By Barney Lehrer and Jesse Nash
There are legends born every day. But sometimes it’s not until after they’re gone that we appreciate their greatness. Fortunately, there’s one heroine in our midst who is very much alive and with us. She’s responsible for some of the best winemakers in the heart of one of the wine world’s most prestigious regions. Her name is Jeanne-Marie de Champs, and for those who know her, she is truly the Queen of Burgundy. For this amazing woman, it’s not about power. It’s not about money. It’s all about having the greatest wine in the world. And as Jeanne-Marie will tell you, there’s only one way to accomplish that. “In Burgundy, the secret is in the vines!”
Burgundy has very few large winemakers. Most of winemakers there are small family businesses, with only a few acres of vines. Even most of the larger famous houses, such as Louis Latour or Louis Jadot, may own just a handful of acres and buy most of their wine from small winemakers. And then there are a small number of “Monopoles,” winemakers lucky enough to own a complete vineyard. The region, which is about the same size as Sonoma County, California, is home to over 1,200 wineries.
Where to begin?
We only had a couple of days to sample these wonderful wines and we had to make every sip count. So many burgundies, so little time!
Luckily for us, Jeanne-Marie took us under her wing for a day. One of the top wine brokers in the region, you could say that wine is in her blood. She is descended from a family of landowners in central France whose agricultural history dates back to 1180, and some of her family is still on the land today. In fact, a brother tends oak trees that provide the prized wood for French wine barrels—a crucial ingredient in the success of a wine.
Formerly a marketing executive in Paris, Jeanne-Marie’s marriage to a wine exporter brought her to Beaune, Burgundy’s wine capital, where she quickly learned the wine export business working within her husband’s company. Her legendary status was set in motion in 1994 when she opened her own wine export company, Domaines et Saveurs Collection, which has since become one of the major powerhouses in the Burgundy export trade.
A dynamo of a woman with an imposing presence, a no-nonsense approach, and a passionate, encyclopedic knowledge of wines, Jeanne-Marie has earned her royal title. She commands the respect of both the winemakers and the wine trade, as not only does she know her wine, but also the wine-drinker—what the consumer will enjoy. Burgundy red wines are famous for their delicate, fruity smoothness, while its buttery white wines, known for their “minerality” (some French call this “salty”) set the standard of comparison for all other whites. Perhaps one of Burgundy’s secrets is its simplicity. Most Burgundy wines are made of only one of two grapes: pinot noir for red, and chardonnay for white.
Jeanne-Marie represents more than 70 winemakers — or farmers, as she prefers to call them — who represent the best of their terroir
“A good winemaker is first and foremost a good farmer,” Jeanne-Marie told us. “It’s someone who puts most of their efforts into cultivating the grapes and uses minimal technology to make the wine.”
And she chooses her farmers carefully.
“They must practice organic farming, using only local, natural yeasts—and all my farmers are constantly searching to find natural ways to improve their vines.”
With these words, Jeanne-Marie took us on an exhausting but exhilarating tour of visits to some of her best farmers, all within a 25-mile radius of Beaune.
And can this woman drive! Just as she’s a master at organizing and marketing her wines, she’s also a woman to be reckoned with behind the wheel. As we held on to our scarves on a blustery, snowy, and damp winter’s day, Jeanne-Marie plowed through vineyard after vineyard as she gave us a whirlwind tour of some of Domaines et Saveurs Collection’s — and Burgundy’s — most respected and quality-driven winemakers:
First stop was Domaine Alain Michelot in Nuits-Saint-Georges. Alain is the fourth generation of Michelots here, and now he has mostly handed over the reins to a fifth, his daughter Elodie. Elodie showed us around the cellar, which is naturally cold, and explained how they have quietly invested in new tanks and winemaking equipment while maintaining the ancient, local traditions of production. She showed us how even a relatively small production of a fine Premier Cru involves blending wines made from grapes harvested from the same vines but aged in barrels from different barrel-makers. Thus the taste of the various woods themselves play a crucial part in their famous Les Vaucrains, which we had the privilege of enjoying.
Next was the Clos de la Perrière, a Monopole perched on a hill above the village of Fixin, just south of Dijon. Owned by the Joliet family since 1853, records show that Cistercian monks started making wine on this property in 1142. The winery still has a 12th century press once used by the monks, which was in use up to the time of the grandfather of the current farmer, Bénigne Joliet. Bénigne uses a minimum amount of technology to produce a pure Premier Cru with minerality and substance. According to Bénigne, “the wine making at the Clos de la Perrière has its roots in tradition and know-how dating back to the monks’ time.”
Jeanne-Marie then took us to Clos de Tart in Morey St. Denis, another ancient Monopole with a winemaking tradition also dating to the 12th century. It was founded in 1141 and tended for several hundred years by Cistercian nuns until the French Revolution in 1789. There have only been two owners since: the Marey-Monge family from 1789 to 1932, followed by Mommessin, the current owners. The winery and tasting rooms remain in the ancient convent building. Their two most famous wines are a Premier Cru and a Grand Cru, made using only grapes from their own vineyard, the largest Grand Cru classified property in Burgundy. Clos de Tart is a legend in Burgundy. They produce fruity wine with less tannin than some of their neighbors’ wines. Sylvain Pitiot, the Clos de Tart chief farmer has the philosophy of “Hands-Off” winemaking. “Sometimes we have nothing to do! We pick perfect grapes, put the wine in vats, and go on vacation.”
After Clos de Tart, which would normally be a difficult act to follow, we were escorted to a quite magnificent act in itself. Domaine François Lamarche in Vosne-Romanée. With some supervision from her father, Nicole Lamarche, François’ daughter is in charge of the farming (aka viticulture) and does much of the winemaking. Her cousin Nathalie is in charge of marketing and sales. They produce wines from several appellations in the area. However the most important vineyard is their Monopole “La Grand Rue” in Vosne-Romanée, a property “stuck” between Romanée-Conti and La Tâche, the two most sought-after and expensive wines in Burgundy, if not in the world. The wines of Lamarche may not (yet!) be quite up to the quality and prices of their neighbors, but they are certainly on the way.
The last stop on our Burgundy Odyssey was Château de la Maltroye in Chassagne-Montrachet. This beautiful 18th century château with 15th century cellars is located at the top of the hill in Chassagne-Montrachet. The Cournut family bought it in 1940. Flamboyant Jean-Pierre Cournet, whose first career was as an avionics engineer, is now the winemaker and marketer-in-chief. He is also a keen collector of vintage Ferraris, which are lovingly stored next to the barrels of aging wines. Château de la Maltroye’s vineyards are right next to the château and are considered to be some of the best Premier Cru land in the village. From a total production of 60,000 bottles per year, 60% is white Chassagne-Montrachet, with an intense minerality and subtle scent of oak. As Jeanne-Marie put it, “The wines of Château de la Maltroye are made with the precision of an engineer, precise detail, a constant search for the best expression of the microclimates and terroirs, and harmony with the wood.”
What an unforgettable day! Of course, we only scratched the surface, but with Jeanne-Marie in charge, we were given the royal treatment. And even back home we continue to benefit from the queen’s expertise, as we know that every day Jeanne-Marie is devoting her formidable energy to bring the best of Burgundy to wine shops in the USA and around the world.
For wine lovers, Burgundy is a region that demands study, time, patience, and love. It’s a place to visit again and again. And, if you’re lucky, you just might run into Jeanne-Marie. If you do, be sure to bow! You are in the presence of wine royalty.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
The Burgundy Wine Board has an encyclopedic website that lists almost every winemaker (the locals call them “growers”) in the region. In general, since most wineries are small family-run businesses, it is best to call ahead and book a visit. The Board offers a service that will help plan your itinerary. Beaune is a two-hour train ride from Paris, and the Beaune tourist office is ready to help with everything from accommodations to guides who specialize in oenology.
We based ourselves in Pommard just south of Beaune, a quiet village famous for its reds, and a perfect base from which to explore some of the best wineries. There we had the privilege of staying in the 17th century Clos des Colombiers, a luxurious B&B owned and run by the Barthelmebs family. The couple left high-flying international corporate careers and created a luxurious yet homey environment, steeped in wine history. There is a small vineyard on the property, and the house’s cellar dates back to the 17th century, where the Barthelmebs discovered a stash of wines made on the property dating as far back as 1915 — and still drinkable!
We also recommend the Hotel Le Cep in Beaune, another ancient property rich with wine history.
We ate at several excellent restaurants in the region. The best was Auprès du Clocher in Pommard, a relatively new restaurant owned by Burgundy native Jean-Christophe Moutet, a master chef who previously worked at the top restaurants in the region. All the food is inventive, while emphasizing the native tastes of the region. If you are a cheese fan, do not miss his Mousse tiède d’époisses au pain d’épices et sa tartine, a dish best, if inadequately, described as a cheese soup! But all the dishes are tasty and inventive and the prices are reasonable.
La Cabotte in Nuits St-Georges is a wonderful restaurant that also serves as the heart of the wine industry. Come any day or evening and you will see star winemakers entertaining their clients and friends. The menu changes daily but is always an outstanding offering of “modern” Burgundy food.
Photos courtesy of Jesse Nash.