I remember way back when, an article by Alice Feiring on the CNN website about an American in Burgundy – his name was Blair Pethel. You’ve got to love Alice’s style, she will find out for you exactly what everything costs! Coincidentally, the same week that I was writing this, Blair was once again in the ‘quality press’ – this time the Washington Post no-less. Read these two and you will have all the history you need.
Actually Blair has enjoyed quite some press in the last couple of years; excepting this super report, you will find variatons of the same cut and paste story on a multitude of blog and merchant websites (though I think the Washington Post article less formulaic despite Blair considering its perspective as too negative). Anyway, when Blair invited me for a visit, I actually had some second thoughts – I’m an ‘avoid the hype’ kind of guy – but I’m glad that I visited and, guess what…, I’m already a customer!
My first introduction to Blair was actually an introduction to the back of a waving hand as his 4×4 sped from our allotted meeting point. Blair had suggested that I might have difficulty locating the domaine first time so he offered to ‘guide me in’. Clearly this was a calculated affront to someone who has visited the Côte d’Or several times a year for quite a number of years, but I went along with it. Actually I am far from expert at finding people (just ask Patrick Essa – he still doesn’t know what I look like!), so well-done Blair – I’m not even sure I could find the domaine a second time!
Safely parked at the domaine I got to greet Blair for the first time face to face. He’s about 1.90 metres tall, his hair is plentiful but greying, he has the tan of an outdoor man and a friendly but firm handshake. Polymath Blair (pianist, journalist, now winemaker…) “got the wine bug,” whilst working in London in the late 1980’s and Burgundy became a regular visiting point. Introduced to Patrice Rion by Jasper Morris, the Pethel family’s fate was sealed after Blair worked a harvest with Patrice in 1999. A further harvest was made with Patrice in 2003, and a couple of more ‘viticulture focused’ years with Jean-Marc Pillot in Chassagne-Montrachet. Blair enrolled at the Beaune Lycée Viticole for the 2004/2005 semester where one of his class mates was Kellen Lignier.
The Domaine, Winemaking and Wines
The domaine is actually very close to the RN74, but as an exit, rather than an entry from the direction of Beaune – the more circuitous route we took involved switchbacks over small roads through the vines – ‘easy’ I said afterwards, though perhaps with a lack of conviction! There are two buildings; a house that is rented as a Gite – family Pethel live in Beaune – and the cuverie. This cuverie was originally just an open tractor shed, so needed significant reworking and digging out to accommodate a deeper barrel cellar and to facilitate Blair’s preferred method of moving the wine around – i.e. by gravity. Blair had the building since 2005 but only completed the modifications in time to vinify his 2006s there, so his 2004-2005 vinifications were at a friend’s place in Nuits St.Georges.
Given the 30°C+ mid-afternoon heat it was nice to get indoors, particularly as the cuverie is air-conditioned! Not too big, not too small, the main open space is ringed by 10 stainless-steel tanks which are mainly used for red fermentations plus assembling the wines. In the corner are two sorting tables – and every grape goes through both! Down the steps is the barrel area and through a door is the bottle storage area. About another metre had to be excavated when updating the building – that facilitated three barrel height in the cellar.
Blair is keen to point out that he does everything himself, both in the winery and in the vines – even in the vines that he doesn’t own he prefers to do all the ‘handwork’. No chemical fertilisers, no insecticides, no weed-killers are his vineyard mantra – basically ‘no’. In the winery Blair even makes all his own chemical analysis – the cost of the equipment was already recouped during the second vintage. In the cuverie the reds get a one week cold soak, breaking up the cap a little with a fork. Fermentations start naturally and there are some punch-downs by foot. Blair points out that it is not his aim to vinify for power or structure or colour, his aim is for the best fruit. Blair goes further by saying “if I need to chaptalise, I will, but I will never acidify” – I take from that statement that Blair will not usually be the last picker on the Côtes. The juice is pressed, immediately reassembled and then left in a tank for 1 week before dropping into barrels by gravity. Elevage is 18-22 months – the 07 reds were only bottled in May. Blair’s whites keep a little more lees than most producers so need relatively little batonnage, then are re-assembled for a couple of months before they are bottled.
The 2007 vintage yielded 7 red and 6 white cuvées, Blair would ultimately like to reach 8 red and 8 white cuvées. The domaine capacity is about 30,000 bottles, though today he is producing closer to 22,000, the (effective) devaluation of the British pound has left a hole in this years sales that he’s hoping to make up in other markets. As for closures, he will deliver what the market wants – for instance he is very happy to use the Stelvin Luxe (Saranex lined) seal.
Whilst tasting through a few bottles, I offer the opinion that it seems like an enthusiast has been let loose through the Côte d’Or and taken up a bunch of appellations that take his fancy and moved on from there. Blair’s response was simple “I make wines that please me, then I look for a market…” All I can say is ‘well-done, him’, he seems driven and has an eye for detail – he even filters his ‘mains’ water to remove the chlorine – a good thing in a cuverie I suspect! – ultimately he also makes some cracking wines:
The first time I’ve seen this cru in white. Bright, fresh top-notes over a more subdued savoury aroma. Beautiful dovetailing of the sweet and ripe fruit with the acidity – the flavour faintly lingers. A super start!
The aromas are lithe, sinewy and less forward than the Savigny’s. Again, sweet fruit that’s packaged with perfect acidity – good 07s are jewel-like in this combination. Hard to keep hold of the wine in your mouth because of the intensity. A mineral finish – very good this!
From the Pernand side of the hill – had to wait until 17th September to harvest these grapes. 50% new oak. The complex nose has a hint of understatement but shows plenty of floral notes and maybe a hint of SO2. Like the Chassagne, it’s hard to take the intensity, though this time it has just a little fat to smooth the texture. Really good weight of extract – this is very impressive.
The vines are sited right next-door to Beaune 1er Clos du Roi. Medium, medium-pale colour. The nose has a wonderful array of precise pinot berry/cherry fruits – just lovely. Again, beautiful fruit on the tongue and an extra dimension of creamy fruit in the mid-palate – very persistent. For the moment there remains a hint of oak flavour – frankly gorgeous – buy, buy, buy…
Medium colour. The nose is far more mineral than the Beaune – there’s a little fruit but it’s much darker shaded. In the mouth it is a little fuller and has more tannin. The tannin is ripe so it’s not quite a chewing wine – but close. Long, and with a faint reprise. Really good Morey.
True Charmes. The wide and comforting nose is ripe and rather plush – lovely cherry fruit. Density, concentration and lots of dimension – chew and you’ll find even more. Understated acidity, yet there’s some cream-wrapped minerality too. An excellent Charmes.
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