The Boisset négociant family has united its best vineyards to create Domaine de la Vougeraie, writes STEPHEN BROOK
If you want to establish a wine estate in California or Chile, you buy a parcel of land, clear it, plant it, and hope for the best. In Burgundy it’s not so easy. The Cistercians worked out the best places to plant vines some eight centuries ago, and any spare sites are either too chilly to ripen grapes or too rich to provide the finesse all good Burgundy aspires to. Indeed, the only way to start a new domaine is to buy up one or more existing ones, topped up with a few parcels that occasionally come on the market. In practice domaines rarely come up for sale, and when they do the price tag is astronomical. But it can happen. Domaine Leroy is composed of two estates snapped up in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Lalou Bize-Leroy, and more recently the Boisset family, headed by Jean-Claude Boisset, has been buying up estates and absorbing them into the Boisset négociant empire.
By the late 1990s Boisset realised it owned a promising mosaic of vineyards and wondered what to do with them. In 1993 it united its vineyards under the name of Domaine Claudine Deschamps. That same year Boisset bought the Pierre Ponnelle domaine, and in 1997 a company called L’Heritier-Guyot, best known for its crème de cassis but also with excellent vineyards in Vougeot. Boisset’s son Jean-Charles had the idea of uniting this mixed bag of very varied sites into a single domaine.
But Boisset, one of Burgundy’s largest négociants, did not have the highest reputation. Jean-Charles Boisset realised a new domaine had to adopt the same stringent standards as the top estates of Burgundy. And he needed a high-profile winemaker who could add immediate lustre to the enterprise.
In 1997 he approached Pascal Marchand, a French-Canadian who had been winemaker for many years at the best estate in Pommard: Comte Armand. Marchand was excited by the idea, and agreed to come on board. About 4ha (hectares) of vineyards he did not rate highly were sold off, but that still left a sizeable holding of 37ha. In 1999 he produced the first vintage of the new domaine, named La Vougeraie after the home of the family patriarch, Jean-Claude Boisset. Marchand hired the enthusiastic Jacques Devauges as his assistant; Devauges had worked at Chateau Potelle in Napa, so had a perspective beyond the hills of Burgundy.
At Comte Armand, Marchand had only produced powerful Pinot Noir from Pommard’s outstanding sites. At La Vougeraie his brief was very different: there would be 30 wines in the range. Marchand was unfazed. ‘In Pommard I tried to express the personality of the terroir. Clos des Epeneaux was always going to be a big structured wine, and I never tried to fight that. But yes, La Vougeraie is a challenge, because although I also make Pommard here, I need to produce Bonnes Mares too, which is a completely different style. And one quarter of our production is of white wine.’
It helped that the vineyards were in good shape. ‘In three sites we had over-productive clones, which we pulled out, says Marchand. ‘Elsewhere we reduce yields by green harvesting. Our viticulture is organic, and we plough with a horse.’
He sees my eyebrow whizz upwards, and explains: ‘This is not a marketing gimmick. We compared the effects of ploughing with a horse and using a tractor, and we saw a real difference. It’s a lot of work as it means everything is done by hand, although we keep a couple of rows accessible to tractors so we can spray when necessary.’
The winemaking is simple. The grapes are sorted both in the vineyard and at the winery; the bunches are destemmed but not crushed, and left in wooden vats for a cold soak at around 15?C. Fermentation begins a few days later with natural yeasts, with the cap punched down by hand two or three times a day.
Wines with personality
‘For me vinification means an absence of exaggeration, but I want extraction and concentration in the wines. Above all, I want each wine to have a personality. I do use a fair amount of new oak – 40% for the premiers crus, 60% for grands crus – but I work closely with our coopers to moderate the toast, as I want fruit that is enhanced and not dominated by oak.’ The wines are bottled without filtration.
With so many vineyards at its disposal, La Vougeraie offers a range of wines from most of the important villages of the Côte d’Or. But it also has some unusual items.
‘We have plenty of grands crus,’ says Marchand, ‘but we also work hard with our simple Bourgogne Rouge. We make one version, called Terre de Famille, from various parcels, including some in Beaune that are actually entitled to the Village appellation. Then we have a Bourgogne blend called Terre d’En Face, a real curiosity. It comes from vines across the road from Clos Vougeot. L’Heritier-Guyot had Gamay planted here for Passetoutgrains, in which we have no interest. So I vinify the Gamay in the Burgundian manner, and age it in older barrels. I love this project, as I can really express my creativity.’
The most distinctive vineyards are in Vougeot. Clos de la Prieuré used to belong to Pierre Ponnelle, and half is planted with Chardonnay. ‘It gives a big rich wine, and it’s showy in a New World style. The other vineyard is Clos Blanc, next to the château of Clos de Vougeot. Used by the Cistercians in the 12th century for white grapes, it has been planted since the late 19th century mostly with Chardonnay, and a few rows of Pinot Gris, adding roundness and spice.’
Boisset also has sizeable holdings within Clos Vougeot: 1ha in the excellent upper sector, and 0.3ha lower down; this latter parcel is declassified to Vougeot premier cru, as they don’t want to blend the two. I tasted some of the 2001s, but they were hard to judge as some were still completing their malolactic fermentation. But the 2000s were impressive. The domaine is right to signal that Clos Blanc is one of its ‘signature’ wines. It is lean, tight and spicy, with a marked mineral character and good length.
The all-Gamay ‘Terre d’En Face’ is spicy and robust, and certainly individual, though for my part I’d rather drink Pinot Noir. The Pommard ‘Petits Noizons’ oozes typicity: rich, earthy, and plummy, and without the tannic coarseness that plagues so many Pommards. The Vougeot Cras was probably the best, certainly the most graceful, of the red premiers crus, and among the grands crus, the Charmes Chambertin seemed better balanced than the rather raw Corton Clos du Roi. Among the 1999s, the Nuits Damodes is excellent, black cherries and liquorice on the nose; concentrated, tannic, and assertive on the palate. Marchand is rightly proud of the Bonnes Mares. I often tasted this wine when it was released under the Pierre Ponnelle label: good but far from great. The 1999 Bonnes Mares here is impeccable, with its ripe cherry nose underpinned by oak; and succulent cherry fruit on the palate.
Overall, the Vougeraie wines are rich and quite extracted. Perhaps they lack a little elegance, but they are boldly flavoured and show the typicity of their vineyards. The domaine is being ardently promoted, with its shield ‘logo’ on labels, corks, and even barrels. Nor is Marchand one to miss a photo opportunity: when he decided to destem the Musigny crop by hand in 2001, there happened to be photographers on call and a newsletter in which to display the images, as well as a detailed website.
With its stylish packaging and Boisset muscle behind it, La Vougeraie is sure to prosper. Fortunately the wine in the bottle seems to be of high quality.
Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter. Visit decanter.com’s Learning Route section for more information on Burgundy.
Written by STEPHEN BROOK