One of the most durable images of the Burgundian is the laconic peasant, face deeply etched and hands callused by years of exposure to the elements, beret akimbo, and a Gauloise à la Bogart. His education has been assimilated from generations of winemakers, and his worldview has remained congruent with the medieval Duchy of Burgundy. As compelling and charming as this iconic image may be, the reality is often strikingly different.
The Domaine de l’Arlot, which is financed and controlled by the international financial services company AXA, stands as testimony that world class Burgundy does not invariably require the
enduring stewardship of a single family, toiling in the vineyards and cuverie with techniques passed on from father to son. A well-advised and skillfully-led corporation can in fact bring in a professional overseer and produce superb Pinot Noir that faithfully manifests its terroir.
The Domaine surrounds a château constructed in the 17th century from hewn Premeaux limestone. With adjoining vineyards and gardens, the château was acquired and restored by Jean-Charles Viénot in the late 17th Century. His son François Viénot erected a surrounding stone wall, adopted the name of the l’Arlot stream, and the Clos de l’Arlot was born. Maison Jules Belin, one of Burgundy’s most prominent 19th century négotiants, acquired the property in 1891, at which time it also bought the Clos-des-Forêts and the Clos de Chapeau. The Maison’s fortunes declined through the twentieth century and the estate fell gradually into disrepair.
In 1987, the able head of AXA, Claude Bebéar, learned that Clos de l’Arlot and surrounding vineyards were available, and he moved quickly to acquire them. To spearhead the operation of the properties, newly baptized as the Domaine de l’Arlot, Bebéar selected Jean-Pierre de Smet.
De Smet was English-born and raised in Nice. Trained as an accountant, he set off as a young man for New Caledonia where he ran a business and
indulged his love for sailing. On a whim which was to change his life, Jean-Pierre spent 1977 in Burgundy with his friend Jacques Seysses at Domaine Dujac. He thereafter trained at the University of Dijon and continued assisting Seysses at Dujac for nearly a decade until, in 1987, the call came from another friend, Claude Bebéar.
The estate acquired from Maison Belin consisted of 13 hectares, 7.1 hectares of the monopole Premier Cru Clos des Forêts-Saint-Georges, all planted in Pinot Noir; 4 hectares of the monopole Premier Cru Clos de l’Arlot, planted half with Pinot Noir and less than half with Chardonnay (the remaining fraction is planted with Pinot Beurot); and 1.8 hectares of Côte-de-Nuits Villages, Clos du Chapeau. AXA and De Smet have since added a couple of other small parcels, 25 ares of Grand Cru Romanée-St-Vivant and 85 ares of Premier Cru Vosne-Romanée, Les Suchots.
Jean-Pierre subsequently brought in Lise Judet as co-gerante and Oliver Leriche as his technical director to supervise the making of the wine. The new regime transformed the viticulture from prevailing commercial practices to a more organic approach. They ceased using herbicides in favor of manual ploughing, and replaced insecticides with natural treatments. At present, viticulture is completely organic with a strong biodynamic orientation.
Yields of the Pinot Noir are kept low, with a yield of 35 hl/ha on average, through a system of severe pruning as well as by using only compost to fertilize. At harvest, the grapes are handpicked into small baskets and then rigorously sorted in the vineyards to remove any imperfect bunches. The whole bunches are then rushed to the cuverie where, after another triage and little or no de-stemming, the bunches are vatted and allowed to cool gently. The free run juice is allowed to begin fermenting with the resultant carbon dioxide retarding oxidation of the whole grapes, which themselves macerate slowly for 2-3 days before natural fermentation begins. According to
Leriche, this process breaks down the grapes, and helps extract a maximum of color, complexity and aroma. Fermentation temperatures are naturally maintained below 32° C.
The cuvaison lasts between two and three weeks. This wine is then racked and some press wine may be added if needed for structure. After a one day débourbage, the wine is moved into oak casks (40% new for the Premier Cru), where it undergoes malo and rests on its lees in a cool cellar for 15-18 months. Generally, the wine is racked only twice before it is lightly fined (with egg whites) and bottled without filtration.
The white wine, which comes from a section of the Clos de l’Arlot, is made mostly from old vine Chardonnay but also includes some rare Pinot Beurot. White wine in the Côte de Nuits is unusual, even more so when it comes from a Premier Cru vineyard. As with the Pinot Noir, the white grapes are fermented in whole clusters. After pressing, the must is cooled and, following débourbage, is racked into a tank (to retard oxidation) until fermentation begins. It is then placed into 25% new oak where it rests for about a year. Before bottling, it is lightly fined and filtered.