Jefford on Monday: The Echézeaux enigma
Andrew Jefford tastes mature wines from this puzzling Grand Cru…
At the beginning of September 2018, a group of scholarly Hong Kong burgundy collectors invited me to join them in tasting and drinking a group of 10 mature Echézeaux (1990-1999, with one 2004). Did a profile of this shadowy cluster of vineyards emerge, complete with aquiline nose, sculpted cheek-bones sculpted and square-cut chin?
Before I answer that question, here’s a little background about the site.
Technically, this Grand Cru belongs to Flagey-Echézeaux, the village on the wrong side of the railway tracks between Beaune and Dijon. It would make more sense to ascribe the land to the little hamlet of Vougeot. In a parallel wine universe, the best parts of this climat would join Grands Echézeaux and upper Clos de Vougeot to form a regal Grand Cru array of some sort, while the lesser parts of the two big vineyards would be demoted to Premiers Crus and perhaps ‘village’ land, as well. That arrangement, though, lies elsewhere in spacetime.
There were buildings here once, or so the name suggests. Echézeaux is derived from casa – cottage or hut in classical Latin, and casale, suggesting farm buildings in late Latin. This became chesal or chesel in medieval French, which took the plural form chéseaux; the prefix ‘es’ was a contraction of ‘en les’. There are other Echézeaux in the Côte de Nuits (both Chambolle and Gevrey have a lieu-dit of this name), but this is the Big One.
And it is big: 36 ha and almost 26 ares (according to Sylvain Pitiot in 2014, though the CIVB’s Guide des Appellations says 35.77 ha ‘in production’, and both Jasper Morris and Remington Norman cite 37.69 ha). It is divided up into 11 lieux-dits (for the distinction between a climat and a lieu-dit, see this previous column).
The authorities above suggest that ‘Echézeaux’ was originally owned by the Cistercian monks of Cîteaux, who developed the neighbouring Clos de Vougeot from 1109 onwards; this plot, though, lay beyond the walls of the Clos, and was cultivated by laity on behalf of the cowled. It was Clos de Vougeot’s back yard, if you like.
Ownership became fragmented, and prior to the creation of the appellation at the end of July 1937, the name was used as a banner by those with vineyards not merely in the core lieu-dit of Echézeaux du Dessus but nearby, too. Jasper Morris MW relates (in his Inside Burgundy) that this resulted in a court case in 1925, in which Etienne Camuzet and Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret attempted to restrict the use of Echézeaux to wines from Echézeaux du Dessus alone. The case failed, since there was evidence that the monks themselves had used the name for wines from other lieux-dits, like Les Poulaillères. The appellation was, in the end, generously defined – from the woodland of Chambolle down to the fillet of village land ascribed to Flagey.
Seen from the little roof terrace next to the tasting room of Ch de la Tour, a useful vantage point inside Clos de Vougeot, the vineyards of Echézeaux appear to wallow in a dip underneath the hilltop woodlands. Moreover those woodlands creep downslope here, especially where the slopes face north or northeast.
For all that, the separate and unitary Grand Cru of Grands Echézeaux itself is almost the lowest lying part of this vineyard cluster (almost half of Grands Echézeaux, indeed, is lower than the very highest parts of Clos de Vougeot), so height alone is not necessarily diagnostic of quality here. Aspect and soil composition seem to be the most important factors.
While Grands Echézeaux is homogenous and almost Musigny-like in its clay-over-Bajocian limestone profile, the 11 lieux-dits of Echézeaux itself vary enormously. Some parts are stony (Les Cruots or Vigne Blanche, over near Vosne’s Suchots); others damp and heavy soiled (Les Treux, les Quartiers de Nuits and the tiny lieu-dit called Clos St Denis here). The best lieux-dits are thought to be the thinner soiled Les Poulaillières and En Orveaux, as well as, of course, Echézeaux du Dessus. The estimable Morris provides a useful chart showing which of the almost 50 owners possess parcels of land in each lieu-dit.
And that profile? It wasn’t, in truth, easy to discern: no square-cut chin, and not much of an aquiline nose, either. I pushed my fellow-diners, the wines all tasted, into risking a description. It was met with head-scratching and brow-furrowing. ‘Earthy’ and ‘gutsy’ were two favoured adjectives, with ‘rough-cut tannins’ and allusions to woodland undergrowth rather than fruit, though this was probably reflective of the wine’s age. “Less powerful wines than the other nearby Grands Crus,” said one seasoned collector, who felt in contrast to those who championed gutsiness that Echézeaux had a “feminine style”, though he, too, saw the earthiness.
What did we taste? The oldest wine was a 1990 Echézeaux from Domaine Haegelen-Jayer.