Domaine Trapet Chambertin: 1949-2012


What with Jean-Louis Trapet being one of Burgundy’s pioneers in natural viticulture, and given the distinctive underlying soil of Chambertin, Trapet’s version of this great Grand Cru can be something of a wild animal. I often find myself using the descriptor “buggy” in my notes on the young wines, not in the sense of unclean but rather of a wine from soil that’s teeming with micro-organisms. All of Trapet’s methods are meant to preserve terroir character, and terroir, after all, is primarily about dirt. Trapet’s soils are alive and so are his wines: they’re about as far from industrially made fruit bombs as Pinot Noir can be, as my vertical tasting at the estate last December made clear.

The History of the Trapet Estate

Jean-Louis Trapet represents the fifth generation to run the family estate, which has owned important vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin since 1870. (His family actually arrived in Burgundy from southeastern France during the time of the French Revolution, originally settling in Chambolle-Musigny.) But founder Louis Trapet did not exactly get off to a flying start: barely five years after establishing his estate he saw his vineyards essentially wiped out by phylloxera. In fairly short order, Trapet figured out that grafting the vines onto resistant American rootstock was the only solution to the problem, even though this approach was illegal at the time (it was only officially permitted as of 1888). Trapet steadily expanded his estate, purchasing parcels in the premier crus Petit-Chapelle and Clos Prieur in 1877 and 1893, respectively, and adding holdings in the Grand Crus Chambertin and Latricières-Chambertin during the early years of the 20th century.

By the late 1920s, under the tenure of Louis’s son Arthur, the great-grandfather of Jean-Louis, the family had become one of Burgundy’s most important vineyard owners. The Trapets were the largest proprietors of Chambertin and also owned substantial parcels in Chapelle-Chambertin and Latricières-Chambertin. Until the 1950s, most of the family’s fruit was sold to top négociants such as Leroy, Drouhin and Liger-Belair. The first estate bottling of any size was from the generous 1959 vintage, and by the mid-‘70s, during the tenure of Jean Trapet, the father of Jean-Louis, the estate was bottling all of its own production.

After joining his father at the family estate in 1987, Jean-Louis took over vinification duties with the 1990 vintage following his father’s retirement (Jean-Louis also bottled the ‘89s). As Jean Trapet’s brother-in-law Jacques Rossignol, who had married a Trapet, also officially retired in 1990, the family estate, formerly called Domaine Louis Trapet, was then split into two, with half of the vineyards going to Jean-Louis’ cousins Nicolas and David Rossignol. This new entity was named Domaine Rossignol-Trapet while the original Domaine Louis Trapet was renamed Domaine Trapet Père et Fils.

Meanwhile, in 1988 Jean-Louis Trapet had married Andrée Grayer, whose family owned a small vineyard in Béblenheim, in Alsace, and in 2002 Andrée took over her family’s estate, farming according to biodynamic precepts from the beginning. Andrée and Jean-Louis, in recent years assisted by their sons Pierre and Louis, essentially spend their weekends managing their vineyards in Alsace, which have been expanded to 12 hectares over the years, including holdings in the grand crus Schoenenbourg, Schlossberg, Sporen and Sonnenglanz. The wines they make in Alsace are lower in residual sugar than most.

The Domaine Trapet parcels in Chambertin

Trapet’s Vines in Chambertin

Arthur Trapet purchased his first parcel of vines in Chambertin in 1919. By the end of the 1920s, the Trapet domain was the largest owner of Chambertin, with 3.8 hectares. (Today, following the division of the estate with the Rossignol family, Trapet owns 1.9 hectares in Chambertin, out of their total holdings of 16.5 hectares; and Domaine Rousseau is the largest owner of land in Chambertin, with just over 2.5 hectares.) Trapet owns three parcels in the Grand Cru. The southernmost was planted on deeper soil in 1929 and 1933. The larger middle portion is on rockier, better-drained soil, and the northernmost features a higher percentage of white marl, which Trapet says contributes structure and vibrancy to the blend. But he emphasized that all three parcels are essentially strips of land that climb in altitude from the bottom of the cru to the top—from deeper soil to lighter.

Trapet’s Chambertin vines are planted at a density of 1 by 0.8 meter, or about 12,500 vines per hectare. When Jean-Louis took over the family estate, there were still some vines dating back to the turn of the 20th century, while others were planted before World War II and still others in the 1960s and 1970s. He did some replanting in 1992, and pulled up and replaced some century-old vines in 2000. Today the oldest vines date back to the mid-1920s and the average age of Trapet’s Chambertin vines is about 45 years.

Jean-Louis’ father Jean introduced a separate Vieilles Vignes bottling with the 1976 vintage and made this special cuvée several times in addition to his classic Chambertin, including in 1988, 1989 and 1990. But Jean-Louis discontinued this bottling following 1990 because he wanted to have only a single Chambertin blend that included all of the fruit from his various parcels. “Ideally,” said Jean-Louis, “I’d love to avoid using a sorting table, and every child [by which I assume he meant “every cluster”] would go into the vat.”

Jean-Louis Trapet’s Early Years as a Winemaker

At the time Jean-Louis took over the family domain, some recent vintages at that point, especially several from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, had rather pale color and lacked depth and concentration of flavor, due in part to large berries and high grape yields. These in turn were partly due to some of the clones that had been utilized following World War II with the primary objective of obtaining healthy plants. (I recall seeing some of those wines on the shelves of retail shops in New York and avoiding them instinctively due to their washed-out colors.) Trapet noted that a small element of court-noué on older vines can have the beneficial effect of producing tiny bunches and small, thick-skinned grapes, which can be a positive thing for concentration. “But it’s always a question of balance,” he noted. “And if the wines are too weak, then we have no choice but to replant them.”

Jean-Louis immediately eliminated standard herbicides and stopped adding chemical fertilizers to enrich the soil. Instead, he used hoeing and a special light tractor—and, beginning in 1996, a horse—to plough the soil and kill weeds. His first major investment in the winery, made in 1990, was a heat exchanger to cool the must in the vat and enable a slow start to the fermentation.

Like so many of his young contemporaries who took over their family estates a generation ago, Trapet’s original instincts were to make more deeply colored, attention-grabbing wines. As he told me during our vertical tasting in December, “1990 was my first vintage on my own and I wanted to show my father what I could do.” That year he carried out a pre-fermentation cold soak lasting nearly two weeks, then did three punchdowns per day during the fermentation (nowadays he mostly just pumps over). From the start, he also raised the percentage of new oak for his wines, with the Chambertin reaching a peak of about 70% in the mid-1990s.

Multimedia: A Conversation with Jean-Louis Trapet

Trapet Goes Back to the Soil

Trapet’s winemaking philosophy quickly evolved, and he described 1999 as his last year of energetic extraction. Now he begins with a ­maceration à froid lasting no more than a week (he has always vinified with wild yeasts, so the fermentations naturally take a while to start), and if he punches down the cap at all, it’s at the beginning of the fermentation, before the grape sugars have been converted to alcohol; after that he employs mostly pumpovers. The percentage of new oak has been scaled back to the 40% to 60% range—quite moderate for Chambertin, which some owners continue to age entirely in new barrels. “I realized that Pinot Noir is different,” is the way Trapet explained his evolution, “and I did a gentler vinification after 1999.” (I should note that although Trapet admitted being disturbed by the tannic load of his ’99 Chambertin at the outset, that wine showed spectacularly at the vertical tasting—yet more evidence that terroir will out in the long run.)

Trapet began farming some of his village plots organically in 1995 and went completely organic in 1998. In 2002, under the guidance of biodynamic consultant François Bouchet, Trapet became a member of Biodyvin (the Syndicat International des Vignerons en Culture Bio-Dynamique). With organic farming, there are certain steps you routinely take against various manifestations of mildew and insect problems, such as treating the vines with copper or sulfur, Trapet explained. “But with biodynamie, you must observe your vines more carefully, and the objective is to improve the natural health of the vines—to build their resistance.” One commonly used technique is to crush quartz crystal (Trapet and his family actually collect quartz crystals in the Alps during the summer), mix it with water to make a paste, and stuff it into a cow horn and bury it in a hole, then use it six months later to spray the vines.

“With organic farming you force the roots deeper,” noted Trapet, adding that his yields in Chambertin are consistently between 30 and 35 hectoliters per hectare, lower than those of his father. It is no longer necessary to carry out a green pruning to limit crop loads, but he will de-bud early in the season if the initial bud break suggests a large yield. Green-harvesting during summer is then a last resort (Trapet refers to it as “an acknowledgment of failure”), and, even then, is done only in the most vigorous young vines, but never in Chambertin. Trapet told me he picks “a bit on the early side” compared to his neighbors as bio brings riper tannins earlier. He normally needs a day and a half to harvest his Chambertin. Trapet began sorting his fruit by hand as soon as he took over in 1990 and added a sorting table in 1995.

Fresh from the cellar, Chambertin back to 1949

The estate had always entirely destemmed its fruit through the 2002 vintage but beginning in 2003, a year with fully ripe stems and low natural acidity in the grapes, Trapet changed his approach, vinifying his Chambertin with 25% whole clusters and his Premier Crus with 100%. This practice was quite rare at the time among his neighbors in the village as the northerly Gevrey-Chambertin was a late-ripening section of the Côte d’Or and most growers feared that green stems would exacerbate the generally substantial tannins of their grapes. But Trapet had enjoyed wines made with stems by friends like Jean-Yves Bizot (Domaine Bizot in Vosne-Romanée) and Jacques Seysses (Domaine Dujac), finding them “pure, fresh and flowery,” and he felt that stems made particular sense in the baking-hot 2003 vintage. Among other advantages provided by a stem element, Trapet told me that vinification with whole bunches “ensures slower, calmer fermentations without temperature extremes,” which is consistent with his desire to make pure, elegant wines that privilege soil complexity and perfume over size and power. And of course climate change has brought generally riper stems and tannins, and Trapet likes “the menthol freshness that stems bring even in the warmest years.” Use of whole clusters can range from 30% to as much as 100% for the Chambertin, but is typically around 50%. “There is no recipe,” Trapet asserted. “You must feel it; you must taste the berries first.”

Nor is Trapet married to a particular cooper. He prefers “a balance” of four or five for his Chambertin in order to get diverse aromas, with the blend changing every year but most often featuring barrels from Rousseau, Remond and François Frères, all with light to medium toast. As Trapet is looking for “minimal oak impact” on the wine, he washes the barrels “drastically with boiling water” before filling them with wine. Not surprisingly in light of Trapet’s natural winemaking, he makes minimal use of sulfur, adding some in the fermenter, a bit more directly to the casks after the malolactic fermentation has finished, then again a week before the bottling, which normally takes place between late March and May of the second spring for the Chambertin. The finished wines typically have 20 parts per million free sulfur and a very low 40 total.

The Vertical Tasting

While Trapet focused on the wines he had made at the family estate since 1990, he showed me a high percentage of these, including a few from challenging vintages, and tossed in some older wines made by his father. What stood out to me was the improvement in the new century, as Trapet’s work in the vines and lighter touch in the cellar have borne fruit. Sure, the Chambertin remains the most powerful wine in the cellar, but the vintages of the 21st century are silkier and more aromatically interesting than ever before and alcohol levels have remained moderate. Trapet noted that his Chambertin generally shows more black fruits than red as it ages, but it struck me that recent vintages are a bit redder in character, at least in their youth, as Trapet is now getting phenolic ripeness before sugar levels go too high. Trapet told me he shoots for alcohol in the range of 12.8% to 13.1% for Chambertin, and that he rarely chaptalizes this wine, except to prolong the fermentation. This is a very different approach from the one his grandfather took, said Trapet. “He always liked to bottle his Chambertin with 14% alcohol if he could, although obviously most vintages during his time required chaptalization.”

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