Some say Lavaut, some say Lavaux, both are allowed. I prefer the latter, and it also seems the most common form.
At just a shade over 9.53 hectares and with well over 30 owners, it is not really surprising that Lavaux St.Jacques, the biggest of the Gevrey 1er cru vineyards, has the widest number of possible labels – in that respect it is the Clos de Vougeot of Gevrey.
With the aim of trying to define ‘Lavaux-ness’ I have cobbled together a collection of 22 notes from bottles opened between April and June 2009. The core is a vertical of bottles from Domaine Denis Mortet that takes in almost every vintage from their inaugural 1993 up to 2006. Domaine Denis Mortet works the largest single parcel of Lavaux which is about 1.2 hectares, no other owner has even half that, and much smaller is the norm!
Almost full south-facing, Lavaux St.Jacques (recognised as a distinct AOC since 1936) is situated at the beginning of the valley entrance of the Combe de Lavaux from which it takes its name – high cliffs of Jurassic limestone that eventually form the bedrock of the vineyards.
Over geological time the Combe has been the exit for rain-driven erosion into the alluvial ‘flood-plain’ of Gevrey-Chambertin. It’s a relatively cool area due to the breeze that comes down the Combe, this is the same for all the vineyards of this hillside – save one that is protected by its large wall – the Clos St.Jacques. Although the direct south exposure offers some balance, it is a balance of extremes – cool night breezes and hot daytime sun. In the late 1800s Lavaux was classed as a ‘deuxième cuvée’, though at that time so was much of Mazy, Chapelle, Charmes and Ruchottes.
The borders of Lavaux are, at the base of the hillside, the road that heads into the Hautes Côtes from which the vineyard stretches almost to the top of the hill (about 325m above sea), following the length of the wall of the Clos St.Jacques – which interestingly looks much smaller in this map from Napoleonic (1826) times. It is a steady, but far from steep climb, and the incline ensures that it is a well-drained plot. Above, it is bordered by the premier cru Estournelles (or Etournelles) St.Jacques which forms a short buffer to the trees that cap the hill, and on its other side, by the 6 hectare premier cru Clos des Varoilles monopole.
Not surprisingly, the lower part of the slope has the deeper soil so can need more care with yields, higher up the soil depth is only about 25cm in some places. Walk the perimeter of the vineyard and it is a real ‘hotch-potch’ of plots – some in depressions, some planted across the slope, others with the slope, some with grass, some without, some obviously tractor ploughed, some with dead, brown grass – obviously from the use of herbicides. One plot even has a little wind-break from a mound of earth with a tree. It generally looks much less rocky than its neighbour the Clos des Varoilles and has a darker looking soil. Towards the very top of the vineyard is one small section where the vines are planted east-west across the hill – from any direction it looks more like it’s prepared for vegetables than vines!
So what does Lavaux taste like?
As previously mentioned, there are many owners and many more labels once you include the offers from the négoce. After going through thirteen vintages of Domaine Denis Mortet it was easy to see a consistent theme; dark fruit, virile and muscular but not fat, olive and licorice flavours and very often a salty, mineral tang heralding a good finish – easy!
Unfortunately, wines from producers such as Jadot (domaine), Lachaux (négoce), Potel (négoce) and Chézeaux (domaine) showed a very different style; redder, more supple and round, certainly more giving and less muscular. From that latter group, only the oldest from Jadot, the 1985, offered that hint of licorice to be found in so many of the Mortets. As a group they have a different level of finesse that you may have difficulty placing in Gevrey if tasting blind, though I think I would have a good chance of spotting the Mortet.
Does producer trump place at this site? Well the Mortet wine is certainly an individual, whereas the others follow a similar vernacular – is it the Mortet house style or particular clones? Clearly there are some other good named owner/producers of Lavaux, a pair of Dugats, Armand Rousseau, F.Esmonin. The jury’s out, but I’m sure that more research will be beneficial…
Medium colour. A blend of red and black aromas over some softer red fruit – The red fruit is quite the 2007 vintage characteristic. In the mouth this expands beautifully with quite some chocolate depth before fall-off into the finish. Really nice freshness here. The nose shows some similarity to a number of wines that follow – the smell of Lavaux? – the flavours don’t.
2007 Nicolas Potel, Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Lavaux St.Jacques
An interesting nose brings a slightly musky impression over fine soil, dark fruit and hints of raisin. Very silky tannin and super acidity. Understated overall despite its sweet fruit. This doesn’t particularly make me think to Lavaux today, but it’s lovely all the same.
Medium, medium-plus colour. The first vintage from Arnaud Mortet with some help in the background during harvesting from Claire Forestier. This seems a different interpretation versus what follows, but I add the caveat that this is also the youngest wine so showing the most young, fat fruit. Wide aromas of mainly dark shaded fruit and a faint hint at something volatile – at this stage, more fruit-forward than other vintages. This fills your mouth with plenty of fruity dimension and understated though balanced acidity. The almost saline, mineral quality of the other vintages starts on a much lower register though eventually begins to make its mark on the finish. The tannin seems very polished though this is the only Mortet wine to show any oak texture on what is a good finish – but that will fade.
Medium-plus colour. The nose starts wide and darkly fruited; muscular yet coiled, slowly begins to envelop you while adding faint coffee notes – it’s never overtly oaky. In the mouth it’s decently textured, the tannin largely hidden. It’s a spicy mouthful of licorice and black olive with a very impressive if currently bitter chocolate length – no oak texture here. I expected a little more ‘impact’, but versus many from the vintage this is still showing rather well – so no complaints.
(Magnum) Medium-plus colour and actually a faint shade darker than the 2005 if not quite the same level of purple reflections. The nose starts with mild 2004-specific aromas, but they build, eventually masking what is only a suggestion of concentrated fruit. This starts with enough dissolved gas to make it hard to judge – swirling reduces the problem, leaving you with a similar licorice/olive impression in the mid-palate and into the finish. There is also the 2004 flavour to match the aromas. Impossible for me to love this.
2004 des Chézeaux, Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Lavaux St.Jacques
Medium-pale colour. After the first whiff I chose to double decant – it may have helped a little, but there was still plenty of vintage ‘character’. Behind the mineral, cedary, slightly minty curtain is a pretty red fruit note that becomes ever brighter as the glass drains. In the mouth the ‘character’ is enough that it also intrudes on the flavour – on the other hand it’s sweet, nicely textured and would seem nicely transparent, even a little chocolaty. Drinkable, but hard for me to love this one.
2004 Louis Jadot, Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Lavaux St.Jacques
Medium colour. High-toned red fruits, no 2004-specific aromas. Mouth-filling and shows a little tannin – it’s very impressive – complex in the mid-palate. This is very nice indeed – I could love this one.
(Magnum) Medium-plus colour to the same depth as the 2005, though with a more yellowing rim. Dark, muscular aromas are augmented with spice and licorice – becomes quite comforting and enveloping – riper but very similar to the 2005. Riper in the mouth too, but balanced. The dark fruit is still in the ascendant, but I see some red here too, also, for the first time, we have some obvious tannin structure, but the grain is fine. It is a big and quite mineral mouthful with dark, spicy and slightly saline quality of many in this series.
2003 Pascal Lachaux, Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Lavaux St.Jacques
Medium-plus colour, still with a cherry-red hint. The nose has a slightly savoury, spicy width and deep, dark-skinned cherry fruit, seems reasonably fresh for the vintage. In the mouth, this is quite full and shows a very good dark-fruit dimension in the mid-palate, though the acidity is only apparent by the slowly mouth-watering, cream-edged finish. Very smooth tannin underlines the quality of the wine-making, the main nod to the vintage being an edge of warmth to the finish. Today it just begs a little spark of energy to make it more characterful – and indeed to inveigle me into pouring another glass. Anyway, it’s a beautifully crafted wine of significant dimension. I re-visited the wine on day two – the nose is finer and shows more clarity, whilst the palate is just a little more supple and less ‘monolithic’.
Medium-plus colour but a little younger looking than the 2003. The nose starts rather tight, only a few – though fine – higher tones. It’s wide and mouth-filling with a very nice impression to the slightly redder ripe fruit. Only from the mid-palate onwards comes the more typically mineral and spicy impression of previous wines. Still a bitter chocolate finish. The nose by now has added a small coffee-inflected dimension above a resonant red fruit note.
2002 Château de Gevrey-Chambertin, Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Lavaux St.Jacques
Medium colour. The nose shows a darker cherry aroma though is a little volatile. In the mouth it seems less obviously ripe than the 01 villages. More tannin that has a lick of astringency – clearly not a ‘late picked’ 2002!
(Magnum) A medium-plus colour – slightly more mature looking. The nose is back to the 2005/2003 archetype; wide, spicy, mineral, white pepper and just maybe a hint of violets. Again this is a mouth-filler and like 2005/2003 shows the dark, mineral and slightly saline character. Super length again and at this age it has lost all trace of bitterness in the first-class finish. After a while there’s a slightly disconcerting coconut aroma, but a quick swirl dissipates it. A super bottle.
2001 Louis Jadot, Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Lavaux St.Jacques
Medium colour. There is already a little sous-bois on the nose, backed by a soft and sweet impression. Lovely fine texture, jammy fruits set aside lingering, mouthwatering acidity. This is very, very complex and already in the first stages of maturity.
A medium-plus, dense and dark colour. There’s a sweet, slightly burnt note on the nose but it’s not at all ashy – rather there is width and an impression of clay – quite nice actually. Concentrated, showing gras, ripe fruit and background tannins. There is good dimension in the dark/mineral/spicy mold – just lacking the better focus of the 02/01. That said, this is tasty and easily the most approachable wine so far.
2000 des Chézeaux, Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Lavaux St.Jacques
Medium-pale colour. Warm, ripe fruit aromas slowly give way to delicate and very pretty, precise red berry notes with hints of raisin fruit. Detailed, pretty and balanced – red fruit dominated. Quite delicate, but silky and complex – not powerful but great finesse. Very much enjoyed. in fact the longer I sayed with it, the more it reminded me of the ’85 Jadot…
Medium-plus colour. The nose fits perfectly within the context of this family of bottles; dark, spicy, peppery and in this case with faint higher tones. Initially mouth-filling with ripe fruit and good texture. I expected a little more intensity from this vintage and though the focus is first-class the overall impression is more of a diminuendo after the entry. That said the mid-palate shows the characteristic saline minerality and the long finish is aided by good freshness. A very good wine, but maybe could have been even better.
Medium-plus colour. Whilst the majority of what the nose offers up, neatly fits the vernacular established by the other wines, there is just an extra edge of oak toast – unique to this vintage – but the wine has eaten it up sufficiently that there is no impression of ashyness. I find a lot of carbon dioxide on the palate – initially it’s very hard to judge. Plenty of swirling slowly releases the wine within; on entry the fruit has a nice red edge and a good, dark and spicy length. As the gas fades, so the dimension on the mid-palate becomes ever-more expressive and impressive – really lovely, and, despite coming from what some people describe as Denis Mortet’s ‘gothic phase’ I would say better than the 1999!
Medium-plus colour. The nose offers a slightly ‘raised’ impression of ripe fruit backed by brûlée, over a darker core that hints of minerals and oak. Ripe, showing good gras and balance – decent acidity here. Dark and mineral in a finish that faintly lingers. Quite a bit ‘looser’ than either of Mortet’s 99 or 98s, but approachable and very tasty.
Medium, medium-plus colour. The nose is quite different here; dark but maybe a hint reduced and tight at the core – it takes a few minutes, but slowly the nose becomes more expressive. In the mouth it’s ripe and fresh, yet gives me the impression that it is lifted and a little volatile. Still, there is decent balance and a very good finish. I am not entirely convinced…
Medium, medium-plus colour. Fine and wide aromas, less dark than many, still spicy but becoming a little animale. Ripe with some fat, really nice texture despite, or perhaps because of the furry tannin. Insinuating flavours refuse to depart though this is still a baby. Quite mineral saline and very long. Nice.
(Magnum) The first vintage of this wine at the domaine. Medium, medium-plus colour. If the last wines had some minor departure from the aromatic script, this is clearly back on-message; mineral, some sweetness, faint coffee and quite some complexity – super. Fat texture and still relatively primary, but it’s still intense and full of mid-palate flavour. The saline minerality is fully evident in the long finish – and it’s an excellent finish. Today it’s a massive and just vaguely monolithic experience – it might show better if there was a hint more freshness. I don’t think it will ever be noble or intricately precise, but it’s clearly built to impress.
The first vintage from 0.22 hectares of vines acquired from Domaine Clair Daü. Medium colour. The nose is a perfect sphere of sweet, chocolaty, new leather and warm red fruit aromas – it’s really beautiful. Still a background of grainy tannin and a dark mineral note that runs all the way through into the finish – maybe a hint of licorice too. The finish falls away a little too quickly – but I could fix that – I just took another sip! Really beautiful.