Helen’s blog

Thoughts and tastings from Helen Savage, wine writer.

Chanson Père et Fils: Gilles de Courcel’s new broom

On June 23 I interviewed Gilles de Courcel, the President of Domaine Chanson Père et Fils in Beaune.

In The Journal on August 27, I’ll report on the changes he and Jean-Pierre Confuron have made to this once ailing business, bought by Bollinger in 1999. What follows here is brief, but a rather more technical and detailed note of what he told me – an insight into how one of Burgundy’s great names is trying to re-build its reputation.

Vineyard policies at Chanson have been introduced that represent, he says, “a totally different way of working.” They are designed “to ensure that all our wines reflect their terroir exactly.” This means no more fertilisers – indeed going all but organic, deep ploughing to aerate the soil and cut superficial roots and then the reduction of yields a by shortening fruiting canes to six to eight buds. “If yields are too high, it’s simply not possible to make great wine.” He also admits to “looking at biodynamic viticulture with interest,” but feels that the time is not right to embrace it. There are, he says “certain questions” that first need to be answered. “It’s at the limit of biology and is surrounded by a certain aura of mystery. Let’s see!”

His aim for his white wines is to look for optimal ripeness, to best express the minerality of their terroir. “The quality of the pressing is vital,” he says – a long slow process lasting up to four hours. “We don’t use the first pressing, nor the last (the last gives the wine a vegetal character), but may include it in our generic wines, even juice from out top sites. Normally one hectolitre of must is obtained from about 130 kg of grapes; here it’s around 150 to 160 kg.”

They are careful not to use too much new oak for fermentation – around 20 to 25% (they also use some 350 litre demi-muids for Pouilly-Fuissé and Grand Cru Chablis): “Fûts are for micro-oxygenation; we don’t want excessive oak in our wine.” They are cautious about their use of batonnage: “It’s OK in some years to give the wine richness, but it’s easy to make the wine too heavy and that can mask its mineral character.” “For our red wines we’re looking for freshness of aromas, but we also want to make them age-worthy.

Good fruit quality is essential.” Whole bunches are kept in tanks for as long as eight to ten days of cold maceration.” The purpose of this is to get maximum fruit flavour and colour extraction, a process tried and tested at the de Courcel and Confuron families’ own properties. As fermentation begins, the temperature is allowed to rise to around 32C and the must may macerate up to a month in tank, but never to the point of over-extraction (Gilles de Courcel is not, he makes clear, a huge fan of the kind of big, extracted wines that often fire Robert Parker’s more purple passages). “We want to avoid harshness and dryness, but emphasise elegance and refinement.”

The young wine is aged in wood for around 18 months, using around 25 to 30% new oak. Gilles de Courcel feels that these methods have been instrumental in bringing out the distinct and special character of a number of sites in their portfolio. He cites in particular, two Premier Cru parcels with old vines in Pernand Vergelesses: Les Vergelesses for red wine and La Caradeux for white. “The particular expression of old vines character becomes much more obvious here.”

Chanson have worked a great deal to produce a good example of Viré-Clessé, especially in Clessé, where de Courcel feel the wines display a distinctive mineral salinity; and he is proud of their newly acquired two-hectare holding of Premier Cru Chassagne-Montrachet, Les Chenevottes a “very stony site. 2007 was a great success: it shows great minerality.” The same commitment to quality governs the 75% of grapes they buy into supplement the produce of their own 45 hectares of vineyards (mostly Premier and Grand Cru sites in the Côtes de Beaune). The Chanson team manages the harvest in the vineyards of their contracted growers. The main source of bought in grapes is Chablis and the Maconnais.

Bollinger has helped a great deal, says Gilles de Courcel, in marketing Chanson’s wine, as they have in bringing a vision of quality back to the business. This means that he has also had to travel a great deal. When we spoke he had just returned from Japan and expressed admiration of the “true knowledge” shown by consumers there.

The economic downturn has made selling their top wines a little more difficult, but the market has recovered a little in 2010, and “in general, Burgundy sells its wine, he says.” Given the scale of investment – both financial and human in seeking to restore Chanson to the top rank of Burgundy négociants, Gilles de Courcel’s commitment to reigning in prices so that genuine wine lovers may still be able to afford his wine is admirable.

A few tasting notes:


Chassagne Montrachet, Premier Cru, Les Chenevottes, 2008

Fine, delicate, elegant and yet fruity (peach and even a hint of tropical fruits) , with crisp lemony acidity and a mineral underlay.

Viré-Clessé, 2008

Gentle but markedly mineral and quite spicy: soft, round and salty, but still very elegant.

Pernand-Vergelesses, Premier Cru, Les Caradeux, 2007 (From a steep, east-facing, stony site). Elegantly mineral, but also rather floral – acacia blossom. Very fine, long and precise.

Corton-Vergennes, Grand Cru, 2008

(From a stony part of a site more renowned for its red wine). Rich and powerful, soft and strongly mineral and yet extremely elegant.


Santenay, Premier Cru, Beauregarde, 2008

Crunchy red fruits, especially cherry, also shows quite a high degree of minerality.

Pernand-Vergelesses, Les Vergelesses, 2007

(From a site with a high proportion of clay.) Rich and concentrated morello cherry fruit. Structured, with strong tannins and acidity, chewy and quite powerful.

Beaune, Premier Cru, Clos des Fèvres, 2007

(From Chanson’s splendid 3.8 hectares monopole.) Tight, spicy and complex, but also extremely elegant, with great finesse and a lingering minerality.

None of the above seem yet to have found their way onto UK shelves, but will do soon. Chanson Père et Fils wines can be found in a wide number of independent wine-merchants. On line, the best selection seems to be at www.drinksdirect.co.uk. There is also an impressive selection at www.everywine.co.uk

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