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The French Keep Coming

Big-name Burgundians have arrived in Willamette Valley
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 21, 2014 2:30pm ET

It was a moment of validation for Oregon wine in 1987 when Robert Drouhin, patriarch of the Beaune-based négociant firm, bought land for a vineyard in Willamette Valley. Over the years Domaine Drouhin Oregon's wines, made by his daughter Véronique Drouhin-Boss, earned a reputation for finesse and consistency.

Dominique Lafon of Domaines des Comtes Lafon in Meursault has been a hands-on consultant since its inception in 2007 with Evening Land, mapping out the geology of the home Seven Springs Vineyard in Eola-Amity Hills and setting a style that has put it on the top tier of Oregon wineries.

French vintners are becoming more present. I checked on their efforts on a recent week in Willamette Valley.

Furthest along the recent wave, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair joined the party with in 2012. Liger-Belair, who makes La Romanée in Vosne-Romanée, consults with co-owners Mark Tarlov (a co-founder of Evening Land) and Australia-born U.S. importer Gavin Speight in Chapter 24 and Maison l'Envoyé. Mike D. Etzel (son of Beaux Frères' Mike Etzel) is the onsite winemaker, and he's having a blast experimenting with concrete eggs, custom-trimming grape bunches and employing techniques to reduce alcohol naturally in the wines without sacrificing ripe flavors that often come from extrasweet grapes.

When he was Liger-Belair's winemaker, Henri Jayer developed a process to deal with the heat in the 2003 vintage. The secret involves a sequence of techniques used in combination "to persuade the yeast to make glycerin rather than alcohol," said Tarlov. Frequent pump-overs and punch-downs in open-top fermentors also help the alcohol dissipate.

I tasted through the 2012s and 2013s at the winery on the Maysara property, and found plenty of opulence with a sense of spaciousness and transparency in the texture that reflected alcohol levels of 12.6 to 13 percent. The 2012s in release are scoring in the low- to mid-90s. Clearly, this bunch is on to something.

Jadot, the Beaune négociant, bought Resonance Vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton last year, and Jacques Lardière, Jadot's recently retired winemaker, made about 3,000 cases from it in 2013. It'll be ready to bottle in December. Tasting from barrel at Trisaetum, his temporary cellar, I found consistently bright raspberry, cherry and cinnamon flavors and a refreshing transparency in the various lots representing different clones and sections of the vineyard.

Jean-Nicolas Méo of Méo-Camuzet in Nuits-St.-Georges was tracking the harvest from his home in Nuits-St.-Georges as his partner Jay Boberg and newly hired winemaker Adam Smith (who also has his own Oregon winery, Eisold-Smith) tended fermentations in a corner of the Adelsheim winery.

Finally, Isabelle Meunier, the Canada-born and Dijon-trained winemaker who handled all the Evening Land wines onsite through 2013, had six fermentations going in her temporary digs at the Carlton Winemakers Studio for her own winery. More about her in a later blog, but suffice it to say I have never in my seven years of visiting her in Oregon seen her look so happy.

Rich Meier
Reno, NV —  October 24, 2014 1:38pm ET
It is not about the alcohol, but the heat it can bring if the winemaker is off their game. Many great Oregon pinots of the last decade came in at 14% or greater, but still had that Oregon style. If nature provides more BTU's, grapes will respond. Big, in the Oregon way, pinots can rock my world. I don't think I'm alone.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  October 25, 2014 4:45am ET
I agree, Rich. But there's something about Liger-Belair's techniques that produced a nice transparency in 2012 that many others did not, without sacrificing ripe, full flavors.
Mike Officer
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 25, 2014 12:13pm ET
I watched an interview of Mark Tarlov. In it, he discussed the technique of "infusion" in which you give the yeasts plenty of oxygen and ferment holding temperatures in the 70s. The theory is that by not stressing the yeasts, they make glycerol instead of alcohol. Sounds good but I don't buy it, at least not altering the metabolism of Saccharomyces. Perhaps their perceived conversion is lower because they're encouraging a lot of other organisms (non-Saccharomyces) to grow that are consuming some of the sugar and not producing alcohol. Also, by injecting a lot of oxygen (it would have to be a LOT!), they could be driving off alcohol as well. But controlling what yeasts do? I would like to see some science on it. Currently, I'm not aware of any yeast scientist who claims it's possible.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  October 26, 2014 6:45pm ET
Nice feature, Harvey.

And Mike, thanks for your great comments. Please enlighten me if I am mis-understanding, but it seems your more cogent point here is the first, "Perhaps their perceived conversion is lower because they're encouraging a lot of other organisms (non-Saccharomyces) to grow that are consuming some of the sugar and not producing alcohol". (The latter point seems less plausible because of the enormous amount of oxygen that would be necessary to "drive" off the alcohol.) But if in fact the additional oxygen and temperature are encouraging organisms which consume sugar, thus restricting alcohol, isn't that a very REAL phenomenon, not just "perceived"?

Furthermore, it seems to me that an increased diversity of organisms could be just the kind of mechanism which helps provide the balance and "transparency" which Harvey describes?


Mike Officer
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 26, 2014 7:59pm ET

Conversions are calculated when fermentation is complete. For example, if you start with 24 Brix and end up with 12% alcohol, your conversion is .5 (12/24). But this calculation assumes that all sugar (the full 24 Brix) was used to produce ethanol. If other non-Sacch organisms grow and consume sugar (there's plenty danger here of production of undesirable byproducts), then it could be that only 20 Brix went towards alcohol production and your real conversion is (12/20) = .6. That's why I used the word "perceived". By the way, OIV has adopted .594 as the standard conversion rate for sugar to ethanol by Saccharomyces. That's pretty much what I've seen in our ferments over the last 24 years, regardless of yeast (cultured or indigenous) used. Variance from this conversion factor is often due to the inherent inaccuracy of measuring sugar in tank.
Rick Jones
Mesquite Texas USA —  October 27, 2014 8:33am ET
Y'all can discuss brix and yeast and oxygen all you want, I am much more interested in the final product. I "discovered" Oregon Pinot's about eight years ago, and found out they have been around much longer than that. Wish I had "discovered" them sooner. My biggest fear is that as more and more people "discover" them they will go the way of California Cab, so expensive I can't afford them.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  October 27, 2014 10:31am ET
Ok Mike, I think I get it. . .

btw, I appreciate that the challenges of producing quality Pinot Noir in Willamette Valley will differ from those of producing Zinfandel in Sonoma.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  October 27, 2014 12:47pm ET
For the record, these are the conversion figures Tarlov and winemaker Mike D. Etzel quoted to me: average conversion rate in Oregon is around .57 to .59, which would ferment grape must at 24 Brix to 13.7-14.1% alc and at 25 Brix to 14.25-14.75% alc. Their average conversion rate is about .52, which ferments 25 Brix to 13% alc. Big big difference in mouthfeel and perception of weight.

To put it another way, they can pick at 25 Brix, which is very ripe, and make a 13% alc wine, with no technological intervention to lower alcohol post fermentation. Average in Oregon to get that level of alcohol is 22.5 Brix, which requires some vineyard gymnastics to get fully ripe flavors.

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