Robert Drouhin first visited Oregon in 1961, and dreamed of making Burgundy wine worthy of their Burgundian heritage, with an American twist. STEVEN SPURRIER toasts the estate's success.
Domaine Drouhin Oregon overlooks the northern end of the Willamette Valley, known conveniently as the French Prairie to its original settlers. Since first visiting the coastal foothills of Oregon in 1961 and seeing the gently rolling slopes that so resemble the Côte d’Or, Robert Drouhin had a dream of creating wines with all the heritage of Burgundy wine, but with their own distinctive American twist. The wines of Domaine Drouhin Oregon, in the hands of his daughter, Véronique Boss-Drouhin (pictured right), are the realisation of this dream.
Robert Drouhin’s attention was further drawn to Oregon in 1979, when David Lett’s 1975 Pinot Noir beat several very important red Burgundies in Gault et Millau’s Olympiades tasting. (At the same event, held over two days, Torres Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon came first in a group of red Bordeaux that included Château Latour). Drouhin then organised a tasting of California and Oregon whites and reds against the best of Burgundy the following year, and the same David Lett wine came second, while I remember that a Trefethen Chardonnay topped the whites. Obviously, there was something to be done.
Although Oregon has a similar climate to the Côte d’Or, the soil is very different. There is no limestone in Oregon, the soils being red rather than white, on a volcanic basalt base. With an abundant water supply and two very vigorous original rootstocks, viticulture tended to dominate terroir. The DDO vineyards, covering 30ha (hectares) of the 73ha property, are planted with the lower yielding Dijon clone, but even in the first few years when grapes were bought in, yields were limited to 45hl/ha. While Burgundy averages 10,000 vines per hectare and Oregon averages 4,000, the Drouhin vineyards are planted to 7,500 vines per hectare, one of the densest plantings in America. The grapes are hand-picked into small crates, and both reds and whites go through 100% malolactic before ageing in oak, all coming from Joseph Drouhin’s Burgundian reserves, of which in any one year a maximum of 20% are new.
Introducing the tasting of every DDO wine made since its first vintage in 1988, Veronique said: ‘When you taste, don’t think “America”, think “Drouhin”,’ adding that getting ripe fruit was no longer a problem and the main challenge was to obtain finesse and length on the palate. There were no poor wines in this tasting and they all possessed fruit, personality and flair. Marchese Lodovico Antinori once said that it takes 20 years to make a great wine. Judging by their 1998s, Véronique and her team at DDO have done it in 10.
Véronique Drouhin did not intend to make Chardonnay, for the good reason that she thought the grapes she was offered as Chardonnay were actually Auxerrois. The first DDO vines were planted in 1990, and in 1994 she made only 600 bottles. Even today, there are only 2ha of Chardonnay. All wines are rated by the usual Decanter five-point scale.
Fine pale buttery yellow, very limpid. Pure Burgundy fruit, a touch of lemon and honey, wood blended in. Very ripe, but fabulous balancing acidity, still young and a touch minerally. Ripeness of fruit dominates now, but will become very complex. 4+
Colour a little flatter than the 1998 with a touch of grey. Ripe, straw-like fruit, almost sweet and rather four-square, quite high acidity, lacks vibrancy and balance. 3
Full yellow, mature but still just a hint of green. Ripe fruit, broad ‘California’ style but with a touch of Corton-Charlemagne grip, very good acidity, but a little hollow in the middle, leading to a short finish. 3
Full (greeny) yellow, a really lovely colour, still young. Slightly farmyardy, vegetal Chassagne-Montrachet style, slightly hollow (young vines) but quite fat and fully mature. 3+
Contrary to the Chardonnay, the Pinot Noir wines were served from old to young.
Quite full, rim already pale, but good solid colour. Nose: a touch vegetal, but good ripe fruit, deep, mature Pinot, quite earthy. Palate: very good fruit, full and ripe, firm finish, seems a touch overripe, but good solid wine. 3+
Very good colour, deep and still youthful, not showing any age. Nose: not very expressive, but good concentrated ripeness. Palate: full, smooth and rich, almost velvety and Chambolle in style and then a slightly hotter, riper finish. A little chocolatey sweet, even a little herbaceous, but fine. 3++
Good deep colour, velvety red, rich, just paling at edge. Nose: lovely, smooth, ripe bouquet, black fruits blended in, lovely fruit. Palate: again, lovely fruit, smooth and ripe, and a touch of blackberry jam. Excellent balance, oak totally blended in.
Good colour, full and still young. Nose: earthy, spicy, liquorice, smooth. Palate: vibrant fruit, smooth, rich, a touch chocolatey, very Côte de Beaune like a ripe Pommard, complex, explosive fruit with softish acidity but good balance. Delicious. 4+
Good colour, but less youthful than the 1991. Nose: a little jammy/vegetal, but true Pinot. Palate: lively fruit, a touch of vanilla/oak, pretty wine but doesn’t have the depth of 1991, sweet and ripe, but an element of leanness persists. 3+
Full colour, still young. Nose: wonderfully spicy, liquorice nose, ripe, brambly fruit. Palate: ripe, very pure and well-defined blackberry fruit, lovely balance, already easy to drink due to perfect balance, a really lovely wine. 4+
Fine, youthful colour. Nose: ripe, smooth, soft fruit. Palate: soft fruit, good balancing acidity, nice and sweet but overall a bit light and lacking in complexity. 3
Good colour, deep with some maturity. Nose: slightly sweaty, very Burgundian farmyardy. Palate: earthy and quite exotic, smooth but in a quite different style to the others, more vegetal, less rounded. 3
Good colour, deep black cherry red. Nose: earthy, animally Pinot, much more vibrant than the previous two, more muscular. Palate: a leaner and sterner style, quite tough tannins behind the ripe fruit, more firm than showy. 4–
Very good deep garnet red, smooth and ripe looking. Nose: very showy, a cocktail of ripe, red fruits. Palate: very attractive, with marvellous acidity to back up the ripe fruit, but perhaps a little short and quick maturing. 3+
Fabulous colour, ripe, deep and dense. Nose: rich, chocolatey ripeness, wonderful extract of fruit and the essence of blackberries. Palate: smooth and ripe, still a little unformed, with ‘baby fat’ fleshy fruit dominating, waiting for the acidity and tannins to kick in. Very good indeed. 5 cuvee laurene (pinot noir) ‘Cuvée Laurène’ was named after Michel and Véronique Boss-Drouhin’s eldest daughter, who was born in 1992.
Colour still full, just a little paling at edge. Nose: very ripe red fruits, showing maturity, but still lively and vibrant. Palate: smooth fruit with fine acidity, typically Burgundian, quite ‘funky’, a marvellous expression of Pinot Noir, just lacking a little concentration on the finish. 4–
Full colour, still deep and young. Nose: very floral, peonies and a touch of spice, wild red fruits, quite like a Côte de Nuits 1993. Palate: firm and classic, very good depth of fruit and tannins blended in, acidity still quite present, a good wine for the long term, very fine and very expressive. 4
Full, solid, youthful colour. Nose: ripe, almost overripe, good concentration. Palate: rich with a touch of sweetness, slight over-ripeness, nice touch of spice, a bit burly and slighly hollow middle, but good. 3+
Good firm crimson colour. Nose: ripe red fruits, a little stewed, very Burgundian Pinot. Palate: more raspberry than black cherry fruit, quite high acidity, perhaps not the ripeness of 1996, but very good expression of Pinot Noir. 3++
Full black cherry colour, still young. Nose: black cherry and black fruits rather than red fruits, good back-up of oak. Palate: full and firm, masses of fruit and flavour, lovely smooth wine with a touch of spice, very good depth and tannic structure, a very confident wine, attractive now but could last 10 years.
Good deep black cherry colour. Nose: fine red berry fruit, still a little tight. Palate: fine touch of liquorice and black cherry fruit, good complexity and grip, a little lean and should develop well, but not a grand vin.
Fabulous colour, deep black cherry, very full and dense. Nose: wonderfully exciting nose, packed with very ripe berry-fruit aromas and liquorice spice, hedonistic, but not over the top. Palate: a sumptuous attack of soft berry fruit and just a touch of chocolate/vanilla from the oak, expands on the palate with terrific length and more firmness and grip than expected. Exceptional. 5
Written by STEVEN SPURRIER