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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.