Caught up in the plot and loving it

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 May, 2012, 12:00am

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Aviron, Chauvet and Herody - not a French law firm but the three key mentors of Burgundy winemaker and negociant Nicolas Potel.

Burgundy's southern neighbour, Beaujolais, is one of the world's top five producing regions, according to Potel, and one where he would like to make wine himself. As he and his team of two other winemakers in Burgundy - Domaine de Bellene and Maison Roche de Bellene - already produce between 70 and 80 wines a year, he has gone into partnership with Stephane Aviron, famed for making Beaujolais wines that can be cellared, as opposed to the types of Beaujolais that are consumed immediately and generally have a poor reputation.

The Potel-Aviron brand was created in 1999 and the first harvest was in 2000. Although Potel likes the wines, he is not trying to grow the brand, simply because he doesn't have enough time.

Aviron makes his wine from grapes grown in soil that has far more minerals than most in the region. He and Potel share a determination to grow grapes in the correct terroir. For Potel this is a mix of clay and limestone ideal for growing Burgundy's famous pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. The influence of French geologist Dr Yves Herody is evident. His work promotes the idea that terroir is 'everything' to a good wine - the type of soil, exposure, altitude and root stock.

Potel abandoned a potentially lucrative venture in Chile because the other partners rejected buying an inconveniently located property that both the winemaker and geologist felt had the optimum terroir.

Potel's wines have a typical Burgundian elegance and subtlety, characteristics reinforced by their relatively low alcohol content.

Of a recent opportunity to sample a flight of mostly pinot noirs from both the domaine and maison, wine educator Hugo Bandeira comments that with Burgundy wines, 'It's all about balance, harmony and subtle flavours that do not overpower each other.' He adds that what distinguished the wines were the nuances of the different terroirs. The Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru 2008 stood out for violet and raspberry aromas; the Clos Saint-Denis Grand Cru 2009 for its aromas of raspberries and redcurrants; and the more exotic Clos de la Roche 2000 for its earthy, mushroom and truffle aromas.

Another highlight for Bandeira was the Vosne Romanee 1er Cru Malconsorts 2009: 'This was interesting because this is a parcel that lies right next to the famous La Tache, with some people saying the terroir is apparently the same but at a much more affordable price. The one we tasted certainly had finesse, a fine perfume and a certain flair about it, but it was not my favourite of the night.'

Potel grows grapes on a variety of plots dotted around Burgundy and according to the ecological principles of Jules Chauvet, called the father of natural wine.

Potel left school at 17, angered by his teachers' insistence that winemakers must use large amounts of pesticides and herbicides.

'This was the era of Reagan and Thatcher and all the people with a sad mentality,' he says. At this time organic farmers were thought of as stupid people on drugs,' he adds.

He claims he used one-tenth the amount of the herbicides sprayed by his competitors. His pest control also features chickens that wander the vineyards in spring eating bugs, and his fertilisers are organic. Much to the surprise of his financial adviser, Potel recently bought horses and carts to replace tractors where possible.

The grapes grown in this fashion are used for making Potel's domaine wines. Grapes for the maison wines are bought, and Potel cannot insist on how they are grown.

All the grapes are vinified simply, says Potel. A team of 100, the same size as used by Mouton Rothschild, picks only 5kg a time so the grapes can reach the sorting table quickly. The grapes are pressed by foot or in basket presses from Champagne, techniques that are traditional and use no electricity. Fermentation is with natural yeasts. The only additive in any of the wines is sulphur dioxide, a chemical that kills unwanted yeast and bacteria.

Harvesting is done only when the moon and stars are in what Potel believes to be the correct alignment. Ageing between 12 and 18 months takes place in larger-than-usual oak barrels. These barrels are made from a thicker, higher quality oak, and there is less contact between wine and wood, making for subtle oak on the palate.

Racking, taking the wine off its yeasty lees, is done according to the phases of the moon. If the moon is exerting a great deal of gravitational pull, then the lees will be disturbed and it will be difficult to bottle the unfiltered wine, says Potel.

Aware of growing distrust of provenance here and on the mainland, all the wines are corked and labelled by hand, with the writing on the cork aligned to the front of the label. Some are sealed with wax. Bottles and cases are individually numbered.

The Hong Kong importer is L'Imperatrice Fine Wines. www.imperatrice.com.hk