A vineyard’s comeback, 200 years in the making
By Erik Piepenburg
More than 200 years ago, the early French wine authority André Jullien, in his book “Topography of All Known Vineyards,” cited the Clos de la Perrière as being among the top vineyards in all of Burgundy.
He ranked the vineyard, in this small village near the northern end of the Côte d’Or, the heart of Burgundy, in hallowed territory alongside Chambertin and Musigny, illustrious names still murmured reverentially today and among the most prized and coveted of all wines.
His praise was echoed in 1855 by Jules Lavalle, a botanist and authority on Burgundy’s vineyards, in his seminal work “History and Statistics of the Vine and of the Great Wines of the Côte d’Or.” Lavalle, if he does not place Clos de la Perrière in his highest echelon of vineyards, holds it among the best with other esteemed names like Bonnes Mares and Grands Échézeaux.
Yet today, Clos de la Perrière’s exalted past is largely forgotten and its owner, Domaine Joliet, is little known. The wines of Fixin are often lost in the shadow of Gevrey-Chambertin, the vineyard’s renowned neighbor to the south, to which it is often considered a rustic cousin, as Jasper Morris put it in the most recent edition of his book “Inside Burgundy.”
The current proprietor of Clos de la Perrière, Bénigne Joliet, intends to change that perception. He believes the wines of Fixin are generally underestimated. He is proud of Clos de la Perrière, and is determined to restore at least a measure of the respect it once earned, even if modern perceptions are against him.
When the Joliet family acquired the vineyard in 1853 it had already been the source of great grapes for seven centuries. Cistercian monks first identified the site, on roughly 12.5 acres on a rocky, southeast-facing slope, as a distinctive vineyard early in the 12th century. They built a stone wall around it, creating a clos, or enclosed vineyard, using rock from a nearby quarry. It was called Clos de la Perrière.
For the next 500 years, until 1622, monks managed the vineyard and made wine in a cellar under a stately stone manor, which they also began to construct in the 12th century.
It then passed through several owners until the Joliets bought the property, along with the house, Manoir de la Perrière, and the airy, barrel-vaulted cellar, complete with an imposing medieval wine press. Bénigne Joliet is the sixth generation to run the estate. His daughter, Camille, a student at McGill University in Montreal, is in line to be the seventh.
Bénigne Joliet grew up in the manor and has always lived there, moving from the north wing to the south, he said, when he took over the property.
Walking among the rows, which rise up the slope to the edge of a forest, I could almost feel a vibrancy, a liveliness to the vines. To the east, the vineyard looks out over steeples rising from clusters of buildings in the valley. In the center of the vineyard stands a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Unlike most Burgundian vineyards, which are divided among numerous owners working side by side, the Clos de la Perrière is a “monopole,” owned entirely by the Joliet family.
Joliet has made many improvements in the roughly 20 years since he took over from his father, Philippe. The vineyard is now farmed organically, and he intends to stop tilling the soil in an effort to build its microbial life. He has delayed pruning the vines, which he used to begin each year on Feb. 1, to combat spring frosts, which have taken a terrible toll in Burgundy in the era of climate change.
Because the weather warms earlier in the year nowadays, the vines begin to bud sooner, leaving them vulnerable to frost, which can kill tender buds.
“Killer frosts were once in a career for my father and grandfather,” said Joliet, a slightly rumpled but affable and open-minded man. “For myself, it’s been six out of the last 10 years.”
These steps may not be enough to regain the vineyard’s once vaunted reputation, but the wines are certainly getting better and better.
When the government created a system of official French appellations, beginning in 1936, the vineyards of Burgundy were ranked according to a hierarchy indicating a vineyard’s potential to produce wines of a distinctive character.
At the base of the pyramid were regional vineyards capable of producing reds or whites that represented the general attributes of Burgundy, but not the nuances of more specific places.
A leap above the regional wines were the village vineyards, those able to express the characteristics of specific villages — Gevrey-Chambertin, Volnay or Meursault, for example.
Next were the premier crus, particularly good vineyards that not only expressed the traits of the village but added their own distinguishing attributes. At the top were the grand crus, the glorious few in which the distinctive character of the vineyards transcended all other categories.
These grand crus are the most expensive. Most of those vineyards judged in the 19th century to be peers of Clos de la Perrière, like Musigny, Bonnes Mares and Chambertin, received grand cru status, but not Clos de la Perrière, which the authorities deemed a premier cru.
For his part, Joliet says he is glad not to have the grand cru appellation.
“My grandfather didn’t want it,” he said. “He felt the wine would be too expensive. And if it had been grand cru, it would not have stayed a monopole.”
In Burgundy, land is taxed according to its value, and grand cru vineyards are considerably more valuable than premier crus. This is particularly important at inheritance, when taxes can be so high that the next generation may be compelled to sell off part or all of a vineyard in order to pay the bill.
Earlier this century, Joliet said, he bought out relatives who shared ownership in the property to keep it intact and to continue to do things his way. Had the vineyard been a grand cru, he said, he would not have been able to afford to do that.
What makes the vineyard so distinctive?
“People may not believe it,” Joliet said, “but when you are here you can feel the energy. It was created for its energy and the diversity of the terroirs.”