A Walk Through the Cote de Nuits with Allen Meadows

As some of you know, I spent last week at the (always) fabulous International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Apart from my responsibilities hosting a tasting, I attended events like everyone else, including the featured Burgundy seminar and tasting run by Allen Meadows of Burghound.

As is my habit, I tend to make fairly detailed notes of these seminars, so I can offer my readers a taste of what it was like. What follows below, as usual, is not an actual word-for-word transcript, but it’s the closest I can come. Any misstatements, innacuracies, etc, are mine.

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We’re here today to take a walk through the Côte du Nuits. Burgundy is vast subject. I like to describe it as a Russian doll where you open one and there’s another one inside. You keep opening them, and there’s always another within. Those of us who choose to make a study of the region find an enormous amount of satisfaction in that depth. Some think it’s just too much brain damage.

For me anyway, the rewards far outweigh the difficulty. I’d like to give you a very brief background on how Burgundy got to be Burgundy. Then I’d like you to share with me the benefit that the panelists bring to the table. They are some of Burgundy’s stars. I visit 300 domains each year, which is barely 10% of those that that produce wine in Burgundy. These folks are representatives of best of best.

My panelists are:

Jacques Lardiere of Maison Louis Jadot
Bertrand Ambroise of Maison Ambroise
Gregory Gouges of Domaine Henri Gouges
Philippe Lecheneaut and Vincent Lecheneaut of Domaine Lecheneaut

I’d like to say two additional things about a couple of these domaines. Betrand’s father Henri Gouges was the forefather of the AOC movement, and someone without whom the AOC system might not exist today. At a time when small winemakers had little influence and all the power lay with negociants, and when it was common practice to adulterate weak and poorly made wines in Burgundy with wine shipped up from the south of France, he stood up for quality and honesty. The AOC system was established in 1935 and wouldn’t exist without some courageous men, including Henri Gouges.

As far as Jacques Lardiere, he is one of the most influential people I have ever had the pleasure of being instructed by. Jacques has the inestimable privilege of working with some 150 different terroirs each year. Our tastings together last hours, with me wanting to ask endless questions. Each of us interprets characteristics of what happens in the glass personally. But there’s another side to each wine, which is how it is made. Vignerons aim to vinify the wine in such a way that expresses that site and how it has something to say. We can’t share in that without conversation with the winemaker. Jacques has been one of the most influential people in my understanding.

Now I’d like to talk about Burgundy. I am going to make this very brief, because the stars today are my panelists, and you need to see what they have to offer and get the benefit of it.

Burgundy consists of four regions, there are those who would argue that Beaujolais is part of them but according to current politics it is not. These four regions are Chablis, the Maconnais, the Côte Chalonnaise, and the Côte d’ Or, which is made up of two sub-regions. Today we’re focused on the northern part, the Côte de Nuits, as opposed to the southern Côte de Beaune.

So why is Burgundy Burgundy? What is it about history that causes Burgundy to look the way it does today. Aubert de Villaine, Co-Director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti once said to me, “you cannot understand Burgundy without understanding burgundy’s history.” This is not only about how many vineyards there are and how small they are. Then there is the small holdings within those vineyards. We have the Napoleonic Code to thank for this.

Yet they are so small to begin with, because the Côte d’Or isn’t big to begin with. Burgundy was delimited by the monks, and the monks along with royalty, were the educated class of the time. As they tasted wines, they noticed that some were different than others. Rather than dismiss them, they remarked upon this difference. The key aspect to take home is that they celebrated those differences. In most regions of the world you have a blend of different grapes. In Burgundy you have a region of single grape varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Pinot Noir is perhaps the most transparent to terroir of all the red wine varieties. It was that very transparency that allowed the monks to notice the differences between different sites. They thought that it was not only interesting, these differences, but that there was something of real significance between those differences. And this significance was a message from God. So they chose to celebrate those differences. They planted everywhere, and tasted everything. As soon as they saw that a wine no longer resembled itself, they drew a line.

When I did a book on Vosne-Romanée, I did a number of tours with geologists, and when you get to the frontier of one vineyard to another, there is almost always a geologic IMG_1885.jpgchange. It’s not simply soil change. If we knew what caused terroir, we could find it anywhere in the world.

Let me back up about terroir. In some minds it is revered, in others it is reviled. Because it encompasses everything about a site (the microclimate so to speak) but I would submit monks knew what they were doing. Terroir is everywhere. I have terroir in my back yard. That doesn’t mean it is any good. The monks were prospectors of terroir. They planted vines everywhere, but only kept the ones where the signal was the clearest and the strongest, where it had something to say.

While I was researching my book, it came out in 2008 that there was an archeological discovery in the commune of Gevrey-Chambertin near the railroad station. They found something and brought in historians and a geologist. It turns out it was an old building that had vineyards around it. The dimensions of those vineyards were those exactly like those in the Rhone valley. They dated this vineyard to the end of the 1st Century AD. We know that vines have been planted in Burgundy at least that long, and we have every reason to believe that they were planted long before that.

The very first map of Gevrey-Chambertin was made in 1585, and that vineyard wasn’t on that map. So you see, the monks kept the best, and eliminated the rest. This is the process that will happen in the new world as well. Burgundy has at least 2000 years of history compared to a few short hundred for the New World. You can bring all the passion and money you want to the project, but you can’t buy time. Time is what the Burgundians have. That is what has allowed Burgundy to become delimited and defined. That is why when you look at a map of Burgundy you see 1600 different climats. Terroir is sometimes cynically described as a sophisticated French marketing system. But if you were a group that had hired me to come to you and design a marketing plan, and I came back to you with a 4 level system with 1600 different climats, you wouldn’t accept it. You may agree or disagree with the system, but Burgundian’s take it for granted. Pinot Noir is the messenger but not the message.

Now I’d like each of my panelists to introduce themselves and their domaines.

Philippe Lecheneaut (translated by Allen Meadows)
We are a family domaine. I took over the family domain in 1985. We Farm 10 hectares or about 25 acres. We have vineyards that run the length of the Côte de Nuits, through 18 different appellations, including Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne-Romanée, Nuits St. George, and a little piece of Chorey le Beaune.

We’ve been farming sustainably since 2000, and we use organic treatments, but we are not certified and have not sought to be certified.

Our philosophy is to make wine as naturally as possible. We do a lot of work in the vineyards to arrive at grapes that are the cleanest and ripest we can obtain. In terms of vinification and elevage we try to use a philosophy where less is more. The less intervention the better the wine.

Our total production is about 4500 cases of wine, which we make from between 50 and 55 different parcels that we farm.

Grégory Gouges (translated by Allen Meadows)
The domaine was created in 1919 by my great grandfather Henri Gouges. We are in the 5th generation of family ownership. Henri Gouges was a strong personality that had an enormous amount of influence in the AOC system. He also had a lot of honesty. I am the 4th generation. Each generation has brought its own vision to the domaine while trying to respect the prior vision. To that end we’ve recently constructed a new winery where the fruit can be handled more gently. The wines have become more refined. Nuits St. George creates structured wines that can be rustic. It doesn’t really make easily accessible wines. We’ve tried to make Nuits St. George that lasts, but something that isn’t quite so imposing in its youth. We’ll see whether we accomplished that or not.

Started with only 4 hectares but grew it to 15 hectares (about 37 acres). The entire domaine is in Nuits St. George. We make 7 different premiere crus, Bourgogne, and Village wines. It’s important for you to know how we are rigorous in minimizing human intervention. We want to avoid having 7 premier crus that all taste the same. For almost 15 years much of the domain has been organic, since 2008 it is exclusively organic.

Allen Meadows makes a short aside:
One of the things I intended to say earlier but did not, is that post phylloxera, Burgundy was troubled. There was not much wine, and we also now had the railroad. Many negociants found it easier to find cheap wine in the south and label wine from the South as being from Burgundy. It was a lot easier to sell Richebourg than a humble village wine, so there was a lot of fraud. Those who stood up against the power of the negociants were blackballed. Henri Gouges stood up against them and created a borderline civil war in Burgundy. As you travel around the quiet little villages of the Côte d’Or it is difficult to imagine that passions could have run so high. But small winemakers were in danger of going out of business, and it was only because of the courage of people like Henri Gouges that Burgundy was not ruined forever.

I have a story to tell about Bertrand. He seems imposing, but when you get to know him, he’s a very funny guy. I had been visiting the domaine before I became a professional. So we knew each other. But when I started coming regularly and told him that I had made the switch to being a journalist, Bertrand asked about my vision for Burghound. I said that i was planning to visit some 300 domains each year, and spend about 5 months a year on my research. He said, “That’s not research, that’s espionage.”

Bertrand Ambroise
I would like to try to explain my estate. Sorry about my english it’s Burgundy English. If you have any problems, talk with my friend Allen, or Bobby Kacher. I grow the vines with my son, my daughter, and my wife. We farm 20 hectares (about 27 acres). This is a great part of my life – maybe you will understand if I explain to you that this is a family estate. This thing represents a big part of my life. We are maybe all the family in the wine business. But before my family primarily worked with a big negociant, selling our grapes. My wife and I have been making wine for 30 years, and we have been doing organic farming. We try to grow with clean philosophy. We try to work with nature. We try to work for my good health and for your good health too. It’s very important for us. I think we make a wine with a special terroir. Because we work with the soil first. That is very important part, maybe 80% of what needs to be done. After that you have the sun and the rain, and maybe the very light touch of the winemaker. These are the three parts that represent the terroir. The winemaker is part too. Often you will see that the wine looks like the winemaker. Sometimes you find a light wine, and you should look at the winemaker. Sometimes a big wine, look at the winemaker.

To me terroir is the important thing. Burgundy is a magic country. Really a magic country. The nature brings every different item in the soil and we can produce a wine with many different flavors, many different colors, many different spices. The wine takes a natural richness from the soil. This is Burgundy’s magic. It is possible to find this magic throughout the world but like Alan explained before, but the monks worked for us all a long time ago, it took time, but for us it is very important.

We organically farm, soon we will be an organically certified wine too. In Europe we have two parts of organic certification. Recently we have a new law about organically certified wine, so we feel we can now produce organic wine, and we will start with 2012. Like Gouges we have also recently built a new winery with a philosophy that we don’t hardly touch the grapes, just basket press, no pumping, gravity fed. So in a few words, we have a double sorting table, which is very very important. Another key of making good wine. First table is vibrating, second table is hand selection. This table represents for me a plate with fruit and for each grape I have a question — why should I take this grape? Is she clean, ready to make a wine, ripe? Each time we have these questions, if the grapes is good, then she continues. We destem, add sulfur, and a little dry ice for cold maceration. After that, we have natural fermentation with natural yeast. This is very important, we have different yeasts and different flavors. After one month I put the wine in a barrel with less new barrels or more new barrels. Échezeaux gets a new barrel, others get older barrels. Except for oak I treat all the wines the same, no matter where they come from. No fining, no filtration. Pure wine, just for your pleasure. It is great for me if I see a smile on your face after you drink my wine.

Jacques Lardiere
Maison Louis Jadot, we are in Burgundy since 1859. We had our 150th birthday recently. The Jadot family owned Burgundy vineyards from a long time ago, and have been a negociant. We own more than 300 acres of Burgundy wine. From Marsannay to Santenay. We also have some Beaujolais, and Pouilly Fuisse as well. In fact Jadot is only in Burgundy. For a long time we have understood that if we imagine that to understand Burgundy we have to control the production. We have estate wines, but we also buy grapes to make wine in our own wineries. We developed this approach very strongly. We started making all our own white wine in 1974 as we saw this was important, we should try to follow the same process for our vineyards. It is important for people for customers. We have one label, and the only difference is that you see at the bottom to know if we are estate wine. When we “sign” the wine, it is a judgment of us about quality. We want to control the process of winemaking. For a long time we farmed naturally in Burgundy. But then chemistry came in, and now people are coming back to naturally. It was too much chemicals, and we have to protect our own health. We want to have the process, and we know you have something different with process. We have possibility to express place. We have a limit. We have expression of Nuits St. George, and we can do what you want there, but if you are outside then you do not express Nuits St. George. It’s complex to have this. If we want to control the process, we consider that if we have the natural process, we have always something we can compensate for for what is not well made in the vineyard.

With smart winemaking we have the opportunity to wash away a lot of bad memories, and express the memory of the earth. When you are speaking about Nuits St. George, fine, but then you are also speaking about the climat. In the hierarchy we have worked like that for a long time. We wanted to open different wineries to control the simple wine. We consider that perhaps we will never produce a true Nuits St. George, but the wine must have good idea of what Pinot Noir must represent for Bourgogne. It’s not always easy, we practice the same work on Montrachet as on lesser wines. We have the same logic. We consider that if we want to have a good reading of the places, we have to have the same way of working. I don’t believe about doing special things for special sites. We must work the same way to express the hierarchy of the place. What we try to do is get you good food.

Wine is the best food that exists. The food must be open, never closed. In the process of winemaking we have the opportunity to open or close. You don’t taste with your head. It washes your body

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IMG_1883.jpgAnd with that, we got to our tasting. I was particularly excited about the pair of wines from Maison Ambroise.


2008 Domaine Lecheneaut Chambolle-Musigny
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and cherry fruit with stronger earthy and wet wood aromas. In the mouth, raspberry and wet earth flavors dominate, with nice acidity and faint powdery tannins. Made from several parcels all over the appellation. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $70.

2008 Domaine Lecheneaut Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet raspberry and cherry. In the mouth wet stones, forest floor, and sour cherry flavors swirl with a hint of saline. Long raspberry and floral notes linger in the finish along with fine grained tannins and great acidity. Score: around 9. Cost: $80. click to buy.

2007 Domaine Henri Gouges “Clos de Porrets” Premier Cru, Nuits St. Georges
A bright light to medium ruby color in the glass, this wine smells of reducurrant and forest floor. In the mouth sour cherry and raspberry flavors are draped in a blanket of fleecy tannins and wet earth flavors that linger through the finish. Nice acidity. Score: around 9. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2006 Domaine Henri Gouges “Les Pruliers” Premier Cru, Nuits St Georges
Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of earth, leather and forest floor with a hint of red berries. In the mouth the wine has a rustic leathery character emphasized by stiffer tannins. Cherry and forest floor flavors mix with a clay quality that morphs to a nice mineral note in the finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2010 Maison Ambroise Échezeaux Grand Cru
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black raspberry and cherry. In the mouth the wine is floral and bright with suede-like tannins and a core of bluish fruit — cherry, black cherry, and sour cherry. Nice acidity and a smooth textured, long finish. Seamless and beautiful. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $150.

2008 Maison Ambroise Échezeaux Grand Cru
Light garnet in the glass, this wine has a heavenly nose of forest floor, red fruit, and a smoky bacony quality that gets the tastebuds and the pulse racing. In the mouth the wine offers brilliant wet stone, raspberry, and redcurrant flavors mixed with a deep earthy undertone. Fine grained tannins have a stiffness yet that will soften a bit over time, but they don’t get in the way of very pretty fruit and wonderful expression of the soil. Frankly stunning. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $110. click to buy.

2006 Maison Louis Jadot “Clos St Jacques” Premier Cru, Gevrey-Chambertin
Light ruby in the glass, with a hint of brick color at the rim, this wine smells of leather and redcurrant and forest floor. In the mouth, notes of red apple skin, redcurrant and raspberry mix with a darker earthy note. The long finish features sour cherry, earth, and the presence of muscular tannins. Good acidity. Score: around 9. Cost: $130. click to buy.

2001 Maison Louis Jadot “Clos de Bèze” Grand Cru, Chambertin
Light to medium ruby in the glass, with a light brownish cast, this wine smells of raisins and leather, with notes of forest floor. In the mouth, notes of brown sugar, leather, and dried fruit mix with apple skin and the flavors of muddy river water. A mineral note stretches through the wine into the earthy finish, but the wine seems to have lost a lot of luster and tastes dried out at this point. Perhaps it is just this bottle. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $120. click to buy.