Money Well Spent: Domaine de L’Arlot: 1959-2019 


My first trip to Burgundy…It must have been around April or May 1997. The itinerary is vague, but one evening remains crystal clear. I had dinner in Beaune’s best restaurant, Ma Cuisine. Unlike today, when gourmands are spoiled for choices, Ma Cuisine was essentially the only decent place to load up on rabbit terrine or coq au vin. Its wine list was renowned, overflowing with mature vintages with prices scarcely believable in today’s inflationary climate. I chose the wine. I wasn’t sure who would be paying, so erring on caution, I skipped the DRC and plumped for the 1990 Nuits-Saint-Georges Clos de L’Arlot. It was my epiphany. It was the moment that Burgundy clicked. Now I understood why people liked Bordeaux but loved Burgundy. I didn’t taste that wine again for 18 years before a friend kindly proffered another bottle, and memories flooded back.

Three buildings surround the courtyard that opens onto the busy RN74. I don’t know what is in this one! At the rear, gardens confine them with even a small maze.

So, I have always had an attachment to Domaine de L’Arlot and have visited countless times over the years. It is a relatively recent arrival compared to stalwarts like Gouges or Rousseau. Its origin lies with the Vienot family, who owned parcels around Nuits-Saint-Georges, plus the “château” in Prémeaux directly overlooking the RN74 artery that dates from Louis XIV. In 1891, it was sold to a négociant, Jules Belin. Tragically in 1933, after a successful first few decades, members of the Belin family died in a car accident at a level-crossing, and after that, the domaine struggled. Bottles are rarely seen, but curiosity got the better of me a few years ago when I chanced upon a 1959 Clos de L’Arlot on a merchant list for under £100. Those were the days. It was an absolute gem, and I reproduced the note for this piece.

In 1977, former accountant and keen yachtsman Jean-Pierre de Smet worked with his friend Jacques Seysses at Domaine Dujac. Predictably, he was bitten by the wine bug. Cue late career change. Having studied at the University of Dijon, in 1987, de Smet caught wind that French insurance company AXA was seeking to move into Burgundy, after buying Château Pichon-Baron. De Smet ended up mediating the acquisition of Jules Belin. AXA would own the building and vineyard, while de Smet would jointly own a new company named AXA-Millésimes assigned to manage the estate, thereby giving de Smet autonomy over decision making.

At the time, AXA owned the monopole of Clos-des-Forêts-Saint-Georges (7.2-hectares), the monopole Clos-de-L’Arlot (4.0-hectares, 50% red and 50% white) and Côtes de Nuits-Villages Clos du Chapeau (1.55-hectares) a monopole located in Comblanchien. Clive Coates makes an interesting remark in Grand Vin, suggesting that AXA tried to buy Charles Noëllat and Philippe Remy, only to be out-maneuvered by the wily Lalou Bize-Leroy, who was then setting up her namesake domaine. In 1991, AXA did succeed in acquiring 0.25-hectares of Romanée-Saint-Vivant from Henri Poisot for 800,000 Francs per oeuvre after Louis Latour turned down Poisot’s offer for the conjoining plot that Latour deemed too expensive. Insert your Homer Simpson “Doh!” here. AXA holdings were further enlarged by 0.85 hectares of Vosne-Romanée Les Suchots in 1993.

Looking out onto Clos de L’Arlot from the tasting room window.

De Smet was clearly influenced by Seysses and introduced whole bunches into the blend at a time when the practice was not in vogue. It singled out Domaine de L’Arlot from many others, though he did not necessarily de-stem 100% by rote. For example, in 2005, not a bunch was de-stemmed, whereas in 2008, up to 60% passed through an egrappoir. They also pruned early in the season instead of green harvesting to limit yields and employed slightly lower fermentation temperatures. De Smet received me during my first visits, though to be honest, once again, memories are hazy! Under de Smet, organic farming was trialed from 2000 and applied across their entire holdings three years later (AB certified); the same year, biodynamics was introduced before all 14 hectares were converted.

De Smet retired in 2006 and sold his half-share back to AXA-Millésimes. In January 2007, the running of the estate passed to Christian Seely, who oversees all of AXA-Millésimes' properties and the day-to-day management was entrusted to Olivier Leriche, who had worked his way up from a stagiere. Jacques Devauges succeeded Leriche in August 2011, which gave the domaine a new impetus. Géraldine Godot took over in September 2014 when Devauges was headhunted to run Clos de Tart (he is now at Domaine des Lambrays) and remains at the helm to the present day.

I did snap Géraldine Godot at the tasting, but I prefer this photo in her natural environment, which is either out in the vines or here in the barrel cellar.

Burgundy-born Godot certainly has an impressive CV. She earned a Master’s degree in Cellular Biology and Oenology before joining Alex Gambal in Beaune. I have always found her to be one of the Burgundy’s more quietly-spoken, contemplative vignerons who does not stick to a formula but treats each vintage on its own merits. For example, during my previous visit in November 2022, she mentioned how she might not use any whole clusters in the future having not used any in 2021 and 2022. If that is adopted as their new approach across the range, then it represents a complete reversal from de Smet’s era, though Godot is the kind of person to see what 2023 offers before making any decision.

This tasting was held at La Cabotte restaurant in the heart of the City in London in October 2021 – apologies for not writing it up sooner. I found plenty of consistency across the five vintages from 2015 to 2019. I always find the wines open and expressive, “honest” perhaps, unafraid to show shortcomings and their strengths. Clos-de-L’Arlot is generally regarded as having the edge over Clos des Forêts St.-George. It is a remarkable vineyard, a rather dramatic amphitheater made steeper by quarrying before vines took root. That can be problematic if there is intense rainfall, Godot watching helplessly as torrents washed soils to the bottom of the slope in August 2020. The earth had to be carried back up afterward. Perhaps Clos-de-L’Arlot can possess a little more structure, though I found the wines evenly matched here. I was certainly taken by the 2017s from these monopoles, full of freshness that made them preferable to the more opulent 2018s.

Domaine de L’Arlot is associated with the appellation of Nuits Saint-Georges, and perhaps as a consequence the two Vosne-based cuvées are sometimes overlooked. That should not be the case when discussing Les Suchots and Romanée-Saint-Vivant. I have always appreciated the former, and it was remarkably consistent over the five vintages examined, shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the big names that farm that climat. As one of ten landowners in Romanée-Saint-Vivant, de L’Arlot holding in the Grand Cru's southern sector is larger than Cathiard’s, but still smaller compared to say Hudelot-Noëllat or Leroy. Usually, around two to four barrels are produced depending on the vintage, Godot having reduced the level of new oak in recent years. Here, the 2015 Romanée-Saint-Vivant really stood out and has its nose in front of the 2016, if you asked me to commit infanticide, then I would choose the sapid 2017, the 2019 I would choose to cellar.

Final Thoughts

This was a very useful overview of one of Nuits-Saint-George’s most important producers. There is more consistency nowadays compared to a decade ago. Perhaps they have not yet created a transcendental wine that would make others take notice but never say never. Returning to that fateful dinner back in 1997 at that culinary institution, still standing if sadly without the same stellar list, after an awkward silence, I pulled out my wallet. “My pleasure,” I said. “That was money well spent.”

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