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Tasting with Dominique Derain

9th June, 2016

If you ask most people in the natural wine world who’s making noteworthy wines in Burgundy, Dominique and Catherine Derain are sure to be one of the first producers that they’ll name- they’re quite legendary. We had them stocked on our shelves right from the beginning, on the recommendation of Catie, who was working in the kitchen then. The vineyards have been worked bio-dynamically since 1988 and they use no sulphur, not even at bottling.

They’re based in Saint Aubin, an appellation that’s a bit of a find because it’s not as well known as the surrounding appellations but still produces wines of prestige and interest with a less expensive price tag. I’ve since discovered a few other producers whose wines I love from there.

I drove up from Arbois early, arriving at the winery around 10. Wineries in France, even the tiny ones, are relatively easy to find; they’re well signed and also show up in the sat nav. I guess they receive so many visitors that it’s crucial.

When I arrived, I met both Dominique and Carole (Carole does the books for Dominique and is the other half of the Sextant label, with Julian Altaber). We briefly introduced ourselves and then proceeded with the tasting. Carole translated for me when needed (which was often) as Dominique doesn’t speak a lot of English.

We taste first a few wines from bottle, whites, starting with Lanre, which was light and fresh with a lovely caramel note and quite together, despite having only been in bottle for two weeks. Then there was St Aubin village white, still coming together. From barrel we try En Remilly, quite honeyed, Le Sentier du Clou 2015, very crisp, fresh, La Combe au Sud, tart and round but quite complete, Les Dents de Chien from marble and iron soils, quite fat and textural, Sentier du Clou 2014, incredibly fine, tasting of golden pear and honey, with lovely, tight phenolics at the end of the palate. En Remilly, from the calcareous soils of Chassagne-Montrachet, is both very textural and also very fine. I can feel the 30 years of vine age on the palate and taste citrus, marzipan, thyme. I like it a lot. We finish the whites on Murgers Dents de Chien, which is a relatively new wine for Dominique and comes from one of the most highly regarded lieu dits for white wine in Saint Aubin.

What’s interesting is that while tasting, Dominique gives me the background on some of the vineyards- while he’s had some under his management since he first started, almost 30 years  ago (e.g. En Remilly), some he’s had not so long, only 4 years (e.g. Sur le Sentier). They’re from different vineyards but the vine age is similar so you would perhaps expect a similar depth in the wines. But the difference in flavour and concentration is incredibly, breathtakingly obvious. The wines made from vines that have been worked bio-dynamically for less time seem to be lacking in flavour and personality alongside those that have been worked bio-dynamically for longer. Still very focused and fresh, you can see that the winemaking is the same but the grapes are different. As I taste through the reds, this difference becomes more and more obvious.

I taste first the Bourgogne Rouge. The vines are around 25 years old and they have been worked bio-dynamically their whole life. Next is Mercurey, 110 year old vines but only 15 years in bio-dynamics. I swear that the Bourgogne Rouge has more flavour and concentration than Mercurey!

This is not something that Carole or Dominique point out to me; it’s something I observe and then ask questions about how each of them have been managed, and specifically in bio-dynamics. The difference in flavour in these wines is, quite simply, incredible, and reinforces all of my conviction in the value of good farming principles.

Le Ban is silky, but with lots of structure. Le Puits has even more structure but is much more perfumed, with lifted aromatics and fresh raspberries, from a tiny 0.12ha plot. Gevrey Chambertin is made from vines more than 100 years in age, 20 years or so in biodynamics- the difference is less noticeable here but still…

L’Andacieus tastes of blackcurrant, with lots of tannin. And interestingly, a local brewery has made a beer with some of the juice from it, which Dominique offers for me to try. It’s delicious, a little sour and tastes like wine, water, and barley. But Dominique and I are both in agreement that they should try to make a beer using white grapes, although apparently they like the resultant colour of using red grapes. It’s very pretty, light pink, but I feel that the acidity of one of Dominique’s whites would be amazing in a beer.

We try one of the Sextant wines, the Bourgogne Rouge, which is easy drinking but by no means simple. It’s delicious.

They ask if there’s anything else I would like to drink. Earlier, Dominique showed me a bottle of the Champagne that’s he’s made, with a bright pink label, called “Chut… Libre” (chut meaning hush or the hiss of the air when you open a sparkling bottle, libre because there is no sulphur).  I love Champagne or sparkling anything. So I ask to try some.

It’s a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but what’s interesting is that Dominique has taken the approach of making it like a wine. So it’s a vintage wine, from one vineyard, and picked later, for ripeness rather than acidity, zero dosage. It has a lot more body and structure than most Champagne, also fruit. Perfect with all kinds of food. There’s only one other sparkling wine that I know of that’s anything like this, from Australia.

Finally, Dominique gifts me a bottle of his sparkling Alight to drink with Thierry Puzelat when I will catch up with him in a couple of days. But I owe him a bottle or two of my wine next time I come back. We drink it a few days later at a birthday party with some of Thierry’s friends. It is absolutely delicious. If only there was some in Australia…

By Lou