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Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Leroux’

         

            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,

Pascal Marchand

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.

Benjamin Leroux

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.

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  Négociants and winemakers are generally viewed today as polar opposites. The winemaker is a veritable rock star, a man or woman of heroic mien and charismatic appeal. Adoring oenophiles and wine snobs alike grovel at his gates and genuflect in his cave. Today’s winemaker is the innovator and the artiste who, typically operating from his own domaine, routinely spins straw into gold. A majority of fine Burgundy is now being produced by winemakers under the domaine system, and, as result, the percentage of fine wine is significantly higher than it was in years past. In contrast, the négociant is often viewed as an insensitive corporate suit who panders to vulgar tastes and MacDonaldizes Burgundy in the pursuit of unholy profits. While there are, sadly, a few négociants who fit this mold, there are also négociant-winemakers who are fully in the avant garde of what is new and exciting in Burgundy.     

The word négotiant encompasses a swath of possibilities, beginning with the trader who buys finished wine in bottles and merely slaps on his label before hitting the shelves of les grandes surfaces. There are also the traditional large négociant companies, well-known and quite respectable like Faiveley or Drouhin, who enjoy long-term contracts with vineyard owners for their fruit. Finally, there are the négociants who, under long term contract, dictate vineyard

Négotiant as Artiste: David Croix

practices, buy grapes, and then use superstar winemakers to craft the wine to exacting standards. These are the “boutique négociant winemakers,” who are today in the vanguard of Burgundy.     

Among the finest of the boutique négociant-winemakers is Maison Camille Giroud, an old and venerable négoce, which is today presided over by wunderkind  David Croix. Founded in 1865, Camille Giroud earned an impeccable reputation over the last century and one-half as a specialist in “eccentrically traditional” vins de garde. Often hard and tannic in their infancy, Giroud’s wines were raised very slowly and deliberately in their own deep, cool cellars in seasoned (not new) barrels. Even after bottling, the wines are allowed time to reach harmonious maturity at their leisure. On a recent visit, many of the 1976’s were still not yet ready. When the wines are at least deemed mature, the Maison releases them with pristine labels and capsules, even new corks if necessary.    

This system produced generations of legendary wines but was not, unfortunately, a very good business model, especially in the 1980’s and 1990’s, periods of high interest rates and spiraling costs. The aged grandsons of the founder finally felt the need the to  pass to torch in 2001 to a group of oenophiliac investment bankers led by wine-collector/banker Joe Wender and his wife, Napa cult vintner, Ann Colgin. This group has been able not only to infuse necessary capital but also to bring management at once sensitive to fine wine and highly skilled in modern business practices.     

 The group’s first inspired decision was to induce Burgundy’s legendary Becky Wasserman-Hone to take over as “PDG” (président directeur général) and to reorganize the entire operation. In short order, she sold off old stocks not worthy of the Giroud name, replaced outmoded barrels and equipment, and otherwise brought the winery and cellar into conformity with modern standards.

Winemaker David Croix

Her most inspired decision was the hiring of then 24-year old David Croix as winemaker. After formal training in oenology, David apprenticed to Benjamin Leroux at Comte Armand, who had succeeded wunderkind poet/winemaker Pascal Marchand. In 2007, the still-young and very accomplished David Croix assumed full charge of the Maison as successor PDG.     

 Following in the footprints of Leroux and Marchand, David Croix has sought to bring his viticultural contracts into line with organic principles, with an unswerving commitment to the holistic health of the vineyards.  There is very strict triage both in the vineyards and on a vibrating sorting table in the cuverie. Typically, the Pinot Noir is 100% destemmed (although Croix is increasingly experimenting with some whole cluster fermentation with some vineyards ) and then allowed to macerate in open, wooden vats. Afterwards, there is some light pressing with a pneumatic press. (The former use of a hundred year-old wooden press has been discontinued). Some press wine may be added later  to increase structure.  

  Winemaking for  Pinot Noir varies considerably with the conditions, and the amount of punchdowns and rackings is highly dependent on the vintage.   Under the right conditions, Croix will also use frequent pigeage (punching down) during the first stages of alcoholic fermentation; and, if alcohol levels increase, sometimes remontage (pumping over).  

For white wines, the Chardonnay grapes are pressed and then barrel fermented and aged. 

One of the Giroud “signatures” has traditionally been little or no new oak. Under  Croix, the average percentage of new oak averages 15% but can be 0% (e.g., Bourgogne rouge, Marsannay) up to 40-50% for some Grands Crus like Chambertin or Corton Charlemagne. Depending on the state of the fruit, Croix may not rack until bottling, allowing up to 20 months in barrel.    

Maison Camille Giroud occupies a singular niche in Burgundy: it is at the same time among the most dependable and exciting sources of fully mature, traditional Burgundy, and one of the best sources for transparent, terroir-driven current vintage Burgundy.

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Pommard is a wine appellation that produces excellent red Burgundy. Wine so labeled must come from Pinot Noir vines planted in the commune of Pommard situated in the Côte-de-Beaune region of the Cote d’Or department of Burgundy in eastern France.    

South of Beaune are found the two communes, Pommard and Volnay, whose wines (apart from the Grands Crus of Corton) comprise the finest red wines of the Côte-de-Beaune.  The name Pommard, by tradition, derives from Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees and orchards, to whom early Gauls dedicated a temple on the site. This is the same goddess Pomona who    

The goddess Pomona

appears in full golden mufti on the Great Seal of the City of Los Angeles and whose bare pulchritude is captured by a demure statue now situate in the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York City.    

The commune of Pommard lies immediately adjacent to Beaune, and begins at the point where the Route forks into the Autun Road (RN 73) and the RN 74. Pommard is generally square-shaped with a center band, running more or less north-south, containing the 24 Premier Cru parcels totalling 125.19 hectares,  and 211.63 hectares of village-level Pommard. Total production averages around 13,532 hectoliters of wine per year, entirely red. There are presently no Grands Crus although Rugiens-Bas is expected to be promoted and Clos des Epeneaux would also be deserving.    

The prime vineyards in Pommard are generally thought to be located either on the Beaune side, where are found Les Pézerolles and Les Epenots; or to the south of the village, notably Rugiens-Bas. Interestingly, these two sections produce wines of distinct contrast. The stonier, better-drained soils of Les Pézerolles and Les Epenots produced finer, more delicate wines, whereas the iron-rich, clay soil of Rugiens-Bas produces more powerful and richer wines.    

Pommard

The vineyards of Pommard generally face south and southeast. The soil is somewhat varied in the commune, although there prevails generally a subsoil base Argovian limestone with an admixture of ferrous clay and marl. The thinner and rockier soils are found, not surprisingly, on the slopes above the city toward Beaune; and these give way to increasingly ferrous clay soils as the slope continues downward toward Volnay. Only in the area above the Epenots wall, along the Autun Road, is there much calcareous debris and pebbles.    

Among the finest producers of Pommard are Domaine de Montille and Comte Armand (Clos des Epeneaux).

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