I got to my roadside hotel in Chambery last Thursday evening in one of those sentimental states that come along every once in awhile in this business where you thank your lucky stars you do what you do. Exhausted, over wrought, elated and pensive, I sent a note to my bosses thanking them for letting me be a part of it. They began mocking me immediately, insisting I must be either 1) drunk (I was not) or 2) tired (I was). Recognizing it as the sort of tough love I’d come to know from other brotherly figures, and to which I’m particularly susceptible because I have no actual brothers and take teasing pretty hard, I put aside their messages, and lay down listening to the highway traffic through an open window to ponder the beauty I’d seem and tasted that day.
I’d started the morning driving up a twisty road to rescue a family heirloom my friend Ariana had left it in a hunting lodge outside Arbois several years ago. I was supposed to undertake this mission the last time I passed through the area, but failed. This time I was determined not to be that person who promises they’ll do things for their friends only not to do them. When I arrived at the Hotel Sequoia, an ancient stone building nestled away in the forest it seemed to be closed. But I saw Madame in the back working in the garden and thought it was worth a try. Sure enough within a few minutes she’d liberated my friend’s family heirloom, and I was descending the sunny hillside, a broad smile on my face at barely 10am. Mission accomplished.
From there I drove toward Switzerland, crossing the border at the top of a mountain and beginning my descent, both hands on the steering wheel, the right hand darting back and forth to the gearshift as it’s the kind of switchback driving that virtually requires three hands. Engaged in a little Rolling Stones retrospective, I casually wondered if Dominique Lucas would be home. We’d made a plan, but he hadn’t responded to my most recent email, and hadn’t picked up the phone. Worst case scenario: it’s still a pretty drive.
Just outside Geneva on the French side of the border I crawled up a country road toward Ballaisons, suburb of Crépy Marocens. Sun drenched the vines, which overlooked Lake Geneva, in France called Lac Léman. When I arrived at the winery “Les Vignes du Paradis” I stopped to marvel at this apt description of the Domaine. It’s possible I’ve never visited a more heavenly place.
Dominique Lucas strolled out with a couple of visiting merchants. They said their goodbyes, stuffed some wine in their trunk, and I scoped the place out, its oeufs bétons (concrete eggs), its barriques, and amphorae. He cleared away the remains of a lunch of bread, pâté, mustard, and cornichons resting casually on an upturned barrel, while asking some questions about myself, how I’d come to be there, how long I’d worked for Selection Massale, how was business, and how was Guilhaume? Those formalities dispatched I could listen to his story, a winemaker I knew virtually nothing about, from whom I had tasted one single wine: a Chasselas that was so good I needed to find its maker.
Dominique Lucas is a 5th generation Burgundy winemaker who started his Domaine in the Haut Savoie in 2008. Today he has 10 hectares of vines, 2.5 of which are in Burgundy in the Haute Côte de Beaune, and in Pommard across from the Chateau.
So the obvious question is “why did you leave Burgundy to make wine in the Haut Savoie?” Not many winemakers would have made that decision. The answer turned out to be twofold and simple. Dominique Lucas did not like working within the confines of the Burgundy appellation system; he didn’t like the watchful gaze of his neighbors; he didn’t like their chemicals in his vineyards; to this day he doesn’t like to make wine to fit anyone’s standards but his own (and perhaps those of his buddy Dominique Belluard, with whom he exchanges many ideas). Oh … and then he came to Lac Léman at the recommendation of a friend who tipped him off that there were great vineyards at reasonable prices. One look at vines overlooking the lake and he was sold. Hearing it expressed this way, and already sort of skeptical of Burgundy myself, his decision made sense! Who would want to make wine in Pommard that could make wine in Ballaisons?
Lucas works his soils biodynamically (certified by Ecocert, though not by Demeter), and he’s fairly obsessed with energy, the energy of every aspect of the production from vines to cellar. Like most biodynamic dudes, he’s got some kooky beliefs: the amphora is the reverse of the egg; here’s the first (ever) concrete pyramid shaped aging vessel. Let’s see what energy that shape gives the wine! The more people like this I meet, and the more I taste, the happier I am just to let them do their thing without really understanding. As my friend Zach and I were saying at the airport waiting to fly home, there is absolutely no guarantee at all that organic wine will be good. There’s so much opportunity to f—k up organic grapes in the cellar, but biodynamic wine stands a better chance. People who put so much effort into farming are less likely to throw it away by yeasting, over-sulfuring, and otherwise messing with their juice in the cellar.
Toward the beginning of our meeting, Lucas told me that harvest at Les Vignes du Paradis lasts 2.5 months. That is an insanely long time. Chasselas has to get ripe! He told me … He does five passes through each vineyard making sure that the grapes are ripe. Chasselas does not take the sun as easily as some other cépages, and most Chasselas is harvested grossly under ripe. We talked about how most Chasselas in the region is made: over-cropped and under-ripe, loaded up with sugar to attain a respectable degree of alcohol. I laughed when he commented: les camions du sucre sont infernaux! – spoken like a man who will never chaptalize.
The overall terroir of the area is limestone with yellow marl, granite, and glacial morasses; Lucas farms 27 different parcels on various soil types, which he separates and raises in egg, barrel, or a combination of the two depending on the desired result. Certainly there were marked differences between the cuvees depending on which aging vessel he’d used. There are four appellations by Lac Léman, and they are all for Chasselas. Knowing how Lucas feels about working within the appellation system, I wasn’t surprised when he told me that he really only makes one appellation wine from Chasselas, his Marin. And he plants Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Savagnin, and Petite Arvine, which are for the most part legal in IGP wines, but not in appellation wines.
Explaining that he’d just completed the mise en bouteille yesterday and that I should excuse the wines for being a little troubled, we began to taste through an array of wines in unmarked bottles. The first was Chasselas from a recently started négociant project. I knew of the existence of this wine because we’ll be getting some as soon as his label printer is fixed and he stickers the back of the bottles. Called “Quintessence,” fermented in cuve and partially aged in 600 liter barrels, it’s a lemony bright wine at a refreshing 11% alcohol, with the same over all character as Lucas’ other wines, but more light hearted and less serious.
Next we tasted three more serious cuvees of Chasselas, each building on its predecessor in complexity. “Petit Coin de Paradis” is from vines in Crépy, raised in demi-muids from a parcel at the base of the hill. It was round and exotic, with a texture I’ve come to associate with Les Vignes du Paradis, which is lush on the front palate and reigned in by citrus and stoniness on the finish. Chasselas “Un Matin Face au Lac” from vines planted on clay and glacial morasses, was raised in egg, and – I thought – delivered more layers on the palate, more of the succulent lemon and rock and cream pudding that marks these wines. Chasselas Marin was my favorite of the three, with deep, base-y aromas and yellow fruit. It seemed the most obviously mineral, and comes from glacial morasses and granite soils. All three wines had amazing finishes, but the Marin was the longest and most impressive.
Then there were four white wines from other grape varieties: Chardonnay raised half in barrel and half in egg, which showed more Savoie-ness than Chardonnay-ness. Lucas makes Savagnin sous voile (for two years) and topped up. This one was topped up. It has the distinct phenolics and bracing acidity of Savagnin, but was not the slightest bit Jurassic. I’d have loved to have one to blind taste my cronies at home. Pinot Gris was as elegant as I’ve known Pinot Gris to be. It was high toned with powdery blue fruits and purple flowers. The only 2013 wine we tasted, Lucas’ Petite Arvine “PMG” (pour ma gueule) was down right crazy. The malo wasn’t done, and the wine was very high acid and almost tannic. Wild stuff. Lucas planted the vines in 2009; my guess is he doesn’t quite know what the future holds for this wine.
We moved on to Burgundies. Lucas brings his Burgundy grapes to the winery in Haut Savoie to make the wine; they are clearly in the same phylum as the Chasselas, etc … if not the same family. Chardonnay “Grand Chardonnay” from argilo-calcaire on the edge of Pommard was big, broad, and ripe. Made in eggs, he commented that this is always the biggest of the Burgundies. I found Haute Côte de Beaune blanc from éboulis calcaire and western exposition to be more balanced with what Lucas described as a grosse mineralité. For me (unsurprisingly), the wine that stole the show was the Aligoté from 100 year old vines planted below Pommard. The nose was beautiful and ripe, with a sort of floral yet tart apple and honey character, harvested at 16-20 hectoliters per hectare, he makes just one egg. This one got the old “f—k me that’s great” in my tasting book. The only other Aligoté I’ve tasted of this vivid, succulence is from the De Moors in Chablis (also 100 + year old vines).
Lucas red wines were unlike any Burgundies I’d tried before. His Haute Côte de Beaune was saline with notes of roasting meat, coffee, and savory cassis. It was distinct, interesting, young. His 2014 Gamay made without sulfur and in amphora, à la Belluard’s Mondeuse, was deep, dark, and smoky, structured, with the faintest hint of yeastiness on the finish, but the kind that accompanies a recently finished fermentation and bottling and goes away (rather than the kind that sticks around to be come the dreaded goût de souris). Amongst the reds we tried, easily my favorite was the 2011 Burgundy “En Passent devant le Chateau” (passing in front of the castle). With its beautiful nose of rose petal, its suavity and silken texture, its cranberry and sumac on the palate, I imagine I’ll be carrying a torch for this wine for a long time.
If I had to hazard a guess I’d say Dominique Lucas liked me more than he thought he was going to. He struck me as not the warmest of characters, but by the end of our tasting we were bantering comfortably, and what I thought would be an hour or two, turned into three when he asked me if I wanted to drive him around to look at the vines. Of course I did. We looked at fledgling buds; we talked to the neighbor, a raspberry farmer riding a tiny, funny looking tractor with spike-y tines like teeth; we admired the view of Lac Léman.
Though I’d been spitting the whole time, I was not sober when I left, high on life, high on a new array of brilliant wines, inspired, a visit to paradise facing the lake.