The Côte d’Or is a small place. When you’re there you feel this, which serves only to heighten the emotional awareness of its outsized reputation for vinous greatness. A person can run from Gevrey to Chambolle and back again in an hour, and yet a lifetime is not enough to fully comprehend the profundity of the treasures produced between them.
This intimacy is not merely geographical; there is a smaller way of thinking, a more minute perception of ‘locality’ than Americans can easily grasp. One notices this in places where people interface with and indeed rely upon nature in an almost mystical way. In Burgundy, human awareness of the rhythms of nature constitutes a cultural paradigm, a co-dependence that permeates every detail of life.
At his domaine this past January, Morey-based vigneron Cyprien Arlaud shared that his forbears purchased vineyards outside of their village only with extreme reticence; when one did he made sure the physical proximity was as close as possible to his home base (Arlaud’s holdings in Chambolle and Gevrey are quite literally the first vineyards you encounter upon leaving Morey). The current fashion for acquiring ‘great’ parcels irrespective of their location is a relatively recent phenomenon made possible by certain technological progresses and changes to patterns of thinking. For two thousand years, Burgundy’s history has been defined by a smallness of scale and intimacy of thinking that has made possible an unprecedented synchronicity between man and environment.
Rousseau is, and has always been, inextricably connected with the village of Gevrey. The Clos de la Roche, about which more below, has always been viewed as somehow ‘other,’ the vineyard being sited next door in Morey. And yet this ‘outsider’ vineyard directly abuts the border of Gevrey, all of a mile and change from the Rousseau domaine!
Younger producers in Burgundy today often (not always!) prefer above all to discuss winemaking techniques, which is to say ‘style.’ An easily deduced house signature dovetails neatly with ambitious branding initiatives, and brand is the prevailing social currency. The question, of course, is the relationship of these technical considerations to the expression of terroir with its implicit prioritization of, above all, diversity.
As a purist, conversations about style seem to me relevant only to the extent that intentionality can be clearly connected to the expression of place. Wines from a given producer (no matter how fêted or ‘sexy’) that bear a clear stylistic imprint often seem to converge, nuances of place yielding to the gravitizing effect of a particular human intention.
Rather than expressing the stylistic intention of their maker, winegrowing at Rousseau has been predicated on preserving the nuanced individuality of their parcels. In blind tasting you can locate Rousseau not by identifying a human imprint, by rather by ruling out all others, assured of your choice by your proximity to greatness. Compared to such authentic experiences, celebrating the homogenizing effect of a ‘house style’ feels specious.
There are good wines and there are great wines, of course. But somehow there seem to be far more of the former than most ‘wine people’ care to acknowledge, and yet fewer of the latter. How many wines are truly great? Not great in the sense of enormously pleasurable, but wines that meaningfully deepen our appreciation of beauty, of life itself? In Burgundy, the number of exceptional villages is few and the list of domaines that capture their potential short. Rousseau is incontestably among these. These are truly great wines.
In 1902, upon the occasion of his 18th birthday, Armand Rousseau acquired his first parcels in the village of Gevrey. More came seven years later when he married. The first parcel of Charmes-Chambertin, in Charmes proper, was acquired in 1919, and the two plots of Mazoyères with which it is now blended followed over the next twenty years. Morey Fremières came next; we know it today as one of two lieu-dits blended to produce the Clos de la Roche. The second parcel, in the ‘original’ Clos, was acquired much later in 1975.
Domaine bottling began in 1921. As a fascinating aside, the domaine’s early holdings reveal that its burgeoning reputation in its formative years would have been built largely upon Charmes-Chambertin and Morey Fremières, the latter of which was not yet a part of ‘Clos de la Roche,’ as it was not until the mid 1930s that it was ‘absorbed’ into this great grand cru. The Clos St. Jacques and the Clos de Beze, synonymous with the domaine’s emblem today, come considerably later.
Mazy, of which Rousseau’s holding is entirely in Mazy-Bas, dates to 1937. More famous is the family’s purchase in 1954 of two hectares of Clos St. Jacques from the Comte de Moucheron, a two hectares beautifully sited on the western side of the vineyard, the parcel running from the top to the bottom. The view from the top is breathtakingly beautiful. Ruchottes dates to 1978 when the Thomas-Bassot holdings in Ruchottes were divided, now famously, between Rousseau, Georges Mugneret, and Michel Bonnefond (farmed by Christophe Roumier). Rousseau managed to negotiate the choicest part, the monopole of Clos des Ruchottes.
Ownership of land in the magnificent Clos de Bèze is relatively recent history, the family having acquired its first parcel there in 1961. Two other purchases, just on either side of 1990, greatly expanded their presence there. Rousseau’s main block lies at the southern end of the vineyard not far from Chambertin. It is, of course, a magnificent wine, with one of the widest and most compelling aromatic profiles in all of Burgundy.
The holdings in Chambertin have grown over the years, additions coming with small purchases every 20 years or so for the past century; purchases date from 1921, 1943, 1956, 1970, 1983, 1994, and 2009, this most recent from Jean-Claude Belland. The holdings are in 4 separate ‘blocks,’ three of which run from the top of the slope to the bottom.
This latter point about top-to-bottom vineyard holdings has been mentioned severally. There is a clear causal relationship here; geological diversity is an important prerequisite for full terroir expression, and this diversity is realized in nearly every wine produced at Rousseau. For example, the villages Gevrey comes from 9 parcels, including small pieces of premiers crus Estournelles and Clos Prieur. The three most iconic Rousseau wines - Clos St. Jacques, Chambertin, and Bèze - are overwhelmingly or entirely comprised of top-to-bottom holdings. The Clos des Ruchottes is owned in monopole. And, mentioned already, both Charmes and Clos de la Roche blend not only different plots but in fact multiple lieu-dits within these substantial grands crus.
At a dinner I hosted with her at Bâtard a couple years ago, Cyrielle Rousseau expressed her admiration for the Clos des Ruchottes, her ‘personal favorite wine.’ My partner Daniel loves the Charmes and, in particular, its sneaky ability to age well. He has a penchant for finding pleasure in overlooked wines, never unsure of his palate or unwilling to speak his mind.
The wines have never faltered in their sure footedness. Some collectors express nonchalance about ‘70s era wines, largely (I have come to believe) on account of relatively disappointing ‘78s, often a yardstick for performance in what is for many a challenging decade. But the ‘71s, ‘72s, ’76s, and ‘80s are sensational. Recent history has witnessed a far greater consistency amongst the entire range. Charmes and Clos de la Roche, for example, are more convincing and multiple than was the case in the past, though again, there have been many magnificent examples of both over the decades. ‘Comparing’ the Chambertin and the Beze is fatuous; they are summits both, though their vantage points are different, sometimes strikingly so. Daniel loves the purity of Bèze, which he notes ages ‘as well as Chambertin, but differently.’ I agree with him.
The ‘17s here are gorgeous, slimmer and more refined than their immediate predecessors. I find the ’15s predictably sumptuous but surprisingly grippy, with uncommon sophistication and dimension for the year; the ‘16s are even riper, considerably softer, more hedonistic. Both vintages will be fascinating to follow over the next few decades.
There are no land mines here. These are wines to buy, collect, and open with unreasonable expectations for pleasure. They will be surpassed regardless.