By | January 14 2016
André Pernin started out as an agricultural laborer, married at the time to his first wife, Monique, who worked for Moillard. He gradually worked his way up the ladder, mainly growing grapes under a share-cropping arrangement, and he was always highly regarded by his employers. André’s previous experience as a farm laborer served him well, making him something of an exception in the otherwise underachieving landscape of Vosne-Romanée in the late 1970s. I was then a budding wine writer and only too painfully aware of how much standards of viticulture had slipped.
In all but a tiny minority of cases, plowing had been entirely replaced by herbicides. Debudding was a thing of the past, the grapes were harvested before they were fully ripe, and the use of chaptalization was rampant. Even the most famous producers were at fault in these respects. Green-harvesting was also out of the question, as was the careful sorting of the grapes at harvest time-sorting tables as we know them today didn’t exist back then. The most influential wine grower in the village of Couchey-Pernin’s home patch-actually lobbied the INAO technical commission to have the permitted level of chaptalization raised to 2.5% ABV (as for northern European wines). I objected fiercely, pointing out that raising the potential alcohol content of a Richebourg from 10.5% at harvest to 13% would yield a final alcohol content of 13.5-14%. There would have been four extra degrees of alcohol, entirely derived from sugar beet; I hardly think that could qualify as a true expression of terroir.
An honorable exception
André Pernin was one of the few people who still did things properly, along with others like Jacky Confuron and the team at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti-rare individuals who rose above the taunts of so-called modernist thinking. Two things struck me in particular. One was André’s patience in the vintages from 1978 to 1981, waiting for that moment of peak ripeness. The other was the exceptional condition of his vines in a vintage as rife with botrytis as 1986. When tasted alongside an array of local wines, the performance of his 1979, 1980, ’81, ’82, and ’83 vintages was a real slap in the face for many producers who were far better known.
Two cuvées stood out in particular. One was a Vosne-Romanée Beaumont, with a natural elegance that made it irresistible. The other was a little-known Nuits-St-Georges premier cru-La Richemone, a wine with a raciness, complexity, and persistence that put it in a class of its own. The vineyard was mainly owned by the Dufouleur family, with André Pernin as part owner until 1985. That year, Gérard Depardieu also acquired a plot, which he promptly gifted to Pernin in an incredible display of generosity that amply demonstrated the actor’s enthusiasm for André’s recent vintages. These were wines without a trace of reduction, showing a superb integration of oak and fruit (one of the best I can remember), thanks to exceptionally well-made barrels, handcrafted from Cîteaux oak by a small local cooper called Baudinet.
It took me at least three years to realize that Pernin (like Jacky Confuron, for that matter) had benefited from the expertise of the controversial enologist Guy Accad, a Lebanese-born agronomist and winemaker who had trained in Montpellier under the great Jean Branas. Accad had a reputation as a winemaker of "last resort"-the man who stepped in to "fix" a spoiled wine that no other winemaker would touch. But the truth was quite the opposite, distorted by famous producers who brought their horrible wines to Accad’s little Côte de Nuits laboratory in a last-ditch effort to save face. It would be invidious to mention names; suffice to say that these people put a malicious interpretation on Accad’s methods. This will be redressed by yours truly in the next issue.