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Featured Personality
March/April 2001

Robert Drouhin
© Sue Courtney
Interviewed 26 Jan 2001, posted 21 Mar 2001

Robert Drouhin is one of the great 'gentlemen' of Burgundy and one of the regions most respected winemakers. He was born into wine, for his grandfather Joseph founded Maison Drouhin in 1880. Robert took over as company head in 1957 at the tender age of 24 and continued to expand the company, enhancing its postiion and reputation world wide.

Robert Drouhin - photo copyright to In 1998, Maison Drouhin expanded into Oregon, one of the first Burgundy producers to recognise the potential of this New World Pinot Noir producing region.

Robert Drouhin was in New Zealand for Pinot Noir 2001, NZ's inaugural Pinot Noir celebration, where he was one of the panelists in the International tasting of Pinot Noir, as well as one of the panellists for the final conference session along with other luminaries such as the great Jancis Robinson.

During the conference Robert Drouhin took time out of his busy schedule to chat with me about Pinot Noir. The transcript of that interview is reproduced here.

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SC: It is wonderful to meet you. Can you tell me have you been to New Zealand before.

RD: "Yes and I have to say it was many many years ago when there were very few vineyards planted. I visited Hawkes Bay in the 1960's. Since then I was fortunate to attend in 1988 the Cool Climate Pinot Noir Convention in Auckland, and this is the 3rd time. There is not much time to see the country unfortunately. I've spent a day in Martinborough this time but I would have love to visit more wine districts and to go fishing."

SC: I was just at the International tasting here, with you on the panel, where you had a chance to taste some New World pinots besides two Burgundies. Before you came to this conference, who did you consider made the second best expression of Pinot Noir in the world. We all agree that Burgundy is the best, but are there any other areas you particularly think are really good.

RD: Certainly. Burgundy is the origin of Pinot Noir. The soil is very good, the climate and now with 2000 years experience, good Burgundies are produced. It is important for Pinot Noir to be grown in a fairly cool climate. It is a difficult grape variety, one knows that. Too much heat destroys the fragrance and the colour. If it is too cold or wet then it doesn't ripen properly. Because of the local wine industry in California it is really in California that they tried to produce Pinot Noir and without being critical to California I always thought, that with the exception of a few pockets, it is not there. I thought that one could produce Pinot Noir but it had to be further north or in this hemisphere it has to be further south. Either it has to be Oregon, or maybe Tasmania, New Zealand and in South Africa but only in a very small area and gradually it will develop.
You see there are different families of grape varieties. There are the Mediterranean grapes with cabernet, Syrah, Tempranillo, San Giovese etc, and the northern grapes varieties, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon, Chardonnay although this is another type of grape more related to pinot noir which in my opinion is particularly good if the weather is fine.
NZ is well known for its Sauvignon, not so much for its Chardonnay for the world is flooded with Chardonnay, so it has good Chardonnay but not better than any other country, so it an obvious step that if when Sauvignon is good, Pinot Noir should be good.

SC: Since you have been at the Conference and since the International tasting, have you have any further impressions about the styles of Pinot?

RD: "No it is too early. I know it is human nature to be impatient but it takes many years to discover which are the best places, to develop the experience, to find out the style of the wine in accordance to the local condition. So I think it will take two generations - one generation of growers who will learn how to cultivate and how to make the wine and a generation for the vineyards. I'm sure the growers will gradually realise they were right in some areas, they were wrong in others but they won't pull out their vineyards.
This morning it was said, I think by Jancis Robinson that "The first step is to produce clean, pleasant fruity wines" and they are on their way to do that. In other words good wines not great wines and the second stage will be once they come on, to find out even better where the best vines are produced, the best clones, rootstock's will be used, the vinification to handle the capacity. So be patient."

SC: Which wine did you prefer at the International tasting this morning?

RD: "It is a normal tendency to try and compare these wines because they have a common denominator, which is the Pinot Noir, but really they were different. The Californian wines had a lot of charm. They were rich, round, soft, nice new oak touch - charming. The NZ wine was more European in style, which means a little drier, higher in acidity, still a simple wine but this type of wine in a few years will develop well. So I hate to rank them. In Burgundy there are different villages, different, wines, we don't rank them. They are different. We drink light wine with light food, heavy wine with rich food. "

SC: What do you think we have to do in order to get better at making Pinot Noir in NZ?

RD: "To be careful in selecting the sites. If in certain sites you produce good Sauvignon, good Riesling, there is a possible risk that the weather is too cool, too cold. The climate is a very important factor for the Pinot Noir. A winery should not pretend in a given area to produce all grape varieties. You cannot possibly produce Merlot and Pinot Noir on the same site. So selection of the site is important. One still has to learn which is the best trellising, density, and the right time to pick. It takes for these basic factors another 10 years. I have a lot of experience in Burgundy. I developed a vineyard in Oregon, which I got 12 years ago. It is just now that I think that I know about Oregon wines, so again everyone is learning very fast. The advantage that the wine industry has is now they have access to the experience of the Old World and of the New World in Australia and California. The trainees can go to one year in Burgundy, one year in the New World. It is a big advantage, so we learn more quickly than our parents."

SC: Tell me again about the age of the vines.

RD: "The first generation of vines will be to find out the best clones, and the best rootstock if it is grafted. Then these would be pulled out. Then the following generation of vines will be really appropriate. The vine has a life span of about 35 years." SC: Can you make great Pinot Noir from new vines if you have the right location and the right clones?

RD: "Not great, but good. Generally, all growers say 'Wait until my vines are older'. I think that finesse has little to so with the age of the vines. This may sound a strong commitment to growers. If finesse is there from the start however older vines have deeper fruits which are less sensitive to climate changes to heavy rain. Well it doesn't affect the quality and also old vines, nobody knows why, produce wines which have a better aging, maturing capacity. They will keep longer and develop better."

SC: Have you had an opportunity to try many of the (NZ) wines here at the Conference exhibition?

RD: "Yes. Yesterday, I tried 30 to 40. In some cases I was disappointed. I thought the wines would have had more texture, more colour and length. But here or there I spotted some good wines. Martinborough, maybe I was influenced because I had been there the day before, I thought the wines were good. but I also tasted .Pegasus [Bay]. Yes, there were three or four that I thought were good.

SC: What about the wines from Central Otago?

RD: Yes, I made a point to taste them because I have heard this is a very new region. Very true to Pinot Noir type but very young vines or the vinification was not completely prepared. So I make a distinction against the potential and the immediate technical aspect. It is better to have a wine which is not perfect technically but where one says 'aha in that area, yes, there is a potential, yet there is finesse'. In a few years when they know more, they will be making a good wine. Not a wine which is technically good but uninteresting.
Globally I found the NZ wines a bit simple, fruity, but short but two good things - they were not too oaky and they were generally true to what we think is the Pinot Noir type.

SC: Do you think truffles are a great match for Pinot Noir?

RD: I love truffles. Oh yes, a match for old pinot noir. The pinot noir, when old, has what some people call a 'wood' fragrance and this goes very well with truffle, but a young fruity wine, no.

SC: You have vineyards in Burgundy. You have vineyards in Oregon. Do you have any plans to develop a vineyard in New Zealand?

RD: I would love to but it is really far away and as it takes time to look at the country, the earth, the climate. One has to spend days and days just walking around and to make the decision what to plant where, which density, what trellising and that I would not want to delegate. Maybe my children would want to do it but I have enough to do, with Oregon. The only advantage would be that we could have two vintages. Oregon makes it difficult. I have to be either in Oregon or in Burgundy.
With an investment, to me, the financial aspect is not the first motivation. It is the passion, the desire to create to see what I could so. Am I able to produce a good wine there, am I able to produce a wine better than the others, that is the most important thing. The financial aspect is also to be considered but to me it comes second.

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You can find out more about Maison Drouhin and profiles of the family members on The Drouhin website.

Sue Courtney attended Pinot Noir 2001 courtesy of the "Courtney Retirement Fund". Thanks Neil !
Thanks also to the Conference Media Coordinator, Caroline Green, for arranging this interview and to Anne-Marie McKenzie of the Wine Institute of New Zealand for assisting to acheive it.

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