Domaine Drouhin Oregon – a New World pioneer

They were the first Burgundians in Oregon, and like all trailblazers they found it hard. Thirty years later, Veronique Drouhin is producing some of the finest American Pinot and Chardonnay

Words by Adam Lechmere

Drouhin vineyards on the side of a rolling hill

Véronique Drouhin first went to Oregon in 1986 when it was a fledgling wine region with only a handful of producers. Her father Robert, head of Maison Joseph Drouhin, believed in its potential for Pinot Noir, and in 1987, after numerous visits over the years, he bought what she calls “a beautiful field” in the Dundee Hills of the Willamette Valley. Both are now American Viticultural Areas but in the mid-80s “they had no notion of AVAs”, Véronique recalls. Drouhin chose the land because – in terms of elevation, aspect and latitude – he considered it “remarkably similar” to Burgundy.

The valley, cooled by Pacific breezes coming through the Coastal Range, has a maritime climate, with long, dry summers and rainy winters. Summer days are long with ample sunshine and nights are cool. Oregon is one of the United States’ most important wine regions – but it is notable for having attracted more winemakers from Europe than from its neighbouring states. Barbara Banke of Sonoma’s Jackson Family Wines, for example, said she found it very difficult to convince her late husband Jess Jackson of the value of Oregon. “He just thought it was too wet and too cold.”

Maison Drouhin was the first Burgundy house in Oregon, and Véronique was the first winemaker at DDO, as Domaine Drouhin Oregon is affectionately known; her 90ha field, then planted to christmas trees and wheat, now has 30ha of Pinot Noir and 5ha of Chardonnay. The first few years were lived as true pioneers – “It was very difficult, we had no water or electricity” – but they sourced grapes and made a wine, which they brought back to Burgundy. Everybody told them they were crazy, until they tasted it, Drouhin remembers. “Robert liked it so much he shouted ‘Let’s celebrate!’ Then he grabbed a bottle of Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru, and said, ‘We should be inspired by this style, but we shouldn’t copy it’.”

Veronique Drouhin
Veronique Drouhin

Deciding what and how to plant took some discussion. “There were no rules or regulations – you could do anything you liked.” They used Burgundy clones grafted onto rootstock, which was seen as an odd thing to do at the time as there was no phylloxera in Oregon.”Why did we do it? we wanted to be safe. It was lucky as in 1991 phylloxera was discovered there. So now we have the oldest vineyards in Oregon. Not many of us have 32 years of history there.” From the 2010 vintage all the fruit is sourced from the estate.

The Drouhins were trailblazers and they’ve been followed by many eminent Burgundians, and others: Bouchard Pere et Fils, Louis Jadot, Liger Belair, Méo Camuzet, Jackson Family of Sonoma, Francis Ford Coppola… In 1988 there were 30 wineries in Oregon. Now there are 800.

Drouhin makes no bones about how tough it was in the early days. “If I could do it again, I would, but it was hard. I didn’t see my children for months on end.” It hasn’t done them any damage: her daughter Laurene, after whom Cuvée Laurene is named (the first vintage, 1992, is her birth year), is now working in marketing at DDO. “She was born three months early. I was doing too much punching down in the winery,” her mother says, referring to the strenuous work of breaking up and submerging the cap of skins, seeds and pulp that forms on the surface of a fermenting vat of wine. The life of a pioneer was never meant to be easy.

True to Robert Drouhin’s early exhortation, the wines are no pale copy of Burgundian crus. They are unmistakeably not from Burgundy, but at the same time, Veronique’s mother country casts a long shadow. The Cuvée Arthur for example has shimmering acidity and fine cooked-pear fruit. It’s fermented in oak and stainless steel to combine – as Veronique says – “elements of a pure Chablis and an elegant Meursault”. But there’s something beyond that, difficult to put your finger on – the exuberant length perhaps, the tropical hint to the fruit, that places it in a different world to the low hills of Burgundy. “I have to work hard at the winemaking,” Veronique says. ”It’s very easy to make a big Chardonnay in Oregon.”

Burgundians are farmers, as they always like to say, and Veronique says her father imported some nuggets of homespun wisdom to Oregon. “He used to say, ‘When the hares have pee’d on the grape then it’s time to pick’.” He also, apparently, used to kick the vine, and if the grapes fell, he’d say they were ready. You can almost see the twinkle in his eye as he imparted that priceless piece of advice.