Is The Burgundy Comparison Good For Oregon Wine?

Is Oregon Burgundy?

In a recent Yahoo Finance interview Silver Oak/Twomy Cellars CEO David Duncan was confronted with a positive comparison of Oregon wine to Burgundy wine. The conversation came in the context of a conversation on tariffs and the potential benefit tariffs on French wines will deliver to domestic alternatives.

The Oregon/Burgundy comparison raises a question that begs to be answered: Is comparing Oregon wine to Burgundy a net positive association for Oregon wine?

Of course, for those who have been watching the Oregon wine industry for many years, this comparison is not new. Oregon Pinot Noir has been compared to Burgundy for many years. The reason is obvious. The reds produced in Burgundy are produced from the Pinot Noir grape. The vast majority of red wine produced in Oregon is produced from the Pinot Noir grape. Moreover, Oregon Pinot Noir, like many from Burgundy, often tended to have a more delicate profile than Pinot Noir produced from California, New Zealand and other Pinot-producing grape growing regions.

The comparison is a fair one. But, again, is it a positive comparison for Oregon wine?

While as with most things, context is king and the question is actually much more complex than it appears, it behoves us to do the simple math; it behoves us to first examine the simple pros and cons of comparing Oregon to Burgundy.

PROS
-Associating Oregon wine with those of one of the most heralded wines in the world conveys a positive image upon Oregon wine.

-The comparison is a way to provide a quick and easy education to those wondering what to think of Oregon wine or what is the substance of Oregon wine or what to expect from an Oregon wine.

CONS
-There is a growing crop of non-Pinot Noir (read: non Burgundian-like) wines being produced in Oregon that are ignored and given second level status via the comparison of Oregon to Burgundy

-The comparison precludes the possibility that Oregon wines are better than Burgundy wines as the comparison implies Burgundy is the pinnacle of quality.

-The comparison asks those who hear it to make a two-step analysis: What is Burgundy and what is Oregon, rather than simply being asked to learn what it means to drink an Oregon wine.

It’s not that there is one more obvious negative to comparing Oregon wine to Burgundy than there are obvious positives that makes the comparison a net negative. The most important and decisive negative is that the comparison implies Oregon wines are not as good as Burgundy and not their own creation. You can overcome the greater complexity that comes with having to explain both Oregon and Burgundy when making the comparison and you can bring non-Pinot Noir wines produced in Oregon into this conversation. But you can’t overcome the implication that by comparing Oregon wine to Burgundy it is the latter that is the better wine and the pinnacle of the expression of Pinot Noir.

Looking over the way Oregon wines are positioned and promoted by those official and industry bodies in the state tasked with marketing them, it’s obvious that some time ago the decision was made to discount the comparison with Burgundy. But as the Yahoo Finance interview makes clear, that comparison is not going away anytime soon simply because it provides a very useful shorthand for those generally unfamiliar with the wines of Oregon.

This reminds us that the marketer must always keep context in mind. In fact, there are moments when Oregon wine in general benefits from a comparison with Burgundy. Those moments come when someone just learning about the contours of Oregon wine needs a quick education: “Like Burgundy, Oregon made its reputation producing high quality Pinot Noir that tends to emphasize balance and delicacy and that is subject to a somewhat more finicky climate that other places where Pinot Noir is produced, like California and New Zealand.”

This description of Oregon wine serves only as an “opening statement” and is best utilized when given the chance to delve deeper and with more specificity about the wines and the region. I’d argue that in most cases an Oregon promotional body or an Oregon winery are going to get the most out of their efforts when they leave Burgundy out of the conversation and focus simply on the details and uniqueness of Oregon terroir and Oregon’s resulting wines.

In the Yahoo Finance interview conducted with David Duncan, it was the reporter/interviewer who brought up the comparison of Oregon to Burgundy. It’s notable, and to his credit, that Duncan didn’t take the bait, but instead promoted the quality of Oregon wine without any reference to Burgundy. Nicely done!

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  1. Tom Elliot - December 5, 2019

    If you ask, when making the Burgundy comparison, nine out of ten Oregon Pinot producers will say they’re only trying to make the best Oregon Pinot Noir they can and that they’re not trying to emulate Burgundy. That said, the wines sometimes do have a striking resemblance, regardless.

  2. Tom Wark - December 5, 2019

    Tom,
    I think the resemblance has most to do with the fact that they are each using the same variety and same clones and both grown that Pinot in the a slightly challenging climate and both are fermenting the same types of grapes in the same types of vessels.

  3. Tom Elliot - December 5, 2019

    TW – My personal belief is that climate trumps all. Pioneer Willamette Valley winegrower, David Lett, summed it up more than 50 years ago when he posited that the finest wines come from grapes grown at the outer margin of where they achieve final ripening in occurrence with the end of the growing season. Pinot Noir, being an early ripening variety, will, therefore, perform best in a cool climate, one which extends the length of it’s ripening time. This type of marginal climate is what Burgundy and Oregon both have in common.

  4. Tom Elliot - December 5, 2019

    I should have added that many other Pinot Noir regions use similar clones, processing techniques, and barrel regimes, but climate puts the biggest stamp on the final wine.

  5. Tom Wark - December 5, 2019

    Tom, I’m not sure I’d want to argue with David Lett on just about anything. And of course he’s right about climate. However, there is one thing i like to remind people about. A Pinot Noir and Cabernet grown right next to each other in the same vineyard will taste less like each other than Pinot Noir grown in a Burgundy vineyard and a Pinot grown in a California (or Oregon) vineyard. It’s just a little reminder that variety and clone have more to do with what a wine tastes like than anything else. It’s a little pedantic, but deserves repeating sometimes.


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