Burgundy Focus 2: Domaine Comte Armand Pommard Clos des Epeneaux 1er Cru 1945-2001 


Such is the stratospheric price of much of the Côte d’Or that it creates a veil of infallibility. High prices do not preclude any vineyard from the malevolence of Mother Nature or lackadaisical practices in the winery. In the past, Burgundy winemakers had a habit of foisting substandard or even doctored wines upon unsuspecting oenophiles. This makes delving into mature bottles akin to searching for gems in the sand. Thankfully, when you do find one, it glistens brightly.

Write-ups of vertical tastings tend to be rather sycophantic, beholden writers dazzled by age, breathlessly enthusing about decrepit antiquities undeservedly handed free passes. As much as one appreciates tasting rare and ancient bottles, in reality, only a percentage fulfill expectations. Some bottles leave you disappointed – either over the hill or never very good in the first place. Not every wine is predesigned for long-term drinking, and why should they be? More fool us for missing its drinking window. Occasionally, a vertical reveals a bygone era when a producer languished in mediocrity and created wines that nowadays would never pass quality control. Suffice it to say that this vertical of Pommard Clos des Epeneaux was memorable for the wrong reasons. While some exceptional bottles warranted praise, overall, the tasting confirmed that the Domaine once trod water. It was like appraising David Bowie’s career based on his Sixties albums or Hitchcock’s oeuvre based on his silent films from the Twenties.

Clos des Epeneaux is a monopole pieced together by Nicolas Marey at the end of the 18th century, one among several significant holdings. It was inherited by his daughter Clothilde. Her husband, Jean-François Armand, came from the Champagne region. Their son, Ernest, was made a count (Comte) in reward for his tactful diplomacy, persuading Napoléon III to lend support to the Pope during the fraught time of Garibaldi. The vineyard has been passed down through several generations. Philibert Rossignol was the régisseur for 35 years until the Comte Armand appointed 22-year-old Canadian winemaker Pascal Marchand. Hitherto, a large percentage of the crop had been sold off in bulk. Marchand’s tenure began in January 1985. He set about replacing old vines, particularly in its lower sector, and renewing superannuated barrels. Marchand presciently began to trial biodynamics in 1996, but three years later, he departed to set up Domaine de la Vougeraie. He contacted 23-year-old Benjamin Leroux, who had worked as an apprentice at the domaine in the early nineties, inviting him to take his place. Leroux continued to expand the biodynamic viticulture and altered the style of the wine: picking earlier and applying less extraction and less new wood. Leroux departed in 2014 and handed the reins to current winemaker Paul Zinetti, who had started working at the domaine four years earlier. In my opinion, Zinetti has given the wines far greater consistency.

Located between Petits-Epenots and Grands-Epenots, the 5.23-hectare vineyard is surrounded by a wall. It’s a genuine clos. As a comparatively large climat, the clos is divided into four quarters, and often, when tasting the wine from barrel, it is preceded by tasting the cuvées from each section. The geology is divided into two parts. Soils are deeper and more ferrous in the lower parts, while the fruit tends to be tannic and lends structure. The upper part contains shallower soil (20-30cm) above fissured rock that imparts mineralité. Vines are between 30 and 80 years old, the oldest planted in 1930, currently at a density of 12,000 per hectare.

The temporal purview predates the current modus operandi of Domaine Comte Armand. Last April, a dozen of us assembled in the private room upstairs at Noble Rot for what was ostensibly an archaeological dig into a domaine that has improved leaps and bounds in recent years. I have never been fond of the wines in the past. Vintages made during Pascale Marchand’s tenure reflect the then more widespread vogue for highly extracted, powerful wines under a carapace of oak that served to snuff out the terroir and finesse that this propitious Premier Cru can bestow. Thank God that Burgundy wised up and moved on. Marchand’s arrival certainly put Comte Armand on the right track in terms of viticulture. Still, the vinification was ill-fitting and conversant with Marchand in his current role at Marchand-Tawse, no doubt he would impose completely different practices if he repeated his tenure. Only the 1996 Pommard Clos des Epeneaux stood out during his era, and even that pales against the most recent vintages. Interestingly, the 1985 Pommard Clos des Epeneaux is the only one that stands the test of time, relishing in a benevolent growing season that the incoming Marchand fully exploited.

Vintages under Philibert Rossignol leave much to be desired. Most are of curiosity value only. But traveling back in time, there were fleeting glimpses of what could have been. Step forward to a blissful 1971 Pommard Clos des Epeneaux, so superior in every way that it seems to have beamed down from a completely different domaine. Likewise, the 1966 Pommard Clos des Epeneaux is no slouch, and the 1957 is the surprise, a challenging and forgotten vintage that stole a march on the likes of 1959 and 1964. Maybe we were just unlucky on the night? Bottles are highly variable, and on another occasion, who knows, I am sure we would have had a more positive outcome. Yet despite the shortcomings of many wines, this was still an informative tasting that instructed me to be extremely cautious if ever broaching one of these bottles.

Conclusion? Just because it is old. Just because it is Burgundy. Just because it is a famous producer and a highly-regarded vineyard… That does not mean satisfaction is guaranteed. 

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