t's simply a case of practise what you preach. American political journalist Blair Pethel quit his job after 25 years and set up Domaine Dublère in the heart of Burgundy.
– For people who really understand wine, who get what it can do to enhance the quality of life – no matter where you start that voyage of discovery, you finish in Burgundy, he says.
Today Blair Pethel runs his domaine just on the border between Beaune and Savigny-lès-Beaune. He is not always sure in which of the two communes he is actually located. It all depends on which part of the French authorities he is dealing with. He farms three hectares of vines and buys an equivalent of three hectares in grapes. In total he makes 15 different wines.
– Corton-Charlemagne was the first parcel I bought in 2004, explains Blair Pethel. And it was the first wine I made. This means I have the longest time with that vineyard, so the farming technique has really come around to what I want.
During the 1980's and 1990's he visited the region on many occasions. When he was based in London he came to Burgundy several times a year to taste, buy wine and meet people.
– I worked my first harvest in 1999 with Patrice Rion (in Prémeaux-Prissey). I came here with the whole family and after that experience we were here for three months. My wife and I then decided that it was a part of the world, a type of people and a style of life that we could get into ourselves.
– Then inertia got a hold and we weren't able to progress for a few years. One night we were sitting around for dinner and said "We're not getting any younger. If we are going to do this we will have to set a date and we have to do it". And that's what we did.
The house had already been bought, so settling in physically was a quick thing. Adapting and learning the language took longer. Then Blair Pethel also discovered that he needed to get French qualifications if he was going to be a wine farmer. The solution to that was wine college and working apprenticeships.
– It's one thing to learn things in a classroom, it's another thing to learn them in the vineyards. The courses at school were not particularly difficult, so I have been wondering if I might find the time to go back to school to go even further, maybe getting the oenology diploma.
The majority of the wines in Domaine Dublère's portfolio are from the Côte de Beaune – Savigny-lès-Beaune, Beaune, Volnay, Chassagne-Montrachet etc – but there are a few Côte de Nuits wines in there as well, and even a Chablis, Chablis grand cru Presuses.
– I have always loved grand cru Chablis, says Blair Pethel. I think it is a fabulous wine. It's a good price/quality ratio. When I found this source of very old vines, 85 years old, in Preuses I jumped on it.
– The first two years I brought down the grapes from Chablis in a refrigerated truck and pressed them here. But I was making so much it took me two trips to get all the grapes back. That was six hours just of travelling time. In 2009 my source agreed to press the grapes at his place using my pressing program.
Blair Pethel lists Patrice Rion, Jean-Marc Pillot (Domaine Jean-Marc Pillot, Chassagne-Montrachet) and Benjamin Leroux (Domaine Comte Armand, Pommard) as his influences.
– They are people that have been able to show me that great Burgundy is made in the vineyard and that even if it's a lot of work, physical work, it repays the effort. The world's greatest winemaker can't make great wine with mediocre grapes. It's all about giving the soil its best possible chance to express itself through the grapes.
His most recent land purchases are some Savigny-lès-Beaune premier cru Les Vergelesses and one more plot of Corton-Charlemagne. The first parcel of Corton-Charlemagne is located on the Pernand-Vergelesses side of the Corton hill, a little bit west of full south. It is quite steep, stony and difficult to plow.
– It is late ripening, but it has got wonderful minerality. The new parcel is on the Aloxe-Corton side, facing south. I expect it to ripen a week, if not ten days sooner than the one on the Pernand side. This is lower down on the slope. The soil is a bit richer. So I expect it to be quite quite different, even if they are just 500 metres apart. I will vinify them separately. Then I will see if I will bottle them separately or not.
The purchase in Savigny-lès-Beaune is 0.6 hectares in Les Vergelesses planted with chardonnay. This premier cru is on the Pernand-Vergelesses side of the village, facing southeast.
– The vines were in terrible shape when I took them over, says Blair Pethel. They had been very badly pruned for years and years. The soil was completely impoverished. I did a soil analysis and I needed to put twelve tons of compost to a parcel that is 0.6 hectares. I re-pruned, changed the trellising and raised the canopy height.
– Up on the top of the premier cru hill, beneath the wood, is the really white chalky soil that is perfect for chardonnay.
– It is a region of… I don't want to say peasants, that is the English translation. Paysans, people of the land. Farmers basically. It is not like Bordeaux, it is a region of farmers. And it happens that they are farmers who farm a luxury good, which means they are wealthy farmers. But they are still people who are really connected to the land and they realise what the land has given them and their ancestral generations – means and a certain style of life, enough money to travel and to have their children educated.
– But even this opening has not really changed them. They are still people who are very attached to the land and to the work of the land with their hands. These are people who work themselves. They don't hire other people to work for them. They are not big companies that put managers in place an only look at the bottom line.
© 2011 Ola Bergman