As happy driving a tractor as wearing his crown of being probably the most gifted burgundy wine producer, Dominique Lafon talks to STEPHEN BROOK
- Lafon has brought this domaine Meursault to the forefront of Burgundian estates.
- No herbicides or chemical sprays are used.
- Lafon is open-minded, keen to experiment and willing to take risks.
- At Lafon, the wines leap from the glass with vigour and dash.
The Most Gifted Burgundy Wine Producer
Dominique Lafon, the gifted Burgandy wine producer, is a restless man. His eyes are darting, as though constantly distracted. Conversations become disjointed, lines of inquiry diverted. He tolerates journalists rather than welcomes them. And it is hard to blame him. In about 12 years, he has brought this domaine in Meursault to the forefront of Burgundian estates. Indeed, he has a strong claim to being the most gifted producer of white burgundy. He is greatly in demand, and has been obliged to remove the name plate identifying the domaine to deter casual visitors.
Lafon is not, I suspect, much good at delegating. He knows that producing great wine is a continuum, beginning in the vineyard and continuing for two years in the cellar until bottling. No aspect is too trivial to escape his attention. So I was not in the least surprised to find him absent when I called on him for our arranged meeting one bright spring day. A call to his mobile phone soon located him. Characteristically, he was on his tractor urgently ploughing his Montrachet vines, taking advantage of a spell of fine weather after an unusually gruesome March. When he eventually returned, he was in blue overalls, looking more like a weathered vigneron than a superstar winemaker.
But then he has never divorced himself from the labour of cultivating vines, even though one imagines it is well within his means to employ vineyard managers. Indeed, after shaking hands, we immediately strolled round to Clos de la Barre, the vineyard behind the Lafon mansion, to see how the ploughing was going. Lafon wandered through the vines, tamping the soil with his foot, assessing with the tractor operator whether conditions were suitable to continue.
Dominique Lafon’s opinion
‘Just,’ he thought. ‘The soil is still a bit too moist. But we’ve done three hectares (ha) today, so that’s not too bad. When we started ploughing our vineyards, many of my neighbours thought I was stupid. But each year a few more growers are doing it. My neighbours no longer call me stupid, but instead they have endless excuses for still relying on herbicides and for not ploughing: it’s too costly, too labour-intensive, they haven’t got the time. But the fact that they’re making excuses is encouraging. I’m convinced that before too long ploughing will be considered normal. Anyway, they won’t have much choice. Chemical treatments are poisoning the land, and even our water supply is being contaminated. Unless they stop, our environment will be totally destroyed.’
I had heard similar arguments from Lalou Bize-Leroy and Anne-Claude Leflaive, both fervent biodynamicists. Lafon reluctantly conceded that he had now transformed his domaine into a fully biodynamic estate. ‘I don’t want to make a fuss about it,’ he hurriedly went on.
‘What appeals to me about the system is the emphasis on caring properly for the vineyards. As for the bizarre treatments that everyone talks about, I admit I don’t really understand why they work, but they do. I’ve been trying out the system for the past four years in various parts of the domaine, and there was a clear improvement in the condition of the vines. That is crucial: once you have things right in the vineyard the winemaking is relatively simple.’ No herbicides or chemical sprays are used; vines have low-vigour rootstocks; if possible, individual vines are replaced if diseased or aged. Yields have been kept to an average of 35hl/ha over 10 years, and this ensures that acidity levels remain high even though Dominique Lafon likes to pick at optimal ripeness.
Trouble with the Vines
Despite the domaine’s celebrity, Dominique Lafon has only had full control in recent years. It was established in the 1860s by Jules Lafon, a lawyer whose ardent Catholicism won him a papal title. After his death at a ripe old age, the property was run by his son Henri, an absentee landlord. At this time the whole estate was farmed on the métayage system, a form of sharecropping.
Family quarrels multiplied and in the mid-1950s it seems likely that the property would have been sold, but for the determination of Dominique’s father René. Under his management quality improved, and a greater proportion of the production was estate bottled. Lafon’s involvement dates from 1984, but it was not until later in the 1980s that he devoted all his time to the property. As soon as contracts permitted, he took control of the sites previously en métayage, completing the process in 1993.
Today there are almost 14ha under vine, and the average age of the vines is an impressive 40 years. Most of the holdings are in Meursault. There are four lieu-dits with a village appellation: Clos de la Barre (2.1ha adjoining the house), En la Barre (0.6), Luraule (0.5) and Désirée (0.46). Legally, this parcel of Désirée could be sold as premier cru, but Lafon doesn’t consider it good enough, although it makes an exceptionally fine village wine. Clos de la Barre is on shallow clay soil, with a rocky subsoil; here the grapes ripen slowly, giving wines with good acidity. Dominique Lafon also leases a small parcel called Chaumes de Narvaux, high on the slopes. Clos de la Barre, rich and virile, is usually the best of the lieu-dits, while Désirée has a more exotic character.
Dominique Lafon’s premiers crus are in outstanding sites. The 0.4ha in Gouttes d’Or were replanted in 1990, so the wine is usually blended with the village (it was bottled separately in 1995 and 1997). There is 0.55ha of Genevrières, with some vines 55 years old. In fact, there are two parcels within Perrières – often considered Meursault’s finest site – but the smaller of the two is blended with the village wine as it is planted on overproductive S04 rootstock. There is a large block of Charmes (1.71ha), all in the finest upper section.
Only in 1992 did Lafon retrieve the estate’s 0.32ha of 50-year old Montrachet vines, located just below the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti parcel in the Chassagne sector. With only up to 125 cases of Montrachet available, demand is phenomenal. ‘Restaurants love it,’ remarks Lafon a little ruefully. ‘They buy it for about FF1,500, and a few days later it’s on their list at FF4,000.’
The holdings are completed with a small parcel leased in Puligny-Montrachet Champ-Gain, first produced in 1995 and sold only to private customers within France, and a tiny parcel of Chardonnay in Monthelie Duresses (not, however, a premier cru, unlike the red Duresses), first harvested in 1999.
The winemaking is simple enough. After pneumatic pressing, the must is fermented in varying proportions of new oak: a substantial amount for Le Montrachet, Perrières and Charmes; about 50% for Genevrières and Gouttes d’Or, but considerably less for the Puligny. Lees are stirred until late winter, and the barrels blended after malolactic fermentation – a prolonged process in Lafon’s cool cellars. The wine is racked once, about seven months after the harvest, then stays on its fine lees until the spring, when it is racked again.
‘It’s hard to taste the wines while they are on the lees,’ admits Lafon, ‘as the fruit character is masked. It’s after racking and fining that you begin to realise how good the wine really is. Before then it’s just guesswork, though with experience I have acquired a pretty good idea about how the wine will turn out.’ There is no filtration – ‘I’ve never owned a filter’ – and bottling is about 22 months after the harvest.
Returning to the domaine, we descended to the cellars to taste the 1997s and 1998s, both still in cask, although the 1997 was just about to be bottled. I can think of few Burgundy cellars where the differences between the various crus are so marked. What has always impressed me at Domaines Lafon is that the village Meursault is so excellent. Lafon agrees, explaining that he has excellent village sites and also blends in some premiers crus, as has already been explained. 1996 was a great vintage here, but so was 1997. The basic Meursault was explosively fruity, while Désirée was more pineappley, with fine acidity. Clos de la Barre, still sur lie, was not showing well, but Gouttes d’Or was rich and concentrated, with a mineral finish. Genevrières was more appley, with a powerful yet elegant finish. Charmes was superb, lush, seductive and concentrated.
The Perrières was stunning: powerful, truly mineral nose, as it should be, and a tight, powerful palate, with astonishing length. Finally, a taste of Montrachet: the nose sweet, intense and lemony, all of which was mirrored on the palate, except that the fruit concentration was phenomenal and there was no trace of the 14.5 degrees of alcohol.
The 1998s were harder to taste, but Dominique Lafon felt they were turning out better than he had expected, except that frost had greatly diminished the quantities, especially among the premiers crus. In general, Charmes is usually the first of the premiers crus to mature; Genevrières shows greater elegance but needs time, and Perrières is almost always the most structured and complete of all the Meursaults.
When I remarked on the considerable differences between the sites, Dominique nodded: ‘It’s a question of vineyard management. The winemaking is simple and similar for all the wines, so it’s the vineyard expressing itself.’
Although Domaines Lafon is understandably acclaimed for its whites, the reds are also first-rate. There are extensive holdings in Volnay: 0.33ha in Clos des Chênes yield a perfumed, elegant wine; 0.55ha of very old vines in Champans, and almost four hectares in the finest Santenots section, which is why the words Santenots-de-Milieu always appear on the label. (The site lies within the Meursault boundaries, but its red is sold as Volnay.) There is also a hectare of Monthelie Duresses, planted in 1985 and initially sold to négociants. (I bought a deliriously seductive 1990 Monthelie from Jaffelin, and now suspect it came from the Lafon vine.) In spite of that, it is now estate-bottled and is one of the best wines from this underrated village.
Since 1988, the red bunches have been destemmed and left in tanks a few days for a pre-fermentation cold soak. Only indigenous yeasts are used. Dominique Lafon retains a sizeable proportion of whole berries, which he feels contributes to the slow three-week fermentation he seeks. Oak is one-third new, and the wine is bottled unfiltered after 22 months (the Monthelie sees less new oak and is bottled earlier). Champans is usually more structured and dense than Santenots. However, both wines benefit from bottle-age – eight to 10 years is usually about right, though most vintages can safely be kept longer.
Looking back over my tasting notes that cover almost every vintage since 1982, I find an astonishing consistency. Yes, there are one or two disappointments from Santenots in difficult vintages, such as some unbalanced whites in the early 1980s (before Dominique took control). However, since 1990 there has scarcely been a duff wine. Even the 1992s were supple and beautifully balanced. When I first visited the domaine in 1986, the wines were already admirable. Today it is clear, as one tastes a spectacular and infinitely nuanced range of wines in the cellars, that Dominique Lafon is a complete master of his craft.
One never has the sense that Lafon is resting on his laurels. He is open-minded and keen to experiment too and willing to take risks with prolonged ageing sur lie, for example. However, an attempt to produce a late-harvest Clos de la Barre in 1990 was, he concedes, not a success.
Of the great white wine Burgundy villages, I usually prefer Chassagne and Puligny. Meursault sometimes has too much roundness and opulence, and insufficient elegance and personality. Not at Dominique Lafon, where the wines leap from the glass with vigour and dash. There’s no heaviness, just superlative fruit, bracing minerality. It is a perfect balance that will allow the wines to age into a marvel of mellow complexity. From a white burgundy, what more could one want?