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Domaine David Clark, Burgundy

by Tom Cannavan, 02/2011

There can be little argument that Domaine David Clark is one of the most unusual houses in Burgundy. Its proprietor and winemaker, the eponymous David Clark, is a Scottish engineer who was leading a glamorous but possibly slightly unfulfilled life as an engineer for the Williams Formula 1 motor racing team. Yet David had been bitten by the wine bug whilst at University and he says that his moment on the road to Damascus came in 2002 when, "I just packed my bags and moved to France, certain that I wanted to make wine somewhere."

david clark After six months studying French, David (picture right, courtesy Weygandt Wines) enrolled at the university of Beaune for a one-year winemaking course. "It was all classroom based, and I wanted practical experience," he says, so when a small half acre plot of vineyard Grande Ordinaire came up for sale in Burgundy he raised the money to buy it - "Though they were practically giving it away," he laughs, "it is such a lowly appellation, mostly used to grow grapes for Crémant de Bourgogne."

But despite the lowly appellation, David snapped it up as a way to learn about pruning and vineyard management, running in parallel with his course. "The vineyard was beautiful," he says, "but it had been chemically farmed for 50 years." Converting it to David's ethos of organic, hands-on farming was put to the test immediately.

During that time David says he became attached to life in Burgundy, so at the end of his course he found a small house for sale with a tiny winery attached in the village of Morey-Saint-Denis, which he bought in August 2004 and from which he produced his first ever vintage: two barrels of wine. Since then, the challenge has been to acquire vineyards in this most expensive and complex of wine region. He now has six plots, running up and down the Côtes de Nuits, including village appellations in Morey-Saint-Denis and Vosne-Romanée.

Engineering Burgundy

As engineer by trade, David blends a practical, pragmatic approach to growing grapes and making wine with an almost reverential respect for his little plots of earth; for terroir. He points out that the Appellation Contrôlée system was only introduced in Burgundy in 1935 and was merely a rubber stamp on the knowledge that had been built up by the nuns and monks who had worked these vineyards for centuries. "Really there were no mistakes," he says, "There are good reasons why the Grand Ordinaire vineyards are just that, to do with geology, aspect, soils and drainage. You can work them better, but they will never really out-perform their appellation."

Grapes for the Passetoutgrain - a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay - go through a de-stemmer into stainless steel tanks. He uses no extraction enzymes, cultured years or other modern wine technology and has not Chaptalised for two years. From Bourgogne level up the winemaking is with whole bunches with stems and berries intact. This begins a partial carbonic maceration where the creation of carbon dioxide inside the berry eventually causes it to burst. David says it might take four or five days for the wild yeast population to multiply enough to start fermentation, which continues until David judges the tannin levels are where he wants them.

   The level of detail is extraordinary in this tiny Domaine: David calls on his engineering skills regularly, including building a tractor to cope with one of his oldest vineyards that outwitted modern machinery, and even designing and building his own "little bit Heath Robinson" bottling line. Uniquely, the line which is entirely operated by hand has tubes that go down into the bottles and fill them gently from the bottom up. He explains that this is because he wants to avoid the oxygen pick-up of commercial lines that put a funnel just into the neck of the wine and effectively the wine is sprayed into the bottle, which he fears is exposing the wine to too much oxygen. Click the video for a full Heath Robinson experience.

David farms organically, spraying with an array of exotic compounds including skimmed milk, whey and Fenugreek flour against diseases like powdery mildew, but also using some copper sulphate - all of which are accepted for certified organic use.

Domaine David Clark really is a remarkable - and tiny - operation but one which seems destined to be one of the most interesting in all of Burgundy. The wines already have something of a cult following, and the allocation through David's UK agents Berry Bros & Rudd of the current release - the 2009 vintage - has already sold out for his top two wines.

the wines

I was extremely impressed by these wines throughout the range, all of which are on sale now through BBR.com or direct from domainedavidclark.com. The wines are being sold 'en primeur' and will be released later this year, shipped to the UK in November.

Domaine David Clark, Bourgogne Passetoutgrain 2009
1800 bottles. Two-thirds Gamay from a specific vineyard, picked and made separately then blended with Pinot Noir from another vineyard. Soft, appealing, gently earthy and truffly red fruit. A cherry quality. Firm, juicy palate, with a certain sappy freshness. The finish is focused on the red fruits, with a touch of spice, crisp acidity and a nice little vein of tannin. Like a serious, very fresh Beaujolais Villages. 86-87/100. £99 for 12, in-bond.

Domaine David Clark, Bourgogne 2009
1800 bottles. From a vineyard planted in 1981. Quite a meaty character here, but then finer, cherry and herbal aromatics come through. On the nose the fruit is really quite creamy. The palate is light, dry and very crisp, with a savoury, spicy character and relatively light body. Racy, very fine and a lovely savoury food wine. 88/100. £138 for 12, in-bond.

Domaine David Clark, Côtes de Nuits Villages 2009
1800 bottles. 55-year-old vineyard in the village of Brochon that is 'Villages' level all the way from the top to the bottom of the slope - David's vineyard is right in the prime 'route de grands crus' sweet spot "on a perfect 5% slope." Lovely nose: bold, creamy fruit and little pepper and herb notes, a lift of some strawberry and a background earthiness. Certainly the nose is more complex than the Bourgogne. The palate is dominated by the freshness of the fruit. Lovely red fruit to this, and the tannin and acid structure much firmer, needing a little time to just loosen up but has delightful balance, the gentle, savoury oak adding a little extra spice and coffee depth. There's the tiniest hint of fizz in this young wine, which David leaves there deliberately to preserve freshness and which will dissipate completely over a year or two. 89-90/100. £174 for 12, in-bond.

Domaine David Clark, Morey-Saint-Denis 2009
300 bottles from one barrel - from five rows of vines planted in 1945. A much more vinous character here, very tight with violet and cherry fruit and a sheen of old vine concentration. More concentration immediately apparent on the palate too, with silky mouth-feel and a real juiciness. Beautiful fruit quality here, with that firm-edged, beautifully grippy cherry skin character running through with lovely length. Not so coffee-ish and seductive as the Cotes de Nuits perhaps, but more agility and structure. 91/100. Available only as part of a mixed case at €220 direct from the Domaine.

Domaine David Clark, Vosne-Romanée 2009
600 bottles. Part of the vineyard is 55 years old, part 25 years old. This vintage entirely ploughed by horse, but it will be the last as it is just too difficult to work - six times more passes through the vineyard in the season, and "100 times the physical effort of a tractor," according to David. Again, concentration here, a very tightly-wound nose of black fruit with tight, ebony-like polish. The palate has serious concentration again, with plum and black cherry fruit, extremely pure and focused, with fantastic linear qualities, tightly buttressed by fine tannins and juicy acids, that tug and push this into a fine line that runs to a lovely point in the finish. What a lovely wine this is, with great charm, focus and precision and an endless finish. 93/100. Available only as part of a mixed case at €220 direct from the Domaine.