Terroir and Grand Cru: a Vertical of Clos des Lambrays

A vertical tasting of Clos des Lambrays led me to wonder about the whole basis for classification in Burgundy. “Clos des Lambrays is very heterogeneous. There is 60 m difference in elevation between the top and bottom, the largest in any appellation except for Corton. There is strong diurnal variation with more cooling at the bottom, which is in a valley,” says winemaker Thierry Brouin, introducing a vertical tasting of Clos des Lambrays.

So why is Clos des Lambrays a single appellation if it’s so varied? Its 9 ha are the largest clos in Burgundy under (almost) single ownership; Domaine des Lambrays owns all except for a tiny plot owned by Taupenot-Merme at the bottom. The clos has three separate microclimates: a large block at the center (Les Larrets), 2 ha at the northern end (Les Bouchots), and 1 ha at the southeast corner (Meix Rentier). Lots of limestone produces elegance in the wine.

References to Cloux des Lambrey go back to 1365. It was divided between 74 owners after the Revolution, but reunited in 1868. Clos des Lambrays was classified as a premier cru because the owner of the time could not be bothered to submit the paperwork for submission as a grand cru in 1936. In any case, the estate was somewhat neglected until a change of ownership in 1979, when Thierry came as winemaker. It changed hands again in 1996, and now has just been purchased by LVMH.

Clos des Lambrays was promoted to Grand Cru in 1981. This is definitely a curiosity. Changes in appellation status are extremely rare, and bespeak political influence as well (hopefully) as a detailed reconsideration of terroir. Surely in Burgundy of all places we expect a Cru to describe a single type of terroir: how else to justify all those tiny, tiny appellations? The major exception is Clos Vougeot, well known to have been made a single grand cru because of the history of its enclosure into a single vineyard (although the monks in fact made multiple cuvées from its different parts: supposedly the bottom part was for the monks, the middle part for higher churchmen, and the top for princes). As everyone acknowledges that Clos Vougeot can range from communal level to grand cru level, why is Clos des Lambrays different?

People often say to me, Thierry, why don’t you make a cuvée from the best two or three plots, but we don’t want to do that, Lambrays is not the best two or three cuvées, it is the assemblage of its different terroirs,” says Thierry. In fact, Thierry regards the sale to LVMH as potentially saving the clos from being seized by SAFER (a French government body that redistributes vineyards), in which case it very likely would have been broken up into many different plots, and the history lost once again. Fair enough: but this makes the point that the appellation is not in fact a construct of geography, or at least not entirely so, but in reality owes more to history. This is a dangerous precedent for consistency in the system.

In addition to Clos des Lambrays, Domaine des Lambrays also produces two other red cuvées: Les Loups comes from declassified young vines of the clos together with two premier cru sites (La Riotte and Le Village), and there is a communal Morey St. Denis. There are also whites from tiny plots in two Puligny Montrachet premier crus (Caillerets and Folatières). Occasionally there is a rosé. In fact, the tasting started with the 2013 rosé, and very fine it was too, with the grand cru quality of the grapes bringing a wonderful fragrance.The rosé is made on the sorting table, when grapes that are not completely ripe are selected out. Direct pressurage is followed by fermentation in stainless steel. We don’t like to make it too often because the appellation is only Bourgogne,” Thierry explains.

Well what about the wines of Clos des Lambrays? Winemaking is quite traditional, with fermentation of whole bunches irrespective of vintage. This may be one reason why the wines remain moderate in alcohol and are not excessively colored. “Pinot Noir is the least black grape in the world – it is red – even Gamay in Beaujolais has more color. When you see a black Pinot Noir, it’s too extracted,” is Thierry’s view.

The vertical extended from 2012 to 1999 and the style certainly showed through. Some people describe Clos des Lambrays as showing blue fruits: I wouldn’t quite use that term, but I would describe the style as upright. Younger vintages can seem tight, and older vintages – at least in the span of this tasting – soften slowly, with fruits moving from cherries more towards strawberries, but not yet evolving in a savory or tertiary direction. As a result, vintage character shows through really clearly, from the softest 2002 (you should drink this now, says Thierry), the rich 2005, 2009, and 2012, to the leaner 2006 and 2008 (showing great precision). A fair summary is that the style focuses on purity of fruit. Running counter to the modern trend, these are definitely not wines for instant gratification: it remains to be seen how that will play under the aegis of LVMH.

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