It was tasting some bottles of Clos des Lambrays from 1918 that convinced new winemaker Jacques Devauges of the strategy he needed to adopt when taking the reins at the great estate in Morey St Denis. Based upon this tasting he has split the clos into 11 parcels, employed a ‘parcellaire’ approach to the vinification and maturation, has made them organic, started biodynamic farming, introduced a new wood regime and way of using whole bunch. And this in just two years. Peter Dean had an audience, tasted some of the different parcels as well as the final Clos des Lambrays 2019 wine.
“The final Clos des Lambrays 2019 wine is a seductive mix of elegance and power, intoxicating and complex, pretty, floral and quite hedonistic.” writes Dean.
Even by Burgundy standards the ‘all change’ at Domaine des Lambrays in recent years has been pretty monumental – this is the thing of a Netflix mini series. The ancient estate was bought by LVMH’s Bernard Arnault in 2015, appointed a new winemaker Boris Champy in 2017, replaced him just two years later with Jacques Devauges who had previously lasted less than a year as winemaker of neighbouring Clos du Tart after that estate was bought by Arnault’s chief rival, Francois Pinault. Phew! Then there have been the changes since Devauges took charge. Working title for the series? Call My Vigneron?
After these corporate swings and roundabouts Devauges looked happy simply to be finally showing off his first complete vintage of Clos des Lambrays, to which he has brought a new way of making the wine.
Hooked up with excellent Wi-Fi connection in the barrel room of Domaine des Lambrays, Devauges was explaining the new techniques he’s employed to make Clos des Lambrays 2019, which he did by showing six barrel samples, five cuvées from individual parcels in the 8.6 ha clos and a sample of the finished wine. The only difference between the online event and the real thing was that Devauges was not using a teat pipette to distribute the samples, and I was not wearing a Barbour.
Even by the high standards of so many of the virtual tastings in the past 12 months, this event stood out as being one of the very best. Aided, of course, by the quality of the samples themselves.
Explaining the new ‘parcellaire’ approach
The ‘parcellaire’ approach which Devauges introduced when he joined the estate, describes how he has split the ancient clos into 11 cuvées, which are all individually vinified and matured separately and then ‘re-assembled’ 16 months later for the final wine. 10 of the cuvées made it into Clos des Lambrays 2019and the 11th(called 30 Rangs) from 19-year-old-vines in the centre of the clos, being declassified into the Morey 1er Cru les Loups.
The reason he has done this is to respect the clos’ diversity with its wide range of soils and rocks, a height difference of 60 metres from top to bottom, a variety of undulations that create subtle micro-climates within the clos, and a huge variety of vine age.
Some of the vines date back to 1898, which were planted just after phyloxerra; there is a two-and-a-half hectare block planted in 1981-2 by Thierry Brouin just after he was appointed as winemaker; and in total another quarter of a hectare of replacement throughout the clos that were never replanted during the Cossons ownership (when locals referred to the estate as Clos Délabré (dilapidated)).
The first barrel sample of the tasting is from these 40 year old vines in a parcel called Plante Bas, that is mid-slope on the Clos Saint Denis side. The wine is delicately perfumed, silky and nicely poised.
“You don’t have to ask too many questions with this wine, it is exuberant – two halves open,” says Devauges, “it is very expressive and from this wine we introduce the 2019 vintage which is quite special because of the low level of production (15 hectolitres per hectare) the level of balance, the perfumes, the quality of the tannins, the way they touch the mouth – very silky, very delicate.”
The five (out of ten) cuvées Devauges has chosen to showcase the vineyard, run from North to South and East to West within the clos, and all are remarkably different – in fact you wouldn’t believe they are from the same vineyard.
“I wanted to take the opportunity of revealing the diversity as much as possible in the final wine, the idea is very simple, to reveal if possible the ID of different plots and make each as well as possible by vinifying them separately, ageing them separately and put them back together after 16 months just before bottling.”
Devauges is keen to point out that this is not a ‘blending’, as such, as he does not alter the proportions of the individual cuvées when he re-assembles them.
“If I start to create my own blend changing the proportion of some cuvées I think I will lose this dimension of purity of direct expression of the Clos des Lambrays vineyard. I believe what makes a great Burgundy wine is a pure and direct link or expression of one particular terroir into the glass of the consumer, therefore we believe the best ever Clos des Lambrays will be the one made with the grapes of the entire vineyard. This is why we use for the bottled wine all the cuvées.”
Devauges reveals that it was tasting some century-old bottles of Clos des Lambrays that helped steer this change in approach.
“The old bottles of Clos des Lambrays from the 1930s, 1920s and even 1919 and 1918 are absolutely outstanding. At that time, they were organic (they had no choice!), producing small yields, using small tanks (30-50hl) and they were using all of the cuvées from the Clos to make one single Clos des Lambrays. This is why, inspired by these exceptional bottles we believe Clos des Lambrays will be never as good as when we use all of it in the final wine.”
Devauges says that he carried out this ‘blend’ (that is not a blend) two weeks ago.
“It is a new wine where 1+1= 3 – the sum is more than the whole of its parts – I cannot explain it – but it’s true.”
In trying to explain why this parcellaire approach works better than if the entire clos was vinified together from harvest, Devauges, uses a culinary metaphor that recalls the ‘gargouillou’ from Michel Bras’ restaurant in the Aubrac, in which his signature salad is assembled using 20 different vegetables that have each been prepared separately.
‘I am convinced it will be quite different… I think it’s a little bit like in the cooking, It’s Spring starting, so in France you have the little asparagus, soon you will have the little carrots, little peas, green peas and you have all those lovely vegetables – if you cook them separately with their perfect cooking time every vegetable will have its own taste and its own texture it will be very different if you put them all in the same pan and you cook altogether. Finally the blend is made in your mouth and when you crunch the little green peas and the little baby carrots and Whah! The flavours are just – it’s an explosion of different flavours in your mouth and you have more precision like that.”
“I’m not saying I’m right but I believe in this approach and quite confident it will help us improve in addition to all that we are doing in the vineyard – of course because we grow our vines like a garden.”
Going Organic and orientation
Another piece of the puzzle for Devauges has been to make Domaine des Lambrays fully organic.
“I believe 85% of a wine is made in the vineyard, which is why we have focused all our energy on the vineyard and why we turned organic. We started organic farming in 2020 – it is essential, the base of everything for us.”
The challenges the estate has had to overcome are many and include dealing with the slope that is often a 25% gradient, for which the team has had to build a ‘homemade’ tractor.
However, the way that the vines have been planted, perpendicular to the slope, is unusual, but a blessing when it comes to dealing with climate change, says Devauges.
“In August 2019 the weather was very dry, there were yellow leaves on many vines in Burgundy which is due to drought – in Morey St Denis we had 53mm of rain in August which was more than most. But we are well set to handle this kind of dry and hot weather because of the orientation where the vines are planted perpendicular to the slope. It is not the only reason but important to help us compensate for the bad side of global warming.”
“The bunches of grapes see East in the morning, then between noon and three in the afternoon the grapes are protected by the shadow of the rows – and then the other side of the grapes are exposed on other side in the afternoon – so we have the benefit of two sides of exposure – we suffer less than other places, and don’t have dryness from sunburn but also the flavours are fresher and more balanced.”
Whole bunch and choice of barrels
Devauges is a big fan of whole bunch, but interestingly is guided by the shape of the bunches as to whether he uses this technique on certain parcels or not.
“I love whole bunch it lifts up the level of the wines – 100% whole bunch can give an orientation to the wine, a floral, spicy character… plain fruit can just be a bit boring. But I take note of the shape of the bunches – the old vines have millerandages (different sizes of berry and more open) which are the best bunches of grapes and I like to use those bunches whole. The young vines and clones have all the same size and shape of berries – you do not see the stem – from mid-July the stem does not seen the sun, do not see the rain do not see the wind any more, the stem is protected by this wall of berries – I don’t like to use this kind of stem because this is so different from the millerandages grapes. So this is very simple, from the young vines I de-stem 100% and from old vines with this particular shape of bunches I use 100% of whole bunches and this why in the final Clos des Lambrays I have 80% whole bunches.”
As for barrel selection and toasting levels, Devauges selects his barrels from five different coopers, inviting them to come and taste the different parcels in barrel as they are ageing.
“I ask them to make my barrels with a specific toasting for me which is light intensity but quite long, the heat of the toasting goes into the middle of the staves but on the surface of the stave is not burnt at all – inside the barrel and outside the barrel is the same colour. My new barrels smell like fresh bread – they do not smell of burned bread or toasted, because I need new oak for the benefit of oxygen management but I want my new barrels to taste like barrels of wine.”
With all facets of his winemaking then, Jacques Devauges puts terroir first and winemaking technique second.
“I like wine that speaks about the land it comes from – with precision, so if you can taste the technique I think the winemaker has made a mistake. We have a responsibility to make the best we can from beautiful terroir and if technique speaks into the wine then it’s a shame.”
Tasting Clos des Lambrays Grand Cru, Domaine des Lambrays 2019
The final wine really is something – a seductive mix of elegance and power. Pale-ruby purple; intoxicating and complex aromas leap out of the glass, overall it is pretty, floral and quite hedonistic – you will find violets, red fruits, fresh-leaf tobacco and a spice element (clove/ cinnamon bark); the palate is fresh, detailed, elegant with silky tannins framed by pretty firm acidity – all in a seamless delivery. The flavours are concentrated, pure and lengthy. Pretty stunning really.
The Domaine des Lambrays wines are available in the UK from Flint Wines who, this year, have become the primary partner of the estate.