Clos Vougeot from Top to Bottom: Is it Really a Grand Cru?

Clos Vougeot is perhaps the most variable of all the grand crus of the Cote de Nuits, and the one whose status is most often questioned (Echézeaux being the other). It’s only the accident of the area being literally enclosed by a surrounding wall that led to the uniform classification, as it extends right from the top of the slope (more or less in line with the premier crus) through the middle (in line with the grand crus) to the bottom (usually mere communal territory). In fact, it’s worse than that, because the fault line that mostly runs along the N74, dividing the great communes from the mere Bourgogne on the other side, actually diverts to run through the bottom edge of Clos Vougeot. (I discuss this in detail in my book In Search of Pinot Noir, from which the figure below is taken). Classified by geology, Clos Vougeot would include everything from ordinary Bourgogne to Grand Cru. Now if you taste your way across, for example, Gevrey Chambertin, from say the N74 to Le Chambertin, the difference between communal appellation, premier cru, and grand cru is usually fairly obvious. An unusual opportunity to see if there are obvious differences with location for Clos Vougeot came from a tasting of the 2011 vintage organized by Fine and Rare Wines in London, with examples from 38 producers. ClosVougeotCross

A cross-section of Clos Vougeot shows the strong variations in terroir.

Clos Vougeot has been divided between many producers since the French Revolution, but its division into climats hasn’t changed much since the sixteenth century. The monks knew all about this, and supposedly used the wine from the bottom for communal use, the wine from the top for visiting bishops, and reserved the wine from the middle for princes and the pope. Most of the wines at the tasting represented one of these three areas, but some were blended from multiple plots. However, the striking feature was a lack of any clear correlation between location and style.

VougeotMapClos Vougeot is divied into many plots with around 80 proprietors.

For me the wines of character fell into two general groups, which roughly might be defined as those I would (mistakenly) have placed in the Cote de Beaune in a blind tasting, because flashy red fruits showed more than structure, and those that I would unhesitatingly have placed in the Cote de Nuits (sometimes farther north than Clos Vougeot). Perhaps there is a tendency for the wines from the bottom to show more overt fruits and those from the very top to show more obvious structure, but I’d be hard put to support that in a blind tasting.

Clos Vougeot may offer the most fleshy character of the Cote de Nuits, certainly more opulent than delicate Chambolle Musigny or stern Gevrey Chambertin. I was really surprised by how sweet and ripe many of the wines were, although that’s not the reputation of the 2011 vintage. I was frankly disappointed by about half the wines, which seemed to lack grand cru quality (meaning that fruits were relatively simple and I could not see where future complexity would come from), but these showed no correlation with position, and came from plots all over the Clos. (It’s true that none of my preferred wines came exclusively from the bottom, but I don’t think that’s statistically significant.)

Wines in my category of delicious but rather Beaune-ish, with red fruits dominating, include Chanson, Chateau de la Tour, Louis Max, Denis Mortet, Mugneret-Gibourg, Jacques Prieur, Drouhin, Roche de Bellene, Domaine de la Vougeraie, Chauvenet-Chopin. Nice wines, but shouldn’t we expect more from a grand cru than simply a delicious crowd-pleasing quality?

Wines that melded the fleshiness of Clos Vougeot with a sense of structure of the Cote de Nuits, with black fruits more prominent, include Jean-Jacques Confuron, Louis Latour, Marchand-Tawse, Domaine d’Eugénie, Anne Gros, and the Vieilles Vignes from Chateau de la Tour (quite different from the regular cuvée). This is my concept of Clos Vougeot, anyway.

Some top wines came from old-line producers. Méo-Camuzet, including a large prime plot close to the chateau, really showed as a classic grand cru from Cote de Nuits, Arnoux-Lachaux (from plot in the upper third) a nice mix of fleshiness and structure in the modern style of the house, and Louis Jadot (from a plot extending from bottom through the middle) showed their characteristic sense of balance.

It is a sign of the times that I thought two of the best wines came from micro-negociants who do not even own any land in the Clos. Olivier Bernstein showed his usual opulent style, but with enough underlying structure to support longevity for years. The wine lives up to the reputation of the plot, which has very old vines (more than 80 years) in the middle of Clos Vougeot towards the south. The wine I found the most interesting of all came from Lucien Le Moine, and is not identified with any single plot. “Our Clos Vougeot has a particularity, it’s a blend from all three parts,” winemaker Mounir Saouma told me on a recent visit. The monks would have been very pleased with this: it captures the fleshiness of Clos Vougeot in the context of the structure of the Cote de Nuits and Mounir’s trademark elegance.

The take-home message for me was that producer triumphs over terroir in Clos Vougeot. Should it be a grand cru? I’d say about a third of the wines met my standard for grand cru. I’ll have to do a similar tasting for Chambertin or Musigny to see if the ratio goes up.

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Burgundy Diary part 5: A Peak of Natural Wine? – a Visit with Lucien Lemoine in Beaune

A Bach cantata was playing when I arrived for a meeting at Lucien Lemoine in Beaune. From outside the premises look like a run down property in a street just outside the town center, but workmen were coming and going, and the interior had been handsomely renovated, practical rather than flashy, but with a certain contemporary flair. LeMoineTW1Lucien Lemoine is the creation of Mounir and Rotem Saouma, who have been making wine here since 1998. It’s perhaps Burgundy’s top micro-negociant. The name reflects Mounir’s past experience working with monks. Mounir is a complicated person – “I listen to Dylan every day and read Nietzsche” – and conversation with him is thought-provoking, running in every direction like quicksilver. For every question I asked, the answer provoked more lines of investigation. He has a very definite view of winemaking. “I saw the need for a place where we would make wine in the old tradition – not the young tradition, which is the last 30-40 years. There was a window for a policy of ‘I don’t do.’ Many people were saying ‘I do so and so.’ The objective was to be as classic as possible.”

Before coming to Burgundy, Mounir was a winemaker in many places with many varieties, including Pinot Noir in hot climates. “It was hard to make good Pinot Noir so I came to the birthplace to see. I wanted people to see many examples of terroir and to see the difference.”

“Hundreds of years ago there was polyculture, there was a simple way of making wine: if it’s red, put it in a tank, push down the cap, press, wait, bottle. I tried experiments in 1997 in making wine very simply putting it in tank and leaving it. In 1998 we decided how to proceed. We are two people and we wanted to do 100 barrels of wine in premier and grand crus. We reached this size in 2006 and we are still at that size today. I have seen many negociants start small and become large. We do it all ourselves,” Mounir says, waving his hand to show a bandage where he hurt himself moving barrels yesterday.

There is just one village wine to show the potential of lower appellations. In the first year, there were 33 barrels representing 19 premier crus and 15 grand crus. In 2012, there were 112 barrels representing 75 premier and grand crus. 55% is red and 45% is white. “We could have done 10 barrels from each village, but we are making many more wines, in smaller amounts. Why do we have so many wines? Because I find the variety interesting.” 85% of the wines are the same every year. “Most of the growers from 1999 are still our growers today.”

The approach to winemaking is direct: let the wine have a slow and very long fermentation, and keep it on full lees for élevage. “We have very cold cellars so we never complete fermentation before ten months after harvest. Today (July 2014) we are at the end of the alcoholic fermentation and the malo is now starting for 2013.Mounir emphasizes. “We put all the lees in the barrel, we use the heavy lees, I hate ‘fine lies,’ it means nothing.” There is no filtering or fining., and minimal use of sulfur. “I have a very curious friendship with sulfur…If I were the big boss of Burgundy, I would forbid the use of sulfur at two times: now in the spring, and at bottling. When you sulfur young wines very early, you keep them virgin and very shy. So when the wine finally sees oxygen it will be destroyed. Great Burgundy must be approachable when it is young. The problem with the sulfur is that it kills the wine. You can put makeup on, but it’s dead… We do not do wines without sulfur, but we age wines for 18 months without sulfur; this is a religion but it’s a risk thing. And then the sulfur is 15 ppm where Burgundy is usually 50 ppm. The key is that with slow alcoholic fermentation, late malo, and no racking, my wines are bottled with three times the average carbon dioxide for Burgundy.” The back label of every bottle carries a warning that the wine needs to be decanted before drinking in order to shake off the gas.

I don’t know whether aficionados of natural wine would apply the term “natural” to Mounir’s wines, but when I raise the question he says “I don’t like titles, natural means others are not, I do wine like people did in the old days, before the new tradition , I don’t know how you call it , we don’t add and don’t take out.” One of the charms of Lucien Lemoine as a producer is that it’s hard to peg by conventional descriptions. Take the question of new oak.”The policy in oak is not to talk about oak…  I am happy you did not mention the presence (in the wines we tasted) of what I hate the most – oak flavor. New oak is expensive, it’s very complicated to use , but the moderate oxygen is very important for agibility of the wines. If a wine come from new oak without the (sense of) oak, it’s a sign of purity of terroir.”

“Unfortunately a lot of wines are more the man than the terroir, and they are boring. They do not change in the glass. And they are dead, they do not age. At the end of the day you open the bottle, you carafe it – any bottle we produce must be carafed – and it should last a week. The wine should change every day. It’s an obligation to respect the terroir and to keep the life in the wine. The definition of great wine in Burgundy for me rests on three points: the first is the place, the wine should smell and taste of the place; second is that it must have a life, it must change in the glass; third is that it must be able to age.

Do you control the vineyards? “We do the opposite of the others: I consider the best growers in the world are here, with a relationship between man and terroir. Who is going to stand in the vineyards and tell the growers what to do?” Basically, Mounir has confidence in his growers. “We try to find the person who makes the best interpretation in a cru. All arrangements with growers are on handshakes. We buy every year, we pay the price, we never say to a grower you must do something. In 2003 some growers said to me, you’ve made wine in hot countries, what do we do, but I wouldn’t intervene. I have no control, I learn from the growers, The growers have thirty vintages and then you have someone who arrives here and says, I’ll buy your grapes, and I’ll make wine. A lot of people ‘make’ Burgundy but you don’t have to ‘make’ Burgundy.”

For me, these wines are as natural as they need to be, with a wonderful purity of fruit allowing terroir to show itself at every level of the range. They are expensive and hard to find, but an eye opener as to the potential for minimal manipulation.