Vineyard Profile: Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes

Update 1.5.2020(1.4.2020)billn

Fabio Gazeau-Montrasi, 2019Tasted with Claire and Fabio Gazeau-Montrasi, in Switzerland, 5 March 2020 – here’s a placeholder image of Fabio as my visit to take photos and taste some of their St.Amour a couple of weeks later was postponed following the ‘lockdown.’

Château des Rontets
814 Les Rontés
71960 Fuissé
Tel: +33 3 85 32 90 18

This estate was created by Claude Nonain, an abbot in Fuissé in 1819. There were two more owners before the latter of which, Monsieur Liaut, a wine-merchant from Lyon built the current ‘château.’ Claire Gazeau-Montrasi interjects “It’s not really a château, it’s a maison bourgoise!

Claire hails from the (Gazeau-)Varambon family, from Lyon, who became owners in the mid-1800s, and works the estate with her husband Fabio.

Claire took on responsibility for the domaine in 1995 – her mother had been running the estate but was becoming quite old. Claire, an architect and her husband, Fabio, also an architect, decided to ‘take on this adventure – though it wasn’t easy‘ recalls Claire “Fabio didn’t drink at that time and I was working, plus studying agriculture, and whilst Fabio was working at the domaine as much as possible he was also working in London at that time. The wine had previously been sold in bulk, but gradually we commercialized more and more of the production. We had a lucky start because we began with a great piece of land and a label that was reasonably easy to sell.

Although there is a new planting outside the ‘clos’ and a half-hectare parcel of St.Amour, the domaine is largely about a single clos of 5.5 ha, quite high up – so not on the list of new Pouilly 1er crus – north, north-east facing but being at the top of the hill there are no shadows, so the vines have plenty of light and sun – it’s just a little cooler at night than the surroundings. “It’s a place with plenty of wind, there can be problems with oïdium, but generally it’s a clean place, particularly with the development of the climate in the last years,” says Fabio. It’s hard Bathonian limestone for the base of the vineyard ‘and very little soil – as little as ~10 cm in some places.‘ Only 500 metres away is the granite of Beaujolais – and there’s about 30 hectares of Pouilly that is planted on the granite…

The clos is the source of the Pouilly-Fuissé cuvées Clos Varambon and Les Birbettes. A few vines are missing and a small parcel had to be replanted when Claire and Fabio began, but the bulk of the clos is the old vines of 1910-20 planted after phylloxera – these producing the cuvée ‘Birbettes’ with some others replanted since 1945 by Claire’s uncle – the younger vines, still many planted before 1975, produce their ‘Rontets’ cuvée. There is also a small parcel outside of the walls of the clos – Pierrefolle – at the top of the lieu-dit Vers Chânes, about 500 metres away which was first planted in 1996.

From the start, Fabio and Claire began working the vines organically: “There weren’t many of us at that time – Guillot-Broux was one, but apart from a few ‘historic’ domaines like them, organic was only an anecdote.” Fabio likes the spiritual approach of Biodynamics but is far from convinced of the intellectual rigour behind the approach – but he also likes the results!

The winemaking

Vinifications haven’t changed much over the years, but elevage certainly has – longer, and with more barrels. The longer elevage allows the wine to be bottled unfiltered these days. “I find an extra harmony after two winters in elevage,” says Fabio. The alcoholic fermentations are made only with natural yeasts, without any addition of sugar or acid and without enzymes, and the malolactic fermentations are never inhibited or artificially stopped. “We generally do not need batonnage, as the long fermentations naturally guarantee the movement of the lees and the extraction of glycerol.

The wines…

While far from modestly priced wine, for the region, there is a very fine level on quality that shines through the core of these wines – and that’s despite such very different vintages and yields – terroir anyone? A wine that’s not just worthy of your time, it’s also worthy of your patience – and that’s before you factor-in (and some people do) how lovely the owners are!

1998 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes (Magnum)
Harvest of 43.4 hl/ha from 24 September
A deeper colour than 99 or 2000. That’s an inviting nose – depth, ripe fruit – very open, a little waxy, perhaps some botrytis. A texture that’s a silky, waxy style. Lots of depth to the concentration, the flavour transitioning from fruit to mineral quite deep into the finish. Long, only modestly mouth-watering. A mature wine – but no rush – there’s plenty of richness here.

1999 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes (Magnum)
Harvest of 64.2 hl/ha from 28 Sept. The highest volume seen by the current team. ‘The weather wasn’t really with us – it rained and rained when we were harvesting.’
More golden. A very faint reduction, but here is a fine evolution of pure, gelee-citrus fruit.
More open, silky a certain richness, but less than the 98 with a more energetic minerlaity. That’s a super finishing volume – a wine that grows in the mouth – very open – the dilution is showing, in comparison, but I see this as positive for the accessibility and freshness.

2000 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes (Magnum)
Harvest of 60.5 hl/ha from 23-24 Sept.
Just a little deeper golden than the 1999, less coloured than the 1998. A fuller nose, faintly floral. Hmm, this is the most energetic – mineral & mouth-watering – almost juicy. The intensity of finishing flavour is very impressive – the most energetic of this first group of three, my favourite for that – but three very good wines.

Bottles not magnums for the next series, except the 2004. A number of wines here were not the greatest hope for the domaine – they thought 2005 could be the best they made – ‘but it tumbled very quickly after bottling – versus the others.‘ First, three very different wines:

2004 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes (Magnum)
Harvest of 56.3 hl/ha on 1 & 5 October. ‘There was a very big hailstorm that hit many of the neighbours in this vintage, but fortunately it didn’t hit the Clos.’
A honied colour. Wide, modestly accented with pyrazine. But this has a lovely texture, silky, slightly cushioned – the faintest accent of asparagus/fenel – but also a depth of attractive flavour – more ripeness of fruit than minerality. Lovely finishing. Excellent, despite a couple of issues…

2007 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes
Harvest of 41.3 hl/ha, 11 & 14 September. ‘This was a year where we had practically no sun in the summer – the grapes probably ripening more by concentration.
Younger looking in colour. Hmm – rounder, faintly sweet, almost a crême-brûlee – I don’t see any minerality but it’s still a lovely invitation. Wow! The palate has no relation to the nose – fresh, driving, mineral, slowly adding a little cushion in the middle – really a bigger finish – ooh – great!

2008 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes
Harvest of 13.9 hl/ha, 1 & 4 October. The smallest rendement ever for this team as they were hit by hail 3x in the growing season – the last visitation was in the middle of August. The malo took a long time – also in 2013 – ‘possibly due to similar acidities(?)’
Plenty of colour. A more herbed, higher-toned nose – slightly vegetal. Much less ripeness and a driving style to the palate – direct, mouth-watering, vibrant almost, more agrume-fruit in style – shaded to grapefruit. Lovely the sparkly, energy of the finish, slowly rippling with mouth-watering flavour. It won’t be many people’s favourite, but I love…

Most of the production is with cork – here the first vintages in DIAM – This is done at the request of their British importer, The Wine Society:

2010 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes
A harvest of 23.8 hl/ha, on 23 & 26 September. Another very low rendement – twice-hailed plus they had an outbreak of mildew.
Young colour. Hmm, that’s a lovely nose – younger of course, nicely mineral and vibrant at the core but complex and inviting too. A suggestion of CO2, a little cushion of richness but here’s a lovely balancing acidity – round but still very energetic. A modest intensity of finish – but still a long and tasty finish. While far from mature, this is still completely delicious today.

2011 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes
A harvest with 47.5 hl/ha, on 3 & 7 September. A hot year and an early vintage – 02 Sept starting – ‘For us it’s really the beginning of the warmer vintages.’
A less open nose – there’s width but it’s holding onto some of the aroma – a modestly agrumed impression. More driving, more overtly mineral – also the first wine where you can see the last vestiges of the oak. Bigger finishing, more complex too – but a lot of that is down to the barrels. Already very drinkable but a wine to wait for.

A note on oak: Slowly, over time, there has been the introduction of a few 400-litre barrels, but generally less newer oak.

2012 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes
A harvest of 26.6 hl/ha on 21 September. Another vintage with some hail.
Hmm, aromatically a little more age is my impression versus the previous two wines, even a little cheesy, perhaps corky. Very mineral, a little rigour – a direct wine, just enough sweetness – a tight but concentrated wine – energetic finishing overall, strict, austere even. Bottle 2 is more open and more cushioned (it’s the same cork supplier), less ‘old’ and certainly more inviting. Hmm, that’s lovely – wide – open, mineral – a classic great 2012 that reminds of Chablis 12s in style. Bravo! Just a shame about the cork in the first bottle.

2014 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes
A harvest of 35.2 hl/ha, on 16 & 17 September.
A smaller nose – less overt interest. Mouth-filling – lots of volume – a bigger wine but one that’s lacking an open complexity – this needs plenty of time, it’s a little easier in the finish than the 2012 but still needs to find a bit more character – it probably will with time. It doesn’t need more length – it’s super here.

2015 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes
DIAM here. A harvest of 34.6 hl/ha, on 5 Sept. Like 2011 a very dry August.
A different nose – here with a little spice – but also perfume – not a big nose but a complex one. Mouth-filling, mineral, extra sweetness, lots of concentration in the middle. A faint salinity – the first – long and holding very well.

2016 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes
A harvest of 19.0 hl/ha, on 19 September.
A little extra freshness – a fine line of aromatic minerality, almost an agrume impression. A touch of dissolved gas – wide, energetic – really a mouthful. The finish is wide and subtly complex – that’s a beautiful finish. I like this wine much more than the 2015 though – no surprise – it’s such a baby…

2017 Pouilly-Fuissé Les Birbettes
A harvest of 37.5 hl/ha, 01 September.
A nice energy, a texture even, not a big nose today but one with lots of interest. Bigger, vibrant – great energy but a sweeter style than the 2016 – holding a strong, mouth-watering, finish. Obviously, there’s a lot of wine here – with energy too but the sweetness needs toning down – in isolation you might not notice – perhaps with time it will be more in line with the other wines.

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