Oregon’s Willamette Valley pinot noir country has proved alluring for some Burgundian winemakers. Domaine Drouhin Oregon, the New World outpost of Burgundy’s Maison Joseph Drouhin, famously set up shop in the Dundee Hills in the late 1980s. More recently, Maison Louis Jadot has established an operation in the Yamhill-Carlton appellation, and Dominique Lafon consulted with Evening Land Vineyards.
Jean-Nicolas Méo of Méo-Camuzet in Vosne-Romanée is one of the latest to start a winery – in his case, in partnership with his longtime American friend, Jay Boberg. Their first commercial wine, the 2014 Nicolas-Jay Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, was just recently released, and it’s an auspicious debut.
Méo and Boberg became friends in 1988, when Méo was studying in the United States and Boberg was working in the music industry. Boberg – who co-founded the I.R.S. indie record label and went on to head MCA/Universal Records – had gotten interested in wine in college and had a particular love for pinot noir.
Méo, meanwhile, took over his family’s Burgundy domaine in 1989 and was mentored by renowned winemaker Henri Jayer. He discovered Oregon pinot while attending the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville in 1991.
In 2012, Boberg was winding down his music career and looking for a new challenge. He approached his French friend with the idea of starting a winery in the Willamette Valley. Méo was intrigued by the idea of applying his long experience in Burgundy to a new place.
They visited dozens of vineyards throughout the Willamette Valley, looking for the best sites. At a blind tasting of pinots from about 20 vineyards, they found the wine from a vineyard called Bishop Creek in Yamhill-Carlton to be particularly appealing. “Next thing we know,” Méo says, “it’s for sale.” Though they hadn’t planned to buy a vineyard at that early stage, they couldn’t pass up this one.
The sloping, 30-acre property has about 13 acres planted, most of it pinot noir. (There was also a little pinot gris, which is being grafted over to chardonnay.) Most of the vines were planted in 1988 and are on their own roots. The dry-farmed vineyard is being converted to organic farming.
The first wine from Nicolas-Jay, the 2014 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($65), contains fruit from Bishop Creek as well as from other vineyards throughout the valley. The wine is structured and lively, with generous (but not over the top) berry fruit and notes of forest floor and wet stone. Although 2014 was a warm vintage, the wine avoids any overripe character.
Méo says they picked early, compared to a lot of their neighbors. “There are people who really like to push ripeness,” he says. The risk, he adds, is that “you’re going to end up with what I call maple syrup.” He hastens to note that he doesn’t like maple syrup.
Boberg agrees that they’re aiming for more restraint, rather than “candied” fruit. He thinks the 2014 “will have some real life. It will evolve.”
In 2015, Méo says, they picked even earlier. “We’re thinking about (when to pick) and torturing ourselves,” he says.
For the 2014 vintage, they also made a couple of single-vineyard pinots that will be released this fall. The 2014 Nysa Vineyard Pinot Noir ($95), from the Dundee Hills appellation, is powerful but still retains its charm, with lively red fruit, some mineral and spice notes and a somewhat drying finish. The 2014 Bishop Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir ($125), from the estate vineyard, is even more structured, with darker fruit, a racy core and notes of mineral and forest floor. It’s definitely built to age.
Méo travels regularly to Oregon, spending a total of a couple of months there each year. Boberg is there for about half the year. The day-to-day operations are handled by associate winemaker Tracy Kendall, who most recently worked at Adelsheim. Adelsheim is also where the Nicolas-Jay wines are made.
I asked Méo if the transition from Burgundy to Oregon was challenging. “I come with my experience in Burgundy,” he replied. “The canvas of vinification is the same, although it results in very different wines.” He’s fine-tuning the aging, for example, because he finds that the Oregon wines evolve more quickly.
Méo is still learning about the vineyards. He says there’s a tendency in Oregon to emphasize clones, but he thinks site is more important.
Though his Oregon wines have an Old World elegance, ultimately they are very different from his Burgundies, “and I’m happy about that.”