Eighteenth century French philosopher Voltaire suggested “Il faut cultiver notre jardin”—“We must cultivate our garden”—even in the face of life’s complications and chaos. Burgundy winegrower Jean-Claude Rateau takes Voltaire’s advice to heart. Since graduating from Beaune’s Lycée Viticole in the late 1970’s, he has carefully cultivated his vineyards very much like a garden using organic and biodynamic methods requiring dedicated manual labor.
Today his vital soils and sturdy vines render superb grapes which Rateau uses to produce exhilarating red and white Burgundies with tremendous purity and freshness. Meanwhile as one of the 1995 founders and current President of the Groupement d’Étude et de Suivi des Terroirs (“G.E.S.T.”), he is committed to studying and preserving Burgundy’s unique terroirs. Rateau and other “veterans” readily exchange knowledge with young winegrowing colleagues. The goal is to continue positive changes by training the new generation on the importance of maintaining organic materials in Burgundy’s precious soils.
On a cool, but brilliantly sunny day last May, Rateau provided a close look at his magnificent vineyards coming into bloom. Down the road from his cave, we stop at Beaune “Les Coucherias” 1er cru, a semi-circular vineyard set on a gentle slope where a quarry formerly operated. Rateau has special sentiment for this vineyard that faces directly south.
“It has the best exposure in Beaune with early morning sun and the last rays of sunshine each evening,” says Rateau who planted the vineyard after noted French agronomist Claude Bourguignon analyzed the soils.
“Claude found the red clay soils rich in iron and limestone very similar to Le Montrachet Grand Cru,” Rateau recalls. “So I planted Chardonnay on double cordon trellis which creates good air flow in the vines.”
Instead of applying synthetic chemicals, Rateau relies on natural organic composts and biodynamic teas to activate the soils while also nurturing and strengthening the vines. Vital vines sink deep roots, Rateau notes, to pick up nutrients and critical minerality.
“Les Coucherias gives a rich, deep wine with lots ripeness and freshness,” he adds. “C’est beau, n’est-ce pas?”
It is indeed beautiful.
Next, we drive into the hills to the west of Beaune to visit the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune vineyards. Deer and wild boar roam the scenic wooded hillsides where black truffles grow in abundance. In recent years increasing numbers of vignerons in the appellation have followed Rateau’s lead by embracing organic viticulture methods. The brown loamy soils of their vineyards teem with green grasses and colorful flowers standing in stark contrast to the dried out, eroded hard surfaces of neighboring vineyards treated with synthetic chemicals.
“It is possible to make really good wines from the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune, but it takes a lot of careful work,” Rateau notes.
He uses the “U” shaped lyre trellis system developed by Dr. Alain Corbonneau in Bordeaux. The vines stand about one meter tall and then branch onto two cordons.
“In my opinion the lyre is the best method for viticulture,” Rateau says. “The vines have plenty of foliage which is all active.”
Active foliage delivers better photosynthesis to ripen fruit consistently which traditionally has been a big challenge in the Hautes-Côtes. And since the grape bunches hang below the leaves, Rateau says the foliage helps protect the fruit from sunburn. In addition, the lyre system exposes the bunches to more wind which helps combat mildew and fungus.
“It is a very intelligent way to grow grapes, and I like it very much,” Rateau adds. “It optimizes the health of the grapes. But it a demanding mode, requiring a lot of care, especially to control the yield. And it is difficult to work manually since the vine leans outwards. But it is the most beautiful method.”
The lyre system has detractors. Grape yields can be high if left unchecked. Plus the vine density is lower than permitted under bureaucratic rules. But with Rateau’s attentive biodynamic approach, his high quality Hautes-Côtes de Beaune white and red wines offer terrific, easy drinking pleasure that speaks for itself.
Meanwhile as President of “G.E.S.T.”, Rateau collaborates with other winegrowers in exploring new methods for training vines.
“We are working towards a high-vine, high-density system with spacing at two meters similar to Alsace,” Rateau says. “For the regional Bourgogne appellation and Hautes-Côtes appellations, this could eventually replace restrictive low vines and very wide vines on lyres. The goal is to have a more ergonomic system with better quality, lower yields, lower cost, and more ecological balance.”
On the way to see Rateau’s premier cru vineyards, we pass another important “G.E.S.T.” project, the Mont Battois Vine Conservatory northwest of Beaune. In collaboration with the Association Technique Viticole de Bourgogne which owns the parcel, Rateau and his colleagues envision planting fifty-two ancient vine varieties including the well known Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Aligoté and Gamey plus more obscure vines such as César, Tressot Blanc, Tressot Panaché, and Troyen. The first twenty-two plantings occurred in April 2016.
“These vines are our heritage and history,” Rateau says. “They are rustic varieties more resistant to diseases. The plantings provide a genetic reservoir if anybody wants to recreate grape varieties close to those of today. These varieties produce less alcohol and have more acidity which today has potential importance in relation to global warming.”
Next we stop at the beautiful Beaune “Les Bressandes” 1er cru. Here Rateau’s vigorous Pinot Noir vines toil in clay and limestone soils interspersed with distinctive grèzes litées, a scree of limestone pebbles formed by the erosion of an ancient rocky cliff. The steeply sloping vineyard faces directly to the East and covers about 88 acres with 40 different owners.
“This is a very warm vineyard. When it snows, it melts first here,” Rateau notes.”The vine roots decent very deeply here, and the terroir creates red wines with lots of depth.”
Rateau holds a scoop of the rich soil to his nose. The sweet, earthy aromas and texture brings a bright smile to his face as he exhales.
“Ah, c’est du vrai sol!l,” he notes. It’s “true soil” resulting from over thirty years of working by hand without synthetic chemicals. ECOCERT certifies all of his vineyards as organically cultivated, and Rateau is seeking Biodyvin’s certification of his biodynamic vineyard practices.
“When I started I was virtually alone in pursuing organic farming,” he recalls. “Today over fifteen percent of Burgundy growers in the Côte-d’Or are biologique and that’s a great change and progress.”
To encourage more growers to focus on preserving vital, lively soils, each October, Rateau and other experienced winegrowers taste wines from younger growers under forty years old.
‘We taste the wines “blind” without knowing who made each bottle, and then we give our comments,’ he notes. “It’s the best way to discover and encourage promising new growers. If you search, you can still good wines and good value in Burgundy because of the positive changes happening these days in our vineyard soils.”
In the cellar, Rateau minimizes interventions during fermentation and élevage. He relies only on wild yeasts, and, depending on the vintage and terroir, he ferments his red wines with whole grape bunches including stems. Then the wines–both whites and reds–age in used barrels ranging from three to ten years old. Bottling occurs with minimal additions of sulfites.
Because Rateau sells seventy five percent of his wines to French caviste shops and to restaurants in Paris and around France, he is not well known in the United States. But Chambers Street Wines in Manhattan consistently offers a good selection each year. And Rateau’s prices offer terrific value for the quality.
His wines faithfully reflect each terroir and have purity of fruit, freshness and unforced, charming personality. These “old school,” elegant Burgundies favor finesse and juicy, drinking pleasure over extreme concentration and showy power. Every passionate Burgundy should seek them out. The following wines were tasted from bottles in Rateau’s cellar in May, 2017:
2015 Jean-Claude Hautes-Côtes de Beaune Blanc: Made from Chardonnay growing on Lyre trellises in clay and limestone soils on the sunny, east facing hillsides over the hill from Beaune. The wine has fresh citrus and pear aromas and earthy touches.The pure, fruity flavors balance with racy acidity and fresh minerality through the long, dry finish. Delicious!
2015 Jean-Claude Rateau Hautes-Côtes-de-Beaune Pinot Blanc: Made from Pinot Blanc, a variety that Rateau notes is more widely planted in Burgundy than most consumers may realize. It also has fresh, clean aromas of pears, peaches and apples opening in to round, ripe fruity flavors balanced with Rateau’s trademark acidity and minerality..
2015 Jean-Claude Rateau Beaune “Clos des Mariages”: This is made from an unique blend of late harvested Chardonnay (75%), Pinot Blanc (10%) and Beurot (a.k.a., Pinot Gris) (15%) grown near Rateau’s home in Beaune. The wine has fresh aromas of grapefruit with notes of brown spices, and on the palate it has more concentration than the first two white wines. Clean, fresh finish.
2015 Jean-Claude Rateau Beaune “Les Coucherias” 1er Cru: The wine has complex aromas of pears and citrus with floral notes and a decided touch of earthiness. The rich, ripe flavors of citrus, melon and honey layer in pronounced acidity and a mineral laden dry finish. Age for 3 to 5 years before drinking.
2015 Jean-Claude Hautes-Côtes de Beaune Rouge: A juicy, fresh and easy drinking red from from 50 year old vines in clay, limestone and marne soils in the heights above Beaune. Charming light ruby robe, gorgeous red cherry and spice aromas; juicy, fresh red fruit with lovely transparency; light concentration balanced with zesty acidity and mineral notes; delicious fruity finish with terrific freshness. Beautiful. Good value too. Bien qualité/prix.Tasted chez DeSimone as well.
2015 Jean-Claude Rateau Beaune “Les Prévoles”:: Made from Pinot Noir grapes growing in a well placed lieu-dit below Beaune “Chouacheux” 1er Cru. Rateau fermented the wine with 100% whole bunches to achieve terrific finesse and pure, transparent red fruit. Lovely red cherry and griotte flavors unfold with bracing, delicious acidity and elegant tannins.Decanting it for an hour or so at home should develop more fleshy notes and round out the delicious red fruit.
2015 Jean-Claude Rateau Gevrey-Chambertin: Rateau’s only red from the Côte-de-Nuits made from Pinot Noir growing in two lieu-dits near Grand Cru and 1er Crues climats. The wine offers complex, aromatic black fruits and floral notes with pleasant earthy hints. The dark red fruit layer in a rich, concentrated body balanced with fresh acidity and smooth tannins. Pronounced minerallity balances the fruity, elegant finish.
2015 Jean-Claude Rateau Beaune “Les Reversées” 1er Cru: Made from older Pinot Noir growing in cool limestone soils also rich in red iron deposits.The wine offers pure strawberry red fruit aromas with floral hints a touch of pleasant earthiness. Red red fruit layers in rich, fresh acidity and moderate concentration. Smooth, refined tannins add balance to long, fruity finish. Delicious.
2015 Jean-Claude Rateau Beaune “Les Bressandes” 1er Cru: Made from Rateau’s warmest vineyard in a particularly ripe vintage. Fresh, frank raspberry aromas and brown spice hints open to ripe, yet refreshing red fruit flavors with medium body and lovely elegant tannins. A juicy delight with superb balance that will improve in bottle for years to come. Lovely, delicious wine.