The Renaissance at Jessiaume: A Multi-National Collaboration

In parochial Burgundy, where even French citizens from outside the region are viewed with skepticism, an American–and a woman no less–is leading the Anglo-American-French team that is intent on resurrecting Domaine Jessiaume.  With the quintessential Burgundian tiles adorning their building, Domaine Jessiaume, which dates from the mid-19th century, is one of Santenay’s iconic properties.  Of course, looks aren’t everything, and in years past, I can recall thinking:  If only the wines were as captivating as the building. Well, now they are…thanks to the newly installed Directrice, Megan McClune, and her young French winemaker, William Waterkyn.

Full disclosure:  I’ve known Megan, her husband, Matt, and their children for years, sharing many meals and excellent wines both in Beaune and in the U.S. They are friends.  So on one hand, I might not be entirely objective about her work, but on the other hand, I’m likely the only critic who has tasted Jessiaume’s entire line-up through the transition–from the 2012 vintage, which frankly was torture, to the 2013s (almost as painful) to the excellent 2014s and the truly exciting 2015s–and can attest to the evolution of the Domaine’s wines.

Domaine Jessiaume had remained in the Jessiaume family for four generations, from the mid-19th century until–enter the British component–Sir David Murray, a Scottish businessman and industrialist, purchased the estate in 2007.  Initially, Murray kept on the Jessiaume brothers, allowing them to continue making the wines and running the estate, but then in 2014, he hired McClune to run the show.  Although McClune had no winemaking experience, she knew her way around a winery–and how to run one.  She had been the export manager–and basically the CFO–for Alex Gambal, another American, who, as a grower and négociant based in Beaune, had been making headlines with his Burgundies.

McClune, who clearly had a vision for the domaine, wasted little time in hiring Waterkyn, a Frenchman of Belgian extraction, completing this multi-national team.  She took an enormous risk hiring this young winemaker who had graduated from oenology school only the previous year.  Waterkyn’s previous experience was limited to a six-month stint at A to Z winery in Oregon and then six months as an assistant to Geraldine Godot, Gambal’s talented winemaker.  But McClune, with her sharp eye and intuition, saw a smart, motivated individual who was unencumbered by the all-too-common French dogma of “that’s the way things are done.”  She saw in him someone open to new ideas and feedback and, as she described him, “someone who’s hungry to make his own way.”  With the history of the estate, she realized that there was “a lot of baggage to shake off” after four generations of the same family running the domaine.  She wanted someone who was willing–indeed, really eager–to discuss options and to make “new history.”

One method open to producers seeking to increase quality virtually overnight is to declassify some of the wines.  Including a healthy amount of subprime Volnay Premier Cru in a village Volnay increases the quality of both.  McClune opted not to use that method, but took a more gradual approach, which explains why the wines from 2012 through 2015 have gotten progressively better.  She started a transition to organic viticulture, which will be complete by 2019.  McClune explains, “You don’t make the transfer instantaneously because it shocks the vines.” She noted that the first vintage that will have the Bio label is 2019.  She attributes the movement to organic as one reason Jessiaume’s 2015s were so good.

The other major improvement was in the winery, which was dirty, dark, and clearly neglected.  The first step was a thorough cleaning followed by some simple renovations that made a big difference, such as changing the lighting and replacing the floors.  McClune reasoned that while you need a clean environment, you don’t need–or want–one that is sterile, else the wines will be sterile.  You just need a well-lit, organized, clean cellar.”

McClune’s vision was to focus on the domaine wines and highlight the individuality of the climats, Burgundy’s claim to fame and the reason UNESCO recognized the region as a “Heritage Site.”  She wants Jessiaume’s wines to be fully transparent regarding their origins.  Sure, their Beaune Cents Vignes should express the terroir of that site and taste different from their wines from Santenay.  But, more importantly, McClune emphasizes passionately, that within Santenay, their Comme should be clearly distinguishable from their Gravières and their Clos du Clos Genet.  “These sites within Santenay are all special, even Clos du Clos Genet, which is not a premier cru [unlike the other two].  You need to respect their unique terroir.”

To concentrate of these wines, she immediately jettisoned the négociant business that Jessiaume had started in 2008, which means they are now focusing on 13 wines instead of 30.  “That business made no sense,” explains McClune, her CFO experience speaking.  “Customers were coming to us for our domaine wines.  If they wanted a wine from Morey St. Denis, they would go to a grower there, or a well-known négociant, not us. It [the négociant business] was a distraction.”

McClune still buys a small amount of grapes or wine from growers to fill particular needs.  For example, Jessiaume cannot fill all their customers’ requests for a Bourgogne Chardonnay and Bourgogne Pinot Noir exclusively from their vineyards, so they supplement their production by buying from other growers.  Similarly, in a year like 2015, when yields were down, they made only one-half a barrel of Volnay so McClune purchased a little to fill the barrel.  Combining estate and non-estate fruit is legal and commonplace in Burgundy, as long as the wine is labeled as a négociant, not a domaine, bottling.

The key decision for McClune and her team regarding the 2015s was when to harvest.  They agonized because the weather was perfect.  They felt no pressure to bring the crop in because no rain, which could dilute the grapes or result in rot, was predicted.  They nevertheless pulled the trigger, bringing everyone in a week early.  McClune explained their thinking, “Ripeness wasn’t an issue, but acidity might be.  We wanted to capture the acidity and keep the wines fresh.”  It proved to be an excellent decision, at least in my mind, because Jessiaume’s 2015s are not only gloriously rich, but also bright, lively, and well balanced.  In short, not overdone.

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I tasted Jessiaume’s 2015s in November 2016 during my annual trip to Burgundy.  They were either tank samples (wines that had been racked, the blend completed and were waiting in stainless steel tank to be bottled early in 2017) or representative barrel samples that Waterkyn had prepared.  I avoid scoring barrel samples to guide consumers to a specific wine because the wines are not finished.  However, barrel samples do allow assessment of how a producer has done with a particular vintage.  And Jessiaume hit the bull’s eye in 2015.

Maison Jessiaume’s Bourgogne Pinot Noir is charming, with bright ripeness. It’s what I call a “roast chicken” kind of wine.  The Domaine’s Auxey-Duresses comes from the lower (non-premier cru) part of Les Ecussaux vineyard.  Ripe, clean and juicy, it shows the enjoyment village wines can deliver. Someone knew where to draw the line that separates village from premier cru in this vineyard.  From the upper part of the vineyard, their Domaine Auxey-Duresses Premier Cru Les Ecussaux, is a touch bolder with far more complexity and depth compared to its village counterpart.  Fragrant, delicate, yet paradoxically intense and long, Maison Jessiaume’s Volnay is a pretty wine.  It reinforces the wisdom of searching out village wines from top producers. The Domaine’s Volnay Les Brouillards is more structured than the village Volnay and more disjointed, likely as a result of a greater percentage of whole clusters during fermentation.  It lacks the suave texture of the others at this stage, but judging from all of the others, it will likely turn out just fine.

Domaine Jessiaume excelled with their 2015 reds from Santenay.  They are like no other wines they’ve made and truly exciting to taste so clear is the distinction from one vineyard to another.  Their Clos du Clos Genet, despite being “only” a village wine, is always one of their most captivating.  The 2015 is no exception.  With an uncommon gracefulness, it’s just delicious, even at this stage.  The Santenay La Comme, bigger and brawnier than Clos du Clos Genet befitting its Premier Cru ranking, exhibits the charming rusticity for which Santenay is known. Their Santenay Les Gravières balances juicy ripeness with a delectable earthy woodsy component.

In past years, Domaine Jessiaume’s Beaune Cent Vignes has played second fiddle to their wines from Santenay.  But in 2015, this Beaune Premier Cru shines along with Jessiaume’s other reds.  Ripe and suave, an uplifting acidity amplifies its beauty.

Jessiaume’s 2015 whites, like many other white Burgundies I tasted, were rich and forward, ideal for current consumption.  The 2015 whites in general are excellent for those looking for an introduction to the charms of Burgundy because their splendor is immediately apparent.  They exhibit the ripeness of the 2009s, but with better vibrancy.  Maison Jessiaume’s 2015 Bourgogne Chardonnay would be a marvelous introduction to white Burgundy. Their Domaine Auxey-Duresses Les Ecussaux, similarly forward and ripe, has more complexity and density. The Santenay Les Gravières Blanc is bolder and chunkier with lots of up-front fruitiness but also remarkable acidity.

It is truly gratifying to see another sleeping Burgundy house awaken.

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Email me your thoughts about Domaine Jessiaume or Burgundy in general at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

March 1, 2017