Focus 4: Ponsot’s Clos de la Roche & Morey Monts Luisants 1934-2019
BY NEAL MARTIN | MAY 30, 2023
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
turned out…quite a chunk of time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
and his son, Laurent Ponsot, pictured in the 1980s.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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