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DOMAINE CHEVROT ET FILS, in the Rolling Hills of Burgundy

By JOHANNA SMETHURST

Meursault vineyards

The vineyards of Meursault in Burgundy

Two years ago, Bob and I first sampled wines of the Maranges, an area located at the south door of the Côtes de Beaune region in Burgundy. At the time we were enjoying an evening of wine and food pairings here in Charlottesville. Bill Curtis of Tastings was chef, and Fernand Chevrot and his son, Vincent, presented the wines.

A Burgundy Hautes Côtes de Beaune red that was deep, balanced and worth holding on to for several years still lingered in memory. Bob and I had liked the whites, too. These Burgundy chardonnays were not the big blousy high alcohol content wines pushed by the wine critics of California.

As they are only now building a reputation outside of the Maranges, they seemed to be the high quality bargain we are always looking for. Traveling in Burgundy this past spring, we remembered the evening, the wines, the Chevrots. When I called from Dijon, Chevrot’s welcome was warm. We arrived to be ushered immediately up into the vineyards, as I had said we wanted to see their whole operation.

What draws most people to seek out vignerons in their own habitat is the wine. Personally, I love it full on the palate with hints of lust, velvety red fruits and a luxurious exuberance that lingers long after the final sip. Rarely can I find the suggestions of chocolate, granite, lilac or rose that the vintner lauds.

Beyond the wine, I also loved the passion with which this Burgundian family described the entire process of developing their wines. Their story began early: from the “argilo-calcaire (chalky clay) terroir created in the “Trias-Supérieur (230-195 million years ago) and the Jurassique inférieur (295-175 million years ago)” and responsible for the characteristics of today’s grapes resulting from the precise terroir of each different field.

St Aubin

The village of St. Aubin

The vines themselves have an average age of 30 years. In Bordeaux, not only using the best grapes of the year, but also by blending three or four varietals, creates depth of flavor. All red Burgundies, though, are 100% pinot noir; white Burgundies, 100% chardonnay.

In order to attain the balance essential to a fine Burgundy, the Chevrots might draw on last year’s vintage to enhance this year’s crop. They also know the strengths of vines in each of their fields and will bring together percentages from different fields to achieve desired results.

We stood on a gentle hillside with Fernand, Pablo, and Vincent Chevrot all taking time off from the back-stooping work of clipping the unwanted buds that might drain strength from those bunches destined for harvest. Ebourgeonnage it’s called. The rolling vine clad hills could have been Virginian, but the vineyards themselves were owned very differently. The Chevrots owned the plot where we stood, but not the ones on either side.

Vincent pointed, “Look down the slope and then up. You see? Over beyond that steeple. Those vineyards are ours, and those down near the stream. We have 20 hectares [about 48 acres] under cultivation.”

Burgundy terroir

The terroir of Burgundy lends a distinctive taste to both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines.

Going “bio”(dynamic)

Fernand, now bearing the title of consultant and public relations director, has turned the management of the Domaine Chevrot over to his sons. Pablo, the elder brother, 34, is quieter, more restrained than Vincent, 31, but his excitement about the changes and challenges they have brought about sparkled in his language and gestures. “Nous sommes en pleine conversion en BIO!”

Bob and I exchanged embarrassed glances. Our French has holes, as does our knowledge of wine production. Was their “conversion” to a new religion? Pablo laughed, and explained in English, “It means what you call biodynamic farming … or sustainability.”

For Fernand and Catherine Chevrot, educating their boys was a priority. By the standards of Burgundy, theirs is a young “wine dynasty.” Pablo and Vincent, the third generation, both planned to follow their parents into the vineyard, as their own parents had followed Paul and Henriette Chevrot.

The young men specialized in vine studies in high school. Eventually, Pablo graduated from the University of Bordeaux, Vincent from the University of Bourgogne, both with the Diplôme National d’Oeonologie. They then went from theory to hands-on work in established vineyards in France as well as New Zealand, and even Tennessee.

The transition to Biodynamie is risky, expensive and labor intensive. I asked Fernand what had finally convinced him to take that major step. In a shaky economy, a shift to a far more expensive method of production had given him pause, he told us. Discussions had gone on for some time.

“But Pablo had all the science to support it. He took advanced studies in biology and a master’s degree in Environmental Studies. That included study of the effects of chemical pollution on both land and people. Vincent worked four years as manager of one of the “Estates en Biodynamie” of the Domaine des Comtes Lafon [one of the premier domains of Meursault].”

Fernand shrugged, hands out in the “What’s-a-father-to-do?” gesture. “They came home motivated for ‘le Bio.’ Their main arguments ran: ‘The most prestigious vineyards on the planet are going organic.’ ‘It’s healthier for the vignerons and their employees: no herbicides, no pesticides, no synthetic chemicals.’ ‘It is so much healthier for the grapes and ultimately for the wines.’ ‘And the flavors, ahhh.’

Volnay

Volnay, a Burgundy appellation of worldwide renown.

“We had one scare the first year after a lot of rain, but the mildew we feared was minor. A few vines down near the river were lost. Nothing serious. Our 2011 vintage will be labeled: AB BIO certifié ECOCERT.”

As they are turning the soil, aerating it rather than using herbicides, the main roots of the vines dig deep rather than drawing up to the surface. On the steepest hillsides, they are even using a neighbor’s horse-drawn plow, which leaves the soil looser than does the heavy tractor. With the poison gone, the natural fauna is coming back: rabbits, baby birds, snails, and insects of all sorts.

“Unfortunately, we are also seeing wild boar digging holes only in our vineyards. They aren’t so dumb as all that. In the fall, right up until the first freeze, our plants hold their leaves. At a glance, you can tell our fields from all the rest.”

Chevrot’s parents were sharecroppers with a dream. In 1930 they bought the Big House and some vineyards. Under this home lie the vaulted caves (cellars) dug in 1798. There today’s wines are aged in old oak barrels, bottled, and finally sold locally or crated for shipping.

Catherine took us down into these beautiful old cellars and brought cheese puffs to settle our palates between wines. Everyone was already talking about the festive air of the vendange in September, the harvest, when 30 people sit down to lunch and dinner at the Chevrots’ for about ten days and then are ready to join in the Paulée, a huge party with music, food, wine and dancing that celebrates the end of a successful year.

Fernand, ever the host, finally let us realize our ambition and began opening wines. We looked over his impressive list: 15 different Appellations Contrôlées: four 1er Crus in the red: Maranges les Clos Roussots, Maranges La Fussière, Maranges Le Croix Moines (all 2008) and the 2007 Santanay Clos Roussot. The Crémant de Bourgogne Blanc Brut is a sparkling white; here’s that vintner/wine seller language I envy: “an incisive bouquet, full of well ripened pineapple enhanced by anise and peach.”

I sat sipping the playful Crémant, bubbly and generous, not tasting anise or ripe pineapple, but imagining dinner discussions around the Chevrot table. Heated, I was willing to bet, but giving, like the Chevrot wines themselves.

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