chris Hermann decided in 2015 to start his own wine project capitalizing on his European roots and Oregon traditions. “You can be in Oregon and do exciting and novel things, but you also have this connection to tradition and the old world,” he explains.
Moved by the stunning Chardonnays of Mersault, he decided to launch his winemaking dream producing Chardonnay in the style of famed Burgundy winemaker Pierre Millemann. The deep connections Hermann forged as a wine lawyer allowed him access to some of the region’s best Chardonnay vineyard.
Under Millemann expert consultation, OO Wines set out to craft Chardonnay in the quality and style of Burgundy’s finest. “We want to produce Leflaive quality Chardonnay in Oregon. Not imitating, rather reaching toward that perfection of texture and aromas,” explains Hermann. They achieve this goal through a riveting expression of “Black Chardonnay.”
Counter to the previous wineries, Hermann’s focus on Chardonnay has led him to produce wine in France—specifically Champagne and Burgundy. Beginning in 2017, the Corton-Charlamagne Grand Cru project extends the relationship with Millemann, who is making the white and red wines himself. “We are excited about these projects because it allows guests in our tasting room to experience our Willamette Valley Chardonnay, Blanc de Blanc Champagne, and Grand Cru Burgundy Blanc to see a connecting thread,” exclaims Hermann.
Like the others, traveling between the two regions poses the biggest challenge. However, this time Hermann and his wife Kathryn are most often the ones on the road. “We have great winemakers in both regions who stay on-top of everything for us,” he explains.
Logistic of producing wine in three regions poses a complex series of hurdles to overcome for this small, family-owned winery, but over time they have ironed out much of these complications.
“The only reason we did it is because I’m so crazy. I wanted to do it so badly. We went to unbelievable lengths to make it happen,” laughs Hermann. “It’s worth it to make wine in the best regions for Chardonnay in the world. It’s just exhausting.
2017 OO Wines VGW Chardonnay $75 crafted in a “black chardonnay” style reveals complex layers of crushed wet stone, orchard and tropical fruit, peat moss, lemon zest, honey, and smoke. The palate walks a tight rope between fresh/lively and silky/creamy. This tension follows through with a vein of acidity and a toasted hazelnut finish. An intellectual and proactive wine.
2017 Domaine Drouhin Laurène Pinot Noir $75 marks the winery’s 30th anniversary in Oregon and Laurène’s first harvest working alongside her mother. A beautifully balanced cuvée delivering notes of tart red and blue berries mingling with spice and wild herbs, youthfully vibrant yet elegantly restrained.
2018 Nicolas-Jay Affinités Chardonnay $40 dazzles with orchard and under-ripe stone fruit, citrus zest, baked quince topped with toasted graham crackers. Lean and focused with a mild-palate density and texture driven by judicious use of oak. Long mouth-watering finish.
2017 Nicolas-Jay Momtazi Pinot Noir McMinnville $90 is a bold, lively wine sourced from biodynamically grown grapes. Layers of black fruit, wild herbs, and a cola kiss allure the senses. Broad and full-bodied supported by foundational acidity in a texturally dense mouth-feel.
207 Nicolas-Jay Nysa Pinot Noir Dundee Hills $90 is a wine of complexity and depth. Layers of aromas include bramble berry, forest floor, exotic spice box, and holiday potpourri. An expansive and energetic mouth-feel is driven by acidity.
2018 Résonance Wines Willamette Valley Pinot Noir $35 opens with fresh red and black berries, warm spicy, tea, and red floral notes. The wine is approachable, harmonious, and balanced.
2017 Résonance Wines Découverte Vineyards Pinot Noir Dundee Hills $65 dives into complexity. Darker fruit, mushroom, black tea, and dried herbs welcome the senses. Lean and tight on the palate with a bit of grip mid-palate. Broad with high acidity.
2017 Résonance Wines Résonance Vineyard Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton $65 opens with blackberries baked in holiday spices, black tea, dried violets, and a bit of forest floor. It offers layers of depth and complexity with a crushed velvet mouth-feel and balanced lean acidic focus.