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Clive Coates on Gevrey Chambertin

Gevrey-Chambertin is arguably the most classic Burgundian expression of Pinot. clive coates mw explores its two most renowned grands crus, and points us in the direction of the star performers

Six years ago I participated in a tasting of the two great wines of Gevrey: Chambertin and Chambertin, Clos de Bèze. My fellow tasters were a group of professionals and gifted amateurs in the US. ‘Aha,’ said one; ‘the first thing I’ll bet you is that none of us will be able to tell which is a Chambertin and which is a Clos de Béze. The second is that it will be Domaine Armand Rousseau first and the rest nowhere.’ He wasn’t wrong. (The results were published in The Vine, issue no234, July 2004.)

Given that we don’t tend to uncork immature wines for such events, and nor do most (apart from me) skulk around Burgundy with tongues hanging out for the latest vintage, it was natural that this view, which I then accepted, should be based on the wines of the 1990s and earlier.

But as we enter the 2010s, is the verdict still valid? First, is there any material difference between the two adjoining grand cru climats? Second, does Rousseau now have some competition, or is it still streets ahead? To help answer these questions, I spent last October visiting Gevrey’s top estates, tasting the 2008s and 2007s, having just done my annual Burgundy comparison on the 2006s.

Taste the difference

Clos de Bèze lies north of Chambertin, on the same altitude (275m to 300m), and is the larger (15.4 hectares as opposed to 12.9ha). In both, the soil is Bajocian limestone. Chambertin has white oolite in the upper part of the slope; Clos de Bèze doesn’t. In both you can find pebbles and clay, perhaps more clay in Chambertin. The proportion of fine earth to pebbles (68% to 32%) is the same as Montrachet. The incline is a little steeper in Bèze and the slope is slightly convex, as opposed to concave in Chambertin, but there’s not much in it.

But there is a difference between them, certainly discernible if you taste them side by side. Most would echo Charles Rousseau, at 86 the doyen of the village: ‘Chambertin is male and virile. It is bigger and more tannic. It lacks a bit of finesse in its youth, but it rounds off to give a wine of more concentration and depth.

Clos de Bèze is more mineral, more complex, more delicate.’ Others such as Pierre Damoy and the brothers Rossignol, both of whose estates have vines in Chapelle-Chambertin, find the fragrance of this climat in Bèze, but not at all in Chambertin. Bernard Hervet of Faiveley says the soil of Clos de Bèze is more homogenous and believes the level of success more consistent.

He goes on to note that because Clos de Bèze can be labelled Chambertin, but not vice-versa, Bèze is in principle better quality. I suspect this was said in jest – Faiveley could be seen as somewhat prejudiced, having vines in Bèze but nothing next door.

Rousseau and rivals

To answer our second question, the Rousseau domaine is certainly still in pole position. But it now has serious competition. The Rousseaus have just bought 0.4ha of Chambertin from Jean-Claude Belland, bringing its holdings to 2.55ha. In Clos de Bèze it has 1.4ha. On the face of it, nothing special is done here. Normally (except in 2009, when it vinified using 15% whole clusters) the fruit is destemmed.

There is no sorting table – the elimination of less-good fruit is done in the vineyard. There is one racking and these two wines are matured in 100% new oak. For many years there have been neither herbicides nor insecticides used, but the domaine is not biodynamic. ‘I make the wines to my style,’ says Eric Rousseau, whose first vintage was 1982. ‘They should not be too extracted or tannic. They’ll keep well enough provided they are balanced.’

Could others pinpoint the Rousseau’s magic wand? Philippe Drouhin of Domaine Drouhin-Laroze has a suggestion. The Rousseaus have very fine vines. Not centenarians, but with an origin that lies in a very fine sélection massale of the very finest original vines. ‘It all starts with the plants,’ he points out. The Rousseau style is for wines of great definition of fruit and classy harmony. They are never aggressively tannic: indeed they are approachable earlier than many. But year in, year out, at my 10-years-on tasting, the Rousseau

Chambertin is the star of the show. The Damoy domaine is important in both senses of the word. It has more than a third of Clos de Bèze (5.36ha) as well as 0.48ha of Chambertin. Pierre Damoy holds back the best of his Bèze, largely from vines dating from 1920, but sells 50% off in bulk to the merchants. He took over from his eponymous uncle in 1992, at a time when the reputation of the estate was at a low ebb.

He is now 45. So what has he changed? ‘Everything! Firstly we are much more respectful of nature in the vineyard. I have the luck to be responsible for a great terroir. I have a responsibility to achieve the maximum from it. I like wines that are ripe, but mineral, subtle and velvety.’ His Clos de Bèze 2008 (no stems, 75% new wood) is very fine indeed.

After Rousseau, the largest proprietors in Chambertin are the domaines of Jean and Jean-Louis Trapet and Rossignol-Trapet, with 1.9ha and 1.6ha respectively. The Trapet estate was split in 1990 when Jean Trapet and his Rossignol brother-in-law both retired. Jean-Louis, son of Jean, immediately went biodynamic, the cousins Nicolas and David following in 1997. Both use 30% of the stems, and 50% new oak. Both have refined their techniques – sorting tables, more attention in the vineyard, more precision in the cellar – ever since.

The result has been a significant improvement in the quality of the wines, which in the time of grandfather Trapet in the 1950s were splendid, but then declined somewhat. At first I was more enthusiastic chez Jean-Louis. Now it is an even bet which will come out on top. The cousins made the better wines in 2005 and 2006. ‘I don’t like monster wines,’ says Jean-Louis Trapet.

‘The more natural the wine, the more profound it is.’ David Rossignol says: ‘We like wines of depth – classic, not modern’. He adds that Clos de Bèze, because it is easier to taste, is often favoured when the wines are young, something he finds frustrating.

A long-standing major address in Clos de Bèze is Bruno Clair. He has just under 1ha, most planted as long ago as 1912, and is horse ploughed. The fruit is usually totally destemmed and 50% goes into new oak. The result is a subtle, fragrant, harmonious wine. ‘Clos de Bèze should never be too powerful and meaty,’ says Bruno. ‘It would be a great mistake to vinify it as if it were Chambertin.’ His 2008 bears testament to this approach.

The Domaine Drouhin-Laroze’s Clos de Bèze parcel is even larger. At 1.5ha, it is the second largest holding after Damoy. The 53 year-old Philippe Drouhin had been working at the estate since 1974, but it was not until his father’s death in 2001 that the domaine began to be a major player. A lot has been fine-tuned since, especially in the vineyard. ‘I’m essentially bio in my attitudes, but I also want to have flexibility., so I use culture raisonné,’ says Drouhin.

The vinification is increasingly of whole berries, though without the stems. ‘I don’t like to control too much; I want the vintage to speak for itself.’ There are increasingly good wines here. The 2007 is not full-bodied but has great freshness and intensity.

The Leroy family bought 0.1ha of Chambertin back in 1934, which Lalou Bize-Leroy increased to 0.5ha in 1989. Here the clusters are vinified intact, without any crushing or destemming, to guarantee zero oxidation. Bize-Leroy’s aggressive pricing policy ensures this is by far the most expensive Chambertin. Is it worth it? Not always. But the 2007 is stunning, as is the 2006. ‘My Chambertin is a solid wine,’ she says. ‘It’s built like Gevrey’s (fortified) church – for the long term.’

Most of the top négociants have vines here, though generally in Bèze rather than Chambertin. I have already mentioned Faiveley, which has 1.32ha. Then there is Jadot, with 0.46ha (and 0.23ha in Chambertin which it rules over, though without having a formal leasing arrangement.) Joseph Drouhin owns 0.12ha. The exceptions are Albert Bichot, which exploits 0.17ha of Chambertin under its Domaine de Clos Frantin label, and Bouchard Père et Fils with 0.15ha of Chambertin but 0.94ha of Bèze reserved for it by Damoy.

The results can be very fine, as good as the reputations of these names would suggest. Says Philippe Prost, winemaker at Bouchard: ‘Chambertin is wild, Clos de Bèze is ethereal, long, complex.’ Jacques Lardière, the genius behind Jadot, says: We have a responsibility to the consumer to present a wine true to its origins and its hierarchy. Others have changed their vinification methods, and forgotten this. Clos de Bèze is a spiritual wine. Chambertin isn’t.’

All this might give you the confidence to buy any bottle of Chambertin or Clos de Bèze you saw. Sadly that’s not all of it. Neither can be approached with the freedom you might feel confronted with Richebourg or Romanée-St-Vivant. There are still too many underachievers in this part of the world. Stick to the names you know – and those mentioned here.

Written by Clive Coates

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