Corton, May 2004
Charles the Great – also known as the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne; Charles towered over his age – literally at a reputed six feet four inches – and certainly over his father, King Pepin the Short! Legend says that his wife ordered the planting of white grapes so that her husband could drink white wine instead of red, thereby avoiding the staining of his regal beard. Reputedly, that same vineyard is the piece of land that Charlemagne bequeathed to the Abbey of Saulieu in 775, a piece of land on the hill of Corton between Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton that still bears his name.
If the story about the white grapes is true, then the wife concerned could have been Desiderata daughter of King Desiderius of the Lombards. Charles married Desiderata, the second of his 5 wives, with the aim of forging a peace. Unfortunately for this liaison, Pope Adrian I intervened in 772 asking Charles for help against attacks by King Desiderius and his Lombards. Charles divorced his wife, invaded Italy, defeated his former father-in-law and added a new title to his growing list – King of the Lombards.
Winning so many battles and ruling over so many peoples, Charles had built himself an empire and was a defacto emperor. It was, however, Christmas Day 800 before he received the title officially. Charles was praying in Saint Peter’s Church in Rome when Pope Leo III arrived to place the crown upon his head – the Holy Roman Emperor at last.
The hill of Corton
Incredibly, Corton has known at least twelve centuries of cultivation. Unfortunately we know little of Charlemagne’s times & vines; particularly what inspired his followers to plant in this specific place, with this specific aspect – an aspect that 1,200 years later is considered one of the most gifted exposures in the world. What we do know, however, is that people became fully conscious of the characteristics of Corton-Charlemagne only much more recently – or at least that’s the story the lower prices the white wine used to fetch (vs the red) tells. It’s anyone’s guess what grapes made up the early plantings, it was not until some time well after the Revolution that the the Pinot Blanc and Gamay was ripped out, to be replaced with today’s mix of predominantly Chardonnay and some Pinot Noir.
The hill of Corton certainly looks like it should be the home of a grand cru, a large round hill crowned by the small wood of Corton. The hill is unusual in Burgundy, in that being round it has a multitude of exposures; whilst most of the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune face South or South-East, the hill of Corton allows other exposures – facing West is where you will find the sub-climats of En Charlemagne and Le Charlemagne and precisely where you will find the vines of Domaine Bonneau du Martray. The Grand Cru vineyards are restricted to an altitude of roughly 320-370 meters, predominantly red at the bottom of the hill and whites at the top. There are actually 72 hectares allowed to use the Corton-Charlemagne name but in 1999 it was a little over 51 hectares in production.
The ground of Corton-Charlemagne is made up of three layers; a limestone base, a covering of white marl – more or less depending on the plot – and finally the most fragile part, the topsoil. Retaining this topsoil is one of the owners’ greatest challenges. You can see in the pictures (right) that at the bottom of the hill wooden planks often block the roadway-gaps in the old walls, hoping to catch any topsoil washed away by sudden rainstorms. You can also see that they have some success but I’m not sure how the different domaines ‘share’ this pile of fine-grained treasure!
corton-charlemagne – the wine
Personally I have no doubt that Corton-Charlemagne is one of the great white Burgundies. Whereas a Chevalier-Montrachet or even a Montrachet will start relatively elegantly in the mouth, their flavours building and building into crescendo of enjoyment – Corton-Charlemagne is different! A typical Corton-Charlemagne starts as the others would finish – with a punch – and slowly, slowly fades into the finish, that’s not to say they are not elegant but a Charlemagne likes you to know it’s arrived. I love to drink Charlemagne young, it’s the essence of Chardonnay but once it gets to 3 years old, leave it for another 10!
Versus the other white Grand Crus of the Côte de Beaune, Corton-Charlemagne is a relative bargain, normally half their price but often on a similar quality level. There are also other white wines from the hill of Corton that can carry a Grand Cru label, but to my taste they rarely offer what Charlemagne does – there can be the punch, but there is usually something missing – either the balancing acidity or the length of the finish.
We shouldn’t forget the red wines from Charlemagne; for sure, not the same reputation as elsewhere in Corton, too often lacking a little Grand Cru intensity and a little coarse in the tannin department but as you will read, that is a vision worth revisiting.
The history of the domaine bonneau du martray
The seeds of the current Domaine Bonneau du Martray were sown at the sale of the confiscated church lands that followed the Revolution; the domaine effectively becoming only the third owners of ‘Charlemagne’ in a thousand years, after Charlemagne himself and the Church. The Revolution mostly failed to extend options for the peasantry – to them, only their bosses changed – it was mainly the second tier of aristocracy that avoided ‘the chop’, officers of the Army or rich merchant classes that could afford to bid at the auctions ‘biens nationaux’; so it was that the Bonneau-Véry family purchased lands that included the ‘Charlemagne’. The Bonneau family were incidentally direct descendants of a very famous Burgundian – Nicolas Rolin – investor of the Hospices de Beaune. In 1855 Dr Lavalle listed the Bonneau-Vérys as owning a whopping 19.7 hectares of Corton-Charlemagne. There was a family falling out in the early years, but one René Bonneau du Martray came to the fore to lead the domain. In 1892 Danguy & Aubertin (Les Grands Vins de Bourgogne) not only listed Bonneau du Martray as principle owners of Charlemagne in both Pernand and Aloxe, but interestingly ownership in a number of lieu dits in Volnay too; En Cailleret, Village de Volnay, La Gigotte and La Cave. Like many domaines, ownership of such lands in Burgundy usually entailed cost rather than profit so when lands passed down a generation, many were the times that people opted for the money rather than the land plus a tax bill, hence, the domaine’s smaller size today.
The recent history of the domaine starts with another René Bonneau du Martray (born 1886) that childless, passed on the estate to his niece, Comtesse Jean le Bault de la Morinière. Jean, husband of the Comtesse, took charge in 1969. It was Jean who extended the cellars and decided to domaine bottle, previously the wine went to the négociants. Following the untimely passing of the Comtesse, son Jean-Charles le Bault de la Morinière took over from his father Jean in 1994, returning from Paris where he worked as an architect.
the domaine today
The modern day Domaine of Bonneau du Martray covers just over 11 hectares, 9.5h of which are planted to Chardonnay for their Corton-Charlemagne, the Pinot Noir of the remainder is sited towards the bottom of their plot in the richer soil producing their ever-improving red Corton. Although these 11 hectares are contiguous they are bisected by the notional border between Pernand Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton. They own the largest part of ‘En Charlemagne’, predominantly in the administrative domaine of Pernand (at one time they owned it all), and similarly ‘Le Charlemagne’ administered mainly by Aloxe. The buildings of the domaine are housed high up on of the steep streets of Pernand. It’s a small team, some of whom have been with the domaine for over 30 years; just seven people including the sons (Bernard & Jean-Pierre) of Henri Bruchon who was chief vigneron until retiring in 1994.
The domaine is well known as being one of only two that produce only Grand Crus, but given that the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti now produce the occasional Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru, perhaps they are now the only owners of that particular crown!
Jean-Charles has fantastic reminiscences; apparently as a small child his first word was neither Mama nor Papa but ‘helicopter!’ This was an interesting coincidence, as his father decided in 1993 to follow the lead of Petrus and use a helicopter to try and dry the vines; his neighbours gathered to watch, exclaiming – “C’est le Cinema!”. There were several ‘helicopter vintages’ that followed! Then there was the time that Jean-Charles took his life in his hands when discussing their red Corton with his father who was, after many disappointments, all for ripping out their Pinot Noir and replanting with Chardonnay. Jean-Charles casually suggesting that his father, just maybe, didn’t know how to make red wine! Fortunately for Jean-Charles, Jean Senior simply agreed and said maybe Jean-Charles should have a go…
the vineyard and it’s vines
Across all the vineyards the average vine age is 45 years. The Chardonnays are actually separated into 16 different parcels all of which are vinified separately. The highest parcels add the floral aspects to the wine, the middle parcels adding to the power and the lower parcels providing the sweetness. The 1970’s were a time of change, many of the vines were tired and required replacing. Jean had aquaintance to one Mr Raymond Bernard, a pioneer of clonal selection – this was the route he took for replacement. Jean-Charles when he started in the domaine decided to check the efficiency of these clones, not just by the quality of the cuvées, but investigating underground how good the root systems were. Whilst happy with these vines, he didn’t want to lose the diversity of a vineyard where many vines pre-dated clones so in recent times sélection massale has been used as the means of replacement. Jean-Charles is convinced that vines gradually mutate to fit their location; to amplify his assertion he points to the vines of Anne-Claude Leflaive and Dominique Lafon – also chardonnay – but their grapes and vines look quite different to those of his grown in Corton. This observation leads him to consider his vineyard an ‘entity’.
Jean-Charles points to the times after the war when first, horses were replaced with tractors, and second because the ground became more and more compacted, a dependancy on chemical treatments grew and grew. He says that it was precisely this that made the soil more and more fragile, despite being farmers, there was a generation that forgot to look after the soil which bore them their fruit. Today there are no herbicides or fertilisers allowed in or on the domaine’s vineyards.
Jean-Charles practices lees stirring for his whites, he feels it adds an extra complexity, he also eschews new oak, using just enough for the effect he requires – typically around 30%. The Charlemagne has a very good reputation – and it’s no surprise – for it’s quality level it is something of a Burgundian bargain. It tastes fantastic young and old, and shows super complexity. Personally I’ll try to avoid drinking it (at least my own bottles!) at an intermediate age. The red wine is different; criticized in some quarters for many years, Jean-Charles has worked very hard to make a difference: Yields are restricted by green harvesting to an average of 30 hl/ha. There is complete destemming and a period of cold soaking prior to fermentation. I think the wine still shows it’s chalky base, but the tannins are today very svelte and the concentration is exactly where it should be. Jean-Charles suggests that blind, you would never place this wine as a Corton – I’m not sure, it reminds me very much of Belland’s Corton Clos de la Vigne au Saint – but I know what he means, and it’s a very interesting wine though relatively expensive in it’s genre vs the Charlemagne.
The domaine by virtue of it’s large holdings does what many cannot – it cellars a lot of older vintages. Don’t dismiss the occasional 1991 or 1993 on the shelf of your local merchant – it could have come direct from those cellars very recently – always check as the domaine often releases older vintages!
A selection of domaine wines follow. All drunk one evening in July 2004 – together with dinner – they weren’t actually drunk in this order but I try to make it easier for you:
A young, pale colour. A wine whose aromatics major on fruit. Seems fat, but needs just a little more time as there’s still a little oak marking the palate. Gives the impression of lower acidity, most likely due to the extra fat. Probably starting to sing as you read this – or leave until 2015+
Same colour as the 2000. The wine shows a blast of fruit on the nose. The steely palate is much more mineral than the 2000 that follows and seems to show an extra length despite less-than piercing acidity. Very drinkable today, a bit of a honey.
Light colour again. Again a high toned nose, slightly alcoholic. The palate is fit rather than fat, super focused Charlemagne intensity. Lovely texture, really nice acidity and a great finish. Few words but great wine.
A deeper yellow colour. The high-toned nose has hints of oak and is much more backward than a recent half bottle that showed lots of exotic fruit. The palate doesn’t have the kick or the complexity of the 1995 that follows, still it is showing in a very young and backward way. This wine from the domaine is also quite backward compared to other examples – presumably from cooler storage.
Medium golden colour. The nose is a little closed with what I first thought to be faint oxidative notes but with air becomes honied. The palate is fat and concentrated showing real complexity and super acidity. The finish is reminiscent of fresh, wild strawberries. This wine will last a very long time – and will be super.
Lighter colour. The nose majors on honey. A real Charlemagne blast of concentration on the palate. Relative to the previous wines this is a little more muted and shorter, but in isolation this is still very nice wine and was very much enjoyed with dinner.
Relatively pale colour. The nose is open, high toned and pure. The palate shows a lovely blend of fat and acidity surrounding an excellent core of concentrated young fruit. Very long too. This will be a wonderful wine, but you should still wait.
From magnum. Bright golden colour. The nose shows complex notes that include honey and lanolin. A model of freshness and power the palate has engrossing complexity and a special ‘extra’ dimension on the finish. Real class.
Medium-plus colour. The nose is a blend of red and black fruits. Not the obvious fat and flashy friendliness of most 2002’s, much more a classic, concentrated brooding wine. The tannin shows a good grip and there’s a lovely fruity length. A very good wine.
Medium, medium-plus colour. The nose is a little tighter and less communicative, some powdery red fruit. Shows a very young and backward palate. Excellent quality to the fruit and good length too. This wine begs several years in cellar but should be worth the wait.
Medium, medium-plus colour. Pleasing high-toned red cherry fruit shows on the nose. There’s a solid core of fruit on the palate. A silky, wide, expansive impression in the the mouth with velvetty tannin. Long with a definite personality. This is a serious 2000.
From magnum. Deep colour. High tones over a base of raisins and dried red fruit on the nose. A really nice core of concentrated fruit on the palate pushed long into the finish by first-class ’93 acidity. The grainy tannins don’t have the sophistication of the recent wines, but this is certainly a very enjoyable finale and still a very young wine in this format.
Domaine Bonneau du Martray
21420, Pernand Vergelesses
tel: +33 3 80 21 50 64