From Grand Prix to Grand Cru?

6 Jan 2007 by Jancis Robinson

This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

See my survey of 2005 burgundies, my biggest ever, later this month. 

Ah, what poetry there is in the names of those who make the elixir that is red burgundy: Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Domaine Armand Rousseau, Domaine Georges Roumier, Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé, Domaine David Clark…

 
Yes that last name does seem a bit of an anomaly but I have in my hand a business card with those very words inscribed on it along with an address in Morey-Saint-Denis (just round the corner from the eminent Domaine Dujac), a web address for www.domainedavidclark.com and the claim “Vins fins de Bourgogne”.
 
So who is this David Clark who has dared to infiltrate France’s most traditional, most zealously guarded wine region? I had to go and inspect.
 
Between visits to some very much more illustrious domaines I sought out his house, cellar and courtyard on the main street of Morey. Fresh-faced and bright-eyed, he looks very young to be a Burgundian landowner. To achieve this you generally need local blood coursing through your, or your spouse’s, veins or a serious fortune - as witness the only other British acquisition in Burgundy of the current era, busy chairman of Glasgow Rangers football club Sir David Murray’s rescue of the family-run Domaine Jessiaume in the rather less glorious village of Santenay.
 
David Clark may also have a light Scottish burr, but his route to Burgundy has been much more modest, if considerably more single-minded and direct than Murray’s. He was born in Indianapolis but his Scottish parents sent him to boarding school in the old country and he followed this up with an engineering degree at Cambridge (the British one). It was the proximity of an Oddbins to IBM in Leamington Spa where he spent his gap year that lit the vinous flame. He drank his way round France and in his graduate year decided he was going to make wine. He did the 1997 harvest at Mayacamas in the Napa Valley and the 1998 one at Tahbilk in Australia, conveniently close to Melbourne where he was interviewed by the Williams Formula One team over there for the Grand Prix.
 
Taken on as a software engineer, he ended up after four years in charge of pit stop strategy. I imagined all this high-profile travelling round the world must have been paradise for a young man? “It was very exciting for the first two years,” he admitted, “but it gets repetitive, all the same hotels and restaurants.”
 
“And then there’s that waste of champagne,” I add disapprovingly, ever the wine purist who can never understand why victorious racing drivers spray it instead of drink it. “I’m afraid we didn’t see much of that in my time,” he said apologetically.
 
Anyway, all this time he was amassing a bit of capital (“not difficult when you have no time to spend it”) and on leaving Williams in 2003 went to work on an organic farm in the Auvergne to polish up his French before enrolling at the Lycée Viticole in Beaune to learn his chosen craft. 
 
In early 2004, seeing an ad for a small (2/3 acre) vineyard on the bottom rung of Burgundy’s long ladder up through generic to village wines and thence to princely premiers crus and glorious grands crus, he took the plunge. Burgundy’s vineyards are little bigger than allotments, and are shared in the same open plan way, so it was not long before he heard, via his fellow vignerons, of this house in Morey that was also for sale. It had belonged to a vigneron so had just the right outbuildings for a cellar, tractor storage and so on.
 
By diligent listening to his neighbours he has so far managed to amass a total of 1.5 hectares, nearly four acres, of humble vineyard without borrowing a sou, but admits that he is now “getting to the point where I want some more glamorous vines” above the lowly generic Bourgogne appellation, though he knows they will “probably cost as much as I’ve put in so far”.
 
He is probably right, but he is so obviously dedicated to the task of both vine growing and wine making that it would be a shame if he never had anything more promising to play with. So far he has made just a hand-crafted Bourgogne Rouge and an even more promising Bourgogne Passetoutgrains, a blend of Pinot Noir and some obviously very superior Gamay grapes from a small parcel sold to him by Christophe Roumier of Chambolle Musigny. When I tasted chez Roumier the next day, Christophe volunteered considerable praise for David Clark and in particular his meticulousness in the vineyard.
 
Clark himself is self-deprecating. He explained that it had taken him, and his engineer father who is a frequent visitor, four days to fill just two casks with the hail-affected 2004 crop, picking out damaged grapes with tweezers. I asked him how he had been received by the locals and he told me how he had made most of his new acquaintances while tending the vines. Early on he became convinced that the posts in his first vineyard needed to be replaced with taller ones so that he should train the vines higher. As he was painstakingly hammering these strange high posts into the ground, all his fellow vignerons came to watch and shook their heads. “It’s fairly embarrassing; it’s so public in a vineyard. They all came and told me how it wasn’t going to work.”
 
So what was the outcome? “I’ve cut the posts down to tractor height now. The lower vines were riper in fact,” he smiled ruefully. Last year, when he made enough wine to fill 6,000 bottles, he began to convert the vineyards to organic viticulture and will be fully certified by the 2009 vintage. “I think I’d like to mention it on the back label. It’s frustrating that so many people talk about organic but are in fact a reasonable way away from the rules”. Diplomacy is presumably a useful quality in a region where even those brought up in the next département are regarded as foreigners.
 
He has not yet acquired this season’s must-have accessory among the Côte d’Or’s swelling band of organic and biodynamic wine farmers – a horse – but this is surely not too far away. I mused that at least for the moment it must be useful that with his engineering and grand prix training he can fix his own tractor. He smiled again. “I’m pretty useless mechanically actually. The Williams mechanics never let engineers near the cars. I have to call a guy in the village whenever I have a problem.”
 
David Clark’s wines will be sold by Berry Bros & Rudd of London.
 
See my survey of 2005 burgundies, my biggest ever, later this month. 
Tags:  Burgundy
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