BY ANTONIO GALLONI | MAY 2, 2017
Domaine Lignier’s Clos de la Roche is one of Burgundy’s most renowned wines. This remarkable vertical of twenty vintages went back to 1978 and encompassed three distinct eras of the domaine’s distinguished history.
Domaine Lignier was founded in the late 1880s, but its modern-day history begins with Henri Lignier, who first planted some of the parcels that remain core holdings today. Hubert Lignier ran the family domaine for several decades. An immensely proud, stoic man, Lignier embodies all the qualities of Burgundy’s old guard, a generation of vignerons who worked the land when times were tough and long before Burgundy wines became glamorous and highly coveted. The wrinkles and hands are those of a farmer.
Lignier’s son, Romain, took over winemaking in 1992. One of the emerging talents of his generation, Romain Lignier, passed away suddenly in 2004 at just 36 years of age, pushing the domaine into a period of tumult. Laurent Lignier, Hubert’s son and Romain’s brother, returned to the domaine after his brother’s death. Laurent had worked at the domaine in 1987 and 1988 before leaving to fulfill his military service and then pursuing commercial roles at Albert Bichot and Pernod Ricard. Hubert Lignier made the 2004s and 2005s, and Laurent, assumed full-time winemaking responsibilities with the 2006 vintage.
Clos de la Roche
Domaine Hubert Lignier owns 90 ares (9/10ths of a hectare) in the famed Clos de la Roche, one of the most prestigious Grand Crus in the Côte de Nuits. The holdings are composed of 65 ares in the Monts Luisants climat, in the northern sector of the vineyard, and 25 ares in Les Fremières, which lies to the south. Laurent Lignier’s grandfather, Henri, began planting the vineyards in 1955. Subsequent plantings of the original plots were done using selection massale through 1966.
Located on the route of Grand Crus in Morey St. Denis, Clos de la Roche takes its name from the rocky terrain and very shallow topsoil that is as little as just 10cm deep before reaching pure rock. Wines from Clos de la Roche are distinguished by intense minerality, salinity and tension. Even in warmer years, where the risk might be to lose some site-specific character, the personality of Clos de la Roche is always evident. With time in bottle, the wines acquire depth and volume, but they do that while maintaining the signatures of focus and drive that make Clos de la Roche such a singular site among Burgundy’s Grand Crus. Iron, smoke, game, chalk and bright saline notes are some of the flavor signatures that are often found in Clos de la Roche wines.
As Lignier fans no doubt know, the domaine went through a difficult period between 2006 and 2013 (both inclusive) following Romain Lignier’s death. During these years, the Lignier family was involved in an acrimonious dispute with Romain Lignier’s widow, Kellen. It is impossible, and perhaps even inappropriate, for an outsider to know all of the details of these very delicate family situations, so I will simply relay the facts as I understand them and as they pertain specifically to the wines.
Upon Romain Lignier’s death, Kellen Lignier set up her own domaine with vineyards that were leased to Romain Lignier but that belonged to Hubert Lignier. Kellen Lignier made wine from those parcels for several years. Her early wines were quite promising, but subsequent vintages were highly problematic, something that I saw firsthand during my tastings. The stress of being a widow, single mother of two young children and running a winery, all while living in a foreign country is probably more than most people could possibly bear. Without getting into details that must be extremely painful for all involved, control of the vineyards Kellen Lignier had farmed for several years reverted to Domaine Hubert Lignier after the 2013 harvest. Two thousand fourteen is therefore the first vintage in which the original Domaine Hubert Lignier holdings are back together. In the intervening years during which they lost access to some of their historic parcels the Ligniers acquired more land, so the estate is larger today than it was before it was temporarily divided.
Between 2006 and 2013, the Ligniers lost access to two-thirds of their holdings in Monts Luisants, but retained all of their land in Les Fremière, which means that between these years (both inclusive) the Lignier Clos de la Roche was a blend of approximately equal parts Monts Luisants and Les Fremières fruit.
Winemaking & Farming
Winemaking over the last forty years is best described as an evolution. Hubert Lignier’s wines are typical of the era during which they were made. Tools were rustic, temperature control was done by natural means rather than in a more controlled environment, as is the case today not just here, but pretty much everywhere. The first sorting table arrived with the 1983 vintage, a year in which there was much to discard.
Romain Lignier introduced a pre-alcoholic fermentation of 4-6 days and brought in more modern sorting equipment. Over time, winemaking evolved towards gentler extractions with more pumpovers and fewer punchdowns. New oak, around 50% circa, decreased during the 1990s to around 33%, where it is today. Beginning in 2006, 20-25% of the wine is done with whole clusters.
Clos de la Roche spends about 20 months in barrel, with no racking after malolactic fermentation, which is quite classic and on the longer side by present day standards in Burgundy. Some of Hubert Lignier’s wines saw as much as 24 months in barrel. One of the aging concepts practiced by Burgundy’s older guard calls for the wines to spend two winters in the cellar to mature properly in barrel and settle naturally over time. Racking is kept at a minimum and is done from barrel to barrel in order to move the wines as little as possible. The wines have always been bottled unfined and unfiltered.
In 2011, Laurent Lignier began moving the vineyards towards organic farming. According to Lignier, the incidence of cancers and other diseases is four times higher among vignerons than in the general population because of the use of chemicals and pesticides in the vineyards. The domaine began the formal process for biodynamic certification in 2015.
The 2014 Clos de la Roche is bright, focused and finely cut. Translucent and wiry in style, the 2014 speaks to precision above all else. The flavors and textures are wonderfully chiseled throughout. Red-toned fruits, chalk and floral notes abound. Today, the 2014 is fabulous. It won’t be ready to drink anytime soon, but it is terrific just the same. This is a textbook expression of Clos de la Roche. Lignier’s 2010 Clos de la Roche (magnum) is superb. There is a real density and power to the 2010 that distinguishes it in this tasting. Broad, ample and deep in all of its dimensions, the 2010 is truly exceptional. Readers will have to be patient. The tannins are imposing, that much is obvious, and yet somehow there is enough fruit to provide balance. In this tasting, the 2010 is a real highlight. The 2005 Clos de la Roche is just starting to develop the first hints of tertiary nuance. Smoke, leather, game, licorice and dark-fleshed fruits abound. Deep, bold and super-expressive, with elements of gravitas and baritone darkness, the 2005 possesses off the charts richness and intensity. Even so, the brisk, saline notes that are a signature of this site are very much present beneath the fruit. The 2005 is now approaching its first plateau of maturity, which makes it an excellent choice for drinking now and over the next two decades or more.
Tasted from magnum, the 2003 Clos de la Roche is stunningly beautiful. Rich, voluptuous and ripe in all of its glory, the 2003 is a real head-turner. It might not be as complex or intellectual as other vintages, but frankly, who cares? Hard candy, super-ripe red cherry, wild flowers, rose petals and sweet spices are pushed forward. Even with all of its ripeness and intensity, the 2003 has plenty of tannin, underlying structure and salinity. For current drinking, the 2003 is a total pleasure bomb. This was the last vintage made by Romain Lignier, who fell ill right after the harvest. Lignier gave the 2003 just 12 days on the skins, with only pumpovers and no punchdowns, in order to not extract too many aggressive tannins. Mother Nature did not give Romain Lignier a great vintage for his last year, but Lignier made a great wine anyway. The 2000 Clos de la Roche is a fabulous choice for readers who enjoy Burgundies with a great deal of aromatic complexity. Crushed flowers, mint, pine, red-toned fruits and chalk are some of the signatures. On the palate, the wine is a touch compact and unyielding, but all the elements are nicely balanced within the context of a year that was not easy. Hints of game, smoke, tobacco, licorice and dried herbs linger on the close. I don’t expect the 2000 will improve meaningfully from here, but it is quite expressive and delicious today.
At twenty years of age, the 1997 Clos de la Roche is fabulous, although the magnum format surely helps. Deep, ample and broad on the palate, the 1997 shows the volume that Clos de la Roche can show with time in bottle. Smoke, tobacco, licorice and a host of dark-fleshed fruits give the wine its brooding, virile personality. The 1997 is shockingly inward for a wine of its age. Laurent Lignier adds that rackings were complicated in 1997. Perhaps that comes through in the wine’s brooding personality. Even so, the 1997 can only be described as a success, especially within the context of a year that was marked by up and down weather and uneven ripening. Hints of orange peel, dried rose petals and mint add an exotic flair. Readers who enjoy mature Burgundies will flip out over the 1997.
The 1996 Clos de la Roche is a powerful, brooding Burgundy. The combination of the natural acidity of this site coupled with that of the year come together to produce a powerful, tightly wound red Burgundy that appears to still need time! Classically austere, potent and tightly wound, the 1996 ideally still needs to be cellared. Whether or not the 1996 ever fully comes around remains an open question. Watching the wine’s evolution in the glass, I am optimistic that will happen at some point. The 1996 is a wine for classicists, that much is clear. One of the highlights in this tasting, the 1995 Clos de la Roche (magnum) is a real stunner. All the elements come together effortlessly in the glass. Deep, powerful and intense, the 1995 comes across as a hypothetical combination of the 2005 and 2010, with the volume of fruit of the former and the energetic tannin of the latter. Sweet red cherry, plum, mint, chalk and rose petal infuse a deeply expressive, nuanced Clos de la Roche that is at its peak today. Above all else, the wine’s balance here is simply remarkable. Some tasters find the 1995 rustic. I don’t share that opinion.
The 1994 Clos de la Roche (magnum) is dark, brooding and rustic in style. Even so, it retains an almost shocking level of density for the year. Readers will find a hearty, rough around the edges wine with limited finesse. All that said, there is no question the 1994 has stood the test of time, and then some. Wild cherry, plum, smoke, licorice, tobacco, cured meats and game, along with potent tannins, give the wine its distinctive personality and feel. Naturally, in this setting the 1994 suffers in comparison with the more important vintages, but if tasted on its own, the 1994 is quite impressive. The 1993 Clos de la Roche is one of the wines in this tasting that speaks to balance above all else. Silky, nuanced and understated, the 1993 is an absolutely joy to taste today, as all the elements fall into place effortlessly. Nothing in particular stands out and yet the wine is a pure joy to taste. The 1993 is a decidedly lithe, feminine Clos de la Roche, but it has a bit more depth than other similarly styled vintages, the 2000 in particular. Silky tannins, chalky, saline notes and a touch of sous bois frame the persistent finish. Another of the surprises of the day, Lignier’s 1992 Clos de la Roche is exquisite. Fruity, supple and quite giving in its feel, the 1992 is one of the more immediate wines in this vertical. Although not exactly a complex wine, the 1992 is hugely delicious and rewarding today. Sweet red cherry, mint, rose petal and spice notes are pushed forward. This is an especially succulent, fruity Clos de la Roche with tons of sheer appeal. I loved it.
The 1991 Clos de la Roche (magnum) is bold, intense and almost shockingly ripe. Severe hail during flowering lowered yields dramatically. Today, the 1991 preserves massive richness that is out of context with the other wines in this tasting. Dark red and black cherry, smoke, hard candy, tobacco, licorice and game add to the wine’s super-distinctive profile. The 1991 needs quite a bit of air to show at its best, but it is terrific. There is no shortage of personality. Readers should expect a big Clos de la Roche with broad shoulders and serious fruit density, especially for a wine of its age.
Lignier’s 1990 Clos de la Roche is everything mature Burgundy should be. Silky, nuanced and perfumed, the 1990 is stunningly beautiful. The 1990 also shows quite a bit of restrain for the vintage. What comes through above all else is the personality of Clos de la Roche. Crushed flowers, dried cherries, tobacco, mint and underbrush add the closing shades of nuance. I don’t expect the 1990 to improve much from here, but it is striking today. The 1989 Clos de la Roche (magnum) is a powerful, burly wine that shows the more rustic side of this wine. Super-ripe red cherry, tobacco, menthol, licorice and spice are pushed forward. Above all else, the 1989 is clearly the wine of an era in which winemaking was much more rudimentary than it is today. The 1989 has held up well, but it is not especially refined. Readers will have to be able to accept some small flaws. There is no shortage of personality, but the 1989 is not as compelling as some of the other, more successful wines in this tasting.
Sadly, the 1988 Clos de la Roche is the victim of a flawed cork. Even so, the wine appears to have aged quite well and is still intact, with terrific persistence and lovely purity in its fruit. The 1987 Clos de la Roche is a very pretty, fully mature red Burgundy. Crushed flowers, dried cherries, tobacco, licorice and underbrush overtones give the wine its tertiary personality. Medium in body and silky on the palate, the 1987 is super-expressive today. It has also aged gracefully. Although there is no upside from cellaring bottles further, the 1987 should hold for at least a few more years. A real showstopper, the 1986 Clos de la Roche is one of the most intense and satisfying wines in this vertical. Ample and persistent in all of its dimensions, the 1986 boasts superb intensity. In this tasting, the 1986 is deeper than the 1985, 1989, 1990 and 1991, and also shows much cleaner flavors and better balance. An exotic hint of spice, leather and tobacco adds the closing shades of nuance. If I had to pick only one wine in this vertical that I would like to own it is the 1986. What a wine!
The 1985 Clos de la Roche is another stunner. Deep, pliant and super-expressive, the 1985 exudes a level of purity and freshness that is both remarkable for its age and the era in which it was made. To be sure, there is an element of wildness and also volatile acidity/oxidation that runs through the 1985, but compared to the 1989, which presents a similar level of rusticity, it has better balance. In some ways, the 1985 is not totally clean, but it is nevertheless superb. Lignier’s 1983 Clos de la Roche is a model of elegance, restraint and finesse. Quite simply, this is a gorgeous wine for a vintage that was notoriously affected by rot. Crushed flowers, mint and red cherry notes are nicely delineated in a fully mature, tertiary Burgundy that stands out for its silkiness and overall poise. The 1983 is also the first vintage made with a new sorting table that appears to have come in quite handy.
The 1978 Clos de la Roche, brings this vertical to a rousing finish. A super-classic, old-school Burgundy, the 1978 is loaded with searing tannins and high acidity that give the wine energy. Translucent and deceptively medium in body, the 1978 packs a serious punch. Dried rose petal, amaro herbs, pine and mint grace the palate in this utterly exquisite Burgundy endowed with tons of pedigree. I expect the 1978 will drink gracefully for another decade or more. What a treat it is to taste the 1978 from a perfect bottle.
I tasted these wines in New York with Laurent Lignier and his longtime US importer Neal Rosenthal, who started bringing in the wines to the US in the early 1980s. Most of the wines came from Rosenthal’s own cellar. Readers should note that a number of vintages were served from magnum.