Etienne Grivot likens his work as a winemaker to that of a conductor, interpreting the music of great composers. CLIVE COATES MW meets him.
Half-bottles are a stupid size. Not nearly enough for one person – let alone two. But for some reason, lurking in the Château Coates cellar was a half of Domaine Grivot’s Clos de Vougeot 1964. Eventually I opened it at the end of a boozy dinner. My friend said she’d take half a glass up to bed with her. I finished the washing up and relaxed with the rest. It was delicious. Etienne Grivot disagrees. He was born in 1959, and it never occurred to him that his role in life was not to follow his father Jean (born 1928), into the family domaine. But as he grew up, drinking the occasional bottle from years like 1929 and 1937, and wines from the great vintages immediately after World War II, he began to realise that the wines the Grivot domaine was producing in the 1960s and 1970s were a shadow of their former selves.
Why? Because they were over-fertilising the vineyards, and as a teacher demonstrated to Grivot when he was doing his studies in the late 1970s – first a BT (Brevet Technique) in general agriculture, and then a BTS (superior) in viticulture and oenology – the soil in Burgundy was increasingly incapable of producing vins de terroir, wines with the magic character and flavour concentration of where they come from. Grivot didn’t join the domaine until after he’d finished his military service in 1981. But as early as 1978 he persuaded his father to abandon fertilisation. Then, right from the beginning he demanded his father let him take charge of at least one wine.
Gradually over the decade he took over. ‘I see the evolution of Domaine Grivot in four phases,’ he says. ‘Between 1982 and 1986 I forged my opinions. I talked and tasted with friends, among them Dominique Lafon and Christophe Roumier. We were all in the process of taking over well-reputed estates, but we all felt we could and should improve things.’
It was during this period that he met Marielle Bize, the tall, elegant, slender younger sister of Patrick, of Domaine Simon Bize in Savigny-Lès-Beaune. ‘Patrick,’ says Grivot, ‘asked if he could come to taste with a client. Later, I went back to sample his wines. I saw Marielle. “This is the woman I want to marry,” I said to myself.’ They were married in 1987, and have two children – Mathilde, aged 18 and an international eventer, and Hubert, 15, destined to take over, eventually, from his father.
Phase two begins with his introduction to oenologist Guy Accad. ‘Accad was incompetent as a communicator, rude and ungainly as an individual, but a genius when it came to soil analysis and what was needed to regenerate the life therein: how to persuade the vines to get the maximum out of their environment. He also had definite views on vinification. And it is here that the controversy lies.’ It is difficult to appreciate today how original Accad was at the time. Alongside Claude Bourguignon (author of groundbreaking book: Le Sol, La Terre et Les Champs), Accad was the first to demonstrate the importance of the vines’ environment and the role it had to play. Accad was also a strong advocate of long, indeed prolonged, cold-soaking before vinification. This occurred naturally in the old days, when harvests took place in October – the grapes were gathered at 10°C and it would take a week for the fermentations to get under way. But it did not produce the succulent, juicy, easy-to-appreciate wines critics and buyers liked to find when they sampled them in cask, especially if you followed the Accad edict of blocking the onset of fermentation for a week or more.
A taste of the past
‘My father was all in favour,’ says Grivot. ‘The wines I began to produce reminded him of those of his youth. I too was utterly convinced that my 1987s – not an easy vintage – were distinctly superior to most of my friends’ wines. But they tasted odd, different, and almost everyone found them un-Burgundian.’ Grivot still rankles at what he sees as the unjust desertion he experienced following his first few Accad vintages, and the fact that he was left, as the most prominent Accadian, to justify all the Accad wines, good or bad. ‘I began to feel I was the only one making bad wine in the 1987–92 period. We lost three-quarters of our clients. ‘Gradually I began to modify, to take the best of Accad (we are still friends, and I would trust no one else to do my soil analysis) and jettison the rest. I wanted the liberty to make Grivot wines, not Accad wines. This began in 1993.’ The fourth phase followed on logically.
In 1998 Grivot began to make somewhat more generous wines. ‘It was I who had changed. I was approaching 40; more mature; more relaxed. The wines became more serene and supple, without compromising their freshness and potential to age, because I was more at ease.’ And because a decade of Accad techniques in the vineyard was now resulting in better fruit from more ‘grown-up’ vines. Since then, the Grivot wines have been truly excellent.
It was with the 1998 vintage, coincidentally, that the Institute of Masters of Wine in London commenced an annual Burgundy tasting sponsored by the Domaines Familiaux et Tradition, a group of top estates. Grivot sends his Vosne-Romanée, Les Beaumonts and sometimes something else. It is consistently among the top three wines on the table.
What of the future?
‘One is never satisfied. This is an obsession: to improve. And I don’t think I will ever give up. I certainly don’t have to for many, many years. I’m not yet 50. And Hubert is only 15. Like me, he is assuming that one day he will take over. But nobody is forcing anything on him. ‘But we all need changes. Changes of scene and occupation. I need freshness. I don’t understand those of my colleagues who never take a holiday. That’s absurd. We go to Canada every summer for three or four weeks. One gets back regenerated. ‘Do I have a philosophy of wine? Let’s make a parallel. Terroir is like what a composer of music has created. The winemaker is like the conductor. You have fine terroirs, like great pieces of music. But you need a fine interpreter. Though I wouldn’t describe myself as especially passionate about music, I would like to have been a conductor. The power of being in charge intrigues me. ‘At Domaine Grivot we de-stem 100%; cold-soak, but not in an exaggerated way; use anything from 20% to 100% new oak.
Are we late or early pickers?
Neither. I pick when I think it is the right time. What my neighbours do doesn’t concern me. My 1997s are very fine [as a delicious Richebourg demonstrates] because I picked early, to preserve the freshness.’ Grivot is tall and fit, an attractive looking man, gently greying, intelligent and thoughtful. (Ten years ago I wrote a piece on Vosne-Romanée growers for the American wine magazine, Wine News. Grivot was featured on the cover. He received several proposals of marriage.) He is not easily aroused (which is not for a minute to suggest he lacks passion. He’s just got it under control). He only once gets belligerent during our conversation.
Back in the early 1990s the INAO asked him to experiment with a concentrating machine. What did he think of them? He is fundamentally against. ‘They destroy the harmony of the wines: all the wines taste the same; they are banal!’
As I take my leave I ask him one more question. Do you have a frustrated ambition? He thinks for a minute. ‘I would have liked to have been someone really famous.’
You are, I think.