Profile: Domaine du Clos-des-Epeneaux, Comte Armand (Pommard)

Update 26.4.2010(31.3.2005)billn

clos epeneaux

Despite over 200 years of history, for most of it’s existence this has been a one vineyard domaine. It was around 1994 that the current Comte decided to expand a domaine that was already making a name for itself. That reputation was largely due to the inspired hiring of a young French-Canadian in 1985 – Pascal Marchand – to replace the then 71 year-old régisseur Philibert Rossignol. Pascal may have left to pastures new in 1999, but it was largely between 1985 and 1995 where the reputation of the domaine was forged, hence, facilitating expansion to the current ~10 hectares.

When Pascal joined the Boisset stable at the end of the 1990’s the Comte made another inspired selection by installing Benjamin Leroux as Pascal’s successor.

Benjamin had actually worked at on the domaine on and off since he started his studies in 1991 so it didn’t take him long to get up and running. He is well traveled, his other experiences coming via the 1994 and 1995 vintages at Domaine Drouhin in Oregon, the 1996 and 1997 vintages at Château Cos d’Estournel in the St.Estephe, and the Giesen Estate in New Zealand in 1998. In Burgundy, he also worked for Louis Jadot before taking up his current position. He is an advocate of bio-dynamic viticulture and seems quite interested in the lunar effect on the water in the wine.

It surprised few when Bourgogne Aujourd’hui magazine recently put him at No 1 in their Top 10 winemakers for the next decade.

The Clos des Epeneaux

Actually the domaine did once have holdings in other Pommard vineyards, but these were disposed of by Jean-Francois Armand in 1850 leaving only the Clos. It’s a large 1er Cru vineyard of 5.3 hectares (out of 77 ha 1er in Pommard) surrounded by a wall built by Nicolas Marey of Marey-Mongey. It was he who bought portions of both Le Grand and Les Petits Epenots and gifted the walled result to his daughter on the occasion of her wedding to the Comte Armand. The domaine still have the receipt for the completion of the wall – dated 1805.

The vineyard is mainly in Grand Epenots and can be segmented both by vine-age and also it’s geology. Benjamin says that they’ve done some digging on either side of the wall and the soil is different on each side – it seems that the wall follows a fault-line. This ability to segment allows the splitting of the harvest into 4-5 cuvées, each ripening at different times – thus it takes 8-10 days to harvest all the fruit. Typically 2 of these 4-5 cuvées will make up the final wine. The vines range from 17 to 70+ years-old. The youngest vines cuvée was previously bottled as a villages Pommard but recently has been upgraded to Pommard 1er Cru. In 2003 the final result was only 23 hl/ha the Benjamin says that 35 hl/ha would be the potential crop in a perfect year.

Pommard 1er Clos des Epeneaux – a master class

These wines were tasted in Pommard on a very cold January afternoon in 2004. First a group of wines from barrel, the cuvées of the Clos des Epeneaux. This domaine was was an ‘early-picker’ in 2003.

2003 17-21 Year-Old Vines (Pommard 1er)
The bedrock is younger in this part of the Clos – Benjamin thinks that this what typically gives a slightly spicier aspect to the wine. High-toned red fruit and a hint of raisin. Lovely palate, it’s fat but very balanced. Good freshness and very nice tannins – hardly any grain. There’s a pleasing mineral aspect to the finish – good wine.
2003 26-50 Year-Old Vines (Part of the Clos blend)
Mainly from the base of the Clos where the roots go deeper – here the bedrock is a little more fragmented and Benjamin says that the result is often a slightly higher level of tannin but also a little shorter in the finish. Quite a deep colour. The wine’s cold, but it’s still easy to coax some lovely fruit above a hint of reduction – becomes higher toned as it warms. It’s more concentrated than the previous cuvée and whilst the tannins are quite sophisticated, they are not quite so good.
2003 50+ to 70+ Year-Old Vines (Part of the Clos blend)
These older vines with their deeper root systems have little problem with the heat, Benjamin said that he got his normal crop of around 25 hl/ha from this section. The result for 2003 is that this cuvée will make up 50-55% of the final blend – a less severe year only sees ~30% of these vines in the final blend. The wine’s not so fat as the last cuvée – much racier in style. Lovely fruit and very fine tannins – a big step up in sophistication. A very linear expression of mainly black fruit that follow you into the finish.

2003 Proposed Clos blend
The nose starts a little shy, taking time to become talkative. I can see why Benjamin asserts that the cuvées were made to be together, there’s a roundness to this ‘blend in a glass’ that’s not apparent to the parts – it’s like all the gaps have been filled – a really interesting exercise.
2002 Pommard 1er Clos des Epeneaux
This year it was 27 hl/ha and an elevage of ~55% new oak. A normal vinification of 28 days (remember those lunar cycles…) including a cold soak followed by pigeages. The nose has depth rather than width. A super palate that’s both concentrated and ripe yet well balanced. Very lovely and has a late grab from the tannins just as you’re contemplating the finish.
2001 Pommard 1er Clos des Epeneaux
31 hl/ha with just a little less new oak. High-toned less forwardly ripe than the 2002, mixing mineral notes with the redder fruit. Lush, concentrated palate, tannins are similar to the ’02 but perhaps a little less ripe though the fruit buffers beautifully. This will need more time than the 02. In Benjamin’s opinion the 02 says more today about the vintage than the Clos, whereas the 01 is all about the Clos.

To charm or not to charm(?) – My previous history with the wine has shown that it’s often a very linear and concentrated wine, never rustic but perhaps can be (just like some people) intense but not that charming. I canvassed a few opinions and people who taste these wines more regularly than me suggested that the Leroux Clos des Epeneaux has a finesse and an elegance that was often missing in the wines before. I asked Benjamin about this, and he recognised my description but also pointed out the age of the wines I drank (oldest 1993) – for him the Clos is a wine that really needs to be drunk mature to get the full feeling of the vineyard – never before 10 years, he says “the 1985 and 1989 taste good now but are still not old” – seems we still have to wait a while for his bottles to reach 10 years.

A selection from the Comte
2003 Volnay
From 0.3 hectares, clay-soil over limestone. Due to Spring frosts only 15 hl/ha. Lovely high-toned nose. The palate has good freshness with little of the extra fat of the vintage. Good fruit and velvetty tannins – this is an excellent start.
2003 Volnay 1er Fremiets
From the bottom of the Fremiets vineyard. racked in September. It’s a vineyard that concentrates the heat, so tends to be picked 2-3 days earlier than close-by vineyards. It’s a mix of 30 and 55 year-old vines and unlike many in Volnay there was no frost here in 2003, still, only 25hl/ha were produced. The cold nose is fresh and shows red berries and a warm edge. Nicely intense fruit in a linear fashion, just an extra brush of tannin on the finish. Very well balanced.
2003 Auxey-Duresses 1er Cru
One-third from the climat of Les Duresses (lots of brown clay) and two-thirds from Les Bréterins at the beginning of the village and touching Le Val. Stony soil here with more marl and typically giving a little extra finesse. Benjamin racked this wine with the intention of putting back into barrels but was worried about drying his tannins so put keeps it in a tank with the intention to bottle in March. Good depth to the nose. The palate’s profile is quite fresh with a good grab to the tannins. Perhaps the finish is a little shorter(?)

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