Clos Vougeot: one of Burgundy’s grands crus with 1,000 years of history

It may not have the clout of the top grand cru names, but when Clos Vougeot is good, it’s very good... and definitely worth exploring

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 6:00pm

There are just 32 grands crus in Burgundy. Sounds reasonable, right?

Until, that is, you realise that between just two grands crus alone – Echezeaux and Clos Vougeot – the vineyard land is split among 166 different owners. Some might only make one or two barrels each year, others might sell their grapes or sublet their vines rather than bottle themselves, but that still means a startlingly large number of names to sort through on shelves or restaurant wine lists.

Echezeaux takes the prize in Burgundy for the most pixelated grand cru. It is 91 acres and has 84 different owners. But Clos Vougeot isn’t far behind with 82 owners covering a slightly larger 51 hectares. Strangely, the two are right next to each other, even sharing a wall at one point.

The sheer number of owners creates, as you might expect, a range of different quality and styles in the wines – not just from differences in soils, but in age of vines, choices made in the vineyard and cellar and a host of other tiny but never insignificant decisions.

Echezeaux tends to take the prize in terms of perception of quality, probably because Domaine de la Romanée Conti has a 4.6-hectare slice. But it’s Clos Vougeot that has the greatest hold on the public imagination. Owned by Cistercian monks from the 11th to 19th centuries and with its 16th century chateau now the site of Burgundy’s hottest annual party (thrown by the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin), it has become perhaps the best known of all Burgundy names – if the least understood.

“Clos Vougeot is a historic grand cru, emblematic of Burgundy,” Louis-Michel Liger-Belair told me a few weeks ago when we spoke about his reasons for renting a small 7,000 square metre plot within Clos Vougeot. His first vintage will be 2015, although his family was one of only five owners who bought the clos back in 1889, before selling up about 1930. He also has cousins who own other plots, and has made wine for years from nearby slopes that overlook the famous 500-year-old walls.

“There is a sense of community in Clos Vougeot that is not true in other Burgundy grands crus – we have an annual fund just for repairing the walls, for example, and I firmly believe there is great terroir here, even if the soils are not uniform across the whole area. The difference in quality between wines is more easily explained by differences in winemaking, but this is still a fine grand cru that was once regarded as one of the best.”

Ross Eva of Fine+Rare wine sellers in Hong Kong agrees. “Some wines can be disappointing but when Clos Vougeot is good, it’s very good. It doesn’t perhaps have the clout of some of the top grand cru names, but there’s enough mystery behind it to make it worth exploring.”

It’s this mystery, in my opinion, that explains why there’s something hugely democratic and rather cheering about Clos Vougeot. All wine drinkers are capable of being surprised by it, of learning something new, whether professional critics or enthusiastic newcomers. Even winemakers in Burgundy were genuinely interested and surprised when I said I had attended a tasting (organised by Fine+Rare in London) that brought together more than 30 different Clos Vougeot producers.

The tasting itself concentrated on the 2013 vintage, better in Burgundy than in Bordeaux but still with its challenges. All wines were presented blind – particularly important in a confusingly large grand cru like this, where you can cling on to names you recognise and make assumptions about what you’re tasting accordingly.

Certainly, it was impossible to state that the wines located in the top section of the Clos were the best, as is commonly thought. Domaine Daniel Rion, located in a faultless spot just below Grand Echezeaux at the top of the Clos, was beautiful. It needed time in the glass but was full of plush fruit offset by pencil lead and chimney smoke once it had opened up. At the same time the oak influence was too dominant for me in Henri Rebourseau, even though these are some of the oldest vines across the whole of Clos Vougeot and are located in the still-renowned middle section. In the end, my favourites included Domaine de Montille, Domaine Faiveley, Joseph Drouhin, Domaine Jean Grivot, Clos Frantin, Laurent Roumier, Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret, Jean-Michel Guillon and Domaine Remoissenet – all pretty much evenly spread throughout the 51 hectares.

The two best surprises were the hugely improved Chateau de Santenay, and Domaine Tortochot – this one particularly wonderful, full of graphite, cherry bud, classical Burgundy flavours, but with the power and reach deserving of a grand cru. Made by Chantal Tortochot (after 15 years working for an American petrol company), production is limited to three barrels but these are wines that are increasingly worth seeking out, and the 2013 vintage is the first to be certified organic. The vines themselves are located in the lower reaches of Clos Vougeot, and stand as perfect proof that it is crazy to disregard this sector.

All in all, just another example of how figuring out the subtleties of Clos Vougeot might well be a thankless task. Certainly it will be a challenging one. But once you start, it’s maddeningly easy to get hooked.