Sometimes visits to a particular producer or vineyard can stand out in the mind; for a variety of reasons they can remain with you or even effect the way you might think about things in the future. The visit to Domaine Prieure Roch was certainly one such visit.
The domaine was born in 1988 to Henry-Frédéric Roch. Henry is the son of Pauline Roch – older sister to Lalou Bize-Leroy – and Henry is also co-director of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Pictures I’ve seen of a younger Henry very much give him the look of an ‘angry young man’, today in his mid-40’s (we share the same vintage), I sense that conviction of thought, but those thoughts are delivered in a considered, and convincing manner. Conversations go off on tangents about art, architecture, viticultural philosophies and even philosophy – then back again. Littered through our time and conversations together his throwaway remarks and observations kept going off like small bombs in my mind. Some is best not recounted, but hopefully I can give you some flavour of this complex, personable and interesting man – and of-course, a little about his wines. The domaine is little reviewed by the ‘paid-for’ critics; I can only assume that Domaine Prieure Roch is a hard place to fit into a reviewer’s 45-60 minute schedule of ‘slots’ – given the ‘ideals’ Henry works to, you might be there for 4 hours, or he just might throw you out after 4 minutes…
The origins of Domaine Prieure Roch can be traced to 1966 when Mlle Marey-Monge leased her family’s vines in Romanée Saint-Vivant to the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti – the option of ‘first refusal’ (should the holdings of the Marey-Monge estate come-up for sale) was exercised in 1988 when her heirs the Neyroud family finally sold to the Domaine. This purchase required funds beyond the reserves of the domaine so financing involved selling their vines in Echézeaux and a smaller amount in Grands Echézeaux, but retaining the use of the land on a renewable 30 year lease. The domaine also owned several plots of vines around Vosne; Henry Roch decided that he would buy these parcels himself.
Henry recounted that he found himself in an unusual position in 1988 – he now owned vines in his own right, but there were certain issues arising; first he had no premises – well, only a small cabotte in Vosne (Cape Canaveral!) – and second he had no clients! Then what should he call the domaine? Domaine Roch implied a little too much self-importance and the name already seemed well covered by other businesses in France. One day Henry happened to see a wooden case of Bordeaux with the name Château Prieuré-Lychine and he thought – why not? – Prieure Roch (the priory Roch) had a nice ring to it.
Parcels of vines were acquired here and there, some purchased, some ‘en fermage’ – premises were found in Nuits – a former garage was converted and is still quite visible as you drive through the centre of town, it’s large doors fashioned as giant oak barrels. More recently additional premises were found in Prémeaux – additional barrel cellars and a fantastic dining hall for the team. In contrast to the ostentation of the entrance to the premises in Nuits, in Prémeaux you need to look out only for the spray-painted arrow and number 6 on a gate to point you the ‘head office’!
An idea of the man
Whilst the domaine is driven by one man’s vision/passion, of-course it’s not just one man; today Henry is ably assisted in the vineyards and cuverie by his new number 2 – Yannick Champ – yet it’s clear that Henry has strong thoughts on a number of subjects:
- Labels; the vintage and the name of the wine are the only important indicators, Henry almost foams at the mouth at the thought of having to write “Clos de Bèze – Grand Vin de Bourgogne” for people that might not know! Of-course the domaine have their legal obligations, so all such ‘details’ are observed, it’s simply up to the buyer to decide which is the front and which is the back label!
- Whole clusters; Henry is clear that this is the traditional way to make burgundy and that’s how it will be done at his domaine, and it’s not just to improve drainage in the cuvées – he does, however, believe that he works in fortunate times – in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s many vintages would have shown borderline ripeness in the stems giving a rather vegetal aspect, but in recent years, this has not been such an concern.
- It’s about the challenge; the Clos des Corvées is a large vineyard, but Henry is not looking for a southern or northern cuvée – rather the best cuvée – he is wide-eyed with admiration for those that managed the ten times larger Clos de Vougeot – though he clearly thinks it’s a ‘catastrophe’ that the vineyards are now so subdivided. For his great vineyards it’s also clear that he feels a great obligation to produce the best ‘burgundy’ that he can. He has to balance the fiscal with the romantic, but given his resource position, he can pretty-much focus on the romantic!
- Terriors; since he was a young man riding his motorbike in a t-shirt he noticed that in some of the places he rode, he was warm, in others he was cold, enough proof of the existence of different microclimates – ever since he has been striving to reflect these differences – the ‘esprit in the glass’.
A tour through the domaine’s vines…
|Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire 0.82 hectares red and 0.6 hectares white|
The red is a mix of Pinot (0.56 ha) and Gamay (0.26 ha), and the white is a barrel ferment chardonnay. All the vines are located in the commune next-door to Vosne-Romanée – Boncourt-le-Bois.
|Nuits St.Georges 1er Cru Clos des Corvées 5.21 hectares|
A vineyard that was exploited for many years by Louis Jadot – though they only managed around 5 of the 5.21 hectares. Henry Roch managed in 1995 to unite all of the Clos for the first time in hundreds of years. The average age of the vines is ~70 years, some over 90 years old. Since 2002 there have been 3 passes in the vines, the first pass takes in the smallest and ripest grapes from all but those vines under 30 years of age – for 2005 this amounted to 10 barrels – this is the Clos des Corvées. Then there is another pass which will be simply named Nuits 1er Cru. The last pass – which includes the fruit of the young vines – is declassified to ‘villages’ and called Nuits St.Georges Number 1.
|Vosne-Romanée Les Clous 0.72 hectares|
Les Clous is a name with a very old history in Vosne; in this case the name is taken for a blend of three village lieu-dits, Le Pré de la Folie, La Colombière and Aux Champs-Perdrix. The vines are relatively young, being planted in the 1980’s.
|Vosne-Romanée Clos Goillotte 0.55 hectares|
Almost like a garden to the fantastic old hunting-lodge of the Dukes of Burgundy. At one time it extended to almost 1 hectare, today 0.55 hectares of 40 year-old vines remain enclosed by a wall. Despite its documented existence for hundreds of years this wine was ‘lost’ to villages labels until 1988 when Henry Roch put Goillotte on a label for the very first time. Henry calls this the most ‘baroque’ of his Vosnes.
|Vosne-Romanée Hautes-Maizières 0.63 hectares|
Despite its village appellation, this vineyard often serves up a significantly more complex and compelling wine than its villages counterparts. With an average age of ~40 years, these vines are sited close to the Suchots 1er Cru.
|Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Suchots 1.02 hectares|
Thirty year-old vines at the northern end of the vineyard, bordering the Clos St.Denis lieu-dit of the grand cru Echézeaux. For info, the 2002 vintage yielded ~5,000 bottles or 36 hl/ah
|Clos de Vougeot 0.68 hectares|
This is a very well sited plot within the clos, sitting just below the château. Guyot trained, the vines are a blend of ages with planting dates in the 1930’s, 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. A little under 3,000 bottles was the result in 1999 and 2002
|Clos de Bèze 1.01 hectares|
Henry leased this old parcel of vines in 1994 from a famous old name; Domaine (Dr) Marion. The average vine age is a little over 45 years, in 2002 this vineyard yielded ~4,000 bottles or 30 hl/ha, and only 32 hl/ha in the high yielding 1999 vintage.
The vines and the wines
The domaine is certified bio – it was a long and painful process as yields plummeted, but year by year as balance returned to the vineyard the yields in the best vineyards edged up from a miserly 15 hl/ha to around 25 today – their eventual aim is 30hl/ha. The only ‘feeding’ comes from a compost made from crushed vine shoots and grape marc composted with a little cow manure. Herbicides are banned and weeding done manually.
Triage is a core focus during the vendanges; the cleaned-up whole clusters go directly into the tank. There is also no/little sulfur used at this stage, the aim being to harvest as many local yeast populations as possible – Henry describes these as the “relay runners”, one following another until the sugars are exhausted.
During fermentation there is twice daily pigeage – normally lasting around ten days. Total cuvaisons are around three weeks before gravity feeding into the barrels in the cellar below for the malolactic fermentation – most of the cuvées see 100% new oak. The total elevage lasts approximately 18 months. The wines are neither filtered, nor fined, and the avoidance of pumping gives the wines a relatively high level of natural carbon dioxide. Even the Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire has the same treatment – just a little less time is spent in the barrels.
The domaine’s vinification methods produce relatively light coloured wines, but to open a bottle of wine from this domaine is to be drawn into a fabulously aromatic world – of course you have to be a fan of the dimension that the whole cluster fermentation brings, but if you are…
With food we also drank the 2002 Les Clos des Corvées and Clos Goillotte, and the Vosne-Romanée Hautes-Maizières, we finished with the 2003 Clos de Bèze. I won’t aggrandise my recollections with individual tasting notes, rather just leave you with my impressions: The 2002’s were darker in colour and aromatically more fruit-driven – only slowly did the stem elements emerge. None wore a refined suit of tannin but all were deep and interesting – particularly the Mazières which seemed the more concentrated, explosive and wide – it was also the longest finishing before we moved to the Bèze. The Bèze was tight, linear and much more mineral and fresh than most wines from this vintage, easily the most concentrated and long finishing; the tannins were a little more abundant but also better balanced as they were quite fine – a fantastic wine in the making.
For a number of reasons amongst which I include the domaine’s approach to vineyard management, yields, stems, prices and even family connections etc., I had a number of benchmark styles in mind before visiting, these were Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Leroy and Domaine Dugat-Py. I also had in the back of my mind a number of comments I had read that the oak was often overpowering.
What I took away with me had little correlation to my benchmarks. The older wines are not strongly coloured but show very good palate intensity. Whilst my benchmarks aromatically show their stems to varying extents, none are so pronounced as these wines – they are similar in that respect to their near neighbour Domaine de l’Arlot. I had zero issues with ‘excessive’ oak character. The wines perfectly snapshot the vintages; lighter colour in 2001 and 2004, deeper colour in 2002 and 2003, in all vintages tasted, the aromatics are wonderful. I don’t want the same style with every bottle I drink, but every third or fourth bottle in this style would be a nice balance.
I tasted no bourgognes, but I hear very positive things about these wines, and their pricing is very fair. With the exception of the Clos de Goillotte, the village Vosnes are also well-priced – the Haute-Maizières is probably the star – Henry fell in love with the Clos de Goillotte vineyard the first time he saw it, and from his pricing it is an expensive mistress! It has super aromatics and a wild, very good premier cru complexity (I like his description of ‘baroque’) but perhaps not a premier cru length. The domaine’s Clos des Corvées, like the Clos de Goillotte, is a very expensive bottle, but their current approach yields well under 20 hl/ha for this label.
The grand crus are also expensive, though much less-so than equivalents from Leroy or Dugat-Py. I was very impressed by the mineral intensity of the 2003 Clos de Bèze – certainly one of the best Bèze I have tasted from that vintage.
Domaine Prieure Roch
6 Route Nationale 74
21700 Prémeaux Prissey
+33 3 80 62 00 00 tel
+33 3 80 62 00 01 fax