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The Curse of the Stems: Domaine de L’Arlot tasting with winemaker Olivier Leriche

July 23, 2010


Pinot is a delicate flower. It needs love, respect and a minimal amount of intervention to show as beautifully as it is capable of. I want pure fruit, with its pure expression of terroir, from my Pinot, and that’s why I don’t want much, if any, damn stems. Pinot, unlike Syrah, just can’t cope with 50 and 100% whole cluster, in my fervent opinion. I have yet to taste a Pinot with much whole cluster that sang of fruit and purity to me– stem-ridden Pinot, at best, gives me greenness and camphor, and over time, forest floor and tobacco, but precious little fruit. When you have such a beautiful, delicate, sexy grape like Pinot, why would you want to dilute, smother and drown it in a lot of stems?

Which brings me to Domaine de L’Arlot. Tuesday’s tasting in the new series at my storage facility, WineBank, was an opportunity to taste through the current releases from L’Arlot, and to sample a couple of older vintages, with the current winemaker and former vineyard manager, who took over as winemaker from former champion skier Jean-Pierre de Smet in 2006. I’ve somewhat enjoyed L’Arlot Burgs in the past, and I really wanted to be wowed by these wines. To be honest, though, I left wanting to grab the winemaker by the neck and shake some sense into him. I think he’s following too slavishly the model laid down by the previous winemaker, his mentor, Smet, who in turn, I think was overly influenced by his mentor, Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac. Both were whole cluster weanies, and the current winemaker, Olivier Leriche, is, in my opinion, following their dubious example and loading this delicate, potentially really lovely fruit from very solid terroirs with just too much whole cluster for its own good.

Maybe DRC really does use a lot of whole cluster, and maybe they have the incredible concentration and individually manicured vines that can somehow handle and absorb all that whole cluster, unlike virtually every other crop of Pinot grown on the planet. Or maybe they’re just faking it, to psych out the more easily influenced Burg and Cali Pinot makers into thinking that they use a lot of whole cluster, so other makers try to follow their lead when they really shouldn’t. I’m starting to wonder. All I know is that the greatest Burgundy winemaker of my lifetime, Henri Jayer, destemmed and eschewed the use of whole cluster, and I have been totally unconvinced by everything I’ve tasted in the last several years–from Oregon, to California to Burgundy–that whole cluster in excess of 15% or so does anything more than emphasize the taste of stems and greenness in Burgundy and domestic Pinot, when what I want is purity of fruit and the real expression of the Pinot Noir grape, not vin de stem. (If you want to know what pure, undiluted “vin de stem” tastes like, try a Melville. I’d rather suck on a fern.)

Now yes, 2007 in Burgundy was a pretty lean year, and the lightness and relative thinness of the ’07s we tasted from L’Arlot might have been a signature of the vintage even without the massive amount of whole cluster Olivier employed. I couldn’t help, however, after tasting these wines for an hour or so, and listening to Olivier pontificate about “minimal intervention” and “expressing the terroir,” but feel the increasing and pitiful sensation that the Pinot in my glass was crying out for help–imploring anyone with any sensitivity to demand that it be freed from Olivier’s fricking 50 to 100% stem “intervention.”

Yes, of course, a massive amount of whole stems will slow fermentations, if that’s your thing. It will add tannins. It will give some added complexity, if greenness and menthol is your cup of tea. In the rare cases where stems are fully ripe, maybe a small percentage of them can be a nice addition to the complexity of the wine. In the case of these poor L’Arlots, however, I couldn’t escape the sense that this was potentially beautiful fruit hobbled and in many respects obscured by a totally unnecessary, slavish, pig-headed infusion of stems, because that’s what Jacques Seysses preached, and that’s what Smet doctrinairely passed on to young Olivier.

For more detail on what I heard and tasted from these poor abused grapes, see below.

Cremant starter

  • N.V. Bailly-Lapierre Crémant de Bourgogne – France, Burgundy, Crémant de Bourgogne
    Light pink color; tart orange, blood orange, orange cream nose with depth; tasty, juicy, tart red fruit, strawberry, orange cream, mineral palate with good acidity; medium finish 90+ pts. (90 pts.)

2007 sampler

This flight started okay. The Clos de l’Arlot showed some floral qualities and some light, lovely fruit that got my attention, but it had to wrestle with the greenness and woodsy qualities imparted by the 50% whole cluster. Then we got to the Clos des Forêts, and I felt I was getting a lot more Forêts than fruit. This one had some reduction too that didn’t help, but the fruit here seemed quite buried by the 100% whole cluster. Next the Les Suchots with some nice stuff going on in the nose, and what fruit was showing was quite lovely. I can’t help but feel, however, that dialing back on the 60% whole cluster would have helped emphasize that beautiful fruit even more. The Romanée St. Vivant, likewise, struggled to assert its potentially lovely qualities against an avalanche of whole cluster–100%.

  • 2007 Domaine de L’Arlot Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru Clos de l’Arlot – France, Burgundy, Côte de Nuits, Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru
    Very light medium red color with clear meniscus; lovely floral, roses, sous bois, rosehips nose with a touch of green; tasty, tart red fruit, tangy, cranberry, mineral, sous bois palate with a woodsy note; medium finish (50% whole cluster; 30% new oak for 16 mos.) (91 pts.)
  • 2007 Domaine de L’Arlot Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru Clos des Forêts St. Georges – France, Burgundy, Côte de Nuits, Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru
    Light medium red color with clear meniscus; a little reduction, tart cranberry nose, that opens after a half hour or so to red berry; light-medium bodied, tart cranberry, mineral, vanilla oak palate, lacking the character of the Clos de L’Arlot; medium finish 88+ pts. (100% whole cluster) (88 pts.)
  • 2007 Domaine de L’Arlot Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Suchots – France, Burgundy, Côte de Nuits, Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru
    Light medium red color with clear meniscus; light, tart strawberry, floral, mineral, white chocolate nose; tasty, tight, earthy, tart cranberry, mineral, structured palate with delicacy and good acidity; medium finish 91+ pts. (60% whole cluster) (91 pts.)
  • 2007 Domaine de L’Arlot Romanée St. Vivant – France, Burgundy, Côte de Nuits, Romanée St. Vivant Grand Cru
    Medium red color with pale meniscus; nice floral, mineral, earthy, hibiscus, slightly gamy nose; tight, tart cranberry, mineral, hibiscus, light cinnamon, rosehips palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 92+ pts. (100% whole cluster) (92 pts.)

Older Clos des Forêts

Next we dove a little deeper into the mound of stems that is L’Arlot Clos des Forêts by visiting two maturing vintages. I believe both had been 100%, or nearly 100%, whole cluster, and both showed it. There were still things to like about these two wines, especially the ’02, with its concentration, sense of salinity and forest floor flavors, but from a truly great Burgundy year like ’02, might not this wine have sung even more beautifully, of fruit and minerality, if it hadn’t been loaded up with such a high proportion of stems? We’ll never know, of course, but my glass insisted, “Yes!” The ’01 was seeming fairly mature already, and had some nice secondary and tertiary flavors. Definitely not a total loss, but would it have been even greater without being fermented and aged with a boatload of stems? I think so.

White L’Arlot

It turns out that L’Arlot is the biggest producer of white wine in Nuits St. Georges, with two hectares of white grapes planted inside Clos de l’Arlot. From a 15-year-old portion, which they consider too young to be classified as premier cru, they produce this Cuvée La Gerbotte, which includes 4% of Pinot Beurot. Olivier told us that they also use a small amount of white grapes in their red wines, which blew my mind, and I failed to get all the sordid details.

  • 2007 Domaine de L’Arlot Nuits St. Georges Cuvée La Gerbotte – France, Burgundy, Côte de Nuits, Nuits St. Georges
    Bright light yellow color; pineapple, lemon, green herb nose; tasty, ripe pineapple, apple, ripe citrus, tart apple palate with good acidity and a touch of green herb; medium finish (100% whole cluster) (90 pts.)

So bottom line: Do I think L’Arlot makes some good wines? Yes, I do. They have excellent terroirs, and these are well made wines, with some ageability, and even a leaner year like ’07 showed some nice flavors and complexity. Do I think these wines would be even more delicious and ageworthy without all or most of those stems? You bet your “nonintervention” I do.

One last note: our three-page background sheet from L’Arlot’s U.S. distributor, Chambers & Chambers, included generic pull quotes from Robert Parker (e.g., “Better wines are being produced today than twenty years ago . . . there is a new generation of young, highly motivated winemakers who are taking quality more seriously than ever”) on every page. Since when do any serious Burgundy collectors give a damn about anything Pinot-tone-deaf Bob Parker has to say? Honestly, are you guys that out of touch? Have you heard of Allen Meadows? Clive Coates (who has said a lot of laudatory things about L’Arlot)? Are you really trying to sell these wines to people who know anything about Burgundy? Peculiar, to say the least.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. N. LeDuc permalink
    July 24, 2010 1:36 am

    I began by writing a lengthy response, though deleted it and choose simply to share the core of my inspiration for responding… I totally appreciate reading “strong” opinions/perspectives on any subject.. regardless if they are right or wrong, because there are always two sides to every coin and I believe both sides are always worth understanding, if one wishes to more fully understand a subject. And I appreciated that you noted and respected the opposing view, while still expressing your view with conviction. I look forward to reading more, as I’ve noticed I often agree with you and appreciate your perspective. Cheers.

  2. Keith Goldstein permalink
    July 24, 2010 7:16 am

    I am confused- not so much by your completing a sentence with the word “of”, but by your disparagement of the use of stems followed by a series of scores in the 90’s. Do you score pinots that you enjoy in the 100’s??

    • July 24, 2010 8:17 am

      Hi Keith,
      I tried to avoid downgrading these wines score-wise simply on account of the stemminess. I think my scores would have been at least one or two points higher on all of them if they’d been more stem free, however, as I think they would have had more vibrant and accessible fruit and transparency. As I say in my piece, I do think L’Arlot has good terroir and is capable of making excellent wines. The fact that all of these fell short of what they could have been, and seemed on the edge of, and that the massive stem inclusion was the obvious (and “intervening”) cause is what got me wound up enough to sound off (again) about the risks of whole cluster in Pinot.

  3. July 25, 2010 11:12 am

    Wow, I am moved by the intensity of this post, Richard. Love it! And stick it to Parker in the end too!

    As a side note: I recently enjoyed the 2001 D’Arlot Clos des Forets with some truffled fries, and it was an awesome combo! I did note the wine was very “burgundian” in its touch of forrest floor, earthiness, and leanness. Still quite complex and food friendly. I do observe that you appear to have preference for more fruit than veggie. Perhaps that is why you are more accommodating of the new world wines than I am. To Keith’s point, the scores seemed higher than I’d thought you’d give based on the passionate beating you delivered.

    But overall, really enjoyed the writing here.

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