As 2017 begins hopeful and anew, we can now take a first look at the 2016 wines aging in barrel, in the quiet cool caves of our cellars.
The 2016 season brought some challenges, as all growing seasons do, but also some catastrophes, and ended surprisingly with almost ideal harvests, both here in Burgundy and in Oregon. As we reflect back, while tasting these young wines, we learn from the difficulties and celebrate the outcomes:
In April, Burgundy was hit by the worst frost in decades, followed by a downy mildew epidemic of an exceptional virulence. Rain fell day after day–even causing national French media to declare the cows depressed and a potential cheese shortage! In an almost opposite weather pattern, Oregon’s summer started earlier than we’ve ever seen in recent history, sparking fears of a summer harvest and very ripe vines.
Then, much to our surprise, summer corrected that hectic beginning in both regions: it was warm and sunny in Burgundy, shifting the region’s course away from what could have been a disastrous harvest, quality and quantity wise. In Oregon, it was cool and slightly overcast, significantly slowing down the rapid speed at which vineyards were ripening.
As a result, it took a lot of thoughtful decision-making, change of perspective, and inevitable hesitations to decide on the harvest date in Oregon. As warm weather resumed toward the end of August, ripening took off again; harvest, at some point, very civilly-scheduled around the September 12-15, was suddenly urgent again, given the speed at which sugar was rising in the grapes.
Burgundy had the reverse experience: harvest, due late given the spring conditions, advanced at a high-speed pace during the summer. When the region enjoyed a much-needed five-day episode of rain in the middle of September, the level of humidity overreached what was strictly necessary for the maturation of vineyards. Harvest had to be delayed again, to allow the vines to dry off from the surplus of rain. Restless and stressful nights ensued as we waited to begin….
Fortunately, in both cases, weather was close to ideal during harvest, with cooler days than past years, but still brilliantly sunny, which allowed for great picking conditions. Experts were at a loss and dismayed during much of the process, but typically regained confidence once it was all over … it was actually difficult not to be optimistic looking at the resulting grapes when they arrived at wineries.
Given the hectic and sometimes gloomy conditions of the year, the wines in barrel are surprisingly balanced and charming on both sides of the Atlantic. They display a very ripe, but charming character in Burgundy. The colors are dark, some fruit-forward aromas are perceptible, but the wines are not heavy or high-toned, and should be supported with discreet acidity. Clos Vougeot is likely going to be a bit more structured than usual, whereas the Vosne Romanée wines (village, Chaumes, Brulées, Cros Parantoux, and the two grands crus Richebourg and Echezeaux), together with the Nuits Boudots and Nuits Murgers, should be very seductive. On the Corton side, wines are a bit more serious and could turn out very interesting. Chardonnay on the whole, struggled to reach a correct ripeness, but where things have been done properly, should be very balanced.
In Oregon, the wines are showing a concentrated fruit quality, in every meaning of the expression: higher in alcohol than in 2015, but less so than in 2014. The result is very appealing wines that display a natural easiness, but which we suspect will turn out to be quite complex and long-lived. The balance is there. Wines from Bishop Creek show their usual strong tannins but seem to be more approachable than in 2015 at this stage, and are supported by dark cherry, intense minerality and a complexity that will rival the last two vintages. Nysa is quite pretty, as expected, showing its best face in an early pick decision of the old vine Pommard block–restrained, seductive and red-fruited without being cloying or high-toned. The wines, at this young and awkward stage, show a balance and purity that strikes a note somewhere between the 2014 and 2015 vintages.
One of the reasons winemaking holds such incredible appeal is that no matter how long we’ve been at it, no matter the history or tradition or familiarity with vineyards, we’re always learning. Each growing season presents a new challenge: just when we think we know where the vintage is headed and think we have everything figured out, we end up being surprised. 2016 is no exception, and what looked like doom and gloom early on turned into excellent harvests in both Burgundy and Oregon.
5:00 am: The alarm goes off, marking the beginning of the 25th day of harvest at Nicolas-Jay in the Willamette Valley. My intrepid city-turned-vineyard dog, Lily, who kept me company during the drive from Los Angeles, is already awake and eager to get out the door. Tea in hand, I set out in the morning darkness to Bishop Creek, the vineyard we farm and own in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. Today is an important pick for the team: we’re harvesting the old Pommard vines planted in the early 1980’s, and what will likely become our Bishop Creek single vineyard for 2016.
7:00 am: The vineyard workers have been filling cherry bins for 30 minutes as the sun rises and the sky goes from pink to orange. Small bins are a Jean-Nicolas requisite, ensuring the grapes arrive in perfect condition to the winery. The cherry bins are the perfect size, they’re easy for the pickers to use but also allow us to make sure not more than two layers of grapes are on top of each other.
9:30 am: The fruit from Bishop Creek is gently being unloaded on the sorting line, where a small crew of friends, family and shareholders are hard at work. It’s a slow process and we test everyone’s patience: every cluster must be absolutely perfect. The grapes from Bishop Creek are beautiful, dark purple, small concentrated berries, bursting with flavor. Tasting a few off the sorting line builds anticipation--I think about the wine these grapes will become over the next 15 months. Traveling up the sorting table, the clusters then go through the de-stemmer and fall into a stainless steel vat in the cellar below. A gentle pumpover (bringing juice that has moved to the bottom of the vat to the top) homogenizes the newly crushed fruit and allows us to test for sugar levels. The vat then moves to the cool room where we’ll let the fruit soak for 4-5 days.
12:00 pm: Some final grape samples are needed from one of our last remaining vineyards to pick, the Momtazi Vineyard. When I first got to Oregon in late August, I spent the first weeks gathering samples from the 11 vineyards we work with. From these samples we gauge when we should pick—it’s part science but more importantly, instinct and taste. When we arrive at Momtazi, Lily bounds out of the car and runs after the ground squirrels, the birds and even sometimes the deer and elk. I trudge from one corner of the vineyard to the other, picking as I go to get a good representation of the fruit ripeness across the site. I put the clusters in Ziplock bags and walk back to my car with a reluctant Lily before we head back to the lab.
3:00 pm: After we measure the fruit from Momtazi for acid and pH levels, we do pumpovers. This full-body workout happens twice a day, every day during harvest, both to our cold soaking vats and also to our fermenting vats. After the juice has been allowed to sit in a cold room for several days, it is then moved to a warmer room where the wild yeasts really go to town on all the natural sugar. When the wine is almost dry, we break the cap (the skins and seeds on top of the juice) with a steel rod. We do this gently, tasting each day to watch the evolution of the wine.
5:00 pm: We taste through all the wines at various stages of the fermentation process. Tracy sends our tasting notes to Jean-Nicolas, who has just left Oregon to start harvest in Burgundy. We can hear the press working in the background. Soon we’ll be pressing off our wines, one of the most exciting parts of harvest, when you can really begin to taste the wine these grapes will become. After pressing, we’ll let the wine settle before finally putting it in barrel, where it will sleep for 12-15 months.
7:00 pm: We’re fortunate to make wine at Adelsheim Vineyards, an established winery with a full kitchen and a harvest chef. Dinners are a highlight of these long days, when the Adelsheim and Nicolas-Jay teams sit together and reflect on the day and the tasks that remain for the evening. I look around the table and think about the winemaking life everyone here has chosen: the pay is nothing special, but the food is great and the wine is even better. Being part of making something special–a wine to be shared around the world by friends…with friends.
Welcome to the Nicolas-Jay community, and thank you for your support.
We have now completed an almost 2 month launch tour, that spanned 5 cities and various people: consumers, wine professionals (sommeliers, retailers …), journalists … and we must have personally tasted close to 30 bottles of our Willamette Valley cuvée in various conditions. Although we gave birth to that wine, it was nonetheless a thrilling experience to see how our wine is behaving, now that it is bottled and living its own life.
The return was fantastic. Wine professionals were very supportive, even the ones that are usually quite stone-faced; but consumers' reactions were the most telling: some said how rich the wine felt, others that the structure was really impressive, that is has great fruit … And the most common question was when would be the good moment to open it?
While it is fair for us to say that we actually do not know, we gained some experience from this tour.
At this stage, the wine has a lot of natural elegance: an aromatic nose, a velvet opening in the mouth, a rich and fruit driven but also long finish. Decanting it is useful: it helps develop the aromatics and soften the tannins in the finish. The development in the glass is the most interesting outcome of this experience: the wine has the capacity to evolve during the course of the meal and show many facets. Coming back to it is never tiring. Someone even told us that after a 5 day opening at room temperature, the wine had improved further, showing greater finesse.
We think it indicates our wine has the capacity to show well at all stages.
Young, it will be demonstrative and display beautiful cherry aromas, great fruit, and some structural tannins in the end. In a few years, 3 to 5 maybe, the integration will be greater, the wine will be more subdued but finer and display all the delicacy of a great Pinot Noir. In ten years, it will demonstrate how a ripe vintage from Oregon is holding up, and how seductive that kind of wine can be. In 20 years…we hope to hear what you think over a glass.
We hope you enjoy it, do not hesitate to send us your impressions. You are a big part of the Nicolas-Jay team and community and our shared success.
We would also like at this stage to offer you access to a limited release of our magnum format bottles of the 2014 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. They will be available starting today through our website. Please keep in mind when ordering wine this time of year we will be shipping ground only when weather permits. We will be in touch if we need to hold the wine or alter shipping methods.