David Duband remembers the breakfast when his father popped the question.
It was 1991, and the young Duband was serving his obligatory year in the French military at a regional gendarmerie near his home in the Burgundian backcountry of the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits.
His father, Pierre, cultivated about 50 acres of vineyards in the Hautes-Côtes—the cooler high, western slopes above the Côtes de Nuits that typically produced less-ripe, simpler wines—and sold the fruit to a local cooperative. But on that morning, his father was planning to purchase an acre of nobler vineyards in nearby Nuits-St.-Georges.
“Do you want to make the wine?” his father asked.
“Yes,” Duband responded, though—like his father—he’d never made wine. He enrolled in a crash winemaking course, got permission to leave his military post for harvest, and went to work, using the cellar below the family house.
“I had to learn everything,” says Duband. “My goal was to make drinkable wine.”
Over 25 years, Duband, now 45, has exceeded that goal many times over and written his own Burgundy success story.
He’s gone from an unknown, peddling his wines at consumer wine fairs, to a lauded and sought-after producer exporting to 20 countries. Since 2000, his 10th vintage and the time when his acclaim started spreading through France and beyond, 24 of his wines have scored 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator blind tastings.
Duband’s success was propelled by mentors and his own smarts, which allowed him to develop as a grower and winemaker. But he also had someone who opened the doors to some of Burgundy’s top vineyards: The same year he decided to learn winemaking, his father introduced him to motor-home mogul François Feuillet—a Burgundy lover who was looking for a winemaker for his newly purchased 1.2-acre plot of Aux Thorey, a premier cru in Nuits-St.-Georges.
Feuillet was willing to bet on Duband. Their arrangement was simple: Duband would tend the vines and make the wine, giving Feuillet half the wine from those vineyards.
As Duband found his footing, Feuillet bought prized vineyards in more Burgundy terroirs, such as Echézeaux and Vosne-Romanée, turning them over to Duband to work. In 2006, Duband’s dominion boomed when Feuillet bought the 17-acre holdings of retiring winemaker Jacky Truchot, who owned parcels in Chambolle-Musigny, Charmes-Chambertin and the historic Clos de la Roche.
It was a winemaker’s dream—the chance to control vineyards he could never afford to buy. “Every two or three years, it was a new village and new parcels with different terroirs and different expressions of Pinot Noir and different surprises,” says Duband, a tall, lean man with an understated sense of purpose.
Today their business terms remain the same. Duband markets his half of the wines he makes from Feuillet’s vineyards under his own label, and Feuillet sells the other half of the same wines under his label.
During this time, Duband’s approach to winemaking has grown by leaps and bounds. Early on, he found a mentor in Robert Jayer of Jayer-Gilles, a celebrated winemaker who also hailed from the Hautes-Côtes. Among other things, Jayer taught him the basics of fermenting with indigenous yeasts, the use of new oak barrels for aging, and how to avoid filtering.
After a decade, Duband started making changes in the vineyards and cellar, beginning a conversion to organic agriculture and turning to gentler winemaking. He cut down on the use of new oak and gradually eliminated cold maceration of grapes prior to fermentation, saying the process “extracted too much dark fruit flavor—that is not [the strength of] Pinot Noir.”
Then in 2008, Duband says, “my style completely changed” when he converted to the arch-traditionalist (now resurgent) practice of whole-cluster fermentation including the stems. “It makes livelier wines that are more elegant, more digestible and lighter,” Duband enthuses. “You get more aromas of flowers and spice.”
His conversion was prompted by tasting old bottlings from classic producers who used the practice, such as Domaine Dujac and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. “I tasted those old vintages, and I said, ‘That’s the kind of Pinot Noir I want to make,’” explains Duband.
Today, Duband works out of a modern, purpose-built winery in his hometown of Chevannes, where he makes 23 wines, including one white from the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits. He cultivates 50 acres of vineyards and buys fruit from another 25 acres, producing about 12,500 cases a year under his label.
Duband’s success begat more. Two harvests ago, he was recruited as consulting winemaker for negoçiant and organic grower Louis Max, whose extensive portfolio includes not only reds but also whites from appellations such as Chablis, Mâcon and Pouilly-Fuissé.
“I don’t know,” Duband grins and says, “I don’t like to always do the same thing.”