I went to Burgundy to dig my feet into the dirt a bit. To get down on my hands and knees and smell the wet leaves, and to stand on the crest of the hills and see the lay of the land.
But I also went to Burgundy hoping to spend some time off the beaten path. Sure, I wanted to taste some Corton Charlemagne, and have dinner at Clos Vougeot, but I also wanted to see if I could find my favorite kind of winegrower — the kind that is more “crusty hermit” than “lab chemist.”
And so, off down along a side road, I found another side road, and off on the side of the side road, I found my crusty hermit. Or more correctly, I found his grandmother. As we emerged from our car in front of the family home, the letters for Domaine des Vignes du Maynes painted three or four feet high across the front wall so as to be visible from the aforementioned side road in the tiny village below, a set of shutters banged open and a wizened old woman yelled at us. I didn’t follow the short conversation which scared me a little, and then just as suddenly the shutters banged shut again. My driver and I exchanged looks. A minute later they were thrown open again, and we were told that someone would be with us in five minutes. Bang went the shutters again. And we were left standing in the cold slanting afternoon sunlight of the Maconnais after a rainstorm.
The winemaker that eventually showed up hardly fit the image of crusty hermit. Young Julien Guillot looked about thirty years old, and arrived with a slightly pained expression on his face, owing to the fact that his personal wine cellar was under two feet of water that morning, thanks to the flooding of a nearby river after the recent downpour. The rescuing of bottles was safely in the hands of some friends, however, and he was kind enough to spend several hours showing me around what is, without doubt, one of the most special wineries in Burgundy.
I hardly know where to begin when it comes to describing Les Vignes du Maynes. I should tell you about the rustic cellar, painstakingly rebuilt in 2001 using the exact proportions of the Golden Ratio, preserving the two main features of the old cellar: a 2000-year-old Roman wall and an underground river. I should mention the cistern in the corner, also carefully preserved, in whose depths an active fault yawns, gaping a foot-wide chasm across the corner of the cellar. You must also hear about the tasting room, deep underground, and quite hermit-like in its ancient, dusty, hoard of antique colored glass bottles under the low, rough-hewn wood ceilings, with piles of stuff everywhere. You should also know about the four simple wood vats that constitute the most modern technology employed in the service of winemaking here.
But most importantly, you should know about the land — an enclosed vineyard that has been continuously planted with vines for 1100 years, sown originally by the Benedictines of the Abbey of Cluny. The vines have never, ever had a single chemical treatment used on them, ever. Nor has the vineyard ever been planted with any modern clone of any grape. Instead it has been replanted over the centuries with the classic selection massale method, which simply takes cuttings from the existing vineyard’s best vines. Most of the vines are at least 50 years old, and some, close to 100 years old. There are a particular group of vines that can trace their ancestry back to Pommard, a variety which Guillot likes to refer to as “fuck you Pinot” thanks to just how cooperative they are each year.
I cannot verify the truth of this statement, but this little 16-acre parcel may well be France’s oldest organic vineyard. Julien Guillot’s grandfather decided in 1954 that these newfangled pesticides and herbicides the world was inventing were not for him, and so eschewed all such treatments. In 1998, the domaine became fully biodynamic certified, and makes wines carefully under those strictures, with the added philosophy of using little or no copper sulfate in the vineyard, and no added sulfur or sugar (chaptalization) in the wines.
Making wine without sulfur is not always easy to do, and I pressed Guillot on how strictly he approached the topic. He explained that when “everything goes right, there’s just no need.” And when I asked him how he knew when there was a need for sulfur, he said, “It’s simple. I take some wine out of the vat and put it in a glass. I go back in 2 days and taste and smell the wine. If it tastes or smells oxidized, I know I need to add a little sulfur. But it’s quite rare.”
Of course, none of this would matter a bit if the wines that were harvested from this ancient vineyard, and matured in this remarkable cellar weren’t good. But I can safely say that they are some of the most individualistic, honest, and remarkable wines I have had in my mouth in some time.
And they came quite close to not existing at all.
Julien Guillot didn’t want to be a winemaker at first. He wanted to be an actor. And that’s just what he did, from the age of nine until the age of 29, he studied theater, and was a successful performer, living what he called “a life of the mind.” That is, until he realized that “my feet were still anchored in the soil of my history.” He won’t say more than that, in English at least, about the moment when he realized that his calling was not on the stage but in the fields, but he left the acting world and enrolled in a viticulture and enology program. Upon graduating, he continued his studies with several wineries, and then returned home to work with his father Alain Guillot on the family domaine.
Today, Julien runs most everything, including the small one-acre plot of vineyard that he has recently added to the family’s holdings, carved into a special spot in the old forest in the hills above his family’s estate.
The grapes are carefully hand-harvested and sorted in the vineyards and then transported back to the estate to vinify in the ancient oak vats, or in the old oak barrels. The red wines often contain a portion of whole grape clusters, sometimes up to 30%. Other than an occasional racking, pretty much nothing happens to the wines between fermentation and bottling — no additions and no fining or filtering.
What are these wines really like? To the uninitiated, they will taste altogether different than most wines you’ve tried. They have more texture, more idiosyncrasies, and to fans like me, more soul. I wrote some time back about the concept of wabi sabi in wine, and that Japanese principle may be the single best way of describing these wines.
Very little of the wine is brought into the U.S. and Guillot is actually looking for additional importation, so if you’re an importer and into these sorts of wines, you should give him a ring. If you search, you can find some of them, and if you ever happen to be in the Maconnais, you really should drop by. You won’t regret it.
We got a chance to taste through some of the recent harvest, some of which were still bubbling away in their barrels. 2010 was a “tough” harvest for Vignes du Maynes, with crops down about 35% from 2009. Julien said that it cost him an extra 2000 Euro per hectare to harvest just because of all the extra energy and time he had to have people put in to make sure that only good fruit came into the cellar.
2010 Vignes du Maynes Macon Cruzille Rouge Barrel Sample
Light garnet in color, this barrel sample has a stemmy, pepper, and earth aromas. It tastes of raspberry, wonderful floral, and primary fruit. Ethereal and lovely. 33% whole cluster fruit.
2010 Vignes du Maynes “Manganite” Macon Cruzille Rouge Barrel Sample
Light garnet in color, this barrel sample has a nose of crazy floral and forest floor black raspberry aromas. In the mouth, it offers faint tannins and wonderful black raspberry and floral earth tones.
2010 Vignes du Maynes “Clos de la Vignes du Mayne” Borgogne Rouge Barrel Sample
Pale garnet in color, the nose is reduced, but once in the mouth, it is a floral explosion of ethereal raspberry, fantastic fruit. Wow.
2010 Vignes du Maynes “Raisin Noble” Macon Cruzille Blanc Barrel Sample
Light blond in color, and cloudy as it’s still fermenting, this barrel sample smells of sweet pear and apple, and tastes lightly sweet and of the same fruit. It has a long finish. Made from semi-botrytized clusters from several plots. Will likely take 6 mos to finish fermenting to dryness, and will be bottled as separate cuvée, that will be VERY interesting.
2010 Vignes du Maynes “Aragonite” Macon Cruzille Blanc Barrel Sample
Cloudy green gold in color, this barrel sample smells of apple and pear, and tastes of
bright acid and stone, and is slightly sweet given that it is still fermenting. Long finish. Will be very stony I think, and very good.
2010 Vignes du Maynes “Las Chassagnes” Macon Cruzille Blanc Barrel Sample
Pale cloudy greenish-gold in color, the barrel sample smells of wet rocks, wet leaves, and sweet star fruit. In the mouth star fruit, apple, and bright lemon flavors dominate. This will be a damn tasty wine. The second vintage from the new forest vineyard parcel.
2009 Vignes du Maynes “St Genevieve” Cremant de Bourgogne Extra Brut Blanc
Pale gold in the glass with tiny, sparse bubbles, this wine smells of apple cider and a hint of alcohol. In the mouth, it offers only faint effervescence and flavors of wet leaves, woodsmoke, and a hint of maple sugar. The finish is dry and quite long. Very interesting. Or somewhere bettered interesting and odd. Score: around 8.5.
2008 Vignes du Maynes “St Genevieve” Cremant de Bourgogne Rosé
Light orange-pink in the glass, this wine smells of mulling spices and dried red apple skin. In the mouth, a faint mousse of bubbles mixes with red apple skin, cranberry, and a deep earthy mineral flavor. A bright aromatic sweetness of berry fruit suffuses the finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2009 Vignes du Maynes Macon Cruzille Blanc
Near colorless gold in the glass, this wine smells of crazy melon and mineral aromas. In the mouth wonderful minerality mixes with pear, floral, melon, and lemongrass flavors on the finish. Long, completely bizarre, and wonderful. This wine does not taste like any other white Burgundy you will ever taste. Score: around 9.
2009 Vignes du Maynes “Aragonite” Macon Cruzille Blanc
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stone and wet leaves, giving it a very autumn or wet winter character. In the mouth a wonderful aromatic sweetness mixes with a deep stony minerality, carrying flavors of candied lemon peel, gooseberry, and hints of green melon on the finish which is long and somewhat sherried. Bizarre and at the same time utterly compelling. Made from Chardonnay vines planted in 1929 in almost solid limestone. Score: around 9.5.
2009 Vignes du Maynes “Las Chassagnes” Macon Cruzille Blanc
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet leaves and roasted nuts. In the mouth, it offers flavors of wet leaves, green apple, cucumber, and wet stones that linger with crazy length and the creeping aroma of petrichor. This wine represents the first harvest from Julien Guillot’s new one-acre vineyard in the middle of a forest. Score: around 9.
2009 Ultimate Climate Rouge, Chenas, Beaujolais
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of forest floor, dark bread, and black raspberry fruit. In the mouth, the wine offers dark black raspberry flavors, wrapped in leathery tannins. Great acidity keeps the fruit bright and brings in a floral note to the finish. This is a special wine and separate label made for some 2009 summit on climate change in Copenhagen. Score: around 9.
2009 Vignes du Maynes “Manganite” Macon Cruzille Rouge
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of leather, wet stones, and the ethereal scent of tropical hibiscus flowers. In the mouth, it tastes of wet river mud, mulberries, wet stone, and hibiscus. Great acidity and incredible balance lead the wine across the palate and into a crazy finish that tastes of sweet coffee with milk or cream sherry. Made from 56-year-old Gamay vines. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2009 Vignes du Maynes Bourgogne Rouge
Lit garnet in the glass, this wine smells of nothing you’ve ever smelled before. Forest floor, mulberry flowers, and a bunch of other crazy shit you can’ put your finger on. In the mouth, the wine has a fantastic balance between earth and fruit, flower, and leather. Moderate tannins wrap around a delicate core of mulberry and a crazy coffee-with-milk finish. Made from the orneriest old Pinot Noir vines in the vineyard. Score: around 9.5.
2009 Vignes du Maynes “Cuvee August” Bourgogne Rouge
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar bark, violets, and dark molasses. In the mouth, it is dark and serious, with black earth, and suede tannins that creep aggressively around the edges of the wine. Deep mulberry and black raspberry fruit mix with earth on the long finish. Brooding. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
GLIMPSES INTO THE PAST:
2001 Vignes du Maynes “Aragonite – late harvest” Macon Cruzille Blanc
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of old parchment and wax. In the mouth dried lemon rind, dried mango, and wet stones vie for attention with a slightly oxidative quality that has a dried orange rind flavor as it lingers for minutes in the finish. To some, this wine will taste too old. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
1998 Vignes du Maynes Borgogne Rouge
Light ruby in the glass with hints of orange at the rim, this wine has a perfumed nose of red apple skin, wet redwood bark, and wet dirt. In the mouth, it tastes more of the soil than just about any other wine I’ve ever had, and very quickly becomes not a wine at all, but a much deeper thing than that. Walk into a silent dark forest a few days after a rain. Kneel in the soft earth and with your hands, dig deep into the spongy dirt, turning it over and listening to the world unfold. As you sit there you smell, wafting over the breeze, flower and fruit — raspberry, redcurrant, and red apple skin. Beautifully textured, the finish is sweet and fine. Perfectly balanced and delicate. Outstanding. Score: between 9.5 and 10.