The two families of Clos des Lambrays
first published South China Morning Post, June 2013
May 2013 in Burgundy has been wretched, miserable, sodden, in body and spirit, capping six months that the Dijon weather station tells us has seen the fewest sunshine hours for 60 years. There is a French expression that goes 'le morale est dans les chaussettes' which translates rather sweetly as 'my spirits are down in my socks', or more prosaically 'feeling down in the mouth'. I must have heard it from five different winemakers over just two days in Burgundy.
But here, standing at the top of the slopes of Clos des Lambrays in Morey-St-Denis, you can feel the energy rising from the land. On the clearest days you can see Mont Blanc from this spot, but today the sky is grey, overcast, not so much menacing as resigned. But the stony soil that cradles the vines is bone dry. Further down the hill, on the flatter land, machines are unable to enter the vineyards because of layers of mud from the latest round of rains, but here after walking up and down the rows I had just the tiniest trace of limestone dust on the soles of my shoes.
Clos des Lambrays is the largest single plot of grand cru vines in Burgundy, at 8.8 hectares, although made up of three distinct microclimates. I'm here with Thierry Brouin, director and winemaker of Domaine des Lambrays since 1979. He's stayed with the estate through two owners - first hired by the Saier brothers, Fabien and Louis, then staying on when the German Freund family bought it in 1996.
'Morey is not the best known of the Côtes de Nuits villages, but it's wonderful,' he says with a proprietorial smile. 'It was known as the black sheep for years. It's three times smaller than Gevrey or Chambolle and many producers here preferred to concentrate on their vines in those more-prestigious appellations. In the days before the strict French appellation rules, they even bottled their Morey wines under the other village names. But I love the balance in the wines here.'
The Lambrays plot looks like one steep drop from where we're standing, by the famous gate that marks the northernmost point of the walled clos. No other grand cru in Morey extends as far up the hill, and horses are used to plough much of the land, as some parts are too steep for even small machines to enter. But head over to the neighbouring estate of Domaine Ponsot and look back sideways towards Lambrays, and you can see the land is in fact a series of undulating waves. 'This is what gives so many different expositions to the vines, with contrasting currents of air flowing over them. Each area needs different work through the season, and each is harvested differently, but this is what gives Clos des Lambreys its complexity’.
Clos des Lambrays is a whisker away from being a monopole – those single-owned vineyards that comprise the holy grail of Burgundy, a region where many vineyards are split between dozens of wine growers. Even this one, after the French Revolution, was divided between 74 individual growers, until slowly but surely they were brought back together again by 1868. But from the top of the hill you can see one tiny patch of vines, essentially a kitchen garden, that is walled off tightly from the rest. This handkerchief of vines belongs to Domaine Taupenot-Merme, and was planted by the family in 1975, seven years before Clos des Lambrays was awarded the title of Grand Cru. The Taupenot-Merme family has 430m2 of vines growing close to the house, producing between 190 and 200 bottles per year.
‘We don’t hide the fact that we would love to buy those vines and join the two parts of the property together again.’ says Brouin. ‘It is a constant concern that it will be bought by someone else, who will offer an un-refusable amount of money. The price pressure on Burgundy vineyards now is getting too intense.’
Clos des Lambrays itself is a rare prize – a vineyard of serious size for the area, in an (almost) single stretch of vines. Domaine des Lambrays also bottles a Morey-St-Denis Premier Cru, Les Loups, and an excellent Morey-St-Denis village wine, from a plot directly above the Grand Cru planted almost directly onto limestone rocks. The family also owns two white Premier Crus in Puligny-Montrachet, Clos du Cailleret and Les Folatieres.
‘Albert Freund bought the estate for €15 million in 1996. It is now worth I would estimate €100 million. My greatest worry is that it will be divided up again, because the strength of this wine is its complexity. If different winemakers all bottle their own Clos des Lambrays again, it will have lost its soul’.
Next door, at Taupenot-Merme, the owners are just as keen to preserve their part of Clos des Lambrays. The house that offers shelter to the dozen rows of vines is lived in by Virginie Taupenot-Daniel’s parents, but it is Virginie and her brother Romain who are in charge of the day to day running. They are the seventh generation of the family to make wine in the Côtes de Nuits. This is also a large estate, but follows more closely the typical Burgundy model of bottling small plots of many different appellations – 19 in total over 13 hectares across Cotes de Nuits and Cotes de Beaune, including seven Premier Crus and four Grand Crus. Clos des Lambrays is one, although Virginie admits that the quantity produced is so small as to hardly be seen as a commercial enterprise.
Both wines have the fragrant, soft elegance that is typical of the best Morey-St-Denis, with a touch more dense black cherry on the Domaine des Lambrays’ version. But it seems unlikely the Taupenot-Merme will be answering calls to sell any time soon. ‘These vines are part of our family history,’ says Virginie.
Original article (published with headline Small Vineyard leaves plot to be desired)