Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The French Prince of Liger-Belair

Producer: Domaine Thibault Liger-Belair

Thibault Liger-Belair’s introduction to wine began in 1988, where as a teenager he would spend his weekends in Nuits-Saint-Georges helping a family friend in the vineyard. He announced his intention to become a winemaker to his father at the age of 16, but it was not until 2001 that he established Domaine Thibault Liger-Belair and started making his own wine. While blessed with holdings that had been in the family for generations, when Thibault reclaimed control of the vineyards which had previously been leased out he found it necessary to effect wide-ranging changes. “In 2001 when I took over the family vineyard the soil was grey. Grey soil is a sign of dead soil. That is why for the first vintage it was very important to give new life to the soil. Since the beginning I have decided to stop all chemical products and to go organic.” In 2004, Thibault went further and adopted a biodynamic approach to managing his vineyards. “The main thing in Burgundy is the soil, and the problem in the last 30 years, is that we have integrated into the soil what the vine needed, in terms of fertilisation. I have decided to integrate into the soil what the soil needed, [in order to] give to the vine what the vine needed, which is one step more. The vine is just a reflection of the soil.”

Thibault has often expressed the importance of leaving a better environment for future generations, and his convictions are more than just words. In a well-publicised dispute with the French agricultural ministry two years ago, Thibault risked imprisonment for refusing a mandatory spraying of his vines to prevent the plant disease flavescence dorée. He says, "I don't want my children to go into the vineyard and eat poisonous grapes". He contends that the spraying was unnecessary as his vineyards were not afflicted by leafhoppers, the vector for flavescence dorée. “They decided to make the treatment, but they never thought about what would happen when we apply the insecticide. To kill everything would be a disaster and destroy all the work that I have done.” Thanks to a procedural error in the decree, the courts dismissed the case against Thibault, but he says that some good has come of it. “We have tried to make some arrangement so that decrees like these are not made too fast, and to talk with the winegrowers first.”

The domaine’s most substantial holdings are in the premier cru vineyard of Les Saint Georges which gives the town of Nuits-Saint-Georges its name (it is common for towns in Burgundy to take the name of its most famous vineyard, hence the multiple hyphens). Thibault, along with a number of other winemakers are lobbying for Les Saint Georges to be elevated to grand cru status, which, if it happens, will certainly see a rise in the prices of wine from this vineyard. Another investment has been made in the southern Burgundy appellation of Beaujolais, where Thibault has purchased 14 hectares in the cru of Moulin-à-Vent. Beaujolais is a very different wine from Burgundy, not only because of its soil difference (granite versus limestone) but also because red Beaujolais is made from Gamay rather than Pinot Noir. The decision to make a Beaujolais stems from Thibault’s experience as a student in the region, where from his lodgings he had a splendid view waking up every morning. “For me, the hills of Beaujolais are more beautiful than Burgundy – it is a little bit like Tuscany.” He does not use carbonic maceration, the common Beaujolais winemaking technique, as he feels that this makes the wine taste more of the winemaking than the terroir.

Thibault’s wines are beautiful and balanced, showing the deft hand of a skilled winemaker, yet he does not profess to know all the answers. “There is something very interesting when you start to work organically and also biodynamically, because you can’t analyse beforehand the results of what you do in the vineyard, you can only observe what happens. My principle is that if we try something and it works, we can continue, and if it doesn’t that’s ok, we have tried. But we have to try because we don’t know enough about the vine.”

Tasting notes:

Domaine Thibault Liger-Belair Moulin-à-Vent Les Vieilles Vignes 2015 – From old wines ranging in age from 65 to 105 years (ancient indeed!). The power and concentration is apparent in the firm structure of the wine, with a core of bramble fruit, tart cherry and a lovely dusky earthiness.

Thibault Liger-Belair Successeurs Chambolle Musigny “Les Gruenchers” 2013 – This tongue-twister comes from Thibault’s other company which buys in fruit from other growers. Only four barrels produced, from a late flowering vintage. 30% whole bunch fermentation. Thibault finds that this is the most representative wine of Chambolle because it shows the softness and silkiness of the appellation. It is indeed very light and elegant, with a good charge of fruit and tightly woven oak.

Thibault Liger-Belair Successeurs Chambolle Musigny “Les Gruenchers” 2012 – Only 3 barrels produced. 40% whole bunch fermentation. Thibault describes 2012 as a classic vintage but with small quantities. A little more evolved and open than the 2013, with softer tannins and a hint of woodsmoke on the nose.

Domaine Thibault Liger-Belair Les Saint Georges 2011 – This is a lovely and complex wine which fully merits the Les Saint Georges reputation as the best vineyard of Nuits-Saint-Georges. There is some evolution here, resulting in notes of undergrowth, damp forest floor, mushroom and subtle oak. The wine retains a vivid freshness, with gossamer-fine tannins and irresistibly smooth mouthfeel. Stunning.

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