I mentioned my affection for the wines of Maison Joseph Drouhin in my recent Burgundy itinerary for the Village of Beaune, and there is a reason why these wines captured my heart – the Drouhin family. Wine tasting and winery visits for me go beyond what’s in the glass, because what’s in the glass is a product of history, people, energy and passion. And for these wines in particular, you will also find complexity, elegance and finesse – the hallmark characteristics of Drouhin wines first imparted by Joseph Drouhin 139 years ago.
“These wines reflect the passion from one vintage to the next, from one generation to the next, from one dream to the next, and from one century to the next. Wine is history and it is something special for me to be here today speaking with you about my family and our wines. As my great-grandfather looks down, I am here 139 years later sharing his legacy with you, connecting us all to generations past.”
Goosebumps rose on my arms as Laurent Drouhin, one of the four Drouhin siblings and the fourth generation managing the family-owned winery, opened with these words at a special tasting of the 2017 vintage in Chicago. Laurent is a tall, poised gentleman with classic features the likes of Robert Redford, and has a smile that welcomed us all and instantly put us at ease.
He speaks with eloquence and charm, and has the genuine kindness of an old friend. It is rather remarkable to consider what began in Beaune 139 years ago, was not only in our glasses and presented by a member of the very family, but indeed also connects us across oceans and generations. This is the essence of wine for me, and the presentation and conversations that followed were at once engaging, fascinating and tangibly passionate.
The History of the Drouhin Family in Beaune
Maison Joseph Drouhin was founded in 1880 by Monsieur Joseph Drouhin, who arrived in Beaune from Chablis at the age of 22, to establish himself as a négociant, a merchant that buys grapes or juice from growers to produce and bottle wine. At the time, some of the négociant houses in Beaune were blending wines from throughout Burgundy and even the Rhône, giving the wines of the region a poor reputation. Recognizing this, as well as finding disdain for this multi-regional blending of wines under the Burgundian label, did not sit well with Monsieur Drouhin’s son, Maurice who took over on his father’s passing in 1918. Rather, in 1935, Maurice became involved with the creation of the Institut of National des Appellations d’Origine, the governing body of French wine which would ultimately establish the French appellation control system. Simultaneously, Maurice also began to purchase vineyards, including those in Clos des Mouches and Clos de Vougeot, in order to establish a domaine for the family.
It was during this time, that Maison Joseph Drouhin was the exclusive distributor of wines for Domaine Romanée Conti (DRC) in the French and Belgian markets. He managed to hide many bottles along with his own wines, this of course being during the height of the German occupation of France during World War II.
Maurice built a wall in his cellars behind which he stashed the valuable wines and the newest generation, son Robert, collected cobwebs to make the walls look as though they had existed for years. The Drouhins also managed to assist with bottling lesser quality wines under house labels to send to the Nazis and Hitler, while keeping the good wines for the locals. Eventually, this scheme was noticed by the Nazis who then deployed a wine master to the region to oversee production. However, as it turned out, the German wine master was also a good friend of the Drouhin family, so again the family was able to protect its most valuable wines in secret.
However, Maurice’s involvement with the resistance eventually caught up with him. At a time he was also serving as the Mayor of Beaune, the Gestapo came looking for him. He managed to escape via Beaune’s underground cellars and made his way by candlelight to the Hospices de Beaune. It was here the nuns hid Maurice for months until the eventual liberation of Beaune.
After the war, the region and many houses were devastated by the years of occupation and many struggled to recover. Fortunately for the Maison Joseph Drouhin, the hidden wines helped to put the family and the winery back on its feet and in 1957, Maurice’s son Robert took over operations for his ailing father.
Like his father, Robert recognized the value of the region’s terroir and began expanding the domain through the purchase of parcels in Côte de Nuits and Chambolle-Musigny, and in 1968 he purchased nearly 100 acres of unplanted land in Chablis, both an homage to his grandfather and in recognition of the land’s immense potential.
It was during this time that Robert also began to recognize the impact of pesticides and became one of the first domaines in Burgundy to eliminate their use. He also established an enological laboratory and employed the first female enologist — Laurence Jobard — in the region to lead the lab. Robert had bold plans to carry on the legacy of his family’s house and shocked many in the wine world when he purchased 100 acres in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1987, a bet that has continued to pay dividends as Oregon continues to rise on the world stage.
Maison Joseph Drouhin Today
Today, Maison Joseph Drouhin is led by the fourth generation of the family: Philippe, Véronique, Laurent and Frédéric Drouhin. With more than 193 acres of vineyards, Maison Joseph Drouhin is one of the largest wine estates in Burgundy. The Domaine now owns and farms numerous vineyards including 96 acres of Chablis, 89 acres in the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, and eight acres in Côte Chalonnaise.
The Domaine estates are 60 percent Premier and Grand Crus (90 percent in the Côte d’Or), planted with the two Burgundian grape varietals, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Although as Laurent says, “We do not produce Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, we produce terroir wine. The truth is in the glass.”
Vineyard management remains pesticide free and are today both certified organic and biodynamic (the largest biodynamic domaine in Burgundy). The Drouhins operate under the family credo of, “Bring natural answers to natural problems.” The land is plowed by horse, grass is grown between vines, natural compost and herb infusions are used, and natural predators introduced for pest control. Additionally, all vine stocks are grown in the Domaine’s own nursery to preserve the genetic heritage.
“We believe treating the land naturally is the only way to preserve and produce clearly terroir driven wines,” said Laurent. “We want to pass these lands on to all of the generations to come and that means we must preserve the soils.”
Led by the fourth generation of the Drouhin family, Frédéric, the youngest of Robert’s children, is president and continues to operate from the original winery in Beaune. Philippe manages the vineyards in Burgundy and Oregon. Véronique is the winemaker for the Oregon estate, making regular visits to the winery and spending months at a time during harvest. Laurent, who lives stateside, is the director and export manager of the wines to the U.S. and Caribbean markets. In October 2018, the family, at the charge of patriarch Robert, secured funding to ensure the Maison Joseph Drouhin will remain in the Drouhin family (given the expense of French estate and heritage laws) through the sale of bottles from his private cellar at auction. Two of the bottles, 1945 DRC, having no question of their authenticity, sold for more than half million each.
“Wine is not about the winery, it is about the people,” says Laurent. “And the revenue generated by my grandfather’s sale of a portion of his private collection, was yet another of his visionary ideas to preserve the legacy of the Domaine.”
He added, “Burgundy is a fascinating place for wine. It is the most difficult to learn. It took 600 years to get where we are, and that respect is owed to our ancestors. I want to dream with the wine – the authenticity, history and people behind that wine – this is what brings it to another dimension.”