Burgundy Focus 4: Ponsot’s Clos de la Roche & Morey Monts Luisants 1934-2019


Earlier last year, I was invited to Domaine Ponsot for a tasting of their Clos de la Roche and Morey-Saint-Denis Monts Luisants Blanc. No details were shared other than it would be an “exceptional tasting” consisting of 15 vintages of each. That was enticing enough to tweak my itinerary and detour into Morey-Saint-Denis. Arriving promptly on a rather overcast morning, I saw the usual faces, none of us any the wiser about what was about to unfold, save for the fact that vintages would be revealed one by one. It was when we skipped back from 2019 to 2001 within three bottles that there were glances around the room. Just how far back in time would we travel?

As it turned out…quite a chunk of time.

The event was organized to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of Domaine Ponsot. For this article, allow me to adumbrate the history of the Ponsot family and encourage anyone with a passing interest not just in Ponsot, but Burgundy as a whole, to seek out their monograph From Vine To Wine published to mark the occasion. This is no hagiography. It brims with fascinating historical details pertaining not only to the Ponsot Domaine but the entire region since members of the family have, to varying degrees, been instrumental to its development throughout the last century, notwithstanding that it contains many evocative photographs through the decades, a couple of which are reproduced herein. Though Domaine Ponsot owns various holdings in the Côte d’Or, I focus on what might be considered the estate’s signature wines that were shown at the tasting.

On the left, William Ponsot, founder of Domaine Ponsot and on the right, Hippolyte Ponsot.


Guillaume Vivant Adolphe Ponsot, born in Dijon in 1842 and commonly referred to by his nickname “William”, returned to live with his mother, Sophie, in Saint-Romain after he was wounded in the Franco-Prussian war. At that time, the family owned around 18 hectares of vine in the village, with parcels up in Gevrey from the maternal side of the family that were sold due to inheritance laws. Eschewing his legal qualifications, William Ponsot began expanding his vineyard holdings. Through his notary, William Ponsot learned that Mon Étienne Liébaut wished to sell his parcel in Clos des Monts Luisants along with a miniature twin-turreted château. The purchase was completed in 1872 for the sum of 20,000 Francs. This climat was first mentioned back in 1175 by Cistercian monks, and documents imply that even in this primordial era, it was cultivated with white grape varieties. Ergo, its legacy as an anomalous enclave of white grape varieties stretches back through centuries, though like practically every grower, Ponsot sold the fruit to négociants. The vineyards were ravaged by phylloxera, and replanting took place from the end of the 1890s. In 1911, Ponsot planted some Aligoté, bucking the trend for Chardonnay, which is easier to cultivate and less fickle. William and his wife Clémence did not have any children. Consequently, the domaine passed to his 27-year-old cousin Hippolyte in 1913 on the proviso that he would never sell the estate, thereby removing any potential claim from William Ponsot’s siblings. It was not until 1922 that Hippolyte permanently relocated down to Morey-Saint-Denis and committed himself as a winemaker.

Things were tough for him and his wife Adrienne as the vines were in poor condition, and Burgundy was a far less noble wine than Bordeaux. At the end of the Twenties, Hippolyte embarked upon a wholescale replanting program to upgrade quality. In 1925, he acquired 0.91 hectares in Clos de la Roche from the Blic family, who carved away other plots within the climat and sold them to eight different families. He was only able to expand upon this initial purchase with two further acquisitions from Mademoiselle Ory in 1952 and 1953. By that time, Hippolyte had already been instrumental in introducing an AOC system in Burgundy to stamp out fraud and outlaw some more esoteric grape varieties.

It should be noted that initially, in 1935, Grand Cru status was restricted to only around four hectares of Clos de la Roche. It was only years of protest and petitioning that the entire 16.89 hectares became recognized as Grand Cru. However, authorities insisted that the Aligoté in Monts Luisants should be phased out over an unspecified period of time. The omission of any deadline was either an oversight or an assumption that it would be carried out, given Chardonnay’s supposed superiority. It was a crucial oversight, and remaining loyal to Aligoté, 80% of the vines planted in 1911 remained in situ. During these years, thanks to his close relationship with Raymond Baudouin, who founded Revue du Vin de France, Hippolyte built international ties with important American distributors like Franck Schoonmaker. Encouraged by Boudouin, Hippolyte presciently commenced bottling his own wines far earlier than his peers, the first bottling namely 5,000 bottles of 1921 Mont Luisants Blanc. Though wines had been exported internationally already, the first bottles to be exported to the United States were 480 bottles of 1934 Clos de la Roche, bound for New York.

What a fantastic photograph. This is Jean-Marie Ponsot, still actively working during the 2000 vintage.

In 1942, Hippolyte’s second of three children, Jean-Marie Ponsot, began helping his father. Jean-Marie grew up amongst the vines assisting vineyard manager Pierre Tainturier, pottering about the winery. He started working full-time at the Domaine in 1948. And as already mentioned, the domaine expanded their interest in Clos de la Roche soon after with the acquisitions from Mademoiselle Ory. However, they soon discovered that around 40% of the vine stock was sterile. Hence father-and-son began uprooting and replacing vines via massal selection in 1954. Interestingly, around this time, according to Ponsot’s monograph, they were the first producer to eschew given names on the label, that is to say, bottling their wines “Domaine Ponsot” rather than the orthodox “Domaine Hippolyte Ponsot” or “Jean-Marie Ponsot”. They believed that using the winemaker’s full name, for example, Henri Gouges or Armand Rousseau, contradicted the idea of Domaine as a family concern rather than an individual.

Jean-Marie Ponsot took over the management of Ponsot’s holdings in 1957 after his father's health began to wane. He worked closely with Pierre Engel, Jean-Marie Roumier and Bernard Clair-Daü. They created a movement with younger vignerons, exchanging knowledge and enhancing inter-winemaker cooperation that became known as Groupe des Jeunes Professionnels de la Vigne (GIPV). It was so popular that by the time of their first formal meeting in November 1960, there were 200 members, a veritable who’s who of esteemed winemakers. The group still exists, albeit without a training program, and is behind the annual Trophée des Jeunes Talents. In 1961, Ponsot helped establish a nursery to provide winemakers with healthy scions. Since he had already conducted massal selection in Clos de la Roche, these vines became one of the first to be assessed for potential propagation. Fast-forward a few decades, and these clonal selections became the source of so-called “Dijon clones”, first in California and Oregon and then elsewhere, so there’s a bit of Ponsot in many New World wines! It should be stated that Jean-Marie did not advocate a monoculture of a single clone but rather “a massale of clones” to ensure genetic diversity.

Jean-Marie and his son, Laurent Ponsot, pictured in the 1980s.

In October 1981, Laurent Ponsot joined his father, Jean-Marie. He had not set out to become a winemaker, having studied tourism in Paris after leaving boarding school. But he heeded the call of the vineyard and returned to Morey-Saint-Denis and completed his oenology course. Under Laurent Ponsot’s tenure, the winery was modernized , which included the introduction of neutral gases to protect wines in 1988 and the retirement of the old wine press in 2010 that had been used since 1945. Gentler vertical wine presses installed with a bottling machine replaced the old one. The current winery was constructed in 2000 and 2001, the extended and capacious subterranean cellar allowing for longer élevages. The rear wall consists of hewn rock and makes for an arresting sight. There were also changes in the vineyard: pruning evolved from Guyot to a short Cordon de Royat to control yields. Another significant update was the INAO’s authorization of Aligoté in Clos des Monts Luisants in 2010. Ponsot promptly dug up the few rows of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc that one could construe as a gesture to fob off inspectors and replaced them with Aligoté in 2014.

Laurent Ponsot hit the headlines in 2008 when he flew to New York to attend an auction of Rudy Kurniawan’s wines that included lots of Clos-Saint-Denis between 1945 and 1971 that, inconveniently for Kurniawan, had only been sharecropped by Ponsot since 1982. I saw Laurent Ponsot in London the day before he flew over and remember him relishing the prospect, fed up seeing counterfeits on the market, planning a commotion to highlight the festering problem. We all know what happened. Needless to say, all the bottles in this report come directly from Ponsot’s cellars, and thankfully, the convicted fraudster was not invited.

Hippolyte Ponsot’s decision to name the enterprise without the full winemaker’s title emphasized that Domaine Ponsot has long been a family concern. In January 2017, the business was reorganized. According to the monograph, “annual general meetings that brought us together in the Domaine were incontestably rich and lively.” It was announced that Laurent Ponsot would retire from management of the Domaine, news that I must admit came as some surprise since he had become synonymous with the name. He moved to a new facility just outside Clos de Vougeot, producing wines under his full name. Three months later, Jean-Marie Ponsot passed away at age 90, having been active until the early 2000s. I regret not having met him early in my career. Rose-Marie Ponsot took the reins, assisted by long-term vineyard manager Denis Remondet and soon joined by trained oenologist Alexandre Abel and, later, Rose-Marie’s son, William. They suffered a baptism of fire when on 10 July, a 10-minute hailstorm wrecked the Clos des Monts Luisants, though fortunately, other holdings were spared.

Rose-Marie Ponsot with winemaker Alexandre Abel pictured in the vineyard following the vertical tasting.

The Wines

As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the wines were served from youngest to oldest, commencing with the Clos de la Roche Cuvée Vieilles Vignes and followed by the Morey-Saint-Denis Monts Luisants Blanc. It should be noted that from 1990, this has been the only cuvée, though prior to that, there were regular Vieilles Vignes and Cuvée William bottlings indicating that the fruit came from William Ponsot’s original purchase from 1872 in Clos des Monts Luisants. It was an absorbing and insightful tasting that reflected the winemakers that have overseen the wines through the decades. Yes, maybe the label reinforces Ponsot as a family concern, yet the decision-making by the person in charge ineluctably sculpts the wine. The modus operandi under Laurent Ponsot could be dogmatic in terms of late picking, not just a couple of days after his peers but occasionally a couple of weeks. Sometimes the fruit seemed untouched to late picking, yet sometimes they came across as overripe…unnecessarily overripe, pushed too far not in the winery but on the vine. At times, when visiting the Domaine, I felt that a more flexible approach would have yielded more consistency. One wine could dazzle, and the next leave you vexed.

That was borne out by the 2005 Clos de la Roche Cuvée Vieilles Vignes. The last time I drank this vintage, blind, it tasted like a Grenache. A couple of years later, this bottle is fresher, yet it lacks nuance and does not really exploit what is supposed to be a great Burgundy vintage. I have added a 2001 Clos de la Roche Cuvée Vieilles Vignes that I tasted at a dinner in London where I was not the only person disinclined to finish my glass, sure the greatest insult to a Grand Cru? I find the aromatics on the 1990 Clos de la Roche Cuvée Vieilles Vignes rather bretty, particularly on the palate with a dry finish. Better is an intriguing cuvée that year, the 1990 Clos de la Roche Cuvée Vieilles Vignes Grand Cru Cuvée Spéciale Vieillisement Prolongé. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but it’s basically two barrels matured for five years in used barrels. Comparing them side-by-side, it is richer and more complex, the Brettanomyces is there but not impeding onto the fruit profile or terroir expression.

So far, I have been quite critical. I must say that I have found more consistency in recent vintages. The 2019 Clos de la Roche Cuvée Vieilles Vignes shows great potential, taut and fresh, not incredibly powerful yet with a lovely bite and complexity. Furthermore, I have encountered many wonderful wines made by Laurent Ponsot. My reviews in this report do not imply that Ponsot crafted some magical, distinctive wines. I do not know whether it was Laurent or Jean-Marie Ponsot who oversaw the 1985 Clos de la Roche Cuvée Vieilles Vignes, and maybe who cares because it is a thrilling, kaleidoscopic wine that is firing on all cylinders, unequivocally one of the high points of that vintage and vastly superior to say, the 1985 La Tâche that I encountered a few weeks later.

Jean-Marie Ponsot was a genius winemaker. The last time I had the 1980 Clos de la Roche Cuvée Vieilles Vignes was after running the 10km Foulée de Beaunoise during Hospice weekend and then sprinting down to a pizzeria where a friend had a bottle waiting. Maybe it was the adrenalin still pumping, but it was ethereal. This bottle was thankfully enjoyed without having to don my trainers and confirmed the ineffable brilliance of this wine. It demonstrates a little more grip than the 1985 with astonishing balance and grace. The 1979 Clos de la Roche Cuvée Vieilles Vignes is too rustic and animally for my liking. The 1971 Clos de la Roche Cuvée Vieilles Vignes, the third bottle I have tasted, convinces me that this ranks amongst the greatest wines in this fecund Burgundy season. Comparing the 1959 and 1961 Clos de la Roche Cuvée Vieilles Vignes is one of those occasions where you have to pinch yourself. While I am enamored by the spicier 1961, it is the 1959 that unfolds in the glass like a Matryoshka Doll, revealing layer after layer of complexity. As I mention in my note, don't be afraid to decant if you are lucky enough to find this. The 1958 Clos de la Roche Cuvée Vieilles Vignes would always have a tough time following that pair, coming from a more challenging season. But it puts in a good account, slightly hard and green around the edges but retaining nobility.

One rarely encounters wartime veterans in Burgundy. They are slightly more common in Bordeaux. Yet the 1943 Clos de la Roche Cuvée Vieilles Vignes Grand Cru, which Hippolyte Ponsot oversaw, offers a disarmingly complex red fruit and morel scents bouquet with admirable focus. The palate displays fine structure with just a touch of dryness on the finish. Elegiac, yet entrancing after almost 80 years. Finally, the 1934 Clos de la Roche Cuvée Vieilles Vignes Grand Cru. It is not a vintage I have tasted many times, so I cannot compare. This does not disguise its antiquity on the nose with an oddly attractive underlying vegetal component that adds to rather than detracts from the aromatics. The palate is rustic yet has impressive substance and presence, with hints of sour cherry and orange zest and is extraordinarily long on the finish. Fabulous.

Moving on to the whites, well, there was a recent discussion on the Vinous Your Say forum about the longevity of Aligoté. Even though the vineyard was planted with around 20% of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc for decades, Aligoté is the driver, and here was a rare opportunity to appraise its potential. Perhaps, whereas the Clos de la Roche was guided by growing season and winemaker, I felt that these dozen or so vintages were more random, less predictable, which in a way, made it as exciting as the previous flight. Despite some misfires, this tasting certainly proved that Aligoté has the ability to age. Of the younger vintages, the 2014 Morey-Saint-Denis Clos des Monts Luisants Vieilles Vignes 1er Cru is stunning and encapsulates all that is great about the variety. The 2007 that follows is musty and deprived of the 2014s mineralité and zest. The 2002 is oxidative to the degree that I cannot score it. Then the 1998 bounces back with its lovely beeswax nose and waxy-textured palate. It’s already a roller-coaster ride! After this unpredictable beginning, there seems to be more consistency, all the vintages between 1985 and 1995 with much to offer, particularly a splendid 1988 that contains youthful zeal. The 1974 Morey-Saint-Denis Clos des Monts Luisants Vieilles Vignes 1er Cru is the surprise package, a terrible growing season for much of the region, but this is delightful, better than the 1972 that went through little malolactic, lending it some spiciness on the finish. Both the 1961 and 1969 Morey-Saint-Denis Clos des Monts Luisants Vieilles Vignes 1er Cru would alter any views that Aligoté cannot age, both are complex, refined and the former enhanced by a touch of botrytis on the finish.

Final Thoughts

The tasting is over, the sun has burned through the clouds, and we decamp for a casse-croûte out in the vineyard next to Ponsot’s bijou turreted “château”. I suspect a few of us are still gobsmacked by what we tasted during the morning. Racking my memory, I can remember only one or two verticals that stretched back that far, simply because few Domaines bottled their own wines that far back. But the magnitude of the tasting is commensurate with the importance that Ponsot played in the Côte d’Or. If you are 150 years old, what better way to mark the occasion? It was not a tasting where every single wine deserved huge rounds of applause – there were ups and downs. Indeed, it is vital to detach yourself from the auspiciousness of the bottles that should not be spared criticism when appropriate. Wine should never be a standardized product. But when Ponsot’s wines hit the right notes…wow…they stay in your memory forever and deserve their legendary reputations. This tasting looked at the past, but the future appears bright, given the caliber of recent vintages.

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