Between a Rock and a Hard Place
François Lamarche was the 5th generation of Lamarche to farm the domaine’s vines in Vosne-Romanée. The domaine has roots to 1797 but on the maternal side the family go back as far as 1740 in the village. Now a 6th generation is taking over, ‘generation six’ are Nathalie who responsible for ‘commercialisation’ and her cousin Nicole who takes care of the vini/viti-cultural aspects.
Although most commentators suggest this to be a domaine on an upward swing of quality, a majority were been far from restrained in their criticism of the quality of the domaine’s wines from the 1970s right through to the 1990s. If the family Lamarche were based in Nuits, you would hear little from the critics, but the name-plate vineyard of the domaine is their 1.65 hectare monopoly of the vines called called La Grande Rue, and these vines sit between the ‘rock’ that is Romanée-Conti, and the ‘hard place’ that is La Tâche.
There is no accounting for ‘terroir’, in many parts of the Côte d’Or, village vines stand shoulder-to-shoulder with grand cru vines, but there’s no getting away from the fact, whatever the vagaries of geology, that expectations are sky-high, and for many years those expectations were not met.
An older generation pointed to wonderful wines from the 1930s to the 1970s, and it seems that any neglect began during the later years of (generation 4) Henri Lamarche’s life (b. 1903, d.1985), when neighbours were wont to point to insufficiently tended vines.
There was also an urban myth about the planting of inferior vines in La Grande Rue, the source of which was an article in a French publication; ‘Cuisine et vins de France‘ (1987). The article was published with particularly galling timing for the family as the application for the raising of La Grande Rue to grand cru status was pending. Domaine Lamarche hired a vine expert in order to prove that there was no ‘pinot droit’ (a higher yielding clone now out of favour, but with significant plantings in the 1960s) and a lawyer to force the issue. The magazine subsequently printed both a retraction and an apology – it is, however, the nature of things that the article is remembered more than the apology. If the domaine’s average vine age figures are correct, however, then much of the domaine was replanted in the early 1970s, which would not have gone hand in hand with having the best quality.
The changing of a vineyard classification.
The INAO announced on 14 November, 1989 its decision that La Grande Rue should be promoted from 1er cru to grand cru status. For various reasons the official decree was only signed on 2 July, 1992. Such a change in status is retroactive, so bottles of pre-1992 La Grande Rue if released by the domaine could have a grand cru label – I assume not too many people call up for older bottles to be relabeled though.
Clearly such a change is very rare indeed; the Clos des Lambrays went through a similar process with the final decree of ‘grand cru’ being bestowed in 1981. There are lengthy soil analyses to confirm that a candidate has what it takes from a geological perspective, relative to its more imperious neighbours. It is the land that gets the classification, showing that it has the possibility to produce grand cru wine, it is not the wines themselves that are under test.
You may then reasonably ask; ‘if the soil/geology was always okay, why wasn’t the vineyard classed as a grand cru when all the other ones were?‘ Politics is the usual answer, though more often it is why an application fails. It is said that some say the owners in the 1920s and 1930s may not have wanted to pay the higher taxes that would come from a higher ‘value’ applied to their land so never applied for grand cru status. It is anyway a very rare thing. The owners of the Nuits St.Georges 1er cru ‘Les St.Georges’ are banding together trying to raise their vines to grand cru classification, likely this will found on the politics – not because the vineyard necessarily shouldn’t be a grand cru, but more likely because other growers will object, saying if that is grand cru, then this should also be grand cru…
Their vines and Wines
The domaine farms 11 hectares of 14 appellations – 8 hectares are owned, the rest are on long-term leases – ‘en fermage’. There are gem-like holdings at this property, and not just La Grande Rue. There is also Grands-Echézeaux from an adjoining parcel to Drouhin’s, 3 parcels of Clos de Vougeot that are blended. Echézeaux (from the climats of Cruots and Clos St.Denis), premier cru vines in Chaumes, Malconsorts, Suchots and La Croix Rameau (of which they are one of only three producers) and there is also a new (since 2006) premier ‘Cras’ from just over the boundary into Nuits. There are, of-course village and regional sites too.
The philosophy of the domaine today, is to harvest everything by hand; some sorting is done by the pickers in the vineyard before the fruit moves over vibrating then sorting tables.
The grapes are predominantly de-stemmed (perhaps as much as 20% may be retained for the grand crus) before being placed into the thermo-regulated (up to 32-33°C) open-top fermentation vats – a mix of oak and stainless-steel – without crushing. Only the Passetoutgrains sees no wooden tanks for fermentation. All movement of wine is by gravity. A few days of cool maceration and 15-18 days of fermentation. The domain likes to avoid chaptalisation, indeed there was none in the 2002, 2003 and 2005 vintages.
The wines evolve in oak barrels from different (Vosges, Alliers) sources, of which 60% to 100% are new barrels – depending on the vintage and appellation. Typically no fining or filtering is done, the exception being the regional cuvées. Everything is bottled at the domaine – Nathalie’s grandfather Henri Lamarche was the first to bottle – and stored in their new bottle cellar.
On May 30th 2009 I took a short tour of the rabbit-warren of cellars with Nathalie Lamarche where we took in a few 2008 barrel samples of mainly pre-malo wines; the team chose not to use much new oak in 2008 and produced a good length villages Vosne, a Suchots with a more penetrating nose and more tannin, a Malconsorts that showed more impact and penetration and also length.
Moving through to the grand cru cellar I tried a Clos de Vougeot that had plenty of impact and finally La Grande Rue – penetrating red berry aromas coupled to more dimension and length. It was nice to see how they fit together from a hierarchy perspective though such notes are not to be taken as a reference points for for how the post-malolactic wines will taste!
A 7th September harvest and lots of triage – only about 60% the number of bottles versus an ‘average’ harvest. One year in barrel and a relatively early bottling ‘to keep the fruits’. Medium cherry red colour. The red shaded cherry fruit is a little candied and slowly builds a width of of understated spice notes. Plenty of volume in the mouth, and whilst offering up savoury aspects, they have a creamy coating – the flavours slowly insinuating into your palate. Really super length that has a hint of oak wedded to creamy fruit – there’s a little oak texture too, but you can see that it’s already fading. This is a fine grand cru.
Relatively young, medium intensity colour. The nose is a wild and really interesting melange of fruits – both baked and fresh – totally different to the 07, and just begs a wide-bowled wine-glass. On the palate it is fresh and shares a similar ‘volume’ to the 2007. Understated velvet tannin and good acidity. The finishing flavours are a little savoury and there’s some oak flavour in there too – though no oak texture. Faintly long – I was expecting more, but then comes a nice reprise so I was sated. This wine built width and dimension in the glass, so next time open earlier or decant. Lovely stuff.
A Critique of La Grande Rue?
Well it is very easy to take a critical stance; the vines lie in the purest heart of Vosne-Romanée, surrounded by La Tâche, La Romanée and La Romanée-Conti and clearly, La Grande Rue doesn’t have the scale of any of those wines. It is like Clos de Lambrays next to Clos de Tart, elegant, certainly not forceful though it clearly brims with complexity and length – in that respect it is closer to Romanée-Conti than it is to La Tâche.
It is worth pointing out that the price of La Grande Rue is also a fraction of that of its neighbours – based on what’s in the glass, I see plenty of value. There remains, however, the valid question; ‘could it be better?’ The slope and clay soil looks the same as for the surrounding vines – certainly those of La Tâche – but what’s below the soil is hard to see, and clearly even different plots within La Tâche will produce very different wines. Most commentators assume that further progress is possible, but that’s all they agree on!
In general, the pricing of the domaine’s wines is correct and the small sample (2005 onwards) that I have met have been equally ‘correct’ with no undue oak – which some people comment on. I have already added a few bottles to my cellar.
I asked Nathalie if she could define her impression of La Grande Rue – it seems a good fit:
“Never forcefull. Complex, fruity and elegant. Always understated tannin – you should wait 10-15 years to drink it. It always evolves its expression – it’s not there at the start”
Domaine François Lamarche
9, rue des Communes – 21700 Vosne Romanée
Tel. +33 380 610 794
Fax +33 380 612 431