To mark his 25th vintage, Dominique Lafon tells CLIVE COATES MW about the regine he’s installed at his heralded Burgundy estate

To mark his 25th vintage, Dominique Lafon tells Clive Coates MW about the regime he’s installed at his heralded Burgundy estate.

There are few estates in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or – if we exclude the merchant domaines Bouchard Père et Fils, Drouhin and Jadot – which are equally successful in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Offhand I can only think of eight or nine. One such is the Domaine des Comtes Lafon in Meursault.

This year, the man in charge, Dominique Lafon, not only turns 50 but celebrates his 25th vintage. Having been to the local wine schools and done a vintage in California, he joined his father in 1981 as junior partner, worked alongside him in 1982, and was in charge from 1983.

‘Yes,’ he reminds me, ‘that was the year we had real noble rot in some of our vineyards. So I produced some Meur-Sauternes. You thought it was disgusting. But some people, such as Jasper Morris MW (buyer for Berry Bros & Rudd), were kinder!’ Lafon’s father René was an engineer,returning at vintage time to receive his share of his estate which was let out on a sharecropping basis. After vinification the wine was stored in the cold, deep, humid Lafon cellar beneath the winery. It matured slowly. The wines could take their time to evolve and did not dry out, even after two years in cask.

This is a clue to the Lafon success: time. Some of the sharecroppers were more competent than others. Lafon has nothing but respect for Pierre Morey, who looked after most of the Chardonnay parcels. ‘I had absolute confidence in what Pierre would render unto us,’ he says. ‘You only had to look at the vines to know that they were being properly looked after. But some of the others! This man turned up with some Volnay fruit. I looked at the grapes and I was horrified. A good part was unripe. A lot more was rotten. “Do you really expect me to accept this?” I asked him. “Look,” he said, “the weather hasn’t been very good, as you know. But the unripe fruit will give you acidity, the over-ripe ones will give alcohol and the good grapes will give you the fruit. The sugar bags will do the rest.”’

Sharecropping leases normally run on a nine-year basis. One of the first things Lafon did on taking charge was to give his leaseholders their notice. Slowly but surely, during the course of the 80s, the vines reverted to him. He was now responsible for all the crop, not half. In the meanwhile, he got a job with the celebrated American winebroker Becky Wasserman.

‘I worked with Becky from 1982 to 1986. This was one of the best times of my life,’ he says. ‘Not only did I get an invaluable insight into what happens to my wine after it leaves my cellar, but I was able to go and taste and compare notes with other growers that Becky was dealing with, and also go with her to the US and help sell her portfolio.’

So what did he change at the domaine? ‘We started to go biodynamic in 1995. I did a few experiments at first and then became fully convinced. Secondly there was a lot to do in my red wine vineyards. You can’t change things over night. It’s a slow process. But, by 1989, I felt we were beginning to get there. One thing I threw out was the old crusher/destemmer. It really chewed up the fruit. Its replacement gives us much more sophisticated tannins.’

In 1999, a 7ha (hectare) estate in Milly-Lamartine in the Mâconnais was acquired. Four years later, a further 7ha came up for sale in Uchizy, further to the north. This made the whole Mâconnais venture much more profitable, for the expansion only required one more full-time vigneron. Lafon’s arrival in southern Burgundy didn’t half shake up some of the locals. As I wrote at the time, it took an outsider to demonstrate the real possibilities of Chardonnnay in the Mâconnais. In addition to 0.32ha of Montrachet grand cru in Chassagne-Montrachet and 0.25ha of Puligny-Montrachet Champ Gain premier cru, Lafon’s Meursault estate covers just over 13ha, including premier crus Les Perrières, Les Genevrières, Les Charmes and Les Goutte d’Or, plus Meursault Villages, including the lieu-dit Clos de la Barre, directly behind the château.

He also has 5.7ha of red wine vineyards – the premiers crus Santenots-du-Milieu, Champans and Clos de Chênes in Volnay plus Monthélie-les-Duresses premier cru. The perspicacious among you will notice that I have not mentioned Désirée. This was the name given by the Lafons to a 0.43ha parcel of first growth Plures, planted with Chardonnay, but adjacent to Santenots-du-Milieu. Thus this is red wine soil. I have never liked the wine and Lafon knows it; it’s too tarty. So I was interested when he told me recently: ‘You’ll be very pleased, Clive. We have uprooted the Désirée and we are planning to replant it with a better clone and rootstock’.

Away from wine, Lafon professes an interest in land art. ‘It’s ephemeral art, if you wish,’ says Lafon. ‘The two leaders in this field are Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long. Let’s say you go into a wood and make a magnificent patchwork with the most brightly coloured leaves. Two days later the wind and the rain will have destroyed what you have created. Or, you take a field and you walk up and down, always in the same place, a thousand times. You will have created a path. Go away, and the path reverts to nature. The concept intrigues and fascinates me.’ ‘Like a sandcastle.’ I say. ‘Absolutely,’ replies Lafon.’ It’s the impermanence which is compelling. I make wine. That’s impermanent too. So are the creations of a master chef.’ We also talk about music. Apart from pop, which doesn’t interest him, Lafon professes to like all music. ‘But it is the expertise – the artistry – of the musicians which moves me, more than the style. I like to be surprised.’

So what would he do if he were not a winemaker?

‘I’m an outdoors man. I could only be another kind of agriculturalist.’ And what red wine would he drink for preference? ‘Well, if I were forced to drink nothing but (Chambolle-Musigny) Amoureuses for the rest of my life, I would not complain!’

Lafon is refreshingly dispassionate about his own wines. He feels he didn’t quite pull it off with his 1999 whites. He prefers his 2000s. And he is less enthusiastic about his 2002s than I am about the white wine vintage as a whole. This scepticism is healthy – it makes a refreshing change from a great many domaines which cannot be one iota less than laudatory about their wines. You can talk turkey with Lafon. Today, his wines, for decades among the very best in white, are now equally brilliant in red. A comparison of his Santenots-du-Milieu Volnay 1990 with, say, the 1999 or the 2005 is telling. But don’t dismiss all the pre-1990 reds. A Santenots 1978 enjoyed at lunch was dreamy-delicious, and everything you would expect from this most elegant of communes.

Written by Clive Coates MW