The original Burgundians were most likely a Scandinavian people whose roots can be traced to the southern shores of the Baltic. The present island of Bornholm off peninsular Denmark, known in the Middle Ages as Burgundarholm, bears linguistic testimony to this origin. During the first century A.D. the Burgundians migrated west to the northern border of the Roman Empire. The Burgundii, as they were known by the Romans, crossed the frozen Rhine on New Year’s Eve 406 A.D., and established a kingdom on the Rhine’s west bank. Before the end of the century, however, the Regnum Burgundiae was attacked and destroyed by the Huns. The destruction of this kingdom is recounted in one of the great literary triumphs of the Middle Ages, the Nibelungenlied, which provided the basis for Wagner’s Ring.
The cellars at Domaine Michel Lafarge were built at around the same time as the Nibelungenlied was being written: 13th century AD. People were clearly much shorter when the cellars were built and it is not too difficult to imagine the Nibelung Alberich scurrying about in search of a prized bottle of ancient Clos-des-Chênes.
There is a very strong sense of history that permeates Domaine Michel Lafarge in Volnay. This is reinforced by the father-and-son team, Michel and Frédéric, who jointly manage the estate and make the wine using very traditional methods and with knowledge handed down over the generations. Just so, they remain open to innovations that prove their value through experience. Michel’s commanding stature and piercing blue eyes confirm his kinship to the Viking raiders who crossed the frozen Rhine, just as his gracious manner and charm manifest the qualities that have enabled the Burgundians to prevail over other competing tribes of the region over the centuries.
As fits their respect for the tried and true, the Lafarges have resisted the rush to embrace clones and continue to use a sélection massale. Their objective is to use old vines and small yields, and they contend that clones have a tendency to be overly productive. Similarly, the Domaine prefers the Cordon system of pruning over the more prevalent Guyot , believing that Cordon produces a smaller overall yield: more individual berries but of demonstrably smaller size and thus smaller overall quantity of more concentrated juice. As a secondary benefit, Michel and Frederic are convinced that Cordon makes the vines more resistant to disease by spacing out the vegetation and facilitating treatments against rot and other diseases. If such treatments do become necessary, traditional methods of control such as copper and sulphur are employed. Even then, the Lafarges will prepare their own Bordeaux mixes rather that rely on the ready made products of agrochemical companies. Modern chemical treatments and herbicides are eschewed and only modest amounts of organic compost are ever used to fertilize when necessary.
With their primary objective of old vines and low yields, they will on a selective basis green harvest young vines and other prolific vines, such as those clones that the Lafarges have allowed on an experimental basis. They also scrupulously excise verjus (unripe, green grapes), both on the vines and in triage at the cuverie. Just as does their neighbor and friend Etienne de Montille at the Domaine de Montille, the Lafarges reject blanket rules of vinification and tailor techniques in accordance with the peculiarities of the vintage. “There are no rules,” says Etienne, although the statement could have been pronounced with equal conviction down the street at Domaine Lafarge.
Typically, though not invariably, the Lafarges will destem between 80% and 100% of the bunches, with total destalking favored in less ripe vintages when the presence of unripe stalks will be more likely to add a herbaceous
quality to the must, although the presence of some stalks will tend to lengthen the period of fermentation and decrease the temperature of the fermenting must. There is a decided preference for a longer and cooler fermentation period. They reject the use of enzymes and commercial yeasts, adhering to a natural pre-fermentation maceration with a transition into fermentation prompted by the action of natural, indigenous yeasts.
Cuvaison will typically occupy 10-14 days, with temperatures kept at between 28° and 32°C. Heat exchangers are anathema, however, and the fementation temperature is regulated by controlling the ambient temperature in the cuverie. In less ripe years, the fermention is hotter and shorter: hotter in order to extract more fruit and tannin, and shorter to resist the less attractive qualities of the unripe secondary flavors. A cooler and longer fermentation period is perceived as better able to gently extract the elegant secondary flavors.
Although generally opposed to saignée, the Lafarges will employ the practice in years when they conclude that dilution might otherwise occur. They strenuously resist any pumping in the cuverie and will move the pulp to the press by hand to avoid damaging the fragile fruit. For the same reason, the press is manually controlled to allow the gentlest possible extraction of press wine from the pulp. In any event, very little vin de presse is ever used, with between 5-10 % the norm.
New wood is sparingly used, with typically only about 25%, although up to a third may be used in ripe years for Premier Cru. Racking is delayed as long as possible, by up to one month if the lies are healthy and the ambient temperatures are low enough. A second racking will occur once malo is complete. Total élevage will generally last between fifteen and twenty months. The wines are rarely filtered and finished with only a light fining with egg whites before bottling.
Domaine Lafarge is comprised of approximately 12 hectares of vineyards. There are 1.28 ha of Chardonnay in Meursault, and 1.1 ha of Aligoté. Except for small portions of vineyards devoted to Gamay for inclusion in their stellar Passetoutgrains, the remainder of the Lafarge vineyards are planted in old-vine Pinot Noir. Their best known vineyards are in Volnay Premiers Crus, and include .97 hectares of Clos des Chênes, .57 hectares of Clos du Château des Ducs, and .30 hectares of Les Caillerets, and small plots of Chanlins and Les Mitans. The Domaine also produces noteworthy Beaune, includes .38 hectares of Premier Cru Les Grêves, and .20 ha of Les Teurons; and a tiny quantity of Pommard from a .14 hectare vineyard in Pommard Premier Cru Les Pezerolles.