Come with me, we have a decision to make.
We’ll stand on a dirt road that winds through the Côte d’Or, halfway up the slope in the heart of Burgundy’s vineyards. We’ll gaze at the shape of the land and the lay of the vineyards. The vines move ever upwards, from flat plain to gentle slope to steep incline, capped by a thatch of woods to crown the hill. Then we’ll crumble some of the clay and chalk dirt, and imagine the taste that will come from the berries forming on the vines.
Step back to the road, and look around. Just by appearances, can you tell which vineyards produce the finest wine?
Not too low, where the soil is too rich and the climate too hot; not too high, where the soil is too poor and the temperatures too cool. Midslope, as the incline sharpens, is where we see the exceptional vineyards. In Burgundy’s marginal climate, this is the golden heart of the golden slope, the story that is in the glass of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay.
“There is a magic to Burgundy’s terroir,” says Alain Serveau, technical director at négociant Albert Bichot. “You can taste wine, made by the same producer, from neighboring vineyards just a few yards away, and the wines will be totally different. It is not the producer, it’s the land that makes that difference.”
The magnificent seven
Premier crus and grand crus are the top of the hierarchy, the icing on the cake, the Rolls in Royce. The expensive and the really expensive. But like any classification, premier and grand are imprecise, fluid. What if some of those premiers went up to the ultimate grand cru rung on the ladder?
From tasting over the years, from talking to producers, it’s clear that there are premiers that perform above their station. Yet only two in 75 years have been promoted after years of discussion, reports, and reflection. Finally, a French Presidential decree: Clos des Lambrays in Morey-Saint-Denis and La Grande Rue in Vosne-Romanée.
I know there could be others. So I worked my way along through those magic mid-slope vineyards, did vertical tastings, rejected some and, finally, found seven vineyards that, in my opinion, are worthy of promotion. They either adjoin grand crus, are very close or, at the least, are at that magic point on the golden slope that produces the pearls. They are (from north to south along the Côte d’Or): Clos Saint-Jacques, Gevrey-Chambertin; Les Amoureuses, Chambolle-Musigny; Aux Malconsorts, Vosne-Romanée; Les Saint-Georges, Nuits-Saint-Georges; Les Rugiens, Pommard; Les Perrières, Meursault; and Le Cailleret, Puligny-Montrachet.
If any new decrees cross the president’s desk, the names of my seven should be there. What I consider a manifesto you can consider a testament to your skill in finding great wines.
What would happen if these tiny vineyards were to be promoted from premier to grand? While talking to Stéphane Follin-Arbelet, chief executive of négociant Bouchard Père et Fils, he pointed to a bottle of his Meursault Les Perrières Premier Cru: “If this was a grand cru, then we would be selling it at four or five times the price. It becomes speculation, a luxury product.”
Following are quick snapshots in the vineyard and in the glass of these premier cru vineyards worthy of an upgrade to grand cru. My list, my taste, and my view of the vineyards may not be yours. But, for now, we can continue to just afford them and appreciate their great status and quality. In my glass, that is grand.
Clos Saint-Jacques Premier Cru, Gevrey-Chambertin
Eric Rousseau stands with me by the iron gates of his winery, close to the church of Gevrey-Chambertin. He points upwards to the steep slopes behind the church. “That’s Clos Saint-Jacques,” he says. “It produces such complex wines. They come from the hot days and cool nights that are always part of our growing season.” His Domaine Armand Rousseau is one of five owners of separate blocks in the 16.5-acre vineyard.
He explains that the combe (the gap in the formidable slope) just to the left of Clos Saint-Jacques funnels cool air from the forests behind the vineyards. “The walls around the vines offer some protection, but this is never a baking-hot vineyard, not like other parts of Gevrey.”
The style of Rousseau’s wines, dense and rich, often with a spicy element, is well calibrated to bring out the best in Clos Saint-Jacques. Tasting the 2009 from barrel, I am struck by its balance between sweet fruit, minerality and structure.
Jacques Lardière, technical director at negociant Louis Jadot, describes Clos Saint-Jacques as “the most elegant of Gevreys, very energetic, vibrant, delicate almost.” He produces wonderful smoky Clos Saint-Jacques from Jadot’s vines there, dense but always with a light touch even in the richest vintages. “From the complexity of the wines it produces, it certainly has the potential to be a grand cru.”
Other top producers: Domaine Sylvie Esmonin, Domaine Bruno Clair, Domaine Jean-Marie Fourrier.
Les Amoureuses Premier Cru, Chambolle-Musigny
The name Les Amoureuses is calculated to bring out a smile. So do the wines. Rich, voluptuous, fragrant; they are some of the most beautiful wines of Burgundy.
Situated beside the upper part of the grand cru of Clos de Vougeot and just below the grand cru of Le Musigny, Les Amoureuses is well placed to produce great wines. The soil, sand and gravel over cracked chalk let vine roots find their way through the fissures.
Véronique Boss-Drouhin describes it as “one of the most subtle wines of Burgundy, marvelously velvety, a masterpiece of harmony.” Her family’s company, Joseph Drouhin, own 1.5 acres of this just under 11-acre premier cru. That’s 10 barrels a year.
We taste together in the Drouhin winery’s crisp, clinical tasting room: 2009, from barrel, a wine that shows beautiful strawberry fruit flavor, rich and smooth; then the 2008, more tannic but still opulent; the 2002, just moving from cherry fruits to maturity; and 1993, gorgeously rich, cedar and spice over finely rounded tannins.
These are wines that bring together great elegance and finesse with a minerality that offers the aging potential. They are for many Burgundy lovers the quintessence of Pinot Noir.
Other top producers: Domaine Georges Roumier, Domaine Groffier, Domaine Comtes de Vogüé.
Aux Malconsorts Premier Cru, Vosne-Romanée
If you wanted to find a perfectly sited premier cru in Burgundy, Aux Malconsorts is hard to beat. Follow the stone wall of La Tâche Grand Cru, the legendary monopoly of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), and the vines merge without a break into those of Aux Malconsorts. Only a slight change in soil—less stony, more red sandstone—marks a difference.
Alain Serveau, technical director of négociant Albert Bichot, shows great pride in what he calls the “flagship” vineyard of the company. Bichot has nearly five of the 14.4 acres. “Malconsorts supports the same structure as La Tâche,” he says, “and now with our work in the vineyard, we are getting a little closer to the superb quality of DRC. Having them as a neighbor is a huge challenge.”
It is a sunny vineyard that demands attention. The vines are naturally vigorous here so producers need to reduce yields to get the concentration and keep balance.
Tasting a vertical of Aux Malconsorts in Bichot’s elegant tasting room in Beaune, I am impressed by the density and power. The huge 2005 is a masterpiece that will need many years’ aging. “We want to show that we can make extraordinary wines from a beautiful place,” Serveau says.
Other top producers: Domaine Dujac, Domaine Sylvain Cathiard, Domaine de Montille, Domaine Hudelot-Noellat, Maison Camille Giroud.
Les Saint-Georges Premier Cru, Nuits-Saint-Georges
There is a division in Nuits-Saint-Georges between the riper, softer wines of the northern part of the appellation, close to Vosne-Romanée, and the more tannic, muscular wines of the southern half. The town, set against a break in the hills, acts as a convenient dividing point.
Les Saint-Georges is firmly in the southern half, with 17 acres and 11 proprietors. Grégory Gouges’s family estate, Domaine Henri Gouges, is one of the largest owners with nearly three of those acres. Gouges is convinced that this should be a grand cru. There are no grand cru vineyards in Nuits-Saint-Georges. “It is all to do with tax,” explains Gouges. “My great grandfather was the largest property owner in Nuits in 1936, when the appellations were created. He didn’t want to pay the extra tax that came with ‘grand cru’ so he held out against the whole grand cru idea.”
Now, though, Gouges and other proprietors are planning a campaign to get Les Saint-Georges pushed up to grand cru. “It will take years,” he says, “but it will be worth it.”
The wines from the vineyard, packed with structure and tannins, are classic and ageworthy. The Gouges’ interpretation of Les Saint-Georges is dense, profound and complex, needing several years to develop.
Other top producers: Domaine des Perdrix, Domaine Alain Michelot, Domaine Thibault Liger-Belair, Domaine Faiveley.
Les Rugiens Premier Cru, Pommard
Anne Parent is a buzz of energy and enthusiasm. Running her family domaine from offices behind her parents’ house by the church of Pommard, she speaks with passion about the two top premier cru vineyards of Pommard: the 75-acre Les Epenots on the Beaune side of Pommard and the 15-acre Les Rugiens close to Volnay. For her, they form a contrast. In a striking comparison, she says the more structured Epenots is like a Porsche, while the fleshier Rugiens is an Aston Martin. “Les Epenots makes a noble wine,” she says. “Les Rugiens is majestic.”
For Yves Confuron, who runs Domaine de Courcel just across the road from Domaine Parent, the Rugiens is, by a whisker, the better of the two vineyards. “You have wines of such complexity and generosity from Les Rugiens, particularly from the lower part, Les Rugiens Bas,” he says. “Red fruits and tannins are always there along with a voluptuous texture that is close to Volnay.”
Anne Parent lays out a comparative vertical of the two vineyards. As we go back in time, it is obvious that Les Rugiens, despite its explosion of youthful fruit, is the wine for the long haul. Vintage 2000 in both wines shows Les Epenots already with maturity, Les Rugiens just starting out. And 1990 Les Rugiens, now fully mature, is simply magnificent.
Other top producers: Louis Jadot, Domaine de Montille, Domaine François Parent, Château de Pommard, Domaine Lejeune.
Les Perrières Premier Cru, Meursault
Les Perrières was once a quarry area; the soil is grey chalk and the name derives from the small stones that make up the vineyard.
Chardonnay loves this chalk soil. That’s apparent from Champagne, Chablis and the great white vineyards of the Côte d’Or—Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault. In Les Perrières, we find the most mineral of all Meursault; very structured.
Like many classified vineyards in Burgundy, the 33.7-acre Les Perrières is in two parts. Perrières Dessous is the lower part, and, says Dominique Lafon of Domaine Comtes Lafon, “it’s the best. It ripens marginally earlier, and gives riper fruit.” His 2007 version of Les Perrières is full of tension from its flinty character. Taut, it is like a wine on a high wire.
Jean-Baptiste Bouzereau of Domaine Michel Bouzereau likes both the earlier ripening lower section and the cooler upper section. “Put the fruit from each together and you have a great complement,” he says. He has just taken over the domaine from his father and built new cellars.
His 2007 Les Perrières (he only produces seven barrels from 1.1 acres) is more generous than the Lafon version, but still with that mineral character. “That’s what makes this wine so great, so ageworthy,” says Bouzereau.
Other top producers: Domaine Pierre Morey, Bouchard Père et Fils, Domaine Vincent Dancer, Domaine Coche-Dury, Ropiteau.
Le Cailleret Premier Cru, Puligny-Montrachet
Drive just past Le Montrachet Grand Cru, the vineyard that Chardonnay lovers believe is the source of the greatest white Burgundy, and to the north, on the same level of the slope, is Le Cailleret.
It is a beautiful situation, facing straight out across the valley, its 8.2 acres glowing with the same red soil as Le Montrachet (maybe marginally stonier), giving a style that is opulent when mature but that takes several years to get to that point.
Alix de Montille at Domaine Hubert de Montille made a 2007 that is structured, mineral, lively. It has what she calls “tension.” By contrast, the Michel Bouzereau version is more creamy, the 2007 showing potential richness down the road. Jean-Baptiste Bouzereau says that in cooler years Le Cailleret shows its full greatness as a vineyard: “It is able to produce a great wine when the year is tough.”
Curiously, a small enclave of Le Cailleret, called Clos de Cailleret, produces a red wine. The only producer is Domaine Jean Chartron. But the presence of this small amount of Pinot Noir cannot detract from the glory of Le Cailleret, what Alix de Montille says is a white wine that “could easily be a grand cru.”
Other top producers: Clos des Lambrays, Domaine de la Pousse d’Or, Domaine Boyer-Martenot.
The Burgundy system
Burgundy’s vineyards form an intricate mosaic of small parcels, all marginally different, whether from soil type, exposition to the sun, proximity to the windy gaps in the hills, or any of a myriad of facets that make up the glowing diamond. And each vineyard in Burgundy can have many owners—the classification is for vineyard, not owner.
What follows may sound complicated, but it is logical: large to tiny volume. Here are the layers from bottom to top:
Burgundy is the basic appellation that covers the whole region; 64% of Burgundy production.
Village wine comes from a blend of wines from within a village, whether it is from Nuits-Saint-Georges or Chablis; 30% of Burgundy production.
5.2%: Premier cru
Premier cru vineyards are specific vineyards, classified in 1935 and 1936 as producing some of the best wines in the entire region. Most Premier Cru wines are single vineyard; 5.2% of Burgundy production.
0.8%: Grand cru
Grand cru vineyards are the pinnacle. Appellations in their own right, they are believed to have terroir that is unique—outstanding expression of the combination of grape and soil; 0.8% of Burgundy production.