“It was my childhood dream: to make wines that I like to drink. If I’ve succeeded in doing that, then I’m happy."
Dominique may have officially retired, but he still spends his days in the vineyards and in the cellar, tasting with Julien Altaber and Carole Schwab; the duo who have taken over the domaine. Honouring Dominique, they continue to make the wines under his name and according to his vinification practices, for this is not simply a retired vigneron. Dominique has been a friend, teacher and influence for so many aspiring farmers and winemakers who wish to work without chemicals.
Here, it has never been about making fancy, dressed-up wines in their tuxedos, dresses and heels. Rather, this is Burgundy in the nude - it is the skin and bones of these old vines that speak through the unadulterated wines.
There’s a glimmer in his eye that matches his gold earring when Dominique says,
“We were seeking the light at the ends of the earth.”
This is how Dominique describes his weekend spent learning from Maria Thun in Troyes, in the 1980s. This series of discussions and seminars would instill a firm belief in Dominique that biodynamics was the way forward. Together with Lalou Bize-Leroy, Jean-Claude Rateau and just a handful of others, they became the first biodynamic wine growers of Burgundy.
Dominique was born in the Hospices de Beaune, to a farming family, saying,
“I’m proud of my heritage - being the child of farmers. We were in the normal world of Mercurey.”
Before turning his hand to wine, Dominique was a cooper - a barrel maker - but his wish had always been to make wine, since he had spent time making wines with his grandparents. He says,
“It was my childhood dream: to make wines that I like to drink. If I’ve succeeded in doing that, then I’m happy. It might not be so ambitious, but that was always my goal.”
The pursuit of this dream saw him begin to work with one of the big Burgundy winemakers in the 80s. However, they were working with chemicals, and Dominique wished to try his hand at organics. This is how he encountered Thierry Guyot. A couple of years later, just as he was getting ready to move down south with his wife, as vineyard land was already very expensive to purchase in Burgundy, he came across an advert describing land for sale in St-Aubin. The owner selling it was an 80-year-old artisan, and he wished to leave the land with someone who would restore it to health and farm without chemicals.
So, Dominique's passion for biodynamics would also be his four leaf clover when it came to finding a domaine. On hearing about these farming philosophies from Dominique, this man decided that he should be the one to take the land. As he tells us this he smiles, saying,
“And so, eventually, I became a St-Aubin-er.”
Since the beginning of his path of biodynamic farming, Dominique’s goal has always been to freely discuss and share knowledge. This would eventually lead to him leaving Demeter (a biodynamic association) when its membership fees were increased; in his eyes it had become too commercial. Instead, he and colleagues formed their own group together with Alain and Julien Guillot. They meet twice a year, and welcome wine growers from all over to join, for no cost; just for open discussion and a casse croûte. He says,
“It’s important to always introduce people to one another, and to bring new conversation and questions to the group. Everybody has different philosophies and people find their own way to biodynamics. It is open to all; nobody has to pay, instead just bring a couple of bottles and we chat. It should always be viewed as something positive.”
It is as much of a friendship circle as it is a study group; and sometimes these friendships solidify even further; this group is how Dominique met Julien Altaber and Carole Schwab. Julein and Carole set up Sextant, their negociant business, in 2007. Julien says,
“We weren’t necessarily keen to start a négoce as they have a bad rep here. But we were able to get some grapes from Jean-Jacques Morel, and that was a chance to make wine from healthy grapes with our ideas. Sextant allows us to meet many growers, and I love the chance to exchange and chat with other growers and to build long term relationships.”
The duo would eventually also take over Dominique’s vineyards and wines. They are lifelong friends, and in a sense partners. As a trio, they view biodynamics as a very practical and simple method. Dominique explains,
“The whole world is looking for ‘magical preps,’ but it’s not about that. It’s about finding nuances for the future, but it’s important to not do too much. It’s like with wine - it should be simple. If it becomes complicated then it won’t work. On the other hand, we must defend biodynamics like we must defend poetry. It’s part of the beauty of being human.”
Dominique began with three hectares in 1987, with his first vintage in 1989, and slowly grew over the years to nine hectares. His vineyard parcels are spread out; predominantly here in the Côte de Beaune - in St-Aubin, Pommard and in bourgogne designated parcels near Puligny-Montrachet, but also further down in the north of the Côte Chalonnaise; in Mercurey (where he is originally from). Additionally, he has one parcel in Gevrey-Chambertin, in the Côte de Nuits.
Work has been biodynamic since the beginning, and the preparations are dynamised in the vineyard. He tries to leave the soils naturally grassed over, ploughing just once or twice a year, sometimes opting to put straw down to help reduce competition from the weeds; particularly in some of his plots which are very steep where tractor work is not possible. Once again, he stresses that biodynamics is not a magic cure, saying,
“Biodynamics won’t cure your problems, but it does make you more attentive - you learn to observe a lot more and to do less. The problem with viticulture is that people treat their stress, or their nerves, not the vines. My grandparents only did four treatments a year before the new moon.”
They always ensure to take into account the vintage conditions; there is never a recipe in the vineyards. In 2003, for example, a year with extreme drought, they made the decision to cut off some bunches of grapes. He explains,
“You must never treat vintages the same. That year, our harvest was saved, as the vine had less fruit to cope with, whereas other growers’ berries were completely raisined.”
Several of Dominique’s plots are planted to very old vines; sometimes older than 100 years old, and his Mercurey "La Plante Chassey" plot, planted in 1936, still has some Pinot Beurot (a mutation of Pinot Noir, like Pinot Gris). Once upon a time this was common in the region, but it is now a rarity to find in a world that is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay obsessed. He says,
“Pinot Beurot is such a pretty Burgundian variety and it’s really special. The name might come from the old French word, bure, which was the name of the clothes the monks wore. The monks did a lot for wine.”
There is also some Aligoté interplanted in his old vineyards, and he also has some vineyard plots planted solely to Aligoté. Together with Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, they began selecting old vine examples, which are now preserved in a conservatory vineyard, to ensure the genetic diversity is not lost.
The newest project (see - we knew to take his “retirement” with a wink) is a vineyard of massal selection Chardonnay with a scattering of Pinot Blanc and Aligoté. Planted across from his premier cru vineyard, "En Remilly," it is one of the only vineyards in Burgundy to sit on marble soils. It sits almost right above Montrachet, at high elevation. He jokes, saying,
“We can see Ganevat from here, we yell and wave!”
Just a stone’s throw away sits his "Le Ban" vineyard. It was the first vineyard that he bought and it holds a special place in his heart. As we look unto the old and gnarly little vines, Dominique is completely unfazed by the winter drizzle which is slowly turning into slushy raindrops. He remembers,
“I used to walk a lot up here, and I’d always stop at this parcel and think, how pretty. A year later, it happened. I was lucky.”
The parcel was planted in 1920. Half of it began to die and degenerate recently, with yields plummeting below 25hl/ha, so he replanted just under half of it with a massal selection of Pinot Noir. The cuttings came from both this vineyard and from various friends and neighbours.
He is also pensive when it comes to rootstocks. As we stand gazing onto the old 100-year-old vines, he notes that they don’t know which rootstocks they were grafted onto, and is curious as to whether they can replant the rootstocks, to see if they would work well for new plantings. He explains,
“These days we’re having so many problems with Esca (a trunk disease) and other degenerative issues. We need to go back and take a look at the original material. Planting baby vines gives new spirit to the old ones. It’s like human beings - you need to mix them up!”
He also planted peach trees here. We can’t help but notice that they seem to be the only fruit trees in sight. In the Burgundian land of monoculture, Dominique is doing his best to introduce some diversity.
Dominique’s grandparents were winemakers, and he remembers clearly the time spent with them making wine. He says,
“When my grandparents made wine there were no problems, but when I went to winemaking school, all we learnt about were problems and risks. If the wines went a bit reductive over winter, my grandparents would just say, they’re wearing their winter coats - it’s normal.”
Dominique wanted to return to this mentality, and to make wines like the wines he had tasted growing up. Early on, he met Max Léglise, an oenologist who had departed from the conventional oenologic ideas of the time, instead focusing on how to bring organic vineyard practices into winemaking, by focusing on natural fermentations and low/no sulphur use. This means that since the beginning, Dominique has avoided using sulphur in his vinifications, save for an occasional small addition if absolutely necessary - particularly in warmer vintages like 2018.
White wines are pressed whole cluster and aged in old oak barrels on the lees, without stirring. Reds are generally fermented whole cluster with some destemmed berries - whichever percentage is needed to fill the tanks completely - and also aged in old oak barrels. It's that simple.
From biodynamic farming practices, Dominique and Julien, who now carries out the winemaking, notice that the grapes hold onto their acidity for much longer than conventional grapes. This means that they don’t need to harvest early; the grapes can hang a little longer to develop more flavour without the fear of high alcohol levels. It is this intrinsic balance which is evident through every single wine that sleeps in this cellar. These are pure wines that seem to have an inner strength at their core. We ask Dominique about this. He nods, smiles, and replies,