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France's New Faces

Young leaders take on the problems of Old World Winemaking

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: September 30, 2003

A stint with a U.S. wine importer turned Jean-Charles Boisset's interest to the family business.
Winemaker Profiles:
Jean-Charles Boisset
Pierre-Yves Colin
Jean-Louis Chave
Isabelle Coustal
Stéphane Derenoncourt
Philippe Guigal
Laurence Faller
Jean-Guillaume Prats
Pierre Perrin
Claire Villars

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Jean-Charles Boisset
Transforming his father's firm in Burgundy

Jean-Charles Boisset has a dream. He wants to parachute into the ocean near the Golden Gate Bridge onto a surfboard, then catch a wave to the shore.

His ambitions for his family's Burgundy-based wine company may seem just as fantastic: to transform a négociant known for industrial winemaking into a domaine-based firm known for quality. But judging by the outstanding wines produced at his newly created Domaine de la Vougeraie, Boisset is already soaring toward his goal.

Boisset, 33, returned to the company's headquarters in Nuits-St.-Georges in 1999, after nine years of working and studying in the United States. Under the young vice president, the merchant house, now called Boisset, La Famille des Grands Vins, has discovered a vocation for making high-quality estate wines; they are part of a dizzying portfolio of 38 brands from France and the New World that produced 3.75 million cases last year in a wide range of styles and at various quality and price levels.

"Jean-Charles provided the impulsion for change," says his sister, Nathalie. "He had a very different vision than if he had stayed in France all the time. Unlike many Burgundians, he didn't wear blinders."

Their father, Jean-Claude, a self-made Burgundian businessman, founded his eponymous négociant house in 1961. Formerly, it was traded on the Paris Bourse, but the family took the company private in June of this year, buying the 11 percent then in public hands. It ranks today as France's third largest wine group, and Burgundy's first, with yearly sales of about $367 million, according to the company.

One-fifth of the revenues come from French cordials. Wines from Burgundy (750,000 cases), the Rhône Valley, Beaujolais and Southern France make up the balance. Boisset also has wine interests in Uruguay, Chile and Canada, where the company will build a $20 million winery designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry, best known for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Boisset also owns Lyeth Winery in California, which makes 30,000 cases a year.

The elder Boisset made Burgundies in an industrial-size winemaking facility outside Nuits-St.-Georges. A huge sign, visible from a nearby expressway, proudly proclaimed "Jean Claude Boisset." But, despite the vintner's pride in the building, many of the wines were of merely average quality. In May, Jean-Charles took down the sign; the building will now be used to blend only generic wines.

"The central site doesn't correspond to our vision of Burgundy. We are now into vineyard sites and handmade, tailor-made wines," says Boisset. With his 26 winemakers, Boisset has moved the operations to small wineries close to the vineyards throughout Burgundy. "We have boutique wineries, each with its own style and winemaker," he adds.

Boisset picked up surfing and a critical view of sleepy Burgundy after he left home at age 16, encouraged by parents who wanted him to see the world and learn English. He spent nine years outside France, much of it in the United States. He studied at University of California, Los Angeles, and earned an MBA in Northern California. He was never a cellar rat during his youth, and showed little interest in becoming a vintner, but he apprenticed in Boisset's San Francisco-based import company and enjoyed the work.

In 1997, his father enlarged his vineyard holdings with the purchase of a Burgundy domaine. It was a turning point for the son. "It gave us the means to make top-notch wines," says Boisset, who returned from San Francisco, where he'd met his future wife, Angela, two years after the purchase.

Boisset works with 540 growers who farm 5,434 acres in Burgundy and other regions, and buys grapes, wine or must from them. But the jewels in Boisset's crown are its own three estates: Château de Pierreux in Beaujolais; Château la Croix Martelle in Languedoc; and Domaine de la Vougeraie in Burgundy. All three estates farm their vines organically or in the more extreme, biodynamic method. In Côte d'Or, Boisset regrouped the vineyards spread over four wineries to create the formidable 93-acre Vougeraie, which is headed by Canadian winemaker Pascal Armand and which has begun to produce outstanding red and white Burgundy.

"We can't cheat consumers by selling them wines that are famous [such as premiers or grands crus] but of low quality. You don't build long-term consumer loyalty that way," says Boisset, who seems determined to leave his mark on Burgundy over the next decades.

Pierre-Yves Colin
An existential change in Burgundy

Pierre-Yves Colin represents not only a new generation in Burgundy, but a new way for Burgundians to approach the world.

The 31-year-old winemaker of his family's Domaine Marc Colin in the Côte de Beaune wasn't yet born when Burgundy struggled in the era after World War II. Survival, not the making of great wines, was the name of the game then. Pruning for large yields (as protection against crop-cutting disasters such as hailstorms and frost) and gorging the vineyards with chemical pesticides and fertilizers made weak, diluted wines.

But Colin, his younger brothers Joseph, 29, and Damien, 24, and their generational counterparts, have never known poverty, nor do they fear that a bad crop might send their families into bankruptcy. This existential distinction helps explain a spirit of revival in Burgundy today. Prosperity breeds confidence. Like many of his peers, Pierre-Yves is consumed by an ambition to make the best wines of his area, not to mention the world.

"You must live with your history and respect people's experience, but it must not be a brake," says Colin. "You must look forward."

Father Marc, 58, admits to being fiscally conservative. "In 1964 [at age 24], I paid the harvesters out of my personal savings," says Marc Colin. "In 1968, I still had no money and sold all the wine to the merchant houses." He still tries to temper his sons' enthusiasm for excessively low yields, reminding them that four families must live from the estate's revenues. "We can't raise prices excessively. Our objective is to be among the top wineries but also to be around in 20 years," says the father.

Marc's frugal lifestyle and smart investments helped finance the expansion of the estate, located in Gamay, near St.-Aubin. It has grown from 11 acres in 1982 to 50 today, with prized parcels in the grand cru Montrachet and premiers crus Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and St.-Aubin. The domaine produces 12,500 cases, and makes 18 whites and eight reds.

Pierre-Yves went to enology school in Beaune and rounded out his experience with stints at Chalk Hill Winery in California and wineries in Northern Rhône, Languedoc and Loire. At 23, he began making the wines, and soon the son was proposing big changes.

Starting in 1995, a skeptical father allowed Colin to triple the number of new oak barrels. The son selected more refined barrels than were used in the past. This prevented hard wood tannins from unbalancing the wines, and improved the quality of Colin's Chardonnays.

In 1997, the Colin brothers agreed to reduce the use of herbicides, ceasing this practice on two-thirds of the vineyards; they switched to plowing, which deepens the root system and thus, they believe, the flavors in their wines. A new winery in 1999 was succeeded in 2001 by new winery equipment that allowed softer handling during the full-berry pressing and fermentation, and resulted in "purer" whites, says the tall, blue-eyed Colin, who is handsome in a rugged way, with a tan face, square jaw and broad shoulders.

Like many other young winemakers in Burgundy, he has also started a merchant business, Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, named for himself and his wife, Caroline, 27. The debut vintage, 2001, produced just 150 cases from five appellations; all five wines received outstanding scores from Wine Spectator.

The couple lives in Chassagne-Montrachet, where they raise 3-year-old Mathis and 1-year-old Clément. Their house is near Caroline's family estate, Domaine Jean-Marc Morey, where the passionate gourmet cook works with her father as an administrative assistant.

With another dozen winemakers, Colin plays for the Chassagne-Montrachet soccer team, and after their Wednesday evening workout, they share a meal, and drink, discuss and dissect the bottles each player has brought from his cellar. "We sit in the club house, and I can assure you we aren't a sad bunch," says Colin, sporting a T-shirt printed with the signature of French soccer star Zinedine Zidane.

In the past, Burgundian winemakers were suspicious of each other and protective of their secrets, but fraternization is part of the lifestyle embraced by a young winemaking generation eager to trigger change in a traditional region. Whether in the winery, or on the soccer field, Colin is helping lead the way.

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