When visiting Paris and Burgundy, two of France’s most popular destinations, we all share a burning question. Where can I eat and drink well and memorably without breaking the bank? In Paris, the relatively new Vantre offers an intriguing option, and in Burgundy, Restaurant Le Terroir in Santenay provides a reliably charming choice.
Vantre occupies a modest storefront in Paris’ edgy, high energy 11th arrondissement, whereas Le Terroir’s unassuming entrance lies behind a quiet terrace on a side of Santenay’s place du jet d’eau. Each location has its charms, but the engaging personalities and wine knowledge of Marco Pelletier at Vantre and Corinne Germain at Le Terroir provide the real allure. They are owners, but they also serve as sommeliers with genuine passion for pairing delicious wines with their respective chef’s inventive, well made dishes. Add professional, graceful service without pretense, and the essentials for pleasurable, memorable dining moments all come together.
In 2016, Marco Pelletier (pictured above) opened Vantre (19, rue de la Fontaine au Roi, Paris, 75011; Tel: +33 1 48 06 16 96; Subway: Goncourt) with the goal of “democratizing” fine French wines. If anybody can achieve this lofty goal, it’s Pelletier who has matchless, encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary French wines. Previously he served six years as a sommelier at Le Taillevent in Paris’ 8th arrondissement and then eight years as Chief Sommelier at Hôtel Le Bristol, also in the 8th arrondissement. As a primary buyer stocking the vast cellars at these highly rated Michelin-starred restaurants, Pelletier came to know France’s most accomplished producers as friends and colleagues.
Even so, the Quebec-born Pelletier has an unstuffy, infectious enthusiasm for enjoying and sharing wine. I first met him by chance nearly ten years ago after one of his long shifts at Hôtel Le Bristol. He was unwinding at a casual “watering hole,” Gérard Pantanacce‘s old wine bar, Le Café du Passage on rue de Charonne not far from Place Bastille. Joined by Parma-based professor and sommelier, Paolo Tegoni, the four of us wiled away the evening into the wee hours. We ate Pantanacce’s signature rillettes, charcuterie, steak tartare and “Saucisse de Morteau” while tasting blind “mystery” wines.
First came a Tuscan red, then a light-bodied Bugey Pinot Noir. Then came a sensational white, the Domaine Eric Morgat’s Savennières “L’Enclos,” and then an older J. Vidal Fleury, Hermitage. Last, but not least, came the Domaine de Galouchey “Vin de Jardin,” a red blend produced by a partnership between Pelletier, Pantanacce and another friend who owned vineyards in the Libournais near Bordeaux. The food, wines and camaraderie all made for an instructive and memorable experience.
Pelletier brings the same enthusiasm for shared discovery, convivial fun and savoir-faire to Vantre’s wine program. The list offers over five hundred selections ranging from “grand vins” to more obscure wines from lesser known, but up and coming producers. Because Pelletier offers his own personal collection of wines accumulated over eighteen years as a top sommelier, many older vintages from Roulot, Comtes Lafon, Vieux Télégraphe and countless others are available. Hard to find gems also stud the list thanks to Pelletier’s direct access to great producers.
For example, Vantre offers Yves Gangloff’s Condrieu, a wine with bewitching honeysuckle and peach perfumes, pure, ripe fruit and scintillating freshness. Gangloff produces maybe 6,000 bottles annually for the entire world, and Pelletier secures his allocation by going directly to the domaine to visit his friend. The wine pairs beautifully with talented Chef Iacopo Chomel’s Gnocchi with Sage Butter and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Pelletier offers his “baby,” the Domaine de Galouchey “Vin de Jardin,” both by the glass and the bottle. Its enchanting red fruit aromas, ripe, succulent fruit and superb, exhilarating freshness carry through the natural, mouthwatering finish.
“The vines for Galouchey were planted in virgin soils that never saw chemicals,” says Pelletier, noting that his group tends the vines completely naturally. “We harvest by hand, berry by berry to use only perfectly ripe fruit. The juice ferments with natural yeast, and we add nothing ”
It pairs perfectly with tender Beef Cheeks with Braised Endive. The dish is another of example of the chef’s scrumptious, bistro-style cuisine du marché-—“market cuisine”—that guests enjoy at Vantre’s marble top tables and comfortable banquettes under high ceilings.
Ever the wine educator, with dessert Pelletier served a rarity—the Michel Gonet, Ratafia de la Champagne. For centuries, Champagne growers made Ratafia primarily for enjoyment in their own region. It’s a “Vin de Liqueur” where Gonet blends fresh, sweet juice from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes in the current vintage with Eau de Vie distilled from the third and fourth pressings of Champagne grapes from prior vintages. The resulting drink which has about 18% alcohol by volume. Judicious aging in barrels mellows the wine’s fiery notes without hiding its marvelous fruit forward aromas and freshness. It placed a delicious cap on another memorable food and wine experience thanks to Pelletier’s exuberant, confident guidance.
Restautant Le Terroir Restaurant:
Since opening Restaurant Le Terroir (19, place du jet d’eau 21590 Santenay; Tel.: 03 80 20 63 47) in 1989, Chef Fabrice Germain and his spouse Corinne, a native of Colmar in Alsace, have followed one telling philosophy: “Il n’est rien de plus sérieux pour nous que votre plaisir! There is nothing more serious for us than your pleasure.”
The hardworking couple now attracts a cadre of loyal return guests from France and around the world. It is always a pleasure to rediscover the comfortable, cheerfully decorated, white tablecloth dining room as Ms. Germain warmly welcomes every guest through the door. At the table, visitors rely on enjoying the pleasures Chef Fabrice’s seasonal menus featuring Burgundy classics with creative touches. Corinne provides superb wine suggestions from the list with over 300 references including half bottles and magnums.
When it comes to Burgundy’s most iconic dish—piping hot snails in butter, garlic and parsley—nobody surpasses Chef Fabrice. He cooks the plump snails to perfection for optimal texture. He avoids overcooking the garlic to allow the flavor to shine.
The dish paired beautifully with Ms. Germain’s suggestion of the 2011 Domaine Hubert Lamy, Saint-Aubin 1er Cru “En Remilly.” As a hard-working vineyard perfectionist, Olivier Lamy consistently turns out scintillating whites like this delicious gem. The wine had just enough bottle age to bring together a lovely balance of ripe fruit and Lamy’s trademark crystalline freshness.
Ms. Germain offers a range of Lamy’s other selections along with well-balanced whites from Alain Gras, Jean-Marc Vincent, Vincent Bachelet, Bernard Moreau, and many others.
Chef Germain’s main courses start with creative preparations of daily market seafood selections such as cod, salmon and turbot. Other courses include Burgundy classics with creative twists. For example, the fixed menu features Coq au Vin with deboned rooster, smoked bacon, fresh mushrooms, bell peppers, and fresh pasta, served in a casserole. Braised lamb with garden rosemary comes with grilled confit potatoes, chopped bacon, and sweet garlic cream with lemon confit. A grilled Charolais beef tenderloin with red peppercorns has a red wine sauce, beets with gingerbread, potato croquettes, and brown mushrooms. Each dish pairs easily with the restaurant’s wide selection of fresh, immediately pleasurable red wines.
“I choose wines for the immediate pleasure they bring,” Ms. Germain notes. “They must be balanced and without excessive wood and dominant alcohol.”
The list has a particularly strong selection of Santenay red wines from the likes of Domaine David Moreau, Domaine Françoise et Denis Clair, Domaine Roger Belland, and Domaine Bachey Legros. Highlights from the Côte de Nuits include Domaine Cécile Tremblay’s Vosne Romanée and Chambolle Musigny, Domaine du Vieux Collège’s Marsannay and Fixin, and Sylvain Pataille’s Marsannay.
Ms. Germain regularly participates in tastings with a Burgundy sommeliers club where she looks to discover producers focused on using healthy grapes grown with respect for each individual terroir. For example, brothers Pablo and Vincent Chevrot of Domaine Chevrot et Fils in nearby Maranges tend their vines with organic practices and take a natural, hands-off approach in the winery. Their 2014 Domaine Chevrot et Fils, Maranges “Le Croix Moines” 1er Cru offers pure red fruit, moderate concentration, terrific freshness and elegant tannins that match particularly well with Le Terroir’s cheese course.
The restaurant team presents a classic “chariot” giving guests the pleasure of surveying and making selections from a full array of top French fromages. Amidst the blue Roquefort, the firm Comté, the soft Camembert de Normandie and all the others, Burgundy’s Époisses de Bourgogne invariably stands out. Le Terroir always offers a perfectly ripe Époisses with intense, earthy aromas and a slightly coulant—“runny”—texture.
Desserts include Parfait Glacé au Marc de Bourgogne et Son Coulis de Fruits—a firm ice cream parfait topped with Burgundy grape spirits and a purée of fresh fruit—and Croquant Spéculoos, mousse chocolat au lait cardamone et pamplemousse granité à la bière blanche et miel de Bourgogne–a spiced biscuit paired with a duo of chocolate mousse topped with cardamon cream and refreshing grapefruit granita ice with nuances of wheat beer and honey.
Outside of Le Terroir just across the street in Santenay’s central square, the jet d’eau—the public fountain—-offers a cheerful display. It serves as a reminder of another memorable Burgundy dining experience at Le Terroir.
Sometimes, if you’re fortunate enough to drink Burgundies with generous friends who kindly share great wines with decades of cellar aging, you experience a wine whose profound beauty and sheer pleasure stops you in your tracks with emotion. Such was the case this week with the 1996 Domaine Dujac Echezeaux.
The first captivating glimpse of this brilliant wine in the glass hinted at something marvelous. Its limpid, shimmering ruby color stood in stark contrast to more deeply colored preceding wines, the delicious ’05 Domaine Michel Gros Vosne-Romanée “Clos de Réas” 1er Cru and Pascal Lachaux’s full-bodied ’02 Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux, Vosne-Romanée “Les Chaumes” 1er Cru.
The first sniff of the ’96 Dujac Echezeaux’s heavenly, complex perfumes promised more pleasure. Delicate red fruit aromas and pleasant spicy notes came from the glass. It was enthralling and ethereal.
The memorable opening sip fulfilled expectations. Astounding purity of red fruit flavors with full concentration unfolded with terrific finesse and uplifting freshness and energy. The wine’s superb balance and silky, refined tannins carried the lingering, resonating finish. It was a profound wine with transparent fruit, good depth and elegant understatement, and it was a sheer pleasure to drink.
So what could account for the pronounced contrast in styles between the Dujac Echezeaux and the first two outstanding, but less ethereal wines? Gros and Lachaux certainly are conscientious producers. They meticulously tend their Pinot Noir vines with labor-intensive, hands-on approaches without the extensive application of synthetic chemicals. And the quality of their premier cru terroirs are arguably comparable to Echezeaux despite its Grand Cru status.
A key difference, however, between the wines occurred during fermentation. Dujac used significant whole cluster fermentation with stems, a traditional fermentation method that persisted across Burgundy well into the late 1980’s. The approach came into question because many growers at the time did not discard damaged, rotted fruit and unripened stems. Unpleasant “green” wines with rough tannins resulted especially in difficult vintages. In reaction, beginning in the late 1970’s the late Henri Jayer made the then bold move of completely removing stems before fermentation. He also advocated allowing long maceration of the juice on the skins. The changes enabled Jayer to produce deeply colored, rich wines featuring luscious, intense fruit, fresh acidity and smooth tannins. As the style gained favor with critics and consumers, the destemming approach spread in Vosne-Romanée with well regarded, dedicated producers such as of Anne Gros, Michel Gros, Pascal Lachaux at Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux, Jean Grivot, and Sylvain Cathiard.
Meanwhile other prominent growers—namely Aubert De Villaine at the iconic Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Lalou Bize-Leroy at Domaine Leroy and Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac in nearby Morey Saint Denis—continued fermenting wines with high percentages of whole grape clusters including stems. They meticulously sorted bunches to ensure using only undamaged, ripe clusters with fully ripened stems in fermentation. They limited yields in the vineyards and tended the vines precisely in what Aubert De Villaine refers to as a “haute couture” approach. The resulting wines, as shown by the ’96 Dujac Echezeaux, consistently stand the test of time. They scale the heights of excellence and refinement while giving memorable pleasure.
When used properly, fermenting whole clusters with the stems has several advantages. As Clive Coates, MW, noted in “The Wines of Burgundy” (2008), the approach can give more tannic structure, fresher acidity and more complex flavors. The presence of stems also creates better aeration for a more even fermentation. Generally the process results in lighter hued, less densely colored wines.
These days in Burgundy, the young—and even not so young—generation of winegrowers increasingly embraces using more whole cluster fermentation. For example, the talented Charles Lachaux at Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux used high percentages of clusters across the board in the 2014, 2015, and 2016 vintages from Vosne-Romanée, Nuits-Saint-Georges and Gevrey-Chambertin.
“For me it creates more seductive wines that suit my taste. It’s the style I prefer,” Charles says. “But with whole bunches you have to be careful to avoid greenness and harsh tannins in the wines. You must be more intuitive in the winemaking, And it creates the opportunity for more emotional wines. That’s why I like it as well.”
Jeremy Seysses along with his winemaker wife, Diana Snowden-Seysses, now takes the lead at Domaine Dujac, and they favor using whole cluster fermentation tailored to the context of each vintage’s personality and conditions. For example, the ripe 2015 vintage warranted higher percentages of whole cluster fermentation.
Similarly at Domaine Rougeot in Meusault, winegrower Marc Rougeot and his sons used 100% whole cluster fermentation with stems for their delicious 2015 Domaine Rougeot, Volnay Santenots 1er Cru. The wine’s gorgeous ruby color offers raspberry aromas with spicy notes opening to pure red fruit flavors. Smooth tannins carry through the long, fresh finish.
In 2014, a solid vintage where fruit was not as ripe across the board as in 2015. the maestro of Volnay, Nicolas Rossignol of Domaine Nicolas Rossignol, achieved dazzling results using 50% whole bunch fermentation for his Volnay “Clos des Angles” and Volnay “Chervets”
Even Domaine Méo-Camuzet‘s Jean-Nicolas Méo who worked very closely with Henri Jayer has experimented with fermenting about ten percentage of whole clusters and stems for some of his outstanding wines.
“Fermenting with whole clusters is generally not my style or taste, but the experiments show that the whole bunches and stems give some extra tannins and balance,” he notes. “On the other hand, using whole clusters with stems does not permit a cold soak of the grapes prior to fermentation which is very important to us. So you gain on one end, but lose on another.’
In southern Burgundy in the Mâcon, Domaine des Vignes du Maynes winegrower Julien Guillot used whole cluster fermentation with stems for his terrific 2015 Vignes du Maynes, Bourgogne “Cuvée Auguste.” The wine comes from organically grown 50-year old Pinot Fin vines. And in addition to using whole clusters and stems, he wine fermented with indigenous yeasts and was aged in neutral barrels. Bottling occurred with minimal added sulfites. Pure strawberry and earthy aromas waft from the glass. Fresh, crunchy red fruit flavors and fresh mineral traits follow. Soft, elegant tannins frame this brilliant, authentic wine’s fruity, fresh finish.
All this said, the question of whether to ferment with some percentage of whole clusters inclduing stems boils down to a matter of each winegrower’s personal style and taste. Part of Burgundy’s abiding charm and allure lies with the growers’ diversity of choices. The trick lies in knowing and appreciating the styles so you can spend your hard earned resources on wines delivering your preferred pleasures.
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.
Red Wines: 2015 Jean-Claude Hautes-Côtes de BeauneRouge: 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.
Burgundy may be Pinot Noir’s spiritual home, but Alsace winegrowers’ palpable passion for Pinot Noir these days cannot be ignored. Leading winegrowers such as André Ostertag, Christian Beyer, Jean-Paul and Marie Zusslin, Maxime Barmès and Rémy Gresser embody the renewed dedication to producing high quality, delicious Pinot Noir wines worthy of international attention. Each grower offers an ambitious vision for Alsace red wines.
“Studying winegrowig in Burgundy gave me a high sense of grand vin. It is a place with a high sense of terroir,” says André Ostertag who returned home to manage Domaine Ostertag which his father, Adolph, created in 1966. “The temptation is to try to copy the style of red Burgundies, but this is a beginner’s temptation. After a while you learn that you have to discover your own wine by understanding the essence of what’s going on in your soils and terroir.”
He notes that Alsace has more diverse soils than Burgundy, and the climate has more sunshine and drier conditions. And on a cultural level, Alsace mixes both Germanic and Latin influences.
“Our best Pinot Noirs have an identity all their own, one with powerful fruit, freshness and ripe tannins,” he says. Achieving this optimal style requires savoir-faire.
“For a long time in Alsace we treated red winemaking similar to white winemaking, but producing serious red wines requires a different approach,” he notes.
He points to reduced yields as a key to enabling proper extraction of color from Pinot Noir grape skins. Providing the notoriously fickle grape with more sun and heat, he notes, also promotes riper tannins which create better balanced wines.
More importantly for Osterag, discovering the true identity and potential of Alsace Pinot Noirs pivoted on the conversion of vineyards to biodyanmie practices. He began in 1997 by abandoning synthetic chemical applications on the vines in favor of biodynamie’s teas and composts. Vineyard soils regained vitality, and he says the vines became more self-sufficient.
“The best grapes come from happy vines that are respected. Biodynamie is the most natural and best way to respect the vines,” he notes. “The vines become better adapted to react to difficult circumstances on their own instead of just depending on humans. The vines then produce better tasting and healthier grapes.”
Ostertag produces two Pinot Noirs. The first, Pinot Noir “E”, he calls vin de fruit or “fruit wine.” The 2014 Domaine Ostertag, Pinot Noir “E” (Imported to the U.S. by Kermit Lynch) comes from 20 year old vines growing in clay and gravel. The wine aged in stainless steel for nine months before bottling. The lovely ruby color offers piping aromas of raspberries and a touch of earthiness. Delicious, crunchy red fruit flavors balance with zesty acidity and marvelous, mouthwatering mineral notes. Elegant, soft tannins frame the fruity finish. A fun, well made red made for gulping pleasure.
Ostertag’s second Pinot Noir comes from forty year old vines in Fronholz vineyard, a very unique site atop a hill in Epfig.
“Fronholz is a very strong place in terms of personality,” he notes. “It faces southwest so the evening sun creates warm afternoons followed by cool mornings. The grapes ripen slowly and develop complex aromatics.”
“The soils are marnes—a type of heavy clay—and clay mixed with chalky limestone, soils perfectly suited for Pinot Noir,” Ostertag adds. “The vineyard gives a Pinot Noir reflecting both sky and earth, lightness and mineral power.”
The 2015 Domaine Ostertag, Fronholz Pinot Noir fermented in stainless steel and then aged in previously used French barrique barrels. It offers red cherry and spicy aromas followed by delicious, ripe sweet fruit, ample concentration, marvelous freshness and smooth tannins. An elegant, understated red giving terrific pleasure.
Looking to the future, Ostertag says his son Arthur, who also trained in Burgundy, has a strong desire to make more Pinot Noir. The warming climate create opportunities, in Ostertag’s view, especially as more growers plant Pinot Noir vines on Alsace’s prominent hillside sites.
“There are many positive conditions for more and better Pinot Noirs in Alsace,” Ostertag says. “But making Pinot Noir is more than a question of just style and what you you want to do. The question of who you are is just as important. Because you make the wine you are.”
“In Medieval times, Alsace made as much red as white wine, so we have a tradition with Pinot Noir for over 400 years,” says 14th generation winegrower Christian Beyer of Domaine Emile Beyer in Eguisheim. “We have everything Pinot Noir needs—a relatively cool climate, plenty of limestone soils, and more and more older vines.”
But Beyer says today’s Alsace reds differ from those of thirty years ago.
“My generation has many experiences outside Alsace in Burgundy, Bordeaux and elsewhere, and this makes a big difference,” says Beyer who, like André Ostertag, studied winegrowing in Burgundy. “Today more winegrowers have big ambitions to produce great Alsace red wines.”
In pursuing quality, Beyer reduced yields and worked organically without synthetic chemicals since returning to manage the domaine in 1997. In 2016 he went further by beginning conversion to biodynamie work in the vineyards. After harvesting by hand, fermentation occurs naturally in stainless steel tanks in a new cuverie.
Beyer produces three levels of Pinot Noir. His Domaine Emile Beyer “Tradition” Pinot Noir comes from both estate grown fruit and purchased grapes.The vines grow primarily in limestone soils to deliver a fruit forward red wine with medium body and well balanced acidity and tannins.
The Domaine Emile Beyer, “Eguisheim” Pinot Noir uses all estate grown fruit harvested from thirty year old vines growing on slopes south of the village. The soils are mainly marl and limestone. The wine has darker red fruit with a touch of earthiness and spice from partial aging in barrique barrels made from Allier and Vosges oak. Ample concentration of pure red fruit in the glass balances with fine freshness and smooth tannins.
Beyer has special fondness for the Sundel lieu-dit, a plot of Pinot Noir vines planted in the upper portion of the Pfersigberg Grand Cru. The soils feature Bajocian limestone mixed with with iron. “Sundel” means “little sun,” and the vines lie on a south facing slope with ideal sun exposure.
“It is wonderful place and always a pleasure to work there,” says Beyer who collaborates closely with his wife Valérie in managing the estate. “You always feel good in this place because it is sunny and yet has a cool climate.”
Beyer used Pommard “Clos des Epenots” 1er cru clones from Burgundy to plant the Pinot Noir vines which are now approaching 20 years old. Respect for the soils and vines is the key to quality, he says.
“It is a cliché, but there are no great wines without grapes,” he says. “I consider myself a viticulturalist first, and a winemaker second.”
The 2015 Domaine Emile Beyer, “Sundel” lieu-dit Pinot Noir has a dark garnet color with a burst of pure, red fruit aromas and earthy notes. Pure, ripe dark red flavors layer in rich concentration balanced by uplifting acidity and elegant, understated tannins. It gives terrific immediate pleasure, but the wine has the fruit and structure to age for 10 to 20 years.
Going forward, Beyer believes that proven, superior Alsace Pinot Noir climats should be considered for Grand Cru status, a designation that the INAO, France’s governing body for appellations, has declined to grant thus far.
“The new generation is open to planting Pinot Noir in the best sites in Alsace,” Beyer notes. “Allowing Grand Cru status for Alsace red wines will encourage the efforts.”
Jean-Paul and Marie Zusslin:
Siblings Jean-Paul and Marie Zusslin both returned in 2000 to their family wine estate, Domaine Valentin Zusslin in Orschwihr south of Colmar. Jean-Paul had studied winegrowing in Beaune, Burgundy, while Marie initially studied law before switching to viticulture school in Rouffach, Alsace.
“We grew up in a family winery and our father was a great fan of Pinot Noirs from all over the world,” Marie says. “So my brother and I always shared the same dream and goal—to make our own Alsatian style of Pinot Noir from our beautiful Bollenberg lieu-dit vineyard.”
The siblings started with great advantages. The Bollenberg vineyard had been planted with Pinot Noir for three generations, and conversion to biodynamie already took place in 1997 with approval by Biodyvin in 2000. Using biodynamic teas and MT compost instead of synthetic chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides is crucial to quality, according to Zusslin.
“The vineyard is a living organism. The cultivated soil is not just a support for the vine, but a living environment, the source of energy for the plant as well as its aerial environment,” Zusslin says.
They religiously apply dynamized biodynamic treatments such as the 500 preparation of “cow horn dung” and the preparation 501 “horn silica” along with other preparations made from yarrow, camomile and other natural materials. The process helps the vines stay in healthy balance and maintains vital soils. Better tasting, fresher grapes result from the magnificent Bollenberg terroir.
As part of a protected nature reserve, the “Landes Seches,” the vineyard actually lies within a dry moor. The Pinot Noir vines grow amid a tremendous diversity of flowers and plants populated by numerous birds, snails, and lizards—not to mention a feral cat or two. It is a windswept, peaceful place of moving beauty with wide open skies in all directions.
The soils include clay and limestone as well as iron minerals. The latter account for the vineyard’s reddish-brown soil color. Bollenberg’s sunny, warm, and dry climate makes leaf canopy management a priority, according to Zusslin.
“We want to avoid overcooked and compote berries,” she says
The Zusslin’s harvest by hand with yields at a very modest 35 hectoliters per hectare. Sorting unripe and damaged fruit occurs first in the vineyard and then again on an air-powered sorting table at the winery.
“It all makes a real difference in the final juice, purer and more delicate,” Zusslin says. All stems are also removed. Fermentation follows with indigenous yeasts in large foudres with extended maceration. Manual punch downs occur three times daily.
“Fermentation is kind of birth. We have to be precise in the process,” she adds.
Aging occurs in a French oak barrels with 1/3 being new each year and a 1/3 of the barrels coming from the nearby Vosges Mountains. Bottling occurs with minute additions of sulfites. In 2010 and 2012 bottling occurred without sulfites added.
All the meticulous attention to detail results in enthralling, delicious Pinot Noirs. The 2013 Domaine Valentin Zusslin, Pinot Noir Bollenberg offers pure red fruit aromas opening to blackberry and ripe red fruit flavors. Fine acidity and a touch of oak carry the fruity, clean, crisp finish. The 2011 Domaine Valentin Zusslin, Pinot Noir Bollenberg “Harmonie” comes from older vines. Pure red fruit and brown spice aromas lead to concentrated red fruit flavors of tremendous purity and freshness. Elegant, firm tannins add balance to the fruity, smooth finish. Delicious! The 2009 Domaine Valentin Zusslin, Pinot Noir Bollenberg “Harmonie” delivers pure, ripe red fruit aromas with fine complexity and a touch of pleasant earthiness. Ripe, and round fruit balances with terrific freshness and fine, polished tannins. Outstanding!
“When sommeliers blind taste our Bollenberg Pinot Noirs, they typically try to guess the Burgundy location for the wine. When they discover the wine is from Alsace they are astonished,” Zusslin says. “We are proud and a bit amused. It will take a lot more work to convince more people that great Pinot Noir is possible in Alsace. But some good vignerons opened the way years ago in Alsace, and the new generations will continue with the same passion for Pinot Noir.”
At the tender age of thirteen, Maxime Barmès began working in the vineyards with his late father, François, during school holidays and weekends. Maxime and his sister Sophine also tasted plenty of wine with their parents at family meals and restaurants.
Like more and more young growers in Alsace, Maxime eventually journeyed to Burgundy to pursue his formal winegrowing studies. There he learned the latest theories on vine planting and the microbiology and chemistry of vinification. He also pursued an internship with Didier Montchovet, a winegrower in Nantoux near Pommard and an early pioneer of the biodynamie philosophy applied to Pinot Noir in Burgundy.
“I observed the Burgundy method with Pinot Noir,” he recalls. He also came to an important realization.
“Honestly my father already understood how to make great Pinot Noirs, and he always believed in Pinot Noir in Alsace. Aside from decreasing the quantity of new casks used for aging, I have not really changed the methods I learned from my father,” says Maxime who manages the domaine with his mother, Geneviève, and sister, Sophie. “But in the future, we are always open to other ways of doing things. The important thing is what is in the glass at the end.”
When Maxime’s parents founded Domaine Barmès-Buecherin 1985, they brought together vineyards from their respective families to create a 15 hectare estate. They rapidly moved towards an organic approach in the vineyards and eventually converted to biodyanmie in 1998. Approval from Biodyvin occurred in 2002. Maxime remains a strong believer in biodyanmie as a critical factor in producing quality wines with marked personalities.
“The biodynamie philosophy of cultivation brings harmony and balance to the vine and increases its intrinsic qualities. It strengthens the vine’s natural defenses and gives dynamism to the life and composition of the soils in which the vine is anchored.” he notes. “It also encourages maturation of the grapes’ sugars, acids and phenolics in a healthy and balanced way.”
Phenolic ripening of the skins is especially important for Pinot Noir, according to Maxime, who looks for a “natural expression of the grape in its soil.”
“A good phenolic maturation is important for Pinot Noir because the grapes macerate with the skins,” he notes. “It is very important that anthocyanins and tannins are ripe for Pinot Noir. The resulting wine will naturally require fewer exogenous inputs.”
Maxime produces two Pinot Noirs. The Pinot Noir Réserve comes from an assemblage of different plots of Pinot Noir of different ages and sun exposures. The oldest and youngest vines come from sélection massale grafts from Pinot Noir vines with Burgundy origins. The soils consist of either clay and limestone or marl and limestone soil.
The 2014 Domaine Barmès-Buecher, Pinot Noir Réserve offers a ruby color with bewitching red cherry, raspberry and earthy aromas. Fresh, pure red fruit flavors of medium concentration balance with zesty acidity and mouthwatering minerality. Elegant, understated tannins balance the fruity, exuberant finish. A charming, delicious wine all the way around. The 2015 Domaine Barmès-Buecher, Pinot Noir Réserve unfolds dark red fruit with a touch of spicy oak. The rich, juicy red fruit flavors have great purity and fuller concentration while balancing beautifully with clean acidity. An outstanding, delicious wine.
The second wine, the Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes, comes from 55-year old vines planted in Grand Cru Hengst. The clonal grafts came from Domaine d’Angerville in Volnay, a gift from the Marquis d’Angerville to Maxime’s maternal grandfather. The vines toil with a warm southeastern exposure and marl and limestone soils.
“The micro-climate is very sunny and rather dry, which reinforces the potential maturity of Pinot Noir grapes from this terroir,” Maxime notes.
Forty percent of the wine for the 2013 Domaine Barmès-Buecher, Pinot Noir “Vieilles Vignes” aged in new French barrique barrels. The wine opens with a ruby color and lovely pure red fruit aromas and a touch of spice. The purity carries through in the delicious red fruit flavors balanced with superb freshness and elegant tannins. This is a vin de garder, a wine that will mellow and improve with 5 to 10 years of cellar aging. Impressive and delicious.
For the future, Maxime is bullish on Alsace Pinot Noirs and sees new confidence in the region.
“Alsace growers have realized that we have the terroirs to produce great Pinot Noirs, he says. “The future is very promising.”
Vigneron Rémy Gresser is best known for scintillating Rieslings from the Grand Crus Kastelberg, Wiebelsberg and Moenchberg in Andlau in the Alsace’s Bas-Rhine region. But he also takes special care with his Pinot Noirs. The domainefollows a biodynamic philosophy which, according to Gresser, best embodies preceding generations’ respect for the soils and love of authentic winemaking. For Gresser, Alsace’s cultural history always holds important keys to successful winegrowing.
The 2013 Domaine Rémy Gresser, Pinot Noir “Clos de l’Ourse” takes its name from the “clos of the bear” which symbolizes Andlau’s two thousand year winegrowing history dating to “pagan” times. The Pinot Noir grapes grow on slate and limestone soils. The wine ferments naturally and slowly before aging in used barrique barrels of varying ages. The deep ruby color offers delightful, pure red fruit and notes of smokiness and brown spices. Fresh, ripe red fruit with pleasant earthiness and medium concentration balances with precise acidity and fine tannins. Delicious, well made wine.
Other Alsace Pinot Noir Producers Of Note:
2014 François Baur, Alsace Pinot Noir “Schlittweg” lieu-dit: The wine comes from grapes grown biodynamically (as approved by Biodyvin) in stony, sandy soils near Turckheim. It aged in stainless steel for freshness. The dark ruby color offers black cherry and violet aromas leading to ripe, round dark cherry flavors with plenty of zesty acidity. Fresh minerality and smooth tannins balance the wine’s medium concentration. Terrific example of the pleasures of well made Alsace Pinot Noir.
2013 Kuentz-Bas, Pinot Noir “Trois Châteaux”: Winemaker Samuel Tottoli used grapes grown biodynamically (certified by Demeter) with a yield of 35hl/h for a rich, fleshy red. Aromas of black cherries, kirsch compote, and smoky notes open in the glass. Juicy black cherry flavors with a touch of earthiness balance with smoky oak notes and rich concentration. Bright acidity and elegant tannins provide good balance.
2014 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Pinot Noir “Heimbourg”: Winegrower Olivier Humbrecht’s high profile support for biodynamie cultivation as a Biodyvin member and his well deserved reputation as one of Alsace’s top white wine producers overshadows his considerable talents as a red wine producer. The Pinot Noir grapes for this delicious wine come from the west facing slopes of Heimbourg vineyard, a plot just across the road from Brand Grand Cru. The 22-year old vines toil in marl and limestone soils and render a red wine with aromatic complexity, pure ripe red fruit flavors and rich concentration. Fresh acidity and minerality provide the wine with marvelous lift balanced by firm, yet smooth, well structured tannins. Fermentation occurs with 1/3 whole clusters. Aging occurs in used barrique barrels, A lovely, impressive wine that will soften with five years or so of cellar aging.
Domaine Marcel Deiss, Pinot Noir “Burlenberg” lieu-dit: In their Burlenberg vineyard in Bergheim, winegrowers Jean-Michel Deiss and son Mathieu use a co-plantation of Pinot Noir and Pinot Beurot (a.k.a., Pinot Gris) vines growing in complex, hard limestone soils. They follow an a biodynamic approach, but don’t look for messages about certification from Jean-Michel. He rejects facile labels and easy answers in favor of a more philosophical bent. That said, his Burlenberg Pinot Noirs are known for their originality—a blend of complex blackberry, currant and spice traits with full concentration, firm acidity, marvelous minerality and rich tannins.
Domaine Albert Mann, Pinot Noir “Grand H”: Winegrower Jacky Barthelmé trained in Burgundy and holds a special passion for Alsace reds. The domaine pursues biodynamie cultivation (as approved by Biodyvin), and the grapes for this wine come from primarily heavy clay and limestone soils in the Grand Cru Hengst vineyard. A wine of complex aromatics with raspberry and blackcurrant flavors, full concentration, rich acidity and firm tannins.
Christian Binner, Pinot Noir “Hinterberg”: The wine comes from a small parcel of Burgundy clone vines under biodynamic cultivation within the famed Schlossberg Grand Cru’s granite soils. Yields are a modest 35 hl/h and harvested manually. Fermentation occurs with whole clusters with indigenous yeasts in large foudres. Aging takes place in foudre for eleven months before bottling without added sulfites.
Fritz-Schmidt, Pinot Noir, Rouge d’Ottrott Réserve de l’Ami Fritz: The wines is made from grapes grown with a “sustainable” philosophy under Terra Vits certification in the village of Ottrott, one of Alsace’s best known Pinot Noir terroirs dating to the Middle Ages. Soils are sands, clay and alluvial muds. Aged in both foudres and barriques.