It has been said that if you want the safest route to a fine bottle of Chambertin, or Chambertin Clos de Bèze, then make sure that the label says…
Domaine Armand Rousseau
Since 1909 the Rousseau family have been based in one of the oldest buildings in Gevrey-Chambertin, close to the village’s 13th Century church in the Rue de Lavaux. Portions of vineyard were aquired at the same time as the house, augmenting the land already owned by the family, these purchases coincidied with the wedding of Armand Rousseau. Armand, born 1884, came from a family that was firmly wedded to the vine; growers, coopers and in Armand’s case merchant and courtier.
Such proximity to the growers and owners of vineyards meant that Armand was ‘in the front row’ when it came to opportunities to buy good pieces of land. Growers at that time really were the bottom of the pile – it was more about cost than profit – but Armand must have made a success of his business because plot after plot of vines were bought: Charmes-Chambertin in 1919, Clos de la Roche in 1920, Chambertin in 1921. In this era everybody sold their wine direct to the négociants in barrel – Armand was no different – that was until Raymond Baudoin (who founded ‘Revue des Vins de France’ and had a list of restaurant clients for whom he sourced wine) suggested to him that he ought to bottle some of his own wine for the restaurant and private client trade. Armand really started to take this up in the 1930’s and together with d’Angerville and Gouges was amongst the first in burgundy to domaine bottle, pioneering sales to the US following the end of prohibition.
Domaine bottling brought a boost to finances, such that in 1937 a plot of Mazis-Chambertin was purchased, then in 1940 Mazoyeres-Chambertin (today labelled Charmes) and two plots of Chambertin; one in 1943 and the another in 1956. The second of these plots came from the Comte de Moucheron from whom they also bought their plot of Geverey-Chambertin Clos Saint Jacques (1954) and finally a plot of Chambertin Clos de Bèze.
Armand’s son, Charles, joined his father at the domaine in 1945 after first training as a lawyer, then studying enology at the University of Dijon. Charles points out that to be educated in that manner meant that his father ‘paid in blood’. In the first half of the 1900’s, the growers were pure farmers, the real money was in the hands of the négociants who bought low and sold high. It wasn’t so easy for Charles either as he had buy out his sister – ‘it was tough’ said Charles, ‘but now I’ve three children!’ Charles is obviously unhappy about a system that charges 40% tax when someone dies, yet many companies pay zero tax…
Anyway further land was acquired in 1977 in the form of the Clos des Ruchottes (Ruchottes-Chambertin) from Thomas-Bassot and an additional plot of Chambertin in the late 1980’s from Domaine Marion.
Armand met with an untimely end in 1959, a car accident whilst returning from a hunting trip. Charles was now fully responsible for the domaine.
The time of charles
Charles was keen to extend the domaine’s trade outside their small number of private clients. To that end in 1951 he found himself in London’s Victoria Station, two suitcases by his side. He first visited that very rare thing; an existing ‘foreign’ client (a director of the BBC), and then set about visiting as many companies as possible who might have an interest in his wines – mainly by looking through their windows to see if they already sold wine! It was tough; his targets were happy, if rather bemused, to entertain Charles in their offices, but anyway they already bought their wine from Drouhin or Patriarche! The top-level négociants in this age were Drouhin, Faiveley, Bouchard Père and Thomas-Bassot, Jadot was not yet regarded in the top-rank. Unlike the domaine, the names of those London merchants have pretty much disappeared; Ward & Martinez, André Simon, Christopher & Co., Dolomore, JH & J Brooke, Bonne Portes and the Soho Wine Co. With a smile, and the hint of a wink, Charles says – ‘you know, over the next 10 years or so, one-by-one they all appeared in my office, asking to buy the wines’. Charles still retains this social history in the letters of thanks that he received following his visits, some are signed by Lords – others are even in French!
Galvanised by his first foreign sales-trip, Charles continued to pack his two suitcases to help sell the domaine’s wines. This long-time committment to export shows in the domaine’s sales to this day; 90% of the wines are exported from France. In some ways this success has been a double-edged sword for Charles as he points to his empty cellar – he doesn’t have any wine to sell. He’s genuinely sad that over the years his loyal customers have slowly seen their allocations shrink from 12 to 6 to 3 bottles for some cuvées, such has been the demand. I feel that this is also partly down to the domain’s pricing – never cheap, certainly; but vs other grand crus that are considered to be of the highest level, the wines from this domaine are comparatively very good value.
Over time there have been various extensions to accommodate more business and more wine; two new cellars in 1980, extending the cuverie in 1996 and the recent addition of air-conditioning in the cuverie. Business can come in waves, Charles remembers a sudden interest in the wines from the US around 1971-72; the domaine was deluged with orders. Apparently it was mainly driven by speculators who had no idea of how to store wine – most ended up cooked…
In the early ’80’s Charles’ son Eric started to work at the domaine. He’d recently finished his final year of oenology study at Dijon after being at the Lycée Viticole et Agricole de Macon Davayé. Since that time he’s been instrumental in the hard work of vineyard management. Daughter Corinne since 1993 is responsible in the office for the commercial stuff, but seems to anyway know everything about everything when it comes to the wines – yet another diploma in oenology from Dijon has much to do with it!
Vines, vinification and wines
The domaine today owns just under 14 hectares of vines, more than twice the size of when Charles took over from his father.
The major part, 8.01 hectares, is AOC Grand Cru. There are also 3.5 hectares of 1er Cru and the rest is rated as villages. Together, the nameplate wines of the domaine, the two Chambertins, account for just over 3.5 hectares; 1.41 of Clos de Bèze and 2.15 of Chambertin. The number three wine in the domaine’s hierarchy is the 2.21 hectares of Gevrey 1er Clos Saint-Jacques which leapfrogs three Gevrey grand crus of Ruchottes, Mazis and Charmes-Chambertin in terms of both price and quality, plus the Morey grand cru of Clos de la Roche. Two Gevrey 1ers; Lavaux Saint-Jacques and Cazetiers (0.50 and 0.75 ha respectively) and 2.26 hectares of villages Gevrey round off the range. The Lavaux was replanted around 1992, so recent vintages have been blended into the villages wine, but 2002 saw the wine bottled seperately for the first time since replanting.
The domaine prides itself on having old vines, typically 40-45 years but many are older. Each year about a sixth of a hectare is replaced, but usually a vine here, and a vine there, rather whole plots. These old vines, close pruned, with high density planting (10,000/hectare) help to naturally restrict yields, additional de-budding and green-harvesting help to provide typically under 30hl/ha. No fertiliser is used. It is said that that there was a reliance on fertiliser in the 1970’s and this could account for a number of commentators pointing to lower than expected quality from the domaine from the late 1970’s to early 1980’s – the domaine not fully recovering it’s stature until the 1985 vintage. Most work in the vineyard is done by the common high-wheel tractors of the Côtes, however, there has been some experimentation ploughing by horse in one steep area of Chambertin.
The grapes are picked by hand and are 90% destemmed. Just over two weeks in open stainless-steel tanks with both pumping over and pigeage. The maximum allowed temperature at this domaine is 31°C during fermentation then a pneumatic press before settling and putting into barrels. The domaine is well-known for warming its cellars in the winter to hasten the onset of malolactic fermentation. Despite these speedy ‘malos’ the domaine is actually a late bottler, taking fully 20-22 months. The two Chambertins and the Clos Saint-Jacques typically get 100% new oak treatment, 30% for the other grand crus and older barrels for the rest. Flatly ignoring Mr Parker, here is a domaine that still lightly filters it’s wines, but doesn’t seem to suffer in the process – maybe some would point to even better results if…
The most consistent, high-achieving domaine of Gevrey, and maybe even the Côte d’Or.
Domaine Armand Rousseau Père et Fils
1 Rue de l’Aumonerie
TEL. (33) 03 80 34 30 55
FAX. (33) 03 80 58 50 25
Added November 2005…
Medium, medium-pale ruby-red colour. High tones, a distinct raspberry character and a cedar-oak background, quite wide and interesting. The palate is a shade less than medium bodied but has a lovely seam of acidity running through. The tannin has a hint of dryness and grain, but only a hint. A real treat after a few 2003’s, and this is less dense than many ’03 Bourgognes, but this a lovely lacy wine by comparison with super aromas that are held in the empty glass – I’ll buy a couple more.
Medium cherry-red colour. The nose soars, high-toned and fresh, with violets and cherry-skinned fruit over toast from the creamy oak base. Some fat, fresh red-shaded fruit on the palate with a creamy texture. This is, at best, only medium weight, but there’s super purity and detail, the fruit is really quite punchy on the mid-palate. I prefer the finish on the 2001 but this presents itself really well – I’ll also buy a couple more of these. One negative from the last drops; the nose becomes quite estery and not that pleasant – quite a contrast to the 2001.
Medium, medium-plus cherry-red colour. A forward and expressive nose of vanilla-tinged red and black fruit, a creme brulee note becoming stronger with time. It’s well balanced and finely presented in an elegant, rather than powerful, way. Well made and tasty, though hardly exceptional. Good-plus.
Medium, medium-plus cherry-red. The nose is a little tight, high tones over a tight red and black centre. Wide and fresh palate, very elegant, fine tannins leave a soft coating on your teeth and gums. Understated but very well read, this can talk to you on any level you wish. Lovely.
Medium cherry-red. A quite forward nose of creme brulee tinged red fruit. The palate is just a little more panoramic than the Ruchottes, more explosive too. Actually this wine is heading in too many directions at one time, much less controlled and elegant that the Ruchottes – which I prefer. Again very fine tannins. A very different personality even though the vines are separated by only 50-60 metres. I wouldn’t say no, but given the choice I would go for the Ruchottes.
Medium, medium-plus cherry-red. High toned, red and black cherry nose plus a little earthy undercurrent against a creamy oak background. Balanced, fresh and elegant with real intensity. Lovely silky palate. The finish is long with that creamy oak thing still apparent. Very lovely wine – and I mean very!
Medium-plus cherry-red. A wild mix of brambly black fruit and subtle oak toast on the nose, gradually becoming higher toned with a hazelnut-coffee edge. The entry is smooth, then the wine explodes on your palate before slowly shrinking into the very long finish. Lithe and slender in complexion despite the evident concentration. Plenty of fireworks here – a very, very impressive wine.
Medium-plus cherry-red. Creme brulee and red fruit presented in a very linear way. Takes a few minutes in the glass to open out, but really starts to shout ‘look at me!’ – mainly barrel influenced notes, coffee in the background too. The palate has an extra ‘fatness’ to the palate vs the Bèze, fireworks here too, they build a little more slowly but to equal effect. It’s hard to make a preference here – it can only be based on stylistic leanings – but today, with fewer barrel artifacts and its more ‘athletic’ pose, I’d take the Bèze.