Most Burgundian domaines are the proud possessions of people born and raised in the region. Then there's Maison Alex Gambal, a new venture owned and run by a transplanted American.
Alex Gambal, who was born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Alexandria, Va., and his wife took their two young children to Burgundy in May 1993. The idea was to take a year off from his family's real-estate business while exploring the ins and outs of the Burgundian wine trade.
But with his children immersed in the region's culture -- attending school and playing for the local soccer teams -- Gambal fell in step with the local ways as quickly as his children. Today, he finds himself running his own négociant business.
"It was a unique experience that we were able to benefit from, because we were open to the possibilities," said Gambal, now 44.
After spending a few years working at Le Serbet, a wine exporting company, Gambal enrolled in the wine-school in Beaune in fall 1996. He finished his studies in the summer of 1997 and set his plan for starting a négociant business into action.
The business was tiny in the beginning, with just 60 barrels of purchased juice from the 1996 vintage. But the domaine grew slowly and steadily to its current level of about 5,000 cases of wine a year -- a moderate size with which Gambal feels comfortable -- made from purchased grapes and juice.
"At this level, I can still source the fruit and juice and work the vineyards, while still representing my wines in the marketplace," hesaid.
Gambal's quality-oriented approach is demonstrated in how he purchases his grapes. Gambal pays for a vineyard's crop based on the maximum yield allowed under France's Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) regulations, rather than on the amount of grapes actually harvested. By doing this, he can then control the yields and work the vineyard the way he wants, without his growers worrying about losing money by growing less fruit.
Working with Gambal in the cellar is Fabrice Laronze, a Burgundian native, born in Beaune. Laronze, 32, studied at Montpellier and spent a harvest at California's Marimar Torres winery before working at the Pommard-based domaine of Lejeune. Gambal hired Laronze for the 1999 vintage, when Gambal began purchasing grapes in addition to unfermented grape juice.
In the cellar, Gambal and Laronze prefer minimal intervention, mixing traditional and modern practices in the vinification. For their red grand cru wines, they use only 50 percent new wood, and less for everything else.
Among the best bottlings are the Alex Gambal Chassagne-Montrachet Clos St.-Jean 1999 (92 points, $42), the Bourgogne White Cuvée Alexa 1999 (89, $18) and the Fixin White 1999 (89, $20).
There are some growing pains here, with a few inconsistencies in quality that you would expect when many different growers are being used to source grapes. But with the domaine's small size and Gambal's energetic hands-on approach, these hiccups will likely be overcome in the long run.
"It is easy to make drinkable wine; it is difficult to make wines with character," said Gambal. That's a very Burgundian philosophy for this young, American-run domaine.
Maison Alex Gambal
4 rue Jacques Vincent
Beaune 21200 France
Tel: (011) 33-3-80-22-75-81
Fax: (011) 33-3-80-22-21-66
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