The Epicurean's Atlas: Domaine Armand Rousseau Chambertin Clos De Bèze Grand Cru 1990
Region: Côte de Nuits, Burgundy | Variety: Pinot Noir
“Now that they are more than 30 years old, the 1990 reds have melted, becoming softer and rounded in texture”
C live Coates MW said it best in his book on the region: “There are few finer domaines in the Côte d’Or than that of Armand Rousseau.” Peel away the history and reputation, ignore the insatiable demand and, as banal as it may appear, Rousseau is a purveyor of wines that are utterly delicious. When a benevolent vintage combines with this propitious terroir, the result can be what many regard as the apotheosis of Pinot Noir.
Clos de Bèze actually predates Chambertin by several centuries. The name comes from a monastery north of Dijon that was bequeathed the vineyard by the Duke Amalgaire not long after its foundation in AD630. The vineyard had to be sold in 1219 after a serious fire and subsequently deteriorated as its owner failed to repair its stone walls and wild bushes began to usurp the vines.
By the 18th century, “Clos de Bèze” was rarely used as its name: its wines were referred to simply as “Chambertin”. Napoleon Bonaparte famously had a penchant for Chambertin, although at that time, he might feasibly have been drinking a bottle that came from Clos de Bèze or a mixture of the two. “Nothing makes the future look so rosy as to contemplate it through a glass of Chambertin,” he apparently said – although he purportedly seldom drank it pure and one can only speculate what he chose as a mixer.
A 1904 vintage of Clos de Bèze features in Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, although the oenophile author misspelled it as “Clos de Bère” not once but twice. One assumes the proof reader was not au fait with the minutiae of Burgundy. In this particular scene, Charles Ryder is forced to dine with Rex Mottram in Paris and chooses the Grand Cru to accompany his duck. The wine, eloquently described as “serene and triumphant”, compensates for an evening he did not relish and Ryder drinks it again with a wine merchant in St James’s Street, London, when “it whispered faintly, but in the same lapidary phrase, the same word of hope.”
It was only in 1932 that authorities ruled that Clos de Bèze could again be used on labels and this has since prompted much comparison of the two. When interviewed by the Dijon-based journalist and writer Jean-François Bazin, Rousseau’s son Charles remarked: “Le Chambertin is male, well-built. It lacks a bit of finesse in its youth, but rounds out.” Reading between the lines, it seems as though Rousseau had slightly more affection for Clos de Bèze, as he goes on to comment: “Clos de Bèze is more complex, classier and delicate.” Indeed, at a memorable vertical tasting of two dozen Chambertins from Rousseau in 2022, including all the legendary vintages over a century, it was an interloping magnum of Clos de Bèze from 1966 that impudently stole the crown.
The roots of Domaine Armand Rousseau can be traced back to the titular winemaker, who started out as a wine-broker – a vocation that gave him the inside track on parcels coming up for sale. In the 1930s, following the advice of Raymond Baudouin, Chief Editor of Revue des Vins de France, Rousseau presciently commenced bottling his own wines instead of selling his fruit to the all-powerful négoce. This was a rarity at the time and remained so for decades. Charles took over the estate in 1959 following the untimely passing of Armand in a car accident. In 1983, Charles’ son Eric joined his father and continued to consolidate the Rousseau reputation as not only the pinnacle of Gevrey-Chambertin, but also one of Burgundy’s most coveted producers. In 2014, the baton was passed to his daughter, Cyrielle.
Today, Rousseau is the third-largest owner of Clos de Bèze, with 1.42 hectares out of a total of 15.4 hectares. Like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Comte de Vogüé, it is one of a handful of estates whose stature stems not only from its enviable array of holdings across multiple Premier and Grand Crus, but also from the sheer size of those holdings. Rousseau’s fruit comes from two parcels, the main one to the south, straddling the entire incline: a sector that contains more marl and is generally considered the “prime cut”.
Then there is a smaller plot on the northern upper reaches. Vines are planted at high density, with around 12,000 per hectare, and undergo rigorous de-budding in May to restrict yields early in the season, which Rousseau finds preferable to dropping fruit in the summer. Although the estate is not certified organic, Eric Rousseau ceased spraying insecticides in 2000. Harvest is usually conducted around the same time as others with manual sorting in the vineyard to eradicate unwanted bunches. The berries are de-stemmed but not crushed, in order to prolong fermentation, and the Clos de Bèze is matured entirely in new oak, mainly from the François Frères cooperage, for 18 to 22 months.
The 1990 vintage is highly regarded among cognoscenti. After a rather prolonged flowering, the summer was hot and dry, so much so that younger vines suffered hydric stress. That was not a problem for Rousseau’s Chambertin-Clos de Bèze, given the old vines and deep roots able to draw out moisture from deep underground. In any case, intermittent storms at the end of August slaked the vines’ thirst so that they could continue to ripen under cooler conditions until harvest towards the end of September. Nowadays, that seems incredibly late for a warm vintage: many now pick a month earlier. Rousseau pointed out to Coates that, while it usually took one kilo of grapes to fill a bottle of wine, in 1990 it took 12.
This explains why, on release, their 1990s were so concentrated. Now that they are more than 30 years old, the 1990 reds have melted, becoming softer and rounded in texture, often with lower acidity than other vintages. That youthful concentration meant that the wines had the substance to repay long-term cellaring and retained their sumptuous personalities, with a cornucopia of enticing, often quite profound, secondary aromas and flavours.