The French Prince of Belair


15 November 2018 A trip down Memory Lane for those interested in the evolution of Burgundy. Here's how things looked for Louis-Michel, now a pivotal figure on the Côte d'Or scene, back in 2003. The original 2003 article was republished in 2007 as immediately below. 

4 January 2007 After writing yesterday’s article about Lunar lore in modern Burgundy, I realised this FT article originally published in 2003 was nowhere to be found on for some reason, so I thought you might be interested in it, especially with 2005 burgundy hysteria on the horizon. 

While in Vosne last month I dropped in on Louis-Michel without an appointment and found a scene just like the set of a particularly avant garde play. To get to his office in the corner of the courtyard in front of the substantial family home, the grandest building in Vosne, you have to ascend an ancient spiral staircase. At the top, as dusk was falling, I found a large, high-ceilinged room that looked like an upmarket junk shop in the way that opera sets so often tend to. Hampers half unpacked, large but not perfectly formed pieces of furniture ranged higgledy piggledy that looked as though they had never been dusted… The only light came from a blueish glow in the corner, Louis-Michel’s computer screen.

He told me he will be showing his usual wines in London next week and from the 2006 vintage has added six more wines from family-owned parcels that until then had been en metayage, leased to other growers. Should be interesting.

24 May 2003 This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times

Some time next year, before his 31st birthday if he is lucky, Louis-Michel Vicomte Liger-Belair will feel he has finally proved himself to his father. The 'test' will be to manage to sell his entire production of six and half barrels of La Romanée 2002, a grand cru red burgundy.

To those fully immersed in the world of wine, this combination of one of the most highly ranked wines in the world and a ripe vintage that is already being heavily touted, would seem to be a bit of a dead cert. But Louis-Michel's father, the Comte Liger-Belair, is a general, a military man still haunted by Burgundy's long-gone era of financial hardship. He cannot quite believe that his son, who could have made a perfectly good soldier, was wise to choose the life of a vigneron.

He still thinks that the sensible thing to do with the family's inheritance of prime vineyard site in Vosne-Romanée, the epicentre of top-quality red burgundy, is to sell its produce at a guaranteed price to one of the big merchants. Bouchard Père et Fils have been selling La Romanée and the wine made from the other Liger-Belair vineyards under their own label for nearly 30 years now.

But these agreements are coming to an end, so that La Romanée, 0.84 hectares (two acres) of grand cru vines immediately uphill of the vineyard known as Romanée-Conti, whose burgundies are the most expensive in the world, will be under the unique control of the Liger-Belair family for the first time in generations.

The family's vineyard holdings were once prodigious. The domaine was created in 1815 by Louis Liger-Belair, one of Napoleon's generals, who with his son Louis-Charles managed to amass not just 40 hectares (100 acres) of tip-top vineyard, including sole ownership of La Tâche, which can even rival Romanée-Conti, but also by far the grandest habitation in the village of Vosne-Romanée, the Château de Vosne-Romanée, a handsome if slightly delapidated set of buildings set in a small park.

By the time Louis-Michel's great grandmother died in 1933, the family's holdings were down to 24 hectares (still not bad in the intricately parcellated vineyards of Burgundy). But the Napoleonic code dictated that each of the 10 children had to inherit equally. Many preferred cash to vines. So the domaine had to be further liquidated. La Tâche was sold to what has since, thanks to the wines of La Tâche and Romanée-Conti, become the most famous domaine in the world, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti -– a much more modest-looking enterprise just round the corner from the Liger-Belairs.

Sole ownership of the entire La Romanée vineyard ended up in the hands of Louis-Michel's grandfather Michel, with his brother Just, a priest. But when Michel died in 1941, Louis-Michel's father Henry was only 13. It was natural that someone else would be sought to manage this tiny vineyard then, and subsequently while Henry was stationed in Algeria.

Scroll forward 40 years to 1981 when the soldier's son Louis-Michel was eight. It was at this tender age that he announced that what he wanted to do most in all the world was live in Vosne-Romanée (where the family spent their holidays) and make wine. As this childish fantasy gelled into serious intent, his father reluctantly agreed, but only on condition that Louis-Michel qualified as an engineer first. (At least that way the door to the army could remain open; Louis-Michel did his of military service, in wine country, in Saumur, then Germany.)

Louis-Michel did indeed study engineering (finally being given the keys to the domaine in Vosne-Romanée when he qualified, at the age of 23) but during his five years of study sneaked off to Napa Valley, Bordeaux and the south of France to further his knowledge of winemaking. And as soon as he had satisfied his requirements as an engineer, he enrolled for a two-year course in oenology at the University of Dijon, from which he finally graduated in 2001, just in time to start to take over the family vineyards once more.

This is a romantic story which cynics might dismiss as mere hype. But I am convinced that this family domaine, registered as the Domaine du Vicomte Liger-Belair early in 2000 by Louis-Michel, has an extremely bright future. Promising signs include cellars that are more luxurious than his living quarters; a devotion to ploughing his vineyards, which now total 3.14 hectares (nearly eight acres), himself with a horse; espousal of minimal intervention in vineyard and cellar; bottling only as the moon is waning; top-quality oak; risk-taking – in short, all the accoutrements of the ambitious young winemaker about Beaune or Nuits.

The first vineyards to fall into his eager hands, in 2000, were some village Vosne-Romanées, including their monopole Clos du Château created in 1970 when his father planted the original park round the house with vines to increase the domaine's income, and a bit of the premier cru Chaumes vineyard just below La Tâche. Louis-Michel's first vintage of La Romanée, and the premier cru Reignots, was 2002, although half was still promised to Bouchard (hence that half-barrel of 2002). Each year, he will be allowed to sell slightly more wine under his own label so that by 2006 every drop of wine made from a Liger-Belair vineyard will be sold under the Liger-Belair name.

The wines are already clearly delineated by taste according to vineyard and vintage – and positively vibrate with seriousness of intent. They are sturdy and will take time to show their worth and are likely to improve with every year's experience. But it is a significant compliment that Aubert de Villaine of the hallowed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has nothing but praise for his young neighbour.

Liger-Belair wines are available from Justerini & Brooks in the UK; Becky Wasserman Selections in the US; Enoteca/Diva in Japan; and in Scandinavia and Luxembourg