Joseph Drouhin   
Visiting Burgundy, part 1 


In 1880, at the age of 22, Jospeh Drouhin—originally from Chablis—decided to move to Beaune and begin a wine business. He purchased the house in the centre of the town that is now the headquarters of Drouhin, and gradually grew his company.  His son Maurice took over in 1917 and grew the business largely through the acquisition of vineyards. His first purchase was the Clos des Mouches.

The next generation to take the helm was Maurice’s son, Robert, in 1957. Robert is still the chairman of the company, but retired at the executive level in 2003. Drouhin is now in the hands of four siblings of the fourth generation. Philippe (the eldest) is the vineyard manager, Veronique is the oenologist, Laurent is in charge of the US market, and Frederic (the youngest) is president. 

On my visit, I met with Philippe Drouhin (above) and Jean-François Curie (Vice President Sales and Marketing).

Drouhin is both a large estate and a small merchant house. They own two Burgundy domains: one in Chablis (38 hectares) and one in Côte d’Or (35 hectares, largely in the Côtes de Nuit and Côte Chalonnaise, 90% of which is Premier and Grand Cru vineyards). In addition, they have a 73 hectare estate in Oregon (Domaine Drouhin Oregon). In terms of volume, two-thirds of the business is the negociant wine, but in terms of value, two-thirds is the estate wine.

The main winery, out of town, was built in the 1980s. In vintage 2007, the winery was reequipped with vertical presses for reds and and large open horizontal presses for whites, rather than the more modern pneumatic presses. This is because of worries about the premature oxidation problem that has been affecting many white Burgundies. One of the contributory factors cited by some has been that the pneumatic presses protect the juice too much from oxygen, resulting in more fragile wines. The older presses allowed some juice oxidation, which removes phenolic compounds before fermentation, and counterintuitively gives the wines a longer life. Also in response to the premature oxidation problem, Drouhin stopped using silicon-coated corks from 2003, reverting to the more traditional paraffin coating.

In the Beaune house they still have a historical press dating back to 1563, which is still functioning. It’s not used routinely, but is put into action for special occasions.

As with most Burgundian producers, almost all Drouhin’s wines go through barrels. Drouhin buy their own trees and season the wood themselves for three years outside. The barrels are then made for them. They use no more than 20% new oak for any of their wines, and each of their barrels has a special barcode, to make tracking the wines through their élévage more straighforward. Up to 1000 of the 6000 they use at any one time are stored in the Beaune cellars. The cellars are remarkable, stretching under the city. The oldest dates back to the 13th century. These were bought step by step, with the most recent acquisition actually being the oldest cellar of all, purchased in the 1950s.

Philippe says that the 2007 vintage experienced some difficulties. After very early budburst, it wasn’t easy during the cool summer, with some botrytis appearing in August. It was saved by a nice September: the key was to wait and not be in a hurry because botrytis had started. The wines needed some work to give them roundness that they didn’t have coming out of fermentation. Even though the reputation of the 2007 vintage is not high, the whites deserve a good reputation. In 2007 the terroirs show their presence a bit more than in 2005 and 2006.

2008 was another vintage made by sunny September weather. ‘What counts is really what happens 4 weeks prior to harvest’, says Philippe. 2008 was later than 2007, and there was a bad August which triggered some botrytis. There were, apparently, lots of depressed growers at the end of August. ‘But September saved everyone’. It stopped the botrytis, and the cool-ish sunny conditions helped maintain a very good level of acidity. ‘If you did everything right, 2008 has made some very good wines’, says Philippe. There was almost no chaptalization this vintage.

Drouhin are famous for their wines from the Clos des Mouches vineyards, which is south of Beaune, bordering on Pommard. Mouches translates as honey bee. The vineyard was acquired by Maurice Drouhin, and at the time this area made only red wines. However, some Chardonnay was grown, and was used to lighten the reds. Typically, these Chardonnay vines would be interplanted among the Pinot Noir. However, Maurice decided to put his Chardonnay in a separate block. One year, when the reds failed he was forced to vinify the Chardonnay separately, and it was a great success. Now Drouhin have half Pinot and half Chardonnay in this vineyard. The vines have an average age of 40 years and are naturally low yielding. They are also managed using organic and biodynamic practices. 

Philippe, born in 1961, is in charge of the vineyards at Drouhin. In 1986, aged 25, he decided to join the family company. ‘My father told me it all starts in the vineyard and that I didn’t know anything about vineyards, so I needed to go back to school.’ So Philippe went to study Viticulture and Oenology at Dijon and Beaune.

During his studies, he was struck by the warnings from teachers about the use of fungicides. He was told not to use them more than twice a year because of the risk of resistance developing, and of the existence of 60 day exclusion periods because of residues that would otherwise prevent the yeasts functioning normally. There were also issues such as the use of miticide sprays in the 1960s that killed some mites that were natural predators of the mites that are a problem today. ‘The negative impact of new chemicals made me wonder whether there was a safer way,’ Philippe recalls. He remembers that when he asked his teachers about the likely effects on the soil of a cocktail of chemicals sprayed on vines, no one had any idea. 

‘So I decided to look for an alternative way,’ he states. ‘Looking back, I found that people had used just sulfur and copper sulfate for a long time. I looked at organic and biodynamic vineyards at harvest, and thought that I could do this.’ But Philippe realized that he couldn’t suddenly rock up and tell everyone in the company to change the way they worked, because he was only in his mid-20s. His father, who had been overseeing vineyard operations since 1957 agreed to allow Philippe to begin changing things, with the proviso that he go slowly at first. ‘So I began with a few vineyards and progressively converted them to organics’, he recalls. ‘Everything in the Côte d’Or was converted by 1997, and Chablis was converted two or three years later.’

Philippe soon made the acquaintance of other growers in the Côtes de Beaune interested in biodynamics, and together they formed a study group, inviting a teacher to come and instruct them—agriculture expert Pierre Masson of Biodynamie Services. He started with biodynamie in the Côte d’Or, and when he felt confident, extended the approach to Chablis. Now everything in the Drouhin estate is organic and biodynamic. ‘I did this for technical reasons, because I think it is better for the soils and the wine’, says Philippe. ‘It’s also much safer. We know copper [one of the permitted fungicides in biodynamics] is not good for the soils, but at least we know what it is.’ He emphasizes that the switch was not made for commercial reasons. ‘At the time I started, it was counterproductive to say that you were organic. Recently, it has been commercially useful for people to follow the consumer trend for green things, so many estates are starting to pretend that they are organic, or “part organic”. I didn’t want to be in that category, so in August 2006 I asked for certification for all the estates, with Ecocert.’

Drouhin belongs to an organization called G.E.S.T. (groupement d’étude et suivi des terroirs, which translates as a ‘group for the study and following of terroirs’). There are over 100 members, including some of the most famous names in the region. ‘We were not happy with how INRA viewed how the soil functions, so we built our own knowledge base,’ says Philippe. A key figure in this organization is Yves Hérody, a pedogeologist  from the Jura who consults worldwide. ‘He has a vision of how soils function. We formed this group to learn about soils and also to form an entity who would make compost for us. Part of this company also makes the biodynamic preparations.’

In Burgundy, very few vineyards are under the sole control of a single producer. In the most famous vineyards, it is common for some growers to have just a few rows of vines. So is it possible to do biodynamics on just a fraction of a vineyard? ‘The neighbours in some vineyards have some influence on us,’ admits Philippe. ‘It would not be honest to say I know how much influence they have. As soon as we have a fair number of rows then we have enough effect that it is worth doing.’

One thing Philippe is keen to investigate is how much biodynamics can help reduce interventions in the vineyard. ‘It may be that we can enhance the resistance of the vines,’ he speculates. ‘Last year we had responsibility for a new vineyard in Chablis. We already had a parcel in Vaillons 100 m away that was run biodynamically. This new vineyard was previously conventionally farmed, and in it we had a burst of downy mildew even though we used the same regime in both vineyards. It was obvious that there was less self-defence in that vineyard.’

Currently, Drouhin are experimenting in the winter with deep ploughing versus cover-cropping. ‘We think deep ploughing may not be the best answer, even though it is traditional’, says Philippe. He says that it is difficult to fine-tune the cover cropping during the growing season, and that it’s necessary to manage each vineyard depending on its characteristics.

One interesting anecdote concerned the practice of burying cows’ horns in the vineyards with biodynamic preparation BD500, which contains dung from a lactating cow. Cows’ horns differ from bulls horns in that they have a series of rings (calving rings) in them. Some students from Dijon made the mistake of burying some bulls’ horns as well as cows’ horns, and when they dug them up the contents of the bulls’ horns were stinky, but the cows’ horns were lovely, like humus.

On average, Philippe uses 3 kg of copper per hectare each year. The law allows 6 kg/hectare per year, based on a five-year average. According to Claude Bourgignon, a soil scientist, the soils can absorb 3 kg/ha per year. ‘This used to be sprayed in a single go in the 1950s,’ comments Philippe.  

The wines

2008 Vat samples: these will probably be bottled by October or November.

Drouhin Meursault 2008
Big, rich, toasty nose with bold fruit and nice oak. The palate is fresh and intense with lovely acidity and depth of fruit. Real intensity. This has done 80% of malolactic.

Drouhin Chassagne Montrachet 2008
95% malolactic completed. Wonderfully rich, focused and intense with dense, lively fruit. Impressive.

Drouhin Puligny Montrachet 2008
Completed malolactic. Very fresh, minerally and bright with lovely focus and freshness.

Drouhin Volnay 2008
Still doing malolactic. Fresh, focused and intense with a bit of spritziness still. Nice depth of fruit.

Drouhin Beaune 1er Cru Greves 2008
Firm, spicy and chocolatey. Reductive and tight with good structure and acid.

Drouhin Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru 2008
Reductive nose. Very attractive structure and elegant bright fruit with some wood showing at present. Bright and focused.

Chablis: new branding for 2008 is ‘Drouhin-Vaudon’

Drouhin Vaudon Chablis ‘Propriétés’ 2008
Bright, taut lemony nose with some grapefruit notes. Very fresh, almost like a Sauvignon Blanc. Herby, fresh and intense with lively aromatics. 88–91/100

Drouhin Vaudon Chablis Grand Cru Vaudesir 2008
Vinified in barrels, but no new oak. Creamy and intense. Very rich and mineralic with lovely breadth and some almost spicy intensity. Lovely wine. 91–93/100

2007 Côte d’Or wines, plus some older vintages

Drouhin Laforêt Bourgogne Blanc 2007
Fresh, focused, nutty nose is quite broad with some mineral notes. Lovely expressive bright nutty fruit here. An attractive fruit-driven wine. 88/100

Drouhin Saint Veran 2007
Rounded, fruity and subtly mealy on the nose with nice breadth. Nice volume on the palate. Nutty with some citrusy notes and a bit of minerality. 88/100

Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches Blanc 1er Cru 2007
Wonderfully sophisticated tight, minerally, toasty nose. Really refined, complex and minerally. The palate is taut, bready and toasty with lovely fruit intensity and great complexity. 94/100

Drouhin Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru Morgeot Marquis de Laguiche 2007
Taut, herby, toasty nose is quite tight knit with nice fruit. The palate is concentrated and tight with firm acidity and some herbiness. Bold, firm and quite mineralic, with lots of intensity. 92/100

Drouhin Montrachet Grand Cru 2007
Amazingly intense, taut herby nose with bold, multilayered fruit. There are notes of minerals, herbs, nuts and figs. The palate is minerally, tight and long with a lovely savoury dimension as well as rich, bold fruit. Fantastic intensity and well integrated spicy oak. 95/100

Drouhin Chorey Les Beaune 2007
Pale colour. Lovely fresh sappy cherry and herb fruit nose. Attractive and fruity. The palate is bright, fresh and sappy with lovely focus and good acidity. 87/100

Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches 1er Cru Rouge 2007
Pale cherry colour. Aromatic cherry, herb, spice and mineral nose. The palate is bright and expressive with firm cherry and berry fruit, nice acidity and minerality, and a taut, focused personality. 89/100

Drouhin Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru 2007
Pale colour. Lovely open sappy nose with gently herby cherry fruit. Very fresh. Palate is juicy and bright with nice minerally complexity and elegant fruit. Good acidity. 91/100

Drouhin Griotte Chambertin Grand Cru 2007
Enticing, aromatic, sappy herby nose with a hint of ‘nice’ greenness, as well as some red cherry fruit. The palate is fresh and sappy with focused fresh cherry and berry fruit. 91/100

Drouhin Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 2007
Enticing nose with focused cherry fruit that has some depth. There’s also some fruity richness and a bit of spiciness. The palate is precise and focused with bright cherry fruit and some spicy structure. Firm finish. Lovely intensity here. 93/100

Drouhin Bonnes Mares Grand Cru 2007
Beautifully delicate, elegant, focused nose with pure red berry fruit and refined, spicy notes. The palate is taut and elegant with spicy complexity and firm but fine-grained tannins. Subtle hints of meat, too. Focused and spicy with a firm finish. A lovely mineral wine. 94/100

Drouhin Chambertin Clos de Beze Grand Cru 2007
Quite a big, structured wine that’s dense, spicy and a bit chocolatey on the palate with firm tannins and good acidity. Very fresh bright cherry and berry fruit here. Quite pure with good structure. 92/100

Drouhin Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche 2003
Rich, intense and taut with lovely bold, ripe, spicy fruit. Real power here. Bold, figgy and spicy with vanilla and herb notes, and also good acidity and freshness. A rich style with great intensity and focus. 93/100

Drouhin Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru 2000
Beautifully perfumed and elegant with lovely dark cherry fruit, some berry notes, plus lovely earthy, spicy, undergrowth  complexity. Lovely purity of fruit here, and attractive herb and spice notes. Drinking perfectly now. 94/100

Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches 1990
Very dense but beautifully sweet and ripe with notes of undergrowth and spice, as well as elegance. Herb and tar notes too. Dense structure. A rich, bold wine with lovely richness and intensity. 95/100

Joseph Drouhin
J-P Fichet
Pierre Morey/Morey Blanc
Louis Latour
Domaine Dujac
Sylvain Cathiard
Clos du Tart

Wines tasted 06/09  
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