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Domaine is the Name of the Game

“We felt the wines were lacking something.” That is an unusual admission for any winemaker to make about his own wines. And it is doubly unusual for a French winemaker. But it is a sign of how dramatic are the changes in Burgundy that someone like Pierre Jhean, Henri de Villamont’s winemaker, could make such a statement, and then go on to detail the aggressive steps he has taken to improve his domaine’s wines.

There is change in the air in Burgundy. The men and women who are responsible for buying, making and selling most of the Burgundian wine you drink are on the move.

It is not that these négociant houses have discovered a new way to make Burgundy great—they mastered that a long time ago. The difference is that now they are taking commercial pride in their domaines, the vineyards they own. They are using them as part of their marketing to increase the house’s prestige.

The role of the négociant evolved in Burgundy because of the huge number of small vineyards—a property can be as small as three or four rows of vines. Négociants were once better known as merchants, buying wine rather than grapes. In many instances, they would blend wines from properties throughout Burgundy and sell volume lines of not very interesting wines. Initially, many did not own vineyards.

However, over the past 20 years, individual estates have become more cutting edge in Burgundy, because it’s in these estates that vineyard and winemaking innovations and improvements have been taking place. The négociants could not help but notice—these domaine wines were the ones with lofty reputations, after all.

But now, the négociants are catching up, and even leading the way. They now buy grapes, rather than wine, from growers and make the wine in their own wineries. In order to get the best quality grapes, they are creating partnerships with growers, offering advice and controlling harvesting. “I show growers what they should be doing,” says Philippe Drouhin, the family member responsible for viticulture at Maison Joseph Drouhin. “Of course I can’t impose, but by example, they see what works, and I can answer their questions.”

Négociants are using their own vineyard—their domaines—both as sources of their finest wines and as laboratories in which to develop new techniques of viticulture. The result is that many négociant domaine wines are the equal of the best of the individual estates. They use words like “locomotive” and “signature” to explain the role of their domaines in the overall business. Jacques Lardière, director of production at Louis Jadot goes further: “A domaine is not just a driving force. It allows us to define the philosophy of the house.” It is the equivalent of what Gallo has done with its Sonoma estate wines, and what Mondavi did with To Kalon. They are singling out certain wines as flagship wines, or standard-bearers, for the entire company.

Henri de Villamont, a domaine owned by the Swiss group Schenk, was until recently underperforming, as winemaker Jhean admitted. But with vines in Savigny-lès-Beaune, Chambolle-Musigny and Echézeaux, the firm had the makings of a great estate.

“Five years ago,” explains Jhean, “The Schenks decided to change the orientation of our business, so that now we place much more emphasis on the domaine. We have changed how we manage the vineyards. We started by cutting yields, then looked at replanting. We changed the way we prune. Especially in the village wines, we started to change the way we trained the vines. It was all done with quality in mind.” The company is now investing $2.5 million to renovate the old cellars in Savigny to receive this new, high-quality fruit.

Boisset is also a vivid example. Boisset is the largest producer in Burgundy, owner of many prestigious négociant houses including Bouchard Aîné, Jaffelin and Mommessin. The Boisset family also owns 123 acres of vineyards around Burgundy. These could have been sourced by the different négociant firms, but instead, in 1999, the family decided to group 84 of those acres, scattered among 34 appellations, into one domaine, which they called Domaine de la Vougeraie.

“The Boisset family decided to use the domaine as the example for the négociant business, as the quality leader of the group,” says Pascal Marchand, the winemaker of Domaine de la Vougeraie. “It is a laboratory for the company, an example to the vignerons from whom we buy grapes.”

Domaine de la Vougeraie is run on biodynamic principles, as are many of the top domaines of Burgundy. That is part of what Marchand sees as setting an example for growers. “But of course, biodynamic is an ideal,” he says. “We don’t expect every grower to stop using a tractor and buy a horse.”

Boisset and Henri de Villamont are two companies that are also using their domaines to enhance the reputation of the négociant business. The same is increasingly true of the négociant houses with the longest history in Burgundy.

The first vines of Bouchard Père et Fils were purchased just after the French Revolution, with the acquisition of flagship vineyards in Beaune Grèves and Valnay Caillerets, from which their Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus, and Volnay Caillerets Ancienne Cuvée Carnot bottlings are produced.

In the last decade, the firm has gone on a vineyard buying spree. “After Joseph Henriot took over the company, he decided that we should be increasingly seen as a domaine owner,” says Philippe Foret, director of winemaking at Bouchard Père et Fils. “So we bought land in Bonnes Mares, Echézeaux and Clos de Vougeot in order to increase our presence in the Côte de Nuits. And we also bought the Domaine Ropiteau Mignon, which meant we increased our range of domaine white wines, especially in Meursault. It is strategic, in order to widen our portfolio of domaine wines.” With 320 acres of vines, this is the largest domaine in Burgundy.

Joseph Drouhin has an enviable domaine with property in the Côte d’Or and Chablis, about 200 acres in total. The first vines were acquired in the early 1900s by Maurice Drouhin, who bought Clos des Mouches in Beaune. It was Drouhin’s way, says managing director Frédéric Drouhin, of securing their supply.

“Now we call ourselves vineyard owners, winemakers and négociant-eleveurs. That means we have our own vines, but we also buy grapes from growers and make wines from those grapes,” says Frédéric Drouhin.

Not all négociants in Burgundy see the importance of these initiatives. Louis-Fabrice Latour of Louis Latour doesn’t believe he needs vineyards to control supply. “We have the largest holding of grand crus in Burgundy,” says Latour, but, he adds, “I don’t play up the domaine concept because we also have long-term contracts with growers, which are almost like domaines.

“Other firms are buying vines because they are worried they will run out of sources for wine,” continues Latour. “I don’t believe that. I believe in the strength of the négociant, and his ability to be able to say no to a vintage. If you have a domaine, you have no choice.”

But for others, the domaine is the future. Faiveley is now almost entirely seen as a domaine owner. The Bichot family of Maison Albert Bichot has brought three major domaines in just over a decade—Domaine du Pavillon in the Côte de Beaune, Domaine du Clos Frantin in the Côte de Nuits and Domaine Long-Depaquit in Chablis.

Philippe Merguey bought Maison Champy, Burgundy’s oldest négociant, in 1990. He decided to acquire vineyards as an essential part of reinvigorating a business he described as “old and slow.” The company has acquired 31 acres since 1990, so that, as Merguey says, “we could work the soil.”

Maybe much of this movement stems from négociants seeing how well the individual domaines are doing with their limited-production, handcrafted wines. Maybe there is an element of marketing, of reputation building. But by increasing the quality of their domaines, the négociants are in a position to elevate the quality right through their range. It’s a win-win story.