Domaine Chanson - Bastion of history re-invented

Domaine Chanson - Bastion of history re-invented

Talk about contrast and juxtaposition! Chanson is a brand that has been around for nearly 300 years and is even housed in a Louis XIV defensive fortifications in the heart of Beaune but  has just been purchased by a forward thinking Champagne house and has built one of the most modern facilities in Burgundy. Yet they’ve recently made a controversial commitment to vinify all their red wines with stems, a traditional practice that had almost disappeared. 

My question is: what is the heart of Chanson? Do they have an identity which supersedes all of the recent change and investment? Or are we now dealing with a completely different animal compared to the Chanson of 20 years ago?

These questions were what brought me to spend two days with Gilles de Courcel and Jean-Pierre Confuron (managing director and winemaker) in Beaune and the answers to these questions might surprise you as much as it did me.

Originally called Maison de Vins de Bourgogne, Chanson was founded in 1750 by Simon Verry.  In the 19th century this old house now housed in the Bastion de l'Oratoire came under the leadership of Alexis Chanson whose family already owned large tracts of vineyards in and around Beaune.

Although it remained a dominant force in the industry for another 150 years towards the middle of the last century the grand old house was losing steam. The family had lost interest in winemaking, yields went up and quality went down. This was the state that Group Societé Jacques Bollinger, owners of Champane Bollinger, found Chanson in when they were looking to expand into Burgundy. The sale was completed in 1999

The sale to Bollinger may very well be THE seminal moment in the history of Domain Chanson. Not only did Group SBJ  invest heavily into new technology, new facilities and new staff, it’s easy to see that they also infused a completely new raison d’etre into this proud old company.

 The more time I spent in Chanson’s cellars and touring their vineyards to more I realized that to compare the Chanson of 20 years ago with the Chanson of today is akin to comparing apples and oranges.

Other than the vineyards sites owned by the company, the use of the brooding Bastion de L’Oratoire and the name (which they almost changed) this is an entirely different company.  A point that was verified by Mons. Courcel at dinner one evening when I asked him if any part of the soul of the “pre Bollinger” Maison Chason remained. He seemed slightly uncomfortable with the question and as if to justify their current position he started to recount all of the changes they had again, then paused, and said.

“We still focus on Beaune. We are specialists here just as they were and we chose to keep the name to honor the treasure of such a rich history. But our philosophy, our vineyard practices and our winemaking practices are so different that very little remains of the old Chanson.”

Interesting as all this is; the re-instilling a new vigor into a iconic Burgundian producer, what I find most intriguing is the position that the New Chanson has taken on winemaking, specifically the use of stems, and how that contrasts with the influence of a leading Champagne producer.

The influence of Bollinger cannot be understated. The new winery they have just completed is likely the most modern and specialized in the Cote d’Or. Rows of gravity-fed 1000L stainless fermenters stacked on top of each other, white wine on the bottom and red on the top, for handling each of their vineyard lots separately. Long slow pressing, long cold soaks, very gentle punchdowns and everything that can possibly done to protect the freshness of the fruit is done. They have even invented a cooling tunnel which all the fruit runs through which rapidly chills the grapes coming off the vineyards. Everything is state of the art and very well thought out.

In contrast the winemaking is done by Jean-Pierre Confuron who is known for his use of stems during the maceration process. This use of stems is a decidedly rustic and some might say archaic approach to making Burgundy and might be seen as a juxtaposition against the polish and freshness they are pursuing in the winery.

One of the most beautifully situated vineyard in all of Burgundy and the crowning jewel of the Chanson holdings, Beauve Clos des Fèves. Note the fractured limestone rift on the left.

One of the most beautifully situated vineyard in all of Burgundy and the crowning jewel of the Chanson holdings, Beauve Clos des Fèves. Note the fractured limestone rift on the left.

However, in the hands of the Jean-Pierre, just awarded Best Winemaker in France by Le Revue de France, the result is quite fascinating. At least it adds a savory, spicy complexity on the palate and in the best cases it provides a unmatched depth which feels so much more familiar than anything added by oak. The reds are fascinating but I was particularly impressed with the whites. Their stance on minimal oak usage and their fanatical approach to purity of fruit makes their collection of wines a fascinating study for those interested in understanding terroir.  To exemplify this point, I found out that their Chablis was just put in the same category of quality as Dauvissat and Raveneau by Decanter magazine.

Lastly, I think its important to mention that both the General Manager Gilles du Courcel the GM of the winery and winemaker Jean-Pierre Confuron both own and operate their own wineries; Domaine Courcel in Pommard and Domine Confuron-Coteditot in Vosne-Romanee.

End of the day, I believe that this is a producer to watch. Just as the mixing of cultures creates an eventual cuisine greater than the parts, my prediction is that the blending of traditional Burgundian elements with modern Champenois knowhow and a list of incredible vineyard sites will all come together to create a beautiful vinous symmetry .

  Here are the Somm Bytes

  1. Founded in 1750 and housed in that big Medieval looking structure with the moat in the middle of Beaune, the Bastion de L’Oratoire.
  2. Chanson owns relatively large percentage of vineyards for a producer of their size, around 20%, especially focused in and around the village of Beaune. They are focused on growing their holdings.
  3. Although they purchase a great deal of the fruit needed and are a negociant in that sense, they purchase very little wine, less than 5%, and most of the vineyard management comes under their control. No machines are used for harvesting.
  4. Known for their Vire-Clesse, Chanson was instrumental in the elevation of these villages to AOC status.
  5. Gilles du Courcel the GM of the winery and winemaker Jean-Pierre Confuron both own and operate their own wineries; Domaine Courcel in Pommard and Domine Confuron-Coteditot in Vosne-Romanee, which adds a small producer mentality to this relatively large producer; currently producing about 1 million bottles.
  6. Currently the largest land owner in Pernand-Verglesses
  7. New oak usage averages around 30%, even for their top wines and both alcoholic and malolactic fermentation occur in the same barrels.
  8. Natural yeast are used and they neither fine or filter their wines.
  9. For each wine they only do one bottling in order to insure that qualities are the same from one bottle to the other.
  10. The use of stems is standard for red wines along with long, whole-berry cold soaks are used to capture as much primary fruit as possible. In order to limit the amount of SO2 used Chanson has developed a chilling tunnel which is attached to their sorting table so that all fruit stays cool as it enters it cold soak.