Nicolas Potel produces some of the most sought-after wines in the Burgundy region. Nicolas learned the art of winemaking on his family’s estate in Volnay. In 2005, he established his own winery, Domaine de Bellene, and in 2008, he launched Maison Roche de Bellene, his negociant business. Nicolas blends traditional and modern techniques by using grapes from old vines and biodynamic and organic farming methods.
First of all, my parents came in 1964, and they bought a part of the Duveault Blochet vineyard, 12 Hectares in Côtes de Beaune. Volnay, Pommard and Santenay. Then they bought the house in Volnay, with great cellars and winery.
My father was a perfectionist, and he was a modern winemaker for that time. He vinified is 1964 in Santenay, and bring the casks in Volnay. At that time he was using 100% new barrels, and all cluster during vinification. The wines stay 18 months in barrels, and bottling without filtration. But two racking during the élevage.
Then 1965 came, first vintage in Volnay! A very bad year, a lot of botrytis, difficult at that time. So he was the first to do the ‘triage’. He bring the equivalent of 65000 bottles and at the end he bottled only 18000 bottles. The rest was the triage! Everybody in the village where thinking he was creasy! What about now?
Then he vinified the great 1966, the bad 1968, the great 1969,1970,1971… All those years where aging in 100% new barrels. He change in 1978, and he decide to drop the amount of new casks to 35%. He was smilling when the fashion of new casks came in the 80’.
In 1973, he was trying the ‘Saignée’, with all the problem of bad vintage, his focus was to find a way to win concentration. Again, he was one of the first to do the saignées, and in the 80’ he was one of the first to used the concentration machine made by Durafroid. The idea was to take out some of the water from the juice. Because the saignée was not a good system, the first juice is the best! We try the machine few years, and then we stop, it was not great for the terroir definition.
He work a lot finding new ideas, acidification, sugar, thermo tanks, roter tanks… He was always trying new techniques.
Vineyard management was the same focus. He try and make some machine for the soil, for the pruning, a lot of work with the clonale selection…
A great Estate, and a great team him and my mother, they did a lot of innovation.
Also they have been very successful on marketing. Since the start, they have been selling the wines cellar door, with a newsletter every year. 50% of the wines was sold directly from the Estate to consumers.
Then they organize a great world reputation, and the wines was going in 30 country.
I start working in 1987, at Domaine Matrot. After a difficult time at school, my father ask me to work with Thierry, and that experience was great. I loved wine from that point, I was nearly 18, and I ask to stop school one year to work.
So I went in Australia, and I worked for Keith Mugford, who was just starting his new life as the new owner of Moss Wood in Margaret River. Great time, and great people.
From that point I worked for a lot of people around the world of wine. In Burgundy for Laurent Juillot, and for Christophe Roumier.
In Australia for Moss Wood again, for Leeuwin Estate, Wirra Wirra, and then for the great John and Marly Middleton at Mount Mary. In California for Tom Delhinger.
Great experience for a young boy, and great moment for life. I learn a lot about vineyard management, the experience of new terroir, the difficulty fining new style, the date of picking, the clone selection, the climate, the crop..
In the winery, it was very good to learn about all the techniques, specially coming from a part of the world where we don’t used all those product. So I work with yeast, DAP, bacteries, enzymes and all sort of oenologie materials.
I think it was very important for me to learn about all that, and to find my own way after all. It’s always important to go very far, to learn, to get confidence on what we doing.
So the new world was great, and my little experience help me now. I still have a good contact with Keith, and I send him people for harvest, and he send me people too.
At Domaine Juillot it was a great experience, because Laurent was in charge of the vinification for the first time in 1988, and we have a lot of work to do. Great vintage, one of the best in my life, but very difficult because our approach was too easy. It’s a vintage where the best wines came from all custer, and because the molecules of tannins where so big it was difficult to extract. So long fermentation and long time in cask. Too many wines are dry now! If you try Clos Tavannes from my father, all cluster it’s a great wine.
At Domaine Matrot, I learn to be strong in what you doing, no fashion. And so much with Pierre Matrot, for the vineyard management, super guy.
At Domaine Roumier, I was lucky to work with Jean Mary, Christophe father. Again one of the best winemaker in Burgundy, so elegant. With Christophe I learn how to be super precise, like my father.
But from all of them, I learn the most important, is to put the best attention about details, small details!
I came back at Domaine de la Pousse D’Or, in 1992, and I worked there until my father death in 1997. But I help from 1989 for the vineyard management, and I bring the Estate to lutte raisonnée.
Difficult time between son and father, but great time. I was in charge of the vineyard, and I said that the time was good to start the organic culture. So he agree, but he said it was my problem, and he wants great grapes with no problem. So we worked a lot, and we bring the vineyard back. Before his death, he said to my mother that the vineyard was coming back to the quality of the 60’.
Working for him was very good, and I learn so much that I was ready to start my own little house. In 1996, I said to my father that Pousse D’Or was not for me, and it will be difficult to buy all the share. I decide to start a little négoce, and to have my own company. So we start together, and we bought grapes in 1997, the idea was to sell the vineyards, and to keep the house and the stock with his share. But he died suddenly, and the associates sale there share to somebody.
So I start alone the Nicolas POTEL house. A little winery in Volnay, then I find a little winery in Nuits St Georges. With all my contact, I start very quick, and I find the best wines in Côte D’Or. All my friend, the good winemakers from here sell me wines.
I vinified 10 hectares in 1998, and I bought 200 barrels of wines. Then I find a new winery in front of my cellar, the train Station. So I have been working there since 2000 vintage.
Coming from an estate, it was very easy to find the best vineyard, and to talk with the growers. I help a lot of them to start on organic, and I always try to be fare in term of the price. It was new for Burgundy to pay the same price for grapes than wine.
I know that my time in the new world help me a lot to start my company. I have a lot of freedom at that time, no Estate, no reputation, and a lot to try.
I decide to be free from oenologic materials. So all natural, only sugar at that time, no acidification, no yeast, no enzymes… I start to do filtration with the 2000 vintage and from that I have been changing a lot of small details to get clear wines. I start with changing my box, smaller box for the grapes. Then vibrant table to take the sediment out, I change the destumer for a new one that nobody have in Burgundy and it’s called ‘égreneur’, we bring the grapes inside the tanks with small container so we get full berries for vinified.
I change my bag press for a vertical press, that was one of the great issue to get pure juice coming from pressing. Normally you have to take the free juice, and then leaving the press juice out from the cuvée. With the vertical press, the press juice are beautiful, so it’s going to the final blend just after pressing. The juice are very clear, so we don’t need enzymes! and no filtration. We change the pomps, we are using an Italian pomp called Francesca, which push the wine, again it’s helping to get clear juice. The details from the racking, with the moon, and the days of racking! I was telling you that I learned from my different boss the ‘soucis du détail’ and how to improve to get better wines.
In 2002, the crisis was hard, and we have difficulties to sell the 2001 vintage. So we decide with my wife to sell some share to a new partner. We find a lot of people, but we never finalise the deal.
In 2003, my wife was pregnant, and we have some difficulty during that time. My wife as to stay in bed at the hospital for 4 months. So the year was very special, and I wasn’t 100% at my work, mainly at the hospital with my wife.
We met the Cottin brothers in july 2003, and they want to be partner but not 30%, they gives us an option for 100% of the company. The price was good, and the future was clement. We make a deal in October, and we start the joint venture in January 2004.
I was doing 5,000,000€ in 2003, and I bring the company up to 9,000,000€ in 2008, we worked like creasy, and everything was going well until the crisis coming.
The Cottin decide to sell the group, and they fired Olivier Martin who was the head manager of the group in January 2009, then Thomas Leclerc who was the second of the group. In march they fired me, and they said that I was not making the wines for them, it was Fabrice Lesne my second who was vinified the wines since 2001. It’s was creasy from them to buy my company in 2004, with this vision that I wasn’t doing anything?
They are big négociant, they never liked the fact that I was vinified, and they never liked free person in a group. I was working 120% for the little company, but maybe not 150%?
I always believe to make a great brand in Burgundy, you have to vinified, and you have to get the best vineyard. So you can’t do a great cuvée of Santenots coming from 10 producers, but you can do 5 great Volnay 1er Cru from 10 different producer in small lot.
And for me the terroir is the key, to bring the brand at a high level, you should have a great line. It was good for them for a time, but then they decide to reduce the range to a very few wines. And to increase the little wines by far.
Margin is also important for the value of work, they prefer to sell with very small margin and high volume. That is not my conception, and again the brand was to new to increase the volume, and to be at a lower level.
There is some good winemaker for high volume, I am not like this, I am not coming from that training.
In 2005, one of my grower ask me if I want to take back is vineyard ‘En Fermage’, for 25 years, with an option to buy the vineyard at the end. I ask the Cottin, who said they don’t want vineyard. I rent the vineyard, and I start my little Estate with one worker. I have all ready 1.2 ha from my mother, and I always sell my grapes to my company since 1998. So the deal was easy, I make organic grapes, and I sell those to NP. In 2006 I took more vineyard, and when I did the invoice, the Cottin decide that the grapes were too expensive.
So I fight during one year about that with them, and I bring my avocat to fight them. After few month they agreed all, the time was going well, we did a great year. But I said that I will never sell grapes anymore, I start Domaine Potel, and we agreed to sell the wines under my label ‘POTEL’ and the Domaine as to give a commission for using the name. When they fired me, they used this pretext, that I was doing my own. But it was clear from our fight, that I will never be without anything, I have all ready a story with Pousse D’Or, and I know how hard it is to start again!
Then they fired Claire Forestier, saying that they don’t like small company! They fired Xavier Meney, my sell rep, because they didn’t liked him.
So now, I am not at in Nuits St Georges anymore. We change the name from Domaine POTEL to Domaine De Bellene. This is the old name of Beaune, coming from the god BELLENOS. I don’t want to fight with the old block, and I want freedom.
We have now 24 hectares, with very old vineyard, and a lot of Massale Selection. So we have Santenay Blanc Les Charmes Dessus young vines, St Romain Blanc from 5 differents vineyard old vines massale selection, Volnay from 20 years vineyard, a great cuvée of Bourgogne coming from my father vineyard planted in 1928 and some from comblanchien 50 years old. Then we have 6 Beaune 1° Cru, specially the BEAUNE 1° Cru Grèves 104 years old. We are starting a great massale selection from that vineyard, and I hired a girl to do a great analysis of the Terroir during one year at the faculté de Dijon. We have a old selection of Savigny les Beaune Village white and red. Two 1° cru from savigny. Then we have a great selection of old vines from côtes de Nuits Villages red and whites. In 2009, new line from Côtes de Nuits, 3 hectares of old Vines Nuits St georges, Vosne Romanée closed to Echezeaux, one vineyard of Vosne Romanée 1° Cru Suchots and then one vineyard of Nuits St Georges 1° Cru Chaignots. 80% is coming from Massale Selection.
I am still looking for great vineyard, a lot of people want to work with us. We are very proud to work on organic, and the vineyard are very healthy. So the owner of the vineyard talk to their friend and push them to talk with me. So we still have a great potential in the future. It’s more easy to control the vineyard, and it’s my life too. So now I am talking for some Grands Crus, with two growers, and I hope we can do something together.
I have always try to be organic, it’s my goal from Pousse D’Or, I believe that you are more in contact with the plant. You can’t do mistakes, and the worker prefer it now. It’s more work, and you can’t be completely organic because the tractors, but I am using only sulpher and copper! 15 times this year, so we are using only 6 KG / ha. In conventionnel, they are using 1.5 KG per spray! Now a lot of my customer like the idea, and the people ask for those wines. The quality increase in the last years, that’s the answer.
So I believe that if I am in organic, I have to do all. So the building is rebuild with the Canadien architecture concept of HQI High Quality Environmental. It’s hard, you have to used only clean product, and if you can closed to you. So I by my wood from Burgundy only, the painting is organic, the isolation is coming from hash, special friendly light, solar pad, rain water, and I will get next year a heating machine working with wood who will come from our pruning! So I will heat all my building with my vineyard. We want to be free CO2, and low energy. Recycle bottles, recycle paper for the labels, organic glue, wax again capsules and the box have no colour only carton. As you see, we try to be friendly from the vineyard to the winery.
Vinification as simple as possible, with the same care of Nuits St Georges, no oenological products, no acidification and no sugar. Natural.
Then in wood for 14 month, with about 20% new only for the cru, and a lot of big barrels 600 liters for the whites. To keep them longer. Few month in tanks, and bottling by gravity without filtration.
I still control the old wines selection, and we have a lot of new wines coming. I always loved the old wines, and it’s a pleasure to sell them. I am still partner with Stéphane AVIRON, and the little house is going well. We want to build a new winery next year.
Roche de Bellene, is the new name of my négoce. I just make a deal with two great house in Burgundy, to used their facilities for vinified some wines. I am coming back tomorrow for that!
I find it amazing that many Pinot Noir and Chardonnay lovers seem to have a problem with Burgundy. Why do I say that? Well, Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from California, Oregon, Washington State, Chile, New Zealand and Australia sell very well yet Burgundies tend to sit on the shelf. Why is that?
Burgundy is that wine region in eastern-central France that is situated between the cities of Dijon to the north and Lyon to the south, including the region of Chablis just to the north-west of Dijon. At its centre is the beautiful and charming medieval town of Beaune. The northern part is known as the Cote-de-Nuits, the central part as the Cote d’Or and the southern parts are the Cote Challonais and Beaujolais.
All red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir (except for Beaujolais which is made from Gamay) and all white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are grapes varieties that are native to Burgundy and have been grown there for hundreds of years. They find their most sublime expressions in the soils of Burgundy and the hands of the Burgundian winemakers, yet so many wine consumers look at a bottle of Burgundy with a mixture of confusion and fear.
Perhaps the reason for this can be explained by two facts. First, most Burgundy is quite expensive. A decent bottle cannot be had for much under $200, the good stuff costs $300 plus and often much more. That’s at retail, in restaurants one can usually double or triple those prices. For most wine consumers that is big money. The reason behind the pricing is simply demand and supply. There is just not that much good Burgundy produced and wealthy wine buyers are prepared to pay top dollar for the good ones, which incidentally drives up the price of all Burgundy.
To give a stark example, it is all but impossible to get one’s hands on a bottle of Domaine de La Romanee-Conti’s ‘La Tache’ and those lucky enough to get a small allocation are willing to pay US$3-4,000 per bottle. Nothing from Bordeaux or anywhere else even approaches such price points for current vintages.
Secondly, Burgundy is a confusing region with many denominations and it’s hard to know the difference between a Chambolle-Musigny, a Gevrey-Chambertin and a Volnay, far less an Echezeaux, a Nuits St. Georges or a Santenay. And that’s just touching the surface; among the Villages, 1er Crus and Grand Crus there are also many single-vineyard names to contend with, which can make buying Burgundy a most intimidating experience for the uninitiated. Most people just shake their heads and buy simpler wines that they understand.
Worse again is the fact that paying top dollar does not guarantee one will get a tasty bottle of wine. I have had expensive Burgundies that are not worth a tenth of what I paid. Little wonder then that most wine consumers just shy away.
But what are they missing? Simply put, Burgundies are among the most elegant, complex and ethereal wines made on earth. They are able to express “terroir”—the effect of soil, climate and environment—like no other wines. It is possible to taste the difference between vineyards a mere few hundred yards apart. The levels of minerality, the subtlety and complexity of flavours, the gaminess and earthiness are often characteristics that only discriminating and experienced palates can appreciate. I know many wine lovers who just don’t appreciate these qualities and think Burgundy a complete waste of money. For those who do however, there is nothing else like it.
With wine drinking becoming a more and more popular pastime, there is a growing interest in Burgundy, especially among wine lovers who have become a little tired or bored with New-World varietals that offer no sense of locational identity.
Finding good Burgundy to buy therefore requires either a lot of patience, a lot of money or a good wine merchant who has done the homework.
After intensive research for about two years I actually went to the region and visited scores of wineries I had learned about. I swirled, smelt, tasted and spat hundreds of wines, some ordinary, some very good, some so brilliant they were “unspittable.” One day while walking the streets of Beaune I happened on a retailer who had a vast collection of the finest Burgundies in his showcase. Frederic Henry, who thankfully spoke good English, gave me a short but necessary education in Burgundy. I learned that there are 1,900 or so makers in the region of which only 100 are any good. Of that 100, 75 are horrendously expensive. The remaining 25 are the up-and-coming winemakers who are producing excellent wines but who have not yet earned the right to charge a fortune.
From that small group I chose to buy from just two. Nicolas Potel is something of a winemaker prodigy with a cult following. He purchases grapes from some appellations while owning his own vines in others. This young winemaker, whose father was himself a famous winemaker in his own right until his premature death, is gifted. It will not be long before his wines will cost an arm and a leg but so far he remains a value proposition.
The village of Vosne-Romanee is the home of the greatest vineyards in the Cote-de-Nuits. This village, for many wine connoisseurs, is the Mecca of the wine world. The wine writer Hugh Johnson put it very simply: “There are no common wines in Vosne.” Allen Meadows, probably the most respected expert on Burgundy, called the Vosne ‘The Pearl of The Cote’.
It is in this village that we found Domaine Jacques Cacheux and proprietor Patrice Cacheux. As was the case with Nicolas Potel, every sample we tasted was yummy, expressive and memorable. Patrice has, within the last six or seven years, raised the quality of his domaine to rank with the very best. He too will be ‘expensive’ before long.
As with all great Burgundy, these wines are smooth, expressive and subtle, offering complex flavours and delicate balance. For those of you who do not appreciate strong, mouth-drying tannins as a pre-requisite to full favour, red Burgundy offers an elegant and sublime wine experience. They are wines that work equally well as pre-dinner aperitifs as companions to food.
If you like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and are willing to explore, you will come to love Burgundy.
“Knowing in part may make a fine tale, but wisdom comes from seeing the whole.”—Asian Proverb
And so it is with the concept of ‘terroir’, that hazy, intellectually-appealing notion that a plot of soil plays the determining factor in a wine’s character. The French are the world’s most obsessed people regarding the issue of terroir. And why not? Many of that country’s most renowned vineyards are part of an elabourate hierarchy of quality based on their soil and exposition. And the French would have everyone believe that no one on planet Earth can equal the quality of their Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Syrah, etc. because their privileged terroir is unequaled. One of France’s most celebrated wine regions, Burgundy, is often cited as the best place to search for the fullest expression of terroir. Followers of terroir (the terroirists) argue that a particular piece of ground and its contribution to what is grown there give its product a character that is distinctive and apart from that same product grown on different soils and slopes. Burgundy, with its classifications of grand cru and premier cru vineyards, village vineyards and generic viticultural areas, is the terroirists ‘raison d’etre’.
Lamentably, terroir has become such a politically-correct buzzword that in some circles it is an egregious error not to utter some profound comments about finding ‘a sense of somewhereness’ when tasting a Vosne-Romanée-Les Malconsorts or a Latricières-Chambertin. Leading ‘terroirists’ such as wine producer Lalou Bize-Leroy, Burgundy wine broker Becky Wasserman, and author Matt Kramer make a persuasive and often eloquent case about the necessity of finding, as Kramer puts it, “the true voice of the land” in order for a wine to be legitimised.
Yet like so many things about wine, especially tasting it, there is no scientific basis for anything Bize, Wasserman, or Kramer propose. What they argue is what most Burgundians and owners of France’s finest vineyards give lip service to—that for a wine to be authentic and noble it must speak of its terroir.
Terrior Only One Factor of Wine Character
On the other side of this issue are the ‘realists’, or should I call them modernists. They suggest that terroir is merely one of many factors that influence the style of a wine. The realists argue that a multitude of factors determine a wine’s style, quality, and character. Soil, exposition, and microclimate (terroir) most certainly impart an influence, but so do the following:
Rootstock: Is it designed to produce prolific or small crop levels?
Yeasts: Does the winemaker use the vineyard’s wild yeasts or are commercial yeasts employed? Every yeast, wild or commercial, will give a wine a different set of aromatics, flavor, and texture.
Yields and Vine Age: High yields from perennial overcroppers result in diluted wine. Low yields, usually less than two tons per acre or 35-40 hectoliters per hectare, result in wines with much more concentration and personality. Additionally, young vines have a tendency to overproduce, whereas old vines produce small berries and less wine. Crop thinning is often employed with younger vineyards to increase the level of concentration.
Harvest Philosophy: Is the fruit picked underripe to preserve more acidity, or fully ripe to emphasise the lushness and opulence of a given varietal?
Vinification Techniques and Equipment: There are an amazing number of techniques that can change the wine’s aromas and flavors. Moreover, equipment choice (different presses, destemmers, etc.) can have a profound influence on the final wine.
Élévage (or the wine’s upbringing): Is the wine brought up in oak barrels, concrete vats, stainless steel, or large oak vats (which the French call foudres)? What is the percentage of new oak? All of these elements exert a strong influence on the wine’s character. Additionally, transferring wine (racking) from one container to another has an immense impact on a wine’s bouquet and flavor. Is the wine allowed to remain in long contact with its lees (believed to give the wine more aromatic complexity and fullness)? Or is it racked frequently for fear of picking up an undesirable lees smell?
Fining and Filtration: Even the most concentrated and profound wines that terroirists consider quintessential examples of the soil can be eviscerated and stripped of their personality and richness by excessive fining and filtering. Does the winemaker treat the wine with kid gloves, or is the winemaker a manufacturer/processor bent on sculpturing the wine?
Bottling Date: Does the winemaker bottle early to preserve as much fruit as possible, or does he bottle later to give the wine a more mellow, aged character? Undoubtedly, the philosophy of when to bottle can radically alter the character of a wine.
Cellar Temperature and Sanitary Conditions: Some wine cellars are cold and others are warm. Different wines emerge from cold cellars (development is slower and the wines are less prone to oxidation) than from warm cellars (the maturation of aromas and flavours is more rapid and the wines are quicker to oxidise). Additionally, are the wine cellars clean or dirty?
These are just a handful of factors that can have extraordinary impact on the style, quality, and personality of a wine. As the modernists claim, the choices that man himself makes, even when they are unquestionably in pursuit of the highest quality, can contribute far more to a wine’s character than the vineyard’s terroir. If one listens to Robert Kacher, a realist, or to Matt Kramer, a terroirist, it is easy to conclude they inhabit different worlds. But the irony is that in most cases, they tend to agree as to the Burgundy producers making the finest wines.
If you are wondering where I stand on terroir, I do believe it is an important component in the production of fine wine. However, I would argue that the most persuasive examples of terroir do not arise from Burgundy, but rather, from Alsace. If one is going to argue terroir, the wine has to be made from exceptionally low yields, fermented with only the wild yeasts that inhabit the vineyard, brought up in a neutral medium, such as old barrels, cement tanks, or stainless steel, given minimal cellar treatment, and bottled with little or no fining or filtration.
For example, if I were to take up the cause of the terroirists, I would use one of Alsace’s greatest domaines, that of Leonard and Olivier Humbrecht, to make a modest case for terroir. The Humbrechts do everything to emphasise the differences in their vineyard holdings. Yet in a blind tasting, why is it so easy to identify the wines of Zind-Humbrecht? Certainly their Hengst-Riesling tastes different than their Riesling from Clos St.-Urbain. The question is, is one tasting the terroir, or the winemaker’s signature? Zind-Humbrecht’s wines, when matched against other Alsatian wines, are more powerful, richer, and intense. Zind-Humbrecht’s yields are lower and they do not filter the wine at bottling. Yet this is a case where the wines not only possess an identifiable winemaker’s signature, but also a distinctive vineyard character.
Lalou Bize-Leroy of the Domaine Leroy is often cited as the pre-eminent terroirist. She is a persuasive woman and talks a mighty game when it comes to how her vineyard parcels impart specific characteristics to her wines. But when Bize’s wines are evaluated in blind tastings, the obvious conclusion is that she fashions more concentrated and ageworthy red burgundies than her peers. Once a taster is familiar with the style of her wines (there are subtle differences) Leroy’s wines can be easily identified in a blind tasting because of their power, purity, richness, and exceptional intensity rather than by any particular terroir characteristic. The same can be said for many of Burgundy’s finest producers. Anyone who is familiar with the style of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti can usually pick a DRC wine out of a blind tasting because of the singular style of its winemaking. Winemaker Jacques Seysses, a producer who received a five-star rating in my book on Burgundy, and someone I admire tremendously, runs up the terroir flag as fast as any Frenchman, saying, “man can destroy, not create.” Seysses, who utilises 100% new oak for all of his grand crus, produces wines of extraordinary finesse and elegance. However, when tasted, his wines are dominated by his own winemaking autograph and can be picked out, not because they emanate from vineyards such as Clos de la Roche, Clos St.-Denis, or Bonnes Mares, but because of his distinctive style.
Terroir, as used by many of its proponents, is often a convenient excuse for upholding the status quo. If one accepts the fact that terroir is everything, and is essential to legitimise a wine, how should consumers evaluate the wines from Burgundy’s most famous grand cru vineyard, Chambertin? This thirty-two acre vineyard boasts twenty-three different proprietors. But only a handful of them appear committed to producing an extraordinary wine. Everyone agrees this is a hallowed piece of ground, but I can think of only a few producers – Domaine Leroy, Domaine Ponsot, Domaine Rousseau, Domaine des Chézeaux (Ponsot makes the wine for Chézeaux) – that produce wines that merit the stratospheric reputation of this vineyard. Yet the Chambertins of three of these producers, Leroy, Ponsot, and Rousseau, are completely different in style. The Ponsot wine is the most elegant, supple, and round, Leroy’s is the most tannic, backward, concentrated, and meaty, and Rousseau’s is the darkest-colored, most dominated by new oak, and most modern in style, taste, and texture. Among the other eighteen or twenty producers (and I am not even thinking about the various negociant offerings) what Burgundy wine enthusiasts are likely to encounter on retailers’ shelves ranges from mediocre to appallingly thin and insipid. What wine, may I ask, speaks for the soil of Chambertin? Is it the wine of Leroy, the wine of Ponsot, the wine of Rousseau?
Arguments such as this can be made with virtually any significant Burgundy vineyard. Consider Corton-Charlemagne and the products of four of its most celebrated producers. The firm of Faiveley owns the most prized parcel atop this famous hill, and they make a compellingly elegant Corton-Charlemagne. Stylistically, it is the antithesis of the super-concentrated, lavishly oaky, broadly flavored, alcoholic Corton-Charlemagne made by Louis Latour. Again, Domaine Leroy makes a backward, hard, tough Corton-Charlemagne that resembles a tannic red more than a white wine. Domaine Coche-Dury makes a wine with extraordinary mineral components, as well as remarkable richness, unctuosity, and opulence where the oak takes a back seat to the wine’s fruit and texture. Which of these Corton-Charlemagnes has that notion of “somewhereness” that is raised by the terroirists to validate the quality of a vineyard?
Are terroirists kindergarten intellectuals who should be doing more tasting and less talking? Of course not. But they can be accused of naively swallowing the tallest tale in Burgundy. On the other hand, the realists should recognise that no matter how intense and concentrated a wine can be from a modest vineyard in Givry, it will never have the sheer complexity and class of a Vosne-Romanée grand cru from a conscientious producer.
In conclusion, think of terroir as you do salt, pepper, and garlic. In many dishes they can represent an invaluable component, imparting wonderful aromas and flavours. But if consumed alone, they are usually difficult to swallow. Moreover, all the hyperventilation over terroir obscures the most important issue of all – identifying and discovering those producers who make wines worth drinking and savouring!