Drive into Fixin, and even before you realise that it’s exactly the address you’re looking for, your eyes are drawn to a large old building at the top of the hill – it seems to keep guard over the whole village, this is the Manoir de la Perrière.
Constructed by the monks of Citeaux on or around 1142 from the stone of the quarry that lies only 100 metres higher up the hill and now forms the boundary of the garden, the Manor enjoys commanding views of the village and valley below. On a clear day Mont Blanc is easily visible 250km away.
The history of the unity of ownership and the exploitation of the Clos de la Perrière is very special, standing comparison even to the vineyard of Romanée-Conti. The monks planted and exploited the grounds of the Manor right up until 1622 when they were burned out of house by the Huguenots – an era marked by both religous and civil warfare – the monks sold-on to a rich Dijionais, Monsieur Boullier. Between 1622 and 1853 the house and vineyards changed hands a number of times until the 1853 purchase by the Joliet family; it is the sixth generation of Joliets that now run the domaine in the face of Bénigne Joliet. It is believed, since the planting of the vines by the monks in the 12th century, that right up to today, the vineyards retain their original boundaries and have never been subdivided.
The vaulted cuverie is the original from the 12th century and contains a fantastic original press – of course with some rennovation – which was last used in 1959. It was only the best endowed producers that could afford such a press.
If the boundaries and family ownership have remained essentially constant, the management of both vineyards and vinification is going through a time of significant change. Bénigne Joliet bought out the other family owners in 2004 to take sole responsibility for the domaine – it is all he exploits – he is now extending the cuverie and planning to take Fixin to heights that it’s not seen in living memory.
The appellation of Clos de la Perrière covers 5 hectares i.e. even the gardens and land that the house stands upon could be premier cru if planted – but Bénigne is happy to leave the garden unplanted and stick to the 4 hectares of vines as exploited for the past several hundred years. Interestingly, part of the vineyard crosses the notional border into the adjoining commune of Brochon.
Apart from a small area of chardonnay – also premier cru and the equivalent of about 2,000 bottles – planted close to the new cuverie, the rest is all pinot noir. Everything is “managed in a very careful way” says Bénigne, “not quite bio, but more than lutte raisoné”. Flowers and grass are allowed to grow between the vines and even the pruned plant material is left on the ground eventually adding to the humus. He uses a tractor with caterpillar tracks to try and reduce compaction of the soil. The vines average forty years old and are replaced at a rate of around 0.2-0.5 hectares every 5 years in order to maintain this average.
In exposure there are slightly different orientations and also variations of soil make-up but Bénigne says that it is always the combination of these elements and parcels that produce the best wine – the blend. The breeze typically comes from the combe and heads down the hill, and so the vines at the top of the vineyard mature a little later than the ones at the bottom – typically 6 days are allowed to harvest everything at a similar maturity.
The new broom
Behind the considerable history and consistency has begun a new revolution – the decision came following the 2004 vintage. Bénigne is convinced that this is a very special place – that it has a kind of magnetism that the Cistercians could somehow feel and prompting them to build and farm this plot. He points to the fact that this land was always considered the best of Fixin and on a par with today’s grand crus – he knows that the wines have not shown this in recent generations but he is now driven to achieve it once more. Whilst Bénigne is proud of the wines he made in 2004, he could see that many of his neighbours had been more successful, he was also fully aware that the wines from the Clos de la Perrière had for generations been regarded amongst the ‘têtes de cuvées’ of all burgundy (Danguey et Aubertin + Lavalle) and the only tête de cuvée in Fixin – just putting that into context, only Chambertin and Clos de Bèze in Gevrey held the same status – the wine also fetched the same price as those two.
Despite 5 years training in Beaune and learning much from his father Bénigne was convinced he needed help to achieve his aim, so for the 2005 vintage Bénigne decided to contract Philippe Charloppin of Gevrey as a consultant for both the vineyard and cuverie work. Bénigne is now a man on a mission to return the Clos de la Perrière to it’s former status i.e. to be both considered and priced at the same level as other grand crus – how’s this for ambition: the 2004 costs 17 Euros, the 2005 will cost 70 Euros! Bénigne laughs a little self conciously when he notes that he hadn’t seen a journalist at the domaine for years, but since he set out on this path the French journalists have never stopped knocking on his door – he even had a visit from French TV – it seems he now has some visibility!
The main emphasis is now on grape selection and just about everything they do is more labour intensive. That selection process has resulted in a drop in production from 23,000 bottles of 2004 to more like 15,000 for the 2005 – note that 2005 was generally a more productive vintage! So yields for the 2005 were below 30 hl/ha and the wine is raised in a higher percentage of new oak – around 70%.
Clearly – as we shall see – we have to completely divorce the wine of 2005 from what went before; they were okay, indeed not too bad but certainly not wines to search for. The small amount of white that is produced from the Clos has a loyal following so is largely pre-sold in every vintage.
So here came the change; savage selection, complete destemming, one month of cuvaison before racking into (70% new) barrels for 12-18 months, to be followed by a few months in tank before bottling – or at least that was the plan! The wine was racked again in November 2006, but by February 2007 there had still been no malolactic fermentation! Bénigne points to his very cold cellar being the reason, so is doing some small experimentation with his 2005 blanc – which is also still pre malo – warming the barrels to induce the fermentation. Bénigne expects that it will most likely be September before he has chance to bottle.
|2005 Domaine de la Perrière, Fixin 1er Clos de la Perrière (pre malo)|
Deep colour. The nose is also rather deep, showing plenty of interesting dark fruit notes – this is actually quite super. Although the malo should further round this out, this is altogether superior to the preceding wines, It is ripe, complex, elegantly concentrated, though with some faint oak texture on the long finish. It is rather well balanced and very mineral, of course the malo will take away some of the acidity – hopefully not to the detriment of the balance. Of much more concern (to me) would be the extra time in barrel – hopefully there will not be too much more oak influence taken up or drying-out of the wine. The style currently showcases the wine rather than the wood – no toasty or vanilla barrel artifacts and, yes, you know this wine – certainly in the benevolent 2005 vintage – stands worthy comparison to many with grand cru labels.
I hope it comes out of the malo without problem because it will stand testament to Bénigne Joliet’s dream and his self-effacing realisation that he needed help to achieve it.
UPDATE: End-November 2007
It was nice to catch up with Bénigne Joliet in order to at least close the chapter on the first vintage of his new ‘regime’. You will remember that the 2005 Clos des Perrières had still not even begun its malolactic fermentation when we met earlier this year. Well, the blanc finished in time to be bottled in August, just before the harvest, and the red finished in October following a full 25 months of elevage! Bénigne said that customers had starting calling him in June complaining that they had seen no bottles – so he suggested to them that he could bottle straight away and give them exploding bottles or maybe sterilise the wine first and provide half the potential quality – alternatively they could wait for the quality they were paying for – they chose to wait! The wait was over in November and the wine was bottled – first deliveries were taking this week. Apart from 2,000 bottles (from 15,000) which will be a reserve of the domaine and available for visitors to purchase, everything is sold.
The 2006 cuvée has been a little more fleet of foot, and might even be bottled by April next year! As to the 2007; Bénigne was one of the very last pickers, choosing to do everything between the 15th and 20th September; Bénigne says “I’m very happy with the cleanliness of the fruit – I actually discarded less than in either 2006 or 2005, still the yield was about 15% down, coming in at 25-30 hl/ha. If I keep improving the viticulture I think I can retain the same quality even at 35 hl/ha”. The elevage for these wines was done in his recently completed cuverie.
2005 Clos des Perrières Blanc
A deep nose with a little sweet but subtle vanilla oak, a savoury undertone too. The palate is rich with plenty of fat and a waxy texture. The acidity is understated but despite being buried under the fruit, there seems enough. A good medium length finish. I prefer my wines a little ‘racier’ but this shows good quality.
2005 Clos des Perrières
Medium-plus cherry-red colour. The nose starts with a deep coulis of red and black fruit, hints of spice, caramel – wide, complex and changing all the while in the glass – excellent. In the mouth it’s harmonious, lively acidity is well-pitted against plenty of well grained tannin. The fruit is taking a bit of a backseat but shows both depth and dimension and a late burst of interest in the mid-palate. A slowly lingering, oak inflected finish. No-one would pick this blind as Fixin – perhaps a Mazis though! Super aromatics and bags of complexity that are completely alluring right now – but I think that the structure demands at least 10 years of cellaring.
2006 Clos des Perrières
Pepper and spice on the fairly tight nose – in contrast to the 2005 all the action is on the palate; different dimensions of forward fruit, tannin that’s a little more buried and very good acidity. This is showing fine and complex today.