Golden age in Burgundy due to biodynamics

1st May, 2013 by Patrick Schmitt

Burgundy’s improved vineyard practices have thrust the region into a new golden age, according to Jacques Devauges, technical director at Domaine de l’Arlot.

Jacques Devauges

Jacques Devauges at Domaine de l’Arlot

“We have found out that it is the viticulture that is critical, and once you have good grapes you can make good wine,” he told the drinks business during a tasting of the domaine’s wines in London on Monday this week.

Looking back, he said that the widespread and heavy-handed use of chemical fertilisers in Burgundy during the 80s had produced slightly “diluted” wines, which was then followed by a stylistic swing to highly extracted Pinot Noirs from the Côte d’Or in the 90s.

Today, however, a combination of attentive approaches in the vineyard, particularly biodynamic farming techniques, along with gentle winemaking practices, is yielding wines of quality.

As a consequence, Devauges stated, “We are reaching a golden age”.

Speaking of the Domaine de l’Arlot specifically, he recorded how the estate, based in Côte de Nuits, has been organic since 2000 and biodynamic since 2003.

The impact of such an approach, which precludes the use of synthetic vineyard inputs, is being felt in the style of the domaine’s recent releases.

“I am convinced that the level of precision and accuracy [in the wines] is the result of years of good practices in the field according to biodynamic farming,” said Devauges.

He also noted that such techniques had brought a natural reduction in yields.

“We haven’t had to do a green harvest since 2002 – we don’t need to because the vines are in balance,” he said.

In fact, Devauges admitted that the domaine is now producing too little fruit, and he plans to increase vine vigour for next year’s harvest by spraying cow dung on the soil in late winter.

Devauges joined the domaine in August 2011 having previously worked at Domaine de la Vougeraie and then Domaine Michel Magnien in Morey-Saint-Denis.

Christian Seely, managing director of AXA Millésimes, which has owned Domaine de l’Arlot since 1987, described the appointment of Devauges as a “turning point” for the producer.

He also said that the event on Monday was designed to show the results of Devauges’ first vintage – the 2011 harvest.

Seely commented, “There is an evolution going on and you have to evolve in a positive way – Jacques is essential to that.”

Domaine de l'Arlot

The 4 hectare biodynamic Clos de l’Arlot

Continuing he said, “I hesitated about when I should go on tour with him, should I wait for a blockbuster vintage? But I’m extremely happy with what he did with these wines…[and a difficult vintage] reveals more about the people and the place than easier vintages.”

Later in the evening, Seely added, “I am certain that Jacques is the person to take Domaine de l’Arlot where I want it to go over the next 10-20 years.”

Although he forecast no major changes to the approach, he spoke of a heightened attention to detail and little winemaking tweaks to raise quality.

However, one immediate development by Devauges was a reduction in the amount of whole bunches of Pinot Noir used in the fermentations at the domaine.

Devauges has dropped the proportion from 60-80% to 15-30% from 2011 onwards.

“We use whole bunch for some of the floral character, the complexity, but not for the tannins,” he said.

In terms of the 2011 harvest, Devauges described it as “a vintage printed by the early picking” – it was one of Burgundy’s earliest harvests, with picking beginning in August.

As a result, the wines are fruity and open, and Devauges said it was “a good vintage for cuvées using young vines” while those wines from old vines on good terroir “will age” he added.

He also said that he timing of the harvest was crucial because the berries turned rapidly from maturity to over maturity, making it hard to retain acidity in later-picked vineyards.

As for 2012, he described it as “a reference year for disease – we had a historical presence of mildew and odium, and we also had hail and sunburn; the only thing we lacked was botrytis,” he recorded.

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