There must be something in the air, or perhaps it’s the water but all of a sudden the wine world is full of Liger-Belairs: There is Gérard Liger-Belair, Associate Professor at the University of Reims and something of a Champagne Expert. There is the relatively new Domaine Thibault Liger-Belair in Nuits St.-Georges, the core of whose holdings are the vines (in Richebourg, Clos de Vougeot and Nuits 1er Les St.-Georges) reclaimed from their long-term lease to Domaine Dominique Mugneret. Finally, and the subject of this piece, the (also relatively new) Domaine du Vicomte Liger-Belair in Vosne-Romanée – changed to ‘Comte’ in 2005 – all are related, cousins of the same generation.
To the left you see Louis Liger-Belair, General to Napoléon, it was he who started the family domaine around 1815. Louis, together with his son Louis-Charles, pieced together the holdings that made up La Romanée, the entirety of what was La Tâche, large pieces of Richebourg, Les Malconsorts, Les Gaudichots and many others in Vosne; a total of over 40 hectares. Today the man at the head of the domaine is Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, the first Liger-Belair since his Grandfather to actually make the wine. The domaine today is very different to what went before, only a little over 3 hectares including two adjacent pieces of villages level Vosne-Romanée, two Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru’s and still the jewel in the crown that is the totality of the Grand Cru of La Romanée. Over several generations, agreements were made with various negociants to market the domaine wines. Most recently it was Bouchard Père et Fils but starting with the 2006 vintage Louis-Michel takes over responsibility for everything. Louis-Michel’s Grandfather (Michel) made wine with hired help until the 1940’s when the Forey family, most recently with Regis Forey did the vineyard work and the elevage, Louis-Michel succeeded Regis.
For a number of generations, Burgundian vineyards were a license to part with, rather than make money. This was doubtless the reason that in successive generations many decided to opt for the money over the land plus inheritance tax-bill as the generations changed. I guess that the Liger-Belair family expected that Louis-Michel would emulate his father, grandfather and great grandfather by entering the army to eventually become a General but from an early age he expressed more interest in matters viticultural. Just in case vines had no future, Louis-Michel was directed to take an education in engineering before enology – at least that way he could still get a decent job in the army!
One interesting aspect about the courtyard and some of the outbuildings is the neighbour – Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Louis-Michel’s Grandmother sold some outbuildings and associated cellars to that domaine, so today there’s wine from Romanée-Conti maturing beneath the Liger-Belair outbuildings.
The Vosne-Romanée vineyards of the domaine
Two adjoining ‘villages’ Vosne-Romanées, two 1er Cru Vosne-Romanées and the Grand Cru La Romanée. Five areas of vines totaling 3.14 hectares. Louis-Michel has been working his vineyards since 2002 ploughing with a horse and a light tractor where previously tractors and chemical treatments were used. Initially he used the same horses as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, then some horses from another firm that I was lucky enough to see and photograph ‘in action’ in June. In the interests of flexibility he’s actually now considering buying his own horse.
- Vosne-Romanée, La Columbière
A 0.6 hectare triangular parcel of old vines, averaging 70 years old. The ground here is mainly clay-based with a little limestone, flint and fine rubble.
- Vosne-Romanée, Clos du Château
A Monopole, originally planted by Louis-Michel’s father in 1970 to boost the family’s income, prior the land was garden to the Château. The clone planted here needs a lot of pruning work to give its best as it produces lots of grapes and branches. The soil here is continuous with La Columbière but is more limestone than clay, also because it is enclosed by a wall, it ripens on average one week earlier than the La Columbière. Today Louis-Michel has average yields of 30-35 hl/ha, before he took over the viticulture it was 50-60!
- Vosne-Romanée 1er, Chaumes
Only two barrels from this small holding of 60 year old vines located at the top of the Chaumes vineyard – close to the cross of La Tâche.
- Vosne-Romanée 1er, Aux Reignots
This vineyard commences with a geological fault at the top of La Romanée and extends steeply higher. The vines of Liger-Belair are a mixture of ages – one third are 80 years old, one third are 60 years old, and the last third are a mix of 40 and 20 years old. Because of the age of the vines there’s approximately 10-15% of dead vines that Louis-Michel will start to replace on an individual basis. There are faults in the ground allowing the roots to reach many metres of depth, hence, even in 2003 there was no dehydration in this vineyard. The vines of Liger-Belair run all the way from the bottom to the top of the vineyard, whereas the other owners; Cathiard (top), Grivot (middle) and Arnoux (bottom) have significant differences in altitude. The 0.7 hectare plot owned by Liger-Belair accounts for roughly 45% of the surface of of this vineyard.
- La Romanée
I could write a whole article about La Romanée (and will, later…). Smallest AOC in France, just 0.84 hectares. It is separated from Romanée-Conti by a strangely meandering track, wide enough for a tractor but little else. Today there are obvious differences to Romanée-Conti, the vines run North-South instead of Romanée-Conti’s East-West – this was of particular advantage to Louis-Michel in 2003 as the method of pruning allowed the grapes better shelter from the sun. A majority of the vines were replanted by the Foreys in the early 1950’s, though Louis-Michel has a small section that he’s replanted – well not exactly, he’s actually grafted onto already existing old roots. Louis-Michel finds the vineyard quite homogenous, the northern side retains a little extra moisture from the draining of Aux Reignots above otherwise it’s remarkably similar over it’s surface.
The winemaking at the domaine
Like many of his generation Louis-Michel concentrates on the vines, and the resultant fruit will determine what needs to be done in the cuverie. His yields are in the 30-38 hl/ha region. In 2003 for instance, the fruit from all his vineyards was of sufficient cleanliness and quality that 100% new oak was used throughout. Because Louis-Michel prefers long aging without racking (except for bottling, and then only by gravity) he needs the cleanest fruit and barrels to avoid any taint – hence, uses as much new oak as the underlying material will allow. In 2003 he chose to leave the grapes on the vines until the 31st August – earlier would have meant that the grapes reached the winery too hot – he’s not unhappy with the resultant acidities and as can be seen below the wines show good balance and little overt oak character. All the harvesting is completed in around 1½ days only with friends, Louis-Michel reckons that friends will always do a better job than people he has to pay…
The domaine’s wines
Before looking at a few wines in bottle, we sampled a selection of 2003’s from barrel – these will be bottled before the end of 2004. Regardless of any vineyard hierarchy, there is an opulence to the fruit in all of these 2003’s that in some ways blurs the expected jump in quality from villages to 1er Cru to Grand Cru but in essence this reflects very well the vintage.
Medium-plus colour. The nose has intense fruit – more blue shaded than red. The palate has obviously ripe fruit that shows real depth, velvetty tannin. Intense and not at all jammy, this wine shouts out to advertise itself and is very impressive.
Similar depth of colour to the La Columbière. The nose doesn’t shout so loud, but there’s lovely depth to the fruit and a slightly more spicy aspect. The palate is a little silkier, not particularly high acidity but there’s balance and the finish is still mouthwatering. This is a very tasty wine that reminds Louis-Michel of Chambolle.
Just 2 barrels in 2003. Medium-plus colour. This nose is higher toned than the the last two, and it seems there’s an extra layer of complexity. Again this wine is all about a balanced intensity of pinot fruit. There is a perceptible extra grain to the tannin vs the Clos du Château, but there’s also a gain on the finish – super length – Lovely wine.
Medium colour. The nose is totally different to all the other wines – slightly reductive – in the background, there’s red fruit that grows in prominence in the glass, lovely purity, the nose becomes higher toned with time. Louis-Michel thinks this reductive aspect is down to the terroir, he says that the 2002 behaved in exactly the same way. Eventually develops a coffee note on the nose. Poised, silky palate that’s very fruit forward – the essence of rich red cherries.
We tried two different barrels; both from the same maker, the wood coming from different forests. The first showed a touch of reduction over blood-red fruit, the second was less reduced and provided a much wider – panoramic even – nose. Both barrels showed a touch of spritz on the palate but also a luxurious mouthfeel with many layers to the fruit – superbly balanced – so much so, that it was hard to pick out specific attributes but the finish lingers with a style that leaves you remembering the wine for some time after.
Whilst less forward than the 2003 Reignots, the nose shows a distinct family resemblance. Not just a beautiful depth to the fruit but also width too. It’s ripe fruit is very tightly wound and really needs an hour or two in a decanter. Slowly develops a nice coffee note. Very, very good.
Slightly paler colour than the last wine. Dense, slightly reduced nose that slowly develops a nice bright fruity aspect from an earthy base. This wine has a more classic, round shape to the palate; less rich and fat vs the 2003, developing an almost mocha note on the finish. Very different in shape to the 2003 and perhaps more intellectual.
Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair
1 Rue Château