During the busiest times of the year—during harvest, or when pruning, plowing and spraying take place—Clos de Vougeot looks more like a community garden than one of Burgundy’s most-famous grand cru vineyards.
And, in a sense, it is.
On a warm day in late March, Vougeot’s bare Pinot Noir vines sit bathed in a winter-wan sunlight. Marie-Andrée Mugneret Nauleau, who owns a small piece of Clos, leads a visitor through rows of vines.
“We should have bud break in a few days,” says Nauleau, noting droplets of emerging sap. “As we say here, the vine is crying.”
Nauleau’s family runs Mugneret-Gibourg winery in nearby Vosne-Romanée and farms its own vines at Clos de Vougeot. So does the famous Drouhin family, which owns many famous properties along the Côte d’Or and an international négociant business in Beaune.
The Labet and Déchelette families, owners of the imposing Château de La Tour, the only winery inside the Clos de Vougeot walls, have four separate plots.
Jean-Nicolas Méo of Méo-Camuzet, where Burgundy legend Henri Jayer made wine, has two pieces of the Clos.
Unlike most of the world’s vineyards, single ownership is rare in Burgundy. This cross-section of Burgundian winemaking represents just four of the 86 producers who farm at Vougeot.
Yet, even in Burgundy, Clos de Vougeot stands out.
Owners here either make cuvées under their own brands, sell their grapes to négociants, or both. And with its array of owners, Clos de Vougeot is arguably one of the most diverse sources of Pinot Noir in the world—it’s sole focus since the 1800s.
Clos de Vougeot was founded in 1098 by monks from the Abbey of Cîteaux and was auctioned off in 1791 during the French Revolution.
Since 1934, it has been associated with the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a group dedicated to promoting the traditions of Burgundy, which is headquartered at the Clos. In 1936, it received its AOC grand cru designation.
It wasn’t until 1944 that it evolved into collective ownership by several prominent families.
The property has 16 different segments or climats. Soil types and sun exposure change according to vine positioning within the folds of the vineyard’s slope,and proximity to the morning or afternoon shade of its high walls.
Overall, the upward slope is gentle, rising about 82 feet. The climate is one of turbulent, hot summers and frigid winters. The property produces approximately 20,000 bottles in a good year.
The most-prized plots are near the top of the slope, where the soils of light chalk and gravel drain best. The middle section has some clay mixed in, while the bottom has much more clay and drains poorly.
Some owners believe making blends from differing soils are superior to wine made from single plots.
Parcels within the Clos constantly change hands as family fortunes ebb and flow, and as generations change.
Nauleau’s father, Dr. Georges Mugneret, bought just under one acre in 1953 while in medical school, but “it was a dream for him because his grandfather had once owned a plot in Vougeot and had to sell it when he needed money,” Marie-Andrée says.
When her father died suddenly in 1988 at age 58, Marie-Andrée, her sister, Marie-Christine, and mother, Jacqueline, took over the grape growing and winemaking at Mugneret-Gibourg.
The Drouhin family has two plots, one purchased in the early 1960s and the other in the ’70s. Robert Drouhin ran the operation until turning over the business to his daughter and three sons in 2003.
Méo-Camuzet owns two plots of the Clos, one that’s seven acres and the other just over half an acre. The latter is “tucked along the wall between the château and Grands Échézeaux,” Jean-Nicolas says.
His father, who lived in Paris and who was on Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s staff, had a sharecropping agreement, or métyage. Each lessee made their own wine, while as owner, the elder Méo sold his share to wine merchants.
In 1985, the estate began making wines under its own label. Jean-Nicolas took over the property, with Jayer serving as both employee and mentor.
The various Clos producers each have their own way of growing grapes. Jean-Pierre Confuron’s family at Domaine Confuron-Cotetidot farms its six-tenths of an acre “the same as it has been for seven generations—no changes,” he says.
He frequently plows vine rows to control weeds, whereas some growers prefer cover crops between rows. According to Confuron, severe early pruning generally negates the need for green harvest.
“Our oldest vines are 90 years old, and the average age is 65,” he says. “When a vine dies, we plant another beside it,” rather than conducting mass replanting of plots.
Labet also does not like green harvest, controlling yields through de-budding. His mantra is, “One bud on, two buds off.”
Méo, by contrast, believes in green harvesting, “which we do systematically, even in old vineyards.”
Philippe Drouhin, who oversees family vineyards, including those in Oregon, also believes “in removing the clusters, ideally just when [ripening] is ready to start.”
Increasingly, Drouhin and other growers are employing more organic, even biodynamic, measures. With plots so tightly packed, sprays and fertilizers can drift to another owner’s rows. Conversely, the conventional farmer gets greater exposure to funguses from organic neighbors.
Producers also practice different winemaking techniques. Some de-stem, either partially or totally, while others do not. There’s variety in the use of natural yeasts, the amount of maceration, battonage and pigeage, and so on.
Confuron uses wood vats for fermentation, while Nauleau has epoxy-lined concrete tanks, as does Méo.
The one thing all growers have in common, however, is the weather, which has reduced crop sizes considerably in recent vintages. Hailstorms have been severe, including one earlier this summer.
“I believe that 20 percent of the crop has been affected, but fortunately, there are no problems at all regarding the sanitary conditions, as mildew is non-existent,” says Labet.
Such reduced-yield vintages are especially harsh for those who purchase fruit, because even the best vintages don’t yield enough.
Because of its varying terroir, size and multiple ownerships, Vougeot has sometimes received less respect than neighbors like Grands Échézeaux.
Nevertheless, there are many superior producers of Vougeot, and part of the pleasure of exploring this bustling community vineyard is finding favorites.
After the vines have been pruned using the cordon system in preparation for a new growing season, the vine often weeps or oozes sap before bud break occurs.
Photos courtesy BIVB
After the bud appears, leaf separation slowly takes place. The vineyard workers hope that a spring frost does not devastate the early blossoming. After this crucial period, they begin to spray against mildew.
As the vine prepares to bloom vine, it develops tendrils. At this stage, it is important to do shoot positioning on the lower wires before the tendrils begin to connect with the upper wires. Once connected, they can easily be broken off.
During the blooming period, weeds are often allowed to grow in the vine rows. The vineyard is generally at its wettest in the spring, and the presence of the weeds helps to prevent vines from becoming overly vigorous.
Flower clusters that appear on the vine are protected by caps, which eventually fall off to allow the flowers to turn into berries. However, not all flowers are transformed into fruit due to such things as bad weather and poor nutrition.
Shoot positioning takes place to separate leaf clusters, and the weeds are removed from the vine row as the weather warms and moisture decreases.
Clusters of pea-size grapes indicate a successful fruit set. Rows between the vines are plowed to control excess weeds.
As harvest gets closer, the onset of ripening causes the Pinot Noir grapes to turn from green to purple. The bunch in the foreground has completed the process, while the back row still has some green berries.
In the last days before picking, vineyard workers taste and chemically analyze grapes to see if they are ripe enough to harvest.
When the harvest is over, the grape vines begin to turn color, usually yellows, oranges and reds. While aesthetic excessive color may be a sign of vine viruses or chemical deficiencies in the vineyard’s soil.