Why is this Wine so Yummy?
Some background: This is a “…standard-bearer of the iconoclasm of the Domaine” says Bill Nanson, and he is right on the money. It is a very special, age worthy 1er cru that is unique on several levels. Not only is it a monopole, it is also the only 1er cru for white in Morey-Saint-Denis and the only Burgundy 1er Cru that is 100% (old vine) Aligoté! At different times in this vineyard’s history there have been small quantities of Chardonnay and ‘Pinot Gouges’ (a white mutation from Pinot Noir) in the blend, yet from 2006 it returned to its pre 1930s origins of 100% Aligoté, from an ancient selection planted in 1911. There is a good reason for this – Aligoté has always produced outstanding wine here, better than anything the Ponsot clan could muster from Chardonnay. This high altitude, rocky site seems to have a natural affinity with the Aligoté grape. Once upon a time there would probably have been many other vineyards across the Côte of which we could have said the same. Today the wine commemorates its ancient Aligoté vines on the label with the Très Vieilles Vignes designation (only given to vineyards that are over 100 years old). It is a wine of incredible depth, racy energy, pulpy texture and longevity.
It was whole bunch pressed in Ponsot’s vertical press and was aged in old, neutral barrels (all between 10-60 years old). It’s been a few years since Clive Coates wrote the following, and while the price has risen, this is, in many ways, a priceless wine: “There is a brilliant complexity and delicacy about today’s Clos des Monts Luisants. It is delicious and it really is unique. And yet it is not prohibitively expensive.”
About Domain Ponsot
As many of you will already know, Laurent Ponsot has left the building, so to speak, in order to start his own eponymous Estate. Obviously, with this having only occurred earlier this year, this news has no bearing on today’s offer. Laurent oversaw the 2015 and 2016 vintages.
The short story is that Laurent had planned to retire from his role as régisseur of Domaine Ponsot in 2020. For private reasons, he agreed with the family to bring this date forward. Everything at the Domaine has, and will, remain as is – the vision, the team, the dedication etc. – with Laurent’s sister, Rose-Marie Ponsot (who has been co-managing the estate since 1997) stepping in as the new ‘face’ of the Domaine. Laurent remains a part owner and is assisting with the transition away from his leadership. For his part, Laurent has not retired. Instead, he has gone on to set up a new estate with his son, Clément. Based in Gilly-les-Cîteaux, close to Vougeot. The first wines from ‘Laurent Ponsot’, as the entity will be known, will be from the 2015 vintage, focusing on Côte de Nuits’ reds (some of which will come across from vineyards that were historically offered by Domaine Ponsot) and Meursault whites. Exciting times—surely two Ponsots are better than one!
Changes Ahead at Domaine Ponsot
Rose-Marie Ponsot, has now taken over sole responsibility. Laurent has retained his former métayage contracts on several vineyards belonging to the Mercier family, owners of Domaine des Chézeaux (in Clos Saint-Denis, Chambertin, Griottes-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes), and he will purchase fruit from other vineyards, including several Chardonnay parcels on the Côte de Beaune. The rest of the Ponsot family (Laurent has three sisters and he still has a 25% share of the family estate) will keep all of the original domain vines, although the final shape of the split has yet to be negotiated.
Rose-Marie Ponsot hired Alexandre Abel as winemaker, and he made the ‘17s at the family estate. Abel took over the élevage of the 2016’s. They plan to maintain “the Ponsot style.” In fact, Abel examined the family archives going back to 1956 and discovered that even back then, Jean-Marie Ponsot (who died in 2017) harvested two or three weeks later than virtually all of his neighbours in Morey-Saint-Denis, in search of full maturity. (Laurent Ponsot only started harvesting in 2016 on October 4, and he waited until September 19 in 2017, a hot, early growing season in which most estates began picking during the first week of September.) “We don’t need more freshness in our wines,” noted Abel, “and we want to avoid getting any harshness or greenness.” Nor does the estate employ any new oak barrels; on the contrary, the youngest barrels they use are two years old and some of them date back to the late 1980s. Abel, who previously worked in Chile, South Africa and the Languedoc, will continue the practice of using very little SO2—only after the malolactic fermentations and just before the bottling.
As Laurent did, Abel generally avoids heavy extraction. He simply puts the berries in the tanks and does one or two quick pumpovers on the first day just to mix the tank. He then does one or two “small” pigeages during the first part of the fermentation, which can start quickly when ambient temperatures are warm. (He’ll warm the tanks when temperatures are cool, which is more likely given how late the estate harvests.) He then punches down the cap in the morning and afternoon for the next five days, then switches to a daily pumpover, racking the wines off their skins as soon as the fermentations have finished, and sometimes carrying out a délestage. Fermentation temperatures may mount as high as 31 or 32 degrees C. during the last couple days, and total maceration time is normally just 7 to 10 days but can go up to 15.
Abel finds 2016 to be a red fruit vintage, while 2015 is more black. Potential alcohol levels were in the lofty 13.5% to 14% range in ’16, but the pHs following the malos are a very moderate 3.3 to 3.4, vs. 3.4 to 3.6 for the ‘15s. “The ‘16s have great fruit and energy and very good balance.”
An Afternoon with Alexandre Abel
In mid-November 2019 I had the fortune of spending an afternoon with Alexandre tasting through 8 of his 2016’s and two back vintages of Clos de la Roche, 2010 and 2007.
Exploring the history fo the Domaine was fascinating. Exploring nuances in the vineyard and winery, the introduction of wines from Corton and impacts of climate on viticulture and specific sites, was an illustration of the challenges faced by many in the industry.
A question from the group asked why Ponsot’s fruit has such high acidity compared to many others. We often had the same question asked when I was at Yarra Yering. The fundamentals apply to both. In Australia, many vineyards have historically been prepared by analysing soil and making adjustments particularly adding significant amounts of potassium to the soil this ends up in the grapes and then the wine. In the wine it combines with tartaric acid the dominant grape acid forming crystals that then drop out of solution reducing the acidity of the wine.
The reality is that GRAPE VINES ARE WEEDS! They’ll grow anywhere, they don’t need the ‘perfect’ environment to prosper. Ponsot’s approach has been to avoid such pre-determined additions to soils in favour of responding to what the vine truly needs, not what you could give it, hence low potassium additions to the soils. Indeed the soils at the heart of Clos de la Roche are very lean and shallow, with the low volume of soil comes low access to nutrients, there’s just less dirt to get them from, and, in recent years water stress, less volume of soil per square meter meaning less capacity to store winter and spring rains for the growing season.
Then add balanced yields on the low side of the spectrum, sites and vineyard practices that allow the vines to stay viable deep into the ripening season and you have all the pieces of the jigsaw in place to retain good acidity. No doubt factors such as clonal material play a part too. We explore the impact of this on sulphur additions to the wine below.
Alexandre is clearly a thinker and is pushing to find every little nuance in the vineyard and winery in the search of perfection. Don’t, however, expect any drastic change to style. Elegance, finesse and beautiful, fine tannins remain the house style. We’ll have to wait until we see wines made only by Alexandre to truly make a call, but, he comes across as someone with all the capability to do great things. He clearly knows how to finish a wine given the 2016 we tried.
A couple of little examples of evolution rather than change came up in our discussions. They have shifted to manual horse drawn ploughs to reduce compaction in the vineyard, they are introducing compost, building organic matter and water holding capacity, and, they exploring mid-row management techniques to retain moisture. In the winery he has removed the must pump from the system, historically after the whole bunches were destemmed a pump was used to move the berries to their fermenters. Now the fruit is destemmed directly into bins protected from oxygen with carbon dioxide and then tipped directly into the fermenters avoiding any aggressive extraction of tannins from the pumping process.
Click to enlarge 🔎the slides below
The Ponsot Domaine
Domaine Ponsot, one of Burgundy’s most revered, innovative and iconoclastic domaines. There are so many important things to note about Domaine Ponsot it is impossible to know where to start and when to finish. Here are a few key points:
• This is a domaine very rich in history. This is perhaps the only historic Domaine in Burgundy to have always bottled it’s own wines (since the 1870s) and began selling the wines under the Ponsot label in the 30’s (around the same time as Gouges and Rousseau began Estate bottling). Clonal selection in Burgundy also began here and Jean-Marie Ponsot provided the “mother plants” from his ancient Clos de la Roche vines for the first approved Burgundy clones – all of the so called Dijon clones were taken from Ponsot cuttings in the Clos de la Roche.
• Ponsot has fabulous holdings including perfectly situated parcels of very old vines in Clos St Denis (100+ years) and Clos de la Roche (where Ponsot is the largest land owner with some 3/4 of the original vineyard). There are also small quantities of Chambertin, Griotte Chambertin, Chapelle Chambertin, Clos de Bèze, Charmes Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Corton, Corton Bressandes, Corton Charlemagne, le Montrachet, Chambolle Musigny 1er cru Les Charmes, and Morey 1er cru Clos de la Monts Luisants (white & red). Then there is also some Bourgogne rouge and superb village wines from Morey, Gevrey and Chambolle.
• No new oak is used and Laurent Ponsot buys five year old barrels from other respected domaines to use on his own wines. Most barrels are 10-50 years of age.
• The wines are harvested late (Ponsot is regularly the last Domaine to harvest in the Côte de Nuits) and a strict sorting occurs so that only perfect fruit makes it to the press.
• The wines are aged slowly on lees, for up to 30 months with typically only one racking for the reds, after 12 months.
• These elements (amongst others!): late harvesting, long (reductive) lees ageing, no new oak make for very different, yet exceptional wines that typically require long ageing to show their best and ALWAYS must be stored in a appropriate temperature controlled environment. They often benefit from a long decant when young. Wine buyers should be very cautious therefore about acquiring older wines in Australia when there was no official Australian importer.
Ponsot has a new state of the art winery with all the modern gismos, including temperature controlled fermentation vats (open topped wooden vats) that can be operated via remote control. And yet the wine is made very naturally with indigenous yeasts, low sulphur and minimal intervention.
All wines sealed under Ardea Seal. Details from Laurent can be reviewed on here.
A little video with Rose-Marie and Abel for the French speakers.
Domaine Ponsot & the Sulphur Myth
Dispelling the myths and bringing forward the science. I had the opportunity to ask Alexandre about sulphur levels and his approach.
Yes, the sulphur levels at Ponsot are on the lower end of the spectrum in raw terms. They a sensible in scientific terms and in the context of the winemaking practices.
Sulphur exists in a number of different states in wine. Years ago the wine industry used the measure of free sulphur alone to determine whether enough had been added to protect a wine. Free sulphur is the portion of sulphur that has not been bound to another compound in the wine and is still able to protect the wine from two things: 1. oxidation should excess oxygen contact the wine, particularly during bottling, and, 2. Spoilage by nasty bacteria or yeast.
What many in the industry and even less of the general public don’t factor in is the effect of pH on the activity of that free sulphur. The free sulphur sits in a pH dependent equilibrium, the lower the pH the greater the amount of molecular sulphur. Molecular sulphur is the sulphur that is effective and works. Alex indicated that his reds from 2016 were at around a pH of 3.3-3.4 and running a free sulphur pre-bottling of a little of 20ppm. Combine those 2 numbers and you get a molecular sulphur of around 0.6ppm, Drop the pH to 3.2 as is the case for Ponsot’s whites and the molecular sulphur lifts to a little over 0.8ppm.
Now forget the numbers. Just know that they represent text book sulphur levels. There is a lot more to this than the brief summary above. The factors that allow this at Domain Ponsot are the clean, high-quality fruit coming in from the vineyard, careful handling in the winery to avoid any unwanted oxygen contact, and, a minimal handling post-fermentation that will keep the wine saturated with carbon dioxide from alcoholic and long malolactic fermentation, thereby protecting it from oxygen.
In summary, high quality fruit, handled obsessively, carefully raised in barrel and bottled to avoid oxygen contact gives Ponsot generally good acid levels and low pH requiring low sulphur additions to reach text book numbers to protect the wine from oxidation and microbial spoilage.
Ponsot would also state that the high-tech Ardea seal they use further reduces the risk of oxidation via cork closures that are inherently variable and can cause what in the industry is known as random bottle oxidation or RBO … that’s a story for another time!
Exploring Clos de la Roche
Here we truly have something for the Burgundy fanatic. Like so many great vineyards, changes to the areas that can be classified Clos de la Roche have occurred over time. The original heart of Clos de la Roche was expanded adding a further 7 surrounding Climats.
The follow is taken from the article “Clos de la Roche – the core of Morey-Saint-Denis” By Steen Öhman August 16, 2015. The article explores the history of Clos de la Roche in considerably more depth than we do here.
Plots from the following climats are today included in Clos de la Roche:
- Clos de la Roche – 4.5740 ha
- Les Chabiots – 2.1475 ha
- Les Fremiéres – 2.3600 ha
- Les Froichots – 0.6410 ha
- Les Mochamps – 2.5120 ha
- Monts Luisants – 3.1100 ha
- Les Genavriéres – 0.8020 ha
- Les Chaffots – 0.0725 ha
Les Genavriéres, Les Chaffots and Monts Luisants are included in Clos de la Roche, the upper parts of these climats are classified as 1er cru and sold under the climate name i.e. Morey-Saint-Denis Monts Luisants and Les Genavriéres.
Les Chaffots is even more complex, as a quite large part of Les Chaffots is included in Clos Saint Denis, and the top part produces some excellent 1er crus.
The total area of Clos de la Roche is 16.9 ha, after being expanded at least two times over the last 80 years.
Ponsot’s Clos de la Roche comes from the original parcel and from Monts Luisants. Hot tip: Ponsot’s Morey-Saint-Denis 1er Cru Cuvée des Allouettes is made from the 1er Cru portion of Monts Luisants adjacent to Clos de la Roche and is ⅓ the price!
Alexandre ferments and keeps the two parcels separate describing the Clos de la Roche portion as bolder and darker. The Mont Luisants portion is always picked later influenced by cooling winds the blow through the adjacent Combe or valley, and, tends to be more elegant and perfumed.
The map below shows the boundary of Clos de la Roche incorporating the 7 additonal climats. Click to enlarge 🔎
The 2016 Vintage for Domaine Ponsot
Discussions of 2015 from those that have also tried a solid range of 2016 inevitably lead to the discussion of whether the year is too warm, too bold, lacking the restraint of 2016. Firstly we have to call the wines in the glass, not, fall back on rhetoric regurgitated by those that haven’t tasted wines from the two vintages whether good or bad! Too often bad wines are produced in ‘great’ years and purchased ahead of superb wines produced in ‘lesser’ years.
In any given year we see individual wines of vignerons vary due to the myriad of environmental impacts during the year and decisions made by winemakers as the fruit reaches the winery and they apply their craft.
2015 has, in general, yielded wines of darker, more immediately opulent fruit, with robust tannins, and slightly lower acids. Compared with 2016 where fruit characters are more feminine, redder in nature, tannins fine, acids a smidge higher, alcohols a touch lower. Variability across Burgundy in 2016 was much higher with frost hitting many vineyards. The winemakers really earned their tucker in 2016!
Fortunately for Domaine Ponsot they didn’t have to work as hard as those affected by frost. Corton and Morey-Saint-Denis came away unscathed, the growing and ripening season that followed was perfect, allowing for a long even ripening period. The fruit, sugar, flavour and tannins were ripe with plenty of natural acid. Tasting the 2016’s it really shows. One day I’ll get to explore compressed versus extend vintages with glasses of wine to share with you and show you the difference.
Stylistically they both offer pleasure, it simply depends on whether you prefer restraint – 2016, or, opulence – 2015. A statement which must again be tempered by assessing what’s in the glass! As far as ageing, we will have to wait and see. It will, as usual, be a case of wine by wine assessment. Both vintages have potential to age well. My preference is for the 2016’s, I find them to have greater clarity, expression of site, and, the balance with juicy natural acid that suggests they will be more typical of years that go the distance. The sophistication of tannins for mine, and, yes as a generalisation is a step up to!
CALL THE WINE NOT THE VINTAGE!!