A Region of Farmers

The cultlike status enjoyed by Burgundy’s premier wines was brought home to me during a visit with Aubert de Villaine, the warm, urbane proprietor of Burgundy’s most famous winery, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, located in the village of Vosne-Romanée. After sampling some of DRC’s 2005s, we left the cellar and made the short walk back across the town square to the domaine’s offices to taste some older wines. As we approached the gate, we noticed four young Japanese tourists milling about—and they noticed de Villaine. “Mr. Aubert, Mr. Aubert,” one said pleadingly. “Could we take your picture?” De Villaine smiled, gently shook his head, and said, “No, I’m afraid I’m not very photogenic.” I thought for a second that they were going to snap a picture anyway, but they held fire. I later commented to de Villaine that Japanese groupies making pilgrimages to Vosne-Romanée was presumably something that didn’t happen 20 years ago. “No, definitely not,” he replied, with a slight air of fatigue that suggested that it was not a development that especially pleased him. All this glamour and celebrity has made it easy to overlook one essential point about Burgundy: It is still a region of farmers. In Bordeaux, where so much of the wine business is now fueled by corporate money, the connection between châteaux proprietors and the vineyards they own is an increasingly tenuous one. Not so in Burgundy, where even the most acclaimed winemakers still get their hands dirty on an almost daily basis. (In fact, the region’s most successful vignerons are, almost without exception, the ones who are most diligent about tending to their vines.)

Although institutional money has started to dance around the edges of Burgundy—because land prices, at least for the finest vineyards, are increasingly beyond the reach of individuals—it is still a farming culture, in which fathers transmit their skills and knowledge to sons and daughters in the hope and expectation that they will carry on the family business. But relying solely on bloodlines carries risks, and misfortune can upset even the most ironclad succession plans and throw a domaine’s future into doubt.

Burgundy has seen several tragedies in recent years. In 2004, Romain Lignier, a talented 34-year-old winemaker in the village of Morey-Saint-Denis, died of cancer, leaving behind a wife and two small children; his father, Hubert, was forced to come out of retirement to resume winemaking duties. Last year, Philippe Engel, a colorful figure who made superb wines in Vosne-Romanée, was felled by a heart attack at the age of 49. He was unmarried and childless, and with no one else in the family willing or able to take over, the domaine had to be sold. (It was acquired, for a record price, by French billionaire Francois Pinault, the owner of Bordeaux’s Chateau Latour. He also owns Gucci and a majority stake in Christie’s auction house. For those in Burgundy worried about corporate encroachment, the Engel sale is the most ominous sign to date.)

The new year brought no relief from the bad news. On Jan. 30, Denis Mortet, a highly regarded 49-year-old winemaker in Gevrey-Chambertin, at the northern edge of the Côte d’Or, committed suicide, succumbing to the depression that had long plagued him. Mortet was survived by his wife, Laurence, and two children, the oldest of whom, 25-year-old Arnaud, had been working with his father since his late teens, the initial stages of what was to have been a long tutelage. His father’s suicide immediately thrust Arnaud into a role he was hardly prepared for, and this naturally placed a question mark over the domaine’s future. Before leaving for France, I’d asked Martine Saunier, Mortet’s U.S. importer, if it might be possible to visit with Laurence and Arnaud to talk about what had happened and how they planned to move ahead. Martine conveyed my request, and they graciously agreed to receive me.

We met on a bright Monday morning at the domaine’s winery, a large, recently expanded facility just outside the village of Gevrey-Chambertin. We were joined by Martine and her brother, who had driven up from the Macon region, at the southern end of Burgundy, and also by Claire Forestier, a gifted winemaker who had been enlisted to help Arnaud after his father’s death.

As soon as Laurence and Arnaud stepped out of their van, I dispensed with the idea of doing an actual interview. Their faces told the story better than any words could have. Arnaud, dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a sleeveless ski vest, looked even younger than his 25 years, and his baby face underscored the swiftness and cruelty with which he had been thrust into the role of breadwinner. As for Laurence, I had never seen a face etched in so much pain; it hurt to make eye contact with her. The faces, hers and his, told me all I needed to know.

We went down to the cellar to taste Denis’ last vintage, the 2005s. It was an excellent vintage in Burgundy, and the Mortet wines were uniformly superb. As we made our way among the hundreds of neatly stacked barrels, I quietly asked Claire about her role and the domaine’s prospects. “Part of my job is to help Arnaud and Laurence be confident in the future,” she said. “Arnaud is young, but he has lots of knowledge. But the thing you need to understand is that Denis made his wines, and now he has left. Arnaud worked with his father and is well-trained, the terroir is the same, but the wines will be different. They will be Arnaud’s wines. A new story has started.”

The last of the 2005s we tasted was the Chambertin, a grandcru from the vineyard bearing the same name that is the crown jewel in the Mortet portfolio. It is a wine made in pitiably small quantities—in 2005, the Mortets produced just over two barrels—and it typically fetches eye-popping prices. (The only store in the United States that currently lists Mortet’s 2004 Chambertin is selling it for $439 a bottle—and 2004 was considered an off-vintage for Burgundy.) Mortet’s 2005 Chambertin was a rich, sumptuous wine with dazzling aromatics and the kind of poise one only finds in truly great bottles. As we stood around gently sniffing and swirling the wine, an unmistakable sense of melancholy filled the room. A wine that should have given only pleasure gave sadness instead. It was Laurence who unexpectedly, mercifully lifted the mood. “I don’t spit Chambertin,” she quipped with a gentle smile. None of us spat this one out.

The visit finished with a quick trip to one of the premier cru vineyards in which the Mortets own land. I hopped into the van with Arnaud and Claire, while Laurence went in Martine’s car. As we slowly climbed the hill, Claire spoke up. “There’s something I didn’t tell you in the cellar,” she announced. “My work here is finished at the end of this year. That was the deal. I’ll still be available to give advice, but I won’t be staying on past the end of the year.” This came as a bit of a surprise, but with Arnaud in the driver’s seat, I wasn’t going to push her for a fuller explanation. It really wasn’t my business. As of Jan. 1, 2007, Arnaud would be fully in command, the domaine’s fate resting completely in his uncalloused hands.