Four Generations Behind Maison Joseph Drouhin’s Burgundy Wines

A family-owned brand embodying the spirit of the historic region, and investing in Oregon

Among the tan and taupe buildings of Beaune—a historic town at the heart of Burgundy—one needn’t look far to discover properties belonging to Maison Joseph Drouhin. The winemaking house was founded back in 1880 and its past is tightly woven with that of its hometown. Today, the brand is still family-owned and -operated by the Drouhins themselves. They produce 90 different wines—some of which are utterly extraordinary and others inexpensive and fun—from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Their estate is one of the largest in Burgundy and the numerous appellations reflect the area’s diverse terroir. Basically, whether or not one knows much about Burgundy, Chablis or Chardonnay, there’s something within this portfolio that will appeal. And if anything is to demonstrate the family’s constant quest for careful, considered growth, it’s Domaine Drouhin Oregon—their vineyards in the Willamette Valley.

To best understand the brand, one needs to tour its parts with the generation now in control—the fourth. Standing with Philippe Drouhin, Estates Manager, in the Clos des Mouches vineyard, a powerful sense of the battle with nature unfolds. This is where the acquisitions all began—and today it’s become one of their most famous range of wines. “I’m often asked how we chose to plant Pinot Noir here and Chardonnay there,” he says. “We didn’t know then. We still don’t. To start, my father planted red, then white, then red. I kept the balance of half and half as the acreage expanded. It’s often a question of preference or style.” While it’s all called Clos des Mouches, there are variation in the soil—just like across all Burgundy. For years, they’ve been developing or honing systems to yield the most remarkable results.

Part of this process for Philippe has been the avoidance of chemicals, from the soil to the fermenters. The brand relies on the hundreds of years old process of copper and sulphur—not advanced pesticides. “The more sophisticated [the chemical], the quicker the turn around from nature to bother it,” he says, noting that chemicals get stronger but don’t last. “The less risky way to go was organic—and biodynamic.” He started the conversion to organic wine growing there at Clos des Mouches back in 1989, before expanding to their Chablis vineyards. By 1997, everything across all vineyards was also biodynamic. That, coupled with spontaneous fermentation and indigenous yeast, has lead to the sustained quality of their products.

“My father invested in Chablis in 1968,” Laurent Drouhin, Brand Ambassador and North American Sales Director, explains over a wine tasting at the family’s historic water mill residence in the region. “For many years, Chablis has suffered in the US. People believed, until recently, that it was a cheap wine. We had to explain that Chablis is made out of Chardonnay and it’s coming from Burgundy. It’s required 30 years worth of educating consumers.” Chablis is a regionally specific, protected name worldwide, though some brands violate this—including many located in California. A Chablis from Drouhin is not like an oaky Chardonnay from California, at all. And the two must not be confused.

2016’s yield of wines—and how distinct they all are—help with understanding this. “This is the same producer, same grape variety and same region,” Laurent continues. “And yet, the wine’s as different as night and day. They all have chalkiness and saltiness, but that’s the character of the wines of Chablis.” As an entry point, the Chablis AC 2016 marks what they are capable of producing from purchased grapes. It’s crisp, refreshing, flinty and salty. It’s been aged in stainless, so there’s no oak. Altogether, it’s energetic. Reserve de Vaudon 2016 also happens to be a village level wine but the location of the 17 hectare vineyard is between two Premier Crus. there’s more structure and it’s far more complex—deeper. Neither of these wines are for aging.

The Premier Cru Vaillons 2016 might be a little shy but it is coaxed forward by French oak barrel aging. It’s not new oak, however. “We believe new oak gives too much to the wine and tends to hide the terroir and typicity,” Laurent says. “It becomes a Chardonnay and not a Chablis anymore.” The brighter, open Premier Cru Mont de Milieu 2016 grabs you, especially when you learn it’s only $35. As for the Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos 2016, there’s a glorious white fruit levity but altogether it’s richer and deeper. It’s very dense and lingers with a slight toastiness. The Grand Cru Vaudesir offers warmth, texture and roundness. It’s full but precise. These six wines run the gamut of Chablis potential. The Drouhin’s have mastered each level, aiming to appeal to a range of consumers.

The oenologist Véronique Drouhin-Boss handles the winemaking in Oregon and she “guides the palate” of the Burgundy wines. Touring the cellars with her in Beaune, a place she’s been acquainted with since childhood, truly takes the breath away. These caves once belonged to the Dukes of Burgundy. Drouhin-Boss points to a portion of the wall underground, that dates back over 2000 years. It was built during Roman times. Here, on 7 June 1944, just after D Day, her grandfather Maurice hid, escaping from one door and making his way to the famous Hospices de Beaune, where he was also a manager. He regularly sneaked from the hospital to meet his wife at church, giving her tips on how to run the vineyards and winery in his absence—starting in ’67, the brand would make a charity wine for the hospice every year. In a room just above the meandering underground pathways, wooden winemaking equipment rests, having weathered decades. It was used in 2000 by wives of winemakers who produced their own limited edition product. Everywhere inside and out, the Drouhin family’s presence has benefitted the community—and winemaking.

Robert took on the business in 1957, at a point where people barely knew Burgundy wines were made of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and people had less imagination when describing the wines, he notes. “I’m supposed to be retired, or have stepped aside, but I still look after the children,” he jokes. Before passing along the presidency to Frédéric, he traveled to at least 90 countries where Drouhin was distributed to get a better sense of how people perceived the brand and consumed its products. When asked about his favorite vintage, the answer is unexpected. “When I think of the most interesting, there are many. When I say interesting it’s either because they were great, like 1961 or ’62, or because it was a disaster like 1965, the worst. I still think of ’61 or ’62 because these were the first wines I made. They were also pre-War wines. I began being educated in 1950. We were drinking 1929, 1934, ’36 and ’38. It was still in my memory, pre-War wines.”

As for his greatest pride, his answer might also surprise. “Here, I inherited a name and an estate that I tried to develop and pass on. In Oregon, it was a challenge. Something of my creation from the start, in a different country. It was open land. I could do whatever I wanted.” From grapes to planting density, Robert and Véronique did it all. Robert, quite early on, had noted how similar the Oregon wine growing region was to Burgundy. They purchased the domaine in 1987, while the area was still deep in the shadow of California production. Véronique has been making every vintage there since 1988. “It got a little complicated when I had the kids,” she explains. And yet, year after year she spends weeks stateside. In 2013 they bought a new vineyard, Roserock, which had already planted. Now, they are also producing Cloudline, an entry level wine from purchased grapes that was a request of their distributor. This may seem like a lot, because it is. No one, however, is overwhelmed by the scope of it. In fact, they all seem to be in love with their work. As Véronique shares more stories of Oregon, she passes around her iPhone which is filled with photos of the vineyards, including one that’s sat above the cloud-line. It’s a type of beauty anyone could appreciate, and that Véronique clearly draws inspiration from.

Domaine Drouhin Vaudon courtesy of the brand, all other images by David Graver