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December 3, 2021updated 02 Nov 2022 11:38am

A letter from Burgundy: Domaine de l’Arlot

By Sarah Marsh MW

In October, The World of Fine Wine’s Burgundy critic, Sarah Marsh MW, spent some time working alongside Geraldine Godot, the skilled winemaker at the helm of Domaine de l’Arlot, the AXA Millésimes-owned producer based just south of Nuits-Saint-Georges. A week later she attended an impressive tasting of the producer’s wines in London.

There was an air of serenity in the winery at Domaine de l’Arlot when I visited in October towards the end of the 2021 vintage. Calm, but also quiet, as so many many vats stood empty. There was very little wine made in 2021 on the Côte d’Or. Things got off to a bad start when the budding was damaged by a severe spring frost and at the other end of the season a strict triage at harvest saw a quantity of fruit thrown off the sorting table.

After the frost, it was clear it would be impossible for me to make wine of my own in 2021. Such is the lot of the micro-négociant. The domaines needed every bunch they they could salvage. To put this in context Vincent Boyer, from whom I source my Meursault Les Narvaux grapes, made just four barrels of wine from a 1.5ha (3.7 acres) parcel of vines. With no vintage of my own, this presented an opportunity to lend a hand, or rather keep my hand in, at a few domaines which have captured my attention in recent vintages.

Domaine de l’Arlot: Significant evolution

Among this group is Domaine de L’Arlot, just south of Nuits-Saint-Georges. A domaine where the style has evolved significantly since Geraldine Godot began making the wine in 2015. She is the forth in a succession of winemakers appointed by Christian Seely, managing director for AXA Millésimes vineyard group which bought the 15 hectare domaine in 1987. Seely gave Geraldine a free hand, encouraging her to follow her initiative, and this has paid dividends.

When I arrived in the morning, all ready for work, there was nothing to do but a little remontage on one tank. This had become a theme wherever I went. The typical activity of vintage was sadly absent. I was disappointed not to clamber in the tank for a small workout, but there was no chance as Geraldine decided against any pigeage in 2021. “We don’t have the maturity in the grapes this year,” she remarked. This lack of ripeness is unsurprising as Burgundy experienced a cold and rainy summer, a far cry from the extravagant sunshine of the past four vintages. It’s hard to say what is normal these day, but a 2021-style summer is more typical on the Côte d’Or, as is the battle with mildew, odium, and rot.

Change of approach

“I need to work differently on this vintage,” mused Geraldine. “I have lessened extraction and am working more softly.” This is no surprise. Over the past six vintages Geraldine has tweaked the winemaking in judicious ways. Consequently the style has become lighter, more elegant and has greater transparency to the terroir and a purer expression of the vintage.

“It’s so much easier to get color and tannin compounds than it was ten years ago, so every year we must adapt our methods,” she comments. The skin was quite thin and not perfectly ripe in 2021, but the extraction was better than Geraldine anticipated. “I want to see what happens if I only use pump over. Will we have the same expression of Pinot Noir? This vintage is a good time to reflect on our approach. At the moment it seems that it was a good idea.”

After all Clos de L’Arlot is not the terroir form which to make stereotype, firmly structured Nuits-Saint-Georges. Lying at the tail end of the appellation the domaine is actually in the commune of Prémeaux and here the style becomes progressively lighter. The bedrock is limestone, and in a few places marl with an abundance of oyster fossils, and a top soil of clay-limestone mixed with gravel. At the southern-most end, Clos de l’Arlot abuts the Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru, Clos de la Maréchale, which is more Chambolle than Nuits in character, in part because it’s made by Frédéric Mugnier. But these vineyards respond eagerly to a lighter touch giving more subtle tannin. When Maréchale was farmed by Faiveley until 2003 and made in a more extractive way, the tannins were robust and the wine burly.

Clos de l’Arlot is a rather bizarre-looking vineyard fitting snugly into an old quarry, where there is a fault in the rock. It forms a small amphitheater offering different exposures and microclimates as well as varied limestone and marl soils. The 4ha (9.9 acres) vineyard is planted half to Chardonnay with a few vines of Pinot Beurot and half to Pinot-Noir. This climat has exemplified the lighter more aromatic style of Nuits under the previous winemakers, but with her careful touch, Geraldine showcases its delicacy and refinement.

A tight-knit team

Geraldine is accompanied in the cellar by a young enologist Laura Poli who came to Arlot a couple of years ago for work experience and was hired full time. Watching her at work, it’s clear Geraldine is a good mentor. During vintage they are joined by Romain Rascault, Geraldine’s partner, who takes care of the vineyards. The approach at the domaine is organic and largely biodynamic (no surprises as Rascault came from Domaine d’Angerville), but there is no wish to be certified.

At the end of the morning we went to taste the vat samples in the light-infused, sleek tasting room. During vintage this small, tight-knit team taste each cuvée away from the distractions of the winery. The wines are assessed midday so that any operations can be carried out in the afternoon. Having tasted at other domains, at the end of the day, tired and with sensory overload of fermentation in the cuverie, this is an excellent and more precise, as well as practical, approach.

Domaine de l'Arlot
Domaine de l’Arlot winemaker, Geraldine Godot. Photography courtesy of Domaine de l’Arlot / AXA Millésimes

Geraldine has a fine touch with texture. When I visited she was was working on the creaminess of Cuvée Mont des Oiseaux, (a premier cru of young clones, planted above old vine massale selection at the top of Clos de l’Arlot). The previous afternoon they had warmed the tank to increase the richness of texture. The tasting indicated it had worked, but they felt they could push further to increase the “fat.” (Bear in mind the 2021 vintage is much leaner than the luxurious and recently bottled 2019s.) There are a number of ways this might be achieved and they decided on a rack and return: moving the wine off the skins, warming it, and returning it to the skins, to increase the body and texture. The wines were discussed quietly. Most were nearing completion and soon to be pressed. Across the cuvées, the tannins were finer than I expected of 2021. Clos de l’Arlot showed silky textured finesse.

The monopoles

Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru Clos des Forêts Saint Georges was more firmly structured, as it should be. The domaine has two monopole premiers crus. Clos des Forêts Saint Georges is a wine of grip, body, and density. It’s close in style and location to the more typical south side Nuits, but lacks the sophistication of its near-neighbor, Les Saint-Georges.

At just over 7ha (17.3 acres), there should be six tanks, each showing a different aspect and expression of this monopole, but not with the paucity of 2021. Geraldine explains the vineyard. “There are three different soils. At the top it is white limestone … oolitic limestone. In the middle pink limestone—Prémeaux. Also in the middle and at bottom you find Ladoix limestone, which is surprising as we are in the Côte de Nuits. With three soils we have different age and selection of vine material. It is interesting and complex as we have differing expressions from each part.”

The profile of this wine is typically energetic and more assertive. Pinot Noir on limestone is likely to, indeed should, have more austerity than on clay; a fresh, colder, clipped character to the tannin and edges which I like. It imbues the wine with energy, so useful in warm vintages, but needs careful handling, particularly if there are whole bunches in the vat, and certainly in less ripe vintages.

Clos des Forêts has the structure to age. With a full body and tannic profile, it requires at least four years in bottle as a “drink from” date, while Clos de L’Arlot is always more approachable. In 2019 I tasted a vertical of Clos des Forêts with Geraldine, at the domaine, which spanned 1998 to 2017 with some older ’90s thrown in for good measure. 2002 was particularly exciting as it had developed a satin texture and was still energetic, while 2005 was yet to come around. 2005 is a great vintage, but came before the trend of “infusion.” Most 2005s were over extracted.

In 2015 and 2016, Geraldine’s first vintages, she used 100% whole bunch in Clos de Forêts, but began modifying the extraction. More recently she is gravitating away from using whole bunch. “I have been questioning the use of whole bunch and in 2021, used none at all. I like to reflect and observe the vineyards and maybe change things. The stems were not ripe and I did not want to use them. The de-stemmer was very important. Maybe whole bunches are not so necessary.” This is a significant departure as whole bunch was used systematically prior to her time.

A London tasting

The week following my visit I was back in London for a special tasting of Domaine de L’Arlot, hosted by Christian Seely, and AXA Millésimes’s Communications Director Corinne Ilic. Geraldine presented the five vintages, 2015-2019 for which she has been responsible, and which are in bottle. This included the domaine’s Premier Cru Vosne-Romanée, Les Suchots and Grand Cru Romanée-Saint-Vivant together with Clos de l’Arlot and Clos des Forêts Saint Georges.

I last tasted the 2019s during the ageing process in December, 2020, and it was pleasing to see the extra level of refinement achieved in the final months. Much can be achieved after racking when the lees settle out in tank and the wine gains precision as a result. The textures of the 2019 wines are satin-rich, but not overly glossy. I particularly enjoyed the flowing, silky texture and fragrance of 2019 Suchots with its wild strawberry fruit. It has calmed down from the lush richness and concentration of the barrel sample, while Romanée Saint Vivant is a wonderful lucid wine which captures the vibration of the terroir.

The hallmarks of the 2018 vintage are black fruit richness, morphing into prune, concentration and plentiful, sometimes robust tannin and a modest level of acidity. It can be burly. Nuits-Saint-George was singled out for several storms in July. The rain storm helped bring some freshness to the dry rather de-hydrated fruit, but two hail storms necessitated strict sorting on the vibrating table to eliminate affected berries and hail taint. Some producers managed better than others and it can be a less than exciting vintage for Nuits. While Clos de l’Arlot is somewhat sturdy in the tannin department, I was impressed with Clos des Forêts Saint Georges. It’s punchy with bags of dark fruit. Geraldine has brought out a rich, fruity, and juicy personality in Forêts. She has softened back the texture and achieved a suppleness to the plethora of tannin. Good job.

The light charm of 2017—and the best of the difficult 2016

2017 is a light vintage without much tannin and Geraldine highlights the charm. These are pretty, soft and aromatic wines. It’s possibly not a vintage in which to buy grand cru, but a good year to take pleasure in the charm of village and premier cru. Clos de l’Arlot is a joy. It is wafting and scented with light, fresh crunch to finish.

I also liked the 2016s. Now this is not an easy vintage. A victim of vicious spring frost, the few bunches that emerged, sometimes from a second set, were concentrated with a high level of acidity. Pinot Noir can be a tad strict on limestone soils, especially with marked acidity in the mix. Domaine de l’Arlot harvested in late September to early October.

Not all of those tasting in London were fans of the 2016 reds. It is not a consistent vintage and I struggle to find much enthusiasm for whites, but where the reds are good, I love the energy and the bright and pure Pinot character. Suchots 2016 is lively and vivid and beautifully aromatic on the finish. It’s not as good as 2019, but it is born from adversity. Forêts, predictably, is the most severe of the 2016s. It has a sharp and angular structure. All elbows. Very clipped, but oodles of tension. It needs time.

The 2015s were rather hidden. Concentrated and compact, but closed down. When I tasted Clos des Forêts 2019 it was expressive and the complexity clearly apparent. It makes me wonder if the 2020s will close in the same way. So difficult to tell.

At this round table tasting there was a surprising level of interest in the percentage of whole bunch used in every wine we tasted, which ranged from zero to 100%. I didn’t bother writing it down, so I can’t comment. It seemed unnecessary and rather missing the point. The salient point is that Geraldine used whole bunch when she felt the wine would benefit, and as such it should not be obvious, and it wasn’t. She is a discreet winemaker who allows the terroir full expression without a masking of technique.

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