A Master of Making it Happen: Dominique Gruhier
Screw the romance of making wine and the lifestyle of wine. It’s a tough business, and some people seem to get none of the breaks. One of those is Dominique Gruhier, based in the hills of the world-famous Épineuil.
Actually, Épineuil used to be the heartbeat of the excellent wine region that Parisians wanted poured into their glasses. Then came phylloxera in the late 1800s. Then, there were two World Wars, the second of which found Chablis in the Occupied Zone. In 1956 arrived the frigid temperatures that knocked out most of the few remaining or replanted vines.
Then in 1978, the mayor of Épineuil encouraged locals to revive their once famous vines. Alas, the timing fell flat with the revival of Chablis and the larger number of producers there, just a 20-minute drive away, assuming you’re obeying the speed limits.
The shame of it is that Épineuil is historically most famous for its reds. So Épineuil should have witnessed a chance to work hand-in-hand with the rise of Chablis. However, history has been written, and that ideal circumstance isn’t part of the late twentieth century story.
When I visit Chablis every summer, I make time to visit some producers in the nearby appellations, too. I usually am either floored by the present quality or by the potential. I’ll put Dominique Gruhier’s wines in both categories.
His story of entering into and being part of the wine business in the broader regional area also fits with the travails of the region. (Dominique makes 14 wines: five whites, four reds, 2 rosés and 3 crémants…as of last summer.) His first three vintages had to be dumped: 1990 brought Brettanomyces-infected tanks from a neighboring winery’s borrowed equipment; 1991 gave him only about 18 hectoliters per hectare of yields, bordering on those of sweet wine regions, like Sauternes, and making it hard to be commercially relevant; 1992 his new cellar collapsed due to an equipment malfunction and then his new tanks were not properly coated so he was forced to sell everything to négociants…again.
Looking at vintages 2013 to 2016, 2013 and 2014 were down 50% off a normal harvest and 2016 was but 15% (what?!?!) of a normal harvest. At least there were some grapes in 2015!
In “underdog” appellations, there is often a hero. There are several good producers in Épineuil, but I’m putting all of my euros on Dominique. He has the tenacity of a rugby player, but his wines – in a broad array of styles – can perform on any distinguished international stage.
NOTES JULY 2017 – IN TASTING ORDER
I tasted three of Dominique’s sparkling wines. Unfortunately, I was rushed to arrive at a dinner appointment on time, so I did not note them as thoroughly as the other wines. Hence, I did not write those up. I hope to return to taste them properly this year!
Bourgogne Épineuil Côte de Grisey Rouge 2016
I tasted this from two barrels (Dominique keeps his barrels for up to seven uses), one with finished malolactic fermentation and one still undergoing it. Both were unfettered in their liveliness with a combined flavor profile of blackberries, plum flesh, blueberries and licorice. The tannins in both were mildly grainy, and with no new oak contact the spirited fruit flavors just sang! (Generally the Côte de Grisey has about 20% new oak.) There’s tremendous, exuberant plum fruit balanced by youthful vigor and refreshment. Though I did not taste the final blend, this should be a delight!
Bourgogne Épineuil Rouge Côte de Grisey Cuvée Juliette 2016
Also still in the throes of malolactic fermentation, this had an understandable touch of funk on the nose. The Juliette is a whole cluster fermentation that sees less than one-third of new oak barrels. Behind the fermentation aromas was distinguished and pure black plum and currant fruit with enough ripe oomph to seamlessly absorb the winter spice character from the new wood.
Bourgogne Épineuil Rouge L’Ame des Dannots 2016
Here again, the wine had not finished its malolactic fermentation, but Dominique was not concerned. With the hot finish leading into the 2016 vintage, there wasn’t much malic acid left in the wine. So, Dominique was leaving the wine to its own devices to get the job done. The whole cluster fermentation here provided pretty red fruit and spice tones on the nose followed by nicely concentrated red plums and rose petals on the palate.
Bourgogne Épineuil Rouge Classique 2015
This is a brisk, medium-bodied and floral red with lively, dry tannins and a raspberry-filled finish. Pleasant with a chill, this drinks beautifully now and will for the next few years.
Bourgogne Épineuil Côte de Grisey Rouge 2015
Bold and fragrant on the magnanimous nose, this wine tasted like I was diving into a mosh pit of blueberries, black plums and fresh currants. It is unrelentingly pure and fresh. Despite its considerable concentration and spritely youthfulness, this is surprisingly approachable thanks to some soft mid-palate fruit. The fluid, finessed tannins give this a highly refined mouthfeel. Dominique likes to start drinking this red about now for this bottling – three to four years out of its birth vintage.
Bourgogne Épineuil Côte de Grisey Rouge Cuvée Juliette 2015
This wine is decidedly perkier than its 2016 counterpart with more of a red fruit profile. Red currants and cranberries focus the generously fruited palate, which is edged with firm, dry tannins. It drinks well on its own, which allows its floral tones to really stand out, but its crunchy finish suggests it would be even better at the table.
Bourgogne Épineuil Rouge L’Ame des Dannots 2015
This wine’s delicate, lacy nose dances out of the glass with a twirl of rose petals, red plums, dried strawberries, raspberry preserves and rhubarb. The medium body is tense with gutsy tannins, vigorously fresh fruit and bracing acidity. This needs a few years to unwind in the bottle.
Bourgogne Épineuil Rosé 2015
This is an unusual blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris that sees two days of skin maceration then is vinified in barrels. The two grape varieties are picked together then mixed in the press. The result is a wine with a pretty nose of Rainier cherries, persimmon, ginger and white pepper (the final element really showing its Pinot Gris roots). The palate is supple, sensuous and integrated with a tiny tug on the back palate. I was surprised to learn that when most of the vines in the area had disappeared in the 1960s, most of what left was Pinot Gris!
Drink: Through 2018
This wine hails from two parcels running into valleys on Chablis’ Right Bank, one from the southwest-facing plateau of Fyé and the other from a southwest-facing hill of Fleys, this is exceptional Chablis “tout court”, or “just” Chablis. The nose is richly fragranced with sweet pears, pluots, star fruits and Christmas spices. The medium body is so succulent and custardy as to almost leave a film of nuanced flavors. However, the lingering finish shows some tug and cut that leaves the palate nicely refreshed.
Bourgogne Tonnerre Blanc 2016
Gluggable yet sophisticated, this pale, lemon-colored and green-flecked white is unusually complex for a Bourgogne Tonnerre. Lifted and refreshing with supple, soft apple fruits and savory spices, this had a notably mineral finish.
Petit Chablis Sur Les Clos 2016
This comes from my favorite sector of Petit Chablis, just above the Grand Cru Les Clos, so I had to work to be impartial. There was little need, however, as this wine was just singing! Racy and intense with minerality and savory, bouillon tones on the nose, the palate unfolds delicate donut peaches and yellow plums. A popping vein of acidity runs through the moderate-bodied, vaguely viscous mid-palate to give this wine a streak of sinew and lift. Two parcels located near one another lend its fruits to this wine, eight hectoliters of which are vinified in barrel and six of which see nothing but stainless steel.
Chablis Montée de Tonnerre Premier Cru 2016
The 15.43 ares of this post-war, 1946 plantation in the Côte de Bréchain portion of the Montée de Tonnerre (on the northern side of the hill) are worked by horse. Despite the vines’ age, they are large and give a very generous yield of 50 hectoliters per hectare! The wine is vinified in Stockinger barrels. It tastes of lemon custard pie with a crunchy pastry crust. The juicy finish brings on peach and field flower tones. Sassy acidity carries this über youthful wine into a solid and minerally finish.
Bourgogne Tonnerre Blanc 2015
Developing nicely, this is taking on a leesy, cheesy and hazelnut-driven character with some yellow fruits in the background. It lightly coats the mid-palate with glycerol then lingers on the finish. Beginning to peak, this would be a very fine wine for cheese now.
Still super pale in color with green reflections in the glass, this smells of seashells and sea spray. Yellow plums and sultanas inhabit the dense and focused mid-palate. This wine’s 30% oak gives it gravitas.
Petit Chablis Sur Les Clos 2015
Though very minerally on the nose, this wine’s palate is stuffed with fruits: peaches, apricots and golden raisins. Unusually medium-bodied for Petit Chablis, this is no wallflower. Its voluptuous character makes it more approachable than the more typical, leaner styles.
Chablis Vaudésir Grand Cru 2015
Crafted from purchased grapes, 2015 was the first year Dominique made this wine. It is sophisticated, beautifully balanced and age-worthy with a pillow-y core of roasted yellow apples and sweet spices that are not shy on the long finish. I hope Dominique continues with this cuvée!