Andrew Jefford tastes 19 vintages from the Morey-St Denis Grand Cru vineyard of Clos de Tart...

The primary pleasure of wine waits for you in its aroma, its flavour and its effect: a source of daily happiness for millions. Then come a number of secondary pleasures. Searching for the ways in which skies and soils might be inscribed in flavour is one. Another lies in historical reverie.  There isn’t much in the texture of your life or mine which we might share with the twelfth-century popes in Avignon or the fourteenth-century Dukes of Burgundy. A glass of one or two particular Grand Cru burgundies of medieval monastic origin, though, is one.

These thoughts always come jostling when I walk up the stone steps and through the great oak door of Clos de Tart in Morey-St Denis. There’s a private little courtyard of utter tranquillity, shielded from the world. The wines sleep below, in an astonishing two-storey cellar constructed, with what must have been vast expense of labour, in 1850. The vines constitute a very large 7.53-ha garden which stretches away up the hill behind the buildings, just as they must have done … in 1141, when this Clos came into being.

They’d have been planted en foule back then – higgledy-piggledy; but, astonishingly, the vineyard boundaries have never changed since. It’s no less astonishing that there have only been three owners of this piece of land since that time: the Bernardine nuns of the Abbaye de Tart until the French Revolution; the Marey-Monge family until 1932 (the last survivor became a nun); and the Mommessin family ever since.  There can be few morsels of land in Europe of which this could be said.  Most will have changed hands hundreds of times.

La Vierge du Tart

La Vierge du Tart. Credit: Andrew Jefford

There’s a little statue of la vierge du Tart in a niche in the courtyard. Nowadays, the one positioned outside is a reproduction, and the original has been moved to sheltered retirement inside, after countless snowy winters. Countless? The owners recently had the little wooden statue carbon-dated. The result revealed that she’d been carved in 1372, just twenty years after the Black Death had killed around half of Europe’s population.

Want to know what grape pressing technology was like in 1570? In that case, make your way into the old press house at Clos de Tart, and marvel at the beautifully preserved ‘parrot press’ inside: ambitious sixteenth-century technology. It was last used for the 1924 vintage.  How many modern presses will last 454 years?

In September 2015, I took part in a vertical tasting at dinner at the domain, organised to mark another historical event: the transition of stewardship of these wines from Sylvain Pitiot (who made the vintages between 1996 and 2014) to Jacques Devauges, who took over at the beginning of 2015.  Pitiot’s predecessor (1969 to 1995) had been Henri Perraut.  Some notes on the kind of wines which Pope Gregory XI and Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy (and Flanders) might have recognised and enjoyed with us are given below.

Where does Clos de Tart stand in the hierarchy of Côtes de Nuits  and other Morey Grand Crus?  This is a question which only specialists and the wealthy can answer with any authority (I’m neither), but as Jasper Morris’s indispensible book Inside Burgundy reveals, the vineyard was regarded as better than Clos des Lambrays, Clos de la Roche and Clos St-Denis by Jules Lavalle in 1855, and the equal of Clos des Lambrays and above Clos de la Roche and Clos St-Denis by Camille Rodier in 1920. Morris’s modern verdict is that all four deserve Grand Cru status equally (and with none of the partial demotions he suggests for some other Grands Crus), but that none reach the ‘exceptional’ Grand Cru status of Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, Richebourg, La Romanée, Chambertin, Chambertin-Clos de Bèze and Musigny. The market concurs.

Tasting Clos de Tart

This vineyard commands the mid-slope, between 269 m and 302 m. There is a gradual transition in the soils and sub-soils: thinner, more marly and with more active lime higher up; deeper and more decarbonised lower down; and it is cultivated as 25 separate parcels divided into six sections. The vineyard has been organically cultivated (uncertified) for over a decade. Since 1890, the vines have been planted in transverse rows rather than up and down the slope, to minimize erosion: advantageous for its shade at midday on hot days, and to maximize the wind-drying effect of the north wind, but difficult to work because of the gradient.  Harvesting in the Pitiot era has tended to be late, and a wine called La Forge de Tart is produced in some years from younger vines (those under 25 years old).  Fermentation is in stainless steel, with a variable percentage of whole-bunch fruit; it is aged in new medium-toast Tronçais oak barrels, the wood being purchased prior to coopering and given extensive ageing first.  The wines are bottled in the cellars directly from the barrels by gravity, without fining or filtering.  The following notes were mainly drawn from the September 2015 tasting and dinner, but also include material gathered during visits to the domain in June 2015 and November 2012.

Clos de Tart 2014

What we tasted was not a finished wine, but the ‘hypothetical blend’.  Clear and light in colour, with cleanly defined, fresh yet sweet scents of raspberry.  After that youthful sweetness, the incision of the palate was a shock: high-focus, pure, long and thrusting, and grippy towards the finish.  Brilliantly sustained by its raspberry fruits, though; long and pure on the finish.  (93-95)

Clos de Tart 2013

Clear red in colour, with shy but clean, rooty scents: dry leaf, blood orange, beetroot.  On the palate, the wine is concentrated but not particularly round or fleshy, with a zesty, pithy, almost bracing style of fruit and enjoyably grippy tannins.  It’s eased away from youthful fruitiness relatively swiftly, but the birthright complexity is evident.   90

Clos de Tart 2012

A deep, clear red in colour.  Softly focused yet very attractive aromas in which classic raspberry fruits mingle with more autumnal scents of bramble banks and rosehips; concentrated, fine, fresh flavours which gradually grow tighter as the palate unfolds to the point that the finish is almost sinewy.  Pomegranate creeps into the fruit mix; the tannins are slightly softer in texture than those of 2013 or 2014.  Delicious and complete.  92

Clos de Tart 2011

The domain’s vintage notes report unhurried picking in good weather, but in the end the capricious, rainy summer seems to have the upper hand both in the aromas and flavours of this herbaceous wine.  It’s concentrated and dramatic, but rather dry and sinewy.  84

Clos de Tart 2010

Mellow, refined, expressive cherry and raspberry fruits dominate the aromas of this clear, bright red burgundy.  It’s firm, thrusting and pungent on the palate; the cascading acidity is more palpable at this stage than the quietly supportive tannins.  Energetic, sappy and forceful, right the way through the finish.  Deft and poised.  94

Clos de Tart 2009

A glowing red in colour, while the aromas of this wine show a broader range of allusions than its younger siblings: straw, hay, tar and Chartreuse herbs pack out the red fruits.  On the palate, it’s full, chunky and firm.  Its generous tannins over-awe the fruit profile just now, so the overall effect is a little more severe than the ‘easy’ reputation of 2009 would suggest.  A substantial Clos de Tart which still needs time, and may eventually win a higher score.  93

Clos de Tart 2008

From its dark colour and primary cherry aromas, you might guess this was younger wine than seven-and-a-half years old.  The wine’s personality seems a little taut and reserved at first, but with air it blossoms and opens.  Magnificent density and concentration after a while, predicated on thrilling acidity but with neat tannin stitching to the fruit, too.  A great success for the vintage.  94

Clos de Tart 2007

This attractive wine doesn’t have the focus or purity of its peers.  Red fruits linger in the glass like mist on a river; while the palate is soft, open, gentle and drinkable now, with wheat and aniseed mingling with the fruit.  The tannins and acidity are both attractively unforbidding.  90

Clos de Tart 2006

Scents and flavours of great purity and charm.  A happy, almost uncomplicated Clos de Tart.  There’s enough depth for the long haul, though nothing in this balanced, well-organised wine insists on keeping, and the stage the fruit has reached at ten years (with no youthful sweetness remaining) suggests it would be best before too long.  92

Clos de Tart 2005

(From magnum) Vivid clear red in colour, with complex aromas which seem to be beginning their secondary trajectory, yet also maintain a spring-like sweetness and juicy freshness.  There’s a big core of pushy fruit to the palate: intense, deep, long, searching.  The tannins remain well-concealed; harmony and a sweet spiciness emerge at the very end of this, the most multi-dimensioned wine in the tasting.   95

Clos de Tart 2004

As with the 2011, herbaceous notes have the upper hand in this wine, and it is now smooth in texture, with subdued tannins and leafy fruits.  83

Clos de Tart 2003

This vintage of leonine heat produced an extraordinary but divisive wine.  It remains astonishingly dark in colour with excitingly fruity but comprehensively unclassical aromas, still locked into some sort of enduring primary phase.  On the palate, it is very showy and distracting, full of sugarplum fruits: ample wealth but in slightly soupy form.  The moist liquorice on the finish might be the most classical element.  You can’t say it’s unbalanced, though, and it shows no sign whatsoever of premature senescence.  I have enthused over this wine in the past but feel that, at least at present, the fruit seems simpler than that of cooler years, unredeemed by aromatic refinement – but it’s a singular red burgundy which will set the table talking whenever it is served. 91

Clos de Tart 2002

The antithesis, at present, of the 2003: fresh, lively and aromatically precise, with a cologne-like charm, with a smooth, pure, open cascade of flavour on the palate.  It has everything except extreme concentration, but when the parts come together with the liveliness and grace with which these do, you won’t feel the lack.  Splendid, beautifully proportioned Clos de Tart.  94

Clos de Tart 2001

A paler wine than those vintages which preceded it, but now in beautifully expressive guise, with sustained soprano fruits: elegant, persistent, shapely, fresh and alluringly restrained.  92

Clos de Tart 2000

Glowing, resonant, rounded aromas and flavours, with fruit and texture perfectly synthesized.  This is ripe enough for there to be a little meaty warmth beginning to show, yet it also has a spring-like sappy energy inscribed within it; the result of this tension is pure deliciousness.  This would be the Clos de Tart I’d chose to drink at present if I was indeed the Duke of Burgundy.  93

Clos de Tart 1999

Still relatively deep in colour, and the impressive aromatic profile is holding nothing back: liquorice, spice and earth in addition to the warm, succulent fruits.  By comparison to the 2000 vintage, the acidity is just a little insistent and the tannins are a little sterner.  Will it pull ahead in the long term?  Perhaps, but just now I prefer the rosier 2000.  92

Clos de Tart 1998

It’s strange how swiftly the nobility of this wine can desert it in difficult vintages – or is this just Burgundy being Burgundy?  This wine was a puzzle: sweet, simple aromas and rather stewy, coarse flavours.  In isolation, of course, it may show a little better than when tasted against vintages of the quality of the two which succeeded it.  84

Clos de Tart 1997

Clos de Tart produced a hugely enjoyable wine in this much-underrated vintage: soft and creamy in scent, with generous, brambly autumnal flavours and deliciously soft, thick, mellow tannins: a treat, should you happen to find some in your cellar.  92

Clos de Tart 1996

Still deep in colour, with elegant, pure scents more dominated now by refined spice, mushroom and violet than fruit.  On the palate, the wine seemed high-cheek-boned and dramatic compared to the affably generous 2007.  Acidity does the main structuring work here, but it is ripe, resonant, well-seasoned acidity and this willowy wine remains well-composed and scented to the finish.  91