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December 29, 2021updated 02 Nov 2022 11:37am

Reflections from a year with wine: Thévenet in time

By Francis Percival

To mark the end of the year on, we asked our writers to reflect on the bottles that meant most to them in 2021. For Francis Percival, a much-loved bottle of Domaine de la Bongran, Viré-Clessé Cuvée Tradition EJ Thévenet 2002 went straight to the heart and head.

This is, I confess, in part a sentimental choice for my wine of the year. This is not a grand wine or a rare trophy. No unicorns have been hurt to bring you this selection. It is the penultimate bottle from a case leftover from our wedding, squirreled away in the cellar and rediscovered during the depths of lockdown.

The circumstances distorted all sense of time. Stripped of the daily rhythm of the before times, the long hard months of lockdown all merged into one amorphous memory. It was only the developmental progress of our toddler, himself exactly the same age as the pandemic, that provided a framework through which to track the days and months. And it was of the world that he will inherit that I thought in drinking this wine.

Remarkably sprightly

For a near 20-year-old wine from the Mâconnais, this was remarkably sprightly. The terrors of premature oxidation have brought a defensive hypervigilance to my tasting of older white Burgundy, but there is nothing untimely about the trajectory through which this has aged: The stone fruit of its youth has found a golden autumnal harmony; it exhibits its age in a delicate touch of caramel. No, where this wine thrills is in its celebration of its own defiant oddness. This is southern Burgundy seen through the prism of late picking, no overt oak influence, and just a touch of residual sugar.

The world is perpetually awash with oceans of off-dry Chardonnay, but this is something different. No focus groups have been involved in the Thévenet family’s winemaking choices and the sugar is not there to render the wine more accessible to novice drinkers. This is one family finding a way to work with their own patch of land. In this case, the estate’s white marl soils are felt by the family to allow their fruit to retain acidity, even at significant ripeness: Fermented to dryness, the wines would be clumsy. When one thinks that the 1929 vintage carries 10 g/l of residual sugar, there is considerable continuity over time.

As a variety, Chardonnay is the arch globalist. It is the ubiquitous market-sensitive international variety, grown widely enough to be a vernacular synonym for dry white wine. But the last 40 years have seen global swings of style and fashion between antagonistic visions of lush richness or crystalline acidic tension. Balance has been pursued and eschewed, celebrated and contested, but each swing has been a wholesale paradigm shift. It goes beyond Chardonnay too. Wine marketers feel each region—even each variety—needs a clear and distinct identity. Self-consciously iconic wines dominate local stylistic conversations and talking points are refined to the point of sloganeering.

The epitome of stylistic diversity

Gautier Thévenet, carrying on the family tradition of making “wine entirely unlike their near neighbors.” Photography by Jon Wyand

In contrast, the Thévenets make wine entirely unlike their near neighbors, to the extent that they were initially denied the use of the Viré-Clessé appellation. They are the epitome of stylistic diversity and a nightmare for blind tasters: natural-adjacent, but not dogmatic naturalistas, for the trade their wines are the definitive hand sell. I still remember the quizzical look from the merchant when I told him that I was buying this wine for our wedding. “That is an interesting choice…”

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This is where my thoughts, hopes, and fears turned to our son and his future as we drank this wine. Diversity is something to nurture and protect: Biodiversity, racial diversity, social and cultural diversity. But increasing diversity makes life impossible to reduce to a few simple aphorisms: It is complicated. So I drank this delicious mature wine and hoped that his generation will find acknowledging and celebrating complexity easier than we have. Be better than us: There might even still be that last bottle in the case left to drink.

More in this series

Terry Theise: Journal of a quiet year with wine

Margaret Rand: Breaky Bottom

Stuart Walton: My dinner with Brunello di Montalcino

Andrew Jefford: Bacchus in Riga

Jim Clarke: Bluet, Maine’s sparkling blueberry wine

Joanna Simon: The lost Gewurztraminer

Simon Field MW: Krug Clos du Mesnil sparkles in Sweden

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