This is about a hidden part of the Burgundy wine regions. Here in the 18th & 19th century these slopes overlooking the town of Dijon were covered with vineyards that produced the wines needed for the large urban population, and some of these wines were more than an everyday drink and were even sought after for some of them by wine-wise drinkers. The story of this small wine region later unfolded in similar ways than in many other now-defunct wine regions : the vine-plague that was phylloxera came at about the same time than the building of south-north railroad tracks that allowed the cheap northbound transportation of Languedoc wines, the final blow being the 1,3 million of young Frenchmen who never came back from WW1, triggering a labor shortage that helped push many northern wine regions into oblivion. But let's rewind back to the year 1571, Dijon was literally surrounded by vineyards as documents from these years testify : the City of Dijon has well-preserved manuscripts from the 14th & 15th century that prove how important the vineyards and winemaking was at the time of the Dukes of Burgundy, with 30 % of the population working in the vineyards and winemaking facilities as well as cellars well inside the city center. There remains today just a few dozens hectares of vineyards in the immediate vicinity of Dijon, compared to more than 1000 hectares in the early 19th century. But hopefully this free fall in the vineyard surface is about to be reversed.
Marc Soyard is the young man who is bringing this Coteaux de Dijon wine region back to life in his Domaine de la Cras. He isn't from a vigneron or winemaking family, his first contact with the trade was at the age of 15 when he worked for a week in a Domaine in Beaune, it was a classical or conventional estate but he liked the short experience, it was in the winter time and he'd learn to prune the vines with the other workers. Following this first contact he looked upon having the proper schooling cursus to become a vigneron, enlisting in 2003 in the Lycée viticole de Beaune and after that getting a BTS degree at the Viticulture-Enology School of Avignon in the south of France.
After that he worked fr a year in a domaine of Chateauneuf du Pape, at Saint Benoit/3 Celliers, almso a "classical" estate but he needed the job to make a living. Then after additional studies to learn the administrative skills of running a winery, he had an apprenticeship during a few months at Les Vins de Vienne, a Rhone Négoce. After that final training he went to work for Jean-Yves Bizot, a winemaker in Vosne Romanée doing a very focused work in the vineyard and he worked 6 years there, doing 7 vintages over there from 2007 to 2013.
Here he could further his experience with sulfur-free winemaking, his only other experience on this field was in 2004 during a training for his BTS because Chateau Romanin where he got some training had a couple of parcels (planted with old vines of Muscardin and Counoise) which they picked for themselves because the owners considered there was too little fruit to pick there. So Marc and his colleagues picked these grapes after the regular work and vinified the grapes without any SO2, just to see. There was the volume of a barrel and the result proved it was possible to vinify without the cover of SO2, he hadn't had any prior experience with this type of wine. With this additional experience at Bizot, he liked what he tasted : these were wines that were more aromatic, more focused, more floral and also more "digestes", that is, easier to drink and to digest. From then on he got the opoortunity to taste more of these wines, including in natural-wine fairs.
Picture on left : the narrow road winding through the woods to the plateau overlooking Dijon & Plombières-les-Dijon.
At about this time when he was still working at Bizot he had the opportunity in 2012 to get two parcels, one between Ladoix-Serrigny and Corgoloin (where he makes his cuvée Hermaïon) and the other in Hautes Côtes de Nuits. So his first vintage on his own vines was 2013 with a surface totaling no more than 80 ares, which was small but it was fine because he had only his free time after Bizot to do some work over there. He didn't sell the wines back then because they were still in their long élevage time (20 months in second-hand barrels he got from Bizot)) and it's only when he settled at Domaine de la Cras that he began to sell these early cuvées.
This barely one hectare was not enough to make a living, so all the while working at Bizot he kept looking for more opportunities and that's when he hears about this Domaine de la Cras : Following the retirement of a farmer on these lands overlooking Dijon, the City of Dijon preempted the sale to protect the farmland so close to the builded areas with the aim of keeping it cultivated and rent it to farmers. There was much more land involved (320 hectares) than the vineyard part, most being regular farming fields (grains, wheat) plus woods, these other fields being rented to the appropriate farmers. For the vineyard part, there was around 6 hectares that had been planted starting in 1983 by the farmer who wanted somehow to revive these terroirs. The City of Dijon looked for a young vigneron to follow suit, someone who hadn't family in the growig business (they didn't want a grab by already-established vignerons who'd send their son), someone who would farm well (possibly organic) and had a credible long-term project. There were only 7 or 8 candidates to take the reins of this Domaine de la Cras (which included a facility and the vineyards) and he was chosen.At first when he heard about this domaine he himself was a bit skeptical, he didn't even know there were vineyards in this area, but the more he came, the more he believed in the project, discovering the very interesting terroirs of these slopes. And doing some research himself he learnt that in the past there were more vineyards here than around Gevrey-Chambertin and the wines were even more prestigious for the top-tier ones. The renowned terroirs were among others les Marcs-d’Or, Montre Cul, le Chapître, les Perrière, les Violettes, all these lieux-dits disappeared and were built upon, the city sprawl devouring these historic terroirs, and that's why the City of Dijon decided to protect and help revive the almost-forgotten viticulture life of the area, after decades of doing the opposite (after WW2) when the city administration would buy vineyards for nothing to vignerons and turn the land constructible to expand the town.
Here is a text in French about the issue which I found while researching on the subject (and these pictures of this old farm facing the winery facility will help you visualize how the immediate surroundings of Dijon looked like in the 18th or 19th century :
1200 hectares ! Ca vous dit quelque chose ? Non ? C’était la surface de terres plantées de vignes fin XIXe à Dijon ! À la fin du XVIIe siècle, il y a 321 vignerons à Dijon, habitant majoritairement le quartier Saint-Philibert (aujourd’hui appelé quartier Condorcet) ; le quartier des culs bleus (c’est ainsi qu’ils sont surnommés) est très populaire, et très aviné ! Le marché aux vins se tient place SaintJean (Bossuet n’était pas né), la production de Dijon et de sa banlieue est indifféremment appelée Vin de Dijon et jouit d’une très bonne réputation. Les vins blancs des Marcs-d’Or sont réputés aussi bons que les Meursault, et les parcelles de vieilles vignes plantées en pinot donnent des rouges remarquables.
Tout cela ne date pas d’hier, au VIe siècle, Grégoire de Tours décrit des vignes sur les coteaux de Dijon qui étaient la continuité de ce que l’on n’appelle pas encore la Côte de Nuits. Il s’agissait des vignes du Clos du Roi, des Champs Perdrix, des Marcs d’Or, il y avait encore le Chapitre, les Valendons, les Montre-Cul, les Violettes, les Pisse Vin, les Echaillons, Larrey, les Gremeaux, il y avait aussi Les Chartreux avec en face les Perrières, il y avait déjà la Cras, Talant, Fontaine, Daix, Plombière, Messigny, Asnières, Saint-Appolinaire, Ahuy, Collonges et Bussy (entre Dijon et Plombières), les vignes de Porte Neuve, celles de Saint-Jacques, de Mirande, des Poussots, des Lentillères, de la Chèvre Morte, du Clos de Pouilly, … autant de noms qui sonnent encore aux oreilles dijonnaises, même si les grappes n’y sont plus. Le problème de ces vignes, ce qui causera leur perte, c’est justement leur trop grande proximité avec la ville et donc de ses consommateurs. L’augmentation de la demande due à l’accroissement de la population urbaine pousse les vignerons à planter du Gamay plutôt que du Pinot ; le premier offrant de plus gros rendements et ne nécessitant pas un élevage long se retrouve très vite dans les tavernes dijonnaises, au plus grand profit du vigneron. Mais cela se double d’un effet pervers, la production augmente très vite au détriment de la qualité, les prix ont tendance à baisser, et la culture de la vigne devient de moins en moins rentable. Ainsi, après la grande épidémie de phylloxéra du début du XXe siècle, les parcelles ne seront pas replantées. Après la Première Guerre, Joseph ClairDaü (que son nom soit sanctifié !) tente de faire admettre une AOC Côte dijonnaise, sans succès. L’urbanisation est galopante, les derniers ceps des Marcs-d’Or seront arrachés en 1967 pour laisser place à la Fontaine-d’Ouche !
It is interesting to note that in the past centuries the Gevrey-Chambertin area depended from the Côtes de Dijon and not the Côte de Nuits, there was at the time the Côte de Beaune, the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Dijon, and in the Archives Municipales de la Ville de Dijon you can access to old documents (Marc did see them) such as the déclarations de récoltes (harvest declarations) from the vignerons of Gevrey-Chambertin, proving that Dijon was the administrative center for their trade.
With the vineyards Marc got also the facility with a house alongside that must have been built around the 1970s' I would say. This is certainly less beautiful that the old abandoned farm buildings right in front, but this allowed him to have a chai & cellar ready to use aswell as a functional house for himself and his family.
The vineyards on the other hand were not in good shape and he had to complement the parcels to replace the missing vines; 20 000 vines were missing among the roughly 80 000 vineson these 8 hectares, making a 2-hectare gap to reach full density. But one good thing is the farmer who had done the plantings in the early 1980s' had requested the advice of the elders who remembered where the whites and the reds were planted respectively, so that he could eschew the long process of determining from scratch the adequate terroirs. After having replaced the missing vines, Marc will plant this year an additionnal 1,1 hectare (split between Chardonnay & Pinot Blanc, plus some nice massal selections of Aligoté) and reach 10,5 hectare in total. In addition to his present planted surface there are theorically about 14 additional hectares he could plant on, but in fact 6 only are really well-suited terroirs he can count on, and the whole thing would amount anyway to a sizeable domaine when wholly replanted.
2016 was his third vintage on the Domaine de la Cras; in 2014 & 2015 he sold some of the grapes as well as must (Chardonnay juice) but in 2016 just a bit to help a neighbor who had suffered from frost, and in 2017 he'll keep all the fruit and vinify everything. He pays his rent to the city with a 2000-bottle allotment and he sells the rest, much of it in the Dijon area to wine shops, restaurants and he exports about 50 % of the wine.
Marc had to buy back all the tools and machines that were part of this existing facility, which includes a couple of old straddle tractors and stainless-steel tanks, but he also bought tools that were more convenient to work with, like this Italian vineyard tractor (we call that type of tractor a vigneron in France because they're narrow enough to pass between tightly-planted rows) : this very narrow Antiono Carraro SN 5800 V has a super-low center of gravity that allows him to work on tilted slopes, it's 96 centimeters wide if I remember, and to gain place, the wheels don't turn themselves, it's the articulated chassis of the tractor itself that bends in the middle, amazing.
The other advantage of these tractors is that they're very cheap compared to a regular straddle tractor, a fraction of the price. He bought it in the Jura because the distributors there do the modifications so that the tractor has a width inferior to one meter (0,96 cm intead of 105 cm).
He still uses the two other straddle tractors which were here when he took over (pictured on the sides), but the low and narrox Italian tractor is perfect for plowing, and so much lighter.
There weren't major change to do in the facility, there was a good ergonomy already with a clean cement slab and a functional (if not visually exciting) chai. As said he switched to open-top tronconic fermenters which he prefers by large to the Vinimatic tanks they had in there (I guess his years working with Jean-Yves Bizot played a role). He bought 4 of them, two in Marsannay from a retiring vigneron (pictured on left, look old but in pretty good condition), plus one he got at Marc Grenier and the other second-hand at Rousseau (but it was initially a Grenier also). The cooperages now and then also sell reconditioned fermenters but the Grenier on the left is new, it can also be capped to keep wine for élevage (it makes the equivalent of 11 barrels), it's a convenient dual use, and right now it's filled with Chardonnay. Marc says that the temperature inertia is good in wood, it's much better to vinify in such vessels than in stainless steel.
Typically, Marc says that for the upper cuvées (reds) he works with whole-clustered grapes while for the entry-level reds it's 50 % destemmed and 50 % whole bunches, the two batches being vinified apart and blended at a later stage. For the 100 % whole clustered he does semi-carbonic macerations, between 5 and 8 days, after which he stompes the grapes with the feet to release juice which will trigger the
fermentation for another 5 to 7 days. He isn't into long fermenting macerations, what he's interested into is have the fermentation unfold naturally, and without adding any selected yeast or sulfur. I asked if the natural yeast ambiance is good in this facility, if he has to proceed to making a pied de cuve to get the thing started but he says no, it's not even necessary, it all starts by itself. He says these wooden fermenters which have years of fermentation behind them certainly hemp with some sort of residual memory stuck in the grain of the wood, and indeed it was a bit more slow to start in the new Grenier fermenter, certainly because it was neutral, it lacked the link, the dry residues that help revive the yeast population each year. He thinks it should be easier in 2017, and he says next time he buys a new wooden fermenter he'll first use lees to soak its walls with it and help it become wild-yeast friendly.
He doesn't even use pressured CO2 to put overthe fermenting grapes, but for the following vinifications he blows some CO2 from one fermenter to the other through a pipe, it's free and makes a good work.
Walmking further in the chai we pass the dynamizer tank for his biodynamic preps (pic on right), of course there was none of this in the prior state of this winery. When he took over the winery around 2013 there was still some wine from the previous owner, which was very different of course from the wine he makes now, he sold the whole stock since.
He uses a pneumatic press with a closed basket, meaning the must doesn't come in contact with oxygeen, it's a Magnum Defransceschi made in 1991, this press was part of the existing tools in the facility, and it suits him well. This press was initially bought in the Champagne region and the former owner bought it second-hand to Joseph Drouhin in Beaune (they had 2 of them).
But Marc still wants to buy an additional press, a vertical basket press for the small batches, the high-end cuvées. the pneumatic press makes 40 hectoliters and he's looking for a 10-hectoliter basket press.
We then walk into a large barrel cellar without having to walk down steps, it's on the same level as the chai but with the light slope it's half buried and keeps cool, with one meter thich of earth over our heads, that's why it's naturally cool. And there's this nice natural humidity that suits so well to a barrel cellar, you can see it with the mold on the walls. The former owner also had some wine age in casks. Here right now he has only the 2016 vintage in these barrels, the rest is bottled and sold. Last year at this time of the year he still had some 2014 in there but 2015 was a hot year (the cellar warmed up) and in order to be able not to add SO2 or very little he proceeded to bottle the wine earlier than usual (3 months ago) as a precaution. Most barrels have a 228-liter capacity, but he has also 600-liter, 300-liter and a 500-liter one. He tried several sizes and likes the 600-liter, he says he'll develop this size share in his cellar, they come from the Tonnellerie Centre France, a cooperage I heard many positive comments about.
Marc makes a couple of basic tests on the juice but otherwise he sends samples to a lab to get the needed data for his juice or wine, especially at the end of the fermentations, to see if there remains sugar or if it's stalled, then he has the follow-up of the malolactic and of the volatile acidity. The lab that makes the tests is located in Nuits-Saint-Georges 28 km away.
Regarding how he decides that the time has come to start picking the grapes, he tastes the grapes, looks the heath condition of the grapes, he checks the seeds too, but one thing is sure, he doesn't align with his neighbors (the vignerons of Marsannay) to decide the picking start. Also the wild animals tell him when it's time to pick : he says when the wild boars and the badgers (both abound in the area) begin to prey massively on his grapes that's an additional sign.
__ Chardonnay 2016, very clear, the cold winter helped the lees setlle. Very seducing nose already. He did only some batonnage to help finish the fermentation but after then he left the wine quiet. This barrel is a 3-wine old barrel and the wine may have finished its fermentation 2 months ago but he has other barrels where the wine is still fermenting. This wine didn't have any SO2 at this stage, some other barrels
may get some, it's a case-per-case issue but when blended the SO2 will be very low on the whole, just enough to have
the wine be shipped. Marc says that in the region wineries add lots of SO2, he jokes that a liter of liquid SO2 costs less than a liter of Gevrey-Chambertin or Montrachet, they spare money the more they add...The thing is, he says, they are afraid and don't know how to work without, they're afraid of premature oxidation, a subject hotly debated in Burgundy but which is actually caused by the fact they pick too early and protect too much their wine.
This Chardonnay is onctuous, rich with a pleasant and balanced energy feel. Marc says it's to be bottled before the harvest in order to free barrel volume. He says he has two cuvées of white, one that is bottles very early (before the harvest) and another that goes through a 15 to 18-month élevage.
__ Cuvée Cras 2016, Chardonnay high-end cuvée. Will have a longer élevage time. More intensity here, Marc says that this part of tyhe Chardonnay was vinified wit the rest but in 2014 as he was picking he decided to set these few rows apart and vinify separately because something in the atmosphere on this corner of parcel tolmd him it was different. From this first try in 2014 he saw a neat difference proving he was right. We taste from a barrel he got from Jean-Yves Bizot.
__ Rosé 2016. The color tone of the red is very light. Marc has been making rosé from the start. In the mouth, nice energy too, with a welcome richness and warmth. Here again this wine had no SO2 at all at this stage, and the gentle feel when swallowed might be well the consequence. He uses for this cuvée the vines that have higher yields but it's a small volume (one barrel plus a stainless-steel tank) overall and he sells much of it locally.
I haven't had the opportunity to see bottles with labels during this visit (2015 being sold out) or even taste from bottles but I got a couple pics from Josh who exports the wine to the United States (more about Josh's discover of this new Domaine below).
__ Bourgogne rouge cuvée classique 2016, the basic cuvée somehow. From a Centre France barrel. A bit of reduction on the nose at this stage, not troublesome for me. I warm the glass in my hands because it's a bit cold. Marc will have 10 000 bottles of this cuvée. Nice chew and mouth feel, with silky swallowing feel. For this cuvée part which we taste now, the fruit has been destemmed to bring roundness and fruit and there'll be the other part from whole-clustered grapes that will bring more structure. As said above the two parts are vinified separate and later blended.
__ Bourgogne rouge 2016, same wine but from whole-clustered grapes. Indeed different, more depth and frame, with a more pronounced tannic chew, very enjoyable if different, the blend of the two parts will certainly be nice. Marc says this will bring more length to the wine.
I ask if he feels other vignerons feel inspired by his work on these little-known Coteaux-de-Dijon, he says that people established in Marsannay or on the Côte are getting interested to come arouget land & plantation rights here than on the Côte.
__ Cuvée Equilibriste, Bourgogne Coteaux de Dijon 2016, a Pinot Noir Burgundy made without any SO2 anytime. Not that the others have much of it, it might be a barrel here or a barrel there, but for this cuvée it's really nothing at all in any of the barrels. THe nose is beautully fruity and promising. Very enjoyable to swallow, I'll not put any back in the barrel. I ask about the yields, he says in 2015 & 2016 he made 25 hectoliters/hectare, part of these low yields being the missing vines; after 3 years with the replanted vines reaching maturity he should reach 40 ho/ha on these parcels.
__ Cuvée Cras 2016, Cuvée Parcellaire (with massal selection). He has 8 barrels of this, these are the oldest vines of the Domaine (1983), the one pictures on the top. This was vinified 100 % whole-clustered. The wine has more length, it's more refined with also a nice unctuousness and freshness. This will be bottle in a year from now. Marc Soyard is farming organic and also does biodynamy but he didn't join a certification, he says he doesn't need the feel to put a logo on the lablels, it doesn't mean anything anymore, the organic labelling has become commercial driven, like a marketing tool.
The wines of Domaine de la Cras are exported to the United States (Paris Wine Company), to Japan (Kinoshita), Taiwan (New Century), South Korea (Very Wine), Denmark (Domaine Brandis), Sweden (Principium Dryck), Canada (Quebec - Oenopole, Samuel Chevalier),
I need to explain how I got word from this new domaine in this little-known corner of Burgundy which happens to have had a long record in winemaking : i was speaking with Josh Adler whom I meet now and then at a tasting and he tipped me about this young guy in Burgundy he was about to buy the wine from. Josh, a Californian based in paris has founded Paris wine Company a few years ago through which he exports a pretty nice portfolio of artisan and natural-wine producers to the United States. these Americans learn fast and know often more than locals, believe me, here is how he found out about Marc : He was in Burgundy in 2014 to visit other producers and while having breakfast somewhere he was reading Le Bien Public (the local newspaper) just to kill time while waiting an appointent and he was reading an article about this young vigneron who was about to take over this domaine handed by the City of Dijon. he didn't known anything yet about the guy, it just seemed he worked naturally and Josh asked to meet him and he managed to taste his first vintage in barrels, he discovered the young vigneron was working well, had worked for years with Jean-Yves Bizot and he told him to give him a call him when he'd have wines ready to sell. Josh actually almost forgot about it and a few months later Marc called and told him he had wines, and that was it. He's very happy to have shown trust from the start, he's been since then a loyal buyer of Marc's wines and now that all the wine sells so well it allopwed him to keep a good allotment for his export to the U.S.
Thank you to Josh also for a couple of pictures of his (including the bottles with labels) which I used for this story.