- Thursday 20 August 2009
Unless you know otherwise, there’s no obvious reason to stop in the village of Morey-
St-Denis. Inconspicuous between its show-stopping neighbours Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle- Musigny, Morey has a job distinguishing itself in such elevated company. Yet the
villagers of Morey can reflect on a winegrowing history that stretches as far back as the best communes of Burgundy. So why does its identity remain indistinct?
One problem is that the USP of Morey is hard to pin down. Its character is said to lie somewhere between the delicacy of Chambolle to the south and the power and structure of Gevrey to the north (with, one feels, the unspoken rider, ‘but not quite as good as either’).
Yet what it may lack in ease of definition, this village of 639 souls more than makes up for in diversity and quality. Within a five-minute stroll of the village church you can find a ‘Bordeauxstyle’ estate manager; a rival next door with opposing ideals, making starkly contrasting grand cru wines; a family dealing with a generational transition that has left them with, in the words of one son, ‘three winemakers – plus my father’; another producer refusing to sell a 400m2 corner of a vineyard for less than a E1million; and a young Scottish
winemaker, newly installed and perfectly at home - all the things that make Burgundy such a fascinating place to explore.
Clos de Tart
The wines of Morey are some of the most consistent of all the Côte d’Or. The 132ha vineyard is home to four grands crus: Clos St-Denis, Clos de la Roche, Clos des Lambrays and Clos de Tart (plus a sliver of the predominantly Chambolle grand cru, Bonnes Mares). The one you
are least likely to miss is Clos de Tart. The magnificently walled 7.5ha and its imposing, gated entrance dominate the village, and a giant sign at the entrance announces its importance. Behind the timeworn stone facade are the 16thcentury winery buildings, arranged around a central courtyard. The ensemble has been meticulously restored over the
past decade under the watchful eyes of the estate’s manager, Sylvain Pitiot.
Clos de Tart is wholly owned by the Mommessin family, one of only five grand cru vineyards in Burgundy to be in the hands of a single proprietor (the other four are all in Vosne-Romanée). Even more remarkable in a region where division and changes of ownership have been so commonplace historically, Clos de Tart has had only three owners in its 868-year
history. The earliest records show the land was owned by Cistercian nuns, followed by the Marey-Monge family after the French revolution.
The property was bought by the Mommessins in 1931, but it was not until 1996 that the family gave it their full attention, after the disposal of their larger négociant business. Since Pitiot’s appointment the same year, the estate has seen enormous investment, including
extensive research on its soils, rebuilding the 1.2km wall surrounding the clos and ensuring perfect conditions in the cellar. The grapes are segregated in the vineyard according to the age of the vines, and the various soil types are colour-coded on the vine rows. All this has led to a renaissance in the quality and renown of the wine, which had attracted criticism in the past for being something of an underperformer.
Today the wines are made with the close attention to every aspect one would expect from former cartographer (Pitiot previously worked with his famous father-in-law Pierre Poupon on their incomparably detailed maps of Burgundy’s vineyards, as well as writinga book on the wines of Burgundy). ‘I try to control as many things as possible,’ Pitiot explains. The grapes begin their fermentation spontaneously, but as soon as this is underway, progress is strictly controlled, by raising the temperature in tank by 2°C every day. Once fermentation is complete the wine goes into new oak barriques, again with controlled temperatures, where it ages for 18 months. Pitiot’s focus is clear; all decisions, and their consequences, are
carefully considered. He refused to accept my visit any time during the week he was bottling, telling me: ‘You must be very attentive at this time, otherwise you can ruin two years’ work.’ The unfiltered wine is bottled, by hand, from a small pipe fed into the lower cellar from above.
The wines are impressive, rich and succulent, in the more powerful, modern style. Ripeness and alcohol levels are high, and the wines have a consistent quality that attests to Pitiot’s precise management. He speaks warmly of his good fortune to be working for the ‘formidable’ Mommessins and describes their idea for a second wine, La Forge, as ‘genius’. ‘You see – we are the Bordelais of Burgundy.’
Clos des Lambrays
Adjoining Clos de Tart is Clos des Lambrays. On the surface, Domaine des Lambrays seems to have much in common with Clos de Tart: both are historic properties, owned by families that manage their estates from afar by employing an established winemaker. Domaine des
Lambrays is run by Pitiot’s ‘competitor and friend’, Thierry Brouin, who has been at the helm for 28 years. The two grands crus are of similar size and both are effectively under single ownership (although Domaine des Lambrays cannot claim to be a monopole, as the bottom corner of the clos (just 0.2ha) is owned by Domaine Taupenet- Merme. ‘They’ll sell, but for a million euros? I don’t think so,’ scoffs Brouin.)
The two plots of land seem similar in size and aspect when seen from village level. Viewed from above, though, it’s clear they are distinct terroirs. Clos de Tart has an homogenous exposure to the east, a smooth, uninterrupted slope that extends up from the winery, while Lambrays is more irregular and curves around the side of the slope towards a narrow valley
that funnels cool air to the vines.
Brouin claims his wine is ‘the most Morey’ of the commune, although also fails to find a defining character, falling back on the familiar comparisons with Chambolle and Gevrey. He describes his own winemaking style as a combination of ‘feeling, flair and chance’. Rather than aiming for control and consistency, he is more interested in variety in his wines:
‘Too much technology makes for standardised wines,’ he tells me. ‘I’d hate to have the same quality three years in a row; every year is different.’ His approach to harvesting is also notably different from Pitiot’s. ‘I’m always one of the first to harvest,’ Brouin says. ‘I like maturity, not over-maturity.’ (Pitiot, on the other hand, has been known to say that Clos de
Tart is clos de tard, that is, picked as late as possible). According to Brouin he always has his grapes in the cellar eight to 10 days before Pitiot, though the difference in harvest dates can be as long as three weeks. Domaine des Lambrays wines are correspondingly lighter in style than Clos de Tart, but no less complex or long-lived.
The importance of human influence of terroir is highlighted by Jeremy Seysses, from nearby Domaine Dujac. He notes that while the winemaker is key to the character of any wine in Burgundy (‘you tend to recognise the domaine first, then the site’), this is especially true for Clos de Tart and Clos des Lambrays, managed by a single producer. ‘Unlike most parcels in Burgundy, there’s no chance to taste any “other” Clos de Tart or Clos des Lambrays,’ so the terroir and the winemaker are always inseparable.’
Jeremy is the eldest of three sons of Jacques Seysses, who founded Domaine Dujac in Morey-St-Denis in 1967. Jeremy trained as a winemaker and has now been joined by his American wife, Diana, also a winemaker, at the estate. He has been involved in every vintage
since 1994, but 2001 was the first he claims as his own. There is now a third voice – that of his younger brother Alec, who has returned to join the family business. After the initial frustration (‘I considered him an amateur – we’re typical older and second sons in that way’), Jeremy is now pleased Alec came back: ‘There’s no-one I count on more’.
Their father has not officially retired from winemaking, either, which makes for a crowded cellar at harvest time. ‘He is there to give decisions if we want, or if he feels we’re doing
anything wrong,’ says Jeremy. He views this in a positive light, but doesn’t deny the potential for conflict: ‘Sons are harsh judges of their fathers,’ he says, ‘but it’s evolution not revolution.’
The changes that can be seen are a move to greater austerity in the white wines and some ‘fine-tuning’ of the reds, including a reduced use of new oak, to better express the vineyards’ specificity. Seysses’ 2007s show a light touch that befits the delicacy of the fruit in this hard vintage. His village Morey-St-Denis has a gentle, floral fragrance, light body and
easy-drinking appeal. The premier cru, a blend of four sites, is a much richer style, with good weight of cherry fruit. The Clos St-Denis is spicy, peppery and deeply flavoured, with firm structure and just a touch of greenness at present. The Clos de la Roche is the most intense.
Jacques Seysses came to Morey as an outsider, but he was probably viewed with less curiosity than the latest foreign resident of the village. Domaine David Clark is the name on the newest brass plaque to go up on La Grande Rue. It belongs to a fresh-faced young Scot who moved in five years ago. Clark’s interest in wine was sparked by reading a few pages in the back of a cookbook while at university. Self-taught via his local Oddbins, his passing interest soon became a firm conviction on how he wanted to spend his life. After university
he joined the Williams team as a Formula One engineer (‘not as exciting as it sounds’), but left after five years to pursue his dream of making wine in Burgundy. (He did briefly consider Oregon but settled on Burgundy because ‘there’s the bonus that you do get [financially] rewarded for all the work’.)
Clark’s path from neophyte to successful winemaker (he sells all of his production, in the UK, US and Japan) has been swift. After leaving Williams he spent the summer of 2003 learning French before enrolling at the viticulture college in Beaune. Within six months he had bought his first plot of land, a half-hectare of AC Bourgogne. Further small, modest, usually neglected parcels of land, and a house in Morey followed. He now owns 1.26ha across four appellations and wants to remain small. ‘I like the vineyard work,’ he explains, something that has not gone unobserved by his neighbours. ‘When someone spends as long as David does inhis vineyards, you know he’s really committed,’ comments Jeremy Seysses.
Clark appears to be exactly where he wants to be, although he’d not claim to have mastered his terroir just yet. Now making Vosne-Romanée, Morey-St-Denis, Côte de Nuits-Villages and Bourgogne, he says the more valued appellations are easier to farm and more resistant to disease. ‘I wouldn’t say I was sceptical about the concept of terroir before, but I did think there was a degree of hype,’ he confesses. ‘But the amount of sugar I get in the grapes is exactly in the order of the quality of the terroirs.’ Certified organic from the 2009 vintage, he’s now learning to plough by horse, though feels that biodynamics is a step too far. ‘I’d need to see results before believing,’ he says.
The wines are fresh, pure, and downright delicious. And the quiet, unassuming Clark is quite at home in his new milieu. ‘I can’t imagine living anywhere else,’ he says, ‘I know more people here than I did in Oxford – we share a common interest.’ If Clark’s presence in the heart of Burgundy is incongruous, his motivation is the same as that of his neighbours: a devotion to the subtle art of shaping a gift of nature. ‘There are no secrets to making great Burgundy, ‘ says Clark. ‘But it’s an almost unachievable goal.’ Almost – but luckily, not quite.