When you think of Burgundy, it’s most likely that your mind jumps to the hallowed grounds of the Côte d’Or, or you may also dream of the delightful, linear expressions of Chardonnay found in Chablis. Nestled geographically next to Chablis, yet contextually closer to the Côte d’Or, you find the vineyards of the Côtes d’Auxerre — home not only to Chardonnay, but also to Pinot Noir, Aligoté and Sauvignon Blanc. It is a unique little jewel of an area, which we’ve been excited to explore further in recent years.
Here, the Goisot family have been tending their vineyards for generations. Their life and work revolved around family, compassion, community and plant-friendly farming. And luckily for us, the wines that are born from their efforts are some of the most compelling wines we’ve had from this part of the world; bottles of purity and transparency.
LITTLEWINE spoke to Guilhem over Zoom for this piece.
Domaine Goisot, based in Saint-Bris, has been in the same family for many generations. Although the family has always owned vineyards (replanted by Guilhem’s great-grandfather at the start of the 20th century), traditionally they also farmed cherries and cereals. Guilhem tells us,
“Until the 1970s, our village produced the majority of cherries in France, due to our proximity to Paris — the centre for food exchange — aided by our river, which facilitated transport.”
Eventually, the vineyard part of the family business grew, becoming the focus in the 1970s, when Guilhem’s parents took over the domaine. Often, a generational shift means that French vineyards are split up amongst families, but Guilhem’s uncle decided to pursue another path in life, leaving the family’s holdings intact.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, the farming world saw the boom of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. Coined the ‘green revolution,’ at first growers believed this provided the answers to their troubles surrounding disease pressure and yields. However, by the time the 90s arrived, Guilhem’s parents were more than unconvinced. He says,
“There were actually more issues with disease, not less — it’s like if human beings take too many antibiotics. In addition, my parents noticed that the wines began to all taste the same — all Chardonnays, whether from here or from further south, tasted like yellow fruits and butter. You couldn’t tell where they came from. The wines were correct, and there were no faults, but there was also no soul.”
This led to the decision to convert to organic viticulture in the early 90s, resulting in certification in 2000:
“They had already been working organically for eight years, but they felt it was important to certify officially. There’s a lot of paperwork, of course, but we believe in certification, as it gives visibility, especially for people, like us, for whom organic produce is a personal conviction.”
With every generational change, they also update the names of the current family members on the bottles. Guilhem says,
“I knew my great grandfather until he passed away in 2004 — he was over 100 and still very fresh in his thinking. We exchanged a lot, and he said you mustn’t keep my name on the label — you should adjust them as the domaine evolves.”
As such, these bottles represent an evolution of farming, thinking and philosophy.
Guilhem went to winemaking school, and it was there he encountered the notion of biodynamic farming. He remembers,
“It was in 1996 or 1997… there was a biodynamic conference in Beaune, for students, but it was also open to the public. I spoke to my dad about it, but he was a bit afraid of it at the time, as he worried it was a bit like a cult. But I was young and wanted to try something different. For me, biodynamics seemed like a way to take our organic farming further.”
He was fortunate to learn from biodynamic specialist Pierre Masson. Together with him and a fellow group of students, they visited several biodynamic growers in Burgundy. He says,
“Pierre would show us the difference in the structure of the soils of the biodynamic growers to their conventional neighbours. It wasn’t to say that the neighbours were doing it wrong — not at all — but rather it was to simply demonstrate how different they were. Then, we’d discuss what we thought about them, and which one inspired us.”
The biodynamic soils were full of life, spongy and light. It was enough to convince Guilhem to start trials in 1999. He learnt how to work with a horse, and he started biodynamics on certain plots — to see how it affected certain soil types and their four varieties (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Aligoté and Pinot Noir). He decided to continue simply treating some plots organically next to the biodynamically treated ones, in order to be able to compare. He noticed a stark difference, saying,
“The most visual change was how the 501 (the biodynamic preparation of silica, which enhances the effect of sunlight) affected the orientation and shape of the foliage. Usually, the foliage grows very vertically, but after the silica, the foliage became wider and more aerated, allowing for better air flow. Plus, the 500 (concentrated manure) made a big difference in the soils. Before, it was difficult to pass through the vineyards after it had rained, because there’s a lot of clay. But since applying 500, the soils have become spongier, so the water drains into the soil better. It’s like the 500 reorganises the hummus and the clay in the soil and permits it to better function. Then, it creates a water reservoir in the soils, and the water circulates better.”
He also notes that the grapes are more homogenous when it comes to harvest time:
“Of course, every vine has its own shape, and produces its own volume of fruit. But with Pinot Noir, one of the difficulties is that some berries tend to be less mature than others. But after working biodynamically, we’ve noticed that the regularity of maturity in the clusters is almost always the same. This makes it much easier when it comes to work, too, as they need to sort less in the vineyards and in the cellar.”
“Even in this anomaly year of 2021, where we had frost, and then a lack of sun, the grapes still reached a balanced maturity. That then also gives a balanced wine. The vines just seem to respond to climate issues better and faster.”
Understandably, all these positive changes were enough to convince the family to fully certify. The biodynamic way of thinking has also encouraged Guilhem to spread positivity into the community. Together with farmer and winemaker friends, they have now ensured that an entire 24-hectare section of their village is insecticide-free, representing 10% of the town’s total vineyard surface. He emphasises that change can’t happen overnight, but it can happen bit by bit through encouragement and working collaboratively.
“Our way of thinking is about reflecting on which direction we’re heading in. What will we leave behind, and what will we do to make life as good and easy as possible for whoever will come next?”
A large part of this revolves around plant material. The Goisot family works with their own massal selection (the process whereby a vineyard is planted via propagating the plant material of several mother plants, as opposed to a single clone, thereby preserving genetic heritage). Their current key focus is tagging and mapping certain vines that seem to deal with climatic hurdles better, as well as those which don’t. By ensuring that they reproduce diverse vines that have collective health, they will hopefully ensure that next generations are protected from the difficulties that the future might throw at them — whether disease or climatic.
Additionally, working biodynamically has also helped Guilhem to understand how to help vines to achieve their best potential.
“When pruning, if a vine is struggling, then we prune it when the moon is waxing, or waxing gibbous. On the other hand, if there’s a vine which is too vigorous, you can prune that when the moon is waning, or waning crescent. When we talk about biodynamics, people often focus on the preparations. But it’s about so much more than that — it’s about being closer to the earth, using our intuition, and observing — then learning how to react, or not react.”
“After frost, we use arnica and valerian to help the plants to destress. Then silica early in season — if the vine is struggling to push after frost, this helps it to grow. The wood is also more qualitative and supple. It’s about trying to sense all these things. It’s not always evident, and you still hesitate, but that’s human nature. It’s just about trying to have perception, and to work as accurately as possible… not intervening just for the sake of it, but rather to properly observe and to act accordingly — without excess.”
Guilhem emphasises that the large part of their work occurs in the vineyards. Then, their job in the cellar is relatively simple. For the white wines, the whole clusters are pressed gently for a few hours, resulting in naturally clear juice. Then, depending on the terroir and the variety, they choose whether to age in oak or in stainless steel.
“For example, we choose stainless steel for some parcels which are naturally richer. That means the wines don’t get too fat, so we can keep the minerality. Other parcels, meanwhile, need to breathe more.”
For the red wines, they have always destemmed, but after climate change began to have a big effect in the area, they noticed their wines were also changing; they were becoming more tannic.
“We used to do a shorter maceration of 15 days, doing several punchdowns. But that began to make the wines too heavy and the tannins less elegant. So now, instead, we do longer periods of maceration — 25 days — but no punchdowns at all, only pumpovers.”
By avoiding punchdowns, they avoid too much tannin extraction, thus resulting in a finer and gentler structure. Sulfites are kept to a minimum, and the wines are largely left to their own devices while they age for a period of between ten months and 19 months, depending on the cuvée. Guilhem says simply,
“If we sort carefully in the vineyards, then we can be as simple as possible in the cellar. If you work the wines as little as possible, you don’t need to add anything. It’s only if you start fiddling with them loads that you have to correct them.”
All the hard work has paid off. Since working biodynamically, Guilhem has also noticed a significant change in the wines:
“With biodynamics, we conserve a good balance between sugar and acidity, even in very hot years when there might be a potential alcohol of 14 or even 15. The balance is there, so then we just need to be very gentle, to not over extract and rather keep the minerality.”
The wines are beautifully simplistic in the best sense of the word. There is a purity and lightness of touch found within each bottle. They are wines that remind us of Yves Klein’s famous blue monochromatic paintings. They are all about the raw material — the grapes. When the vines are supported, cared for, and produce the best fruit possible, the wines created from them are effortlessly charming.