Thursday, 11 May 2017

Visiting Beaune - Maison Joseph Drouhin

The thing that impressed me most when visiting Maison Joseph Drouhin was their labyrinth pre-war cellar, but it is appropriate to provide some background first. The founder, Joseph Drouhin, established the namesake négociant in 1880 at the young age of 22. It is still a family-run company, now run by the fourth generation and headed by Frédéric Drouhin who plays the role of company president. He is aided by his siblings Véronique Drouhin-Boss (Head Winemaker), Philippe Drouhin (Estates Manager) and Laurent Drouhin (U.S. Director). Philippe was instrumental in converting the domaine over to biodynamics, a practice that came about because he found that conventional agriculture did not address the question of the long term effects of chemical use in the vineyard. Soil specialist Claude Bourguignon once shocked the winemakers of Burgundy by declaring that the soils of the region had less microbial life than the Sahara desert. Today Maison Joseph Drouhin comprises 73 hectares, the majority of which is in Chablis (38 ha), and 32 ha of mostly premier cru and grand cru vineyards in the Côte d’Or.

The winemaking philosophy of Joseph Drouhin reflects a deep reverence for the rich diversity of climats that make up Burgundy. As our guide Jacquie Morrison explained, “Burgundy wine comes from 2000 years of history, and most of the winemakers and the Drouhin family definitely, like to be faithful to that history, and faithful to the wine. And so you have to put yourself in the background a little bit… the winemaker is just there to help the wine come around.” Purity is the cornerstone of the Drouhin philosophy, and a common theme running through their wines.

The atmosphere was certainly heightened tasting in the dark underground cellars of Joseph Drouhin. If the ancient bottles, thickly covered in mold, could talk, they would perhaps speak of the frenzied escape of Maurice Drouhin (a member of the French Resistance) from the Gestapo during the second World War. Or perhaps of the time when Alfred Hitchock, the great writer/director and a Burgundy fan himself, used to store his wines in the cellars. The worn stones may remember a time when the Duke of Burgundy owned the cellars, or even further back when the cellar was aboveground and served as a road in the Roman era.

There are practical benefits of maintaining these cellars as well. Temperature is constant, although Jacquie explained that there are minor fluctuations depending on whether or not a house or a road lies above. The covering of mold over each bottle also prevents tiny insects from attacking and degrading the cork. The Drouhin family have taken great care in preserving the underground environment, installing motion-sensor lamps that only come on when someone is in the area, as light is one of the enemies of wine. 

In general, Joseph Drouhin keeps the proportion of new oak to a minimum (around 20%.) However as Jacquie explains, “There is no one recipe – it’s a different method for every different wine every year. If you use 0% new oak barrels, the wood is pretty much just a container, just giving a very slight nuance of wood to the wine. The Grand Cru Montrachet, very often we have 0% new oak, because Montrachet is inherently so beautiful, you can just have its own natural character coming through.” Véronique Drouhin often likes to choose her own oak, mostly from the forest of Tronçais. Maison Joseph Drouhin also places a high importance on the weathering of the oak, and in fact they age the oak staves themselves for a longer period than is usual to get rid of any green tannins.

We tasted a beautiful duo of white wines from the 2014 vintage, one from Saint-Véran and one from Rully. The Saint-Véran had a little more acidity and leanness due to its ageing in stainless steel tanks while the Rully, with 20% new oak, was rounder with a touch of vanilla and toast. Both were well-made with great balance and purity of fruit. The highlight of the whites was a 2013 Puligny-Montrachet Clos de la Garenne, a premier cru wine that boasted lovely finesse and concentration. Before we tasted the red Burgundies made from Pinot Noir, Jacquie showed us a Fleurie from Beaujolais. This is a partnership between Domaine des Hospices de Belleville, which owns the vineyard, and Maison Joseph Drouhin, which vinifies the grapes. Part of the wine is made in the Burgundian style, while the rest is vinified using carbonic maceration (the most common winemaking method in Beaujolais). The result is a pretty, floral style of wine with notes of red fruit and sappy acidity. It can’t be a coincidence that the last three Burgundy producers I have talked to have also showed me a Beaujolais from their portfolio – there appears to be great interest in the potential of this region.

Apart from stunning wines from Volnay, Vosne-Romanée and Gevrey-Chambertin, we were enormously grateful to Jacquie for also uncorking a bottle of the 2000 Cuvée Maurice Drouhin for us to sample. This wine was made from a vineyard that Maurice Drouhin gifted to the Hospices de Beaune for sheltering him once he had escaped from the cellars. Each year it is subsequently purchased back by Maison Joseph Drouhin at the Hospices de Beaune auction. This complex, gentle elixir showed how well Pinot Noir can age. Well-integrated tannins, with a robe of garnet (Jacquie uses the French word “tuile” to describe how the wine resembles a roof tile), and an evocative nose exhibiting dark cherry and sous bois. It is a lovely, contemplative wine. Jacquie mused, “I love to think about how the wines lay in the cellar here, seeing all these people go by and waiting for the moment that they can finally express all they want to say”. I’m just glad I had the opportunity to listen.

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