Inside-Outside: Sylvain Morey’s Remarkable 2017s

Posted on Posted in Jean-Marc Morey, Rosenthal Wine Merchant News, RWM Contributor

Sylvain Morey’s career path is a far cry from that of a typical Burgundian vigneron. As a boy, he worked among the vines with his larger-than-life father Jean-Marc and his grandfather Albert—two dyed-in-the-wool old-schoolers with whom we at Rosenthal partnered joyously for many years. In the early 2000s, however, Sylvain and his ex-wife—then in their mid-20s—retreated from Chassagne-Montrachet to the Luberon, setting up a winery and purchasing vineyards in this stunning border region between northern Provence and the southern Rhône. While Sylvain brought a Burgundian’s meticulous eye and rigorous methodology to a place known more for bulk wine, he never tried to dominate the terroir, but instead focused on unpeeling it and unlocking its potential, and his efforts since the mid-2000s there constitute a compelling and deeply personal body of work, easily on par with other southern-French visionaries like Oliver Jullien and Vincent Goumard of Mas Cal Demoura.

In this offering, however, we shall focus on Burgundy, Sylvain’s homeland to which he returned when his father Jean-Marc announced his plans for retirement with the 2014 vintage. Despite a new generation that is more widely traveled and drinks more globally than preceding ones, the Côte d’Or remains an insular place, and thus Sylvain’s dual insider-outsider status facilitates a unique perspective: just as he brought his internalized Burgundian approach to the Luberon, Sylvain uses his experience as a pioneer in the Luberon to examine his family’s holdings with fresh eyes, and he produces Burgundy that is both deeply expressive of terroir and clearly articulate of a particular aesthetic sensibility. Sylvain’s reverence for the work of his forebears shows in his meticulously detailed website, which gives reams of information on the acquisition, planting dates, and training method of each individual family parcel; it is also reflected on his label emblem, which shows a tendril (Sylvain) nestled against two cypress leaves (Jean-Marc and Albert). We often end up appreciating our families with greater clarity and profundity as we grow up and gain some distance from them, and Sylvain is an object lesson in that regard.

As dictated by age-old Burgundian inheritance law, Sylvain split his father’s holdings with his sister Caroline upon Jean-Marc’s retirement in 2014, and his tiny domaine comprises just shy of four hectares, mainly in Chassagne-Montrachet. Building on his father’s formidable earned wisdom, Sylvain has steered vineyard work completely away from synthetic treatments—an approach he adopted in the Luberon from day one as well—and has labored to reinvigorate the soils with organic life. Not insignificantly, he raises his wines in the family’s subterranean cellar, a chamber whose walls are caked with decades of microflora, and whose robust yeast population allows for effortless spontaneous fermentations for everything he produces. We at Rosenthal cherish countless memories of tasting with Jean-Marc here, seated on his rickety stool and watching us with his kind and expressive eyes evaluate the fruits of his labor, and it is moving to taste in such an evocative environment with Sylvain now.

Though he is deeply rooted in the Côte d’Or, Sylvain is unquestionably his own man. He’s a great talker, whether it be recounting something hilarious or deep-diving into the minutiae of pruning, but he’s also a great listener, and his wines somehow taste like the product of a great listener. Sylvain is confident and experienced enough to know what he wants his wines to be like, but humble enough to allow the underlying conditions of site and growing season express themselves fully; his wines end up coming across like a three-way conversation between an intelligent human, an immutable terroir, and a capricious meteorology—surely as perfect an encapsulation of the essence of Burgundy as one could wish for.

“Purity” is an overused term in wine, but one cannot escape it when it comes to Sylvain’s Burgundies. His whites eschew the currently fashionable ultra-chiseled reductive style in favor of something more open-knit, more connected to the underlying fruit, yet still undeniably poised—but it is a poise derived from natural acidity, careful lees management, and the health of its raw materials rather than the matchstick-y clamp of reductive Chardonnay winemaking. They are friendly like his fathers’ were, yet with greater precision, finesse, and length. For his reds, Sylvain employs whole clusters in varying proportions based on the vintage character, and uses only pump-overs rather than punch-downs in an attempt to extract gently and thoroughly; the results are astonishing in their lift and expressiveness. With his just-arrived 2017s, complemented by his 2018 Aligoté and Passetoutgrain (both imported for the first time), Sylvain has produced what should be a career-making set of wines, and we hope that you will get on board with a singular grower at the beginning of a remarkable ascent.

2018 Bourgogne Aligoté
Sylvain owns a mere quarter-hectare of Aligoté, planted in 1997, in a vineyard called Les Pierres whose upper section is classified as Chassagne-Montrachet Villages. The 2018, round but tense, spent 12 months in used 350-liter barrels, resting on its fine lees with no batonnage. Aligoté reaches a different textural register when given a proper élevage, and indeed Sylvain’s is of a piece with his remarkable Chassagne-Montrachet bottlings in that regard; this 2018 is a salty little dynamo. 20 cases imported.

2017 Chassagne-Montrachet Blanc
Sylvain’s villages-level Chassagne-Montrachet Blanc comes primarily from a half-hectare in La Bergerie (planted between 1958 and 1974), complemented by smaller holdings in nearby Le Petit Clos and the villages-classified portion of Les Pierres mentioned above (both planted in the mid-1990s). La Bergerie’s mix of clay and pebbles manifests in the wine’s deft balancing of richness and minerality, and Sylvain’s restrained sulfur regimen and preference for no lees-stirring create a wine of wide-open expressiveness and stunning clarity of fruit. The 20% new wood is all but invisible—in part a positive effect of Sylvain’s preference for larger-than-standard 350-liter vessels. 45 cases imported.

2017 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Blanc “Champs-Gains”
Sylvain’s 0.4 parcel of Chardonnay in the renowned premier cru Champs-Gains was planted back in 1952 by his grandfather Albert, and he employs an 18-month élevage in one-quarter-new 350-liter barrels, bottling it without filtration. Here, the generosity of the above villages-level wine is deemphasized in favor of gunflint and smoke; this borderline-stern minerality works in tandem with the texturally luscious fruit profile to create something of striking complexity and kinetic energy, buttressed by a lurking sense of power. The old vines express themselves in the wine’s persistent, blossoming finish. 18 cases imported.

2017 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru “En Caillerets”
With “En Caillerets” we see the stones assume control. Another very old parcel, Sylvain’s third of a hectare of selection-massale Chardonnay here was planted in 1950 by Albert, and as with “Champs-Gains” he uses 25% new barrels in its 18-month élevage. Its tunneling, palate-commanding minerality veers into the realm of salt, leaving a drier impression on the finish than the wines above and promising plenty of cellar upside. Even amidst such dominating mineral presence, however, a glimmer of pretty fruit peeks out—a Sylvain signature. 5 cases imported.

2018 Bourgogne Passetoutgrain
Sylvain’s minuscule-production Passetoutgrain fits neatly into three barrels: two of Pinot Noir, and one of Gamay, from vines planted in the mid-1990s. Assembled and bottled after 12 months of élevage, this 2018—like the Aligoté—offers a complexity rarely seen in such a humble appellation, a fact aided by its thoughtful and relatively lengthy aging. With its bright, soaring aromas, its evocative red fruits, and its high-tension but supple mouthfeel, this remarkable Passetoutgrain is of a piece with its big brothers below. 75 cases imported.

2017 Chassagne-Montrachet Rouge
As with his father and grandfather before him, Sylvain’s wines demonstrate with resounding force the greatness of Chassagne-Montrachet as a red-wine terroir. His breathtaking villages-level Chassagne-Montrachet Rouge comprises old selection-massale Pinot Noir from three vineyards: just under half a hectare in La Bressonne, planted in 1956; a quarter-hectare in Les Lambardes, planted in 1967; and a 0.2-hectare sliver in Les Chimbres from 1974. Sylvain retains 30% whole clusters for the vinification, which lasts three weeks; he employs pump-overs rather than punch-downs, preferring a thorough, slow, gentle extraction that preserves lift. The 2017, which spent 18 months in 20% new barrels, is riotously aromatic, full of spice and cherries and wet stones, and it electrifies and caresses the palate simultaneously. Chassagne’s unabashed soil-driven nature shines through clearly but elegantly, and one would have to spend twice as much in the Côte de Nuits to find something even approaching this. 50 cases imported.

2017 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Rouge “Champs-Gains”
Sylvain Morey farms the last existing plot of Pinot Noir in the premier cru Champs-Gains, planted in the early 1950s by his grandfather Albert. To taste his white and red “Champs-Gains” side-by-side is to experience the mystery of Burgundy with uncanny clarity: both are deeper in register than their villages counterparts, and both display a telltale flint character that shows itself on the nose and continues through the smoke-tinged finish. Vinified with 50% whole clusters and aged 18 months in one-third new oak—both 228-liter and 350-liter barrels—the 2017 offers an elegant iteration of this vineyard’s sometimes brooding nature. 5 cases imported.

2017 Santenay 1er Cru “Grand Clos Rousseau”
The cru of Grand Clos Rousseau is a high-altitude southeast-facing outcropping on the border of Maranges whose red, shallow soils and late-ripening microclimate produce the most structured and powerful red wine in Sylvain’s cellar—as it was with Jean-Marc and Albert. Like “Champs-Gains” above, this was vinified with 50% whole clusters and spent a year and a half in a combination of 228-liter and 350-liter barrels, 30% of which were new. Its air of seriousness derives more from its firm minerality than its dark fruit, and the irrepressible purity and lift that characterize all of Sylvain’s reds are on full display here as well. The finish shows a touch more clench than the “Champs-Gains,” but it is ultimately a more expansive and complex wine. 25 cases imported.

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