Burgundy: Going it alone, together

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  • Thursday 2 April 2009

One proved herself in a man’s world, the other broke free of family shackles. Clive Coates salutes a couple who took on and conquered the region’s natural conservatism

Its hard to believe that Ghislaine Barthod and Louis Boillot are 50.

Apart from the fact that thesy don’t look it, it only seems the other day – rather than 20 years ago or more – that I called in to taste their wines.

It is equally hard to register just how much of a pioneer Barthod was. A quarter century ago, the idea of a woman in charge of a Burgundian wine estate (as its winemaker, not just its châtelaine) was rare. I can think only of Lalou Bize-Leroy and Laurence Jobard, winemaker at Maison Joseph Drouhin. And Barthod.

They have since been joined by Anne-Claude Leflaive, Caroline Lestimé at Jean-Noël Gagnard’s in Chassagne-Montrachet, Sylvie Esmonin, Anne Gros, the Mugnerets at Domaine Mugneret-Gibourg, Anne Parent and others. Nevertheless, there are still barely a few handsful in the whole of Burgundy, even in 2009.

What was more likely, in a situation where there was an absence of sons, was that it would be the sons-in-law, rather than the daughters, who would take over. It happened at Robert Arnoux, Jean Chauvenet and at the other Gagnard estate in Chassagne: now the Domaines Blain-Gagnard and Fontaine-Gagnard.

And it happened in the previous generation at Barthod…

A man’s world

Ghislaine’s father, Gaston Barthod, was born in Doubs, in north-eastern France in 1922. After the war, the army officer was stationed in Dijon, where his regiment was based. Naturally, with his friends, he began to explore the local wines, and he met Madeleine Noëllat, whose father ran an estate in Chambolle- Musigny.

Madeleine was nine years younger than he, so only 25 when they married in 1956. In 1960, Barthod gave up his military activities to work alongside his father-in-law and in due course the estate was renamed Domaine Barthod- Noëllat.

Ghislaine, who arrived in 1958, followed by her sister Marielle in 1963, started work there in 1982, taking over in 1986. Gaston died of cancer in 1999.

I remember him well. He was quiet and shrewd and, judging by his wines, a very good winemaker. I recall once, soon after Ghislaine had taken over, I was tasting with her in the cellar when Gaston shuffled down the steps.

I’d like to think this was because he wanted to greet this Englishman who had the presumption to pronounce on his beloved daughter’s wines. When Ghislaine was out of earshot, he capped a compliment of mine with his own, to the effect that, yes, his girl knew what she was about. They were clearly very close.

‘So was there any local prejudice when you took over?’ I ask Ghislaine. It is almost as if the idea never occurred to her.

‘No, the opposite,’ she replies. ‘Theneighbours were only too pleased that the domaine was not going to be broken up and sold off.’ Then she reflects. ‘I suppose it’s only natural that they might have been a bit wary about the quality of the wine I would produce.

But the only misgivings – not prejudice but hesitation – came from my father. He just could not see at first how a woman could physically cope with running a wine cellar. It was for this reason that I didn’t go to the local viticultural school in Dijon but instead went to Lyon to study business.

I’m sorry I didn’t do the viti. I would have been a contemporary of Christophe Roumier, Dominique Lafon and others, and got to know them earlier. But it had always been my desire, my intention, to take over from my father,’ she continues, ‘and he soon realised I was serious.

I learned just about everything from him. But others of his generation in the village – Noël Hudelot [father of Alain Hudelot-Noëllat in Vougeot], for instance – taught me a lot. Chambolle is a friendly village and we are often in each other’s cellars comparing wines.’

Barthod looks after an estate of just under 7ha (hectares). As well as a very good Bourgogne, which comes from vines just on the ‘wrong side’ of the main road, and the village Chambolle -Musigny, there are no fewer than eight first growth Chambolles in the range: Baudes, Beaux-Bruns, Charmes, Chatelots, Combottes, Cras, Fuées and Véroilles, the last being the only premier cru in this area.

What is fascinating is that they are all different from each other, and different in the same way, irrespective of the climatic conditions: the Beaux-Bruns always has a slight rustic touch, the Charmes is soft and cuddly, the Cras is the most noble and the most austere.

It is a lesson in terroir definition. And part of the magic attraction of Burgundy.

Family ties

Meanwhile, a few kilometres away, in Gevrey-Chambertin, was Domaine Lucien Boillot et Fils (the fils referring to Louis and his brother Pierre).

While Lucien and his brother Jean got on well, Lucien didn’t see eye to eye with his father, Henri, and in 1955 he upped sticks from the family’s Domaine Henri Boillot in Volnay and started again in Gevrey-Chambertin.

First he worked for Domaine Clair-Dau, but gradually he built up his eponymous estate: by

purchase or leasehold in Côte de Nuits, and by inheritance in Côte de Beaune. Bad blood continued to fester in the Côte de Beaune.

Jean, who had since taken over his father’s estate and renamed it as his own, had two boys, Henri and Jean-Marc (and a daughter, married to Gérand Boudot, who runs the Etienne

Sauzet domaine in Puligny-Montrachet). When he retired, Jean passed on his estate

intact.

Henri got the vines (and returned the estate to its Henri Boillot name) and Jean-Marc got cash in lieu (with which he has since set up his own venture in Pommard). The two sons have not spoken to each other for 25 years.

Joint venture

Lucien’s son Louis was born in 1957 (Pierre in 1960, and there are three sisters) and finished his viticultural studies in 1978 – about the time his father’s estate was reaching respectable dimensions and beginning to domaine bottle seriously.

He met Ghislaine at the Roi Chambertin (an annual village party that lasts for a long

weekend) in 1983. In 1987 they jointly bought the rather grand, if somewhat dilapidated house they live in now.

From the first time he began to have access to Ghislaine’s wines, Louis realised that things could be improved at Lucien Boillot et Fils. But he was in the minority. Both Lucien and Pierre were content to rest with the mediocre.

As I was visiting Barthod on a regular basis, I felt obliged also to taste in Gevrey Chambertin, even though I was rarely enthusiastic about the Boillot wines. Eventually I received a letter. From Pierre. (Louis has always been at great pains to point out he did

not sign it.)

‘Dear Clive,’ wrote Pierre. ‘It is obvious you don’t like our wines. We’d rather you published no notes at all rather than bad notes, so please don’t bother to call.’ I was more relieved than anything else.

It is both tiring and dispiriting to taste wine which is only soso. And it meant I had the time to visit some new (and good) kids on the block. But the more I tasted in Chambolle, the

more I found it impossible to accept that Louis too was not aware of the difference

in quality between the two estates.

In 2002, Louis decided to quit his father’s domaine. The following year yet another extension was made to the Chambolle cellars. Louis made his first independent vintage in 2003. His wine is now as good as Ghislaine’s.

And while there is now a lot of similarity in the styles of the two, both seeking to bring elegance, intensity and fruit to the fore, Louis’ wines are more rugged, Ghislaine’s more sensual. It seems the Lucien Boillot domaine was divided exactly, meaning Louis doesn’t have very much of anything.

There is generic Bourgogne, Côte de Nuits-Villages and Fixin; village wines in Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, Chambolle and Gevrey; premier cru Volnay in Les Angles, Les Brouillards and Les Caillerets; Pommard, Les Croix Noirs and Fremiets; Gevrey in Evocelles, Champonnets and Cherbaudes; and finally Nuits-St Georges, Les Pruliers, which Louis and

Pierre bought in 1982. In all 7ha.

What took him so long to make the break? ‘I’ve got nothing against my father and my brother,’ he insists. ‘I didn’t want to be the cause of another family rift. But I wish I’d

separated sooner. It’s certainly a relief.’

And what has he changed? ‘Lots of little details. The size of the harvest has been reduced. I no longer use herbicides. All the vineyards are ploughed. There are a lot of other nuances in the vinification.’

So would they buy grand cru if it came on the market? ‘It would hardly be profitable at the prices which rule today,’ says Louis. ‘But if Ghislaine had a few casks of Bonnes Mares to offer, or if I had the same of Mazis, it would certainly add lustre to the rest of what we have.’

Some people are already middle-aged at 30. They stand on their dignity; they are already inflexible. Others, though 50, still have their youthful cheerfulness and the enthusiasm, exuberance and infinite curiosity of the younger generation.

The best Burgundians, like Ghislaine Barthod and Louis Boillot, and the sources of the

best wines, are in the second category.

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