Jean Claude Rateau Beaune 'Coucherias' 2017
Pale gold with complex notes of white flowers, citrus and almond. Fresh and racy, balanced between fruit and acidity with great mineral length.
Jean-Claude Rateau, who has arguably the most famous mustache in Burgundy, is incontestably the godfather and guru of biodynamic wine farming here in the region. When, in 1979, Jean-Claude converted his then 5 acres of vines to biodynamic production, he was the first. And his neighbors thought he was nuts. Nearly 40 years later, the proof is before your eyes, and there are dozens of biodynamic producers, and many more who use the methods without claiming accreditation. If you see Jean-Claude’s vines today, after all these years of loving care and (some would still say ‘voodoo), you can easily see where his rows end and his neighbors’ begin. The life of the soil and the vitality of the vine is that obvious.
Wine making was in Jean-Claude’s blood from the earliest age. His family were part-time vignerons, owning a couple of acres and making wine for a family of land owners (with whom Jean Claude still works). After his studies at the Lycee Viticole (the wine high school in Beaune), Jean -Claude did what so many young vignerons do today, he set off on a tour of other wine regions. And it was in Brouilly, in the Beaujolais, that he first encountered biodynamics.
On his return to Burgundy in 1979, he set up his domain and made his first trials with biodynamic methods in a Beaune vineyard called ‘Clos des Mariages’, making the very first biodynamic wine in Burgundy. His association with the land owners that his family had worked with developed fruitfully, and Jean-Claude’s domain grew over the next decade to over 20 acres and 14 different wines. His early work and collaboration with such notables as Claude Bourguignon (a soil microbiologist who in the ‘80s famously said that the soils in Burgundy’s vineyards had about as much microbiological activity as the Sahara) and Yves Herody (who has done the soil analysis for our plantation at Domaine de Cromey) brought Jean-Claude into the inner circle of those who pioneered the study of ‘terroir’ in Burgundy, and to the foundation of an association of which he remains the president.
Today, on 15 parcels, in 12 different ‘terroirs’, Jean-Claude proposes a comprehensive selection of Beaune ‘terroirs’ in white and red: 4 regional appellations; 7 different village appellations and 3 premier crus.
His vineyard work is entirely based on this notion of ‘terroir’. The extraordinary potential of Beaune’s brown limestone soil for producing deep, concentrated wines that age well has been his life’s study. Each soil type demands a different approach, and each period of the year has its tasks. In winter, the soil is dug deep to allow frost to crumble what has hardened during the previous year. Springtime means aeration to stimulate the microbiologic life and break down what is left of any compost. And at the end of summer, the vineyard goes back to wildflower meadow.
In the cellar, Jean-Claude uses a minimum of sulfur, leaving the wine on its lees until bottling. The harvest can be partially de-stemmed, or not at all, depending on the vintage and the ‘terroir’.
BURGUNDY 2017 VINTAGE
If 2016 tested the faith and resolve of wine makers in Burgundy, 2017 has to be seen as recompense, and as a miracle of sorts. While the rest of wine-growing Europe suffered crippling late-spring frosts in 2017, Burgundy for the most part (for once!) survived.
A mild winter and an accelerated spring left the Burgundy vineyards in a vulnerable position when, in the second half of April, temperatures across France barely rose above freezing for two weeks.
Three hard-frost nights pretty much did in Right Bank Chablis once again. But as the rest of Burgundy survived the first week, the growers found the will to fight back. And on the night of April 27th, a year and a day after the 2016 frost that took 80% of the 2016 harvest, a severe frost was forecast for the length of the Cote d’Or.
It’s now a part of local legend how, on the following morning, we awoke in a thick cloud of smoke. In the early hours, from north to south, the vignerons had mobilized to set alight dampened bales of hay, sending up a cloud cover to filter the first burning rays of dawn. And it worked.
The air was thick, and driving was tricky. A customer at the butcher shop in Meursault jokingly asked for a smoked chicken. And, of course, the authorities were up in arms over the pollution risks. But the crop was saved, and there has been ever since a spirit of cooperation and solidarity not often seen in farming communities.
After the freeze, May brought in an extended period of warm dry weather. No mildew or oidium to speak of, no thunderstorms or hail. Sunny periods, but no lack of rain. And the vines went in to flower at a very-normal first week of June. Pretty much ideal.
July had a couple of heat spikes, and a hailstorm hit the fancy vineyards in Morey St Denis on the 10th. But nothing worse. August was warm; the lead up to the harvest at the end of the month, hot and dry.
The first grapes were picked in the Cote de Beaune in the last few days of August. And most everyone was out picking in the first week of September.
There was (as there often is in Burgundy) serious disagreement in 2017 about when to pick. Do you pick early to preserve the acid-sugar balance and freshness? Or do you hang in there and wait for a little rain to kick-start a stalled photosynthesis, and thereby achieve the holy grail of phenolic maturity?
It’s hard to say who was right. There are very good wines coming from both camps. But there are iffy wines too. And that’s the key to understanding 2017.
Picked early, the best wines, both red and white, are fresh, fruit-driven and floral with long minerality. The iffy wines seem not have adjusted for the solid levels of tartaric acid which left them tart rather than bright, dry and tannic rather than juicy.
Picking late did not seem to have an effect on the balance between alcohol and acidity. But then, there was no ‘over maturity’ in 2017. The extra phenolic maturity seems to mean more density and riper tannins, with no sign of flabbiness.
The whites shine, particularly in hard-done Chablis (where there is better balance even than the marvelous 2014s). In the rest of Burgundy, the whites have the tension of 2014 but the open flattery of 2015.
The reds are juicy and crisp and open, and the regional appellations will be ready to drink soon. More serious appellations will be considered ‘typical’, in the best sense of the word: classic wines from a vintage that Burgundians will love. They are likely to be lost in the hub-bub that the 2018s will bring. But the yields were good in 2017, so you will be able to find them for a while. And you’ll do well to seek them out.
COTE DE BEAUNE
A Burgundian icon and capital of Burgundy's wine trade, Beaune takes center place on the world stage during the annual Hospices wine auction. The Hôtel-Dieu with its Flemish tiled roof, the huge silent cellars of the negotiants' houses, and the wine-growing domaines of the district all attract lucrative tourism. The Beaune vineyards are among the most extensive of the Côte d'Or.
The appellation Beaune includes an astounding 42 premiers crus produced within the commune of Beaune itself. There is much variation in the appellation Beaune. Differences appear from parcel to parcel, depending on the location. Generally wines from the northern end of the commune tend to be more often intense and powerful, and those from the southern end are smoother and fuller.
The reds should be a luminous scarlet color, with classic Pinot aromas of black fruits (blackcurrant, blackberry) and red (cherry, gooseberry) with notes of humus and wet undergrowth. When older, secondary aromas of truffle, leather, and spice develop. Younger Beaune reds give the impression of biting into a bunch of fresh grapes, firm and juicy.
The whites tend to be a viscous gold flecked with green. You often get almonds, dried fruits and white flowers in the nose. They may be enjoyed for youthful fruitiness but will age admirably, especially in the better premier cru vineyards.
In the geosyncline of Volnay the comblanchian limestone disappears into the depths to be replaced by the overlying Rauracian. The slopes are quite steep and the soil thin (scree-derived black rendzinas). On the lower slopes are argovian marls and deep soils tinged with red from the iron in the oxfordian limestone. The foot of the slope is mostly limestone mixed with clay. Exposure ranges from east to due south. And altitudes range between 220 to 300 meters.
Red wines - Pinot Noir
White wines - Chardonnay
Production surface area
1 hectare (ha) = 2.4 acres
Reds : 362.74 ha (including 281.49 ha Premier Cru)
Whites : 48.96 ha (including 36.06 ha Premier Cru)
Reds from Beaune tend to be fleshy and generous, and the best can show great aromatic power and solid structure. So we partner them with firm gamey meats such as feathered game, roasted or braised. For cheeses choose the more 'gamey' style too: Époisses, Soumaintrain, Munster, Maroilles.
Beaune whites in their youth have a flowery freshness making them a good match for poultry and veal in creamy sauces, and for grilled sea-fish. When older and fleshier they enfold cheeses such as Cîteaux, Comté, and creamier goat cheeses.
On the label, the appellations 'Beaune' and 'Beaune 1er Cru' may be followed by the name of a specific vineyard, known as a climat.
The following climats are classified as premier cru:
Clos de l'Ecu
Clos de la Feguine
Clos de la Mousse
Clos des Avaux
Clos des Ursules
Clos du Roi
Le Bas des Teurons
Le Clos des Mouches
Les Cents Vignes
Les Vignes Franches
Sur les Grèves
Sur les Grèves-Clos Sainte-Anne
The following climats are villagewines from a single vineyard, know as a lieu-dit:
Dessus des Marconnets
Fb de Bouze
Les Beaux Fougets
Les Bons Feuvres
Les Levées et les Piroles
Les Pointes de Tuvilains
Montagne Saint Désiré