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Caught Somewhere in Time: Clos de Tart 1887-2016
BY NEAL MARTIN | FEBRUARY 20, 2019
Imagine that Burgundy’s 635 premier and 33 grand crus were a sea of monopoles: one vineyard per owner, not unlike Bordeaux. It would make life much simpler. Tasting the new vintage from barrel would be a few laps around the track instead of an ultra-marathon without a finish line. Then again, you know as well as I do that this sacrilegious dumbing-down would deprive Burgundy of its natural ability to translate an intricate jigsaw puzzle of topography, soil and bedrock into a kaleidoscopic array of wines in our glass. Burgundy’s complexity might be frustrating, but it is an endless source of fascination, a cryptic crossword that you can imbibe and savor.
Of course, there are vineyards owned by a single producer, more than you might presuppose. There are eight grand cru monopoles within the Côte d’Or if we are pedantic and include Rousseau’s Clos des Ruchottes. Many would cite Romanée-Conti as the most famous. However, if somebody asked me to name an archetypal monopole, I would choose the largest, Clos de Tart. Unlike Romanée-Conti, the crown jewel within a portfolio, Clos de Tart stands alone insofar as there are no sibling vineyards elsewhere under the same ownership. Even the winery lies within the boundaries of the monopole, heightening self-containment and solipsism, as if Clos de Tart has always cut itself off from the outside world. Passersby can only speculate what is happening behind the seemingly impenetrable ochre façade that dominates the epicenter of Morey-Saint-Denis, its inner sanctum sealed away from prying eyes. To cap it all off, Clos de Tart is veiled in timelessness. It has existed as an immutable cornerstone within the Burgundy landscape since medieval times, its wine as popular in the time of the Knights Templar as in the time of Brexit.
Over the years, I have been fortunate to participate in three or four verticals of Clos de Tart. I’ve visited countless times, even dropped in during a family vacation with infant daughters in tow (evidence below). Yet I had never undertaken a comprehensive tasting that spans decades until Jordi Oriols-Gil organized a unique retrospective covering more than 50 years at Ten Trinity in London. Frédéric Engerer, responsible for François Pinault’s estates, flew over especially for the event, which was doubtless a learning experience for him as much as anyone else. To be honest, nobody knew quite what to expect in these uncharted waters. Ancient vintages are rarely seen and do not enjoy strong repute. The consensus is that winemaker Sylvain Pitiot brought long-overdue improvement, though even his wines stand accused by cognoscenti of being picked too late. What transpired was a tasting that overturned some of my preconceptions and forced me to look at Clos de Tart in a different way. It revealed monumental highs, head-scratching lows and everything in between.
Burgundy is steeped in history, yet few estates can match Clos de Tart. One must flick back the history pages almost an entire millennium to reach its formation, and throughout its life there has been remarkable continuity, with just four proprietors since the 12th century.
Clos de Tart was first recorded as “Climat de Forge” in 1141, when the winery, along with its leviathan pressoir à perroquet (parrot press) and vines, was sold to the sisters of Abbé de Tart-le-Haut in Genlis. The Bernadine nuns were part of the Cistercian brotherhood based in Cîteaux. Jasper Morris MW, writing in Inside Burgundy, states that the Knights Hospitaller de Brochon were the benevolent vendors, and as their name implies, the sale included additional land in Brochon just north of Gevrey.
The nuns augmented their initial five-hectare holding with acquisitions in 1240 and rebranded as Clos de Tart upon gaining the rights to harvest before, during or after the ban de vendanges. The aforementioned pressoir à perroquet remained operational from 1590 until 1924, by which time one assumes its warranty had expired. With all its ropes and pulleys, it is a remarkable piece of engineering that must have looked like something out of a Tolkien fantasy when operational. (According to Andrew Jefford, it is one of only three that remain. One is at Domaine Joseph Drouhin, but I could not discover the location of the other.) Eventually the sisters were relocated to Dijon by papal decree, an act that I’m sure they were not happy about. Alas, equal rights were not an ecclesiastical strong point back in those days.
In 1791 the estate was sequestered by the state following the Revolution. Perhaps because of its historical and religious significance, it was not broken up, but sold to Charles Dumagner, a business partner of Nicolas-Joseph Marey based in Nuits Saint-Georges. The price was F 68,200. Marey’s descendants were the Marey-Monge family, who now owned not only Clos de Tart but a sizeable part of Romanée-Saint-Vivant. When Dr. Jules Lavelle published his prescient overview of the Côte d’Or in 1855, Clos de Tart was recorded as 6.87 hectares owned by Ferdinand Marey. The wine was highly esteemed, Dr. Morelot comparing it to Chambertin in 1831 and Camille Rodier declaring it Tête de Cuvée in 1920. At the turn of the 20th century, Clos de Tart was managed by Maison Champy, and then management passed to Chauvenet, based in Nuits Saint-Georges and owned by relations of Marey-Monge.
This picture doesn’t really convey the size of this press. It’s worth seeing if you pay a visit to the winery.
The Mommessin family, négociants based in Charnay-lès-Mâcon, bought the estate in 1932 during a nadir of depressed land prices and appalling growing seasons. Even so, it is inconceivable that when Clos de Tart came up for sale on October 25, there was a solitary bidder, Joanny Mommessin, who paid F 400,000, somewhat less than the purported 300 million euros paid by François Pinault some 85 years later. Unsurprisingly, in 1939 Clos de Tart was designated as a grand cru; Clos de Lambrays had to wait until 1981 for promotion. There were few changes after the Mommessin acquisition, although in 1956, two parcels of 0.28 hectares that conjoin Bonnes-Mares were incorporated into the clos to bring it to its present size. (As an aside, Jasper Morris gives the date as 1965 in Inside Burgundy, but I presume this is a typo.)
In terms of winemakers, I find that most Burgundy literature provides little information about who exactly oversaw older vintages – but not Vinous. Between 1927 and 1965, Clos de Tart was made by Paul-Joseph Cyrot, who was régisseur for the Marey-Monge family and whose services were obviously continued when it was sold to the Mommessins. He had his own domaine from 1920 (it continues today as Domaine Cyrot-Buthiau, run by his great-grandson Olivier). Alfred Seguin succeeded Cyrot in 1965. Although his tenure was short, at just four years, in fact Seguin had been hired by Clos de Tart in 1925 and worked alongside Cyrot for many years. He would therefore have been the ideal successor, though by that time he must have been close to retirement age. Henri Perraut was in charge from 1969 until 1995, though I can find little written about him or his modus operandi.
Loire-born Sylvain Pitiot was appointed in 1996. Pitiot’s name is synonymous with his co-authored, indispensable atlas, which has guided countless Burgundy lovers, including myself, around the Côte d’Or. In fact, Pitiot trained as a cartographer before moving into wine, working at Domaine Jacques Prieur and for 12 years in charge at the Hospice de Beaune.
Pitiot is a rangy gentleman with gaunt features and pale blue eyes, one of the most charismatic, affable and erudite winemakers you could meet. He was convinced that Clos de Tart should be picked late in order to obtain phenolic ripeness and would quip that it should be renamed Clos de Tard. Some feel that this mantra was taken too far, resulting in occasionally overripe and labored wines, impressive in their youth but not predisposed to age gracefully. Without question, Pitiot introduced many positive techniques, including lutte raisonée and then organic viticulture, working the vines by horse, vineyard soil analysis with the expertise of Claude Bourguignon, replanting unproductive vines, installing sorting tables in 1999 and vibrating tables in 2011, a new de-stemmer, a temperature- and humidity-controlled cuverie, six stainless steel vats to replace the old cement ones (also in 1999), and generally bringing a more hands-on approach in the winery. Crucially, he broke the clos down into several sectors, as I shall describe later, in order to create a blend that was more than the sum of its parts.
Pitiot’s final vintage was the 2014 Clos de Tart. In 2015 I attended his farewell dinner, where it was clear how much he was admired by his peers, Aubert de Villaine himself making one of the speeches. There followed a short transition period with Pitiot’s successor, 40-year-old Jacques Desvauges, who clocked in for his first day on January 1, 2015. Desvauges had previously worked at Château Potelle in Napa, Domaine de la Vougeraie, Domaine Michel & Frédéric Magnien and Domaine de l’Arlot, which is where I first met him. He is a well-spoken, clearly experienced and talented winemaker, and perhaps more clean-cut and less paysan in appearance than some of his peers, yet no less devoted to his vines. He immediately demonstrated what this vineyard could achieve simply by addressing basic issues: less dogmatism about late picking, more prudent use of new oak and a further increase in stem addition. There was no lavish investment in new equipment or techniques, but rather a change in decision-making, the estate director directing as he sees fit.
I have quite a few photos of Sylvain Pitiot, but this one sums him up the best: he is explaining the intricacies of terroir to my one-year-old daughter back in 2008.
Only a few months into Desvauges’s tenure, rumors began to circulate that a member of the Mommessin family wanted to sell. Such is the price of land nowadays that it only takes one shareholder to sell for others to fall like dominoes, lest they face a crippling tax bill. Whispers about the Roederer family or possibly an East Asian consortium could be heard in the Morey breeze. Meanwhile, François Pinault, one of the wealthiest men in Europe, with a penchant for buying properties such as Château Latour and Château Grillet (you may have heard of them), ordered a bottle of Clos de Tart in the Georges V restaurant. The sommelier mentioned that Clos de Tart might be up for sale. Pinault was no stranger to Burgundy, having already bought Domaine René Engel in 2005, and he moved with stealth, out-maneuvering rival parties to ink the deal. News broke in October 2017, a couple of days before I visited to taste the 2016. The value was a purported 30 million euros per hectare, a figure unthinkable just a few years ago and one with inheritance tax ramifications that will last forever.
Why so much? It is not just the reputation of the name, the quality of the wine or the history of the property. Returning to my introduction, Clos de Tart is a grand cru that belongs to one single owner. Don’t ask the proprietor of Clos des Lambrays how that feels.
A new era has begun, not just for Clos de Tart, but for Burgundy.
[Post-script: On February 4, 2019, after I had filed this article, I received official notice that Jacques Desvauges had resigned and that from March 1, the estate director will be Alessandro Noli, who has worked at Château Latour and Domaine d’Eugénie, and subsequently as director of Château Grillet since 2011.]
Clos de Tart is a 7.53-hectare monopole enclosed entirely by a dry-stone wall on the southern extremity of Morey-Saint-Denis. At 1,200 meters long, the wall, unsurprisingly, took four years to build. To the north lies Clos de Tart’s sibling, Clos des Lambrays, and upslope to the west, the village cru En la Rue de Vergy, whilst south in Chambolle-Musigny is the vineyard of Bonnes-Mares. Though Clos de Tart is straightforward insofar as it comprises a single, almost square block, its geological formation is complex. At the bottom lies calcaire à entroques, overlaid by ostrea acuminata marl on the upper slopes. The soils are mainly marl, a mixture of clay and limestone, between one- and two-thirds of the latter to varying degrees. Lower slopes include decarbonized limestone soils whereas upper slopes contain more active limestone. The vines average around 60 years old, although parcels differ greatly in age according to replanting; the oldest was planted in 1918. Vines under the age of 25 years are usually blended into what is ostensibly a deuxième vin labeled Morey Saint-Denis La Forge. The rootstock is 161-49, which tends to have high tolerance to limestone and low to medium vigor.
Since 1999, massal selection from the estate’s own nursery has been employed instead of clones. Jacques Desvauges filled me in on the details. “This is one of the great advantages of Clos de Tart. We have a nice massal selection of Pinot Fin, which has small bunches and is prone to millerandage, probably thanks to the hundreds of years of fine viticulture in this vineyard. Sylvain Pitiot started a strong selection from our oldest vines in order to create our own massal selection and preserve this genetic heritage some 15 years before many others. He did it as he did everything, with rigor, intelligence and in detail, as necessary for this kind of delicate work. After years of selection, he created our nursery in order to produce our own vines. From 2005 onwards they are used to replace missing vines (repiquages) or to replant small plots inside the Clos.”
Just like another grand cru monopole, La Romanée, the rows are oriented north to south in order to prevent soil erosion (I remember once traversing Clos de Tart diagonally and finding some parts steeper than they look from below). This unorthodox orientation also increases sun exposure, which is advantageous in cooler vintages but a potential handicap when mitigating excessive heat. Pitiot immediately lowered yields, pruning back to five bunches per vine when it had previously been up to 15 under his predecessor, green-harvesting and aiming for small bunches with thick-skinned berries that are a governing factor in the style of wines during this period.
The harvest is conducted according to soil type and geology, since this influences the maturation of the berries. Around 30 harvesters are employed, usually for around four or five days of picking. I have already explained how Pitiot picked late; he would sometimes send out his team of vendangeurs after those at Clos des Lambrays had finished. Figures I have indicate that yields were 30hL/ha between 1996 and 2004, falling to 25hL/ha from 2006 to 2014. Readers should note that exact yields are listed in the tasting notes from 1996 onwards.
The buildings that comprise Clos de Tart are located in the heart of Morey-Saint-Denis, opposite the church and town hall. The structures to the rear date from the 15th century, some of just a handful to survive the Thirty Years’ War. They surround a private courtyard on land excavated into the slope so that vines peer down from above. Clos de Tart has retained a slightly monastic ambiance; everything seems tranquil and almost meditative. The offices are located to the right of the entrance, the pressoir housed in a room at the rear where time has stood still for countless years. The capacious two-storey barrel cellar, built in 1850, backs onto the main road or maybe underneath it – it is difficult to tell. Look carefully and up on a ledge you will spot a statuette of the Virgin Mary. At his retirement soirée, Pitiot recalled that a replica was made so that they could carbon-date the real one. Somebody mixed them up and the laboratory ended up carbon-dating the replica. Eventually it was determined that the original was carved in 1372.
Henri Perraut used 5%–10% whole bunch; Pitiot used 5%–10% between 1996 and 2004, increasing to 10% and a maximum of 25% up until 2014. That changed with the appointment of Jacques Desvauges in 2015. Desvauges employed 40% in his debut and 60% thereafter, unsurprising given that he was tempted away from Domaine de l’Arlot, for whom whole bunch is a principal tenet. Under Pitiot the grapes were given a week-long pre-fermentation maceration at around 10°C, and then commenced fermentation using natural yeasts with regular but short and gentle pigeage. Given the vintages in question, there will obviously be considerable differences in the oak regimen. Those from the 1940s to the 1980s received only partial ageing in new oak, if any at all. Pitiot changed that to 100% new oak, perhaps simply continuing his approach from his time at the Hospices de Beaune, where all the cuvées are matured that way. The wood is sourced from forests in central France and the Paris basin, recently used cooperages including Taransaud, Cadus and François Frères. Racking would only be conducted if the wine risked reduction. The pressed wine was added just before bottling between February and May after the second winter. For many years the wine has not been fined.
This vertical tasting of Clos de Tart constitutes one of the deepest ever organized. The tasting at Ten Trinity in London ranged from 1942 to 2003. Younger vintages were tasted either at private dinners or kindly opened when I visited Clos de Tart in November 2018. Ah, but what of that ancient vintage? Let’s start there.
I augment my notes with an 1887 Clos de Tart, opened as part of Louis Jadot’s 150th anniversary dinner in 2009, the bottle part of their library of ancient vintages inherited from Maison Champy. Though I tasted it a decade ago, I vividly recall the brilliance of this ancient Pinot Noir, no curiosity but a genuinely delicious wine to savor. I presume this came from pre-phylloxera vines on their own roots and was made using the pressoir à perroquet. It was unforgettable.
Moving on to the main tasting in London, I will broach the wines in chronological order, although we tasted them from youngest to oldest. There were three veterans from the war: the 1942, 1943 and 1945. The 1943 Clos de Tart was decrepit; one or two attendees praised this rustic and timeworn wine, but to my palate it was musty and much too volatile. It was easily surpassed by a gorgeous 1942 Clos de Tart that defied time and remained lively and engaging in the glass, displaying just a slight swimming pool scent on the nose that I often find with similarly aged Barsac. Now, the 1945 Clos de Tart had a vexing low fill, and was funky and compromised. However, I have encountered this 1945 once before, when the late John Avery sashayed into a Bristol pub, excused his tardiness and nonchalantly plonked a label-less bottle on the table. “It’s a 1945 Clos de Tart that my uncle bought on release,” John explained, as if this was perfectly normal for Thursday lunch. Once my friend and I had picked up our jaws off the floor, we drank what remains one of the most spellbinding bottles I have ever tasted and this note for the 1945 is published in lieu of the London one. The 1949 Clos de Tart is an absolute joy: refined, graceful and complex. It has preserved its impressive backbone and there is a lovely piquancy on the finish.”
The 1950s were represented by three bottles, a rather ordinary 1957 Clos de Tart (though commendable given the growing season), a surprisingly delicious 1954 Clos de Tart and an outstanding 1950 Clos de Tart that won wide approval thanks to its finesse and its mesmerizing, effervescent finish. We actually enjoyed two bottles of this vintage, the second a little more exotic, displaying fig and gingerbread notes. There were just two wines from the 1960s. I adore the 1962 vintage, and Clos de Tart clearly produced a brilliant wine that year. It felt cohesive and agile after 50 years, the bouquet utterly entrancing and perhaps eclipsing the excellent palate. Some attendees expressed a preference for the 1966 Clos de Tart. Whilst it is a great wine, I felt it showed a little dryness on the finish, suggesting bottles should be drunk soon. Like many 1966 red Côte de Nuits, its stockiness and density have allowed it to mature well in bottle.
The 1970s were the most surprising of the entire tasting. I was surely not the only person anticipating a run of moribund wines given that the winemaking was supposedly lackadaisical in this era, not to mention the succession of poor growing seasons and their age. How wrong I was to assume that – my apologies, Monsieur Perraut! The 1972, 1973 and 1974 vintages, derided in many circles, all had their own virtues, especially the latter. I cannot remember ever singing the praises of a 1974 Red Burgundy before, so maybe this is the first and last time. Even Frédéric Engerer, seated next to me, seemed astonished by the quality of these wines. No, they are not the best I have ever tasted, yet they were fresh, balanced, with vestiges of fruit, and most importantly, perfectly enjoyable. I am a big fan of 1971 red burgundy, but to my surprise, this bottle was no better than the subsequent three vintages, whilst the 1970 Clos de Tart is clearly past its best. The 1976 Clos de Tart is one of the best of the era. I’ve tasted it twice now (the other occasion being Sylvain Pitiot’s retirement dinner), and it brushes off the merciless heat of that growing season thanks to superb acidity and fine delineation on the finish. The 1978 Clos de Tart ought to have been the pick of the bunch but the bottle was out of condition.
The 1980s were disappointing. These wines tarnished the reputation of Clos de Tart in the minds of Burgundy lovers at the time. The high point is unquestionably the superb 1985 Clos de Tart, no surprise given the reputation of the vintage. It has beguiling purity and such a pretty, piquant finish that you cannot help falling for its charms. It is à point, so do not cellar it for too much longer. The runner-up might well be the very respectable 1980 Clos de Tart with its potpourri-scented nose and perfect acidity on the palate – one of the decade’s hidden delights. Moving on from a TCA-riddled 1981, the 1982 Clos de Tart is a decent stab in a season plagued by rain and dilute wines, though the 1983 Clos de Tart is now too dry and austere to elicit pleasure. In the latter half of the decade, the 1986, 1987 and 1988 Clos de Tart are letdowns, especially the latter. Better is the 1989 Clos de Tart with its floral nose; though the palate is a little herbaceous, it is balanced and focused, even if the finish is short on ideas. The last vintage we tasted from before Pitiot’s tenure was the excellent 1993 Clos de Tart. Now rightly hailed as a great Côte d’Or vintage that just took a long time to blossom, this is mature but complex on the nose, and lighter in style relative to the late 1990s, with an appealing Côte de Beaune–inspired finish.
The Pitiot Era
The 1996 Clos de Tart typifies a time when some Burgundy winemakers sought to “push” the wines through later picking, higher extraction and more new oak, none of which particularly suit the sensitive Pinot Noir. I feel that Pitiot wanted to make an immediate impression, but unfortunately the wine now seems dry and enervated. It was a template rather than a first-time effort gone awry. In particular, the wines in the first half of Pitiot’s tenure have not aged as well in the second half. As time has gone on, vintages that initially looked promising have fallen short of expectations. There were times when Clos de Tart came across as a bit of a weightlifter, dense and brawny, lavished with new oak and fruit so ripe that it occluded the terroir. At a tasting at UK agent Corney & Barrow, Pitiot opined that acidity does not preserve wine. No disrespect, but I could not disagree more, and if anything, this vertical proved that it does.
Even great vintages such as 1999 and 2002 have not evolved with grace and do not challenge the Burgundy elite. You might notice two notes for 2002. Frédéric Engerer bought a special cuvée, a bottling from the southwest parcel facing Bonnes-Mares that had been kept for private use. Though interesting to compare, I preferred the regular vineyard blend. Pitiot did oversee some excellent wines, especially towards the end of his guardianship. The style of the 2005 vintage seems to suit Clos de Tart and Pitiot’s winemaking principles, the fruit successfully supporting that precocity and level of new oak. This is followed by a splendid 2006 Clos de Tart that, contrary to accusations at the time, was never acidified. The 2008 Clos de Tart should not be overlooked; it’s an excellent contribution to the vintage. The 2009 and 2010 Clos de Tart are what you might describe as “big” vintages that brought out the best of the vineyard, though as the 2010 ages, I’m beginning to get concerned about just how assertive and grippy it’s becoming, and my score is now more prudent. The 2011 Clos de Tart is rather leafy and shows some austerity on the finish, but Pitiot brought home three very good wines at the end of his career in 2012, 2013 and 2014, though all three are far too young.
Jacques Desvauges outside the entrance of Clos de Tart.
The improvement under Jacques Desvauges is clear to see, first with the 2015 that was included in my Burgfest report from last October and then with the magical 2016 Clos de Tart. Desvauges opened a bottle of the 2016 during my visit last November and there is no question that it is the best ever produced at Clos de Tart, glistening with precision and tension, pure and noble, flirting with perfection. And perhaps that is where we should leave our journey through time, on a peak that looks down on every other vintage mentioned in this article.
Disabuse yourself of ideas that Clos de Tart never made great wines prior to the appointment of Pitiot. For certain, the 1980s ought to have been better, but further in the past, there are numerous excellent wines that should not be forgotten. That run in the early 1970s defied expectations and proves yet again that no assumptions should be made until you open the bottle (readers can refer back to my “dog and cat” theory). I do feel that although Pitiot rejuvenated the estate and introduced many positive techniques that improved the wine vis-à-vis the 1980s, his dogma of picking late deviated from what you might call a vrai Clos de Tart. The imprimatur of the winemaker became too strong, whereas Desvauges allowed the terroir to shine through. Stylistically, like Dr. Morelot, I see semblances between Clos de Tart and Chambertin in terms of nobility and a preponderance of red rather than black fruit, and also with respect to longevity. The vineyard that Clos de Tart most reminds me of is actually Bonnes-Mares, borrowing some of its sumptuousness, some of its blue fruit, but welding it to more structure. Perhaps that is no surprise considering that a small part of Clos de Tart is actually in Bonnes-Mares. Of course, Clos de Tart is naturally compared to Clos des Lambrays. However, the winemaking approach was so dichotomous in recent years that comparisons of vineyard site are difficult to make. The change in proprietorship will inevitably result in changes at Clos de Tart and I anticipate more investment and possibly more selection, perhaps raising the profile of the Morey-Saint-Denis La Forge. We will see. A legacy of a thousand years of winemaking is a priceless commodity.
See the Wines in the Order Tasted
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