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)
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rousseau plus friend. This was taken during my last visit in November 2021.
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.
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
This is a wine that I doubt that I will ever drink again.
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.
have to sum up the wines in a single sentence, it would be “Magnificent ancient
and younger vintages with a dip in between”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
© 2022, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
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