A tale of seven generations of the Gros family in Burgundy’s most prestigious village.
There is little likelihood that even a novice on the wine scene would confuse Burgundies and Bordeaux. To begin with, these two revered wine regions are not only geographically remote from one another, there is no overlap whatever between the grape varietals grown in each. Moreover, as these varietals speak in assertive distinctive voices, there is little risk that they will be confounded in blind tastings. But if this is not enough to mark one from the other, sneak a peek at the bottles, with Bordeaux’s sharply shouldered bottles pointedly contrasting with the shoulderless Burgundies.
While ticking down this list of differences between the wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux is informative and certainly mastered by any devotee of French wine, it leaves out the one element that Burgundy connoisseurs, better said, fanatics, elevate above all else—people. As magnificent as their wines may be, Bordeaux chateaux are large scale businesses, increasingly owned by conglomerates: insurance companies, luxury goods groups, fashion houses. Burgundy domains remain as small family enterprises, often with roots extending back for generations in the individual communes. As a result, to discerning tasters, a Burgundy expresses not only the particular appellation where the grapes were grown, but equally the personality and philosophy of the family that made it. One often hears the phrase “C’est l’homme qui fait le vin” (It is the individual who makes the wine). Said another way, if you want truly to understand Burgundy, by all means study the vineyard maps and learn the appellations, but study more the individuals and families making these always intriguing artisanal wines.
Case in point, Burgundy’s Gros family. Ground zero for the Gros’ is the village of Vosne-Romanée. Although there are partisans who may be given to mounting vigorous campaigns to place Chambertins or, perhaps, Musignys at the pinnacle of grand red
Burgundies, the top spot is almost universally accorded to Vosne-Romanée with its storied Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, Richebourg and Romanée-Saint-Vivant vineyards. As famed wine writer Hugh Johnson, with classic British understatement, put it “There are no common wines in Vosne”. Today three branches of the Gros family are found in the village, Domaine Michel Gros, Domaine Gros Frère & Sœur, and Domaine Anne Gros. There is a fourth family branch, Domaine Anne-Françoise Gros, but she, although producing wines from within the appellation, lives in Pommard. Our focus in this issue of Lettres du Brassus is upon the three branches of the family that still reside within the village of Vosne-Romanée.
The Gros’ have been living in the village of Vosne-Romanée since 1830 when Alphonse Gros purchased the former dwelling of Dom Trouvé, the Father Superior of the Abbey of Cîteaux. If you are well steeped in the lore of Cistercian abbeys, you would know that the Clos de Vougeot (located immediately adjacent to Vosne-Romanée) and the Abbey of Cîteaux were historically linked together and connoisseurs of French cheese would recognize Cîteaux as the name of an unctuous cheese that somewhat resembles Reblochon. Originally the Gros family’s business was that of a négociant, buying wines made by others, bottling and then selling them.
All of that changed in April, 1860, when one of the most prized parcels in Vosne-Romanée, the 1er cru vineyard of Clos des Réas, came up for auction following the death of the owner, who, having united the entirety of the vineyard in the 1820s (the only Vosne-Romanée 1er cru vineyard to have single ownership), passed with no heirs. With a bid of 25,000 “gold” francs (equal to the retail price of approximately 7,000 bottles) financed by his father, Louis-Gustave Gros became the owner of Clos des Réas which radiates out from the center of the village toward the southern edge of the Commune. Louis-Gustave was somewhat of a pioneer, being one of the first vineyard owners in the Côte d’Or to bottle and sell his own wine. Although today the practice of growing, vinifying and selling, which the French term “domaine wines”, is commonplace for the finest crus, the norm at the time called for vineyard owners to sell their wine in bulk to merchants, termed, négociants, who would bottle and sell. His Clos des Réas was soldunder the name of Domaine Gros-Guenaud, the latter being the family name of his wife. The purchase of Clos des Réas was but the first step as other important acquisitions followed, some by Louis-Gustave, others made by his son, Jules. These included sections of the famed Grand cru vineyards Richebourg (in 1882), Grands-Échézeaux, Échézeaux, and Clos de Vougeot (1920).
World War I weighed heavily on Jules’ family. One son, Gustave, was killed; the other, Louis, seriously wounded in one of his legs, disabling him for the remainder of his life. Notwithstanding his injury, Louis guided the Gros wine business through turbulent times—the Great Depression and World War II. With his wines producing less income than the cost to maintain the vineyards, Louis, nonetheless, supported his family and kept his vineyard holdings intact by shrewd investments and forays into the world of cinema.
Today’s four Gros domaines trace to Louis’ four children—Jean, Colette, Gustave and François. What is remarkable, as we examine the evolution of the three domaines that remain in the village of Vosne-Romanée, is the way the members of the family have stayed wedded to the land, resisting temptations to sell. Even more noteworthy is how the twin forces of the succession laws (division among siblings) and inheritance taxes have been held at bay, allowing the descendants of Jean, Colette, Gustave and François not only to preserve a 150 year old winemaking tradition in the village, but to make the investments to elevate the quality of the wines.
Domaine Michel Gros / Domaine Jean Gros.
Jean founded Domaine Jean Gros. From the 1950’s through 1996, Jean and his wife, Jeanine, built the fame of their Clos des Réas vineyard, added an adjacent parcel known as Aux Réas (despite being adjacent, Aux Réas is a “villages” level vineyard, not a 1er cru as is Clos des Réas), and modernized their methods of tending the vineyard as horses were replaced by tractors. Jeanine, who devoted herself to the business side, added other responsibilities as she served as Mayor of Vosne-Romanée from 1971 until 1995. When Jean’s health failed him in 1975, their oldest son, Michel, who that very year had earned his diploma from the Lycée viticole in Beaune (the oenology school in Burgundy), assumed the major burdens of winemaking. When Jean and Jeanine retired in 1996, they divided their holdings in three equally valued bundles. Each was written on a folded slip of paper so as to conceal the inscription, following which the three heirs, Michel, Bernard and Anne-Françoise each drew a slip from the hat. Michel’s slip ceded to him the vineyard where it all began, Clos des Réas. Beginning with that ’96 vintage, he began labeling his inherited wines as Domaine Michel Gros.
Notwithstanding his ownership of a small parcel of some grand cru’s, most notably Richebourg, Clos des Réas, the Gros family’s first vineyard is the flagship of Michel Gros’ lineup. As it was historically, Clos des Réas remains a monopole, meaning the entirety of this 1er cru vineyard is owned by Michel. As it was at the time of its purchase by Louis-Gustave more than a century and half ago, it is the only 1er cru in Vosne which is a monopole.
Michel’s winemaking philosophy was completely self-determined, as his father Jean refrained from imposing his imperatives when Michel took the reins in 1975. Although he has been making wine under his own name only since 1979, in fact, all the wines since ’75 are his, albeit labeled in the name of his father (his first wines under his name were from an Hautes Côtes de Nuits appellation; Clos des Réas under his name began in 1996). The lack of directions from Jean does not suggest a massive break with the past in terms of technique. The basics of Jean Gros’ style remain enhanced and improved. For example Michel follows Jean’s style in minimizing artifice and respecting the qualities of the fruit as it comes in from the vineyard. But as modernity does not necessarily conflict with traditional values, he has taken full advantage of advanced temperature control equipment. Restraint is the watchword in his winemaking. He completely de-stems as he believes that since one never eats grape stems, why should wine be made with them? Likewise he moderates the percentage of new oak barrels, varying between 50-60% on his premier crus, according to the vintage. With nearly 40 years of experience, Michel is not influenced by wine writers and does not pander for scores. He trusts his own taste and fashions his wines accordingly.
Bernard Gros / Domaine Gros Frère & Sœur.
Bernard is a pilot and delights in surveying his vineyards from his helicopter. This is an astute choice of aircraft, because its hovering capability allows for a degree of inspection of the microscopically small Burgundian vineyards that in a normal airplane would flash by in seconds. The obsession with detail and the discipline that comes with flying characterizes his approach to winemaking. Bernard is a perfectionist, confirmed by any visit to his vineyards, chai or cellar, all of which show the careful thought and study that he brings to his winemaking. For example, the near universal practice in the Côte de Nuits is to plant the rows of vines in an east/west orientation. Bernard believes in a north/south orientation as the sun exposure is more even for the entire row leading to more uniform ripening. Another benefit, less soil erosion. Not that these advantages come free of a downside. The risk of hail damage is higher as the prevailing storm winds hit the rows broadside. In common with his brother, Michel, he takes advantage of advanced temperature control equipment and modern pumps, inspired by medical devices that, because they are fashioned without rotors, move the wine more gently than standard designs.
Although he and his brother, Michel, are quite close —the families dine together once a week— each hews to his own firmly held ideas on winemaking. For example, Michel’s limitation to 50-60% new oak is not followed by Bernard who uses 100% new oak in all of his prestige crus. On the other hand, both follow the same rule with respect to stems; both brothers de-stem all the clusters.
There is commonality in the suddenness with which each brother had the commencement of his career thrust upon him. Gustave, who with his sister, Colette, had formed Domaine Gros Frère & Sœur, fell suddenly ill in 1980. Just 15 days after he finished his compulsory military service, Bernard was called upon to step in. Gustave was to pass away just four years later. Now living in Colette’s home in the village, Bernard is assisted by his son, Vincent (representing the seventh generation of Gros winemakers in Vosne). The vineyards they manage are a complicated mix. Some, written upon the slip of paper which he drew, are those which he inherited from his father Jean. Others legally belong to his children, Michel’s children, and Colette. Notwithstanding the disparate ownership, all are maintained, vinified, bottled and sold under the name Gros Frère & Sœur and are domaine wines. The lineup is regal: a portion of Richebourg high on the slope; Clos Vougeot Musigni, again high on the slope and within the walls of Château and immediately adjacent to the famed Chambolle-Musigny vineyard (the vines high on the slope are universally considered to be of higher quality than those lower down); Grands- Échézeaux and Échézeaux.
There is not a trace of whimsy when Bernard observes that “his best wine is the one he will make tomorrow”.
Domaine Anne Gros / Domaine François Gros.
Anne’s taking of the helm, like that of her cousins Michel and Bernard, was dictated by illness. Following an apprenticeship with Michel two years earlier, Anne took the responsibility for her first vintage in 1987. This was a major leap for her as her studies to that point had been devoted to literature. The about face in her life, becoming a winemaker, sent her to the Lycée viticole in Beaune full time (while working full time at the domaine). She followed that course work with one day per week university oenology classes. Despite the Lycée viticole’s slant toward the technical aspects of winemaking, Anne has not let winemaking science overwhelm what she sees as an emotional pursuit. Her vision looks at wine romantically and she seeks to have her wines express the feelings that she has for the vines, grapes and the vineyards. Amplifying on that theme, Anne calls her approach“observation and adaptation”. She tries to extract from each of her parcels the full expression of what she feels about the soil and the year. One thing she has pursued formally is organic care of her vineyards, enrolling in courses promoting those methods. While she is not 100% organic in her tending of the vines, she both avoids herbicides and uses organic approaches as much as she can. For example, based on her courses, she uses biological techniques to control weeds, concocting her own blend of grains that block the weeds without harming the vines.
However clear her thoughts on how to approach winemaking may have been, realizing her dream has been a struggle. When she took full charge she realized that she both lacked resources and clientele. So she was forced to sell the first two years of production to négociants (wine merchants who could bottle and sell her wine under their names). Two years later, in 1990 she took the great leap of bottling and selling her wine under her domaine name, which at that point also included her father’s name as well. Five years later she changed the name again to simply her own, Domaine Anne Gros. However brave that decision may have been, the burdens upon her were massive. She could not afford to buy all the material she needed; she even lacked tractors for the vineyards. Fortunately she was able to lean on her cousins Michel and Bernard for assistance. And on top of it all, she had three children to raise.
Gradualism was the watch word as Anne acquired her own equipment and constructed her building and cave in the village. At the same time she doubled the size of her holdings. And one last change, her daughter, Julie, another of the seventh generation, now works beside her.
The winner of the Ladies’ Watch Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève in 2014.