STEPHEN BROOK acts as guide around the copious producers, négociants and wines of Volnay
- Volnay is the Chambolle-Musigny of the Côte de Beaune, it is marked by elegance rather than power.
- The most intriguing estate in Volnay is surely that of Hubert de Montille.
- For continuity, you must look north towards Nuits-Saint-Georges.
- Prices are more reasonable than for wines of comparable quality further north in Vosne or Chambolle-Musigny.
If I were in a restaurant confronted by a list of burgundies from little known growers, I would probably take a chance and plump for a Volnay. That’s because it’s hard to find bad wine from Volnay. The village is blessed with some long-established and high-quality estates, and many lesser known properties that are almost as good. The proliferation of wines from private domaines means that relatively little wine gets into the hands of négociants.
Volnay is the Chambolle-Musigny of the Côte de Beaune, by which I mean that it is marked by elegance rather than power. Its wines can be drunk young with considerable pleasure, but the best will age effortlessly, developing a wonderful aromatic complexity.
But it’s quite a complicated commune. The village itself is compact, and some of the well-known premiers crus – Volnay has no grands crus – are clustered nearby. The walled Clos des Ducs is an extension of the Marquis d’Angerville’s garden near the church, and the Clos de la Bousse d’Or and the Clos du Château des Ducs (both monopoles under single ownership) are also within a short walk of the church. But the vineyards sweep to north and south for some distance along the lower slopes of the Saône Valley, and they also descend well beyond the main road to Pommard, until they reach the boundary with Meursault. Indeed, the red wine from Meursault Santenots is usually (and legally) labelled as Volnay Santenots.
I have quizzed many growers about the particular characteristics of Volnay’s 26 premiers crus. In addition to the many excellent monopoles, it would generally be conceded that Volnay’s top sites are Caillerets, Taillepieds, Champans, Clos des Chênes, and Santenots. Taillepieds and Clos des Chênes, on the slopes that swing south towards Monthelie, tend to give wines of great finesse, while the crus lower down the slope, such as Champans and Caillerets, are on a reddish soil that gives wines of more power and structure. Vineyards such as Fremiets, Pitures and Chanlin, on the Pommard side of the village, tend to be slightly more robust, but the Marquis d’Angerville warns against generalisations saying: ‘The age of the vines has a great deal to do with the character of wines of Volnay.’
Of the many fine growers in Volnay, Jacques d’Angerville is probably the most senior and respected. It was his father who, battling in the 1930s for high quality and honest labelling, so antagonised some local négociants that he was forced to bottle his own wine, becoming one of the first private domaines in Burgundy to do so.
This is a conservative estate, with classic vinification and few concessions to modern fashion. Jacques d’Angerville likes his wines to be approachable young. They are not heavily extracted, little new oak is used, and the wines are lightly filtered. Although the Angerville wines are highly regarded, I can’t help finding them somewhat slack, light, and sometimes lacking in concentration. They are sound, enjoyable, can age well (the 1990 Champans is delicious now), but somehow lack excitement. The Marquis has had health problems in recent years, and perhaps because of this standards have been allowed to slip.
A change of generations has not brought about any dip in quality at Domaine Lafarge. Michel Lafarge still keeps a benevolent eye on his son Frédéric’s running of the estate and had no problems accepting Frédéric’s decision to adopt biodynamic viticulture in 1996, although some of the domaine workers needed time to come to terms with the controversial system. The estate has a monopole premier cru, the Clos du Château des Ducs, but sometimes the best wines are either the perfumed Caillerets or the more powerful Clos des Chênes. The Lafarges use no more than 30% new oak, and fining and filtration are rare.
These are extremely satisfying wines, elegant without being light, fleshy without being jammy, structured without being harshly tannic. Indeed, everything about them seems well-judged. The wines are skillfully made without dogma, so that the length of the cuvaison is adapted to the style of each vintage. Even in less reputed vintages, the Lafarge wines don’t disappoint, and in top years they are simply gorgeous. The 1998s – tasted just before bottling – were very promising, with a dense, majestic Clos du Château des Ducs and a more supple, charming Clos des Chênes. The 1997s too are very good for the vintage.
Hubert de Montille
The most intriguing estate in Volnay is surely that of Hubert de Montille, whose day job is practicing law. Monsieur de Montille, and now his son Etienne, have very firm ideas about how wine should be made. Their top wines tend to be Champans and Taillepieds. There is no systematic destemming, punching down the cap is frequent but done with a light touch to avoid excessive extraction, there is no chaptalisation above 12% abv, and a minimal use of new oak. The wines are bottled without fining or filtration.
Hubert de Montille is set firmly against the fashion for alcohol-rich wines. Most burgundies weigh in at between 12.5–13% abv, but his rarely exceed 12. This is a brave doctrine to follow, as it means that the wines do not show well when young. When tasted from cask before bottling, which is a good moment to assess a young wine, the 1998s lacked aroma, sweetness and charm. ‘We make wines that are completely natural,’ explained Madame de Montille, ‘but the price we pay is that they can taste thin and austere when young. They can take 15 years to come out of their shell.’
And do they really come round? In my experience of older vintages, they do, but it’s easy to understand how some winelovers can lose patience with the Montille wines. To cellar a wine for 15 years to enjoy its evolution is one thing; but to be required to cellar it for 15 years before it becomes enjoyable is quite another. But one has to admire the Montilles for sticking to their guns, and when on form, these are wines of the highest quality.
The last of the great domaines of Volnay is Pousse d’Or. It was managed for decades by the much admired Gérard Potel, who became a guru to generations of quality-seeking growers. He was very welcoming, as I discovered in 1991, and keen to share his knowledge and experience. And he produced some magical wines, especially in poor vintages. But by the 1990s he no longer owned the estate – he managed it for an Australian consortium. In 1997, however, the company decided to sell up, and Gérard Potel died on the day that the deeds for the sale were signed.
That may have been a sign of a broken heart or just a coincidence, but it made life difficult for the new owner, an enthusiastic medical engineer called Patrick Landanger. Although he puts a brave face on it, he clearly had to endure a fairly tough reception when he took over this famous estate. He certainly threw himself wholeheartedly into his new life. After selling his successful business, he studied winemaking in Beaune, moved his family into the manor-house, which he renovated, and expanded and modernised the winery.
The estate has two monopoles, Clos d’Audignac (which gives light but elegant wines) and the Clos de la Bousse d’Or, and an exceptional parcel within Caillerets called the ’60 Ouvrées’, which is bottled separately. The hallmark of the Potel wines was always their intensity and elegance, so typical of Volnay but so difficult to achieve. So Patrick Landanger had a hard act to follow (and knows it). He isn’t out to copy the Potel approach, and favours a slightly rounder style, giving the wines longer barrel-ageing to help attain it. There is no fining or filtration and the use of new oak is limited to 30%.
Landanger’s first vintages were received harshly, and it is certainly true that the 1997s were weak. The 1998s were better, supple and enjoyable if not especially elegant. I find a marked improvement with the 1999s (he hired a new oenologist for this vintage), which are rich and powerful. There is no point comparing them with the Potel wines; they have a different character, which is entirely legitimate, and Landanger is working hard to ensure quality improves, but it is futile to expect continuity.
For continuity, you must look north towards Nuits-Saint-Georges, where in an unprepossessing shed near the station, Gérard’s dynamic son Nicolas has his cellars. Nicolas worked for many years with his father and took the initiative in 1994 to convert Pousse d’Or to organic viticulture; he also worked extensively in Sonoma and in Australia, and with Christophe Roumier in Burgundy. On leaving Volnay after the sale of Pousse d’Or, he set himself up as a négociant, wisely exploiting his many contacts among Burgundy’s leading growers as well as the goodwill extended to him after his father’s untimely death.
He buys in grapes and wines from old-vine parcels in various parts of Burgundy, but has retained strong affection for Volnay, from where in 1999 he made no fewer than 14 wines. He has no fixed style of vinification or ageing: all depends on the nature and quality of the fruit at his disposal. He likes a long cuvaison and minimal racking. New oak varies from none in 1997 to 25% in 1999. What he looks for is purity of flavour, and fleshiness rather than tannic extraction. From Volnay I am only familiar with his 1997s, which are rich and suave, with no hard edges and an opulent fruitiness. Nicolas Potel, enjoying the flexibility of a négociant and employing the skill of an accomplished winemaker, is someone to watch.
Other Dependable Growers
Back in Volnay itself are a number of other growers who are highly dependable. Jean-Marc Bouley is an assertive character, but likeable and without pretension. Over the years he has been refining his vineyard holdings, trying to improve the overall quality of his sites. I liked his wines in the late 1980s but now they have become even better, especially the Clos de Chênes and Caillerets. They are balanced and combine finesse with good structure. Financial constraints prevent him from using as much new oak as he would like, but perhaps that is no bad thing.
Another rising star is Yvon Clerget, who makes his wines along traditional lines, fermenting in open wooden vats and punching down the cap with his feet. The wines are generally unfined and unfiltered. His most structured wine is usually the Caillerets, but he often makes delicious wines from his premier cru Clos du Verseuil, a monopole. Both the 1997s and 1998s were a great success here, with lovely raspberry smokey fruit on the nose, and suppleness on the palate but not at the expense of concentration.
Pascal Roblet of Roblet-Monnot has won much acclaim since taking over the family estate in 1994. His premiers crus include Robardelles and Taillepieds. The wines are very well made, with rather more new oak than is customary in the village. I find the wines fleshy, supple, with rich blackberry fruit, but just lacking some Volnay typicity and finesse. I prefer the wines of Carré-Courbin (another small estate based in Beaune), where the 1997s and 1998s were both excellent. Other good sources include Rossignol-Changarnier, and Joseph Voillot, whose wines are made in a rather chunky style.
Nor should one overlook the sumptuous and long-lived Volnay Santenots from Lafon in Meursault, which, as one would expect, is one of the most consistent and succulent Volnays one could ever hope to taste. Outstanding négociant wines include Drouhin’s Clos des Chênes and Volnay Champans from Faiveley and Leroy.
Volnay remains a village where one is spoiled for choice, since the overall standard is so high. And this being the less fashionable Côte de Beaune, prices are more reasonable than for wines of comparable quality further north in Vosne or Chambolle-Musigny