Most American winemakers who claim that their new wines ‘outdo’ Burgundy would simply be trying to wind up the French. But when the team at Oregon’s Nicolas-Jay do it, it’s worth taking notice. For its winemaker is none other than Jean-Nicolas Méo of Domaine Méo-Camuzet in Vosne-Romanée and he is more than qualified to make the comparison. Peter Dean listened in to Méo and partner Jay Boberg and tasted two of their extraordinary new wines Bishop Creek Chardonnay 2018 and L’Ensemble Pinot Noir 2018. You know, they could be right…
“There’s an obsession in Burgundy of not going too ripe, but some people are harvesting way too early,” says Méo.
To say that the Nicolas-Jay team are on a bit of a high would be an understatement. With Jay Boberg Zoom-ing in from the North West Coast and Jean-Nicolas Méo from the Côtes de Nuits, their excitement at how their joint venture Nicolas-Jay is progressing in Oregon is palpable.
“Can we have a Longhorn skull nailed above the front door?” Méo asks Boberg, referring to the converted cattle barn they have just had kitted out in Oregon’s prime AVA of Dundee Hills. “I want people to connect with where the building has come from.”
Having established the winery in 2013, these friends of 30 years, have been getting by – renting space off another winery and conducting tastings on Boberg’s kitchen table, but still releasing a series of well-received wines. With the purchase of their own 53-acre (21-hectare) site, however, it means they can move up a gear. And the taste of their two new wines suggests that this is already happening.
Bishop Creek Chardonnay 2018 is their first white wine and L’Ensemble Pinot Noir 2018 is a ‘best of the best’ barrel blend which will become the estate’s signature wines and will certainly make heads turn (full notes below).
Boberg explains that the name L’Ensemble captures this ‘more than the sum of its parts’ quality of the wine, and also tips a cap towards his musical past when he was an independent record producer, establishing record label IRS in the 1980s and working with the likes of REM and Mary J Blige. He always maintained an interest in wine during that time and, curious about the possibilities of Oregon’s terroir, decided to start making it with the help of Méo who, like a number of other Burgundians wanted to stretch their wings beyond Bourgogne, especially to Oregon and what is achievable here.
It’s for this reason that when Méo says these two new wines from the 2018 are “more Burgundian than 2018 Burgundy” you need to sit up.
“18 Burgundies are very soft, sweet and likeable but not very rich in structure,” he says, “but we managed the combination of ripeness, acidity, tannins and restraint too which is an extremely interesting combination. It’s the best vintage since we started.”
“What was interesting about 18 was that we didn’t have pressure, it didn’t feel like you had a gun to your head,” Boberg says, explaining that in recent years Oregon has started suffering extreme heat spikes of 100 degrees F and more which can play havoc with the crop, “before 2014 they hardly ever had one day over 100.”
2017 and 2018 did not have these heat spikes which meant the Nicolas-Jay team could make sampling and picking decisions – picking different blocks and at different times – without necessity driving them, important when the diversity of the region creates micro-climates where a longer harvest period with selected picking dates is preferable.
“I love the vintage,” Boberg continues, “the weather was cool after a nice summer there was a final heatwave where the fruit resumed ripening – so we have wines that are quite structured with a lot of acidity and tannins, the wines definitely feel tighter than a lot of vintages in Oregon but also with them being rich which is an interesting combination.”
Part of the rationale for buying the new winery was its location on the cooler slopes of Dundee Hills, with a variety of aspects that will hopefully mitigate any immediate concerns from warmer weather. Meanwhile, they will continue to source fruit in the Willamette Valley from their own Bishop Creek vineyard, as well as from other vineyards such as Momtazi and Nysa. Their own facilities also means that they can ‘over-vintage’ and leave the Pinot Noir in wood for 17 months, rather than have to bottle too soon.
Vinification-wise they try not to over-manipulate the Pinot, the fruit has a cold soak is de-stemmed, natural yeast, an initial pump-over to avoid over-manipulation, after a few punchdowns after fermentation starts the fruit has a gentle press and then the wine goes into barrel 30-35% new oak. For the Chardonnay the wine is fermented in neutral oak – 10% new. Méo stresses that the site of newly-grafted vines (onto Pinot Gris rootstock) is not quick-ripening which allows him a good degree of control.
“There’s an obsession in Burgundy of not going too ripe, but some people are harvesting way too early. Obviously you don’t want to let Chardonnay go past a certain threshold and get too heavy, too creamy and OTT. But here there is no danger of ripening overnight, it’s not a qickly-ripening site so I am extremely interested in the future of this wine in that location, it brings richness, it is not lean but then it is fragrant, generous and offers real diversity of taste, seductive, I am very excited with this wine.”
And so he should be – here’s how they tasted
Bishop Creek Chardonnay 2018, Yamhill Carlton, Oregon, Nicolas Jay
Truly outstanding debut white wine. Blessed with the 2018 vintage that had no heat spikes and allowed the winemakers to carefully choose the optimum harvest time, this is a stunning marriage between an opulent and elegant style, that reeks of class without being a show pony and with an almost perfect balance.
Pale straw to look at, the nose is delicate and slightly reticent but slowly draws you into the glass with comice pear, lemon pith and honeysuckle; a lot of detail here. The orchard fruit and lemon zest continues on the palate, with just a touch of toasty oak in the distant background. The mouthfeel is medium weight, rounded with ripe tannins, but fresh with a decent structure and a mineral tingle that persists. My word what a wine. Only 120 cases made which explains its £105 a bottle retail price tag.
L’Ensemble Pinot Noir 2018, Willamette Valley, Oregon, Nicolas Jay
First release of this new, top cuvée. This is a new ‘best of the best’ barrel selection whose name L’Ensemble hints at a ‘more than a sum of its parts’ and also a nod to Boberg’s music connections.
To look at, the wine is medium ruby-purple; the aromatics sit on a tantalising balance between New and Old World – are we in Chambolle-Musigny or the Pacific North West? The nose is complex, ripe and sumptuous with mulberry fruit, ripe red cherry, tree bark and red liquorice; the palate is quite stunning and places you in the finest Côtes des Nuits sites – tight-knit mouthfeel, precise, detailed – a pomegranate tartness keeping the depth of the red and black fruit in check, nuances of vanilla. To its real credit it doesn’t feel like a blend of sites – it’s got a real harmony, the fruit tightly framed by the acidity which, combined with the chalky tannins, leaves your tongue begging for another mouthful. RRP £81 a bottle.
The wines of Nicolas-Jay are imported into the UK by Berry Bros. & Rudd