Charles Rousseau started work at the family domaine in 1946. Today he’s still a presence at the Gevrey-Chambertin star name, alongside his son Eric. And the wines are as captivating as ever, says Stephen Brook
Most mornings a car rumbles down a lane near the church of Gevrey- Chambertin and mounts the pavement outside Domaine Rousseau. An elderly mustachioed gentleman climbs
out and slowly heads for an office across the courtyard from the domaine’s main reception.
This is the private preserve of Charles Rousseau, who ran this celebrated estate for decades before handing over to his son Eric. One suspects Charles still jerks the reins from time to time, and that his retirement is far from complete.
Rousseau’s continuing presence at the domaine is a boon for devotees of the history of Burgundian winemaking, since few surviving proprietors have a memory to match his. He was born in 1923 and finished his studies in law and oenology before starting work with his father Armand, who founded the domaine in the 1930s.
That was in 1946. In 1959, after his father died in a car accident, Charles, who had been more involved in selling the wines than making them, was on his own. ‘In those days,’ says Charles, ‘a vigneron was the lowest of the low. All the power was with négociants.
Vignerons simply made their wine, then sold it, usually for rock-bottom prices, to the négociants. At school, those of us from vigneron families would never admit to it. We’d just say we were in the wine business. ‘My father was among the first to bottle, along with [Henri] Gouges and [Marquis d’] Angerville, in the 1930s. It was easy to put some of your wines into bottle. The hard part was finding clients.
You could always sell a few bottles to your friends if the wine was good, but that was hardly profitable. Fortunately the then head of La Revue du Vin de France, who was encouraging good domaines to bottle their wines, had useful contacts in top restaurants, which helped to sell the wines. Otherwise it would have been impossible.
There were no tourists, no importers, no private clients stopping by.’ His first attempt to sell his wines in the UK, in 1951, proved fruitless; importers told him they dealt only with négociants, not private estates, even though the Rousseau wines were far cheaper. Ten
years would go by before Rousseau could sell his wines in Britain. Today there is fierce demand for allocations worldwide.
The domaine is hugely admired for the simple fact that its wines have never deviated from basic tenets of good farming and winemaking. ‘There haven’t been major changes in our viticulture since our earliest days,’ says Charles. ‘Of course there was a period in the 1960s when everyone was urged to buy chemicals and fertilisers and use potassium in the vineyards.
The vines were tired and it was tempting to bring them back to full vigour using fertilisers. At that time, people took pride in the quantity of wine they could make, not just the quality. I was always opposed to using potassium, as it lowered acidity and exposed wines to bacteria, not to mention a shorter life in bottle. But those days are over. Today the vineyards are properly cultivated and ploughed, as they used to be until the 1950s.
It’s essential if you want the roots to sink deep. If you use herbicides instead of ploughing, the roots stay on the surface and there’s no extract in the wines.’ New golden age Charles Rousseau doesn’t want to give the impression that the 1950s were a golden age before an inexorable decline. On the contrary, ‘quality has certainly improved.
Then, négociants bought the appellations they needed, not because they admired the quality of your wines. So growers had little incentive to make really good wines or reduce yields. Today that’s all changed; there’s no place for mediocre wines. If a ,youngster takes over the family domaine and cuts corners, he won’t last long.’
Domaine Rousseau had more than sensible tradition on its side. It was also endowed with some exceptional vineyards: almost 3ha (hectares) in Chambertin – 1.4ha in the best sector of Clos de Bèze, the 1.6ha Clos des Ruchottes (which forms one third of the grand cru Ruchottes-Chambertin), as well as holdings in the grands crus of Mazis, Charmes and Mazoyères (the latter two being blended together as Charmes-Chambertin, which is legal and widely practised).
Then there’s Clos St-Jacques, which may not be a grand cru, but most Gevrey growers think its wines deserve grand cru status, especially Rousseau’s. Moreover, many of the vines are extremely old, with an average age of 40 years.
Fads and fashion
The winemaking at Rousseau is always at the service of the terroirs, and Charles has little time for the extracted Burgundies that became fashionable in the 1990s. ‘We’re seeing the end of such wines. The use of cold soaks to get very deep colours in the wine and then lots of extraction during fermentation – all that’s in decline.
Those wines may taste fine on the first sip, but you’re never going to get through a bottle over dinner. They’re just a fashion and I think it’s over. But we shouldn’t be afraid of tannins – Pinot tannins always come round, though in some vintages you need patience. I’m more worried about climate change than tannins. Nor do I worry about lesser vintages. 1984 was no great year but it could be enjoyed young and gave a lot of pleasure.’
One peculiarity at Rousseau is the approach to oak-ageing. It is common practice at most domaines to use a small amount of new oak with village wines, and more as the crus become more starry. But at Rousseau the grands crus Clos des Ruchottes and Clos de la Roche are aged in 10% new oak at most, whereas the premier cru Clos St-Jacques is aged in 60% to 80%, and the Chambertin and Clos de Bèze in entirely new oak.
Charles explains: ‘I’m all for using new oak if the wine has the body to support it. But I want the wine to dominate the wood, not the other way round. My father always aged the Chambertin – and later on, the Clos de Bèze – entirely in new oak. But the other wines, which are more delicate, would be dominated by new oak, which would be a disaster.’
Eric Rousseau is a less rambunctious personality than his father.
Although he has modified some of Charles’ practices – the wines now spend less time in oak, so there is less risk of dry tannins – he remains true to the style set down by previous generations. He uses no chemical fertilisers, insecticides or herbicides, and only occasional fungicide use in difficult years prevents the domaine from being organic.
More importantly, Eric believes in harvesting relatively early, to retain the grapes’ natural acidity. The last thing he wants is heaviness. Decades ago most of the bunches were not destemmed. Today the usual practice is to destem but add back a small proportion of stalks during fermentation, which eases the distribution of the must during vinification. Charles used to heat the cellars to get the malolactic fermentation over and done with; Eric is in no rush and lets it go at its own speed. Racking is minimal.
And what of the wines? Those used to denser, more extracted Burgundies may well find them underwhelming. They don’t blow you away, nor do the Rousseaus think they should. They want the cru and vintage to sing out clearly, and excessive richness and extraction would only blur those distinctions.
Finesse is all-important, and it’s a character that Charles often finds lacking in New World Pinots. ‘I have tasted Pinot from various parts of the world, but find that, compared with good Burgundy, the wines lack finesse. But I’m a Burgundian, so it’s natural for me to hope that Burgundy will remain the supreme expression of Pinor Noir.’ Eric takes a slightly more charitable view, allowing that the best non-Burgundian Pinots can show considerable elegance.
On first encounter, Rousseau wines can seem light, even superficial, yet they age superbly. A 1988 Clos des Ruchottes, 20 years’ on, looked mature in colour and had developed an almost bacony nose, though on the palate it was still sweet and bright, with delicious fruit, impeccable balance and a very long finish.
A 1993 Chambertin, drunk 16 years’ later, had a sumptuous, leafy nose, and although the wine was only medium-bodied, it had tremendous intensity and, when broached after a flight of clarets, seemed almost refreshing.
The wines do have extract and even power, yet they come across primarily as elegant and precise. Even in weaker vintages such as 1981 and 1984, the wines had charm and intensity. For many the Rousseau wines are among Burgundy’s benchmarks, and the transition between generations is scarcely detectable.
Charles may still be muttering from the sidelines, but Eric seems to have everything totally under control. As a source of great Gevrey, the Rousseau domaine remains utterly reliable.
Written by Stephen Brook