Assemblage in a Beaker: Clos des Epeneaux 2018 Leads to Some Heretical Thoughts

A visit to Comte Armand is always an education in the intricacies of classifying terroir in Burgundy. The domain’s famous holding is the 5 ha monopole of the Clos des Epeneaux (which makes up about half of the estate altogether). Located at the junction of Grands and Petits Epenots, the clos is surrounded by a wall that was built at a time when both Epenots had only a single owner, so defining it as a single Cru. But in fact the wine is a blend.

“The magic of the clos is that you can do an assemblage from four different areas,” says cellarmaster Paul Zinetti.   There is significant variation in the soil even within its walls. Topsoil is deeper right at the top of the Clos and at the bottom, with 60-80 cms resting on fragmented rocks. Other parts are shallower with only 20 cms of depth, sitting on a horizontal stones and a compact bedrock. There is quite a lot of iron in the soil. It’s more calcareous at the top.

In effect the  clos is divided into sectors by location (upper versus lower) and age of vines (35- to 90-years). Each part is vinified separately, and assemblage occurs at the end of élevage. Usually all the lots go into the final blend, but sometimes some are declassified (to Pommard Premier cru without a name). Tasting barrel samples shows how each part brings its own character.

The youngest vines near the top give a wine that is tight and fresh. A plot of older (55-year) vines with similar geology but lower down gives more aromatics, turning from red to black fruits. 65-70-year old vines on the calcareous terroir at the top give wine with more aromatic lift and an impression of elegance as well as power. This sample is perhaps the most complete in itself. The oldest vines, from the lowest part, give flatter aromatics but greater structure.

Concentrating on the proportions, but warning that the blend was only approximate as the wine is only part way through élevage, Paul did an assemblage in a beaker, swirled it around, and then presented the sample for tasting. Immediately you could see the increase in complexity, with hallmark black fruit aromatics balancing chocolaty tannins.

This creates somewhat mixed feelings about terroir. If it wasn’t for the accident that the clos was enclosed by a single wall, very likely it would have been classified into more than one part, and tastings would focus on the changes brought by the terroir of each climat. (Of course, the comparison here isn’t simply on the basis of terroir, as each part of the clos was planted at a different time.)

If these were separate cuvées, once again one would be marveling at the infinite variety of Burgundy. But the blend was vastly more complex than any of the individual samples. The relative merits of blends versus single-vineyards are in contention elsewhere, of course, and in regions such as Barolo the argument has swung one way or the other according to fashion.

The difference in Burgundy is that the detailed classification of so many premier crus (extended by the division of communal appellations into lieu-dits) has pre-empted discussion. Has it ossified the situation? You have to wonder whether Clos des Epeneaux is representative of a more general situation, whether it might be a mistake to classify  some of the smaller premier crus  separately, and whether blends of adjacent premier crus might be more complex? When is the whole greater than the sum of the parts, and when are the separate parts more interesting?

Tasting Notes (ordered by age of vines in each sector)

35-year-old vines: Light red fruit impressions with fresh acidity, fine texture on palate, tannins a little tight but elegant, aromatics a bit flat but just a touch of chocolate at the end.

55-year-old vines: More aromatic impressions, more towards black fruits, finer texture, greater aromatic lift with some hints of blackcurrants. Elegant style feels more like Volnay than Pommard.

65-year-old vines: A more complete impression, with elegance as well as power, and yet more aromatic lift, in fact quite aromatic, with lovely balance. Partly reflects fact that combination of vine age and position at top of clos gives smaller berries.

90-year-old vines: More structured and less aromatic, more sense of black fruits, firmer tannic structure evident.

THE BEAKER: Immediate sense of greater complexity on nose. Palate is quite firm with subtle hints of chocolaty aromatics, but in balance with structure (not as light as first sample, not as dense as last sample). Fine granular texture, chocolaty tannins show on long finish. Promises an elegant future.

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Retroactive Blending

You don’t often get the chance to reconsider the blend ten years on, but this is what happened when I visited Château Léoville Lascases in St. Julien. We started with a tasting of the individual varieties from 1999. That year the Grand Vin was 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, and 18% Merlot (there is no Petit Verdot because they believe it is too rustic.) Samples of the individual varieties were bottled separately (starting in new oak and then transferring to one year oak, to give an overall exposure close to the grand vin’s 60% new oak).

The Merlot showed surprisingly fresh red fruits, with just a touch of tertiary development. The Cabernet Franc was evidently more refined, more elegant, than the other varieties and showed a faint herbaceous touch with an impression of tobacco. It was less developed than the other two varieties.  The Cabernet Sauvignon was quite stern, and gave the most complete impression of any of the single varieties, showing as black fruits with a herbal edge and a touch of herbaceousness showing only on the aftertaste. It’s the most closely related (not surprising since it’s dominant component) to the Grand Vin.

The Grand Vin showed more development than was evident with any of the individual varieties, bringing greater complexity. This has certainly taken its superficial softness and roundness from the Merlot, but you can see the Spartan structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon coming through the fruits; in fact, in some ways it seems more evident here than it did in the sample of Cabernet Sauvignon alone (perhaps because the combination of fruits has less weight than the Cabernet Sauvignon alone), but the overall balance is rescued by the freshness of the finish. There is no doubt that the blend is more complex than its components. In terms of overall assessment, this is a fairly tight wine, with the fruits showing just enough roundness to counteract the leanness of this difficult year.

The most fascinating moment came when technical director Michael Georges made some new blends to see what the effect would be of increasing each variety by another 10%. I liked the blends with more Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc; they seemed to me to have at least as good a balance of fruit to structure as the Grand Vin. I could believe that either of them might be Léoville Lascases. But the blend with additional Merlot seemed to be unbalanced, to have a rusticity that had lost the character of St. Julien: I would not believe in this as a Léoville Lascases. The trick seems to be to add just enough Merlot to flesh out the wine, but not enough to go over the edge into rusticity. Further experimentation suggested that the ideal blend might have just 5% more of each Cabernet; it seemed to me that this showed just a touch more finesse than the Grand Vin. “Perhaps we should wait ten years to do the assemblage,” said Michael Georges, but then we agreed that this might have some adverse financial consequences.

For me this tasting also cast an interesting light on the question of whether assemblage should be done early or late. Some people believe that the sooner the cépages are blended, the better they marry together, and the better the final wine. The earliest practical moment is after malolactic fermentation is finished. Others hold the contrary position, that you are in a better position to judge the quality of each lot if you keep the individual cépages separate until the last moment. I felt that the retroactive blend with 5% more of each Cabernet had more youthful liveliness than the Grand Vin, but then it might of course have developed differently had this been the blend from the beginning. Based on this limited experience, I’m inclined to the view that it might be best to mature each lot separately, allowing for significant adjustment of oak and variety, as long as possible, and I think it would be very interesting to see what the châteaux would do if they weren’t under pressure from the en primeur system to blend before the April tastings.