© Quinn Dombrowski

Wine: Wandering winemakers

More and more of these experiments are taking place
June 17, 2015

Most winemakers are obsessives. They know their vines intimately, what they are aiming for and whether it has been achieved or not. The very best makers remain fascinated by the subtle variables that render one year’s wines outstanding while those from an adjacent year are merely very good. Such obsession with detail determines the choice of their winemaking philosophy, whether biodynamic or lutte raisonnée (the use of synthetic fertilisers only where absolutely necessary). When sharing a glass with a group of Burgundy producers, it is never long before the conversation reverts to the position of the vines on the slope and their orientation to the sun. It is this meticulous attention to detail that leads to the production of fabulous wines that bring us so much pleasure.

But after years of carefully growing and tending to the vines, the winemaker’s mind can start to wander, leading some of them to try their hand at making wines in other countries and regions or with other grapes. Perhaps they hanker after their early days of experiment, or believe that their insights into winemaking can be transferred from one place to another. But as any winemaker will tell you, nature is always full of surprises.

Such experiments can be frowned upon by fellow winemakers or by the authorities who regulate what is allowed in a given appellation. This may be why Alphonse Mellot, a celebrated producer of Sancerre in the Loire valley, calls his very beautifully balanced and Burgundy-style Chardonnay “Le Pénitent.” It does not comply with the regulations of the appellation d’origine contrôlée, which insists that white wines should be made with Sauvignon Blanc (or elsewhere in the Loire, Chenin Blanc), and so it has to make its way to market without the usual imprimatur. But it is none the worse for that. Those in the know will recognise and celebrate the success of this experiment and the suitability of Chardonnay to these flinty soils.

More and more of these experiments are taking place and a large proportion of these pioneers are from Burgundy—that crucible of winemaking knowledge. Anne Gros, who makes exceptional wines in Vosne-Romanée, joined forces with Jean-Paul Tollot, from the Tollot-Beaut family of Chorey-Les-Beaune, to purchase vineyards in Minervois. From here they produce “50-50,” a southern French wine blend of Caraignan, Cinsault and Grenache. It is a juicy, red-fruit wine that shows some firm tannins (no bad thing) and certainly offers a challenge to winemakers who are used to handling light-skinned Pinot Noir grapes.

An early example was the transfer of the knowledge of Pinot Noir growing—and now Chardonnay—to California, courtesy of Aubert de Villaine, joint owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. His expertise was behind the creation of Hyde Vineyards, the produce of which shows how the skill of the winemaker can create something novel from familiar grapes grown in a different climate, with radically different soils and even air pressure. The results are impressive, though not cheap.

Perhaps the most surprising leap is by Guillaume d’Angerville to the Jura. Celebrated as one of the greatest producers in Volnay, the Domaine Marquise d’Angerville now make an Arbois: a famously austere white wine with deep yellow hues, a straw-like nose and a bitter finish. Arbois is for many an acquired taste; a serious wine that often needs food to support it. Most enjoy it with a Gruyère cheese, but my introduction to the 2012 Domaine Pelican Arbois was as a pairing for the notoriously difficult dish of crab, and it was a joy. Not only did it hold its own with its oily richness, but the appley fruit of the Sauvignon grape came through as I have never before experienced it with Arbois. Dare I say it, it has taken a maker from Volnay to unlock the flavours of one of the great wines of the Jura.