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.