Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Vineyards of Rilly-la-Montagne, or, Vilmart & Cie., Redux

Yesterday afternoon I was in the neighborhood of Rilly-la-Montagne, and stopped in at Vilmart to buy a bottle of wine for an upcoming tasting. Ever the generous host, Laurent Champs offered me a glass of the 2001 Grand Cellier d’Or, a wine that continues to impress me—the vintage might have been a difficult one, but this wine is sleek, creamy and complex, showing all the sophistication and finesse expected from this cuvée.

As Laurent was headed out to inspect the vines, and as it was also a gorgeous day (26°C), he invited me to tag along. The best vineyards of Rilly face south and southeast, arrayed on the gently rolling slopes just behind the village, and in this idyllic, sun-soaked environment, it’s easy to see why Rilly has been renowned for its wine production since medieval times. As you leave the village and drive north, the first of three top-class vineyard sites that you encounter is Grèves, lying on a chalky subsoil underneath a mix of clay, sand and limestone. Vilmart’s healthy, happily tilled rows of chardonnay grow on the upper slope, with pinot noir below, and as the vines here are “young”, a mere 25 to 30 years old, they are generally made in foudre for use in the Grand Cellier or Grand Cellier d’Or. In the adjacent vineyard of La Haye Barbette there is also a good deal of chardonnay grown, although at the moment a swath of young vegetation is conspicuously prominent—these used to be the oldest vines of the domaine, but they have been pulled up and the plot replanted last year.

Across the road to the east one finds the crown jewel of Vilmart’s vineyard holdings: their five-hectare parcel of Blanches Voies (meaning “white roads”), a vineyard used primarily for Coeur de Cuvée and Cuvée Création. “It’s called Blanches Voies simply because the voies are blanches—the soil here is very chalky,” says Laurent. “It’s the very best part of Rilly.” Five hectares in a prime lieu-dit is an enormous asset for a grower, and in the case of Vilmart this accounts for nearly half of their total vineyard area. Many of the chardonnay vines here are over 50 years old, and although the magnificent vines in this photo are pruned in a Chablis system, I noticed that much of the chardonnay employs the Cordon du Royat, a system more commonly used for pinot noir. Curious to understand why, I asked Laurent about it, but he just shrugged and said, “That’s how the old-timers did it.” Oh well. Clearly those old guys knew what they were doing.

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