Every wine enthusiast can tell you what their ‘a-ha’ wine is…the one that forever changed them from drinking wine, to tasting wine.
Once you’ve been bitten by the wine bug and delve down the rabbit hole of seemingly endless varieties, styles and regions; it’s that much more impressive when a wine can still force you to stop whatever else it is you’re doing and take notice. Our first sip of Nicolas-Jay in 2020 did just that, and we knew that we had to get the story behind it.
We discovered Nicolas-Jay by chance at a local private wine shop in British Columbia. As big fans and frequent visitors to the Willamette Valley, we were stunned to see an Oregon Pinot Noir behind a glass case (aka valuable) that we had never heard of. We returned home and promptly googled the winery to find out that the ‘Nicolas’ is none other than Jean-Nicolas Méo, owner and winemaker of Domaine Méo-Camuzet, one of the very best wineries in Burgundy; and ‘Jay’ is Jay Boberg, co-founder of I.R.S. Records and former President of MCA Records.
Unable to travel to Oregon due to the Pandemic, we interviewed them both early last year from Vancouver via zoom with Jay in Oregon and Jean-Nicolas in Burgundy. We learned about how they became friends over a mutual love of Pinot Noir over 30 years ago and decided Oregon was where their collaboration would take root. Both saw the potential of Oregon Pinot Noir to truly reflect New World terroir and Jean-Nicolas was intrigued by the idea of working on a new project outside his native Burgundy.
We finally had the opportunity to visit the new winery and tasting room in person and it was well worth the wait.
We met with Associate Winemaker Tracy Kendall who looks after the viticulture and winemaking on the ground at their estate located in the Dundee Hills AVA.
We stand on the outside deck of the tasting room as Tracy provides a lay of the land that is spread out in front of us. The property consists of 53 acres, of which about 22 acres is considered high quality plantable land. It currently has about 1.5 acres of Chardonnay and 2.5 acres of Pinot Noir under vine. “Our property faces north but with a western lean, the idea was that we’d be in a colder area of the Dundee Hills. This north slope hasn’t historically been planted but due to increasing temperatures and earlier harvest dates, we’re trying to extend the growing season.”
“We’re always trying to aim for that 13% alcohol range but it’s not always easy to do that now in Oregon while still maintaining acidity and flavour development. Those things are kind of in contrast with each other so being on the north slope allows us to have that extra hang time we’re looking for.”
The Dundee estate was purchased in 2019 but Nicolas-Jay has been producing wine since 2014 with grapes sourced from their Bishop Creek Vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA (which they purchased in 2013), and several other esteemed vineyards in the valley that include Momtazi, Nysa and Temperance Hill. 2021 marks Nicolas-Jay’s first full vintage at their own property. The new winery was ready in 2020 but the region was hit hard by the wildfires that year resulting in no Pinot Noir production.
Tracy describes her journey with Nicolas-Jay as one that began serendipitously–a case of being in the right place at the right time. When Jay and Jean-Nicolas began their wine project in Oregon, investing in vineyards was the priority over building a winery. They ended up renting space at Adelsheim where Tracy was the enologist. When they lost the winemaker they were working with, Tracy had been present from the very first vintage right through to them building their own winery and team, making her the perfect fit for a relatively seamless transition.
As our conversation turns toward her background and experience, it becomes abundantly clear there was no luck involved in the Nicolas-Jay opportunity being presented to her.
Tracy’s resume is an impressive combination of both scientific theory (as demonstrated by her Master’s in Enology & Viticulture from UC Davis) and practical experience gained from working harvests around the world including in Torii Mor in Oregon, Darby Winery in Washington State, Vasse Felix in Australia and Felton Road in New Zealand.
We asked her how that exposure to a variety of terroirs has influenced what she’s doing at Nicolas-Jay, “I think the important thing about working in different places and seeing different artists and different winemaking is to know that at the end of the day, if you don’t have good fruit—wherever that maybe from, wherever that expression is—you’re not going to be able to produce that world-class, stunning wine…it doesn’t matter if your climate’s hot or cold, or you’re dealing with frost or you’re dealing with burn, or you’re dealing with a maritime climate…it’s just about finding the right spots for grapes and then treating them with care which, in my mind, is organic or biodynamic farming, really being stewards of the earth and keeping that living soil.”
Nicolas-Jay’s commitment to regenerative agriculture is undeniable. Farming at the new estate vineyard has been organic and no-till since the very beginning and they’re patiently waiting on shipment of the first fully autonomous electric tractor in Oregon!
It’s being developed by Carlo Mondavi and Jay is also very actively involved with the project. We didn’t get a chance to see it as it’s about a year behind in production, but they’re hoping to have it in time for this year’s harvest.
Tracy’s excitement is most evident with the thought of being able to walk out the door and right into the vineyard, “it’s a challenge to get to all the vineyards regularly in the height of the growing season because I want to see those comparisons particularly when I’m fruit-sampling or looking at bloom tracking…that’s typically a 14-hour day because the vineyards are all over the place. The idea of being able to just walk out and be in the vineyard is just huge. I think there will be an impact in fruit quality just due to that.”
At the very core of what Tracy aims to accomplish is to make beautiful wine, “Wine is food. If you don’t think it tastes good, something is wrong. I think we get away from that sometimes with wine…there are so many wines out there that I’d call ‘high yumminess factor’ that are delicious and you can drink all day but they tend to be higher alcohol, higher sugar, more oak, more in your face.”
“And particularly with Pinot Noir, you lose complexity when you go down that route. The challenge for us is always picking early enough to maintain the elegance and the tension in the wine, and then using techniques in the winery to build that wine up to create that body and that texture so that wine can age for a long time but still be low alcohol, still be tight and still work really well with food.”
The influence of Burgundian expertise in Oregon, through winemakers or renowned Domaines establishing projects in the Willamette Valley, has inevitably resulted in wine enthusiasts and critics often drawing comparisons. However, as we learned from Jean-Nicolas, the most Burgundian thing about Burgundy is the devotion to the concept of expressing their own terroir. The most antithetical thing to any Burgundian would be to try to express a place that is not your own.
Tracy agrees and feels that Oregon is finally succeeding in terms of its own reputation, “Oregon has long lived in the shadow for all winemaking of either California or Burgundy…it’s only recently that people are saying ‘we’re going to make the best Oregon pinot that we can’.
Oregon’s reputation as a world-class wine region on its own merit is definitely being accelerated quickly thanks in large part to the very high quality wines being produced at Nicolas-Jay.
2019 Affinités Chardonnay
Pale yellow/gold with green hints. The beautiful nose is accented with notes of citrus, preserved lemon, and mineral notes. The palate is medium+ and the acid and the oak treatment are very well-judged to match the fruit creating a sense of precise balance. The finish is long and mineral-infused. The bit of back palate juiciness proved a great counter-point to the texture and body. In a world that seems to have so many over done or under done Chardonnays, Affinités stands above the crowd with its sense of balance and proportion. This wine will do much, not just for the winery’s reputation, but for what this variety is capable of in the Willamette Valley.
Excellent+ (Current Vintage is now sold out)
2018 L’Ensemble Pinot Noir
L’Ensemble is a barrel selection from the various vineyards in the Willamette Valley that Nicolas-Jay works with. All of the fruit going into this cuvée has been sustainably farmed, using either Biodynamic, Organic or LIVE certified vineyards only. The result is tremendous purity of fruit that charms with its elegance and finesse. We get notes of strawberry, hints of raspberry and notes of earth. The wine is powerful, but so elegant that you really need to concentrate to see that underlying strength. More gymnast than linebacker. Delicious now but no doubt capable of further development over many years to come.
Excellent (Current vintage is now sold out)
2018 Own-Rooted Pinot Noir
“Own-rooted” refers to vines that were planted directly as opposed to the more common practice of grafting on to a different root stock, selected for resistance to phylloxera.
Phylloxera has been a problem in various parts of Oregon so not grafting leaves the vineyard at a higher level of risk. But own-rooted vines also have their own unique character, as this wine boldly attests. Each of the vineyards selected for this cuvée is at least 30 years old, also an attribute that adds to character and complexity. Cherry, strawberry, hints of vanilla and forest floor all come together to create an intriguing wine. The mouthfeel is silky smooth and the the tannin and acid keep it well-delineated. The finish is very long and spice filled. Wonderfully intense, this wine is just a baby; certainly a rare treat to enjoy now but the best is very likely yet to come.
Excellent+ (USD $90 at the winery)
2019 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
Tracy was very excited about what the 2019 vintage brought to Oregon viticulture and we could quickly see why! Intense flavours of cherry and vanilla receive support from the earth and spice notes that build on the finish. This wine is structured and has a slightly savoury character. Medium body and medium+ acid create a lithe sensation that makes for a very seductive mouthfeel. A touch of white pepper adds complexity to the finish.
Excellent (USD $55 at the winery)
2019 L’Ensemble Pinot Noir
It was great to taste this wine after having tasted the 2018 version and see the differences in the vintage. 2018 could be characterized as rounder, perhaps fuller and 2019 offers more savouriness and a bit more structure. Opinions will be divided as to which is the better vintage but we will give the nod at this particular tasting to the 2019. It charmed us with its seductive elegance, and rare breed classiness.
Excellent+ (Not yet released)
2019 Bishop Creek Pinot Noir
The Bishop Creek is their estate vineyard in Yamhill County and produces fruit of power and intensity. Flavours of black cherry, blackberry, and forest sit atop a medium+ body with a tannic backbone and lively acidity. Power is allied with finesse here in this incredibly seductive wine. The finish is very long and shows notes of baking spices and hints of pepper. The balance of this wine is wonderfully precise and allows the intensity of the fruit and structure to come through with force but without any heaviness. Already a complex wine, it will no doubt gain complexity over the next decade and possibly two. Amazing wine!
Excellent+ (Wine Club members only)
11905 NE Dudley Road
Newberg, Oregon 97132
*Tastings by reservation only
T: (971) 412-1124