énigne Joliet is a man on a mission. There used to be a time when Clos de la Perrière in Fixin was mentioned in the same breath as the grand crus of the Côte de Nuits. Since 2004 he has been working hard on restoring the reputation of this monopole that has been in his family for six generations.
– In the 19th century the Clos de la Perrière was classified at same level as the grand crus of Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny. What I want to do is to bring Clos de la Perrière up to this level again. We have the soil to make the best wine.
Bénigne Joliet is sitting in the impressive cellars of the Domaine de la Perrière. This house was built in 1142. The building material was taken from the quarry right behind the house. For the past few years he has changed basically everything at this domaine that is overlooking the village of Fixin at the top of the Côte d'Or.
– In 2004 I bought the domaine from my family, he explains. Before that I had been making wine here since 1994. It was a good job, but I was restricted.
– I had my family here and I could not do what I wanted in the vineyards. I could not build a new winery in front of the chateau. Now it is OK. I bought all the parts in 2004. In 2005 I changed the process in the vineyard, in the winery, in the bottling, in the marketing etc.
Even the pricing was changed, quite dramatically too. The price per bottle used to be 16 to 20 euros per bottle; now it is 70 to 80 euros.
When it comes to landholdings Domaine de la Perrière is not your average Burgundian estate. While most domaines in Burgundy offer wines from several appellations Domaine de la Perrière has only one appellation – the Clos de la Perrière that surrounds the house. Domaine de la Perrière is also the only owner of this premier cru plot.
– I have five hectares around here, Bénigne Joliet explains. 4.5 ha are planted with pinot noir. I produce about 15 000 bottles a year of red wine. I have half a hectare planted with chardonnay and I produce about 2000 bottles of white.
Throughout the centuries Clos de la Perrière has remained intact; an unusual thing in Burgundy where most vineyards tend to be split between several owners. The monks built the house and planted the vines back in the 12th century, and remained here for close to five centuries. The Joliet family bought the house and vineyards in 1853.
– The reason Clos de la Perrière is still in one piece is because it is in Fixin. It's not as well known as Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-Saint-Denis or Vosne-Romanée, so it's not so expensive. It has been very difficult to keep it in one piece, but it has been easier than it would have been in Gevrey-Chambertin. Ever since the third generation here the aim has been to keep Clos de la Perrière in the family.
In 2002 Bénigne Joliet's father retired. The two had then been working together since 1994. It was around 2002 that Bénigne Joliet started to think about changes at the domaine.
– 2002 was a great year and I did everything I could to have the best quality. I was really proud of my 2002, but when I presented it to the journalists and the wine guides they said it was a very good wine but not on the level of a grand cru. I was a bit disappointed and I really wanted this quality. I spoke with my family about making changes. But it was very expensive, so I had to wait.
Bénigne Joliet did his first harvest at the age of five. Growing up at the Domaine de la Perrière he spent a lot of time with the people working in the vineyards and in the winery. For him the choice of profession was obvious and he would later spend five years at La Viti de Beaune before joining his father in 1994.
Still he felt that he wouldn't be able to pull this project off on his own. If he were to bring Domaine de la Perrière up to a new level he needed to do things differently.
– The 2005 is exactly what I want, he says. In 2002, 2003 and 2004 I made good wines, but I wanted more. I wanted to have this quality and I knew that I could not do it by myself. So I called Philippe Charlopin in Gevrey-Chambertin, who is one of the best winemakers in the region.
– 2005 and 2006 are both much better wines than what I did before. The yields are low and we are very conscious about the refinement and elegance of the wine.
Today Philippe Joliet, Bénigne's father, has accepted the radical changes at the domaine. Most of the old routines were thrown overboard when Bénigne Joliet decided it was time for a change, so one can understand that he found it difficult to deal with.
– At first he wasn't OK with it, because we changed a lot of things, Bénigne Joliet says. He was a bit... surprised... by the yields and by the work in the vineyards. "But these are good grapes", he said when he saw us throwing away whole bunches where only one grape was rotten. The problem is that one grape contaminates the whole bunch.
His father was not the only one that was in for a surprise. With a quadrupled price the customers were not too happy either.
– I was worried, because 90 percent of my customers would not buy at the new price. So I had to change nearly all customers. Now when I have sold almost all my 2005's I sleep better.
But despite the radical changes Bénigne Joliet feels that the true character of the Clos de la Perrière is still there.
– In the old bottles I have tasted you know it is the Clos de la Perrière because its very specific terroir, he explains. You have the typical aromas of spices and minerals.
– I tasted the 1937, that my great-grandfather made, and the character was there. And with the 2005 and 2006 that character is even stronger.
This far Bénigne Joliet is very happy with how the changes at the Domaine de la Perrière have turned out. He is now well on his way restoring the reputation of the domaine and he doesn't make a secret of what he is aiming for, official grand cru status for the Clos de la Perrière.
– The first step is to have the reputation of a grand cru. If I get this reputation and then the grand cru classification as well I will be very happy. It's the final step.
© 2007 Ola Bergman