Posted by: jmbwineblog | September 16, 2011

The Weird and Wacky World of Maison Ilan in the Cote de Nuits, France

Whilst I have desperately tried to keep my blogging house in order and post in a date specific chronological order, this latest experience hit me hard between the eyes, and I felt that I just had to get this information out there before the memories fade deep into my long-term sub-conscious and need to be carefully coaxed out in order to surrender to you the reader, the beauty that these experiences held. Of course, they are experiences that would probably only be replicated if by chance you happened to do something similar between now and death. I certainly will be, it was simply too much fun and I made too many friends, so first and foremost, apologies if you were expecting tasting notes from my two escapades in Burgundy, evidence of variety from Portugal or debates about the haunting nature of top Piemontese Nebbiolo, they will appear, they will simply have to wait.

I Don’t Care (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_p-HMo1UPfc)

I hope you will excuse the music videos that will undoutedly litter this piece, they dramatically coloured my experience and the rest of the people who inevitably took part! So let me start with this classic piece from The Ramones, with this video being from a live performance in 1978. This has not only become the theme-tune of the whole time working with Ray Walker (http://www.maison-ilan.com) the proprietor of Maison Ilan, situated in Nuits Saint Georges in the Cote d’Or region of Burgundy, but also became one of the songs that defines a little bit of Ray’s mannerisms, but not necessarily how he works.

Chatting with Ray in the Cuverie.

I’m not going to go into the details of how Ray got into this business of making wine in Burgundy originally being from California, as a simple Google will give you all the information you require with regards to his background, but I will go into how I got to know the man and how we have since become good friends. I first got to know of Ray Walker and his embrionic (to date) journey through Burgundy through some posts about his wines, and his occasional presence on the UK Wine Forum (which you can find through http://www.wine-pages.com ) and I knew only a little bit of his story. He had asked for a group of people to come and help with the harvest and I had agreed. I had never tasted his wines before and was looking forward to it without any preconceptions. On a trip to Burgundy in August and with a couple of free days available when not out with friends, led me to make a quick phonecall and we were on the road to find Ray’s winery and meet the man himself. I think having not really had a long look at what we both do, meant that we were both fairly surprised to see who was on the otherside of the door, and this stems to the beginning of I don’t Care! Perhaps because for both of us, the most important thing is the wine.

We had a chat about Ray’s philosophy which is to respect the grapes as much as possible and to let the soil and grapes do the work at their own pace. He destems, and puts whole berries into the tanks, they are felt to perform their alcoholic fermentation, punch-downs are kept to a mimumum (with only 2 maximum depending on how the wines perform), at their own pace, before going into barrel to perform their malolactic fermentation. Throughout the whole process, only a tiny bit of sulphur is added before ferments begin, and once the malolactic has finished in order to allow the grapes/wine to rest after stressful periods. The idea is to not put his own mark on the wines and to let them show their true colours without interference from the human hand. Effectively he doesn’t care about working the wines, but allowing the grapes to speak for themselves. He effectively nurtures them as oppose to teaching them how to speak. However, whilst he gives the impression of being laid back and aloof at times, it is simply because once the wines are in barrel there is little left to do other than wait! When there is something to do, things are done quickly but with an aim of getting perfect grapes that show intensity of flavour and depth. The idea is to get the very best out of the terroir, to show the true charactar of the soil, and as such each climat is shown the same respect as the others, whether it be a Grand Cru or 1er Cru (the only levels that through pure luck, Ray works with). Going into more depth would possibly be revealing trade secrets and that isn’t something that I am thus at liberty to go into, but what I will say is that Ray makes wines in a way that I like, and it shows in how the wines taste and in the passion for wine that we both share. He also studies terroir maticulously and has a wonderful collection of old books about the region in which he works, which you can see through his blog and via twitter.

Arguably the smallest barrel room in Burgundy.

I was given the pleasure of tasting some of Ray’s 2010s from barrels that were a little bit further down their malolactic fermentation pathways, and as such, they were difficult to ultimately taste at that stage. However, they did give an idea as to the quality of the vintage and purity of the fruit. 2010 does look like an exciting Burgundy vintage despite the difficulties of the growing season. Being a Maison as oppose to a Domaine means that Ray buys the fruit from growers, and he is meticulous about the plots that he chooses to work with. We started with the Morey St Denis 1er Cru “Montluisants”, which neighbours Grand Cru Clos de la Roche on the boundary area with Gevrey-Chambertin. the vines here are roughly 30 years old. The wine was intensely mineral, zippy and elegant, broad but with plenty of crystal clear fruit. Ray, also has another Morey 1er Cru that I tasted which he has had since the beginning of his adventure. “Les Chaffots”, this vineyard is surrounding on two sides by the Grand Cru, Clos Saint Denis. The vines hear average 40 years of age, and the wine is slightly more linear and mineral, it is also a touch more powerful despite being affected by the malolactic fermentation still taking place. Next up, we switched over to a 1er Cru, where the vines sit right next to the Grand Cru Mazy-Chambertin called “Les Corbeaux”; and the fruit here comes from vines that have a minimum of 65 years of age. This wine was the most eggy and unapproachable of the lot. The age of the vines perhaps means that everything is done at a much slower pace, which Ray is happy to have happen, and the wine shows wonderful depth, elegance, minerals, herbs and pure fruit, with plenty of poise. It was impossible to garner anything more than this at that point as the wine was so heavily reduced due to the ongoing fermentation, which at the time of writing, I believe is still taking place! Finally, we came to probably Ray’s favourite wine, which is the Grand Cru “Charmes-Chambertin”, which sits just 8 rows from Le Chambertin, itself in the climat “Aux Charmes Haute”. This tasted so much of rock and soil it was incredible. It smelt of the rocks that litter the floor of the barrel room and will turn into an exceptional wine. From just these four embrionic wines, one could see that they will blossom into something beautiful given the correct amount of time. They were certainly exciting wines with great potential.

Going to California (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luDgb5vVHuA)

The next step on this journey into the world of Burgundy was to actually continue with the plan to help Ray with part of his harvest in September. The dates that I had picked coincided nicely with the part of the adventure that would entail working on all four of Ray’s Gevrey-Chambertin climats, three grand crus (Aux Charmes HAute, Mazoyeres ou Charmes, Le Chambertin) and one 1er Cru (Les Corbeaux). Let me put it this way, sitting in the car in morning of our first episode into “Aux Charmes Haute” didn’t bring this Led Zeppelin classic to my mind, but the first songs of harvest seem to always be Led Zeppelin, and being from California this is probably apt for Ray, but for perhaps changing to lyrics to “going to cote de nuits, with an excitement in my heart“.

Ray doing perhaps nothing more than reading his twitter feed (?) in front of Aux Charmes Haute.

The grapes from here were looking good. Nice colours, plenty of fruit, and not a huge amount of rot… In terms of quality, there was plenty to be done to get the very best bits out of this parcel, and it was to take some time, as having expected 120 fruit cases, we ended up with 159!!!

Darren Brogden picking out the obviously bad fruit from within a plethora of good.The fruit back at the winery...waiting to be sorted.

This alone was a great experience, sorting the grapes, into the destemmer, berries in the tanks, sit and wait (or rather start on another fruit case!! ;-) ). We finished at around 1:30am, before having a quick drink and going home. This however, was not before the gang of six (Ray, myself, Darren Brogden, Alino Punzalen, Shun Yamaguchi & Mark Thor Freeman aka Freebird) had bonded over dirty jokes, rotten fruit, drinking games and a load of lees (sorry, cuvee) wine in the garage (sorry winery)!!! Hic!! To cap it all off we were back at it the next day in Mazoyeres ou Charmes!

Plenty of Rouge white grapes in Mazoyeres escaped Alino's camera's attention.

For those who don’t know, in Burgundy there are plenty of mutations that can occur with the vines (in particular the older ones) in the vineyards. Sometimes a whole vine will suddenly produce bunches of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Burreaux or Pinot Gris. It may simply be one bunch from within a vine with the rest all being Pinot Noir. Regardless all of these mutations are of the Pinot variety and as such in most of the appelations, up to 15% of other grapes are allowed into a blend in Burgundy, because in essence they are mutations of the Pinot Noir. However, in Mazoyeres, there was too much to be a mutation, and the vineyard owners said that in the past it was thought that the wines of Gevrey-Chambertin were too rustic, and so they were using Pinot Blanc plantings to cut the wine and soften it. This vineyard showed more of these plantings closer to the main road one went, with less near Latricieres-Chambertin where most of Ray’s fruit came from. Back at the winery, this led to much sorting of both rot (of which again there wasn’t much) and white grapes (which were placed in a tank somewhere never to be seen again… at least that is what the proprietor wants me to believe… ;-) ).

Sorting fruit and destemming, (left to right, Mark, Ray, Shun, Darren & Alino).The grapes waiting for their friends to arrive in tank!

Again, the group had a lot of fun with plenty more drinking and excitement to go around. Another late night, but not quite as late, and it was off to bed, for the easier workload of Les Corbeaux! 19+ barrels of Grand Cru to just 2+ barrels of 1er Cru. It was to be a much easier day when my wife and friends came to help out!

Picking "Les Corbeaux"Hardly any sorting was needed with this vineayrd!

The final day was probably the most picturesque and beautiful, whilst remaining hard work. With few of the team available it took a lot longer to sort the rot from the good grapes when we tackled Le Chambertin, but the flavours of the grapes and the quality that will inevitably come from that vineyard make it most worthwhile, because even some of the stuff we threw out had intense flavour that would have made a brilliant village or 1er cru wine. Being too busy with so few hands, made it difficult to take any photos during the day other than whilst in the vineyards, and whilst this may all seem a little slapdash and incomprehensible, that is probably because it was just like that… from drinking a fountain of lees wine, and tasting some of the exquisite delights from Rays Cellar, to the longeing to go back and doing it all again as soon as I had left, it made for a brilliant experience that I will cherish forever. On that note, I will have to say a massive Thank you to Ray for the invitation to come and help with his precious work and to taste his wines.

The early morning mists that descended on Chambertin and Chambertin-Clos de Beze (pictured).Chambertin Grapes on the vine!

The Kids are Alright (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afam2nIae4o&ob=av2e)

Chambertin Grapes on the vine!

I’m going to leave you with this note, which sums up how Ray’s wines from 2010 are tasting! Inspired by a video put together by Alino! I didn’t retaste Les Corbeaux as it hasn’t finished its malolactic fermentation, but I tasted the two Morey-Saint-Denis 1er crus with Montluisants being more meaty, mineral and reserved. The Chaffots being richer and more showy. The Charmes Chambertin is picking up wait and is beguiling, whilst the chambertin itself has some amazing depth whilst retaining a freshness more akin to Clos de Beze (these vines neighbour each other) than Chambertin itself. And also with the note that these wines are incredibly mineral and show their terroir exquisitely… I envy those who have managed to purchase them already! On top of this, the juice that was picked and was fermenting on my arrival, from Volnay and Chambolle-Musigny and Morey-Saint-Denis tasted superb for the minute. Fresh, but with depth, elegance and minerality. They for the minute are looking good, and I can guarantee that the winemaking style will only allow these aspects of the wine to flourish even more than they already do.

10 day old Volnay 1er Cru "robardelles" juice... yum!

I would like to temper these thoughts by saying that Ray and the rest of the guys who took part in this adventure have all become very good friends (not least due to sharing very similar senses of humour, tastes in music and wine), and I hope to share more bottles and winemaking experiences with them in the future, but this doesn’t change the fact that these wines are going to be great, and it was a lot of fun taking part. I will leave you with a few photos, because at the end of the day, these words can never ever do what we experienced justice!

Pretty much everyone who was involved with helping!

Before I leave you all in peace, a few links to people who were involved.

Obviously, you know where to find me. Ray Walker (http://www.maison-ilan.com or http://blog.maison-ilan.com or http://twitter.com/maisonilan ) Mark thor Freeman (http://twitter.com/markthorfreeman ) Shun Yamaguchi (http://twitter.com/shunyamaguchi) Alino Punzalen (sorry he seems to have just appeared… :-D) & Darren Brogden (http://www.vincisive.co.uk and http://darrenbrogden.wordpress.com and http://twitter.com/vincisive ).

Stuck in a tank!!

Until next time, happy drinking!

Mark "Freebird" taking a grape bath... good for the skin!!!

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Responses

  1. [...] http://jmbwineblog.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/the-weird-and-wacky-world-of-maison-ilan-in-the-cote-de-… [...]

  2. I got here by way of Maison Ilan’s blog. Great post with a lot of good information. It will be interesting to see how these wines develop – - particularly the Volnay and the Morey-St-Denis.

    Hope you’ll do a follow up.

    • Hunter,

      Thanks for the nice comment.
      I will endeavour to be back with updates on those wines. I am itching to taste the juices already, and I am hoping that I can get back there for some of the decuvage into barrels which should also be a lot of fun! If I do and retaste anything, I will definitely post more info on that!

      Best
      J

  3. [...] Jonathan Beagle heads to Burgundy to visit Ray Walker of Maison Ilan – and helps with part of the harvest! [...]


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