The world needs characters and moustachioed, 52 year-old Jean-Claude Rateau perfectly fits the bill – if it wasn’t for his reserved personality and the fact he speaks only French, I expect his fame would be spread much further than a homeland which consumes 75% of his production.
Rateau is a local Beaune surname; there is record of Rateaus involved in the construction of the Hospices de Beaune, but it was not really much of a familial domaine that Jean-Claude took over from his parents, only 1 hectare which they exploited while having other jobs, that said, Jean-Claude’s father did attend the Beaune Lycée. So Jean-Claude already had a knowledge of vines and harvests when he began with this 1 hectare and slowly grew the domaine such that after about 10 years he was exploiting 10 hectares. The crisis of the early 1990s led him to downsize a little, but today he domaine is about 8.5 hectares and produces 14 different wines, red, white and rosé – Jean-Claude feels this is the optimum size for him to exploit and market. The domaine is situated on the right hand side as you drive up the Route de Bouze – about half-way up the hill from Beaune.
But what is special about Domaine Jean-Claude Rateau? The answer is that he works in a biodynamic way. I guess that statement is something you’ve heard before, but back in 1979 when he started, nobody in Burgundy worked this way. Not only was he the first in Burgundy, he was only the 4th vigneron in France to take this approach after first seeing it in action in Brouilly. Given that 30 years later ‘le Bio’ is still often treated as a bit of voodoo, I can’t begin to imagine what his neighbours thought of this – perhaps that contributed to his reserved demeanour…
In the vines
I visited Jean-Claude in late June and it was a perfect time for him to illustrate his approach in the vines. All his parcels were in full vigour, yet the next row vines of neighbours invariably looked less vigorous and less developed (as above). A stark example was at the bottom of the Beaune hill near the football stadium; here the villages lieu-dit is called Les Mariages and a whole section had been burnt by the December 2009 frost leaving barely a leaf to be seen, but the neighbouring vines were in full bloom and not a single vine in the neighbouring row had been lost – the healthy vines were Jean-Claude’s. I took another look at the end of July when I took the photo (below)
Jean-Claude has often worked with Claude Bourguignon to analyse his soils to get a better understanding of their health and constitutions, it seems to me that above all else, the vineyard is his domain. He likes to prune en cordon with a gap of about 20 centimetres between shoots for good aeration, but in the Hautes Còtes he uses a higher-trained lyre system that’s not allowed in the Côte d’Or. The altitude here is actually not much different to the Beaune 1ers, but it is cooler than the Beaune hillside and so is about two weeks later to ripen.
Jean-Claude aims to deliver whites that are both mineral and direct, showing no oak character – he anyway uses no new oak, the barrels in his cellar (for red and white) are aged between three and ten years. Elevage for whites is normally for 6-8 months, though the 2008s took 12 months. He thinks his 1er cru white is really interesting once it reaches 4-5 years of age, delivering complexity and length.
In the cellar Jean-Claude uses a minimum of sulfur, leaving the wine on its lees until bottle. Stems are utilised here but not every vintage and not 100% though Jean-Claude tells that the Beaune Prevolles takes the stems very well. Pigeage is manual and depending on the eventual clarity of the wine he will choose to filter slightly or maybe not at all…
The style of the wines
There are a number of producers that make their whites in quite an oxidative way – it usually only shows up in the aromas, and when mixed with plenty of new oak the effect is mollified – I think of certain wines I’ve tasted from Buisson-Charles and Coche-Dury. This ‘in-process’ oxidation seems to endow the wines with the power to ward-off premature oxidation. Here you see it in the raw as there is no new oak in this cellar. The fruit flavours that cross your tongue show no trace of the aromas and are pretty indeed.
Then the reds: Nothing oxidative about these wines; the aromas are pure, slightly floral and very pretty indeed – likewise the fruit on the palate – but like the whites, there’s plenty of freshness to these wines, in the vintages I’ve tasted at any rate…
To sum up: Fresh but balanced wines of personality too – the whites deliver older Meursault-style aromatics and the reds have gorgeously pure fruit – and that’s quite a compliment for 2007 reds!
1.20 hectares with a lyre-training for the vines. Hmm, interesting. This young wine already has a nutty, slightly oxidised aroma that dovetails with a little pineapple. There is some fat and there’s also lots of acidity. The mid-palate flavours hang around very well and show no sense of oxidation.
0.60 hectare parcel of lighter coloured soil suited more to white wine. Once more the nose has that nutty, oxidised Meursault-style personality. Talking of personality, there’s plenty of that on the palate, but with a light touch and plenty of acidity that helps push the finishing flavours long. Jean-Claude prefers his whites with about 4 years of bottle age.
Beautiful fruit aromas jump from the glass. The acidity is a little to the fore after tasting the sweeter whites, but the mid-palate flavours are quite lovely and hold well in the finish too.
Deep soil that augers vigorous vines, certainly there is some relatively early maturity here. Normally delivers rich but balanced wines with some floral elements. The aromas are very pretty and show some violet flowers. Again the acidity seems slightly forward though there’s generally more structure here. The fruit flavours are very fine.
Some of the vines in this parcel are over 100 years old. Here the soil is argilles and hard to work. The old vines deliver softness to the wine though. The fruit here is more ‘baked tart’ in style. Again fresh acidity but there is also more mid-palate kick and complexity after the last two (2008s), but perhaps less precision also.
The nose starts much deeper but with a little funk and reduction – it’s slow to open but gradually gains higher tones, some herbs and minerality – mainly savoury notes. The palate is very intense and it’s the first wine where I see absolute balance to the acidity. Powerful, some minerality and very long – this is a very good 2007 indeed.
Quickly re-trying the Mariages it seems quite balanced, clearly my palate took time to adjust to the acidity of the reds after the whites…
Domaine Jean-Claude RATEAU
26 route de Bouze
Tel : +33 3 80 22 98 91
Fax : +33 3 80 22 46 16