There are a lot of things that go into being a great winemaker: skill, determination, hard work, luck... the list goes on and on. But what is the one thing that is more important than any other when it comes to being a successful vigneron and crafting fine wines? Give up? How about grapes? Certainly you can't make a great wine without a few ripe grapes to begin with. While this may seem silly since we can now find wines from all fifty states in the union as well as from the four corners of the globe, for Jean-Marc Brocard grapes weren't always easy to come by.
Jean-Marc was born into a very modest existence in a small village called Chaudenay-le-Château in the famed Côte d'Or of Burgundy, perhaps the most famous and best wine growing region in the world. Jean-Marc's father was a farmer, and at that time just as it is today, the land was very expensive and grapes were very difficult to come by. Only the famed families of Burgundy who had done so for generations were able to craft wines from the gentle slopes and chalky soils that made Burgundy such a perfect spot for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A sort of economic caste system kept the fortune with the fortunate and the farmers in the fields.
But as we all know there are a few things in life that operate outside of boundaries and are free from restrictions such as age, race, religion, sex and social status, and one of those is the human heart. Jean-Marc had fallen in love with a girl from a little town in Chablis, the most northerly wine-growing area of Burgundy. His childhood sweetheart Claudine happened to be the daughter of a vigneron in Chablis by the name of Emile Petit. As a wedding present to the young couple, Emile bestowed upon them one hectare of vines (about 2.5 acres) near the Church of Sainte Clair, and in 1972 Domaine Brocard was born.
From the very first vintage in 1973 Jean-Marc set out to create a wine that was true to the unique qualities, history and tradition of Chablis. Jean-Marc spent countless hours with the old vignerons of Chablis in an effort to master his new craft, and to learn the nuances of the vine. These men, the old guard as it were, gave Jean-Marc a unique perspective on how to approach the vine. He learned that he needed to respect the old traditions as well as the natural world in which they were implemented. He learned that great winemaking could be achieved only through the balance of the old and the new, the natural and the mechanical, and the physical and the spiritual.
In the time since Domaine Brocard has grown from one hectare of vines to over one hundred. Jean-Marc sources from some of the very oldest and most famous vineyards in Chablis, an area long known to be the favorite of French Kings and aristocrats as well as the everyday public alike. His connection to the land and to nature have always been at the forefront of his winemaking style, perhaps as a tribute to the farming heritage in his blood. Through this Jean-Marc uses no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides in his vineyards. They have been certified organic since 2004 and most are farmed using biodynamic principals as well.
"Our policy is to encourage the natural auto-immune system of the vine," says Jean-Marc in reference to the lack of chemicals in the vineyards. "Ploughing replaces herbicides and a good dose of well-rotted cow manure encourages the natural microbial activity of the soil." Contrary to popular belief the vines have actually become healthier and more disease resistant in the time that they have been farmed organically.
The land that the grapes are sourced from is heavy with chalk, limestone and fossilized oyster shells, a type of soil called Kimmeridgian. This unique soil condition is named for a stage of the late Jurassic period some 150 million years ago. During the last ice age a glacier came barreling (at least in geologic terms) through this area, and the weight of the glacier forced to the surface an ancient sea floor from the Kimmeridgian era that had long been covered by soil and rock. This unique soil is what has made Burgundy the world famous wine region that it is today, a fact that is not lost on the Brocard family.
"The truth of wine lies in the soil where it has grown," says Jean-Marc's son Julien who is now the vineyard manager for the Domaine. "The technique is an important factor in the wine growing but it is only an aid, the wine is essentially a product of its soil."
It is through this philosophy that Jean-Marc chooses to harvest and vinify separately each parcel of vines with which he works so that the true expression of the soil and its affect on the vines may be put on display. He also uses no oak whatsoever either in the fermentation or aging periods of the winemaking process. Again, the intent is to put the amazing fruit and soil of Chablis on a pedestal for all the world to see the clarity, nuance and complexity found within.
This is not to say that Jean-Marc is afraid of technology or modernization, as he was the first winemaker in Chablis to use mechanical harvesting as a means to bring the fruit into the winery as fast as possible to preserve their fresh qualities. In 1980 a sparkling new winery was built near the little church of Sainte Claire and since then only the most cutting edge of technologies have been implemented in the facility.
Today the name Jean-Marc Brocard graces several offerings from various regions in Burgundy, from the bright and fresh Sauvignon Blancs from the town of Saint-Bris to the heavy and rich Chardonnays from the Côte d'Or. But it is in his bottlings from Chablis that I find the true spirit and tradition of his wines. There are many offerings to choose from, as Jean-Marc now owns a wide range of vineyards from Grand Cru to Village wines. He even has bottled wines according to the sign of the Zodiac at their time of harvest, as well as a line of wines named Extreme, Sensual and Mineral to denote the style of Chablis that those vineyards produce. While we certainly do not have space or the resources here to review every wine, I recommend the wines from Jean-Marc at any time that you may be looking for a quality example of Burgundy that is true to the style of wines that have made the name Chablis famous for centuries.
The 2007 Sauvignon de St. Bris was a classic example of what high-toned and citrusy Sauvignon Blanc can taste like if it is not killed by New Zealand-style herbaceousness or California-esque tropical fruit. Lemony and fresh, with a light floral note on the nose and a richer than expected mouth feel.
Another wine that fits squarely into the value category is the 2006 Kimmeridgian Chardonnay which may be labeled for the American market, but this is a wine that certainly has kept its old-world charm. Lemons, peaches and spices race through a concentrated mid-palate. A very nice bottle of white burgundy, and a great introduction to this style of wine.
The 2005 Petite Chablis was a rich and round example of the grape, with just enough minerality to keep it from feeling too modern. The lack of oak used in the Brocard wines really allows the essence of the Chardonnay to flow through. The fruit is rich and open, and provides enough weight for any Chardonnay lover without the feeling that oak and butter are the only attributes of the wine. Another well-made wine that is not expensive by Burgundian standards.
More of a challenging and interesting wine was the 2006 Chablis Vieilles Vignes, a selection from some of the oldest vines on the Brocard estate. Aromas that ranged from orange peel to subtle white flowers to white peach and spices led to a palate that was at once bold, racy, rich and harmonious. The wine seemed to have an ethereal weight to it that defied description, almost as if it were feathery light and dense at the same time. A backbone of high acidity ran through the wine from beginning to the very long finish, and I cannot imagine anything better than a bottle of this and a plate of raw oysters. Except maybe Champagne, but what would one expect from Chablis which is closer to Reims than Dijon?
Less than 25 cases of the 2003 Chablis Grand Cru Bougros made it to U.S. soil, but what a wine indeed. Obviously the weight in this wine is a product of the vintage, but also from the old vines and low pH soil from which this wine was sourced. Quince, Meyer lemon and honeydew aromas lead to a palate that had clover honey, orange marmalade and baked apples riding a wave of creamy fruit in the mid-palate before the long and gloriously ripe finish began to manifest itself. One would swear this were oaked if you didn't know that Brocard doesn't use any, but since he doesn't I am amazed at the richness and complexity that this wine provides.
Another wine to keep an sharp eye out for was the 2003 Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos which carried all the weight of the 2003 Bougros but remained a little more racy and citrusy in the mid-palate. An obvious choice with more full-bodied dishes such as Dover sole or even roast chicken, this wine could probably hold its own against just about any fare. Minerals and apples were the most prevalent notes, but also touches of pears, cream, mango and a little herbal essence added depth and complexity to this wonderful wine. I believe it to be far from its peak now, as some of the acidity is only barely starting to fade, but with a wine this flavorful why wait?
Finally the 2006 Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos was big and rich, but 100% Chablis with racy minerality and acidity and a touch of high-octane saltiness that just begs for shellfish. An unbelievable blend of texture, weight and balance, this to me is Chardonnay at its finest.
There are few values in Burgundy, a region that has been famous for wine since the Roman times, but every once in a while we find a producer whose wines far outshine their price point. I believe Jean-Marc Brocard to be one such producer, and through his hard work and his desire to remain true to the traditions and soil of Burgundy he has crafted wines that are worthy of the title Grand Cru. And with these and many other great wines at your disposal, finding one should be a heck of a lot easier than saying kimmeridgian.