Writing about Burgundy today comes with the inherent advantage that the region is already at the center of most serious wine conversations. And yet our enormous shared interest, together with Burgundy’s relatively small scale of production has, of course, driven the prices for its most collected wines unprecedentedly skyward. Almost invariably, these wines issues from vineyards placed at the top of Burgundy’s hierarchical pyramid, which we known as its most famous grands and premiers crus. The commodification of these wines has become perhaps the most prominent feature of the contemporary Burgundian marketplace.
And yet I wonder if our relentless pursuit of Burgundy’s ‘best’ wines is in some sense fundamentally at odds with the simple fact that terroir, the region’s foundational notion, implicitly orients us away from this quality-obsessed vantage point and toward one attentive to and appreciate of Burgundy’s diversity. Terroir is liberated from the burden of qualitative analysis and the compulsive need to evaluate with the interest of locating the region’s ‘greatest’ wines. At the heart of Burgundy is the deep sense that a particular wine’s identity issues from the vitality of its connection with the vineyard in which it was grown, a place unique from all others. If we begin with an impetus to seek out and appreciate Burgundy’s astonishing diversity, we can begin to find greater beauty in the process through which place asserts itself in a wine rather than the race to rank the results. Here is question worth considering: does our insistence on locating and drinking only its ‘best’ wines amplify or attenuate our ability to appreciate Burgundy’s particular beauty? And are we absolutely sure that the hierarchical distinctions between vineyards we cleave to are, in fact, absolute?
Take the wines of Jean-Yves Bizot and Arnaud Ente as examples. Perhaps more than any others, these producers’ wines suggest the potential to transcend conventional patterns of thinking through their ability to craft astonishingly distinct and complete wines from sites we would otherwise care little about. Bizot and Ente confront our certitude in hierarchical distinctions between vineyards not because their wines are objectively ‘great,’ but because the convincing force of personality the wines present lead us to question the most fundamental assumptions behind these very distinctions. What fascinates me most about, for example, a Bourgogne ‘Le Chapitre’ from Bizot is that it is possible to make wine like that from this particular place. This is a grateful rather than contrarian assertion, suggesting the possibility of reinterpreting terroir liberated from hierarchical patterns of thinking. The way we have chosen to navigate Burgundy today illuminates certain attitudinal biases built into our contemporary conception of terroir; to explore these can, and should be, a fun and entirely productive experience. And to the familiar producers mentioned above, I nominate the singular wines of Maison/Domaine Chanterêves as delicious opportunities to explore these same lines of inquiry.
Tomoko Kuriyama and her husband Guillaume Bott (cellarmaster at Simon Bize by day) founded Chanterêves in 2010 as a micro-négoce, and the wines they have rendered since have been among our happiest Burgundy discoveries of the past decade. Tomoko’s formative winemaking years were spent in Germany where she apprenticed at Peter Jakob Kühn and Georg Breuer. In Germany she cultivated an appreciation for monovarietal wines together with the fundamental desire to express place, both of which remain compass points in her Burgundian winemaking journey. In Germany a focus on vineyards means a lot of work in them, and Tomoko continues to prefer discussing farming rather than winemaking. Like a proper old-school vigneron, she rarely steers the conversation toward a qualitative ordering of her wines, preferring to passionately guide you through the process through which she aids her vineyards to express themselves in her wines.
From the beginning, Tomoko and Guillaume have accepted the ‘négoce’ label with reticence, sharing that the goal having always been to own and farm the land entirely on their own. Working as a négoce was a ‘starting point,’ Tomoko relates. In the early years of Chanterêves, she continued to work in the vineyards at Chandon de Briailles in the interest of remaining closely connected to the essential relationship between the land and its wine.
Her intention is not to comprehensively represent Burgundy, but to locate sites - regardless of their appellations - likely to produce distinctive and individual wines. As a result, Chanterêves offers a roster of wines among the most eclectic in all of Burgundy. Tomoko is looking for meticulously farmed vineyards rather than objective qualitative potential as a criteria for choosing to make wine. In her own words:
‘[The Côte d’Or] is a very blessed wine region, and history has already meted out the best plots and the plots that are less interesting. Even Bourgogne-level vineyards are already well-selected plots of land and so we feel that if the farming is well done then we should be able to make wines we want to drink. We tend to fall in love with the appellation after we start making it.’
Uniqunesses of site ground each wine, and Tomoko is their careful but unassertive guide. Her intentions as winemaker are felt in the distinctiveness and expressiveness of each wine rather than an identifiable stylistic resemblance among them. She is intuitive and deeply reflective, and her wines, in their serene, composed style, express this. These are ‘natural’ wines in the best sense, wines saturated above all with individuality and character. Whole-cluster fermentations, very little SO2, and a decided preference for older oak are the most obvious features of élévage.
The whites are not made in the fashionable ultra-reductive style; they are brimming with life and are clear windows into lovingly-farmed and interesting sites. The Chardonnay is crushed and there is a long press cycle, giving the wines a distinctly tactile character. Tomoko and Guillaume still do the crushing manually by foot, which produces 70% of the juice, the remainder coming from the pressing. Tomoko seeks ‘just enough reduction’ to keep the wine vibrant and less dependent on sulfur. She notes one is ‘too far gone’ if reduction covers up the subtlety of terroir.
Chanterêves’ Auxey-Duresses ’Les Hautés’ comes from one of this village’s most gifted sites, just across the border from Meursault. It is pure and expressive, a touch rounder than many expressions of this part of Auxey. There is an energy and radiance that are irresistible. The St.-Romain ‘Combe Bazin’ is less an extrovent, more obviously mineral, more diffuse. It is lovely in a slightly austere, searching way. I love the Pernand-Vergelesses ‘La Morand,’ a site you are not likely to see bottled on its own elsewhere. Here the texture is thicker, the wine more solid and and yet still easy to see into. It is a beautiful, textured wine, yet shot-through with an an uncommon energy and uprightness. Finally, there is the Chassagne-Montrachet ‘Morgoet,’ sourced from the lieu-dit ‘Les Chaumes.’ In ’18 It is broad and dense, almost creamy-textured with mountains of fruit. It is a joy to drink and a welcome reminder that there is still more to Burgundy than reductive, streamlined whites!
The reds have been vinified with the stems (100%) since 2014. We should keep in mind that whole cluster isn’t a technique, but merely the avoidance of the technique of destemming. And while Tomoko’s wines evidence this approach, the wines are rarely ‘showy’ in the way that whole cluster wines can be. Hers are earthier, more grounded, never ostentatious. The stems season and deepen each wine’s essential features, and the results are altogether convincing.
Whole-cluster and minimal (to zero) sulfur at the start of vinification are the goal, an approach rare in Burgundy today, though Tomoko notes that Philippe Pacalet, Fred Cossard and Prieuré-Roch also vinify in this manner. It is a technique borrowed from the Beaujolais through Pacalet, a native of the region.
Tomoko singles out a visit she made to Nicolas Faure in 2014 as the formative experience that gave her the confidence to adopt this approach:
‘I tasted the 2013s at Faure and was blown away by the beauty and magnificence of the wines. 2013 was one of the least ripe vintages in the last 10 years, and in 2013 Nicolas made a small cuvée of Nuits that was fully destemmed, the only time he has done this. I was able to taste the difference between the destemmed and the whole-cluster versions; there was zero greeness in the 100% whole-cluster version in a vintage where that happens often. Nico advised that this balance is possible only if there is very little sulfur involved in vinifications.’
The reds are always thought-provoking and often splendid. The Hautes Côtes is sourced from a granitic vineyard near Maranges, a soil type unique in the Côte d’Or. This is felt in the wine through a mineral profile that seems more incisive in that invigorating granite-y way. The Volnay ‘Lurets’ is softer, rich yet with a grace and purity entirely typical of Volnay. ‘Lurets’ is sited at the southern end of Volnay just below some of the village’s senior premiers crus. In ’18 it trades a bit of tension for fruit, the stems lending perfume and dimension. It’s a hedonsitic treat this year.
Finally, the Ladoix ‘Bricottes.’ The Ladoix last! I have always had a special place for this wine. Tomoko shares that ‘Bricottes’ has very shallow topsoil and the subsoil is very hard calcaire comblachien. The vines are 45 years old and yields are naturally very low here. The parcel is just below the forest. You get the tannins that are characteristic of this part of Burgundy. It is our favorite wine of the 2018 vintage!’ She adds that ‘Bricottes’ is a vineyard that doesn’t assert itself until later in élévage, tending to start a bit light but building in complexity and volume. Prieuré-Roch’s Ladoix ‘Bricottes’ comes from the same vigneron Chanterêves purchases from.
Discussing her ‘18s, Tomoko shares that the wines were difficult to vinify in a way similar to ’14, a particular concern being the potential for volatility. But the wines have come out clean on the other side; they are glamorous and juicy, sunny wines in the best sense. Tomoko states a slight preference for the whites to the reds, finding in the former a bit more elegance and tension. Buy a couple of each and decide yourself!
Above all, our goal at Somm Cellars is to spotlight the inherent inclusiveness of Burgundy’s wine culture. This isn’t a narrative, but rather a reminder of something that has always been there. An unegoistic desire to explore and appreciate are our compass points; the great and the small, the obvious and the subtle, Burgundy offers us all of these. What these wines share is a force of personality; they do not attempt to parrot ‘greatness’ from their respective vantage points. They are wine for thoughtful drinkers, not label drinkers. What is on the label will be famous soon enough.