The Domaine René Engel takes its name from a special man who was born in Vosne-Romanée on the 8th March 1894. Pictured right (well into his 80’s) René Engel attended Beaune’s school of viticulture from 1908 to 1911 and applied this new knowledge back at the family domaine. At that time the domaine’s holdings consisted of family land augmented by vineyards from the second husband of René’s mother, a Faiveley, whose family had already worked the vines of Vosne for four generations.
Europe was turned upside-down in 1914. The bells rang in the village on the 2nd August for mobilisation. In September, 20 year-old René found himself on the way to the trenches of Verdun – they all expected to be home by Christmas. In a way he was lucky, despite spending time in a POW camp, he returned – many from Vosne were less lucky – well-known families such as Forey, Grivot, Grivelet, Gros, Lamarche and Noellat all lost sons in the Great War. They are all commemorated, since 1921, at the monument just off the N74. By a quirk of fate it was the former German soldiers, now POW’s themselves, who for several months became the prime source of labour in the vineyards in 1919. The overall size of the domaine at this time was ~10 hectares, peaking at 15 hectares some 20-30 years later.
The domaine is housed in an imposing building of c.1900 adjoining the main square in Vosne-Romanée. The cuverie on the ground floor, the cellar below and the living accommodation above. The house was partially financed by René’s merchant activities. Clive Coates recounts the tale of his genesis as a wine merchant/négociant at the start of the 1930’s: René had visited Paris with the aim to sell his wines to a large grocery store – he was unsuccessful. A little later he realised he and his umbrella had been parted. Returning he found a wine-tasting in full flight and was asked to join-in. The wines were ‘average’ and René said he could source much better, and he got the job.
Following the unexpected death of Professor Martini at the University of Dijon in 1935 and the difficulty of finding a replacement, there was the possibility of the Oenology department being transferred to Besançon. The solution to this problem came from two well known academics, André Meyer and Gaston Roupnel; they had the idea to install their friend René Engel as temporary cover while a suitable replacement was found. This ‘interim solution’ lasted fully twelve years before he became full professor!
René and a group of like-minded proprietors were a mini whirlwind on the Côte trying out new ideas to make and sell better wine – remember that in this era there was little scientific knowledge involved in wine-making, mainly past precedent and rules learnt by rote. In 1934 René and his friends Camille Rodier and Jacques Prieur got together to found the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin based in the Château du Clos de Vougeot. Ostensibly a marketing exercise that drew its high-profile members from the ranks of famous people with a penchant for the wines of Burgundy, the brotherhood was formed at a time when it was difficult to sell even the top Grand Crus. The idea was very successful indeed, adding cachet to the wines and perhaps helped to precipitate a change in buying habits.
Succession at the helm of Domaine René Engel in came in 1949 when Pierre Engel took over from his retiring father. Pierre a long-time Mayor of Vosne (1959-1971) was a classically educated man who according to Clive Coates had difficulties with his father’s ‘interference’. Pierre fell ill about 1970 and gradually the domaine became neglected, Pierre died in 1981. His father survived him by another five years until 1986, aged 92.
Pierre was survived by four children, two boys and two girls. Only one of the children showed real interest in following in their father and grandfather’s shoes; this was Philippe, born 1955. Philippe studied at the Lycée Viticole in Beaune and following the death of his father, Pierre, and despite a tender 26 years of age, he, with the help of his mother, took over running the domaine. Historically the majority of the domaine’s produce had been sold to négociants, indeed the whole of the 1981 vintage that saw the death of Pierre was sold to Moillard. Philippe and his mother had much work to do, but slowly the quality of the domaine’s wines improved. In 1988, for the first time, all the domaine’s production was bottled in-house. With due respect to the great patriarch, perhaps it was easier for grandson than son; Philippe said that he found the advice and counsel of his grandfather most useful, but always felt he could make his own decisions.
It took Philippe (with the help of his mother) around ten years to bring the domaine into the high-quality league of Vosne producers. How much of the work was required due to previous neglect of the domaine or a supposed ‘over-reliance’ on fertilisers during the 1970’s is hard to say, but the vines are mature and very well placed. Quality was confirmed in that mediocre vintage of 1992 when Philippe made wines that transcended the average; the result, the accolade of ‘Jeune Vigneron de l’Année’ for the Côte de Nuits. In the last couple of vintages an extra pair of Engel hands could be observed in the cuverie, they belonged to Frédéric, Philippe’s brother. Frédéric is a full-time antique dealer, based at one time in Paris and latterly Panama.
Wine-making and Wines
It’s a compact range of wines offered by the domaine, starting with a classic villages Vosne-Romanée of substance and interest. Then follows a wine with an additional layer of spicy complexity; the old-vines (60+ years) Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Brûlées. Topping off with a complimentary trio of grand crus in the shape of: Echézeaux from a mix of 25 and 80 year-old vines in Combe d’Orveaux, Grands Echézeaux and Clos de Vougeot. I’ve not so much experience with the Echézeaux, though a couple of bottles lie in the cellar, but the Grands-Echézeaux has been a long-time favourite, perhaps not always classically proportioned – the 1999 was an inky black monster – but always rather exciting and ‘dangerous’. The Clos de Vougeot is one of the highest regarded from that Grand Cru, many ethusiasts putting the Engel version in their top five producers – a large proportion of the vines here are ~85+ years old, though dead dying vines are being continuously replaced. The domaine’s style has become richer in recent years – certainly vs the wines of 95/96 – though I assume that its more than just the influence of gradually increasing levels of new-oak as I’ve seen little evidence of oak character in the wines.
So today it’s approximately 7 hectares of vineyards, almost half of its 1940’s peak – René apparently often rewarded his vineyard workers with a row or two of vines when they retired. There’s 2.54 hectares of villages Vosne from three sites, one hectare of Vosne 1er Les Brulées, 0.55 hectares of Echézeaux and Grands-Echézeaux at 0.5 hectares. Finally just under 1.5 hectares of Clos de Vougeot sited high-up in the Quartier des Marei Haut. If one theme from René remained ever-present in the domaine’s winemaking, it was cleanliness; healthily clean fruit and meticulously clean equipment and cellar. Yields rarely excede 35hl/ha. Philippe ethusiastically used a large wooden press that allows fine control of the pressure. The grapes were de-stemmed and allowed to ferment without intervention, even up to 35°C, though if this point was achieved some cooling would be applied. A total cuvaison of around 3 weeks, with pigeage preferred to pumping over. On average, new oak barrels used at about 25% on villages Vosne, up to ~50% for the Grand Crus – latterly 100% for the Grands-Echézeaux. In-fact just about everything in 2003 met with new barrels – they’d pre-ordered the barrels and then had very low yields. Over the years racking became less and less frequent, with natural settlement preceding bottling without filtration where possible.
It was with a sense of loss that I heard of the untimely passing of Philippe Engel, a man whose wines represent no small corner in my cellar. To leave us before his 50th birthday is tragic, however, to leave us while enjoying sailing in Tahiti shows a certain style, redolent of the man who loved his motorcycles, his hairy dog and even of some of his very fine wines.
Philippe was also very generous, many was the time that he ‘apparently’ shared the same birth-year as the visitor to his cellar; when that stretched credulity too far, then the month would suffice, failing that the star-sign would do – anyway a bottle would be procured from 19xx to celebrate…
I was to make my first visit only the same month, why did I leave it so late? I pulled the cork on a bottle of his 1995 Echézeaux to celebrate his endevours – merci Philippe.
Many thanks to Victor Pugatschew for the picture of Philippe.