The path to Rodolphe Demougeot’s current level of quality took a while after he took over the family domaine in 1992. Since then, he’s amassed eight hectares of vines in the Côte de Beaune and year by year upped the ante on his attention to detail in the cellar and vineyard, raising his own personal bar and capturing the attention of the his illustrious neighbors with more enviable vineyard stables in Meursault and Pommard.
Rodolphe says he “learned how to do perfect chemical farming from his family and had to deprogram his vineyards and himself, which has taken a lot of time to achieve,” something that takes courage and an evolved sense of self and humility to admit. Another telling quote of his candid and honest character is that he said he needed to learn to be a good farmer first, and then he had to learn to improve his performance in the cellar. If only everyone approached life with this kind of blatant and unflinching honesty about their own process!
Since the mid 2000s, synthetic treatments of herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers were systematically abandoned one step at a time until they were all gone from his land before the turn of the decade. Then his interest in the inexplicable but observable energies of our mysterious universe and its influence on grapes and wine came to be central to his decision-making. The moon is his compass for the timing of processes during growing, farming, picking, racking and bottling.
Today, Rodolphe’s vineyards are impressively farmed and have as much life as any organic or biodynamic vineyard we’ve set foot in. He’s renowned for the quality of his farming by the top growers in his area, and within all the talent of his hometown of Meursault, that’s saying something. He plows most of his vineyards by tractor, but with some he always uses a horse, such as in his top Pommard, 1er Cru Les Charmots. His cluster selection is made early in the season to concentrate the energy of the vines to fewer clusters in the pursuit of quality over quantity. Everything is done by hand and under severe scrutiny within his humble holdings—at least by Côte d’Or standards.
Demougeot’s white wines are an obvious win and you don’t have to be a genius to sort that one out. However, I would contest that his reds are equal in quality and perhaps easy to overlook in the shadow of his extraordinary whites. Inevitably it’s difficult to separate most tasters with the concept that red wines need to bring something obviously substantial rather than subtle and refined as Rodolphe’s wines. For wine drinkers it can be an entirely different calibration when one knows the tendency of wines like his that, as the quote by Teddy Roosevelt goes that my mother loved to cite: “speak softly, but carry a big stick.” Compelling wines are not a one-act concerto; they build as they go and end with a standing ovation that begs for another glass, or two.
Rodolphe’s Chardonnays are whole cluster pressed and undergo a natural fermentation without battonage (lees stirring), unless the vintage is so spare from challenging weather that they need a little help. Sulfites are added for the first and only time at bottling, which I believe to be a good approach when in pursuit of nuances that have a little required reading between the lines—the gift given to the astute and patient wine drinker. From the Bourgogne Blanc all the way to his top white, Meursault “Le Limozin,” all are aged equally in 90% old oak barrels with a modest 10% of them new. The Bourgogne Blanc is a knockout and entirely sourced from vines below substantial Meursault village appellation vines and has the unmistakable mark of Meursault. Les Meursaults, uninhibited by the excessive hands-on approach of insecure winemaking, are pure, and bridge the gap between the baroque and the fashionable. In cold years they are a shoo in, and in warm years can be unexpectedly stunning, fraught with tension typically found in a much cooler year. Here the hand in the wine is only felt in the quality of the fruit and the soft touch of the wines. Bravo Rodolphe.
Like the whites, the reds are somewhere in the middle of the classic/trendy road, but are crafted with more elegance than power. The fermentations are made without stems and last two to three weeks depending on the vintage. They are lightly extracted using the infusion approach, which is to say very little is done to disturb the grapes during the process of morphing from exquisite raw produce to the magic that fills wine built by intention from the moment the vines were pruned to the day they were picked at their most brightly shining moment. Once pressed and put into barrel the wines aren’t moved until bottling. Like the whites, the first sulfite addition is made just prior to bottling to allow an unhindered development of the wine’s true voice before the intrusion of the sulfites. The wines are spared excess of new oak use, unless the vineyard has a habit of rendering wines with increased tannin levels than others, like his Beaune lieux-dits, Les Beaux Fougets and Les Epenotes, not too far from the great Pommard 1er Cru, Les Petits Epenots (sadly not in Rodolphe’s collection), just to the south. On his top Pommard wines, Les Vignots and 1er Cru Les Charmots, 70% older oak barrels are employed, while on the village appellation wines they typically land between 90-85% old oak barrels.
When I was in Burgundy with an Austrian vigneron (who I’ll refer to as PVM), we visited many of the top producers in our portfolio, and to my surprise, Demougeot’s wines were his favorite. When I asked why, his response (in short) was that they are simply pure and unpretentious, and the terroir is on display without any obstacles of the ego. Not surprisingly, he ranked his reds over the whites—putting him in with me in the minority of less than five percent who feel the same way, and this agreement pleased me greatly. Rodolphe’s wines are honest and you really taste his effort in the vineyards and the respect he has for his fruit by treating it like a good sushi chef treats the perfect piece of fish; they do as little as possible. -TV