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Jefford on Monday: Chasing the Numen

Jacques Lardière, one of Burgundy’s best-known (and best-loved) winemakers, is retiring from Louis Jadot, for whom he has worked for over 40 years. You probably already know this: like any A-list rock star, he has been on a kind of farewell tour recently. If you’ve met him, or read an interview with him (such as Stephen Brook’s, available here), you will know that he is as celebrated for his numinous discourse as for his wines.

On the previous occasion I had visited Jadot and spent time with Jacques, I came away feeling defeated. We were racing from barrel to barrel in the chilly cellar room, and I only managed to jot down incoherent fragments. When an invitation came to attend Jacques’ farewell dinner at the cuverie in Beaune on November 15th, therefore, I signed up with alacrity. This would be my last chance to understand what Jacques Lardière was saying.  

Let me confess that I’ve failed again. I recorded his every word, yet the distance and the echo in the barrel-hall, combined with Jacques’ Niagara-like rate of delivery, means the recordings are worthless. I know he emphasized “the tension of the memory of malic acid” at one point, and at another he stooped and did a little dance with his hands as he declaimed “you enter into a dialogue with the archetype”.The menu card carried some characteristic Jacquismes (“molecule … vibration … spiral … remanence … de-mineralisation”), and there are plenty more on the web.  

My favourite comes from an interview Nicolas de Rouyn did for Les Echos. “I did lots of tastings with Jules Chauvet to see how many words we could call on to describe a sensation. I began to talk about spectral opening. I was interested in quantum physics, in Rudolf Steiner, the father of biodynamics. I sought to structure what I was feeling and thinking. I understood that between two wines, the taster is identical and that, bit by bit, you pass from a field of possibilities to a field of vibrations as the wine’s molecules express themselves. You think that this is drunkenness, but not at all. It’s quite different.”

I can’t, therefore, give you the key to the Jacquiste winemaking universe, but let me instead survey the field of vibrations I found myself in as we tasted our way through the two farewell verticals Jacques and his colleagues had chosen: Chevalier-Montrachet les Demoiselles (from the lower part of the vineyard, above Cailleret, and historically significant as this plot had originally been bought by the Jadot family after the Revolution, in 1794) and Musigny. To look at one of these wines would be a treat. We bathed in 18.

Our nine Demoiselles stretched from 2009 to 1929. The first of the Lardière-vinified bottles, the 1978, was magnificent: welcoming and open-armed, still pertly fleshy, more mushroom than hazel, but full of aromatic finesse. The 1985 was a little more slender than its peers, but remained floral and nimble; the 1990 was queenly, with all summer’s warmth gathered into itself, and with what Jacques might just have called spherical acidity showering energy into its fruits. The 1992 seemed to sum up the vineyard most accurately: pure, fine-grained and restrained in its expressive force, yet full of intricacy and detail. The 2009 has concentration, purity, vinosity and length, though its allusive force is still sheathed. (The 1929, alas, had ceased to vibrate.)

The highlights of the Musigny series for me were 2002 and 1976 (since 1985, Jadot has owned 17 ares of this Grand Cru, but prior to 1985 the wines were purchased). The `76 had perhaps the most enchanting aroma of the evening. Warm, beguiling, creamy: all grace and charm. Old burgundy, of course, can seduce aromatically even after its flavours have begun to lose interest (the 1971, the oldest of this flight, made the point), but this `76 was still full of glowing ripeness and vivacity, and the satin tannins had persisted impressively, too. The 2002 outdid it, though, for elegance. This was a masterful wine: perfectly defined red fruits, just nestled into a fur cape to give it extra warmth and savoury-sweet aromatic presence. Both wines just had to be swallowed. The ’97 was a little simpler, but still fresh and fleshy; the `96 monk-like; the `93 concentrated and dramatic; the `85 delicious and Gatsbyish; while the `78 remained expressive and well-constituted, though its flavours were now fully evolved.

The classic failing of merchant bottlings is homogeneity and a lack of excitement through vintage after vintage, even for the grandest crus. These wines, by contrast, had ample personality; each told the story of its season with Lardière-like exuberance, and of its place with fidelity. A dialogue with the archetype, or just good winemaking? Let’s call it both.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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