Cistercian monks were Burgundy's original winemakers. They drained the swamps from the 12th century and built stone walls called clos around the best sites. During the French Revolution the state confiscated church land and expelled the monks, selling the vineyards.
Later, the Napoleonic Code overruled the eldest son's right to inherit the entire estate, giving equal share to each man. This meant estates became divided into smaller and smaller parcels, diluting property sizes. These small parcels were not economic.
This saw the arrival of merchants, called negociants, who bought grapes from these small parcels and made wine. They also stored wine in their extensive cellars, which remain at a constant temperature and 80 percent humidity.
Labour-Roi is the third-largest of Burgundy's negociants. Founded in 1832, it has made a reputation for producing good wine at a range of price points. British wine writer Oz Clarke described Labour-Roi as the "most reliable of the Burgundy negociants, with the most competitive prices". Most of the world's major airlines offer the company's best wines in their first class cabins.
Jean Noel Christ showed me around Labour-Roi's cellars, noting that the company focuses on producing Burgundy wines that exhibit what the French call typicit, or wine qualities that reflect their origins. We tasted 18 wines including a rustic 2010 village pinot noir; a range of 2009 Beaujolais-style wines from the Gamay grape that had consistently soft tannins; tangy Pouilly Fuisse whites; and a 2007 Meursault that tasted of lemon sorbet.
But the highlights were the 2006 Corton Charlemagne grand cru white, with its intense aromas of toffee and truffles mingled with beautiful acidity, and a 2006 Charme Chambertin grand cru that tasted of violets and was almost magical in the way the intense ethereal flavors lingered in my mouth. Only 900 bottles of this pinot noir were made.
"This is a wine for a wine lover, not an investor," Jean Noel Christ said.
A compelling wine was the 2008 Gevrey Chambertin. This received less new oak than in previous years because the pinot noir grapes were more delicate than in other years. It represents an example of the winemaking art where the winemaker chooses not to overwhelm the wine with new oak.
By comparison the 2007 Nuits St George was more tannic, having received more new oak, which blended masterfully with the rich cassis and plum flavors of the fruit. This is a wine that needs a decade in the cellar to be fully appreciated.
The same should be said of the 2007 Pommard: It had silky tannins and an ethereal aroma. Jean Noel Christ said only 6,000 bottles of this wine were made by blending various barrels to "respect the terroir".
(China Daily 01/22/2011 page12)