What goes around (Cote des Nuits, France – Day Three)

Now that winter has arrived I feel like I’ve come full circle in Europe because I arrived mid January in Paris. Back in February when I was in Germany you may remember that the temperature dropped well below zero and there was quite a bit of snow in regions like the Mosel, Rheingau and Franken. The morning of my third day in the Cote d’Or I awoke to falling snow that continued all morning and covered the cars, houses and buildings quite beautifully. It also made driving a little more challenging both for visibility reasons but also as the road was a little slippery. Seeing this just reinforces the fact that these wine regions North of the Loire Valley really are very cool-climate, and you would very rarely see snow in any regions in Australia, even further south in Tasmania. These cold temperatures and snow or frost are of course the reason that grape vines go into dormancy by turning brown and into canes, to protect themselves. It’s a shame that humans can’t develop a hard exterior that perfectly protects them over the winter, we would save a fortune on heating expenses, warm clothes and car problems. My final day in the Cote des Nuits I visited three small producers all with a different approach and expression.

Nuits-St-George vineyards under snow

Despite the exceptionally long history of viticulture and winemaking in Burgundy, one of the oldest regions in France in fact, there are very few domaines that are older than 200 years. Looking back to this period in French history we are talking about post-revolution Napoleonic times which was a period of major upheaval, and it allowed many families to have the opportunity to start a new enterprise in wine when it had previously been a monastic pursuit. Many new producers sprang up in the 19th century after the phylloxera epidemic allowed them to start again, and there was some similar growth after the second world war. I never expected to visit an estate that is less than fifteen years old however, which is the case with the first winery I visited on my final day. Domaine de la Vougeraie was established in 1999 when Jean-Claude Boisset decided to consolidate five existing small domaines into one to produce the best wine possible. For those who aren’t aware (and embarrassingly I wasn’t) Jean-Claude Boisset is the head of Boisset Family Estates, which is the third largest producer in France and the largest in Burgundy, and he is married to Gina Gallo of the EJ Gallo family. The vineyards that now make up Domaine de la Vougeraie total about 35 hectares across 27 appelations, and were all purchased in the last fifty years. Some of the most prestigious vineyards include monopoles like Le Clos de Vougeot Blanc and Le Clos du Prieure, and all of the vineyards are now farmed using bio-dynamic practices.

Domaine de la Vougeraie

I was welcomed to the domaine located in Premeaux-Prissey by one of the assistant winemakers of Pierre Vincent who took up the reigns in 2006. The cellars they make the wines in were previously those of one of the five consolidated domaines, but my host couldn’t tell me which one it was nor what was done with the other four cellars. Attention to detail is key as well as flexibility, and as such they have many and varied fermentation vessels for the pinot noir. A pre-fermentation cold soak is performed as is the norm in Burgundy, and a post-fermentation maceration is also performed so that the wine is on skins for about 20-25 days. After this they transfer they combine the free run wine with the wine from the skins pressed in a mechanical basket press, and transfer it using gravity to cellars for the malo-lactic fermentation and elevage (aging). The wines aren’t blended until right before the bottling. Being owned by the Boisset family to be the ultimate burgundy wine means they have somewhat of a ‘money is no object’ approach which fortunately works for them, as it sometimes doesn’t for other estates I have visited on my trip. I think my host may have found my persistent questions and quite specific ideas about wine a little confronting, however I feel it necessary to challenge pre-conceived notions and question the information that is provided to consumers who don’t understand enough about wine to appreciate some of the approaches and philosophies. She took it a lot better than my second host for the day. Click here to read my tasting notes.

The Domaine de la Vougeraie cellar

After an uninspiring lunch in Nuits-St-Georges I delved into the back streets of the village (which in parts feels very southern European) to visit the second cellar of the day. Henri Gouges was an industrious and opportunistic gentleman who began his domaine by buying vineyards in the Nuits-St-Georges appelation back in the financial slump of the 1920s. In a time when most of the countless growers were providing their fruit to larger negociants and cooperatives, he decided to vinify and bottle his wines to sell them himself, making a name both hated and respected at the same time. He started with only nine hectares of vineyards in some of the best parts of the reasonably large St-George vineyards, and to this day they have a profound and unmatched understanding of the St-Georges appelation. The vineyards today are farmed using organic principles and a significant amount of work goes into ensuring the vines are healthy and the fruit is of the utmost quality. In attempting to get very low yields they also grow very concentrated fruit which plays an important part in the wines. The estate continues today with the fourth generation and many members of the family play their part.

Double fruit sorting table at Henri Gouges

My host was the cousin of the new generation and currently spends much time in the vineyards even though he studied wine marketing in Beaune and Dijon. He took me through the winery which has recently been renovated and expanded. In addition to careful fruit selection in the vineyards they have two sorting tables in the winery before the grapes are crushed and de-stemmed straight into the cement vats for the fermentation. The cap is worked quite gentle but regularly during the fermentation and maceration to extract tannin and colour. The wine is then transferred down to the cellar where it spends quite a bit of time in barrels before bottling and release. We began tasting some of the 2011 wines from the barrel and then some 2010 wines in bottle, and this was when I began to understand the approach. The philosophy at Domaine Henri Gouges is like many of the top Bordeaux, (top) Rhone and Burgundy producers, to make wine designed for aging. This in my opinion can be at the cost of being approachable whilst young which they are not designed for. One wine in particular was so reductive that it was faulty, but this is apparently a not uncommon by-product of the aging process. When I played devils advocate in suggesting that most people can’t and don’t cellar wines and they may not understand or enjoy these wines, my host stated that they don’t sell the wines to be consumed young. I asked why they didn’t sell the wines with more age on them if this is the case, this apparently is the responsibility of the merchant and/or customer as they don’t have the space nor finances to do this. They do sell some wine with a few years of age concurrently with the new release which does allow people to see the benefit of keeping the wine. As I have stated before, I honestly believe that you can make wine that is both approachable and enjoyable whilst young but should be deserving of cellaring rather than requiring. Click here to read my tasting notes.

Henri Gouges wines in the cellar where they should be

One thing I find fascinating is how you so often hear the same claims from producers about quality and philosophy. One of the most common is the classic adage that the quality of the wine comes from the vine and this is of utmost importance. The problem is that there is a big step in-between the vine and the bottle, and that is the winemaking. For the second day in a row, all three appointments make the same claim but the expression was very different. By all accounts my final appointment for the day truly believes this adage and is very humble about their part in the expression of the wine. Although Domaine J.J. Confuron dates back further it really only got started back in 1988 when Alain Meunier joined his wife Sophie Meunier-Confuron in taking over her family’s estate. Neither of them had much experience before this but they had an exceptional attitude and willingness to learn. The one thing they truly appreciated was that healthy soils contributes to healthy vines which produce higher quality grapes, and as such they farm organically with very minimal work conducted in the vineyards. This minimalistic approach includes ploughing between the vine rows using a horse which is significantly lighter than a tractor and produces a lot less fumes from its exhaust pipe.

Different stencils used on wooden boxes

Initially I met with Alain’s son who has worked in regions around the world gaining experience and had only recently just come back from Chile, so we had a great chat about the regions and vineyards from this country. He had also worked in the Mornington Peninsula which just happens to be my favourite pinot noir region in Australia. The wines at J.J. Confuron are fermented in a combination of vessels depending on the origin with parcels in several appelations totalling nine hectares. The fermentation and aging isn’t particularly different to most of the domaines I have visited in the Cote des Nuits thus far, and thus the difference in style comes from a combination of yields, ripeness of the fruit, maceration regime and oak treatment. I tasted many of the wines from the 2011 vintage, some still in barrel and some in tank going through a settling and clarification process before bottling. The wines have an intensity and density to them which is evidence of the terroir as well as the structure they are going for. The appelations in which they source aren’t in the soft velvety realm, more in the darker fruit and tannin character. The wines in general will benefit from a period in bottle, but nowhere near as long as the previous producer. The highlight was without question the Grand Cru Romanee St-Vivant, my wine of the day. Click here to read my tasting notes.

The crusher and de-stemmer is above the fermenters

Click here to see more photos from my final day in the Cote des Nuits.

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