“You can please all the people, or you can make great wine”
Whilst that quote was in a quite different context, it could easily be applied to Domaine Ponsot; Laurent Ponsot likes to stretch the boundaries of what can be bottled to the extent that, despite the lofty heights he can achieve, some decry his work as too inconsistent.
“We are lazy, we don’t interfere with nature. My aim is to express the vintage and the terroir through my wines, not to express myself. Some people say we are inconsistent. To me this is the greatest possible compliment”
From the Domaine Ponsot website, Laurent makes the last word on this subject:
“It often happens that our wines remain somewhat secretive and reticent for a certain period of time, only opening themselves up to us once more after a long and difficult adolescence when they will reveal a sensual refinement in their new-found maturity. We respect the consumer and would never market a wine that is not the perfect reflection of its appellation and vintage. Such wines are either taken for distillation (as was the case for the Morey Clos des Monts Luisants 1993) or downgraded and sold for a lower price (as we did for practically all the wines from the 1994 vintage).”
I met with Laurent in May 2008, just after this incident. I would describe him as a highly personable iconoclast – and he clearly makes great wines.
William Ponsot was born in St.Romain in the southern Côte d’Or. Following the end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 (Battle of Reischoffen in northern Alsace, August 6, 1870) William bought a house and vines (the former Liébault domaine) in Morey-St-Denis, including vines in Monts-Luisants and Clos de la Roche. The domaine was created in 1872.
Amongst others, William was also a grower of Gevrey Combottes, as due to wars there were so many absentee owners at this time – Laurent Ponsot likes to call this Combottes-Chambertin and indeed some producers did bottle under such a label until the authorites made them to stop. Because William had no children, on his death in 1926 – one year after buying half a hectare of Clos de la Roche – the domaine passed to his cousin, Hippolyte Ponsot; serially an army captain, lawyer and diplomat. Hippolyte bought more vines in Clos de la Roche, and bottled the entire production of the 1934 vintage at the domaine – a very rare practice in those days. Using his training as a lawyer, he was also one of the founders of the A.O.C. classification in 1935-36. In 1942, Hyppolite’s son Jean-Marie Ponsot joined, collaborating on all aspects of of viti/viniculture until Hyppolite retired in 1957. During the 1950’s a metayage agreement with Domaine Rémy family brought in Chambolle Musigny, Chambertin, Latricières-Chambertin and Clos de la Roche.
Jean-Marie, a former mayor of Morey-Saint-Denis, former president of the Cadets de Bourgogne and Grand Echanson of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin was one of the pioneers of the ‘clonal selection’ of pinot noir in Burgundy during the 1960’s. Many of the most respected clones of pinot noir (113,114,115,667…) were selected for the estate’s Clos de la Roche, and you can still see those vines now. In 1972, the size of the domaine increased following the inheritance of vines in Gevrey from Jean-Marie’s wife, Jacqueline Ponsot Livera. In 1981, Laurent Ponsot joined his father at the domaine. and in 1982 the vines under the control of the domaine increased again as they took a metayage agreement to farm the vines of the Mercier family (Domaine des Chézeaux). From 1983 Laurent Ponsot was responsible for the vinifications. Laurent is the Grand Ecuyer of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.
Looking out over the Saône plain, the domaine is located at top of the Morey St.Denis village up the Rue du Montagne. Updated in 1989 and 2001, the cuverie is set on three levels; grape delivery (and tasting room) at the top, fermentation vats in the middle and the barrel cellar below. In this configuration the young wine needs only to be transported by gravity. It has seen the recent addition of computer-aided temperature control – up or down – to the fermentation vats.
Photo Credit : Jean-Louis Bernuy, Courtesy Domaine Ponsot Laurent Ponsot standing in front of the ‘mother rock’.
One of the two barrel cellars is rather special, in that it is excavated out of what Laurent calls ‘the mother rock’ and one side remains completely open to show the rock-face, allowing you to see old roots between the fissures of the ‘wall’ at a depth of 10 metres or more. Laurent mentions that the vine roots can go down as much as 1 metre per year during their first decade after planting, so for him an eight year-old vine is one that is capable of producing grand cru wine given that it is already fully in contact with the underlying rock.
Philosophy in the vines
Like in most facets of viti and viniculture, Laurent says he has no rules, but then also no restrictions either e.g. whether to use organic, supervised control (lutte raisonée) or biodynamic approaches – though I have seen Laurent quoted as saying biodynaimc to be an impossible dream. Clearly respect for tradition and the best plant material shines through. We visited the plot in Clos de la Roche where his father had planted (in 1954) their ‘clonal selection’ of over 2,000 vines, slowly identifying the ‘less good’ by tying a ribbon around vines that were not performing – in 10 years, 2,000 vines had become only 200 – these were the basis for his ‘clone’ choices. The domaine is also incredibly fortunate, and indebted to Jean-Marie Ponsot, that the 1960’s and 1970’s fashion of spraying evrything with fertiliser was never taken up. There is no added potassium in the soil to compromise acidity – perhaps this is one of the domaine’s secrets as to how they can harvest so late. As mentioned, Laurent considers biodynamics to be a dream, as from a practical point of view it is close to impossible to practice in a ‘pure’ way.
The vines are relatively short pruned – so not so many bunches – and spraying is kept to the minimum. Everything is harvested by hand – naturally! It is almost ‘traditional’ that the domaine is one of the last to harvest in the Côtes de Nuit.
1911 Aligoté at the top of the Clos Monts Luisants
The domaine’s Morey St.Denis 1er Cru Clos des Monts Luisants is a standard bearer for the iconoclasm of the domaine and often the last vineyard to be harvested. Pre-phylloxera, aligoté (like Pinot Blanc) was a standard part of the white wine blend, but when it came to replanting, chardonnay produced decent wine at a much younger age than aligoté, particularly when planted at the tops of vineyards as had been previous practice with aligoté – so aligoté slowly gave way to chardonnay. Because so many of the best plots of aligoté were uprooted, slowly the renown of the grape receded to the extent that it was for mixing with Kir. Laurent pays tribute to his ancestor, William, for deciding to replant the upper part of the Clos to aligoté in 1911, so that in 2005 for the first time since 1964 he produced a 100% aligoté from this 1er cru plot – it is the only 1er cru in the Côtes planted with aligoté .
Philosophy in the cuverie
There is no yes or no on destemming – it is sparingly used in certain vintages – retaining the stems helps to prolong the fermentation and reduce the risk of the temperature rising too high, itself no-longer a problem with the new heating cooling system. A ‘traditionnal’ vinification in open oak vats (the ones with the temperature control) takes 10 to 20 days with three times daily pigeages. Two vertical Chereaux presses from 1945 is still used at the end of fermentation to extract more juice from the cap – the press-juice is always added to the free-run juice – chaptalisation is not practiced as a rule, but occasionally to recover some of the alcohol lost during maceration.
Laurent uses no new oak, rather he buys minimum 5 year-old barrels from domaines he knows well. The barrel aging can be as much as 30 months but varies considerably from one vintage to another. Only one racking is done for the red wines, usually as late as possible, typically one year after the harvest. There is no filtration, and only a handful of cuvées since 1985 have required fining. Sulfur dioxide is avoided, rather nitrogen is used during racking and bottling to protect the wine from oxygen – the wine is anyway quite reductive given the minimal number of rackings.
An ‘assemblage’ is made from the barrels before bottling, but only under a waning moon and north wind – high atmospheric pressure! With the consumer in mind, Laurent introduced the ‘white spot’ on his labels to aid consumers – if the white spot has gone grey, then the bottle has been subjected to poor storage – very dangerous when the wine has no sulfur to protect it. Unfortunately anecdotal tests of putting empty bottles in ovens have left the ‘spot’ still white – at least he is trying though!
Comment from Laurent Ponsot on this:
Explanation: we have noticed that on the last vintages, it did not work perfectly. After investigations, we decided to change the provider of the sensitive ink as well as the printing company. With the 2006 new labels, it will be perfect!
Once more the iconoclast, Laurent decided to bottle his 2003 vintage only in magnums. He explained that the 2003 crop was so small – a third of a normal year – yet the wines would be so long-lived. He hopes that buyers would be more inclined to cellar their magnums for the required 15-20 year minimum. He even had individual wooden cases designed for single magnums.
And what of corks? Reported by Clive Coates in August 2008: “He (Laurent Ponsot) has developed a very sophisticated plastic cork, sourced in Italy, which he will use for all his 2007s. Now, he announces, if you buy a case of Domaine Ponsot wine, I can guarantee you will get 12 clean bottles.”
Another comment from Laurent Ponsot on this:
Explanation: During my conversation with Clive Coates, I mentioned that I am working for a while (several years in fact) on an alternative to the corks. I added that now, I am sure that I have found a real, safe, adapted synthetic cork. I said that I am ready myself to start bottling all my production, from the 2007 vintage. But I never said that I will do it. I know that I will have to convince customers that it is possible to use that kind of corks on great wines, with the certainty that they will age well, go on living and reach their perfect maturity. I am sure of it from a scientific point of view, but the mentalities are probably not ready. So I just confirm that I will do it one day, maybe soon, maybe later. Just give me the time to communicate on it with neither any hurry nor polemics.
The wines of the domaine
Including metayage agreements, this important domaine exploits about 11 hectares that include 7 grand crus. Many village and 1er cru wines from the domaine have names related to birds and insects, as befits Laurent who, as a young boy, used to collect the poisonous snakes in the Clos de la Roche to sell to the hospital in Dijon for the production of anti-venoms.
Some appellations; Chambolle-Musigny 1er cru Charmes, Griotte-Chambertin, Clos Saint-Denis and Chambertin are farmed either under métayage agreements whereby the domaine ‘farms’ other peoples vineyards, returning one third of the bottles to the owners of the vineyards as payment. Two other appellations, Clos de Vougeot & Charmes-Chambertin are produced from a joint venture with another vine grower, working together and sharing the harvest.
Domaine Ponsot is the largest owner of vines in Clos de la Roche, their first parcel was purchased in 1872, and their first estate bottling was in 1934. Laurent likes to point out that from their total 3.4 hectares they have 3 of the 4 hectares of the original plot size of the grand cru – before some other lieu-dits such as such as Fremières, Genavrières or Monts Luisants were included in the ‘extended’ Clos de la Roche. The original plot of the domaine was bought by William Ponsot was about 0.5 hectares, so for two vintages (1988 and 1989 when the vines were close to 40 years old) there was a special ‘Cuvée William’ produced in his honour only from this plot – apparently so people could have an idea of the style of wine from that time. Young vines from Clos de la Roche were blended with 1er cru 1er cru Cuvée des Alouettes, but since 1999 not. Today the vines average 58 years-old. With ‘the best’ plots in both Clos de la Roche and Clos St.Denis, Laurent is well placed to judge which vineyard produces the finest wine, and he chooses Clos de la Roche.
Clos St.Denis Cuvée Très Vieilles Vignes
Since the 1982 métayage agreement with the Mercier family, Domaine Ponsot has been responsible for a 0.7 hectare plot of vines in the heart of the original boundary of the Clos St.Denis – not just perfectly located, they are also extremely old vines – for years this was the cuvée Vieilles Vignes. As the vines were planted in 1905, the 2005 vintage (laser etched bottle instead of a label) bears the name “Cuvée du Centenaire” to celebrate those vines reaching their centenary. From 2006 the cuvée is renamed Très Vieilles Vignes. Such is the age of the vines and the selection criteria of the domaine, sometimes there is only one barrel produced e.g. 7.5 hectolitres per hectare in 2003! For me, this concentrated, darkly fruited wine is often one of the top Côte de Nuits bottles.
Another wine from the contract with the Merciers. From a mix of 60+ year-old vines and replantings – only 9 rows of vines producing between 1 and 3 barrels depending on the vintage. Typically a cuvée that is more elegant than powerful, though the 2005 shows unbelievable depth.
Clos de Vougeot Cuvée Vieilles Vignes
0.4 hectares of upper slope vines averaging 50 year-old. A joint-venture contract since 1999, when it was first bottled at the domaine.
0.7 hectares of 18 year-old vines, whose first bottling was in 1970. The vines are relatively young, and produce a wine of structure that needs some bottle age.
1 hectare of average 18 years-old vines from the métayage agreement with the Merciers since 1982. Laurent recollects “It’s a long time ago now, but the Griotte-Chambertin which came from the Merciers was 25% unplanted when we began in 1982.” The wine is always silky, but in 2005 it astounds with its serious depth.
0.3 hectares of average 35 year-old vines from a parcel of vines right on the Morey border. Like the Clos de Vougeot a joint venture contract since 1999 with first bottling in the same year.
Older bottles of grand crus such as Latricières-Chambertin may be found, as from 1978 until 1994 the domaine used to ‘farm’ 0.4 hectares through a métayage agreement with Domaine Rémy of Morey St.Denis. Since 1995 this vineyard is being worked by Patrick Bize from Savigny-les-Beaune and owned by a consortium of enthusiasts. Domaine Rémy also vinify and bottle another Latricières-Chambertin.
0.7 hectares of average 48 year-old vines locatedon top of the slope at the same level as “Les Amoureuses”. The first bottling was in 1983, as this is also part of the métayage agreement with the Merciers. Sometimes a little more depth than you expect from Charmes and often a beautiful wine.
Morey St.Denis Blanc 1er cru Clos des Monts Luisants
Just under 1 hectare of 1911 vines planted right at the top of the slope below the ‘Chateau des Monts-Luisants’ which was built in 1852 and rather larger than your average cabotte! The Clos was bought in 1872 with a first bottling in 1934. The Clos des Monts-Luisants is a monopoly of the domaine that produces white and red 1er cru Morey and also grand cru Clos de la Roche. Since 2005 this cuvée is pure aligoté and often the last vineyard of the domaine to be harvested. This wine rarely undergoes malolactic fermentation due to the very small percentage of malic acid in the must.
Alouettes equals Skylark. 1 hectare of average 18 year-old vines from within the 1er cru Clos des Monts Luisants, as well as from declassified juice that also (until 1998) contained fruit from young Clos de la Roche vines. Purchased in 1872, first bottled 1982.
Chambolle-Musigny Cuvée des Cigales
Cigales equals Cicada. 0.6 hectares of average 43 year-old vines that were purchased from Léni Volpato in 2001 and first bottled in 2002.
Grives equals Thrush. 0.5 hectares of average 33 year-old vines from a parcel bought in 1872. The first bottling was in 1960, this cuvée often conatains a mix of 1er and villages appellation wine.
Gevrey-Chambertin Cuvée de l’Abeille
l’Abeille equals Bee. 0.5 hectares of average, 43 year-old vines inherited in 1975 and first bottled in 1989. This wine comes from the lieu-dit les Epointures which located under Clos-Prieur and near Chapelle-Chambertin.
Pinson equals Finch. 1 hectare of average 33 year-old vines purchased in from Léni Volpato and first bottled in 2001. The vineyard is located within the boundaries of Chambolle-Musigny. A 0.2 hectare parcel that also came from same source has been replanted and in due course will become part of this cuvée.
Impressions of a small barrel tasting of ‘Moreys’ from 2007
Morey St.Denis Blanc 1er cru Clos des Monts Luisants: Lovely breadth that builds through the mid-palate. Mineral, with a strong length. Blind, there are a lot of red wine characteristics here – super.
Morey St.Denis 1er cru Cuvée des Alouettes: Medium, medium-plus colour with a purple rim. Deep and wide aromatics. Very round with cranberry and raspberry. Mouthfilling then narrows towards the lingering finish. Very smooth and sophisticated.
Clos St.Denis Cuvée Très Vieilles Vignes: Intense. Goes on for ever!
Clos de la Roche Cuvée Vieilles Vignes: Harvested 20th September. Versus the Clos St.Denis there is a clear extra creamy dimension, similar length and just a little more mineral structure.
I’ve a history with the domaine’s wines that goes as far back as 1991 with the Griotte-Chambetin, but no further. There is constant negative feedback about their 1995/1996 wines and every second vintage or so people use these as a stick to beat the domaine with. I have a couple of these, but I see no point in opening them whilst other people say “yuk”.
Laurent Ponsot strongly defends his wines and questions why people would keep opening bottles and pass judgement on them before they are ready. Whilst I share this point of view, I would also be concerned that my bottles show less well than those from other producers, Laurent however, remains convinced that at 20 years old, his wines will begin to showcase their appellations and start drinking well.
His wines are certainly ‘on the edge’ given the avoidance of sulfur and the consequence that they are more fragile to poor storage – if you push the boundaries you cannot expect to succeed 100% of the time, but the trying is important – here I’m with Eric Asimov…
21 r Montagne
21220, Morey St.Denis
Tel +33(0)3 80 34 32 46
Fax +33(0)3 80 58 51 70