Count Louis-Michel Liger-Belair could have become a dusty portrait of an Old World wine estate owner.
In fact, he’s anything but.
He lives with his wife and three children in Château Vosne-Romanée, which is decorated with oil paintings of his ancestors and overlooks the historic Burgundy village of Vosne-Romanée, along with some of the world’s most prized Pinot Noir vineyards and neighbors such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
His Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair makes tiny releases of 15 cuvées from different climats, including two from exclusive Pinot Noir monopoles in Vosne-Romanée—about 300 cases each from La Romanée and Clos du Château—as well as the Clos des Grandes Vignes monopole in neighboring Nuits-St.-Georges, planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. His wines are so rare he turns away new customers.
But at 47, Liger-Belair isn’t resting on his double-hyphenated name or his laurels. He represents a kind of restless dynamism in this sleepy, elite viticultural neighborhood.
An exacting biodynamic producer with a penchant for clean and precise wines, he is a big bear of a man with an affable demeanor. When I showed up at the château gates for our appointment, he greeted me with a big grin and said, “Let’s go visit the zoo”—the “zoo” being the underground cellars where we tasted through his 2020 vintage in barrel.
Last year, spending his 20th anniversary at the domaine in COVID lockdown, he reimagined his world. “I never worked so much as during COVID, thinking what we would do and how we would change after,” he says.
During lockdown, Liger-Belair came up with a pair of opposite ways to connect with wine lovers: one highbrow and the other democratic.
The highbrow method debuted in May in Delaware when Acker auctioned one bottle of each of his cuvées (all bottle No. 2)—each with its own encrypted non-fungible token (NFT) containing a 90-second movie in which he spoke about the vineyard and the vintage.
The bottles sold for twice their retail price, fetching a total of $61,752. Liger-Belair plans to repeat the project annually with a different film director.
The idea, he says, sprung from a conversation with a Brussels art dealer about the connection between wine lovers and art. “I thought, wine is the ultimate piece of art because when you open the bottle, there is no more value,” he muses. “When you drink it, you destroy it.”
With the NFT project, buyers at least have a movie of their own after the wine is gone.
Liger-Belair’s other COVID inspiration might seem obvious to American sensibilities, but in Vosne-Romanée (pop. 360), it represents a big change.
He and his wife, Constance, bought an abandoned farmstead at the edge of the Clos du Château vineyard and plan to install Vosne-Romanée’s first wine bar there by late 2022.
This idea came from a gaping lack: The village has a pair of gastronomic restaurants, but hours are limited. Wine cellars are open only by appointments, which can be hard to get.
“If someone comes to Vosne-Romanée, it is unacceptable that we cannot offer a glass of Vosne-Romanée,” Liger-Belair says.
The couple’s project will offer an extensive wine list open to all Vosne-Romanée producers, all organic producers in Burgundy and all biodynamic producers throughout France, with a rotating selection of wines by the glass.
“We have to work on the brand of Vosne-Romanée, and that means to promote it in a good way,” he says, and then makes an interesting distinction: “We can’t make it more accessible. We can’t produce enough wine for the whole world. But we can give people some access.”
The project, in a series of buildings around a common courtyard, will bring life to the village with a café that also acts as a post office, a small playground, a greengrocer for organic produce and four guest rooms for wine-country visitors.
By making a popular café for local workers and families, Liger-Belair says with a laugh, “It will show that there are real people in Vosne-Romanée—not just snobby winemakers.”
Liger-Belair has always been a doer. He created the domaine in 2000 and has worked ever since to return the estate to its past glory. “I was the first one [in the family] to work hands-on in the vineyards,” he says. “Before me, we were mostly landlords.”
The Château de Vosne-Romanée was bought by Louis Liger-Belair, a Napoleonic general, in 1815. Over the years and by marriage, the estate came to include some of the most revered vineyards in Burgundy, such as the grand cru monopoles La Romanée, La Tâche and La Grand Rue. (Another branch of the family led to Thibault Liger-Belair's domaine in Nuits-St.-Georges.)
But in 1933, the death of Louis-Michel’s great-grandmother left 10 family heirs—including two minors—and no consensus on how to manage the properties. So they were sold at auction.
At the time, Liger-Belair’s grandfather and great-uncle (a young priest) managed to buy La Romanée and a couple of other vineyards, keeping them in the family.
Though Liger-Belair dreamed of staying in Vosne-Romanée as a youth, his father pushed him to first get an engineering degree, which he complemented with two more degrees in business and enology.
In the past two decades, he expanded the domaine’s subterranean cellars at a great cost by digging under the small road that connects the château with its orangerie. At the same time, he expanded Liger-Belair’s vineyard holdings, parcel by parcel, from less than 8 acres to about 25, by diligently staying attuned to the movements and opportunities in and around his hometown.
“The idea is to expand the estate in the neighborhood,” he says. “My mind is in Vosne-Romanée and the bordering villages.”
But nowadays, Liger-Belair is also thinking more globally and conceptually. As he discusses his new projects, he concludes, “Wine is not only wine … we have to do something more.”