Burgundy Made by Farmers

This is a photo from the NYT’s profile of Kevin Zraly last week: the wine list at Deputy Canal House Tavern sometime in the early 1970s. I’ve been thinking a lot about it. It goes without saying that on this list ‘red wine’ means “French”, and France is a country with basically two wine regions, a single rogue Châteauneuf aside: Bordeaux (listed by estate) and Burgundy (by vineyard).  

Even so, the dream of Burgundy—the idea it embodied, then as now—was of greatness in wine as transmission of place. No matter that 50 years ago almost no growers in those vineyards were bottling their own wine, or that by the ’70s farming practices had been nose-diving into chemical warfare for decades. Burgundy has always had an illusion of timelessness. 

It was a smaller world, with a less capacious understanding of where wine worth paying attention to could come from. In other respects, though, it was much easier to access that small pool of wines everybody told you were great. That $10 bottle of ‘66 Clos des Chênes (a big premier cru vineyard in Volnay; I like to imagine it’s Lafarge, one of the rare growers who actually has been bottling themselves since the beginning of the 20th century, even though it’s almost certainly some merchant house) doesn’t just look cheap because of a half-century of inflation. The purchasing power of ten 1972 dollars amounts to $70 today. Meanwhile, an actual bottle of current-vintage Lafarge Clos des Chênes on a wine list in the United States will set you back somewhere between $375 and $525. This is a different conversation. This is, frankly, not a bottle of wine I can afford to drink! 

All of this is to say that with its emergence in the first decades of the 21st century as wine’s biggest new luxury commodity, it can be weirdly hard to hold on to the idea of Burgundy being an expression of a person farming a living soil. The price of land, and of bottles, puts a lot of pressure on the people trying to embrace minimalism in the vineyard and in the cellar.

What do you do, then, if the dream of Burgundy is what inspired you to love wine in the first place? There is one possible solution, best summed up as “the only way to win is not to play.” But there are also bottles that, when I’m lucky enough to taste them, return me to the region’s roots.

We tasted over two interactive remote sessions on the third week of July, 2021. These were the wines:

How it might look on a wine list
Domaine Michel Lafarge, Bourgogne Passetoutgrains, “l’Exception”, Burgundy 2018

Who made it? Frédéric and Clothilde Lafarge (Michel passed away at 91 in January of last year), and a team of I’d guess two or three more full-time people. Around 12 hectares, based in Volnay but with holdings in Meursault, Pommard, and Beaune as well. They make a little bit of white wine (a Meursault and an old-vine aligoté) but most of the production is red, estate-bottled since the 1920s, with biodynamic trials begun in the mid-90s and full conversion by 2000.
Out of what? Gamay and pinot noir co-planted in 1926 on a single hectare between Volnay and Meursault, destemmed by hand.

How it might look on a wine list
Domaine Sylvain Pataille, Marsannay, “Clos du Roy”, Burgundy 2018

Who made it? Sylvain Pataille began his domaine in 1999 with a single hectare and has grown to 15, farms biodynamically and makes more than 20 different bottlings that explore the terroirs of Marsannay, a commune basically written off the map of the Côte des Nuits and not deemed worthy of premier cru vineyards: his wines include at least four single-vineyard aligotés (he keeps adding), a co-fermented Marsannay rosé that includes every color of pinot called “Fleur de Pinots”, a rare pink-skinned chardonnay variant called chardonnay rosé, etc, etc, etc…
Out of what? Pinot noir in the northernmost named site in Marsannay, “Le Clos des Ducs”, renamed “Clos du Roy” after Duke Charles the Bold’s defeat at Nancy in 1477 by the French crown, on reddish, iron-rich soil, 100% whole cluster.

How it might look on a wine list
Chanterêves, Bourgogne Aligoté, “Les Chaignots”, Burgundy 2019

Who made it? Tomoko Kuriyama, with some assistance from her partner Guillaume Bott, who is the cellar master at Domaine Simon Bize (run by Chisa Bize, these days) in Savigny-les-Beaune. It began in 2010 as a micro-négoce, with this tiny 0.17 hectare aligoté parcel the first vines she farmed herself; they still buy fruit from other growers, but now own 5.6 ha, not just organically but with stuff like skim milk & salt used to control powdery mildew instead of sulfur sprays and regenerative no-till cover crop stuff and horses. Their instagram page is very farming-focused if you’re into that sort of thing (I am very into that sort of thing). 
Out of what? A single parcel of aligoté between Ladoix and Comblanchien farmed like a garden.

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