I don’t live all that far away from Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, but it’s far enough that you might question my sanity if I told you that I drove down for an evening tasting and then drove back to Champagne to make a 10 o’clock appointment the next morning. I didn’t have much of a choice, however, as the tasting in question was at the Domaine de l’Arlot, the estate where I worked the harvest back in 1998, and it involved a retrospective of its entire history, back to 1987 when it was purchased by AXA Millésimes.
So I drove down early to get in a tasty and satisfying lunch at Ma Cuisine in Beaune, just to fortify myself for the onslaught of burgundy, and wound up in Nuits-St-Georges in the afternoon. The tasting was hosted by Olivier Leriche, the winemaker and technical director of the domaine, and Christian Seely, the managing director, and while the real theme was a vertical of Clos des Forêts Saint Georges from 2006 to 1987, they also included eight different vintages of Clos de l’Arlot alongside their respective Clos des Forêts counterparts, just to compare. I had tasted all of these wines before at one point or another, but this was the first time that I’ve ever gotten to taste an entire vertical of Arlot wines all together, which was an extremely compelling and educational experience.
The Clos des Forêts and Clos de l’Arlot are both on the southern side of Nuits-St-Georges, but they couldn’t be more different in character. The Clos des Fôrets lies close to Les Saint-Georges, and shows the firm, dark, slightly gamy richness typical of this sector, with a powerful structure and prominent minerality. The vines average 40 years of age here, planted between 1953 and 1982. The Clos de l’Arlot, from the two hectares surrounding the estate itself in Prémeaux-Prissey, is made exclusively from vines planted between 1941 and 1956, and typically shows a more delicate body and higher-toned aromas of red fruit. I often find a pronounced note of exotic spice here, which complements the wine’s silky finesse. In 2000, Jean-Pierre de Smet, who ran the domaine from 1987 until his retirement in 2006, began trials with biodynamics, and since 2003 the entire estate has been cultivated biodynamically. Olivier Leriche first started at the domaine as a stagière in the 1998 vintage, and worked together with Jean-Pierre until 2004, when he took over the winemaking. Since the beginning of 2007, Leriche (pictured here, on the right) and Seely (on the left) have been in charge of the domaine.
What I’ve found over the years is that the best wines at the Domaine de l’Arlot don’t necessarily correspond to conventional Burgundy vintage charts. I prefer the 1998s to the 1996s, for example, and the 2002s to the 2001s. I’m beginning to think that I like the 2006s more than the 2005s as well. Both the 2006 Clos des Forêts and Clos de l’Arlot are very alluring wines, and the terroir character is so clearly distinct in this vintage, with each wine expressing its site in nearly caricatured detail. They are more transparently terroir-expressive than the 2005s, which are strongly marked by the vintage character (as most 2005s are). This is not to say that the 2005s don’t express their terroirs — they do, very markedly, but this expression has to compete with the strong personality of the vintage. I prefer the Forêts in ’05 for its completeness and complexity, but in truth both of these wines show a lot of promise, and need many years to develop.
Clive Coates (who was also present at this tasting) proclaimed the 2002s to be the best wines ever made at the estate. This may eventually be proven true, but I’ve long thought, and still think, that 1998 is the best vintage ever at the Domaine de l’Arlot. (This is not because of my participation, mind you, but rather in spite of it.) The 1998 Clos des Forêts is beautiful, with a seamless, complete harmony and complex depth, and it was my favorite wine of the evening. The 2002 was a close second, however, showing a lovely silkiness and long, sappy fruit flavors backed by stony minerality. The two 1999s were developing well, reflecting the round, velvety ripeness of the vintage and still feeling youthful and a little closed. For drinking now, though, the 2000 Clos des Forêts is simply delicious, possessing a fresh, inviting depth of fruit and a smoky complexity.
The 1996s are excellent wines but still quite austere and reticent. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the 1995 Clos des Forêts. This wine has always been a little hard and shy, but it’s starting to resolve itself now and reveal its rich, spicy depth on the palate, with a fantastically long and soil-driven finish. The 1993 seems to combine the austerity of 1996 with the concentrated depth of 1995, and it promises to continue its fine evolution far into the future. I’ve always liked the 1992 Clos des Forêts — it opened quickly and has provided delicious drinking all of its life, and yet even 16 years later it still appears youthful and fresh, with a fragrant complexity and spicy stoniness. The 1991 is also drinking superbly well, and shows a deeper, darker richness than the 1992, although it doesn’t have quite as much finesse.
I don’t like the 1990 vintage in Champagne, and over the years I’ve questioned whether or not I really like it in Burgundy. I prefer the 1990 Clos de l’Arlot over the Clos des Forêts, as it balances its ripe depth better. The 1989 Clos des Forêts is distinctly finer than its 1990 counterpart, still feeling surprisingly fresh and vital for the vintage and developing a wonderfully expressive complexity. The 1988 is even better, with a silky poise and deep, intense expression of place — it’s the old-school counterpart to contemporary vintages such as 2006 or 2002. The 1987 Clos des Forêts, de Smet’s first vintage, was delicious in earlier days but is starting to show a little age, although it seems even more minerally than ever now that the fruit is beginning to fade.
I would have sat there all night revisiting these wines, but I had a long drive the next morning and decided to retire shortly after dinner (which involved five vintages of Arlot blanc back to 1996, the 1991 Romanée St-Vivant, which was the first one ever at Arlot, and a 1964 Colheita from the Quinta do Noval, another AXA property). I’ve had the same room at the Domaine for the last ten years, but that night it went to Clive Coates, the bum. Next time I’ll have to thumb-wrestle him or something. But it really doesn’t matter when you’re drunk on wines like these.