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Keeper of the faith: Sylvain Pitiot

In a heartfelt tribute marking his friend’s retirement, Michael Edwards tells the story of Sylvain Pitiot, the serene and somewhat ecclesiastical winemaker who, after ten years, is calling an end to his time at the helm of Burgundy’s Clos de Tart.

Meeting up again with Sylvain Pitiot in Beaune’s Place Carnot on a glorious morning this July, one’s first memory of him comes back vividly. Yes, a tall slim man, his kindly weathered face speaks of a love of working outdoors but also conveys a cerebral, contemplative air of an intellectual, those steady grey-blue eyes so calm and tranquil. As Jon Wyand, the eminent British wine photographer reminds us, “he would not look out of place in a monk’s rough robes”.

You might think that Sylvain was a Burgundian from his mother’s milk. Actually he was born in 1950 in Angers, the Loire city of La Vieille France. At first, he didn’t think of a life in wine but studied to be a topographic engineer in Paris. Sylvain worked for a while in Africa. In 1972 his life changed when he harvested at Domaine Jacques Prieur in Meursault and met his future wife Valérie, daughter of Pierre Poupon and grand-daughter of Jacques. The Prieur 1992 Chevalier Montrachet as it happens is one of the greatest white Burgundies etched forever in my memory.

The apprentice

Pierre Poupon was clearly a seminal influence from the start. “Though busy as manager of the Prieur estate and later as a Beaunewine merchant, Pierre was above all a man of letters – hugely knowledgeable about the soils of Burgundy, a writer for whom no day passed without penning a few lines,” Sylvain remembers. Certainly Père Poupon, always open to fertile cooperation, was quick to suggest to his son-in-law that they should work
 together on a new Atlas des Grands Vignobles de Bourgogne: “ I would write the text, you with your engineer’s mind would plot and put far more detail into the maps.” It was sorely needed, as the old Larmat maps from the 1940s were too general and imprecise. The Atlas took seven years of research, and appeared in two volumes in 1981. As the “Bible”, it has always been in print since, published by Sepia Art & Cartographie.

Sylvain continued to gain experience in all aspects of the Burgundy vignoble: 12 years as a winemaker of the Hospices de Beaune; also consultant, teacher and manager at various domaines. In 1995, he heard that the prestigious Clos de Tart in Morey St Denis, founded in the 12th century by the Bernadine sisters of the Abbey de Tart, was looking for a new manager. “Ah, the hazards of new meetings,” recalls Sylvain.

Free rein

But he need not have worried, for the Mommessin family of Mâcon who had owned the domaine since the early 1930s gave him complete trust and support. “Henri Mommessin and his son Didier, later my boss, were people of exceptional honesty, integrity and respect for others,” Sylvain recalls. “They gave me carte blanche to raise standards higher still and the means to do it.”

The Mommessin family, who had so shrewdly bought the estate for a song in the depressed 1930s, were as acute in 1996 in grasping another gift horse in the mouth with the appointment of the hyper-meticulous Sylvain. The Clos de Tart had long been known for its wine’s delicacy and elegance, a style that suited the Mommessins’ preferred approach. But it could be said that the full potential of the vineyard’s aspect and the complexity of its soils hadn’t been fully realised in terms of richness and the right sort of tannins in the wines before 1996. Not that Sylvain wanted to change what was already good.
Unusually, the domaine’s rows of vines were planted north-south to avoid erosion rather than east-west, the overwhelming practice in the Côte d’Or. Sylvain notes that the Clos’ vines get extra sun, both morning and afternoon. What also struck him was the presence of three great types of soil – marl at the top of the vineyards; what is called calcaire premeaux in the middle, full of fossilised oysters as at Romanée Conti; and another type of limestone called entroques at the bottom of the slope.

When Sylvain took charge, he minimised chemical insecticides and began lutte raisonée farming, for example to combat butterflies by the pheromone method of “sexual confusion”. As time went by, he moved up to culture integré, a more rigorous method midway towards organic pioneered by Henri Jayer in the 1990s. Most recently, farming to all intents and purposes is close to biodynamic – but without certification, allowing the option of using technical intervention in difficult years outside the canons of Demeter and Steiner. Study of the vines is ongoing, never-ending. Each cep is referenced to an overall plan to monitor forays of rot, oidium and mildew. “In my 20 years here, I feel I have got to know every one of the 80,000 vines on the estate!” he says.

Sylvain has also been at pains to reduce overall yields: when once a vine would have 15 buds, now only six are eventually harvested. Six major cuvées are made from the three types of soils, but the number rises as high as 23, with further cuvées divided between those made from de-stemmed grapes and others destined for whole-bunch fermentations. Sylvain likes to pick late for optimal phenolic maturity and he is not frightened of alcohol, believing that grand cru Burgundy needs at least 13.5/14% abv for a long, distinguished life. There is no doubt that since 1996 and Sylvain’s reforms, Clos de Tart is one of the great wines of Burgundy.

In safe hands

I left him happy on 6 July, the day after the extensive Unesco Grand Sites in Burgundy had been announced. Sylvain is particularly serene about the appointment of Jacques Devauges, the young technical director from Domaine l’Arlot, as his successor at Clos de Tart. Wanting to see more of his family and devote himself to more books and maps, Sylvain will not be idle in his “retirement”. As we parted, he was off to have lunch with Pierre de Benoist of the Domaine A & P de Villaine in Bouzeron, there to help give the Côte Chalonnaise a stronger profile for all of us who want good Burgundy at a reasonable price.

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