Wine lovers, especially Burgundy aficionados, often indulge the conceit that our preferences among appellations are determined solely by that part of the brain devoted to detached and judicious evaluation. The reality is that taste predilections in wine, as in music or art, are far more subjective; they are, more often than we’d care to admit, frequently a function of the fickle fancies of fashion. Pommard, for example, was among the two or three best known and esteemed appellations in Burgundy during the nineteenth century (and before). By the 1930’s, however, when the AOC laws were formulated, Pommard had slipped somewhat from fashion, an actuality reflected in relatively lower prices, for example, than the prices in Grand Cru-rich Gevrey-Chambertin. Accordingly, no Grand Cru designations (which were based almost exclusively on then-current price) were awarded to vineyards in Pommard.
The consensus among today’s sophisticated Burgundophiles is that any contemporary reformulation of the qualitative hierarchy in the Côte d’Or would promote at least two of Pommard’s vineyards, Rugiens Bas and Clos des Epeneaux. In fact, the reigning arbiter of taste in Burgundy, Allen Meadows, would crown the Clos des Epeneaux at the very top of Pommard.
Comprised of 5.2 hectares, the Clos des Epeneaux is one of the largest Premier Cru vineyards in Burgundy. The vineyard’s most remarkable distinction, however, is the fact that it has remained under single ownership within the same family since 1756. During the 18th century, the Marey-Mange family, related by marriage to the present owner, Comte Armand, acquired the entire 30.52-hectare Epenots vineyard in Pommard. Shortly thereafter, the owners carved out and walled in the Clos, which is itself composed of 4.6 hectares situated in the climat Les Grands Epenots and .6 hectares situated in the climat Les Petits Epenots. Significantly, the present manager of the estate, Benjamin Leroux, has determined that the vineyard walled within the Clos des Epeneaux is in fact geologically distinctive from the surrounding terrain outside the walls.
The soil in the Clos is ferruginous marl (mixture of clay and calcium carbonate) combined with plentiful limestone debris over a subsoil base of Argovian limestone. Not surprisingly, the thinner and rockier soils are found upslope (260 meters), where the soil depth can be only 20-30 cm; downslope (240 meters) soil depths increase to measure 60-80cm. The Clos enjoys a beneficial microclimate, with a favorable east-facing aspect that permits maximum exposure to the morning sun. The wall vitiates the damaging potential of strong winds while at the same time permitting gentle breezes to move out pockets cold air as well as to dry out moisture that could lead to rot. The vineyard also benefits from an underground stream as well as from the abundance of limestone scree integrated into the soil fostering good drainage. By family tradition, the spelling of “Epenots” was poetically changed to “Epeneaux” (the suffix “-eaux” in French means waters) in honor of the underground stream.
Even with the blessings of Nature and History, the Clos des Epeneaux long underperformed its potential and its wines languished in relative mediocrity. Well into the 1960’s, the wine was sold off to négociants. In 1985, however, a very prescient Comte Armand took an inspired risk and selected a young and relatively-untested Canadian poet-turned-winemaker, 29-year old Pascal Marchand, to take over from Marcel and Philibert Rossignol,
who had supervised the estate since 1955. Marchand jumped in and immediately started making changes. A devoté of organic and biodynamic winemaking, Pascal ceased the use of herbicides and started plowing the vineyard to cut surface roots and eliminate weeds. He adopted more natural farming techniques, aiming toward biodynamié, and significantly lowered yields. By the time that Pascal was lured away to take over Domaine de la Vougeraie in 1999, the wines of the Clos des Epeneaux has ascended in quality to the highest rank.
The Count, however, demonstrating convincingly that his selection of Marchand had not been mere luck, made an equally inspired choice in selecting Pascal’s replacement, Benjamin Leroux. Determined to become a vigneron at an early age, and despite not coming from a winemaking family, Ben enrolled in Beaune’s Lycée Viticole when he was 13. Upon graduation, he took a Diploma in Oenology at Dijon University, and in 1990-1992 apprenticed to Pascal Marchand at the Domaine des Epeneaux. Leroux subsequently rounded out his practical training in Bordeaux at Cos d’Estournel, and then with universally-respected Jacques Lardière at Maison Louis Jadot.
The prevailing wisdom in Burgundy is that small parcels of vineyards produce more terroir-specific wines by focusing on the attributes of the particular parcel. While this may be persuasive, it must also be realized that this rationalization may be borne from necessity: small parcels are what most winemakers have to work with. A compelling case can also be made for the virtues of composing wines from a somewhat larger vineyard. Benjamin Leroux, like Pascal Marchand before him, often muses on the virtues of being able to make wines from a complex of variables within a larger vineyard. A small parcel can be coaxed by a skillful winemaker into an exquisite sonata. A larger vineyard, with differently aged vines and a subtle variety of the same terroir can inspire a symphony.
Initially, Leroux followed in the footsteps of Pascal Marchand, and divided the Clos into 4 blocks, picking and then vinifying each separately to produce four cuvées. The blocks were defined by age, with a “young block” of 22-26 year old vines; a middle-aged block of 30-46 year old vines; a mature block of 50- 66 year old vines; and an old vine block greater than 66 years old. Recently, however, Leroux has decided to base each block on its geology, and to replant portions of each such block in rotation, thereby providing each cuveé with its own age-mix of vines.
Although Ben Leroux is acknowledged as a technical master of scientific winemaking, he actually follows a very intuitive approach, which flows directly from his perception of biodynamics. “For me,” Ben observes, “biodynamie is not a technique but a philosophy.” In Ben’s weltanschauung, man has become disconnected more and more from nature of which he forms an integral part. Rather than trying to impose our own rhythms on the outside physical world, Ben contends that it is just “common sense” to work harmoniously with the forces of nature, to attune ourselves with gravity, with the sun, with the cycles of the moon. Nevertheless, because biodynamie is a philosophy and not a religion, Ben retains an open mind toward biodynamic techniques, and will, for example, abstain from “biodynamic treatments”, such as copper sulfate, that he feels disrupt natural rhythms.
Since the grapes mature at differing times within this large vineyard, several passes are required in order to pick the fruit from each block at optimal ripeness, and the harvest can take 8-10 days to complete. The vinification process for all four cuvees is essentially the same. After sorting, all the fruit from the Clos is completely de-stemmed and given a short pre-fermentation cold soak. Using indigenous yeasts, fermentation continues for about three weeks, after which there is a post-fermentation maceration of around a week. Fermentation is accompanied by remontage (pumping over) and pigeage (punching down), frequency being adjusted to the vintage. Fermentation temperature is regulated not to exceed 32°C; post maceration is kept at 28°C. Total cuvaison is limited to one lunar cycle of 28 days.
The wines are then racked into Betrange oak and aged for 20-22 months. The amount of new oak varies with the age of the vines, with young vines receiving only 20% versus 80% for the older vines. Leroux carefully blends together wines from the different cuvees to produce the final Clos des Epeneaux for each vintage. Any wine not used in the blend is bottled as Pommard 1er Cru and as Pommard villages.
As Eric Asimov has written, Burgundy is a “cascade of complications.” The conventional preconception and clichéd criticism of Pommard is that its wines are rustic and stolid. But these adjectives could never be rationally applied to the Pommard of the Clos des Epeneaux. Ben Leroux’s wine is robust and with great structure. They exhibit a perfumed and expressive nose of black cherries,spice and minerality, an impressive concentration, round and smooth, in the midpalate, and a sweet, firm but velvety finish. The overall impression is one of class, grace, and elegance.