Merci, Monsieur Amiot: Clos des Lambrays 1923-2021


Countless men and women exist behind famous wine labels, their names never recorded, lost in the sands of time. Instead of EU regulations demanding that every bottle list ingredients and nutritional information, back labels ought to list the cast whose combined talents led to each wine’s incarnation. In particular, I refer to the vineyard managers and cellarmasters whose dedication and craftsmanship realized the potential of a great vineyard in a given season, figuratively and literally, bottled for our pleasure. It is analogous to a painter banned from signing their masterpiece or a director’s name redacted from the film credits. Oenophiles can reel off iconic 20th-century wines, but they have no idea whose calloused hands nurtured the vines, toiled come rain or shine, or whose nous guided its vinification–the men and women behind the scenes. Sure, we are familiar with the Delmas dynasty at Haut-Brion and the Noblets at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, but they are exceptions to the rule.

The Clos des Lambrays sign outside the domaine.

Attempting to redress this oversight, when researching articles, I wade through wine literature, attempting to unearth identities. When inquiring with producers, often their reply is: “Sorry, we can’t help you.” One can understand why records were never kept–these winemakers were factotums just going about their work, collecting their checks at the end of the week. The idea that their handiwork could beget wines that would entrance oenophiles not only years but decades after they passed would have sounded preposterous in an era when wine was little more than a humble beverage. 

Initial drafts of this article naturally focused on the vineyard and wine. Gleaning more about the background, I tilted the piece to shine the spotlight, however briefly, upon the man without whom they would never exist, who actualized wines that make up the foundation of the Clos des Lambrays legacy. Without them, you could speculate whether it would have been awarded Grand Cru status in 1981. These wines were touchstones for Thierry Brouin and present winemaker Jacques Devauges, who steered the domaine’s renaissance, rebuilt its reputation and restored it to Burgundy’s top echelon. The ineluctable fact is that you need a master craftsman, a winemaker with vision and fortitude, to turn fruit into wine and from wine into magic. For several decades, a long time ago, that man was Etienne Amiot.

Devauges presented a potted history of this storied estate that stretches back to 1365 when Cîteaux monks owned Clos des Lambrays. In 1791, the vineyard was sold and divided between 74 owners, though, over the ensuing decades, these were gradually scooped up by the Joly family and finally reunified in 1836. (How on Earth did they manage to persuade so many farmers to give up their vines? Imagine doing that nowadays when even a behemoth like LVMH cannot persuade Romain and Virginie Taupenot to relinquish their toehold in the Clos!) In 1865, Clos des Lambrays was acquired by a sub-inspector from Dijon, Albert Rodier. However, in 1936, the vineyard was not given Grand Cru status by authorities and thus remained a Premier Cru. Oversight? Purportedly, the owners never presented it for classification. Sometimes, this was intentional in order to avoid tax levies, though it obviously had serious long-term ramifications. Surely, the owners rued their decision afterward? Perhaps because of that, two years later, Clos des Lambrays was sold to Renée Cosson, a sculptress who had won the Prix de Rome. She was married to a Parisian banker but was having an affair with Camille Rodier, Albert's grandson and co-founder of the Confrérie de Tastevin. Does that infer that a deal was brokered between Renée Cosson and her lover? We will never know. What is true is that when Renée Cosson was widowed, the vines were not as well maintained. Winemaking became slovenly, with some vintages spending as much as five or six years in barrel. Falling revenues would have had a knock-on effect on investment.

Nevertheless, the terroir remained intact, so its decline was gradual–a gentle slide away from its eminent position. It was not until the late 1950s that this neglect began to compromise the wine, reaching a nadir in the 1970s when the vineyard was poorly managed. Cosson passed away in 1977, but the vineyard’s low standing meant that it took months to find new owners. In 1979, it sold once again to Algerian brothers Fabien and Lucien Saier, who made their fortune in groceries. At least they had winemaking experience as owners of vineyards in Mercurey, Aloxe-Corton and their country of birth. They immediately applied to the INAO for reclassification. Clos des Lambrays was finally promoted to a Grand Cru on 27 April 1981 after four months of assessment. That was surely based on the historical significance and the caliber of older vintages rather than those of the 1960s and 1970s. After all, status is supposedly governed by potential rather than the quality of the wine. The Saiers appointed oenological graduate Thierry Brouin to oversee the management of the Domaine, and he set about reconstituting the vineyard and updating the winery. It changed hands once again in 1996 when it was bought by German industrialist Günter Freund and his wife, Ruth, who rebuilt the house.

Etienne Amiot with a wicker basket strapped to his back during harvest. According to him, his best vintages were 1919, 1929, 1945, 1946 and 1947. Alas, the 1900 was lost to hail, 1910 to mildew and 1939 to snowfall during harvest!

In April 2014, it was announced that Domaine des Lambrays had been purchased by luxury group LVMH, adding to a portfolio that includes Krug, Dom Perignon, Cheval Blanc, Yquem and others. After a short interregnum under Boris Champy, Jacques Devauges joined in 2019, appointed to run the Domaine. He subdivided the Grand Cru into separate plots according to orientation and vine age and oversaw the construction of a magnificent winery that prioritizes functionality. After all, great fruit doesn’t require whizz-bang technology.

Visiting the cavernous gravity-fed vat-room, I cannot help gazing at its cathedral-like structure and soaking in its tranquil ambiance, the arched window at one end opening directly upon the grand 300-year-old cedar outside. Devauges now manages an expanded portfolio, including Premier Crus in Morey-Saint-Denis, after LVMH renegotiated existing contracts (see Producer Profile in my Burgundy 2022 report).

At a dinner last November, Devauges invited a small group for a tasting of the most recent vintages, followed by several ancient bottles from the domaine’s own reserves, not necessarily from the most fêted growing seasons. Indeed, some, like 1938 and 1946, were beset with inclement weather and are long forgotten, though the former was more highly regarded in Burgundy than in Bordeaux. These older bottles covered a period between 1923 and 1947, with every bottle being the work of one vineyard and one man, régisseur Etienne Amiot, whose final vintage was 1947. The first vintage Amiot had a hand in was 1888, at the tender age of 13 years old, filling buckets with fruit and hauling them to the winery. He became head winemaker when handed the reins from his uncle, Jean-Baptiste, himself having succeeded Etienne’s grandfather, Jean, an employee of the aforementioned Joly family. Etienne Amiot oversaw a remarkable 51 vintages, missing only from 1897 to 1899 when he undertook military service and from 1915 to 1918 during the First World War. That tenure surpasses even that of Thierry Brouin, who oversaw 38 vintages from 1980 onwards.

The Vineyard

The vineyard covers 8.84 hectares, slightly larger than Clos du Tart, split into three lieux-dits: Les Larrets (5.72ha), Les Bouchots (1.99ha) and Meix-Rentier (1.13ha), where the 420 square meters farmed by Taupenot family deny monopole status. Although the vines are orientated to the east, unlike Clos de Tart, which has more rows orientated north to south, there are three undulations within the upper sector of the Clos that engender their own micro-climates. There are also differences due to the elevation, ascending some 60 meters from bottom to top, more than many other climats, a tad steeper in the higher reaches. This means that there can be a five or six-day difference between ripening depending upon where vines are located; those on lower contours ripen earlier than those higher–these naturally picked later. Soils are generally shallow, with marl toward the top and more gravel and sand deposits toward the bottom. Devauges told me before that there are 11 different soil types within the Clos, hence the subdivision and the eschewing of the youngest vines from the Grand Vin.

To reiterate, vintages of Clos des Lambrays up until the mid-1950s are revered. I vividly recall a spellbinding 1947 Clos des Lambrays in the formative days of my career that almost embarrassed a 1953 La Tâche served in tandem. Yeah…that was a proper dinner! I have rarely tasted wines from this halcyon era, so I eagerly anticipated this tasting. Expectations were high.

Thankfully, almost every bottle confirmed that during this period, Clos des Lambrays produced one of the Côte d'Or’s standout wines. The old adage, “iron fist in a velvet glove,” is often banded about, and it is certainly applicable to these extraordinary, breathtaking wines that are up to a century old. Contentiously, having been privileged with Clos du Tart from this era, I find Clos des Lambrays to be a few steps ahead. Surely, much can be attributed to Etienne Amiot. Irrespective of the caliber of the growing season, these wines possess a haunting beauty, shapeshifters constantly altering with aeration. I continually returned to my glasses, only to find actors and actresses switching from one character to another in the blink of an eye. It seems churlish to point out that it was only the 1938 that showed its antiquity, given that it is an 85-year-old Pinot Noir born in a cool and cloudy summer.

I will let the tasting notes do the talking. I’ve added some background information about the growing season for each note. The dinner commenced in fine fashion with the four vintages overseen by Devauges between 2019 and 2022, a period when the vines were certified by ECOCERT, and, as mentioned, the team introduced a parcellaire approach. While I cannot deny that prices have increased in recent years, there is no doubting the wines’ pedigree or longevity.

Final Thoughts

This was an enlightening tasting, one that deepened my appreciation for Clos des Lambrays. Time might separate the vintages under Amiot from those under Devauges, yet they emerge from essentially the identical plot of vines, undergoing similar winemaking tenets and approaches. While Domaine des Lambrays is equipped with bespoke vats that permit a more bespoke vinification, if Etienne Amiot wandered into the winery today, he would notice more commonalities than differences. For example, he would have used 100% whole bunches, just like they do nowadays. The level of new oak has increased. Amiot used around 10% to maintain barrel rotation. The biggest surprise might be the extended cellar, which will accommodate their new cuvées and picking dates. I was amused to read in an old wine book sent by Devauges that Amiot distinctly remembers the 1893 vintage because the picking finished at the end of August. What would he make of present-day harvests when that is the norm?

Before we leave Clos des Lambrays, let’s raise a glass to Etienne Amiot. We lionize wines without remembering the people behind their creations. Like any great artist, their work lives on posthumously. He devoted his life to the estate and oversaw a succession of outstanding wines that have stood the test of time.

Amiot had 51 vintages under his belt. Brouin 38.

I daren’t ask what Jacques Devauges’s final tally will be.

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