Burgundy’s Haute-Couturier

Laurent Ponsot was a low-sulfites maverick and innovator. Then three years ago he broke with his family to start something new

Burgundy’s <i>Haute-Couturier</i>
“I don’t want to always be referring back to the Middle Ages,” Laurent Ponsot says of his new label. (Courtesy of Laurent Ponsot)
Jul 7, 2020

My first reaction on opening the box containing a pair of grand cru Burgundy bottles from Laurent Ponsot’s new wine company was shock.

Sleek silver labels announce the Burgundy appellations, like Griotte-Chambertin and Corton-Charlemagne, in the same typeface used by the U.S. space agency NASA. Ponsot’s name glows neon green. The vibe is more Daft Punk than Domaine Ponsot, with its traditional coat of arms–emblazoned bottles.

“The foundation of my new life is to live today,” Ponsot said recently via video chat during France’s COVID-19 lockdown. “I don’t want to always be referring back to the Middle Ages.”

Three years ago, with little to no public explanation, Ponsot quit his family’s domaine in Morey-St.-Denis after more than 35 years. At the same time, he launched a new négociant business called Laurent Ponsot with his eldest son, Clément, now 41, less than three miles to the south in Gilly-lès-Citeaux.

His goal, as ever, is to make precise, terroir-driven Burgundies through the use of natural farming methods and modern technology, without filtering or fining the wines and (for the most part) without adding sulfites. Ponsot refers to his new venture as “haute couture wines.”

“In haute couture, every detail is important,” explained Ponsot, a spry 66 and the picture of a French bon vivant with his white goatee and puff-folded hankie in the pocket of his blue blazer.

Selfie taken by Laurent Ponsot outside, wearing a blue blazer with pocket square
Laurent Ponsot selfie from lockdown in France

Ponsot still won’t talk about what led to his departure from Domaine Ponsot and the break with his three sisters. It’s clearly a personal, and touchy, family matter. When he quit, leaving the domaine in the hands of his sister Rose-Marie, he took with him his own vine parcels in six appellations and the domaine’s cellarmaster, Arnaud Rouellat.

Whatever led to that leap, I imagine Ponsot’s restless personality had something to do with it.

With his new independent brand, Ponsot has sought flexibility, continuing the négociant model that he says he added to Domaine Ponsot’s business in 1989. Not only does he cultivate his own grapes, he also buys them along with grape must and unfinished wines that he insists be in his cellar by the February following harvest so he can oversee their élevage.

“Many people in Burgundy, with 3,500 growers, can grow outstanding grapes—maybe better than me,” Ponsot said. “I wanted to be more free to find the raw materials from others and to make a blend.”

“The best cuvées of Champagne all come from the grandes maisons,” he added, “because they have many providers.”

Ponsot—who took over winemaking at Domaine Ponsot in 1983 and began making wines without adding sulfites decades before it became fashionable—has always followed his own muse, whether it was in the cellar or in his dogged pursuit of convicted wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan, who’d attempted to sell fake collectible Ponsot bottles at auction.

The Ponsot family bought their first property and vineyards in Morey-St.-Denis, in the Côte de Nuits, in 1872. In the 1920s and ’30s, Laurent’s grandfather and great-uncle greatly expanded the family holdings, including in their crown jewel, the Clos de la Roche grand cru, and began exporting to the United States.

Laurent pursued hospitality industry studies as a young man and launched his own travel agency in Paris before returning to Morey-St.-Denis to join his father while taking enology courses in Dijon.

From the start, Ponsot enjoyed bucking conventional wisdom, becoming a kind of free agent between tradition and modernity.

He chose to vinify traditionally without adding sulfites, even though that approach has been criticized generally for, among other things, the prevalence of volatile acidity (VA)—primarily acetic acid, as well as ethyl acetate—in the wines. Though a small amount in wine is viewed as acceptable or even desirable, a large amount is viewed as a fault.

Ponsot disagrees with this view.

“All the best wines have a huge amount of volatile acidity, but you don’t taste it,” Ponsot insisted. He went on to say that “bad” volatile acidity that results in off flavors and aromas, such as vinegar or nail polish remover, arises in wines that develop too quickly from exposure to oxygen.

That was the first time I’d heard anyone extol VA that way.

Yet he is quick to adopt technology that protects the integrity of his wines. Following Kurniawan’s criminal conviction in a U.S. court in 2013, Ponsot began using microchip security verification in wine capsules, an innovation he brought with him to the grand cru bottlings of his new venture. He also bottles the wines with synthetic closures he designed instead of corks and has added thermal sensors to the wood cases that record their storage temperature for 15 years.

Ponsot says he has yet to make money with his fast-growing new venture. In the first months of this year, just as COVID-19 was gripping Europe, Ponsot shipped his 2017 vintage—totaling about 6,500 cases from an impressive list of 26 Burgundy appellations.

But as a man who has always looked to the future, Ponsot is not worried about the current uncertain outlook for the global economy.

“Every time after there is a crisis, we sell more wine,” Ponsot said. “When wealthy people lose money, for example, they cry and what do they do? They open a bottle of wine.”

People Collecting Red Wines White Wines Chardonnay Pinot Noir Burgundy Côte de Nuits France

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