Burgundy Wines: A New Generation of Winemakers
Burgundy reveres its past, yet a new generation of winemakers is quietly challenging tradition. F&W's Kate Krader meets the iconoclasts and wonders, jokingly, whether they're audacious enough for reality TV.
I saw a lot of grapes when I was in Burgundy last summer, but not the blue ones. Les raisins bleus, as they're unofficially known, are in one of Burgundy's most famous wine regions, the Côte de Nuits. Were the brightly colored grapes part of a publicity campaign by some wily locals? No, they were an ingenious ploy by the owners of the tiny Domaine Georges Mugneret-Gibourg estate, whose plot of land in Clos de Vougeot sits right next to the lot where all the giant tour buses park. The winemakers sprayed their grapes blue to stop the tourists from eating all the valuable fruit as they got off and on the buses.
I heard about the blue grapes from my wine genius friend Jordan Salcito. She regularly travels to Burgundy with her sommelier husband, Robert Bohr, on some fabulous adventure—to work the harvest at a grand cru vineyard, to scout locations for potential winemaking projects (her most recent was cool enough to impress fashion designer Tory Burch; Jordan is now offering monthly wine suggestions for toryburch.com). Jordan invariably comes back from her trips with amazing stories, and my favorites are always the ones about young winemakers who are breaking Burgundy's deeply entrenched rules. They're part of a scene that Jordan calls "the New Burgundy." So when she said she was going to Burgundy to meet with several of those rock-star winemakers to scout their 2009 wines—from an outstandingly rich, round vintage that was receiving the kind of prerelease hype that I usually associate with a trash-talking athlete before a big game—I decided I had to go with her.
Before my trip, Jordan gave me a wine-centric geography lesson about Burgundy. The region, in the eastern middle of France, produces some of the world's most recognizable wines. Burgundy has one major white wine grape and one major red wine grape: Chardonnay is the basis for epic whites like Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne, while Pinot Noir accounts for reds like Nuits-St-Georges, Gevrey-Chambertin and Romanée.
Jordan said we'd be spending our time in one small region, the Côte d'Or, the world's most expensive piece of wine real estate. The northern section, the Côte de Nuits, is mostly Pinot Noir; the southern section, the Côte de Beaune, has both Pinot and Chardonnay grapes but is especially known for magnificent whites like Chardonnay-based Meursault.
Dominique Lafone. Photo © P-A Jorgensen
Once Meursault and Montrachet come up in conversation, it's inevitable that winemaker Dominique Lafon's name will come up, too. His family's Domaine des Comtes Lafon estate has been making the most gorgeous versions of those wines for nearly a century. More importantly, Dominique is the pioneering Burgundy rule-breaker and a hero to the area's young winemakers. In the mid-1990s, he was one of the first winemakers to take his vineyard completely biodynamic—an extreme form of organic. According to one urban myth–style story, in 2006 he challenged Burgundy's codified grape-picking date (ban de vendange): He asked to pick his grapes early so they wouldn't be destroyed by botrytis. He was given the go-ahead and the ban was lifted soon afterward.
Louis-Michel Liger-Belair. Photo © P-A Jorgensen
When we got to Burgundy, my very first stop gave me a glimpse into Jordan's charmed life there. Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair is home to winemaker Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, whose ancestors have owned the 17-century château since 1815. We sat down in the vast courtyard for lunch with a massive grilled côte de boeuf, accompanied by a thinly sliced zucchini and Parmesan salad. Then we got down to business and began tasting wines.
The thirtysomething Louis-Michel makes 12 wines with grapes from his biodynamic vineyards. He uses new oak to age even his lowest-level village wines, a practice the old guard reserved for grand cru wines. Louis-Michel treats all his wines the same way to highlight their terroir; he's so terroir-obsessed that he bought a horse to plow his vineyards, because a heavy tractor might crush the soil. A 2009 Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair La Romanée Grand Cru—a fruity, lightly spicy and wonderfully smooth red—makes the crowd of American wine pros I'm with go crazy. (You hear phrases like "I'm speechless" and "This is too good to take notes on" a lot at Comte Liger.)
Jeremy Seysses. Photo © P-A Jorgensen
The next day, tastings started at 11 a.m. at Domaine Dujac. Jeremy Seysses, 35, is co-winemaker at Dujac, which was launched in the late 1960s by his family. Unlike many of his counterparts, he was educated at Oxford. Jeremy looked like the youngest person in the Dujac cellar as he tasted the 2009 Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru aux Combottes, an outstanding smoky, cherry-scented red. Or at least he did until the appearance of his three-year-old son, Aubert, who began running through the cellar and eventually hid behind some very pricey 2005 Domaine Dujac Clos de la Roche jeroboam bottles. Meanwhile, the 2009s are already rich and crowd-pleasing. Jeremy explained that a very hot summer made the grapes especially ripe. "We had tomatoes and zucchini in the garden until November." (He uses some of that zucchini to make a wonderful five-ingredient soup with crème fraîche stirred in at the end.)
That night, we went to a barbecue at Domaine de L'Arlot, which is equipped with a swimming pool and the kind of hedge maze you might see in a Harry Potter movie. Olivier Leriche, de L'Arlot's winemaker, tells one of those stories that's so sweet to hear: He started off as a bottle washer a dozen years ago and is now making terrific wines, like a 2008 Domaine de L'Arlot Nuits Saint Georges Clos de L'Arlot 1er Cru white with lavish amounts of honey and fruit. There were great reds, too, like the berry-scented 2008 David Duband Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru. Duband, who produced his first vintage in 1991 when he was just 19, makes all his grands crus with a version of the "whole cluster" technique (pressing stems with the fruit when extracting juice). He adds just a small part of the stem with the grape, which removes some of the wines' rough greenness.
David Duband. Photo © P-A Jorgensen
At the table, we started talking about Duband's experiments and the innovations of the New Burgundy scene. Richard Betts, the US-based winemaker for Betts & Scholl, argued that by subverting the rules, these winemakers were staying true to the region's tradition of greatness. "Burgundy is more Burgundy than ever before," Richard said. "In the '70s, some winemakers hid behind their vineyards' names and their grand cru labels; they said, 'We do it this way because we've always done it this way,' and they didn't even try. Now, a new generation is trying harder; they've traveled, they've seen that you can do other things and they're making wine that's as consistently good as it ever was." Duband was busy providing the evening's entertainment with some balancing tricks: first a glass and bottle on his nose, and finally an entire chair on his forehead.
It's easy to get lazy in Burgundy. It's so small, but a 10-minute drive to a winery tasting can seem labor-intensive. Thank goodness, then, for the pair of young winemakers who have taken the unusual step of opening their wineries right in the pretty city of Beaune. On Friday morning, I walked down to the tasting room at Domaine des Croix (luckily, I was staying right above it in a private guest room). While most winemakers take over an existing winery, David Croix, who is only 32, launched a new domaine in 2005. He also works at Camille Giroud, a small place owned in part by powerhouse American winemaker Ann Colgin. Croix's wines are intense: Some are quite peppery (like his 2009 Domaine des Croix Beaune 1er Cru Les Grèves), some have the deep, dark scent of clay (his 2009 Domaine des Croix Beaune red) and some have everything all at once. Of the 2009 Domaine des Croix Beaune 1er Cru Les Bressandes, Jordan's husband, Robert, said admiringly, "It's smoky, it's earthy, it's muscular and it's showing its elbows."
Benjamin Leroux. Photo © P-A Jorgensen
Down the street from Domaine des Croix, Benjamin Leroux has also started his own domaine. The 36-year-old, who was born in Beaune but looks like an Aspen ski instructor, has made wine in Oregon, Bordeaux and New Zealand. That's a pretty big step for a Burgundian winemaker; a traditionalist wouldn't work outside Burgundy, let alone France. In New Zealand, he said, "I had a choice of what to do with my little money in my spare time: go bungee jumping or buy wine. I bought wine." Of all the biodynamic-minded winemakers I met, he is the most hard-core but also the most realistic. "No one uses herbicides and pesticides anymore," Benjamin said. "But it's hard for Burgundians to accept that. If you do something wrong here, you're banned for three generations. There's a bar I was kicked out of where my grandson won't be able to go." In fact, Benjamin is such a purist that he looks at historical books to learn the best way to grow vines: He reads only wine-related books from the 1800s. Jordan called him one of the best young winemakers in Burgundy because of his combination of modern and traditional philosophies; also for bottles like his 2009 Benjamin Leroux Meursault Vireuils ("It's mineral-driven, with great focus and purity of fruit") and 2009 Benjamin Leroux Chassagne Embazées 1er Cru, another voluptuous white.
After a long day of winemaking, most locals hit Beaune's Bar du Square. The picturesque little place has tables out front and a blackboard list with wines from just about every recognizable producer in the region. Guess who was there? Dominique Lafon, Burgundy's original rule-breaker. I didn't get to talk to him—he was sitting with friends and I didn't want to interrupt. But a bartender told Jordan and me that he had a favorite snack, so we ordered it: warm toasts that came on a board with a can of sardines, a bowl of sea salt and another bowl of sweet balsamic glaze. Alongside we had glasses of 2006 Domaine des Comtes Lafon Meursault from the chalkboard and started casting a Real Winemakers of Burgundy reality show.
Back home I realized I never got to see the blue grapes. But I did have some consolation. For Christmas, Jordan gave me a Laguiole corkscrew, a top-of-the-line tool. And she'd had it specially inscribed ne mange pas les raisins bleus—don't eat the blue grapes.