As Jockovino has pointed out elsewhere, one of the most durable images of the Burgundian vigneron is the laconic peasant, face deeply etched by long exposure to the elements and hands callused by years of manual labor in the vineyards. His education has been acquired for the most part by working alongside his father and he is even now passing along the accumulated wisdom of generations to his son. While the reality is most often strikingly different, there are at least a few instances where this compelling and beguiling image is surprisingly accurate.
Sylvain Cathiard, who has been selected by Clive Coates as one of the few three-star superstars in Burgundy, is just such a man of the soil: a vigneron whose personal ties to the terroir naturally imbue him with a remarkable talent to give transparent expression to the wines he so carefully crafts.
Domaine Sylvain Cathiard et Fils now comprises almost 7 hectares of vineyards in the Côte de Nuits, principally in Vosne-Romanée, but also in Nuits-St-Georges and Chambolle-Musigny. The Domaine was founded by Sylvain’s grandfather in the 1930’s and taken over by his father in 1969. Sylvain himself, a graduate of the Ecole Viticole in Beaune, began working with his father, André, in the 1980’s and gradually assumed control in the 1990’s. Since taking over, Sylvain has raised the quality level of the Domaine to the topmost echelon of Burgundy. Sylvain has now been joined by his son Sébastian, who is being trained and groomed to take over in the future.
The heart of Domaine Cathiard lies in Vosne-Romanée (and Flagey-Echézeaux) , where the Domaine has prize holdings in four remarkable Premier Cru vineyards as well as a small, spectacular parcel (.167 hectare) in Grand Cru Romanée-St-Vivant. To the south, between the village of Vosne and the border with Nuits-St-Georges, and adjacent to La Tâche, lies the Domaine’s .74 hectare parcel of Aux Malconsorts, a remarkable Premier Cru climat that rivals the best in the appellation. Cathiard’s Malconsorts vines were planted in 1972. A bit north, and just above Grands Crus La Romanée and La Romanée-Conti, lies the Domaine’s .24 hectare parcel of Les Reignots. Further north, and adjacent to Grand Cru Romanée-St-Vivant, the Domaine holds a small .164 hectare parcel of Premier Cru Les Suchots, planted in 1969. Lastly, within the Flagey-Echézeaux section of the appellation, lies Cathiard’s .293 hectares of Premier Cru En Orveaux, planted in 1953. En Orveaux is a particularly interesting vineyard in a portion of it actually falls within Grand Cru Echézeaux. In addition, the Domaine includes three parcels of village-level Vosne-Romanée, planted in the early 1970’s and aggregating .79 hectares.
Domaine Sylvain Cathiard also enjoys a small .456 hectare parcel, planted in 1951, of Les Clos de l’Orme, a lieu-dit in Chambolle-Musigny situated just southeast of Premier Cru Les Charmes. In Nuits-St-Georges, the Domaine has a sliver (.128 hectare) of village-level vineyards planted in 1949, as well as a .475 hectare parcel of Premier Cru Les Murgers planted in 1945, and a .43 hectare piece of Premier Cru Aux Thorey planted in 1953. This latter holding has an interesting history, it having been acquired by the Domaine in 2005 in consideration for the work that Sylvain Cathiard had put into the parcels of Aux Malconsorts and Romanée-St-Vivant acquired from Moillard by Domaines Dujac and de Montille.
Sylvain Cathiard is a practitioner of lutte raisonnée, a system of vine cultivation that is essentially organic and noninterventionist. Lutte raisonnée entails holistic and balanced viticultural management with primary focus on microbial health of the soil and the biodiversity of the vineyard. The governing policy is to support and maintain the natural ecosystem of the vineyard so that the vines can prosper without intervention, thereby naturally resisting pests and disease. The system pursues a reasoned and not absolutist approach, however, and practitioners of lutte raisonnée will occasionally permit limited chemical intervention if certain danger thresholds are passed; and, more importantly, when chemicals are viewed as less harmful to the soil than alternative biodynamic treatments. As a practical matter, lutte raisonnée can be distinguished from biodynamie in that the former implies the application of treatments only as a necessary response, and the use of chemicals as a less harmful alternative. In contrast, biodynamie implements treatments systematically as prevention and employs biodynamic remedies like sulphur and copper that many vignerons believe are more harmful to the vineyard than chemical alternatives. Lutte raisonnée, in the judgment of its practitioners, thus results in less intervention and a more flexible approach that elevates the long term health of the vineyard above organic and biodynamic orthodoxy.
Following meticulous sorting in the vineyards and then again in the winery, Cathiard completely destems the fruit and employs cold maceration for 4-8 days, depending on the vintage. With neither yeasting nor enzyming, fermentation is permitted to reach fairly high temperatures (31°-32° C.) for 16-22 days, with the frequency of pigéage and length of cuvaison adapted to the vintage. The young wine is then racked into Allier barrels (30-40% new oak for village-level, and 60-70% for the Premier Cru) and aged 18-20 months. After assemblage, the wines are bottled without fining or filtration.
The wines of Sylvain Cathiard, especially his Vosne-Romanée, are reference-standards. Tasting through his village-level and then his Premier Cru Vosne, the subtle differences among the crus are readily apparent, and illustrate both the authority and the magic of terroir. Cathiard wines are lush and opulent, to be certain, and without the slightest hint of forced extraction or excess sweetness; and they are harmonious and balanced and delicate. But the overriding impression that Cathiard wines give is one of absolute precision: striking each prescribed note perfectly in pitch and tone, without ever a hint of excess or discordance.