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Oregon wine country, part 9
Beaux Frères

Website: www.beauxfreres.com


Michael Etzel

Beaux Frères is one of the most talked about Oregon wineries, in part because it is co-owned by the world’s most famous wine critic, Robert Parker.

The story began in 1986 when Michael Etzel identified a pig farm in Ribbon Vale as a promising vineyard site, and went into partnership with his brother-in-law Robert Parker with a goal to producing world-class Pinot Noir. The first grapes were harvested in 1990, and in 1991 a third partner, Robert Roy, joined in to help make the venture financially viable and to help them build a winery.

There are now two vineyards, the 23 acre Beaux Frères Vineyard and the 10 acre upper terrace planted in 2000, which produce around 105 tons a year. Both are farmed biodynamically. In addition, another 20 tons of grapes are brought in to supplement the estate fruit. 
Michael and Earl

The Beaux Frères vineyard was originally planted in 1988 with Pommard and Wadenswil clones on their own roots (phylloxera was only discovered in Oregon in 1989, and there are still many ungrafted vineyards in the state, some of which are showing signs of succumbing). The upper terrace is planted with a range of Pinot clones, and this is the vineyard I visited with Michael and his brown Labrador puppy is 13 weeks old, called Earl.

Most of the property is still woodland, and it has a wonderfully peaceful feel to it. Michael and his wife live on the property, in a clearing in the woods.


We first stopped to look at one of the three compost heaps. Michael uses an old fire truck to water them, and these heaps need 1000 gallons every couple of weeks to help them do their thing. The aim is to get the internal temperatures up to 140–160 °F.


In the vineyard, vine spacing is 4 × 6 feet, and no irrigation is used. Biodynamic preparation BD501 (horn silica) is sprayed three times a season. Cover cropping is employed, and a diverse range of plants are used so that something is in flower all the time, which is great for the insect life.


In the upper terrace Michael shows me his Grenache. ‘Bob Parker loves Rhône wines’, he explains, and this is the reason for trying this variety that – as far as I’m aware – no one else grows in Oregon. The cuttings are from iconic Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate Rayas and altogether there are 17 rows, with some 1500 vines.


We also had a look at Michael’s barrel compost (above): just a handful of this is used in five gallons of water for each acre. It’s made from cow manure, treated with the usual preparations and some egg shells, and fermented in a pit for a few months.

‘Biodynamic farming with all the soil aeration helps refine the tannins, to give you the highest quality tannins that carry the delicate fruit from mid-palate to finish’, says Michael. ‘This illustrates to me the benefits of farming biodynamically’.

In the winery, fermentation is quite straightforward, with the grapes being cooled down to 12 °C and then fermentation beginning after five or six days. There are two pumpovers per day, and then when fermentation begins, the cap is punched down. Michael doesn’t uses whole bunches much, but he says this is a way to slow fermentation down a bit. The temperature is kept below 25 °C, and in some years (such as 2007) the must is chaptalized after the peak of fermentation is over. ‘I hate nutrients’, says Micheal. ‘They steal the wine of any identity and character’. The wine is pressed to barrel where it stays for a year without racking. Bottling occurs without fining or filtration. Michael adds that, ‘we like a little reduction in the wines; it helps build character’.

We tried some barrel samples of the 2007s.

1. Pommard clone: the second one brought in, this was slightly chaptalized. Quite structured and pure with lovely fruit intensity.

2. Dijon clone 115. Very bright, light and spicy with great freshness and purity.

3. 113 clone. Powerful, pure and fruit driven with spicy structure.

4. Old block, 20 year old vines. Michael says this is ‘My favourite: it has all the characters of great Pinot Noir’. Lovely freshness: bright fruit, good length, some spiciness and real precision.

5. Michael reckons that it’s important that Pinot Noir is ‘based on herbs rather than fruits’. He adds, ‘I like Pinot Noirs that have more than just jam and fruit’. This is fresh, spicy and herby with lovely freshness. A great component for blending that will put on weight. ‘One of the reasons that we tried biodynamics is because this block always had tannins but the flavours were shut down’, says Michael. ‘Through biodynamic farming it has permitted the delicate fruit that was there to come through’.

6. This is ‘a bit reduced in a good way’, according to Michael. It has provencal herbs and spice with some fruits, as well as matchstick notes. ‘Wine reflects the vintage and the vineyard’, he says. ‘We never want to lose the charm of the growing year and of the vineyard’.

Bottled wines

Beaux Frères Pinot Noir 2006 Willamette Valley  
This is not biodynamic. Smooth, pure and aromatic with lovely sweet, lush, elegant red berry fruits and a bit of sappiness. The palate is smooth and quite elegant with soft, rich fruit and a bit of spicy richness. Really delicious and fruit driven. 93/100

Beaux Frères Vineyard 2006 Ribbon Ridge
There’s a nice herbal quality to the fruit, which is open and quite pure with some softness and elegance. There’s also a bit of earthiness and tannic structure. This had been open for a day, and may have been suffering from this a bit. 92/100

Beaux Frères Vineyard Upper Terrace Pinot Noir 2006 Ribbon Ridge
Cherry, earth and spice on the nose with lovely pure, elegant aromatics. The palate has lovely freshness and brightness with some subtle, bold, earthy/spicy notes. Fresh and complex, this is a serious effort. 94/100


After we tasted, we went off to lunch with Philippe Armenier (above), who is Michael’s biodynamic consultant. Armenier lives in California, but is originally from Provence, where he was the former owner of Domaine Marcoux in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. 20 years ago, his wife gave him a book on Steiner. He was bored of farming conventionally and was seeing a decline in the soil on his property. He joined up with François Brochet who was just starting his consulting business in 1989 to make his first biodynamic wines. In 2001 he came to California, and now consults for a range of producers in California, Oregon and Washington State, with over 1500 acres under his supervision. 

Here's a short video from the visit:

See also:

Wines tasted 07/08  
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