Domaine Ponsot

Clos de la Roche, Vieilles Vignes and its Morey-Saint-Denis, Clos des Monts Luisants

Up on the slopes above Clos de la Roche lies a one hectare vineyard that produces a wine which is truly unique: a premier cru blanc exclusively produced from the Aligoté grape. Elsewhere in Burgundy only generic wines can be made from the Aligoté, and such is the fashion for Chardonnay that this poor, unfashionable grape variety is increasingly confined to lesser vineyards, the flat lands on the 'wrong' side of the main road (which would probably be better suited to potatoes and beets) and hidden corners further up where the micro-climate and the aspect are not of the first order. Only in Bouzeron in the Côte Chalonnaise is the Aligoté taken seriously and planted in the full sun and on well-drained rocky soils. Here we have a delicious wine, if one at its best drunk soon after bottling. What comes out of the Clos des Monts Luisants, however, is altogether different. A bottle with all the same depth, interest, class and aging potential of the best of the Chardonnays of Meursault and Puligny-Montachet.

The Ponsot family hails originally from Saint-Romain. In 1872, one of their line, a lawyer in Dijon, bought a domaine in Morey-Saint-Denis on behalf of his son, William. William died childless in 1926, but not before his god-child and nephew Hippolyte had been roped in to learn the metier and prepare himself for the succession. Hippolyte's grandson, Laurent, born in 1954, has been in charge of Domaine Ponsot since 1983.

It was William Ponsot who created today's Clos des Monts Luisants. The vineyard, which begins some 20 metres below the tree line, is their monopoly. Back in the 19th century Aligoté was widespread, planted alongside the Chardonnay in places as exalted as Corton-Charlemagne. But after the phylloxera epidemic and the economic depression which followed it growers increasingly filled up their white wine vineyards exclusively with Chardonnay. It ripened better and the wine fetched more money. William Ponsot had different ideas. He would persevere with Aligoté, and so in 1911 the one hectare of Clos de Monts Luisants was replanted with this variety.

Some time later, in the late 1930s, his successor Hippolyte decided to add some 'Pinot Gouges' to the vineyard. This is mutated Pinot Noir, found by Henri Gouges in his vineyards in Nuits-Saint-Georges, and reproduced by him in the premier cru Les Perrières. Gouges allowed Ponsot to take cuttings for his own use, and so for a time 15 percent or so of the encépagement in the Clos des Monts Luisants came from this rare and original mutation. (As anyone who has tasted the Gouges wine will tell you, it bears absolutely no resemblance to Chardonnay).

Some time later the grape mix changed again: in the early 1950s Laurent's father Jean-Marie added some 20 percent Chardonnay. So for a time the wine was made out of all three varieties, with the Aligoté making up around 60 perecnt of the total. In 1992 the old Pinot Gouges were ripped up, and following the 2004 harvest, after Laurent had done various tests, he abandoned the Chardonnay. From 2005, therefore, we have a 100 perecent Aligoté wine once again, and still from the original 1911 stocks.

How is the wine made? Firstly production is severely limited. The yield averages less than 30 hl/ha. The fruit is collected in wicker hods, the fruit later being transferred to plastic trays. The grapes are not de-stemmed, and pressed in an old vertical press (today most perfectionists consider that vertical presses are better than horizontal ones). After settling out in bulk the must is transformed into wine in old wooden barrels, without any deliberate cooling, so temperatures can rise to 30° or so, and rarely undergoes malo-lactic fermenation. It is then hardly interfered with – no fining, for instance - until bottling, which takes place after 22 months. Throughout the process the sulphur level is kept to the barest minimum. If any wines could be considered to be made without the use of sulphur, they are those of Laurent Ponsot.

Does it keep? The answer is a strong yes, and even in vintages where nature has been less than kind. In the best years 20 years is a minimum: the 1989 is still an infant.

And what dose it taste like? Well, it is not honeyed in the sense of a Meursault. Neither is it peachy in the sense of a Puligny. And of couse it is not oaky. The wine is very fresh, though except in the very lean vintages with no undue acidity. It is flowery, and the fruit flavours are understated and very subtle. Now having sampled the more recent pure Aligoté wines and compared then with what was made before, I agree with Laurent that 100 perecent Aligoté makes the best wine. There is a brilliant complexity and delicacy about today's Clos des Monts Luisants. It is delicious and it really is unique. And yet is is not prohibitively expensive. Ponsot does not sell wines direct to private consumers. But the wine can be picked up at the shop in Morey-Saint-Denis for around 45 euros TTC.

The following tasting of 20 vintages of Clos des Monts Luisants was organized by Sylvio Nitzsche in his Wein Kultur Bar in Dresden, Germany in September 2009. My thanks to him for asking me to lead the tasting.

2007
100 percent Aligoté

Light colour. Closed-in, crisp, high-toned, slightly minty nose. Ripe, though, not austere. Medium to medium-full body. Just a little less volume than the 2006. Very interesting fruit with a touch of butterscotch. Ripe. Good energy. Not the volume of some of the older wines – but then it's Aligoté only now – but subtle and delicate, long and complex and elegant. Perhaps not for the very long term, but who cares? It's delicious.

2006
100 percent Aligoté

Light, crisp colour. Fragrant, ripe, subtle nose. A touch herbal. Very fresh and quite delicious. Medium to medium-full body. Good acidity. This is very ripe Aligoté, with lots of high tones. Suggestions of pistachio, angelica and flowers. Long and complex, harmonious and very lovely. Can be drunk now but will still improve. Compared with other recent vintages, such as the wine below, my one criticism is that it doesn't quite have the same grip or steeliness. But fine quality.

2005
100 percent Aligoté

Light colour. Very lovely nose. Subtle and fragrant, but with good size and energy. Rather more substance than the 2006 and 2007. Lots of depth and lots of elegance. Lots of potential. This does not have the volume of the 2002, for instance, but it has rather more nuance. This is as elegant and as intricate as a piece of carved ivory. High class. Very lovely. And with a splendid future. Very fine indeed.

2004
80 percent Aligoté, 20 percent Chardonnay

Light colour. Soft and quite honeyed on the nose at first. Good freshness. Good complexity. Ripe and flowery. Youthful and fresh. No lack of depth and interest. Not the greatest volume or energy though. So not for the long term. But long, positive and classy. Very good.

2002
80 percent Aligoté, 20 percent Chardonnay

Youthful colour. Rich, full, quite firm nose. Very good grip. Slightly more four-square than the 100 percent Aligoté wines. Broader too. Perhaps it will last better. But it's less complex. That said this is a very lovely wine. Vigorous and rich, profound and concentrated and very harmonious. Very good grip. Ready but will last very well. Fine plus.

2001
80 percent Aligoté, 20 percent Chardonnay

Some developement in the colour. And on the nose too. Fat and slightly blousy, even a tad oxidized. Toffee touches and a bit heavy. On the palate this is well-developed if not edging towards the end. Flat. Not much pleasure here. Really far too oxidized as it developed in the glass. Drink up.

2000
80 percent Aligoté, 20 percent Chardonnay

Fresh, mid-gold colour. Slightly closed-in on the nose. Some volume. Very subtle. Fullish body. Ripe. Perhaps it lacks a little nuance and depth but there is good acidity. Quite a meaty wine. Starts better than it finishes. Good at best.

1999
80 percent Aligoté, 20 percent Chardonnay

Fullish, light gold colour. Full nose. At first a lttle blousy but fresher as it developed. Rich and full but slightly adolescent on the palate. Good grip. The attack is a little heavy – at least at first – but the finish is better. But a wine between two stools, so to speak. Full and rich, but just a bit of reduction. Good at best.

1998
70 percent Aligoté, 30 percent Chardonnay

Slightly older colour than some. Mixed-up nose. A touch unclean. At first I feared it was corked, but it cleared up as it developed. No great strength, depth or class though, but fresher than it seemed at first. Medium body. A bit over-blown and over-ripe. Drink soon. Only fair.

1997
70 percent Aligoté, 30 percent Chardonnay

Fresh colour. Fresh on the nose too. Charming if not very profound. Quite high-toned, but with a lack of structure and real vigour underneath. Decently crisp if without depth and nuance. A bit of development at the end on the palate. So I think this needs drinking soon. Medium to medium-full body. Fully mature. Ripe. Good but not great.

1996
70 percent Aligoté, 30 percent Chardonnay

Quite a developed colour, and quite developed on the nose too. A little four-square. Not much nuance at first, yet plenty of volume. Medium to medium-full body. Fresh. It is at the same time rich, especially at the end, while having the leanness of the other whites of this vintage. Best on the finish. Energetic, ripe, and quite classy. Long and positive. Best with food. Will still keep well. Very good indeed.

1995
70 percent Aligoté, 30 percent Chardonnay

Light gold colour. Muscular and closed-in on the nose at first. It remained a bit pinched for quite some time; I'd carafe this. On the palate medium body. Interesting quite fragrant, complex fruit. Well-balanced. Improved in the glass. A wine for food. Long on the finish. Very good indeed.

1994
70 percent Aligoté, 30 percent Chardonnay

Quite a developed colour. Undistinguished nose. Smells like a stale fruit cake. Medium body. It is now falling apart. There is some fruit; a touch of residual sugar; but also some astringency. Past its best. I don't think it was ever very special.

1992
60 percent Aligoté, 25 percent Chardonnay, 15 percent Pinot Gouges

Light gold colour. Ripe, nicey steely, mature, complex nose. Honeyed in a herbal sort of way. A bouquet of flowers. Medium-full body. Individual. Good grip but not a great deal of acidity. Yet not a bit short. Just a slight lack of complexity. Remarkably fresh for a 17 year old wine. Fine.

1991
60 percent Aligoté, 25 percent Chardonnay, 15 percent Pinot Gouges

Quite a developed colour but not too aged a wine on the nose. Well-developed though. Quite full bodied. Broad-flavoured. Perhaps lacking a bit of elegance. The fruit flavours are a bit kinky, somewhat sweet-sour. Yet I like this wine a lot. It is individual and balanced, positive and long on the finish. Very poised and harmonious. Will still keep well. Very good plus.

1990
60 percent Aligoté, 25 percent Chardonnay, 15 percent Pinot Gouges

Light mid-gold colour. Very fresh for a 19 year old wine. Ripe, fullish, broad-flavoured nose. Opulent and plump. Mature but still crisp. Fullish body. Rich and meaty in the best sense. Lovely succulent fruit. Plenty of grip and energy and plenty of vigour and volume. This I like a great deal. Ready but absolutely no hurry to finish up. Would go very well with food. Fine plus.

1989
60 percent Aligoté, 25 percent Chardonnay, 15 percent Pinot Gouges

Mid-gold colour. Very lovely, open, fresh, succulent nose. Plenty of wine here, yet not a bit aggressive. On the palate this is full in body, yet soft, ample and gentle. Yet it is very, very fresh; amazingly so for a 20 uear old wine. Very subtle and very elegant. Very harmonious. Quite the best of these older wines. Excellent.

1988
60 percent Aligoté, 25 percent Chardonnay, 15 percent Pinot Gouges

Very light gold colour. Lean nose, with highish acidity in a green herbal sort of way. But lots of energy and bite. Medium to medium-full body. Aspects of crab-apples. Good length if a bit one-dimensional and a little austere at the end. Rather more echt Aligoté in flavour than some. Long and fresh and very vigorous. Very good quality.

1985
60 percent Aligoté, 25 percent Chardonnay, 15 percent Pinot Gouges

Mid-gold colour. Well-matured on the nose. Ripe, rich, slight hints of petrol like an old Riesling. On the palate you could find Meursault here. Fat and rich and vigorous as it developed. Kept on and on improving. Very long and lovely. Will keep very well. Fine.

1983
60 oercent Aligoté, 25 percent Chardonnay, 15 percent Pinot Gouges

The colour is like that of a very light, fresh Sauternes. And there is a touch of noble rot, now a little aged, on the nose. Rich and full bodied, a little muscular perhaps. On the palate, though, quite dry. And much more together than I had expected from the nose. Fresh. Slightly ungainly, yet not without its attraction. There is an interesting complexity of herbs and ripe yellow plums. An individual wine from an individual vintage. No hurry to finish up.

As you will see, the 1989 was my favourite of the older wines, and the 2005 of the most recent. The group's vote went to the 1996, with the 1985 in hot persuit, and the 1989 third.

The red Ponsot wines are made in an equally idiosyncratic way. For a start Laurent Ponsot picks late. He often does not start until all his neighbours have finished. In the vineyard no pesticides or insecticides are employed, and the vines are looked after according to the cycle of the moon. But Laurent makes no claim to being biodynamic. There are no sorting tables; such elimination of the sub-standard having taken place in the vineyard. After the fruit has been collected it is lightly dusted with sulphur, but after that no further sulphur is used, and the wines are allowed to ferment and further age without any intervention. The fruit is usually de-stemmed. There is no new oak and the wines are bottled late.

All this produces a wine which is very pure and very individual. They keep admirably but are not blockbusters. At the same time they are fragile; vulnerable to exposure to bad storage conditions such as temperatures which are too high. Laurent has 'invented' his own deterrent: a white blob of ink on the label which will turn grey and warn the consumer if the bottles have been temperature abused. Moreover, the vintages since 2008 have been bottled using a special artificial cork.

The following vintages of Clos de la Roche, Vieilles Vignes were sampled at a Wine Weekend at the Hotel Wilden Mann, Lucerne, Switzerland, in November, 2011.

The average harvest in the Clos de la Roche, Vieilles Vignes is 26 he/hl.

2009From 2020

(As a result of hail damage Ponsot produced 35 percent less than in 2008) Good colour. Some development. Rich, full, succulent, classy nose. Lovely fruit. Full bodied, rich and vigorous on the palate. Very well-balanced. Lots of depth and energy. Still needs time, but surprisingly accessible already. Ripe finish. Great class. Very long. Very fine.

2008From 2020

Good colour. Still youthful. Good intensity and grip on the nose. Medium-full body. Quite pronouced acidity. But fresh and ripe. Lots of vigour and lots of dilmension. A splendid wine for food. But it needs keeping. The tannins are as ripe as those of 2009 but the expression of them is a little more austere.

2007From 2014

Medium colour. Quite developed now. Soft nose. Plump but somewhat lightweight. Medium body. Nice and fresh. Attractive, ripe and succulent on the palate. Good energy, and positive at the end. Needs a year or two. Most enjoyable.

2006From 2014

Medium colour. Developed. Also soft, but slightly more grip and intensity. Very seductive. There is an illusion of oak here which is very curious. And this soft aromatic ood flaviur is continued on the palate. Medium weight. Charming and balanced. A bit more to it than the 2007, but similar.

2005

Not presented. Currently the wine is hard as nails and not showing very well.

2004From 2017

Medium to medium-full colour. Just a touch of the vegetal on the nose. Less ripe than the 2006 and 2007 but more substantial. Yet no lack of fruit and charm. Medium to medium-full body. A lot more interest, succulence and vigour than most 2004s. Good positive follow through. Still a bit of tannin to resolve. Fine for the vintage.

2003From 2017

From magnum. Full colour. Still immature. This is still youthful on the nose. Chocolaty and not a bit Rhônish. Full body. Rich, sweet, spicy, very good acidity. The second magnum was even fresher and more delicious than the first.

2002From 2021

Medium colour. Looks fully mature, and there is a little mature spice on the nose, which is of medium weight. Reticent at first. Medium-full body. Still a bit adolescent. Some tannin. More energy and power than seemed at first. Very good grip and very good class. Long and very promising but it needs ten years to get to its best. Very fine.

2001Now – 2021 plus

Medium to medium-full colour. Fresh, classy, medium weight nose. Good positive fruit. Soft, round, spicy, ripe, fresh and balanced. Medium body. Plenty of depth here. A great success. Just about ready.

2000Now – 2020

Medium, mature colour. Soft, sweet, opulent and approachable. Medium body. Plenty of depth if not quite the energy of the 2001. Remarkably good for the vintage and plenty of life ahead of it.

1999From 2017

Very good colour. Rich, full, abundant, lush and energetic on the nose. This is very delicious. Fullish body. A ripe mocha nose which is always encouraging. Fullish body. Still some tannin to rexolve. Real harmony, class and grip. Will still improve.

1998Now – 2021 plus

Good fresh, medium-full colour. The nose is a little lean at first, but the wine opened up and gained charm in the glass. Medium-full body. A little reserved, but concentrated, pure, stylish and well-balanced. Lovely finish. Plenty of life.