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The Wine Was Chambertin: Rousseau 1919-2017
BY NEAL MARTIN | JUNE 21, 2022
forget the name of the place; I forget the name of the girl; but the wine was
Chambertin” - Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)
Can we look at the fermented grape juice featured herein without peering through a pecuniary lens? Let’s not distil these precious bottles of Chambertin to monetary value. The currency is intellectual and sensory pleasure, not Dollars or Euros. I wonder if it is possible to replicate a bygone age, not so long ago, when Rousseau was simply a byword for wondrous Pinot Noir, when bottles were shared with appreciative friends, an era when even Rousseau’s most reputed wines were more affordable than highfalutin Claret? Strip away the myth that surrounds these bottles and what are you left with? A soulful Burgundy wine with a propensity to warm the cockles of the heart.
Like most of humanity, nowadays I don’t have the chance to drink Rousseau’s wines often, so when I was invited to a vertical tasting of their Chambertin I started doing cartwheels around the back garden. This was a private event organised by Jordi “No Vertical Impossible” Oriols-Gil, part of his continuing series of retrospectives. Diary from January to December cleared, it would take a global pandemic to nix his plans and…well, you know what happened next. The tasting was frustratingly postponed two or three times until finally a date in early May 2022 was set. The only change was the venue, at Rousseau’s request switched from London to Vienne, just south of Lyon, at the famous La Pyramide restaurant. This would allow Cyrielle Rousseau to take leave of her beloved vines and join us for the occasion.
was a bona fide, once-in-a-lifetime event. Twenty-five vintages plus surprises from
2000 back to the opening pages of Rousseau’s remarkable story, festooned with historical
bottles that you never see. Assembling a vertical of this magnitude demanded
patience, diplomacy, teamwork and a second helping of patience. To their own
chagrin, Rousseau’s cellar is bereft of bottles predating the Eighties. “I
asked my grandmother why we don’t have any old bottles,” Cyrielle Rousseau told
me. “She said that her husband [Charles Rousseau] might have kept a few back,
but he often entertained friends or distributors, and before you knew it, they
were down to their last bottle.” Ergo, the only ex-Domaine bottle in this
report is the 1987. Despite the lion’s share of older vintages on the cusp of
extinction, Oriols-Gil managed to obtain two bottles of many vintages. A good
job too. Several bottles were corked or oxidised - collateral loss when
broaching vinous antiquity. Tragically, they included TCA-riddled 1937 and 1971
Attendees flew in from around the world, some brandishing prized bottles from their own private collections. The format of the tasting was innovative. The first session, a seminar whereby the first dozen wines were served in reverse chronological order from 2000 back to 1953. The second session revolved around an extended lunch at La Pyramide where they were partnered with a specially-prepared menu by chef Patrick Henriroux, broaching older vintages before tracking back to younger ones in order not to overpower them. Incidentally, the previous evening we dined at the bistro, and I’ll write this up as a Vinous Table since we tasted a bevy of remarkable mature Burgundy and Rhônes.
At this point, let’s break away from the tasting for a brief background to Domaine Rousseau and the Chambertin vineyard.
Apologies for the clarity of this photo of Charles Rousseau. I took this in the very early days of digital cameras.
Prior to World War I, Armand Rousseau (née 1884) was born into a family of vine growers and coopers. At the age of 18 he inherited some plots of vine, augmented by marriage in 1909 (Camille Rodier notes “Rousseau” as one of Chambertin’s owners in “Le Vin de Bourgogne” published in 1920.) Like practically every labourer who worked the land, Rousseau sold his fruit in bulk to local wine merchants in Nuits Saint-Georges and Beaune. He often acted as a middleman, brokering deals between neighbours and wine merchants. As such, he had the inside track on parcels coming up for sale in a region scarred by the ravages of phylloxera - parcels in the most propitious locations lying fallow. It was Raymond Badouin, editor of French magazine “Revue des Vins de France” that convinced Rousseau to break with tradition and potentially raise the heckles of merchants by bottling his most prestigious cuvées himself: Charmes-Chambertin, Clos de la Roche and of course, Chambertin. Badouin introduced Rousseau’s wines to Parisian restaurants, as well as American importer Frank Schoonmaker, agent for his wines after Prohibition was repealed. The first official vintage bottled at the Domaine was the 1919. Unfortunately, no records exist, but it is believed that Armand Rousseau prudently only bottled part of the production, no doubt to appease merchants and maintain vital relationships.
Cyrielle Rousseau bought along some retro posters from the Domaine.
Rousseau’s son Charles (née 1923) studied law and oenology at the University of Dijon and joined his father in 1945. Fluent in English and German, he used his linguistic skills to expand overseas markets. Working alongside his father must have been an invaluable way of learning his art. In 1959, returning from hunting Armand Rousseau died in a car accident. Charles Rousseau stepped into his father’s shoes and managed what was then still just 6.5 hectares of vineyard. He continued to expand Domaine Rousseau. In 1982, son Eric (née 1957) joined his father after completing a degree at the Lycée Agricole et Viticole.
Eric Rousseau introduced modern techniques including leaf-thinning and green harvesting, crucially eradicating the use of chemical insecticides and fertilizers that had been prevalent throughout the preceding two decades, a subject that I shall broach later. From the late-Eighties, Rousseau consolidated its position as one of Burgundy’s most consistent producers. I only met Charles Rousseau a few of times. The first time was an impromptu visit. There he sat, dozing in his small cabin by the entrance gates. Should I awake this legend? He must have heard my footsteps and a smile from beneath his moustache meant that I was welcome to come and chat and taste. In 2014, Eric Rousseau was joined by his daughter Cyrielle, who had worked in New Zealand, Australia and Oregon. Continuing the tradition of down-to-earth winemakers in both a literal and figurative sense, she is a person who lives for her vines. Even during this astonishing tasting, I had the feeling that it was a wrench leaving her vineyard.
Cyrielle Rousseau plus friend. This was taken during my last visit in November 2021.
If you are going to be the largest owner of any vineyard, then you would probably choose Chambertin. Domaine Rousseau farms 2.55 hectares of 12.90 hectares acquired in 1915, 1943, 1956, 1983 and finally in 2009. They are made up of four blocks, three east-facing towards the south of the Grand Cru, the fourth known as “Larrey” orientated north-south towards the fringe of the woods and obliging use of a horse to plough. The parcels lie on limestone-rich soils, Bathonian towards the top of the slope and crinodial Bajocian limestone towards the middle. In terms of viticulture, Charles Rousseau always maintained a high vine-age, (Clive Coates pointing out in his Côte d’Or tome that he pulled out around two-thirds of a hectare each year.) They are all pruned single-Guyot with some younger cordon-pruned vines to keep a lid on vigour. Another principle tenet was a hard pruning early in the season in order to concentrate the fruit, a somewhat riskier strategy in recent frost-hit vintages.
The winemaking chez Rousseau has always been straightforward. After a severe triage, mainly undertaken by pickers out in the vineyard, the wines are fermented in stainless-steel vats, using around 10 to 15% stems in order to aerate the must. One change instigated by Eric Rousseau is less crushing so that the whole berries extend fermentation. After a fortnight’s maceration with temperatures never increasing over 31°C, the wine is racked into new barrels, mainly François Frères from Allier. Today most of the wines are aged for up to 20 months, though there was a longer 20-24 months élevage up until the Nineties.
This is a wine that I doubt that I will ever drink again.
Every wine here is assessed as objectively as possible, whilst appreciating the opportunity to be acquainted with them. It would be a disservice to get carried away and start throwing out meaningless, emotionally-driven superlatives and scores, erasing the story that these bottles tell.
If I have to sum up the wines in a single sentence, it would be “Magnificent ancient and younger vintages with a dip in between”.
The most venerable bottles are a testament to the brilliance of the pioneering Armand Rousseau. The oldest encounter was served blind as an addition, though nobody came close to guessing that it was a 1919 Grand Chambertin. This is likely to have been négociant-bottled judging by the branding on the cork and sucrosity on the finish, which suggested that there might have been a little adulteration, commonplace at the time. It might be morally reprehensible nowadays, but after 103-years it undeniably offered enormous cerebral and sensory pleasure. Incidentally, the name “Grand Chambertin” is not some ruse to inveigle wine-lovers into buying the wine. Since the 15th century, wines were often labelled “Grand” and “Petit Chambertin”.
bottle was a ringer that was served blind. The 1935 Clos de la Roche was
beautifully balanced and palpably more precocious than the Chambertins and
showed no adulteration, a practice abhorred by Armand Rousseau, a man
instrumental in terms of laying down appellation rules. There was also a cheeky
half-bottle of 1947 Charmes-Chambertin poured after the tasting, a
little rustic yet elegant and complex, easily coping with the warmth of that
growing season even in this diddy format.
The pair that highlighted Armand Rousseau’s winemaking ability was the stellar 1948 and 1950 Chambertin. The former sported greater depth and backbone, the latter ethereal and bewitchingly pure. Neither come from fêted Burgundy vintages and yet, both transcend the seasons’ limitations with style and grace. Just two years after having to step into his father’s shoes after his untimely passing, Charles Rousseau produced a wonderful 1961 Chambertin, dark in colour, stocky yet balanced with immense length. Funnily, there is a very subtle marine influence, a leitmotif of many Clarets from this year.
A magical pair. Interesting to see how the 1948 sports the recognizable present label, but not the 1950.
Perhaps controversially, I would argue that the ensuing two decades were not the greatest for the Domaine. That is not because of Charles Rousseau’s shortcomings as a winemaker, but rather, his policy of using a lot of potassium in the vineyard. In Remington Norman and Charles Taylor’s book, “The Great Domaine of Burgundy”, Charles Rousseau vividly recalled lorry-loads of potassium pulling up outside the winery even during his father’s era. In these ecologically-aware times we regard such practices with disdain, yet it is worth remembering that after the war, the vineyards were in a poor state and needed huge amounts of enrichment to create an uptick in vigour and sugar levels. However, it also unbalanced the wines by lowering natural acidity, thereby lowering protection against bacterial spoilage. One sign of its use is the paler hue of wines from this era, for example, if you compared the 1961 Chambertin with the 1964 or 1966.
Consequently, whilst the wines of this period have much to offer, I did not feel that they achieved the heady of heights of what was produced before or after. Compounding this problem is what seems like a higher incidence of cork-taint that clustered during these years, like the previously mentioned 1971 Chambertin, that, according to experienced friends can be monumental (indeed, a 1971 Mazis-Chambertin drunk four years earlier was exceptional). I have supplemented these notes with my solitary encounter with a wine from this era, a beguiling 1972 Chambertin that was poured from magnum at a stellar private dinner in London in 2013. It actually belonged to the gentleman who sadly had to pull out of this event. It remains one of the finest mature examples that I have drunk. Even now, some years later, there are tingles down the spine just thinking about it. I will let the tasting note do the talking.
One additional wine served blind had the audacity to almost steal the show from all the coeval Chambertins. The magnum of 1966 Chambertin Clos-de-Bèze came directly from the Domaine, a transaction made with Charles Rousseau in the late-Nineties. This vintage was born just five years after Charles Rousseau acquired the holding, 1962 being the debut release. It was magical: perfectly balanced and poised, exuberant and fresh as a daisy. You could not imagine Pinot Noir being better, hence the score. It’s ironic that the most lauded wine was not actually a Chambertin, begging the question which is the greater of the two? To be honest, it’s clutching at straws between them. Certainly, whenever I visit the cellars, one never knows which will have its nose in front from barrel.
Utter perfection – 1966 Chambertin Clos-de-Bèze in magnum.
Conversely, I was expecting more from the 1978 Chambertin, charming in its own way, not the best example according to Cyrielle Rousseau. (Coates mentions that the cellars were affected by a bacterial infection that compromised the 1978 and 1979 vintages.) One exception was the 1970 Chambertin, not a revered Burgundy vintage, but this acquitted itself with style and panache.
Come the Eighties and the detrimental effects of potassium usage were understood and terminated; then of course, it took time for the vineyards to recover. That could be seen through the vintages in that decade, the rot-ridden 1983, plagued by rain, simple but better than expected. The real surprise for me was the 1984 Chambertin, balanced and quite refined, though a mere footnote to the 1985 Chambertin, the first where I feel the wine is pulling through the other side.
However, to my mind, it is not until the nineties, under Eric Rousseau, that the Chambertin takes full flight. At this tasting, the 1990 and particularly the sublime 1993 Chambertin are glorious. The 1996 Chambertin, a wine that I cracked open for my cousin to accompany my spaghetti bolognaise, is one of my favourite examples from that divisive vintage, probably à point, yet with many years ahead. The 1998 Chambertin showed well, although it stays in the shadow of the brilliant 1999 Chambertin. This was actually not the best bottle that I have encountered, but I have a note from another bottle that was featured in Hong Kong just before it shut its borders. The youngest was an over-performing 2000 Chambertin, a vintage that appears to be improving year-by-year and rather under-valued. It is these vintages that really sealed Rousseau’s reputation and subsequent ones throughout the following two decades. (For this report, I supplement my notes with a couple of recent encounters from the modern era.)
I am writing
this article on the return flight from Lyon; the afterglow of these extraordinary
wines lingering on my palate. These are bottles that I thought I would never
see, let alone drink. Attending such a monumental event was an immense
privilege and provided insight into one of Burgundy’s greatest wines. A tasting
as comprehensive as this inevitably reveals both strengths and weaknesses. Even
the most iconic wines falter, whilst disparaged growing seasons can produce
wines of ineffable beauty. That’s Burgundy. Would you want it any other way?
I came away with newfound appreciation of Armand Rousseau’s prescience in terms of bottling his own wines, leading the way for others to follow. The 1948 and 1950 Chambertins are indelibly marked on my memory, who knows, perhaps the last time they will ever exist side-by-side. Whilst I could not ignore a slight dip in the Sixties and Seventies, they merely put into sharp relief the melioration achieved by Eric Rousseau from the mid-Eighties onwards. Apologies for the most banal sentence ever attributed to their Chambertin, but if you do put aside its price, reputation of history, then you are left with just one absolutely delicious Pinot Noir. In fact, it is so delicious, you almost overlook its profundity. It is not an overly powerful wine, and yet a great Chambertin conveys a beguiling sense of stature and effortlessness. It is rather like entering into entertaining conversation with an affable scholar whose intellect is only apparent after the exchange.
One hopes, maybe in vain, that bottles continue to be shared and enjoyed, something that becomes almost more immoral year-after-year. At least on a memorable day at La Pyramide, we managed to simply appreciate a wine that always leaves you smiling. Before switching back to the present day and considering how secondary market prices have attained almost irrational values, let’s return to Belloc’s quotation. I might forget the name of the place where this tasting took place, but I will always remember that the wine was Rousseau.
See the Wines from Youngest to Oldest
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