Are Oregon Wines Burgundian?

Posted on May 6, 2020


willamette valley

Oregon vs Burgundy tasting at Domaine Drouhin.

On a recent trip to the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s prime wine-growing region, we had the opportunity to really delve into the connection between Oregon and Burgundy. We met with two winemakers from France, a sommelier from Oregon, several Oregon winemakers and did a comparative tasting of the two regions. The experience taught us a lot and of course was great fun as well.

Willamette Valley Oregon

Harvested Pinot Noir grapes just brought into the winery.

Burgundy is one of the great wine-growing regions of France whose wines command great respect as well as some of the highest prices in the world. The Burgundians grow just two grapes: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This is because Burgundy is a cool climate growing region and Pinot and Chardonnay are both varieties that thrive in a cool climate.

Burgundy wine

2006 Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru Burgundy

Terroir is a term the French use that considers the climate, the soil, the terrain and other properties of that particular place where a wine is grown. The term is used broadly around the world now. Most top winegrowers around the world want their wine to express the terroir that it came from. Whether this concept originated in Burgundy is not known for sure, but the Burgundians seem to be the most vocal proponents of expressing terroir in their wines.

willamette Valley oregon

Winemaker Guillaume Large at Resonance, Louis Jadot’s project in Oregon

Perhaps this is because Burgundy has been divided up into so many small sites. In Burgundy’s famed Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune there over 1,200 different “climats”, small vineyards often surrounded by stone. In the New World much of these small plots would be combined into a single contiguous vineyard. The Burgundians, with their elevated devotion to terroir, want to preserve the individual character of these sites and limit the size of the vineyard to an area that has consistent climate, soil and terrain. This allows the to make wines that reflect that unique place.

We often hear, and frankly have said it ourselves, that some Oregon wines are “Burgundian” in character. This is frequently meant to be flattering to the wine; after all, Burgundy is hallowed ground in the wine world. If you think back to what we just said about terroir, you will realize that this statement must be false.

chehalem mountains willamette valley wine

Alloro Winemaker David Nemarnik examining Pinot Noir grapes almost ready to harvest.

The most Burgundian thing about Burgundy is the devotion to the concept of expressing their terroir. Burgundy is all about expressing place. The most antithetical thing to any Burgundian would be to try to express a place that is not your own. The reason that Burgundy is so great is that its wine growers are so devoted to expressing their unique place, their unique terroir. The Burgundians do not imitate other regions. They may love the wines of Bordeaux, or the Rhone, or Napa or Oregon or New Zealand, but they do not try to create wines from Burgundy terroir to taste like that. They know that would never create the best wine.

willamette Valley oregon wine

Brick House winemaker Doug Tunnel with grapes fermenting from this year’s harvest.

Similarly, Oregon winemakers should not try to make wines that imitate Burgundy. They need to make wines that reflect Oregon’s unique terroir. The top winemakers that we have interviewed are all trying to make wines that express their site, not a site that exists 7,000 miles away. They are not trying to make wines that are “Burgundian”. And they know that to do so would just be an exercise in futility.

Oregon Willamette Valley wine country

An example of New World spacing.

Oregon and Burgundy have their similarities and they have their differences too. Burgundy would have a more continental climate with colder winters and hotter summers. Oregon, being a more maritime climate would see a bit more dampness. Burgundy plants their vineyards mostly facing east and Oregon’s vineyards mostly face south. Burgundy spaces their vines much closer together, getting up to 10,000 vines per hectare where Oregon would see 3,000 to 4,000. Soil in Burgundy is largely limestone chalk while the Willamette Valley has Jory (volcanic), basalt, marine sediment and loess but no limestone.

It is no surprise then that there are similarities and differences between the wines of these regions.

Willamette Valley Oregon

The views at Youngberg Hill in Oregon’s Willamette Valley

Generalizations are very difficult to make as within each region there are numerous different styles. But stylistically the wines from Burgundy might be lighter in colour and express more complexity and an earthy character. The wines from Oregon would typically be more fruit forward and potentially fuller bodied.

The constant comes back to the expression of terroir. Winemakers in both regions are trying to express their terroir, not the terroir of somewhere else. While in the past we may have used the term “Burgundian” to describe some Oregon Pinot, and had meant it kindly, we won’t use the term anymore.

Since none of the top winemakers in Oregon are trying to make their wines taste like Burgundy, we should not use the term.

Willamette Valley Oregon

The tasting lineup at Domaine Drouhin.

Complex wines with elegance and balance can mean, we have found, Oregonian just as much as it can mean Burgundian. We have dropped the term “Burgundian” when describing Oregon wines. It is not correct and to be honest, it was not fair to the Oregonian winemakers that have worked so hard to make wines that express their own site. And in so many cases express that site so beautifully.

14 Comments

  1. martindredmond@gmail.com'

    Your last sentence says it all for me. I attended an Oregon Wine Tours in early March. One of the somm’s who moderated the discussion pleaded for us to stop referring to Oregon wines as “Burguindian” Certainly it’s intended to be a compliment, but in some way I think it diminishes Oregon wine, which can also be wines of place. It’s just a different place. And isn’t that the beauty of wine – its diversity? Well done!

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    • Exactly. Oregon should be celebrated for being Oregon and we were guilty of making the same comparison when we first got into Oregon wine. Now we know better ;).

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  2. robin@42aspens.com'

    This is such a good reminder. We, as humans, seem to have the need to categorize things to keep them orderly. It’s natural, I suppose, to compare new things to something else you are familiar with. But we do need to look at wines in a more open way. Oregon and Burgundy share some common characteristics, but they are really apples and oranges. Actually, Pinots from different vineyards in Oregon can be apples and oranges. This reminds me to look for new descriptors and to be more open when tasting wines. All these details do make this beverage fascinating…

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    • The more we travel and taste, the more we realize how true terroir and a sense of place makes such a difference in the hands of great winemakers. We used to use the descriptor ourselves with the best intentions until we realized it simply wasn’t a fair comparison. Oh to be in Oregon or Burgundy right now!

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  3. lwg.mine@gmail.com'

    Refreshing article. I’ve debated this with folks who share they’re not talking about the terroir but the style, e.g., earthy. Thus saying an OR PN is Burgundian means it’s an earthy style. But Burgundian means more, as you discuss. I’ll let each winemaker take me where she/he wants and leave Burgundian out of it!

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    • Well said Lynn. We certainly understand why the comparisons come up style-wise (and we admit we used to say the same), but with more education and discussions with winemakers we don’t anymore.

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  4. jmb5121@gmail.com'

    The biggest problem is what does someone mean when they say “Burgundian”. In one sense, it is a good description if the meaning suggests the winemaker is trying to show the place more than the winemaker’s hand. Then we could say a wine which is “Bordeaux” or “Napa” in style means the winemaker is crafting the best wine they can using all the tools available. Wines in which style is in front and place behind. There’s nothing wrong with either approach and both could be embraced. As a whole, I do believe Oregon wines do show where they are from, and maybe that’s the best way to say it.

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    • Exactly. The intent is certainly meant to be positive and helps as a descriptor but it’s not truly fair if wines are truly trying to express their sense of place. We agree with you regarding Oregon wines, and appreciate your feedback. Cheers Jeff!

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  5. randyg@goodrichtravel.com'

    Allison,
    Remember me from the Emerald Danube cruise? I am located in Oregon and agree with your wine info in this Tweet. In addition, Domaine Serene (across the street from Domaine Drouhin) is fun to visit, especially trying their French Burgundy wines, from Chateau de la Cree, which they now own. I am now a travel advisor and have two groups who will visit the Chateau this September and October 2021, before a Rhone river cruise – great for wine tasting too. Randy Goodrich

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    • Hello Randy! Long time and we hope you are well! I didn’t realize you were in Oregon (lucky you). We’re very familiar with Domaine Serene wines and were actually scheduled to be there mid March but we had to cancel the trip due to COVID-19. We’re aiming to get back there as soon as possible after the border re-opens. We’ll have to share travel wisdom over a glass of wine! Stay well Randy, lovely to hear from you.

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      • randyg@goodrichtravel.com'

        I am a member of Domaine Serene and can set-up a special tasting and perhaps lunch. They also have dinners several nights per week. They also have a wonderful “tasting room” Wine Lounge in Lake Oswego that is fabulous. Once things open up – next month we hope. Let me know and perhaps we can meet up.
        Randy

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        • Hi Randy, sounds terrific. I’ll reach out when we know we’ll be headed back, it would be great to see you again. Cheers!

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  6. rick@strongcoffeetoredwine.com'

    Well said. And that is the beauty of wine. You go on a journey to that place with each bottle.

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    • We couldn’t agree more. At least that’s one thing we can continue during COVID! Thanks for reading Rick and hope you’re enjoying your ‘travels’ of late…

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