When Nicki and I decided to spend a long weekend in Burgundy with our friend Anya, I immediately began emailing wineries in Morey-Saint-Denis, where our bed and breakfast was, in hopes of scoring a tour and tasting at some of the smaller and more exclusive estates in the area. The Cote d'Or has plenty of large tasting rooms for the bigger labels, like Drouhin, Bouchard, Patriarche, Leflaive, etc. but the tastings are overpriced and many of their wines are available in the US. I wanted a different experience in Burgundy so I sought out the smaller, family-owned wineries. Hoping it would get us in the door, I touted my experience making pinot noir and chardonnay in Oregon. While plenty of my emails went unanswered, two wineries responded promptly and said they would be happy to have the three of us visit. To my surprise, the first was Clos de Tart, one of the most prominent estates in the Cote de Nuits, and the other was Domaine Stephane Magnien, a small family winery across the street from Clos de Tart (more on our amazing visit there in a future post). I've been to hundreds of wineries, but the prospect of drinking pinot noir in a Burgundian cellar was the holy grail of my wine travels and made me giddy with excitement.
The rich history of Burgundy envelopes you at every turn, from the Gothic church spires, colorful glazed roof tiles and craggy stone walls to gnarly old vines and the modest castles that dot the countryside. No more deeply or directly was this history felt than at Clos de Tart. Clos de Tart is one of the oldest estates in the Cote d'Or and the largest of the six Monopole Grand Cru vineyards still intact. Monopole means that the entire vineyard is under single ownership, a rarity in Burgundy due to the post-French Revolution inheritance law that required vineyards be divided equally among children after the French Revolution. Clos de Tart was "saved" from the fragmentation of the vineyards because it has only changed ownership once since the French Revolution and the current owners, the Monmessin Family, have kept the entire vineyard intact, rather than divide it by each sibling. Compared to most parcels within Burgundy's Grand Cru vineyards, some of which are as small as a quarter of an acre, Clos de Tart's single-owned site of 7.5 hectares is monolithic. This single block of mid-slope vineyard surrounded by a waist-high rock wall, and the wine that Clos de Tart produces from its grapes, proved to be a provocative (and delicious) introduction to Burgundy's terroir.
The gravity of Burgundy's past is felt in each of the small towns of the Cote de Nuits between Beaune in the south and Dijon in the north, but it would be easy for a modern wine drinker like me to not give proper due to the original masters of terroir, the nuns and monks that toiled for centuries to discover the secrets of the soil. These religious orders and their members worked tirelessly to understand the effects that the soil, topography, and microclimate had on the region's wines. Their interest and commitment to the vineyards was motivated by far different reasons than my own (i.e., God), which, in many cases are in direct contradiction to my (and our) modern way of life. This is both the contradiction and gift of history. What would the monks and nuns think of us now?
It was hard to conceal my excitement once we pulled into Morey-Saint-Denis. Clos de Tart is in the middle of the town, across the street from the church and the local caveau (wine shop where all local wines are sold). We planned our trip to arrive in Burgundy shortly before our 4:30 pm appointment with Jacques Devauges, the oenological director of the estate. We were accompanied by a group of well-to-do Ukrainians, covered from head-to-toe with Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana, and every other uber high-end fashion label. They were nice enough but seemed more intrigued by the prestige of it all than the substance. I, on the other hand, was in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts and I was ready to roll.
Clos de Tart is old and, by old, I mean old. Records go back to 1141 when it came under control of a religious order of nuns. It is remarkable to think that the estate has only had three owners since then. Just think, more than 900 years ago, it was considered a great vineyard. This same plot of land continues to produce phenomenal wine today.
Jacques met us at the entry to the estate and welcomed us into the courtyard. The grounds and buildings were in excellent condition. Vibrant purple tulips and deep red doors and windows added pops of color to the weathered tan stone of the buildings. Jacques started the tour by taking us up a short flight of stairs to the edge of the vineyards, where he introduced the history of the estate. With the bright blue sky overhead, the vineyards extended as far as the eye could see. It was a stunning spring day but the vineyards were starkly bare. The first bud bursts occurred just a few days before. Over the course of our three days in Burgundy, the vineyards turned from a woody, earthy clay color to a vibrant shade of green with the vegetative cycle now in full swing.
Jacques spoke near-perfect English, though occasionally filling his pauses with the French 'alors' (i.e., so or then) between thoughts and sentences. He was contemplative and existential, clearly a man who had deeply held convictions about winemaking and his home of Burgundy. His roots ran deep in the region. He had most recently managed Domaine d'Arlot, another fantastic winery just down the road in Nuits-Saint-Georges. He was passionate about Clos de Tart but also the rest of the region.
The estate's written history began in the early 12th century when a religious order of nuns - the Tart Abbey Bernadine sisters, a branch of the Cistercian congregation - retained ownership of the vineyard. They handled most aspects of the site for hundreds of years, which was very unique, given the dominance of monks in wine "business" at the time. While the site is located next and nearby to a number of Grand Cru sites that realize much higher prices per bottle, it's very possible, even likely, that the nuns' ownership resulted in a less prestigious reputation. There's nothing like systemic medieval sexism to hold an estate back, eh? The monastic orders of monks attracted richer legacies, regardless of whether they were earned. The ownership of Clos de Tart changed hands after the French Revolution in 1791, when it was acquired by Nicolas-Joseph Magey in 1791. The estate was kept in his family until 1932, when the current owners, the Monmessin family, purchased the estate, revitalizing the vineyard over the past 80 years and establishing the reputation it has today.
Jacques sense of humor emerged as he described the unique planting regimen of the vines. Rather than the typical east/west planting that has the vines run in parallel to the slope, the vineyard is planted perpendicular to the slope or north/south (see below). This was to prevent erosion and he believes it provides more sunlight for the vines as well. The downside is that it requires manual labor for the entire site, as a tractor would tip over due to the slope, and he added, horses don't work well either, unless you could find one with two legs that are shorter than the others. He had a good laugh at that while demonstrating what it would look like.
After the vineyard we stopped in the old press room, which is now used for events, but it still has a 400+ year-old press inside. Jacques was quick to note that this press was innovative at the time, as it reduced the labor and manpower needed, thereby increasing efficiency overall. It was, unsurprisingly, invented by the nuns and involves a person using his or her body weight to turn the wheel (a la a hamster wheel) rather than turning the wheel with arm strength alone.
Jacques continued our tour to the cellar, more than 20 feet below ground. It held their entire stock of bottled wine and was flawlessly organized. Dark and dingy, as an old cellar should be, the air was dense and I couldn't help but think about the wine in all of these old bottles. Decades upon decades of wine, still alive, evolving and changing in ways that we fully don't understand and likely never will. We were only 30 minutes into the tour but after being surrounded by thousands of Burgundy's most prized possessions, I was salivating for wine. I wasn't sure when we'd be tasting but I wanted it to be soon.
To my relief, our next stop was the barrel room. Jacques led us to the immaculate space and, after some explanation about the winemaking process, tasted us through five different barrels from the 2015 vintage, each filled with wine sourced from each distinct area of the vineyard (see map below). Keep in mind, all of the vineyard is planted in pinot noir and the grapes were treated the exact same way throughout the winemaking process. Also important to note, the wines in barrel had not completed malolactic fermentation, and as a result were still a bit rough around the edges. Jacques carefully extracted wine from barrels of his choosing with a glass pipette. He then went down the line, releasing a small amount into each of our glasses, and left us for a minute to smell and taste.
The value of the end product was quickly evident during the tasting. After we tasted and briefly discussed each sample, he went back down the line and asked us to pour what was left in our glasses into his own glass so he could pour them back into the barrel.
Wait, back into the barrel?
My thoughts swirled as he poured what was left from our glasses, what could only have been a few ounces total, back into the barrel. Mon Dieu, I thought. What's the big deal? I know it's Grand Cru, but why not let us finish what's left?
And then it became immediately apparent that those measly few ounces were worth a lot of money. $12 per ounce for what a new bottle of Clos de Tart cost at retail in France. If Jacques entertained a single group tasting each week, that could equate to thousands of dollars of wine each year, given away gratis to the freewheeling palates of visitors. This made even more sense later when we learned that 1) Jacques would not be charging us for the visit and 2) Burgundy's most recent vintages weren't exactly bumper crops. I felt a bit sheepish as I hadn't left any in my glass after the first pour. I fell into line and used all of my willpower to slowly sip the rest of the pours, dutifully leaving a small amount in each glass for him to give back to the barrel.
Jacques led us through a discussion of each wine, asking us to highlight the distinctions between them. I was too beside myself to take specific notes for each tasting (and it's not really the raison d'etre of the story) but there was significant variation among the barrels. Several were decidedly more structured and tannic while the others were soft and fruity. A deep earthiness on the nose and the palate was on display with another. While a foundational similarity existed between them, much like the resemblance between siblings, a blind tasting of the five could easily have fooled wine critics into thinking they were sourced from separate vineyards. This was the essence of terroir, and while I have been to similar tastings in Oregon, I have never seen such an impressive variation of terroir for a single site. This was Burgundy and I was as happy as a pig in shit.
The quality of the wines was immediately evident. Despite not having completed malolactic fermentation, these were "serious" wines, worthy of long aging and extended nights of contemplation. I often tell friends that "wine is for drinking," but these asked for more: an acknowledgement of the wine's historical roots and the truly handcrafted process, from vineyard, to bottle, to table.
I had done little research into Clos de Tart before our visit so my intrigue only heightened when Jacques told us that our final tasting would be a blend of each of the barrels we tasted. They produce a second wine in some years, La Forge de Tart, but most years see a single wine come from the estate, their namesake Clos de Tart, and Jacques' impromptu blending effort would mimic this wine. But wait... Blend? Are we in Burgundy? Is the goal of Grand Cru wine to express the most site-specific areas as possible?
I didn't push Jacques on this, mainly because I'm no Burgundy expert and he had been an incredibly gracious and generous host up to this point. But this blended wine, the finest cuvée of the estate, shot holes through my definition of terroir. I think everyone agrees that there are varying levels or tiers of terroir, especially in Burgundy: region, villages, premier cru, grand cru. It's fair to say that though soil is just one piece of the terroir puzzle, for Burgundy's Grand Crus, soil is often discussed as the most defining factor.
So, what to make all of all this? All it took was a taste of the final blend for clarity.
There was no question that everyone liked the blended wine more. It had everything: good structure, acidity, fruit, earthiness, balance, and length. It was well-rounded and immediately delicious, despite it being pre-malolactic fermentation. When I thought about it, it's not all that surprising, or surprising at all. All of the soil-specific wines we tasted were very good but the sum of the parts far outshined the individual efforts. Jacques could bottle a wine made from grapes sourced from each soil-type and likely sell out each year with ease. But what would that accomplish? A truer, more pure reflection of the vineyard's terroir?
I'm sure Jacques would have qualms with my wording here, but I think Clos de Tart sacrificed just a little terroir in exchange for a more pleasurable, balanced, and age-worthy wine. Only true purists, if those still exist, would balk at the blending of this wine and their hollow objections would fall on my deaf ears.
We were not able to taste a sealed bottle, and that may stay the case for quite some time given they retail for $300+ per bottle for newer vintages, but the impression was made. I left feeling grateful that we were given the opportunity to visit. Jacques was incredibly gracious with his time and knowledge and gave us an experience we won't forget anytime soon.
More Burgundy adventures coming soon...