Burgundian vintner Vincent Girardin could become a major player in white Burgundy through his new deal with Bernard Clerc, owner of Domaine Henri Clerc & Fils, one of Puligny-Montrachet's most prominent wineries.
Girardin, 40, whose whistle-clean wines have earned him a reputation as talented winemaker, has signed an 18-year lease for half of Clerc's 40 acres of vineyards and has also bought the holding company of the domaine.
The arrangement gives Girardin control of Bernard Clerc's most prized Chardonnay vineyards. They include parcels in three of Puligny's premiers crus -- Champ Gain, Les Combettes and Les Folatières -- and priceless holdings in three grands crus: Chevalier-Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet and Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet. The deal also includes parcels that Clerc leases in Echézeaux and Clos Vougeot, two grands crus in the Côte de Nuits district.
In Burgundy, an estate of Domaine Clerc's stature rarely comes on the market, and the quality of its vineyards attracted interest from at least 10 candidates, including shippers Maison Louis Jadot, Jean-Claude Boisset and Chartron & Trébuchet, and domaines Leflaive and Pousse d'Or. "They were queuing up," said Bernard Clerc.
Such competition is just one of the hurdles facing Burgundy's rising stars in their quest to secure top grape sources. French bureaucrats can derail the deal; it was signed this spring, but must still be approved by authorities, who are expected to do so by July because the arrangement doesn't involve the purchase of vineyards, a more sensitive and tightly regulated issue in France.
Cost is another concern for the region's Young Turks. Girardin, who jumped on the opportunity to rent the vineyards, is in the same boat as other talented, ambitious winemakers of his generation: He could never afford to buy a prominent domaine, given the premium paid for top-notch vineyards in Burgundy. The value of an acre varies from $500,000 for top Puligny premiers crus to $1.2 million in Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet to $1.4 million in Bâtard-Montrachet to $2 million in Chevalier-Montrachet.
Ultimately, Girardin was lucky. Bernard Clerc, 59, has three adult children, but none fit his criteria to take over the estate. "One son is a good winemaker but a zero as an administrator; my daughter is too greedy in what she wanted for her in the deal; and the son who might have worked out doesn't want to be a winemaker," Clerc said.
The lease involves the land Clerc owns personally, he said, including 10 acres within the premiers and grands crus, which produce 2,500 cases a year, and 10 acres of less-prestigious parcels in the regional Bourgogne appellation, which produce another 2,500 cases. As for the estate's remaining 20 acres, their status is currently the subject of litigation among family members, including Clerc's former wife.
"Bernard Clerc wanted someone who could transmit the vineyards in good shape to his grandchildren in case they became interested in taking over the domaine one day," said Girardin. "I was the youngest candidate; I will be 58 when the lease runs out." At that time, he will have first crack at buying Clerc's vineyards in case the owner doesn't exercise the option to hold on to them.
Even though Girardin owns 37 acres in the Côte de Beaune, he has mostly relied on purchased fruit to make his wines. But the Clerc deal will change that. In the 2002 vintage, 60 percent of Girardin's 30,000-case production will be from the Clerc vineyards or his own. And starting this fall, Girardin will make all his wines in a $2.8 million state-of-the-art winery that he has built in the famed commune of Meursault, moving from his current base in Santenay.
Girardin's clean, pure and modern style of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay has put him on the map, and Wine Spectator routinely scores his wines highly. For instance, Girardin's 1999 Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot (93, $59) is an impressive Chardonnay layered with honeysuckle, hazelnut and citrus flavors.
Such quality caught the attention of Bernard Clerc, who viewed it as good reason to entrust his vineyards to Girardin. "He is self-made like me," said Clerc. "He is a fighter and a well-regarded winemaker."
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