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Domaine des Comtes Lafon Meursault Perrières 1984-2014
BY STEPHEN TANZER | DECEMBER 23, 2019
As veteran International Wine Cellar readers may recall, in 1999 I published a vertical tasting
of Domaine des Comtes Lafon’s Meursault Charmes, this celebrated estate’s largest-scaled
and most powerful Meursault premier cru—and the Lafon white wine best known to
collectors owing to the size of this holding (1.7 hectares). My tasting took
place during more innocent times, before premature oxidation (aka premox, or
the pox) had yet been identified as a thing, much less a grave threat to the
reputation of white Burgundy—and an issue in numerous other winegrowing
regions. This past spring, 20 years later, Dominique Lafon presented an
extensive and splendid line-up of his Meursault Perrières.
The issue of premox was first detected and remarked on in the mid-2000s, when collectors began opening serious cru bottlings from the 1995 and 1996 vintages and finding them unexpectedly advanced, if not dark gold in color or totally oxidized. Since that time, the pox has shown up in countless cellars, and very few vintages have been essentially immune to problems (one notable exception is the freakishly hot, early, low-acid 2003 vintage, whose wines appear to be as bulletproof as they are atypical). Today, most white Burgundy producers, when specifically asked, will name vintages or wines that have been plagued by unacceptably high failure rates, although many of them continue to insist that these problems are mostly the result of faulty corks. But one by one, they are taking a host of measures to bottle wines that are more resistant to premature oxidation. In my article on Domaine Leflaive’s Chevalier-Montrachet published on Vinous in September, for example, I discussed the many changes that Brice de la Morandière has made to minimize the risk of premox since taking over that estate as managing partner in 2015.
The view from Lafon’s main parcel of Perrières, with Genevrières-Dessous on the left side of the road and Charmes-Dessus on the right
Dominique Lafon has been investigating the pox and taking measures to thwart it for well over a decade. As we tasted through his Perrières vintages, we discussed this issue in considerable detail, and I’ve had further conversations with Lafon by telephone in recent weeks. I should make two things clear up front. First, Lafon’s extraordinary candor and generosity have enabled me to go into this subject in some detail in this article. Lafon and his estate manager Stéphane Thibodaux have been among the most proactive producers in Burgundy in the amount of research they have done into the various possible causes of premox and the significant steps they have taken to prevent it. Virtually all of the changes he has made in recent years should be strongly considered by most other producers of white Burgundy, if they have not already been implemented. And, as with the wines of Domaine Leflaive, the changes that Lafon has already made leave me confident that the estate’s best wines are yet to come.
I must also point out that in my vertical Perrières tasting this past spring, Lafon uncorked the bottles I would be tasting in front of me. That has not necessarily been the case at my other vertical tastings of white Burgundies over the last couple of years; in some instances, no doubt, the bottles were sampled in advance, so I really had no way of knowing if a particular bottle I tasted was the first, second or seventh opened by the estate. And in the course of my tasting at Domaine Lafon, I did not encounter a single premoxed wine, although Lafon did not present the 1999 Perrières, a vintage that he considers his most problematic since he took over his estate in the ‘80s. Only a couple of vintages more recent than the 1999 were less vibrant than they should have been.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. First some background, before I return to the wines.
The reception of the grapes at Domaine Lafon
A Brief History of the Lafon Estate
Dominique Lafon’s ancestors were in the Burgundy business even before his great grandfather Jules Lafon, from the southwest of France, married Marie Boch, whose family were wine merchants and vineyard owners in Meursault. By all accounts a brilliant student, Jules Lafon joined the Public Registry Office and was promoted to Inspector in 1887. He married Boch in 1894 and in 1906 he resigned from the Public Registry to pursue a career in law. In 1923, while he was serving as mayor of Meursault, Lafon was responsible for reviving the tradition of celebrating the end of the grape harvest with a banquet, but rather than simply party with his workers he also invited 35 of his friends to the feast. This was the first “Paulée de Meursault”; the annual celebration soon evolved to become the third of the three main events of Les Trois Glorieuses, the three-day weekend in mid-November that features the Hospices de Beaune wine auction. In 1931, Lafon gave up his responsibilities at the Dijon Courts of Law to devote all of his time to his wine estate.
The Boch inheritance had included mostly Pinot Noir vines in Volnay, plus vines in Monthélie and generic Bourgogne (much of which was eventually sold by Jules’s sons Pierre and Henri Lafon). Jules Lafon was responsible for buying vineyards in Montrachet (in 1918), Volnay Santenots and Clos des Chênes, and Meursault La Goutte d’Or, Les Genevrières-Dessus, Les Charmes and Les Perrières—i.e., most of the top holdings of Domaine des Comtes Lafon today. But during his tenure, virtually all of the estate’s vineyards were worked by sharecroppers, and very little wine was bottled under the Lafon name.
Jules’s sons Pierre and Henri Lafon had little interest in running a wine estate, but when Jules died in 1940 they took over the family property. After the premature passing of Pierre in 1944, Henri ran the estate (“improperly,” according to Dominique) with his mother Marie Boch during the years following World War II. By the mid-1950s it became become clear that Henri intended to sell the estate, which at that point was mainly still being rented out to sharecroppers (for years Henri had sold off his share of the production rather than bottling it himself). But Henri’s son René, who at the time was living and working in Paris, was opposed to the idea of selling. He eventually took over the estate in 1956, naming it Domaine des Comtes Lafon. The small quantities of wine that had been bottled in some previous vintages carried the Comte Jules Lafon or Comte Pierre Lafon labels, but until René took over, estate bottling was irregular and limited.
This year’s production of Perrières at Domaine Lafon
René moved to Meursault, purchasing the large Victorian house in the village where he and his wife lived for the rest of their lives. The home came with cellars and a cuverie originally constructed in the mid-1870s. (Dominique’s mother still lives in this house today, which is separated from the winery by a courtyard; his father passed away in May.) René Lafon devoted himself to improving the condition of his vineyards, in cooperation with his sharecroppers, and in the process replanted a high percentage of the vines. He began estate production slowly, bottling nothing in 1956, 1957 or 1958 (the latter Dominique’s birth year). “My father had very little money at the beginning and sold mostly to shippers,” said Dominique. “The real bottling started in the early 1960s.” Lafon’s oldest remaining bottles of white wine bottled by his father are from vintage 1962, but he also has some 1959 Volnay Santenots. Eventually René was vinifying half of each parcel, with the other half kept by the sharecroppers.
Dominique Lafon began working with his father during the harvest at the family estate in 1982. At the time, his day job was working for American expat Becky Wasserman, who had established her brokerage business in Burgundy in 1979, and Lafon used his vacation time each year to help his father with the harvest. He became responsible for winemaking in 1984 and 1985, at that time with his brother Bruno, and then joined the estate full-time in August of 1986, taking over responsibility for the vineyards and the winemaking. Dominique had already made a tour of the estate’s sharecroppers in 1984 to let them know that he would not be renewing their (nine-year) contracts when they expired. So by 1993, Dominique was vinifying and bottling virtually all of the estate’s production.
In recent years, Dominique has expanded the family domain with a number of acquisitions. He bought bits of the premier crus Perrières and Charmes and some land in Meursault Crotots in 2004 from Domaine Gauffroy (these holdings began to come into production in ’09, following the expiration of pre-existing leases to other winemakers). And in 2010, Lafon and his friend and neighbor Jean-Marc Roulot purchased and signed long-term leases on additional Meursault land following the purchase from Labouré-Roi of Domaine René Manuel by a group of American investors. This latter arrangement added the premier crus Meursault Porusots and Bouchères to Lafon’s portfolio, as well as vines in Meursault Clos de la Baronne. The estate now owns 16.3 hectares of vineyards.
Lafon was devoting all his time to running the family domain but splitting the proceeds with no fewer than six relatives (three siblings, two first cousins and a cousin once removed). Quite naturally he wanted a project or two to call his own, both for additional income and for his own family, so he purchased an estate in Milly-Lamartine in 1999, renaming it Les Heritiers du Comte Lafon. He has expanded his holdings in the Mâconnais over the years and now owns 14 hectares of vines and leases another 12, venturing as far north as Viré-Clessé. Lafon also consulted for the Evening Land venture in Oregon’s Willamette Valley for a number of years and today is involved in sommelier Larry Stone’s Lingua Franca project in Eola-Amity Hills. Meanwhile, he also established his own eponymous Burgundy négociant label in 2008.
The harvest of Meursault-Perrières
The Estate’s Holdings in Perrières
Domaine des Comtes Lafon owns 22 ouvrées of Perrières, or nearly one hectare (one hectare equals 24 ouvrées). The estate’s main parcel, comprising 16 ouvrées in Perrières-Dessous, lies on mostly whitish marl soil at the northern end of the appellation, adjacent to Genevrières-Dessus; most of these vines are a sélection massale planted in 1955. (Following the 2015 harvest, Lafon pulled out about a quarter of these vines for replanting.) Lafon also owns a very steep 2 ouvrées in Perrières-Dessous on slightly darker soil to the south of the Clos des Perrières, planted in 1982 just above his large, ideally situated parcel in Charmes-Dessus. And in his purchase of vines from Ginette Gauffroy (Domaine Gauffroy) in 2004, he obtained another 4 ouvrées on more reddish soil next to Coche-Dury’s Perrières, in the lowest part of Perrières-Dessus, just above and slightly to the south of his 2-ouvrée parcel; these vines are now more than 50 years old.
As long-time white Burgundy collectors know, Les Perrières is universally considered to be the top cru of Meursault, capable of producing long-aging wines of near-grand cru quality owing to their combination of powerful limestone-driven minerality, structure, elegance and potential longevity. Lafon’s Perrières is typically citric and tensile in the early going, sometimes showing a note of moderately ripe pineapple, and more reserved than his Charmes, which is normally bigger and rounder upon release, with more white fruit character and easier early appeal.
The minerality of Perrières, like that of the grand cru Chevalier-Montrachet, has always struck me as magical. It’s strongly present at the outset, giving the wine energy and definition even in the warmest vintages. And it continues to serve as the wine’s spine as it blossoms fully and reveals more texture and complexity with extended bottle age. Perrières is not generally a wine marked by acidity; in fact, Lafon’s Charmes is nearly always harvested with higher acidity. But the penetrating minerality of Perrières can stand in for any lack of acidity in the hot years. “And what acidity Perrières does have can push [i.e., accentuate] its minerality,” said Lafon. “Moreover, in many warm harvests, shriveling late-picked fruit benefits not just from a concentration of sugar but also from a concentration of acidity, which drives the minerality.” Lafon has not acidified his Perrières since 2003.
Multimedia: A Conversation with Dominique Lafon
A Flexible Winemaker and Éleveur
In the decade or so after he took control of the vineyards, Lafon totally revitalized viticulture at his family estate. Previously, the vineyards, like most others in Burgundy prior to the 1980s, had been heavily worked with fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. According to Lafon, “when I took over, we had nine sharecroppers and some of them were rougher on the vineyards than others.” While the changes he introduced had a more profound effect on the estate’s red wines than on its whites, because Pinot Noir is more sensitive than Chardonnay to dilution (yields were far higher in the ‘70s and ‘80s than they are today), high levels of potassium in the soils from decades of fertilizer use had resulted in higher pHs in the grapes, and low acidity levels were an issue for both reds and whites. The estate became organic in 1995 and has been biodynamic since 1998.
Lafon told me that his father was never really involved in the vineyards, as the vines were farmed by sharecroppers. Among the most important of these was Pierre Morey, whom Lafon described as a fairly late picker. The later harvesting was doubtless a key factor in what Dominique described as the “classic old Lafon style” of rich, round, buttery Meursaults. In particular, according to Lafon, Morey believed that Perrières and Genevrières should be picked late, but Lafon clearly disagrees, noting that both his Perrières and his Genevrières need to be harvested earlier than his Charmes. Through the ‘90s and early ‘00s, Lafon typically harvested “in the middle” among his colleagues in Meursault, but his approach changed in 2006. That year he harvested early as the fruit was on the verge of going flaccid owing to humid, showery weather. It turned out to be a very successful decision—an “eye-opener,” according to Lafon. Since then he has frequently been among the first group of Meursault growers to harvest, “but not as early as Arnaud Ente,” he emphasized. Lafon told me that he normally picks his various parcels of Perrières on the same day and that he has barely chaptalized Perrières in the past ten years; prior to that, it was necessary “only a couple times per decade.” The Perrières was typically bottled between 13.3% and 14% during the ‘80s and ‘90s but today it’s more like 12.8% to 13.5%.
Virtually since he took over winemaking, Lafon has been known as an open-minded, flexible winemaker, never making wines according to a formula and constantly looking for new ways to improve them. In contrast to some of Burgundy’s more insular types, Lafon has always tasted and traveled widely and has always been willing to try new techniques to improve his wines and to respond to vintage conditions, all while seeking to showcase individual site character. Not surprisingly, he quickly consolidated the reputation of his family estate and took the wines to a higher level of quality and consistency—to the point where many international critics routinely described him as one of the world’s elite white wine producers. In the past 20 years, Lafon’s Volnays have also gained steadily in concentration and class—his Volnay Santenots-du-Milieu is now routinely one of the stars of its village—and his Monthélie reds are now some of the more delicious lighter wines of the Côte de Beaune.
Lafon presses whole Chardonnay clusters, then carries out what he describes as a “light débourbage” lasting about 24 hours. The alcoholic fermentations can last anywhere from one to three months, although Lafon noted that the new vintage is normally 90% finished with its primary fermentation by the end of November and completely finished by Christmas. Lafon ferments with indigenous yeasts, except where stuck fermentations require a nudge from commercial strains. The wines then age in barriques, 100% new for the Montrachet but no more than 30% new for the Perrières and Charmes and a bit less for his other white wines. Lafon noted that his father always used 100% new oak for his top crus, and that he followed the same practice through ’89 or ’90 before beginning to reduce his use of new barrels. As recently as 2000, he typically used 70% new oak for his Perrières and Charmes. (Please note, by the way, that my description of Lafon’s winemaking and élevage are general in nature and are supplemented by additional detail in several of my tasting notes.)
The malolactic fermentations, which used to occur during the following spring, take place earlier today. Lafon benefits from a deep and normally cold cellar, but he noted that with climate change, the soil is warmer and the cellar takes longer to chill down in autumn, which explains why the malos now often start soon after the alcoholic fermentations.
The wines are normally racked for the first time in the summer, without exposure to air, at which point they are returned to barriques that are at least four or five years old. The various cuvées are assembled in tanks during the second winter, where they are allowed to settle for up to three months prior to bottling. Lafon says that he used to do a shorter settling in tank and that that was a mistake. The bottling is done with about 35 parts per million (i.e., 35 milligrams per liter) free sulfur; until the early 2000s, it was just 20 or 25. Lafon told me that his father did not filter his wines but that he typically fined them heavily while they were in barrel. Nowadays, in instances in which a wine needs fining, Lafon uses much lower quantities of bentonite and casein than his father did, and fines the wine in tank prior to bottling. In 2001 he began doing a very light DE (diatomaceous earth) filtration and in 2012 he switched to a lenticular filtration system, which he says is far gentler on the wines (he has always been able to bottle by gravity).
A spectacular line-up of Dominique Lafon’s Meursault-Perrières
Significant Changes Made to Prevent Premox
Interestingly, Lafon did not have issues with premature oxidation in 1995 or 1996, the two vintages in which premox first became a significant issue in Burgundy, resulting in a shockingly high failure rate of the wines in many other cellars. His first troubled vintage was 1999 and he first became aware of problems in the mid-2000s. Lafon described his 1999 crop as “fragile” and told me that a shortage of barrels owing to the huge load of grapes in ‘99 required him to eliminate more of the bourbes (the coarse lees) than usual, simply to make more space for the wine; he believes that this largely explains incidents of premox. Lafon also named 2005 as a vintage with some problems, and admitted to some bad bottles in 2001, 2004 and 2006. Beginning with his ‘07s, by most accounts, problems with premox have been increasingly rare. During our vertical tasting, Lafon maintained that he has never had a pervasive problem with a particular cuvée; rather, the incidence of prematurely oxidized wines, he told me, has been “random, although more common in some vintages than in others.”
My brief summary above of Lafon’s winemaking and élevage do not take into account the numerous and important changes he has made in the last dozen years or so—and some even earlier than that—to address the possible causes of premature oxidation. For starters, Lafon told me that he essentially stopped doing batonnage after 1999; nowadays he will do light batonnage if he feels it’s necessary to help the fermentations finish or when his wines show strong reduction in barrel.
In 2004, Lafon began using unbleached corks that were coated only with paraffin rather than with silicone or silicone and paraffin. The use of silicone by winemakers began largely in response to restaurateurs who complained that bottles were too hard to uncork, but this material may also compromise the cork’s seal in the bottle. Also, beginning around 1995 and apparently unbeknownst to producers, many commercial cork suppliers had discontinued using chlorine to bleach their corks, as they determined that it was too frequently a cause of cork taint in the wines (TCA, or 2,4,6 trichloroanisole). They switched to hydrogen peroxide, which, as it turned out, has also been associated with premature oxidation of wine. The traces of this chemical that accumulate in the pores of treated corks essentially oxidize the sulfites that are added to wines to prevent the formation of acetaldehyde, thereby leaving the bottles unprotected.
Perhaps Lafon’s most important decision was to bring in the famed enology professor, Bordeaux chateau manager and white wine guru Denis Dubourdieu, as a consultant beginning in 2009. Dubourdieu, who passed away in 2016, convinced Lafon to treat the last 10% of the juice at the end of the pressing differently from the rest, as its polyphenols contain a molecule (sotolon) that encourages oxidation. His method for forestalling this potential problem was to intentionally allow this press fraction to oxidize in a process called hyperoxidation (the polyphenols precipitate and settle out), before adding back the remaining clear juice, along with a bit of additional sulfur, to the blend. Moreover, as Lafon explained, the first 90% of the wine, which he referred to as “the unsqueezed juice,” is particularly rich in the anti-oxidant glutathione. Basically, said Lafon, Dubourdieu convinced him that, with white wines, “there’s a time for air and there’s a time for protection against oxygen.” (Incidentally, Lafon continues to use a bladder press for his wines; he noted that his father was the first winemaker in Meursault to switch from the traditional vertical press to a bladder press and that he was always against Vaselin presses because he found them too harsh.)
Also in 2009, at the recommendation of Dubourdieu, Lafon began experimenting with starting the alcoholic fermentations in stainless steel tanks (the wines spend two or three days there before going into barriques), which he found resulted in more even fermentations. He liked the results of the experiment and thus adopted this method for all of his white wines in 2010. He subsequently double-checked this method by doing a small experiment comparing the old and new approach in 2013 and found that he preferred the Dubourdieu method over the “classic Lafon style,” adding that the former wines contained more thiols, which can bring added freshness.
As I mentioned above, the malolactic fermentations normally took place in spring in the old days, but Lafon is now a proponent of earlier malos. He does not like months to go by between the end of the alcoholic fermentations and the malos because the wine is not protected by SO2 during that period. According to Lafon, Dubourdieu believed that an extended interval between the primary and secondary fermentations was “a bad sign for premature oxidation.”
Lafon also decided to switch entirely to DIAM corks as of vintage 2013, selecting the particularly dense DIAM 30s, which are really intended for long-aging collectible wines and are perhaps a bit extreme for wines meant to be drunk young. In 2015, he began using a new version of the DIAM 30s made with a beeswax emulsion. In addition to being more natural, said Lafon, the new corks are slightly less reductive, which is probably good news for consumers who would like to drink their village wines—not to mention Lafon’s lipsmacking Monthélie reds—on the early side.
Another critical cause of premox that Lafon has identified and addressed is the destructive impact of dissolved oxygen that remains in a wine after bottling. Several years ago he told me that his overall objective is "to control the amount of dissolved oxygen in the wines whenever they’re moved." He’s convinced that DE filtration introduced more oxygen into the wines and made them more vulnerable to premature oxidation. But he also believes that the bottling process itself is a critical variable that creates premox issues in many cellars. High levels of dissolved oxygen at the time of bottling can quickly absorb free sulfur in the wine and leave the bottle vulnerable to oxidation. Estate manager Thibodaux told me that scientific studies have shown that every milligram per liter of oxygen left in the wine at bottling quickly absorbs five milligrams of SO2. You do the math: it doesn’t take much dissolved oxygen to render a wine vulnerable to oxidation, and of course bottles subjected to rough handling or heat will deteriorate more quickly. Lafon purchased a new bottling machine in 1987; prior to that he had bottled by hand, mostly barrel by barrel, although at some point he used “a tiny machine that could go a bit faster” but still corked the bottles by hand. Beginning with the 2012s, he started utilizing a device that “rinses” the new bottles with inert nitrogen before they’re filled with wine. Lafon maintains that this step, along with the many other improvements he has made, enables him to bottle wines with barely one milligram per liter of oxygen.
More vintages tasted chez moi
A Few General Comments on the Tasting
These are seriously concentrated wines with impressive extract, made from mostly very old vines with an average age of around 55 years. Widespread court-noué (fanleaf virus) has steadily reduced the vigor of the vines. Lafon’s Perrières vines produced 50 hectoliters per hectare in 2009 but yields have never again reached that level; in fact, most recent years have been in the very low 20 to 30 hectoliters-per-hectare range. There’s no need to take steps to limit the crop here; indeed, Lafon wishes he could produce more.
As at many other Burgundy estates, wines from recent vintages struck me as better than ever: purer, more concentrated, more transparent to terroir. They are also more refined in spite of their considerable density and power. My bottle of the 2014, from a great vintage for white Burgundy, was one of the finest and most complete premier cru white wines I tasted in 2019, even if it was a crime to open it so early. The tasting was extensive, missing just a couple of vintages that I would like to have tried, such as the 2007 Perrières, which I loved early on and which Lafon still prizes. (A few weeks after the tasting, I expanded this article by opening some perfectly stored bottles from my own cellar, extending the tasting back into the 1980s.) I repeatedly found myself using adjectives like dusty, full, rich—even thick—to describe the tactility of these wines. With the best white Burgundies made from reasonable yields, you know you have something of substance in your mouth. And yet their adamant minerality, which builds with time in bottle and refuses to die, in nearly every case buffers the impression of weight and suffuses the wines with energy.
See the Wines from Youngest to Oldest
Read more about Stephen Tanzer's 2019 Burgundy verticals
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