Ivy Ng
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An American’s road to Burgundy

Meeting Ray Walker, author of “The Road to Burgundy”.

20160608_080012_resizedAs part of the Winemaker Dinner Series at Crown Wine Cellars, a small group of HK’s collectors, trade and media professionals had the opportunity to meet the soft-spoken Ray Walker, owner and winemaker of Maison Ilan and author of “The Road to Burgundy” that documented the extraordinary story of an American falling in love with Burgundy wine, convincing his then pregnant wife that they should abandon life in the US, his job and salary at Merrill Lynch to move to Burgundy to make wine, when he only had one harvest experience under his belt and nothing else. It was a captivating story – a page-turner that kept you fascinated, and made you want to meet Ray and try his wines!

Almost 3 years after reading this book, I finally had the opportunity to meet Ray Walker. 2016 would be his 8th vintage in Burgundy, having launched his first wines from the 2009 vintage. Since writing the book, Ray has now complemented his hands-on experience with some technical training. He believes in minimal intervention, likening his wine to ‘sashimi’, not even ‘sushi’ with garnishes of rice, mirin, sesame and seaweed – just plain good quality fish, served ‘naked’ without any embellishments.   In his minimalist cellar, he only has a destemmer, some hoses, fermentation vats (stainless steel tanks) and seasoned barrels. You will not find new barrels at Maison Ilan. Ray typically uses 2 or 3 year oak barrels to age his wines. Older barrels are used too for extended ageing: an example was his 2011 Chambertin, which he aged in barrel for 27 months. Having experimented with stems in 2009, he now only practices whole berry fermentation but not whole clusters.

No stems, no oak, no additions (except sulphur) and gentle extraction form the framework of his modus operandi. High temperature tends to over-extract. So he keeps the temperature to a moderate level, while only punching down 3 times in total during fermentation/maceration, rather than the traditional practice of 2 – 3 times, for 10 – 14 days. He adds nothing to his wine, except sulphur – all yeast and lactic acid bacteria are ambient. Instead of the usual topping-up of barrels during ageing, he drops marbles into the barrels to replace any empty head space. The minimalist approach involves just one racking, before bottling.

So how were the wines? We tasted 2 bottles from his first vintage 2009: Morey-Saint-Denis Les Chaffots and Chambertin. One could say this was the first Chambertin made by an American! Also tasted were samples from 2011, 2012 and 2013 vintage.

Ray had them served in this order:

2013 Volnay 1er Cru Les Robardelles

2013 Morey-Saint-Denis 1er Cru Les Monts Luisants

2013 Morey-Saint-Denis 1er Cru Les Chaffots

2013 Mazoyères-Chambertin

2013 Charmes-Chambertin ‘Aux Charmes Hauts’ (to differentiate from Charmes Bas)

2011 Chambolle-Musigny Les Feusselottes (from a parcel of 85-year-old massale selection vines)

2011 Morey-Saint-Denis Les Chaffots

2011 Chambertin

2009 Chambertin

2009 Morey-Saint-Denis Les Chaffots

2012 Chambertin (2 bottles were shown, with noticeable bottle variation)

The group was evenly split between those who liked Mazoyères and others who were partial to Charmes. Ray said people could get very emotional about his sauvage and sinewy Mazoyères and commented that its followers were usually also lovers of truffle – the umami factor? The Charmes showed precision, purity, finesse, depth of character, with a velvety texture.

To be the minimalist he is, Ray needs access to high quality fruit. The quantity of fruit he bought since he started has grown from 10.5 barrels of the 2009 vintage to 30 barrels of the 2015 vintage. He went back to 18 barrels with the small-crop 2012 vintage. The prices keenly reflect the demand for high quality fruit in Burgundy – Ray is now paying double what he paid when he started buying in 2009.

According to winesearcher.com, his 2011 Charmes Chambertin Aux Charmes Hauts is about GBP 100 a bottle and his Chambertin 2011 about GBP 85 a bottle.

Ray admitted to earlier challenges with logistics and distribution, but he believes there is now a much more organised and efficient system to allow him to focus on other projects, including a TV production sequel to his book. Fans of his first book would need to wait quite a bit longer for the second volume.

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