One of the biggest names in wine making in both its native Burgundy and latterly in Oregon, the House of Drouhin has made spectacularly good wines for over a century. Laurent Drouhin presented a selection of his best wines at the Cayman Cookout earlier this year. Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull went along to find out more and reports.
It’s Saturday morning, 9am, at The Ritz-Carlton’s Great Lawn’s specially constructed wine pavilion under an awning. The wind is gently blowing the seas’s salty breeze across the perfectly manicured lawn and eight spotlessly clean glasses stand neatly arranged on white linen before me, each partially filled with golden or deep red nectar. I am to get to taste them all. Not a bad way to start the weekend, for sure.
The history of Maison Drouhin
Laurent Drouhin is a third generation Drouhin to take the reins at his family’s wine empire and took the time at the Cayman Cookout to give a fascinating presentation of the history and development of his internationally highly regarded Maison Drouhin.
Initially a negotiant, his grandfather Joseph Drouhin set up his own winemaking company in Beaune in 1880 and only moved into actually growing grapes with the purchase of land in Burgundy in 1921. Now the Joseph Drouhin Domaine is one of the largest estates in the region, at 182.5 acres. It owns vineyards right across Burgundy, in Chablis, Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune and Côte Chalonnaise. The Domaine it is made up of mainly Premier and Grand Crus vineyards, planted with the two famous Burgundian grape varietals, pinot noir and chardonnay.
The company is now managed by all four of Joseph Drouhin’s grandchildren – Philippe is the Estates’ Manager; Frédéric is President of the Executive Board; Véronique is Head Winemaker, and Laurent lives near New York City managing the development of the market and the image of the brand in the US and the Caribbean. (The United States is Joseph Drouhin’s top export market.) Their father Robert is President of the Control Board.
Moving across the pond
Drouhin spoke about the vision his forefathers had in 1961 when the late legendary Californian winemaker Robert Mondavi became friends with his family and thus the Drouhins began exploring the terrain in the US for the possibility of making wines as great as those which emanated out of their Burgundy empire.
“In particular my family looked at the soil of Oregon and found it to be quite similar to that of Burgundy – with limestone, clay and gravel the underlying components,” he said. “The one main difference between the soils however was their colour. In Oregon the soil is bright red and that imparts a deeper colour into the wines.”
Drouhin also pointed out that Oregon and Burgundy were both on a similar latitude, which meant although both locations generally enjoyed hot summers, winters could conversely be quite cold.
“We plant our vineyards in Oregon and Burgundy in a similar way with a high density of about 3500 vines per acre. Vines need competition in order to produce the best grapes, so those that work harder, dig deeper and find the minerals they need from beneath the soil will provide grapes that express the true character of the terroir,” Drouhin explained.
Both sets of vineyards were 100 per cent organically farmed, he confirmed.
The whites – a true expression of terroir
Drouhin whetted guests’ appetites initially with a glass of Domaine Drouhin Arthur Oregon Chardonnay.
“Our first vintages of Chardonnay in Oregon were between 1996 and 1999. We fermented them all in barrels but we found the wines were not evolving and remained flabby.” Drouhin said.
“Thus we experimented with the fermentation process and now we place one crop in a steel tank and one in a barrel to ferment. We then blend the juices and the result is truly brilliant.”
He went on to describe the elegance, vibrancy, crisp minerality and well balanced acidity of this Oregon wine.
“It is what Chardonnay is all about,” he said. “This wine also has some potential for aging further.”
We then turned to Burgundy and were presented with a taster of a 2007 Chablis Premier Cru. Chablis is the northernmost region of Burgundy, located in a dramatic circle of hills where vines have been planted for hundreds of years.
“The soil is incredibly poor here,” Drouhin said. “It’s rocky, limestone and much cooler as we are further north. The wine that is produced is therefore high in acidity, high in minerality with a flinty edge to it.”
This wine is vinified the same as the Oregon Chardonnay yet the end result is stunningly different.
“It is in the true Burgundian style,” Drouhin explained. “The chalky stony ground gives the wine a great bite to it. This would be perfect with a delicious plate of oysters and will age very well over the next three to four years.”
Drouhin went on to say that the vintage was quite possibly the best ever produced, with more harmony, structure and balance in this vintage than previously.
A 2004 Rully Blanc was then duly poured. Drouhin admitted that up until this point this was not the greatest appellation, but was now showing signs of evolving into pure gold. The vineyard is located at the Côte d’Or, a few kilometers south of Santenay; this appellation is part of the Region of Mercurey. The village of Rully is ancient and it is believed that the land may have been cleared first by a Roman whose name was Rubilius.
“There is a nice round ripe fruitiness to this wine along with notes of honey and slight tannins,” Drouhin said.
A classic 2007 Puligny-Montrachet was next on the agenda. Situated in the middle part of the Côte de Beaune, the area is famous for its great wines. Puligny-Montrachet, as one of the villages of the Côte des Blancs, is one of the most celebrated appellations.
“When we make wines in Burgundy we must adhere to very strict laws,” Drouhin explained. “For example we cannot irrigate our vines so we cannot change what nature intends for that particular vintage.”
In 2003 they lost about 40 per cent of their crops due to bad weather; however the following two years were, according to Drouhin “extraordinary”.
The reds – finesse and elegance
On to the reds and we first enjoyed a sampling of Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru from 2004. The wine is made from pinot noir grapes located at the heart of the famous Chambolle-Musigny vineyard, with a good East exposure.
“2004 was a difficult year,” Drouhin conceded. “We therefore needed a slow controlled fermentation to give the wine more body. The resulting wine is extremely feminine and elegant with silky yet light tannins and some spicy notes.”
A complex, elegant and food friendly example of the pinot noir varietel.
Located in the north of the Côte de Nuits, Gevrey-Chambertin is world-famous, not only for its superlative Grand Crus, but also for all its other vineyards. We enjoyed a taster of the 2005 vintage and found it quite a contrast to the previous pinot noir.
“This is a far more masculine wine with strong tannins, deep spices, well balanced and fantastically harmonious,” Drouhin offered. “Balance is everything when it comes to wine making. Too much alcohol and you are most definitely missing something.”
We then moved across the Atlantic to Oregon for a taste of their 2006 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir. All of their pinot noir is handpicked and fermentations are long and careful and aging is in a light touch of oak.
“The Oregon pinot noirs are rounder with less acidity than their burgundy counterparts,” Drouhin explained. “The same vinification methods are used by the Oregon wines lack the earthiness of Burgundy because of their different soil styles.”
We rounded off this spectacular tasting with a taste of 2006 Domaine Drouhin Laurène Oregon Pinot Noir. Named after Véronique Drouhin’s elder daughter, Laurène is the winemaker’s flagship wine, and is produced entirely from pinot noir grown on the family’s estate in the Dundee Hills. The exemplary complexity and depth of this wine was evident at first taste.
Drouhin summed up his presentation by saying that his family-owned company truly represented the spirit and respect they all held for their ancestors and their absolute determination to keep this for the next generation to come.
“We do not make big wines; we make wines with finesse and intensity,” he said. “It’s our passion; we love it.”