Burgundy master Clive Coates MW tells you everything that you need to know about Domaine Georges Roumier, along with historical tasting notes on wines from top vintages - as part of a series that looks back at domaine profiles from Clive's most recent books.
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Profile of a Burgundy legend
For Chambolles with a difference, wines which are substantial, even sturdy, as well as velvety and elegant, the best source is the Roumier domaine: to be precise, because there are two others in the village, the Domaine Georges Roumier. This is one of the longest-established estate bottling domaines in the Côte D’Or. And one of the very best of all.
The nucleus of this domaine lies in the dowry of Geneviève Quanquin, who married Georges Roumier in 1924. Georges, who was born in 1898, came from Dun-Les-Places, in the Charollais cattle country near Saulieu. When he arrived in Chambolle he took over the Quanquin family vineyards, enlarged the exploitation by taking on a small part of Musigny en metayage and buying additional land in the commune, and set up on his own, independent of his parents-in-law, who also had a négociant business. (This ceased to exist after the Second World War.)
The domaine was further enlarged in the 1950s. More Bonnes Mares, from the Domaine Belorgey, arrived in 1952. Two parcels of Clos de Vougeot were added in the same year. And in 1953 the 2.5 ha monopoly of the premier cru Clos de la Bussière in Morey-Saint-Denis was acquired from the Bettenfeld family. In the 1930s this parcel had belonged to the Graillet estate, the residue of which was subsequently to form the base of the Domaine Dujac.
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Georges and Geneviève had seven children, five of them boys, and I get the feeling he must have been a bit of a martinet, not willing to let go of the reins. In 1955, Alain, the eldest son, left to take up the position of régisseur for the neighbouring De Vogüé domaine. Another son, Paul, became a courtier. Jean-Marie, the third, had started playing a part in the domaine in 1954 and eventually took over when his father retired in 1961 (Georges died in 1965). In this year, wishing to keep the domaine intact, the brothers formed a limited company for their inheritance, which together with the sisters’ holdings, was rented to the domaine. When he retirered from De Vogüé Alain retrieved his share, these vineyards now being exploited separately by the widow of his son Hervé and his other son Laurent.
Today the winemaker at the Domaine Georges Roumier is the 54 year old Christophe, son of Jean-Marie. Christophe was born in 1958, studied oenology at Dijon University, did a stage at the excellent Cairanne co-operative in the Côtes du Rhône in 1980, and joined his father the year after. The wines were fine in Georges and Jean-Marie’s time. They have reached even greater heights under the aegis of Christophe.
In more recent times there have been three significant additions to the Roumier portfolio. In 1977, when the Thomas-Bassot domaine was being sold, a substantial slice of Ruchottes-Chambertin came on the market. Two parcels were quickly snapped up by Charles Rousseau and Dr Georges Mugneret. The third was acquired by a businessman and oenophile from Rouen, one Michel Bonnefond. At Rousseau’s suggestion Bonnefond entered into a metayage arrangement with the Roumiers, and Christophe now gets two thirds of the yield of this 0.54 ha parcel. You can find under both labels. It is the same wine.
In the following year, Jean-Marie Roumier finally managed to buy the parcel of Musigny, just under one tenth of a hectare (it only produces a cask and a half) which the family had been share-cropping since the 1920s.
Seven years later, in 1984, a French merchant in Lausanne, Jean-Pierre Mathieu, bought a small section (0.27 ha) of Mazoyères-Chambertin. This again is rented en metayage to Christophe Roumier. The financial arrangements are a little different here, and Roumier only gets half of the crop, which, like most Mazoyères, is labelled as Charmes, a name easier to pronounce and sell.
Somewhat earlier than this, back in 1968, Christophe’s mother, née Odile Ponnelle, bought a parcel of land, en friche, on the Pernand-Vergelesses side of Corton-Charlemagne, half-way down the slope from the Bois de Corton. The land was cleared and replanted, the first vintage being 1974. It is delicious, but there is little of it: three pièces from 0.2 ha.
The heart of the 12 hectare Roumier domaine, as always, lies in Chambolle-Musigny. A number of parcels in the village, totalling almost four hectares, produce a splendid village wine. There are originally six cuvées of this, eventually blended together, and within this wine will be the yield of some old vines of Pinot Beurot, a sort of Pinot Gris, the residue of the old days when a few white vines were planted in with the red in nearly every Burgundian climat to add balance and complexity to the wine.
Christophe Roumier is fortunate to own vines in the three most famous premiers crus in the commune: Les Cras, and, since 2005, when it was first seperated from the village wine, Les Combottes: 1.76 ha and 0 27 ha respectively.
On the other side of the village, just under the northern end of Le Musigny, there is 0.4 ha of Amoureuses, Chambolle’s finest premier cru. This plot was planted in three stages, in 1954, 1966 and 1971. The vines in the parcel of Musigny itself, lying nearby, date from 1934.
Roumier’s most important wine, though, is not this Musigny, or not always, but the Bonnes-Mares. (A pièce and a half is difficult to vinify). And though Christophe considers Musigny in principle the grandest grand cru in the Côte D’Or he finds the results of his Musigny less regular). There are four parcels of Bonnes-Mares, all in the Chambolle part of this grand cru, totalling 1.45 ha.
There are two distinct soil types in Bonnes-Mares. At the Morey end the soil is terres rouges. But, coming down the slope in a diagonal line from above the Clos de Tart and continuing south towards Chambolle the soil changes to terres blanches (if you look carefully you will see a large quantity of small fossilised oysters) and this makes up most of the climat. Three of Christophe Roumier’s parcels are terres blanches, one terres rouges. He normally vinifies them separately and blends them together afterwards. What is the difference? The terres rouges gives the power, the backbone, the concentration, says Christophe. Wine from the terres blanches is more spiritual. From here we get the finesse, the intensity, the definition. But a blend is yet greater the sum of the parts.
Below the northern, Morey, end of the vineyard and the Clos de Tart the land sinks into a hollow as it comes down the slope (this is the premier cru of Ruchots) and then rises up a little. Here we find the enclosed vineyard of Bussière. In a house in the middle lives Christophe’s mother, Jean-Marie Roumier having died in 2002.
Finally there is the Clos de Vougeot, which sadly Christophe no longer exploits. Originally there were two parcels, vinified together and sold both under the Georges Roumier label. After 1984, the upper part was taken back by Alain and Hervé, and after the 1996 harvest the second parcel passed to Laurent Roumier. It is certainly a good wine. But in Christophe Roumier’s view: “It is not really of top grand cru quality.” I don’t think that is sour grapes. I happen to agree with him.
”I make wines from terroir which expresses itself through Pinot Noir.,” says Christophe Roumier, who today runs the domaine with the assisitance of his sister Delphine. (There are two other sisters). There is a lot more to fine wine than merely the variety it is made from, he will point out. Roumier sees his role as an intermediary, as a facilitator. The vigneron’s duty is to allow the vines to produce fruit which, when vinified, will be unmistakably typical of its origins. The winemaker’s job is to effect this translation from fruit into wine. But it is a question of control rather than creativity. The creation is being done by the vine, by its location, by mother nature: not by man.
Along with most of the progressives in the region Christophe Roumier has turned his back on weedkilling sprays, preferring to plough the vines. This is sometimes difficult where a vineyard has not been cultivated for some time, as important roots may be cut in the process. But an ancillary benefit where it is done is that the roots are encouraged to penetrate deeper.
The average age of the vines in the Roumier domaine is high, but they don’t make a fetish of it. Once a parcel has reached, say, 50 years old, individual vines are not replaced as they die off. So eventually, as fiftenn yers ago in one part of their Bonnes Mares, the whole parcel can be cleared, the land disinfected against viral contamination, and eventually replanted. At first the young vines are Cordon trained, when their youthful vigour has died down this is replaced by the traditional Guyot method.
Pruning is severe, and the harvest is further contained by an elimination of excess buds and shoots during the spring. This is much more effective, says Christophe, than a green harvest later in the season. By then it is too late, he maintains, though he does it to thin out late develping bunches or if there are two adjoining, which might give rise to rot. He has no time for those who systematically green harvest every year. It shows they didn’t restrict the crop properly in the first place. This discipline is reflected in the Roumier harvest: 41 he/ha in village wine, 34 in premier cru, 30 in grand cru in the last big vintage: 2009. This is the key, says Christophe, to the production of great wine.
The next part of the jigsaw is the quality of the fruit. Trials have convinced Christophe that the ratio of leaves to fruit, and their exposure, is critical. So he prefers a large canopy, trained a little higher than some, at least during the early part of the season. It is also important, he believes, to eliminate the second generation of fruit, the verjus.
There is a careful triage, both in the vineyard and later when the fruit arrives in the cuverie up at the top of the village, but a flexible attitude to the quantity of the stems which are kept. The Bourgogne Rouge and the village Chambolle are usually destemmed. For the rest it depends very much on the vintage, Christophe not deciding until the harvest begins. From 20 to 50 percent of the stems are normally retained. The bigger the wine and the more concentrated the harvest the higher the amount tends to be. The wine is vinified in open top wooden, concrete or closed stainless steel vats. The first two materials are preferable, says Christophe, for the heat generated by the fermentation is slower to dissipate.
Fermentations at the Roumier domaine begin slowly, so there is always a brief period of pre-fermentation maceration. Thereafter, Christophe likes to prolong the extraction, maintaining the temperature just under 30°, as long as possible. The temperature level is one of the winemaker’s most important points of intervention, Christophe believes. It should not go too high, for you begin to lose the subtleties of the aromas above 33°.
As you would expect from the Roumier approach to terroir, this is a domaine which does not approve of a lot of new oak. Thirty percent is about maximum. “I want to taste the wine, not the cask,” says Christophe, pointing out that new wood is the best mask for wine faults. The wine is kept on its lees until racking the following September. Until 1993 the wines were fined with one egg white only per pièce, But no longer,and it is not filtered either. The 2006 village wine was bottled after 15/16 months, but normally bottling takes place later, between February and May of the following year.
Christophe Roumier is refreshingly open about the quality of his wines. I have referred already to his view on his Clos de Vougeot and to the irregularity of the Musigny as a direct consequence of the size of the cuve. “It should be the best, but it isn’t always”. In principle, he will tell you, Mazis, in the line of Chambertin and Clos de Bèze, should be better than Ruchottes, which lies upslope. It gets more sun later in the evening in September. The reason Ruchottes has the higher reputation, I suggest to him, is that the three most important producers, Rousseau, the Mesdames Mugneret and himself, are all highly competent wine-makers, while in Mazis there are a dozen or so, some good, some less so. The real Charmes, Christophe will also insist, is a better terroir than that of the Mazoyères.
The Roumier range begins with the Corton-Charlemagne. The vines are now of a respectable age, and since 1985, at the very least, have been producing wine of really top quality, though Christophe is not a fan of his 2002.
The reds, as I have said, are more muscular than most: full, virile, austere, made to last; not necessarily wines which sing in their youth. Time is required, a decade for the best wines in the best vintages. The series begins with a Bourgogne Rouge (2 ha). This is a sturdy example, but none the worse for that, even in 2007 it had good structure and good acidity. The village Chambolle follows next. It is a bigger wine than those of Ghislaine Barthod or De Vogûé, and it takes longer to open out. But there is no lack of finesse, no lack of Chambolle fragrance. The Morey, Clos de la Bussière, is firmer and chunkier. It used to have a touch of the rustic about it, but I have noticed this less in the last decade. Again it lasts well.
You will usually be offered, winemakers normally giving you the wines to taste in their order of preference, the Chambolle-Musigny, Combettes and the Cras before the Amoureuses. The former is plump, ripe and full of charm, and the latter magnificent in its austerity: really classy. The Chambolle-Musigny, Les Amoureuses, though, is delicious. Here we really do find distinction and class, as well as the supreme fragrance of the commune. It is a fitting example of the village’s greatest premier cru. In Roumier’s hands clearly a wine of grand cru quality.
The next two wines in the range are from the climats in Gevrey that Christophe farms en metayage, the Charmes and the Ruchottes. The latter is clearly finer than the former. Christophe suggests that the wine benifits, like in its own way that of the Mesdames Mugneters, from the fact that it is made and matured in a ‘foreign’ i.e. In his case Chambolle, cellar, and can take up some of these Chambolle nuances. Here we have intensity as well as weight and richness, the lush flamboyance of Gevrey-Chambertin, and all the finesse you would expect in top quality Burgundy.
The Bonnes-Mares, by contrast, is always much more closed-in; somewhat solid at the outset, much less expressive. It seems to go through more of an adolescent phase, and it is only on the finish – but of course, when a wine is young, the finish is what you should concentrate on – that you can see the breed, the complexity and the depth. Is this Burgundy’s best Bonnes-Mares? It needs at least a decade to come round.
When the Musigny is good, and it usually is, it is brilliant. It has less backbone than the Bonnes-Mares, less density. But it can be equally backward, needing just as much time to come round. Sometimes the Bonnes-Mares has more concentration and a better balance. Sometimes, the reverse is the case. It is a pity there is so little of it. I have sampled it ten times in cask for every occcasion I have met it in bottle.
What does Christophe Roumier have to say about Chambolle and his wines? ”Yes. Chambolle is the most elegant wine of the Côte. There is nothing original about that statement. But for me the wines are also the most mineral. There is a purity, a fruit, an elegance and a disitinction which come in large part from the extra amount of limestone in our soil, and perhaps the marginally higher altitude. I try to make my wines express this.”
In sum, this is one of Burgundy’s greatest domaines and Christophe Roumier is one of its most intelligent and knowledgable wine-makers. The combination of the two produces magic.