Early that morning Becky sent me out into the day with a strict warning. "For God's sake, don't ask Jean-Charles about Aligoté!" In the moment, hanging the left out of her drive, I feared that if I didn't heed her, I'd live to regret it.
Perhaps J-C harbored a dark secret--an Aligoté living in the attic, or illegal vines on Corton, or perhaps more likely, she was afraid I'd bore him to death, and she liked him too much to suffer the loss. But the largest landowner on Corton going BioD was big news. I'd keep my mouth shut and focus on the 505 and other preparations at hand. Leaving Claire Naudin in a hurry, not wanting to be late,
I rode the ten minutes into the rabbit warren like village of Pernand.
Best intentions and all of that, I got my times screwed up. Jean Charles le Bault de la Morinière of Domaine Bonneau de Martray had been waiting for me for thirty mintues.
With a high forehead and the tame side of wild steel-wool eyebrows atop of mirthful eyes, a lanky, lean frame, J-C also has a high school boyishness that will keep him forever youthful.
He speaks his English with an accent as aritsocratic as Grand Cru as the vineyards he took over from his father in 1994.
So, with Claire's vibrant wines still singing in my mouth Jean Charles asked me what brought me to Burgundy this time. I on auto pilot blurted out, "I''m writing a story on Aligoté for the World of Fine Wine."
So much for my ability to follow instructions.
"I should very much like to read this," he said.
We quickly fell into the quagmire of what is terroir and the fate of Aligoté, and he didn't seem to mind one bit. At one time Aligoté roamed as freely as earth worms in those vineyards, but slowly were ripped out because they were poor girls who couldn't afford their rent. As it turned out, his father ripped out the aligoté from Corton, it's last vintage was 1973. They were replanted. And ever since Jean-Charles realized something was wrong, they are being treated to some very fine agricultural finery.
Domaine de Martray has been in Jean-Charles family for two centuries, and as a result they have phenomenol holdings, the largest of any other (on Corton-Chuck and Corton), around 27 acres of Grand Cru. But when Jean Charles took over the domaine in 1994, he saw a disaster waiting to happen.
"We were under threat of erosion. There was no sign of life in the top soil. It was normal to use the post World War 2 techniques for quantity; mechanical and chemical work. We were encouraged by consultants to make wide use of chemicals to resist pests, insects and control the weeds. We are subject to erosion on this side of the (west-facing) hill. I also saw the creeping of moss as well (sign of death in the vineyard). This was not acceptable. This would be the end to great terroir if I didn't take measures. How is it in less than the life of one person, you can turn a vineyard into a disaster?"
He had been certified for organic since 2003, but there was still the erosion problem. He needed the healing of the earth to go faster. He thought about Biodynamics and a visit with Humbrecht in Alsace convinced him. "I would do no harm to the land and it could do some good, so why not try?"
He started to work 1/2 of each vineyard in organic the other 1/2 in Biodynamics. His aim was to be as scientific as possible using the different techniques on same slope and soil types.
They picked and vinified the sixteend different parcels separately.
"The first thing that we saw were the soils," he said.
Jean-Charles is a self-doubter and he was eager to see what other people could see, just in case he was fooling himself. When Martin Gold of Martin Scott came to visit in 2010, J-C took him to the vines in the rain. "Look at the soils," he said.
Martin saw the difference. Jean-Charles said, "He saw that the perfumes were richer and deeper in the Biodynamic vines. The soils under the Biodynamic vines absorbed the water better. The soil was not as clumpy as in the organic, the moisture was quickly absorbed. and the soil was not clumpy but absorbed."
In the end, the soils have better structure and better ability to resist erosion.
Another difference he saw besides the soil were the leaves interpretation of light. "They were in a saucer-like form instead of hanging flat. Light danced through the leaves and the canopy. "Light," he has observed, "is at least as important, or more important than temperature, but few people ever talk about it."
That remains to be seen, he's seen none of the increased acids, but he thinks there's more vibrancy. He would rather other people taste the samples he's set aside of vinifications from the same plots from different cultivations to decide, and that will happen. But for now, his focus is totally on the healing of the soil, curbing the erosion and maintaining the health of a land that was almost lost.
He anticipates his Demeter certification in 2013 and has been reticient about any articles stating his estate is Biodynamic until then. Why certification?
"It is important to do what we say and say what we do," he said. And until then, I can talk to you and tell you our process but I won't go around saying we are Biodynamic until we are certified."
His notion of patrimony to the soil and place to be the prime motivation. "We must be the best farmer we can be. We are obliged to give the next generation a vineyard better than we started with. We need to allow our vines to express their origins and vintage. The idea is to interfere as little as possible. The artisan, the farmer is trying to express something true. Then you have the industrial growers going for taste and consistencey. This would be the end of fine wine. This is my position."
2009- Honey and depth, but quiet on the nose and a little shy right now, on the palate. Marked by salt and slate and still too young, but the wine is starting to come into focus, almost embryonic. (around $100)
2007- Beautiful aroma yet also quiet, chalky, florality, orange and lime and some cholrine and caramel with a lite delicate whisper finish that belies it's specific finish, like someone with perfect pitch hitting an A. (around $120)
I was just musing about whether it was true, whether Aligoté was a little wine, whether it could never have the greatness of chardonnay, even though I rarely yearn for it from any appellation, from grand cru on down (except, hello blanc de blanc!), when Bernard showed up in the tasting room with a dusty bottle that would confirm what I expected, that Aligoté, is a defender of Burgundy terroir like no other white grape in town. And Becky will just have to forgive me.