The vine art of Burgundy

Wine expert David Wong discovers the treasures locked away in the celebrated chateaux of Burgundy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 10:35am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 4:24pm

Burgundy, one of wine’s most revered regions, is notable for its many small estates and colourful characters. Visiting the vineyards can be key to getting to grips with wines that have a reputation for being difficult to understand. On a recent trip, I had the luck to visit many estates and meet the faces behind the wines.

A visit to the historic Chateau de Beaune, owned by Thomas Henriot, who also owns businesses that include Champagne Henriot, Bouchard Pere et Fils, William  Fevre and Villa Ponciago had many highlights. But the main reason to come here is the chardonnay-based white so closely associated with  the region.

After a delicious Champagne Henriot Cuvee des Enchanteleurs 1996, we tried a grand cru William Fevre Les Clos 2009. Henriot also uncorked an archetypal Burgundy gamay in the form of Villa Ponciago Fleurie Cuvee Les Hauts Du Py 2010. 

With a rare wine collection that dates back to the mid-19th century, a visit to one of Burgundy’s treasures at the Bouchard Pere et Fils deep cellars should be on every wine lover’s bucket list. Lunch with managing director Christophe Bouchard allowed him to showcase the cellar’s grand cru ChevalierMontrachet 2007, Volnay Caillerets Ancienne Cuvee Carnot 2007 and a delightful Beaune Greve Vigne De L’Enfant Jesus 1976. These wines really highlight the terroir characteristics of Burgundy.

The Hong Kong Wine Society was also touring Burgundy at this time, and I caught up with them at Domaine de Bellene, the estate run by vigneron extraordinaire Nicolas Potel. Nicolas is the son of the revered Gerard Potel, who managed Domaine Pousse d’Or in Volnay whose self-named business propelled him onto the A list of Burgundy producers.

Now the talented Nicolas has taken a leaf out of his old man’s book and owns Domaine de Bellene plus a negociant business, Maison Roche de Bellene. He believes in making high quality wines from old vines and great terroir; 100 per cent organically grown grapes; no acidification; no sugar; no filtration and bottling by gravity.

Potel generously opened some delicious old wines, starting with two premiers crus Pousse d’Or Les Jarollieres 1994 and a Domaine Dujac Gevrey-Chambertin Aux Combottes 1999, followed by his grands crus wines Nicolas Potel Clos de la Roche 1997 and Nicolas Potel Clos Vougeot 1997.

These expressions of pinot noir are ethereal, sensual and complex. They display fresh strawberries, dark cherries and, with age, mushrooms and leather notes. 

The next day was an opportunity to meet an older generation of winemaker. Potel introduced us to Michel Lafarge, who has been running the domaine of that name since 1949. He’s something of an icon in the region. Still energetic, Lafarge shares some of the duties with son Frederic. Lafarge was an early proponent of biodynamic winemaking and also one of the first winemakers in Burgundy to bottle his wines under his own label.

We tasted from barrel the 2011 vintage including the luscious monopole premier cru Volnay Clos du Chateau des Ducs. A visit to Domaine des Comtes Lafon is a must, if you have a love of chardonnay and wish to explore natural winemaking techniques.

Wines are made by Dominique Lafon, who is the face of the domaine and a pioneer of organic and now biodynamic farming, rejecting chemicals and herbicides. Recognised as one of the best, if not the best white wine producer in Burgundy, he creates wines of amazing depth and complexity, yet finely balanced.

The biodynamic bug has also caught on at Domaine Etienne Sauzet, again in a progression from organic winemaking. The estate is run by the founder’s granddaughter, Jeanine Boudot and her husband Gerard Boudot. Now with over 30 vintages under his belt, Gerard is joined by daughter Emilie and sonin-law Benoit Riffault.

The estate makes a wide range of wines, typical of the Burgundian attitude to winemaking. Starting with an entry-level Bourgogne Blanc, the portfolio includes premiers crus such as Champs Canet, Les Combettes and reaches the dizzying heights of grands crus of Batard-Montrachet and Bienvenues-Batard-Montrachet.

It’s typically Burgundian that a single estate that produces some of the appellation’s finest wines, will also produce generic, entry-level bottles. At Domaine Michelot, the vineyard stocks Bourgogne Chardonnay, village-level lieu-dit wines, which are basic, and great Meursault premiers crus like Les Perrieres, Les Genevrieres and the wonderful Charmes.

Domaine Michelot has been in the family for six generations and, having grown in size over the years, now comprises more than 19 hectares which produce a number of delicious premiers crus wines. In the 1960s under the direction of Bernard Michelot, the domaine achieved widespread recognition and continues to do so now in the more than capable hands of his son-in-law, Jean-Francois Mestre. Mestre has reinvigorated this relatively large domaine and today the wines are once again counted among Meursault’s finest.

A visit to the beautiful setting of Chambolle-Musigny gave us the opportunity to visit two venerable estates – Domaine Frederic Mugnier and the historic Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue.

Mugnier’s wines are serious and the prices of these wines reflect that. The highlights were the blanc and rouge of the Clos de la Marechale, a premier cru monopole in Nuits-Saint-Georges which came back under Mugnier’s control in 2004. 

A short walk away is the historic Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue, which has a history dating back to 1450.

Regarded as one of the greatest estates in Chambolle-Musigny, today the domaine is headed by 20th generation Claire de Causans and Marie de Ladoucette, the granddaughters of the late Comte Georges de Vogue.

This domaine is, as Charles Dickens politely put it, “as old  as the hills and infinitely more respectable”.

The barrel tasting of the 2011 was remarkable, from the Bourgogne Blanc, ChambolleMusigny Villages, premiers crus of Les Baudes, Les Fuees, Les Amoureuses to the delicious grands crus Bonne Mares and the decadent Musigny.

“In Pinot Noir We Trust!” says David Croix’s T-shirt. The gifted winemaker from Domaine des Croix was named “emerging talent of the year” by Bourgogne Aujourd’hui in 2008 and has won numerous accolades since.

The estate was formerly known as Domaine Duchet in Beaune and was bought by US entrepreneur Roger Forbes, who hired Croix to develop his own wines. Croix is also the vigneron for Maison Camille Giroud, one of the smaller but more exciting negociants in Burgundy.  Unsurprisingly, his wines were excellent, comprising well balanced fruit and a delicate structure. Wines to watch out for include the grand cru Corton Charlemagne and 2011 premiers crus Les Teurons and Savigny-les-Beaune.

Domaine Armand Rousseau should be on every pinot noir lover’s list. In the early 20th century, Armand Rousseau inherited several plots in the much coveted Gevrey-Chambertin. Charles Rousseau heads the estate now but son Eric, with a degree in oenology from the Uiversity of Dijon, is increasingly its public face. Eric’s hands-on approach has spawned many innovations and has led to a style of winemaking characterised by a minimum of manipulation. The resulting wines are concentrated, balanced, quite distinctive in their own right and classy.

Last summer Louis Ng Chi-sing, the right-hand man of Macau gambling tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun, went one better than a visit and bought the 12th-century Chateau de Gevrey-Chambertin for €8 million (HK$77.9 million).

Next stop was with Michael and Fiona Ragg from Mischief and Mayhem, who along with Michael Twelftree, (owner of Two Hands in the Barossa Valley) are the three friends who opened the domaine in 2004. Michael spent almost 10 years working with Berry Bros & Rudd before moving to Aloxe-Corton.

The estate brings a touch of Australia to southern France, producing good wines that are fairly priced. Back label notes are in English with information on the vineyard, vintage conditions and production.

David Wong Yuk-shan is a wine instructor, chef and author of the award-winning The Art of Modern Portuguese Cuisine