The landscape of Oregon’s Pinot Noir-loving region of Willamette Valley continues to evolve, change, and grow, with new faces arriving daily from around the country, and around the world, looking to make their mark in producing world-class Pinot Noir wines. The mom-and-pop wineries are still being established, but there seems to be a more corporate feeling in the air of what was once a “one succeeds, we all succeed” environment. And with this, a great number of these entities are French.
It makes sense to see the French arrive in Oregon. The key varieties in both Burgundy and Willamette Valley are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but unlike Burgundy, Willamette allows you to include a plethora of other options beyond those that French law allows. Willamette Valley delivers the option to grow almost any cool-climate selection your heart desires, almost creating a combination of Burgundy and Alsace, with a subtle sprinkle of Loire Valley. Add in a combination of soil types, elevations, coastal influence, and relatively consistent temperatures. These temperatures ensure grapes will be able to ripen without issue while maintaining acidity. With this combination and the wonderful comradery you can still feel in the valley, it is easy to understand why the French want to be in business in Willamette.
Joseph Drouhin arrived early with the creation of Domaine Drouhin in 1987. After that more and more have followed, Domaine des Comtes Lafon arrived in 2007 establishing Evening Land Vineyard; Comte Louis-Michel Liger-Belair with Chapter 24 Vineyards in 2012; Maison Louis Jadot arrived in 2013 purchasing Yamhill-Carlton’s Resonance Vineyard; Domaine Méo-Camuzet began Nicolas-Jay in 2014; In 2017 Maisons & Domaines Henriot’s American subsidiary acquired Beaux Frères; 2021 saw the acquisition of Ponzi Winery by the Bollinger Champagne house. Change is inevitable, and growth is good. But what does this mean for the region, and how does a French influence affect the resulting wine?
Willamette Valley has hung its hat on showcasing the authenticity of the fruit, the gift terroir brings to the wines with simplicity in letting the grapes speak for themselves with little intervention with many winegrowers farming sustainably and organically. Being a steward of the land has always been as important as making great wine in Willamette Valley. Likewise, promoting the region has been a crucial element of the wine since the region became an AVA in 1983.
I recently traveled to the region, visiting a few of these French-owned wineries, including Resonance and Nicolas Jay. Thankfully, I was pleasantly delighted with each, appreciating the feeling of joie de vivre felt inside each space.
Elegance combined with warmth, the inviting Carlton tasting room of Resonance delivers every bit of refined style with a rustic nod to Oregon’s natural environment. The wood, stone, and glass buildings, overlooking its Yamhill-Carlton vineyards, were inspired by old Oregon barns that the agricultural region has maintained for generations. The tasting room opened in summer 2019, about six years after Louis Jadot arrived. From the start, Resonance has delivered on its hopes to craft elegant wines that capture the essence of Willamette Valley.
The winery offers guests a unique opportunity to taste a selection of Resonance wines side by side with its French counterparts. The wines aren’t sisters to each other, as there are obvious differences in style and terroir, but each selection compliments each other and gives guests the chance to dig deeper into the wines of each region side by side. With a few selections, the Oregon wines were preferred, with a few others the French. As with all wines, everything is subject to your taste, but the key element was that each was delicious, well-made, and truly telling the story of the land. I could not recommend this experience more.
With the goal to create wines inspired by their name, delivering depth, fullness, and vibration, Resonance Pinot Noir wines exude character with restrained refinement, keeping the wines elegant with the earthiness expected from Old World wines, and welcomed from Oregon.
From its organically-farmed home estate vineyard, Resonance Vineyard Pinot Noir ($79) is concentrated and has beautiful texture and balance. The wine reveals layers of black and blue fruit, blackberry, blueberry, and black cherry, with floral violet and lilac notes that meld with crushed pepper and toasted oak with nicely integrated tannin.
From their estate vineyard in the rolling Dundee Hills, Resonance Decouverte Vineyard Pinot Noir ($65) reveals a dusty earthiness that I adore in Dundee Hills AVA wines imparted from the volcanic Jory soils of the region. The wine reveals more red fruits, namely wild strawberry, raspberry, cranberry, and pomegranate, melding with subtle floral notes, truffle, mushroom, and spice. Bright and fresh, melding with tannin, creating lively harmony.
Decades of having a passion for quality Pinot Noir brought Nicolas-Jay founders, music executive, Jay Boberg, and renowned Burgundian winemaker, Jean-Nicolas Méo of Meo-Camuzet, together in Willamette Valley. Many years of friendship brought them together to begin the winery, with the two sharing similar philosophies on wine and life. They both had developed an interest in the Oregonian grown Pinot Noir that turned into a passion to craft elevated wines from Willamette Valley.
Nicolas-Jay was born in 2014 after three years of discussion, development, and searching for the right vineyard location. They found that in the Bishops Creek Vineyard within Yamhill-Carlton. During blind tastings, they continued to come back to the wines from Bishops Creek, filled with complexity and structure, but also elegance. Lucky for them, the vineyard was for sale and partially planted. The 66-acre estate had 13 acres already under vine, of which 11 are old Dijon clone Pinot Noir. The team is dedicated to “no-till” organic farming believing that if you allow the grasses to break down within themselves the soil will find nourishment, increasing water retention, and controlling erosion. To this, they added a 25-acre estate in the volcanic Jory soils of Dundee Hills looking at the Chehalem Mountains. They also brought Tracy Kendall as associate winemaker. A rising star in the region who was working under David Paige at Adelsheim before joining Nicolas-Jay.
I had a chance to taste the inaugural vintage with Tracy a few years ago, and it was delicious. Joyfully, the wines continue to impress, filled with structure and complexity, while still being approachable, with balance and beautiful elegance. L’Ensemble Pinot Noir blends the best barrels from each of their vineyards together for an elevated Willamette Valley Cuvee. Black cherry and raspberry notes rise from the glass, melding harmoniously with rose, violet, and earthy mushroom.
Nysa Pinot Noir, from the Dundee Hills estate vineyard, sitting at 600-700 feet elevation, ensuring the fruit has a lively freshness melding with earthy forest floor, and ripe berry notes. The dry-farmed vineyard is over 30 years old, delivering concentration and structure to the flavorful fruit. Highly aromatic and plush, showcasing violets, dried leaves, woody herb, spice box, and vanilla melding with ripe red and black fruits. The palate brings layers of blackberry, Bing cherry, toasted nutmeg, and allspice, with a lovely note of minerality that lingers on the lengthy, lovely palate.