What Becomes of the Lost Estates?
Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
By ERIC ASIMOV
Published: September 12, 2013 Comment
Recently I attended two extraordinary dinners in New York, one featuring the precise, focused red Burgundies of René Engel and the other the exquisite Côte-Rôties of Marius Gentaz.
Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
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At their best, these are the sorts of wines that amplify the sense of wonder at the heart of greatness. They are reminders that no matter how rationally we try to analyze wines, they show their true measure in the emotions they evoke.
Engel and Gentaz are great examples of wines that express all the distinctive beauty of their terroirs, enhanced by the personal touch of the winemaker. These two small family estates share another important characteristic: they no longer exist.
Few passages in family businesses are more difficult to negotiate than the leadership transition from one generation to the next. At best, it occurs seamlessly, the parent ceding control to the child while remaining available to offer occasional advice and encouragement. But it may happen abruptly, after sudden illness or death. It may be fierce, as when Oedipal drama interferes with judgment.
Or, as in the case of Engel and Gentaz, an estate hits a dead end, with no heirs to carry on.
It’s in the nature of things that estates come and go. Most die off unmourned. Their wines were not distinctive enough, perhaps, to be irreplaceable. Yet for every great estate like Jean-Louis Chave of the northern Rhône, said to have made wine continuously since 1481, the annals are replete with names now consigned to history, their wines to be savored wistfully or sold at auction for outlandish prices born of increasing scarcity.
Henri Jayer, the legendary Burgundian vigneron, died in 2006 after retiring some years before. His vineyards are now farmed by his nephew by marriage, Emmanuel Rouget, whose wines are well respected but not revered.
Raymond Trollat was for years the conscience of St.-Joseph, having adhered to traditional, backbreaking agricultural methods as others were taking easier paths. He retired in 2005 with no heirs. I read recently that a bottle of his St.-Joseph had sold at auction for $600, a ridiculous price for what is essentially a rustic but soulful village wine, though perhaps not so ridiculous for the spirit of Raymond Trollat, which is irreplaceable.
Noël Verset played a similar role in Cornas, maintaining the ancient traditions of this northern Rhône village through many lean years until the rest of the world learned to appreciate the wines. Mr. Verset retired and sold off his vines, his wines surfacing occasionally like eloquent voices from the past.
Once, a friend opened a bottle of 1979 Barbaresco from Giovannini Moresco, a long-gone producer. What a beautiful legacy, pure, pale and elemental. It came and went so fast, and, sadly, I’ve never seen another bottle.
Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi, the prince of Venosa, produced his last wonderful bottles of Fiorano, his estate within the city limits of Rome, in 1995. That year, for reasons he did not explain, he tore out his vineyard. The prince died in 2005, and after years of legal wrangling, the estate was divided among his heirs, who replanted the vineyard. One day we’ll see whether the new wines bear any relation to the old.
Continuity is easier in some regions. In Bordeaux, for example, where so many chateaus are in the hands of corporations, it’s more a matter of replacing employees and carrying on. But Bordeaux is not always so corporate. Jean-François Fillastre, the proprietor of Domaine du Jaugaret, one of my favorite small Bordeaux estates, is 70 and has no heirs. I wonder what will happen to it.
If life were fair, René Engel would still be in the hands of the Engel family. Philippe Engel took over the estate in 1981 from his father, Pierre, who died young, and by all accounts Philippe transformed a good producer into a terrific one. But he, too, died young, of a heart attack at 49 in 2005. With no heirs, it was sold to François Pinault, the billionaire who also owns Château Latour, and is now called Domaine d’Eugénie and is still discovering its personality.
At the small Engel dinner at DBGB on the Bowery, we drank six bottles of grand cru Burgundy: Clos Vougeots from 1999, ’96, ’91 and ’90, and Grands Échézeauxs from ’99 and ’98. As a group, the wines were elegant, subtle and complex, yet with a touch of rusticity that seemed to give them individuality. The ’98 Grand Échézeaux especially stood out. It was beautifully calibrated and clear, spicy, floral and bursting with energy. The ‘99 Grand Échézeaux likewise showed great finesse, while the Clos Vougeots were richer and plumper, lovely but maybe not with the same sense of intricate detail.
We toasted the memory of Philippe Engel, and those who had known him told stories of this adventurous man who enjoyed boating, parties and traveling the world.
By contrast, Marius Gentaz never went far from his home in Ampuis. In many ways, his life had more in common with the 19th century than the 21st.
He farmed less than three acres on the dizzyingly steep slopes of Côte-Rôtie, and essentially made his wines, labeled Gentaz-Dervieux, by hand. He began in wine in 1947 with his father-in-law, then worked on his own from 1952 until 1993. When he retired, his vines went to his nephew, René Rostaing, who blends them into his excellent Côte-Rôties. But they are not Gentaz-Dervieux.
At the dinner, put on at Bar Boulud by the Rare Wine Company, an importer, several dozen of us drank 14 vintages from 1993 back to 1978. To drink any one of these bottles could have been the zenith of a wonderful meal; to have 14 was overwhelming. And each seemed to have a story to tell, about a place and a man and a time when life was lived locally.
Collectively, these were gentle wines, yet with a tensile strength that belied their graceful structure. They were savory and meaty, typical of syrahs from the northern Rhône, yet complex, gorgeously fragrant, mellow yet insistent.
If I were pressed to reveal my favorites, I would say that I loved the soft ’93, the ripe ’90 and the ethereal ’83. But the ’88 was almost otherworldly in its beauty, while the ’87 was surprisingly open, full and harmonious, and the ’85 still deep and dense with a mosaic of aromas and flavors that have many years to go to express themselves fully.
It’s bittersweet to drink wines like these, knowing that each opened bottle is one less to go around. Yet it’s also a time to celebrate that part of the human spirit that allows us to see beyond ourselves, knowing that memories travel further than flesh.