Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum: A Visit to Domaine Robert Ampeau

The concept of the current release has virtually no meaning at Robert Ampeau. All week I’ve been tasting current releases in Burgundy, varying from 2017 to 2018 depending on whether producers want to show bottled wines or barrel samples. But tastings at Robert Ampeau start way beyond where others leave off. A tasting in the cellars yesterday included only one wine from the present century, a 2002 Meursault Charmes, while all the others, red or white, were between 1999 and 1976.

Wines are released when they are ready, or perhaps more to the point when the domain feels like selling them. I asked Michel Ampeau, who has been making the wines since Robert died in 2004, what vintages were on sale now. I thought I must have mistranslated the years from French when he said 1993-1996, and wondered whether perhaps he had really said 2013-2016, but no mistake: both reds and whites from the mid 1990s are on sale now, giving an almost unique opportunity to start with mature wines.

Production is 60% red and 40% white. There are holdings in ten premier crus, including four in Meursault. The wines are meant to age, or perhaps more to the point, have reached an interesting stage of maturity when released. Since current releases haven’t really reached the era of premox, it’s impossible to say if that will be a problem for the whites, but typically they peak around fifteen years of age and hold until twenty. I suspect that the traditional style of winemaking in an oxidative manner will avert any problem.

The style of the whites is rich and full, so I wondered about late harvest, but Michel says he is an early picker. This may explain why they maintain their freshness for decades. Meursault Sous Le Pièce shows a classically nutty flavor spectrum, Meursault Sous Le Pièce adds hints of honey and spices, and the Charmes premier cru adds a subtle hint of minerality. The complexity of Meursault Perrières shows at one why it is considered a candidate for promotion to grand cru, with complex layers of flavor on a seamless palate. This is the epitome of the classic style of Meursault. Puligny Combettes is a textbook example of the purity and precision of the appellation.

The reds show a great combination of a sheen to the palate masking great fruit density with a structure of supple tannins faintly evident in the background. Although they show development (the youngest we tasted was 1999), all have a sense of liveliness that gives an impression of being a decade younger than the real age. Savigny-lès-Beaune and La Pièce Sous le Bois from Blagny age much longer than you might expect for those appellation, in the generally soft, earthy style of the house, and Auxey-les-Duresses Les Ecussaux adds faintly herbal notes. Beaune Clos du Roi shows a smooth opulence, Pommard is broader but still sophisticated, while the Volnay Les Santenots premier cru tends to earthiness. Reds age easily for 30 years.

Wines from the great appellations show great typicity and ageability, but the surprise and the bargain are the wines from lesser appellations: and the domain is also remarkable for its ability to produce high quality in lesser years, vintages such as 1994 or 1997 showing well today.


5 thoughts on “Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum: A Visit to Domaine Robert Ampeau

  1. You’re in my favourite wine area here though I don’t know Ampeau. We usually visit twice a year, one to Chablis in the north and one around Beaune. Just got back from our regular dose of Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc around Chinon so will try to visit Ampeau in September 👍🍷

  2. Benjamin- it’s brilliant to hear that you met Michel just over a year ago – I know he had a health problem but your article didn’t mention if he was back making wine or just selling his existing stock
    Michel is one of life’s gentlemen and I hope he is back in harness !
    Tom Berrigan

  3. Are you going to have any articles on PIEDMONT ITALY? Barolo or Barbaresco wines).
    I’m worried when I visit the region I will not like them because I’m so in love with French wine- SANCERRE, PINOT NOIR, CABERNET SAUVIGNON, these are from distinctly different regions of course
    I am afraid Barolos will be too acidic, tar like tones — any suggestions on what to try???

    • Barolo these days is not so acidic or tarry or tannic. It’s still true that the wines are relatively high in alcohol, although Nebbiolo seems to absorb that more easily than other varieties. Perhaps you won’t like wines made in the fully traditional style, but there are many modernist producers who are bringing out fruits, using new oak, etc, and following more the precepts of French winemaking than local tradition. Because of the pandemic I have not been able to visit Piedmont in the past year, but I suggest you look at my Guide to Barolo and Barbaresco (in the series of Guides to Wines and Top Vineyards, available in both ebook and print on Amazon) to identify modernist producers whom you may like best.

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