Winemaker Talk: Dominique Lafon

One of Burgundy's most respected and forward-thinking vintners talks about how the region has changed in his 20 years at the helm of the family business
Jun 15, 2007

Dominique Lafon, 48, manages his family's estate, Domaine des Comtes Lafon, in Meursault. He took over full responsibility for the vineyards and winemaking in 1987 as the sharecropping agreements expired and has since established an international reputation for wines of richness, precision and balance that are also true to their terroirs. He is one of a cadre of winemakers whose generation questioned the vineyard and cellar techniques of the 1960s and 1970s. Through mutual tastings and vineyard visits, they began improving the quality of both red and white Burgundy.

Though known for his whites from Meursault and Montrachet, Lafon also makes delicious reds from Volnay and Monthélie. He expanded his portfolio in 1999 by purchasing 19 acres in the Mâconnais; today he owns 36 acres from which he makes Mâcon under the Les Héritiers des Comtes Lafon label. These are some of the best wines from the region and offer value compared with the more expensive Meursault bottlings.

Wine Spectator: You became Domaine des Comtes Lafon's winemaker at age 26 and took over the management of it soon thereafter. Was that difficult? Did you face intimidation and/or resistance to change from the more established vintners at the time when you started ignoring conventional practices?
Dominique Lafon: Yes, it was not easy to start as my father never worked the vineyards, so everything had to be started from scratch. The first time ever on a tractor, without any lessons on how to drive, it made a lot of people from the village laugh at me.

Then there is always resistance in small villages when you start something new. A lot of people, including [French journalist and wine critic] Michel Bettane, who was a good friend of my father's, said at that time that it would never be as good. It puts you under a lot of pressure.

WS: How has viticulture and winemaking changed in Burgundy since you began making wine for your family's domaine?
DL: Dramatically. The major changes have been with the viticulture. When we got there it was what people called "traditional" viticulture, with lots of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. People began complaining about the quality—especially the reds, because Pinot Noir is more sensitive—the lack of concentration, lack of acidity, so we had to change that.

There was a group of guys that included Christophe Roumier, Etienne Grivot, Pascal Marchand, Patrick Bize, Jacques Seysses, Emmanuel Giboulot and Jean-Claude Rateau and we tasted together, visited vineyards and shared a lot of experience. Without working as a group, we couldn't have changed things so quickly.

Now, when you travel through Burgundy, there are few vineyards that aren't plowed. Even if everyone does not apply new ideas, it's in everybody's head that weed killers, for example, are not a good solution.

WS: And how much has changed in the cellar in that time?
DL: It's more obvious for reds than whites, but once you get healthier grapes, with better natural balance, you become less aggressive in the cellar.

In the '70s, red Burgundy was light and pale and I said, "Hey, if we punch down the cap more, we'll get better results." Now, with better grapes, we can do less extraction and be more natural. With better work in the vineyards and better grapes, we can extract even gentler. The wines are more elegant.

For whites it's the same, maybe less obvious. Before, the origins [of the vineyards] were not as clear. We work carefully with aging so that each vineyard has its own expression.

WS: What is different about making Chardonnay in the Mâconnais compared with in the Côte de Beaune?
DL: In the handling, it's pretty much the same. I work the same in the vineyards, biodynamically and organically, but not certified. There are many machines in the region, but we pick by hand.

One of my strongest ideas is to use larger fermentors. I want to be in the Mâconnais tradition, which means very fruity wines. They must be drinkable at any time. There's a bit more sun so we get good ripeness. We also bottle earlier to preserve the fruit.

At first, people thought I would make Mâcon like Meursault. I said, "I'm not going down to Mâcon to make little Meursault. I'm going to make great Mâcon. After all, it's Mâcon and not Meursault."

WS: What is your favorite wine-and-food pairing with one of your Meursaults?
DL: Wow. I like so many different foods. I like sole with say, a Clos de la Barre 2000, which is not too young, not too old, that's lovely. Scallops, but then with something stronger, like Charmes 1997. Then, we have an old family dish, a chicken cooked with cream and morels. If you have that with an old Montrachet, it's mindboggling.

WS: What wines do you like to enjoy other than those from Burgundy?
DL: I drink a lot of German and Alsatian Riesling. That's a big chunk of my cellar.

WS: If you could make wines in another region, which would you choose?
DL: Not the south [of France], it's too complicated.

I heard New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I've never been there, but I would like to go. Oregon is very peaceful and the wines are very good. If I had to make wines in Italy, I would be happy. I love Italy.

France Burgundy White Wines Chardonnay People

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