Profile: Maison Ilan (Nuits St.Georges)

Update 15.9.2011(14.9.2011)billn

 The secret of Ray’s success…

Anyone who has been more than a casual visitor to this website will know the name of Ray Walker; contributing his story of starting out to make wine in Burgundy as he did in the Big Red Diary.

Ray managed to build up quite a bit of hype and his name was everywhere – for that reason, and the fact that he quickly pre-sold all of his 2009s, I saw no reason to join in the hype – I was anyway sure we’d meet up eventually. It turned out to be a case of ‘sooner rather than later’ as a bunch of friends (I was with) had arranged a visit; I could at least sit in the background, listen and taste a little, and get a chance to see what substance lay behind the hype…

When you first meet Ray you will note his tall athletic frame, wide smile and easygoing nature, but don’t be fooled, he’s not really an American, he’s actually a Californian – and that’s not the same! Sure there is the same unbending confidence, but it’s delivered with total understatement. I’m sure this easy-going but enthusiastic nature is one of his key success factors – and let’s be clear, what he has achieved in such a short time is nothing short of remarkable – with one caveat; he hasn’t yet delivered any wine to his customers.

Ray lives in Nuits St.Georges with his wife and daughter, and from day one when he set out on this personal/familial adventure in France, his target was a simple one – to make great Burgundy wine – and without cumbersome details such as a background in winemaking or speaking French. Just how did that happen?

Once upon a time…

‘Ray’s Story.’ Ray worked in the finance industry; his (at the time) girlfriend and now wife, Christian, liked to drink a glass of wine with dinner – Ray preferred fruit juice – eventually he felt he should join-in so arranged to go on a wine-tasting course. The wine-tasting didn’t really go to plan – he thought he’d enrolled to learn about Bordeaux but when he arrived to taste, the bottles were from somewhere called Burgundy – he was disappointed – until he tasted the wines! It was the start of a fascination, perhaps obsession, which ended with Ray deciding to give wine-making a try – something of a surprise for a guy who had just completed his final exams to be a stock-broker!

Ray’s learning curve started with shoveling grape-skins and cleaning out tanks in California before making his first trips to Burgundy. Despite being told it would never work out, or that he might (after a few successful vintages) have ‘the opportunity to buy and make some Villages, or perhaps Premier Cru wines – if he was very lucky’, things turned out quite differently. Although there were some elements of chance, this was not just a case of pure luck; there was persistence, enthusiasm and particularly the right contacts to finance the purchase of some very aristocratic grapes – the sort that the négoce fight over every day – exemplified by the number of premises Ray worked from before settling into Nuits St.Georges.

For anyone wanting to get into this business, the basic message in Burgundy is that ‘there are never any grapes for sale’ but ‘never’ turns out to be quite an elastic concept if you can open the right doors. For Ray, a chance encounter provided an embarrassment of riches and actual embarrassment in equal measure; it was an all or nothing deal, so he had to return to his backers – cap in hand. It seems they were very understanding; though Ray likes to be clear “it’s a loan, I own the business 100%“.

Burgundy is like anywhere else; there are those that will go out of their way to help, and there are others who will be obstructive for whatever reason might be at hand – Ray has met both types, but he is adamant that the helpful far outweigh the unhelpful – and it seems that he has done rather well by cultivating the former; far from a few barrels of Bourgogne Rouge, in Ray’s first year he had grapes from one Premier Cru and two Grand Crus. 2010 (year two) saw two more 1er Crus, and 2011 brought another three. At the moment the range stands at eight cuvées:

  • Le Chambertin Grand Cru – 5 barrels
  • Charmes-Chambertin “Aux Charmes Haute” Grand Cru – 8.5 barrels
  • Mazoyères-Chambertin Grand Cru – 7 barrels
  • Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru “Les Chaffots” – 5 barrels
  • Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru “Monts Luisants” – 5 barrels
  • Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru “Les Corbeaux” – 2 barrels
  • Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru “Les Feusselottes” – 2 barrels
  • Volnay 1er Cru “Robardelles” – 5 barrels

So in total, Ray practically has the forty barrels per year that he has set as a ceiling for himself so that he could concentrate on quality not quantity; and with a highly improbable five barrels of Chambertin from the 2011 harvest, Ray already seems something of a high-end fixture!

Making wine

Rays first vintage, 2009, started in different premises and whilst he didn’t know all the different pieces of equipment in cuverie, he knew how he wanted to make his wine – call it intuition – and that was just as well, he was working alone! His approach to triage was quite neat, arranging for himself a table de trie – just a static block of MDF – but it did the job then and still does now.

One very interesting bottle is his 2009 Morey 1er Chaffots; just like Pascal Marchand’s Musigny when he worked at Vougeraie, Ray decided to de-stem – overnight, by hand! After finishing his Charmes-Chambertin ‘some hours’ later he lost patience with his Chaffots and had just started to add whole clusters when the old proprietor of his premises appeared, and said – ‘you know what that piece of equipment is, the one that’s been standing behind you all night? It’s a destemmer!’ The rest of the grapes went through this double quick, but perhaps Ray’s combination of approaches helped deliver a very interesting mocha note in his Chaffots! Ray has also invested in pretty new oak fermentation vats which seem to have been designed so that they all shoe-horn into a cuverie not much bigger than an average garage – their only augmentation being a thermometer. There is very little in the way of punchdowns, Ray electing to let the wine ‘make itself’. Then comes his trusty old press – vintage 1915, completely manual but bought for a song and self-renovated. The barrel cellar is much less ‘intimate’ though, providing a useful working-space.

Once (finally!) in barrel, Ray again prefers to do as little as possible; no racking if he can get away with it, and a limited amount of tasting – as there’s so little of his wine to go around! When it came to topping up his barrels, Ray chose a very old trick; after ransacking the toy-shops he placed marbles (in years gone by it was stones) in the barrels – inert and pretty! Here they stay for up to 18 months.

The wines

Tasted in Nuits, 9th April 2011. These are good 2009s (though they should be, it’s a good vintage) but tucked away in Ray’s tiny cuverie the 2010s are better still. I availed my self of a mixed six-pack of 2010s just before Ray closed his ‘list’, the 2009s having long-since been sold. Having seen first-hand the gross inflation of his prices ‘down the line’ such that that the people selling were earning far more per bottle than he did, Ray has used the US approach of building a list of clients and selling direct, allowing him to concentrate all his resources on the product rather than building a supply-chain of distributors.

It’s worth saying that, characteristic of the man, the prices are not cheap but remain fair given the quality and price of his raw materials – it’s easy to point to other ‘micro-négoce’ where the prices would be double. This seems to be Ray’s calling, rather than a vanity project. These seem wines to watch, let’s see what is eventually delivered.

2009 Maison Ilan, Morey St.Denis 1er Les Chaffots
Hints of mocha on the nose meld with spice – super complexity. In the mouth this is ripe-fruited, concentrated and balanced. There’s that mocha note again – not a bad ‘entry-level’ wine!

2009 Maison Ilan, Charmes-Chambertin Aux Charmes Haute
The nose has an understated width, then slowly arriving higher ones, eventually a pretty raspberry fruit. Really full and round in the mouth with glimpses of beautiful red fruit – an above average Charmes!

2009 Maison Ilan, Le Chambertin
What a wine – it’s quite hard to write a cogent note: What’s most impressive is how completely blanketed the structure is whilst remaining effortlessly balanced and understatedly complex. Excellent.

I was lucky enough to be gifted with a bottle of Ray’s abortive first bottling run of the Chaffots; ever the perfectionist, he stopped after a couple of cases because the corks didn’t centre perfectly – I decided that was a good enough reason not to leave it in the cellar too long. Anyway this joined a good collection on the dinner-table during our 2011 harvest – as it turned out, that cork was wedged in pretty tight!
2009 Maison Ilan, Morey St.Denis 1er Les Chaffots
Hmm, completely unlike how I remember – tons of burned rubber is the first impression – in reality it’s a mix of toasty oak and reduction that needs decanting or 1 hour to subside – now I’m getting mocha-chocolate again 😉 In the mouth, likewise, you need to give this wine serious airtime to rid it of the reductive elements and allow it to show as it did at the domaine – and it does show that way. I guess Ray’s samples above had seen plenty of air.

Maison Ilan
14, rue Porte Fermerot
21700 Nuits-Saint-Georges
Phone: +33 (0)3 80 23 58 97

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