I recently tasted wines blind with Goodfellow Family Cellars, one of my favorite Oregon producers, and concluded from the blind evaluation that his wines are very Burgundian – in fact, perhaps the most Burgundian in Oregon. But that begs the question: What is Burgundian? The answer is not the same as it was 30 years ago, when I started drinking Burgundy.
A few decades ago, pinot noir from the Burgundy region of France (officially Bourgogne) featured lower alcohol, firm tannins, and fairly often notes of barnyard and other odd smells. We came to associate these characteristics with those wines, and appreciate them because of those markers. It’s how we told the French stuff apart from the Oregon or California stuff.
But that was also an era of change in the vineyards and wineries of Bourgogne. Ripeness became desirable, and information about how to farm the vines to more reliably achieve ripeness became widespread. Modern notions of sanitation also became more widespread, as did our understanding of oxidation and other factors. The wines in Burgundy became, as a group, riper and cleaner.
It’s not that Burgundy made bad wines then, and great wines now. There were always great wines – but some of those great wines were made by fortune, fate and circumstance rather than through technical control of the grape growing and winemaking factors. And some had flaws that would be unacceptable today, but that we used to identify the wine as “Burgundian.”
||Marcus Goodfellow and co-proprietor Gaironn Poole flank unpaid intern Fletcher.
The same thing was happening in Oregon in many cases in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when winemaking began to professionalize and the hobbyist wineries faded from the scene. In the early days, some the best wines were basically a happy circumstance of vintage character. In the modern world, however, we know how to control many of the vineyard and winery factors, and are able to ‘design’ a wine style on purpose.
As a result, there are now ripe, modern-style Burgundies and more structured, ageworthy Oregon wines that are made that way because the winemakers want them that way.
There are still big differences between most Oregon pinots and most Burgundies despite all this progress. The artful use tannins is one particularly large difference. Extracted from skins and stems primarily, tannin works as an antioxidant while the wine is aging, and adds a bit of bitterness to help balance a wine. An abundance of firm tannins present in many top Burgundies allow the wine to age gracefully for years or decades – or can even mean a wine is unpleasant to drink until it has aged a decade or more.
In Oregon, winemakers will extract tannins from their grape skins and include stems in the ferment and use other techniques to increase the tannins in their finished wine – if they want to make ageworthy pinot noir or aspire to Burgundian character. But it’s a tricky business, and must be done correctly.
Eventually the tannins form long molecular chains and fall out of solution as sediment, at which point we generally declare the wine to be mature – and hope that there’s enough fruit character left behind to make the wine worth drinking. There are many, many Burgundies that must be allowed to cellar for ten years before the tannins are tamed enough to enjoy the wine. On the flip side, there are few Oregon pinots that are still in need of additional cellaring at age 10.
I attended a tasting recently that pitted Goodfellow white and red wines against Burgundies, Premier Cru primarily. Tasting blind, I could pick out only one Oregon wine from as being Goodfellow versus all the Burgundian stuff, which included about 20 wines. One of the Burgundies was a flawed piece of crap that other attendees found “interesting” — which itself was interesting.
In any case, it’s clear to me that Marcus Goodfellow is, without question, making Oregon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with a style and structure that matches Premier Cru Burgundy, and that is indistinguishable from such to an educated and experienced palate (aka my palate).
The wines are all somewhat approachable now, particularly with some decanting and food, but clearly have the stuffing for aging to ten years and beyond. They are not fruit bombs, but instead feature restrained alcohol, plenty of fine and integrated tannins that are derived in part from whole cluster fermentation, and also firm acidity – all required elements for ageworthy wine.