Grand cru in all but name? Clos Saint Jacques
30 August 2015
By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com
I’ve never had a disappointing Clos Saint Jacques. Then again, I have not tried that many. Why? The 6.7 hectares of vineyards in this highly touted Burgundian appellation are expensive – and with historical significance. Named for a stopping point on the pilgrim’s route to Santiago de Compostela (in French, Saint Jacques de Compostelle), the vineyard was once a prestigious monopole. The famous 1855 rating system for Burgundy terroirs, by Dr. Jules Lavalle, graded Clos Saint Jacques as first of the so-called premières cuvées.
By the time Burgundian terroirs were graded as we know them today as village, premier cru and grand cru, some vineyards with grand cru quality were not included as such, on occasion because then owners wished to avoid paying higher taxes associated with that higher grade. I am not sure why Clos Saint Jacques was not named grand cru. Could it be, as Jasper Morris MW posits in his lovely book, Inside Burgundy, that a former owner, the Count of Moucheron, did not wish to fill out the paperwork needed to formally obtain that status? The website of Armand Rousseau states that the count was a royalist and did not wish to be part of any such Republican ratings. Whatever the case may be, many critics over time and today say that the terroir/appellation of Clos Saint Jacques is grand cru in all but name.
According to the website of an important current owner of Clos Saint Jacques – Domaine Armand Rousseau, which owns 2.1 out of the 6.7 hectares – the terroir produces “a comparable wine to Chambertin, but with less maturity.” Nevertheless, according to Armand Rousseau, it is “therefore widely acknowledged as an equivalent” to a grand cru.
The vineyard is located on a steep slope with exposure both south and east. The soil is very rocky on top of the Clos of Marls, giving a very shallow clay soil. Water absorbed in the soil drains down the slope along the Marls whose characteristics bring depth and terroir-specificity to the vines, according to the Armand Rousseau website. It continues: The middle of the plot has deeper soil, rich in clay and limestone. The lower end of the plot is based on Premeaux limestone giving rich clay and flint soil. It is a cool, well balanced terroir. Strong tannins are well integrated with a predominant nose of blackcurrant and brambly fruits. The wine is powerful and intense in the mouth.
One of my tasting highlights includes a superb 2002 from Armand Rousseau, thanks to dear friend and Burgundy lover Micheal Lux. That was a few years ago, see photo above, and I still recall its contours and complexity, combined with an earthiness and cherry fruit flavors. The palate was at once deep and full bodied but never monolithic or merely powerful. Yes, there was power, but much poise, nuance and earthy terroir driven appeal that is – quite frankly – hard to describe. The finish? Very long and clean.
Another occasion was tasting the same wine but 10 years younger, the Armand Rousseau Clos Saint Jacques 2012 from barrel, back in the early summer of 2013. At that tasting, I was told that the estate has no interest in seeing a formal promotion to grand cru. The 2012 was being aged in 70% new oak and the first barrel sample I tried came across as “manly” with structure more than anything showing at that early stage. Serious – with plenty of depth and palate “weight”. Then we tried a sample from another barrel called “Rousseau” (nothing to do with the family). That sample seemed juicier but not quite as “serious” as the previous one. Friend and fellow wine writer Jane Anson had arrived by this time and she preferred the first barrel. I appreciated both for different reasons. Although I have not since tried the 2012 from bottle, I am sure it is great.
A more affordable producer (only five in total) is Louis Jadot, which owns one hectare. I recall tasting the 2009 vintage from barrel with then director Jacques Lardière. From barrel, it displayed impressive depth yet an orange freshness, with notions of griotte red cherry. I exclaimed “What a real pleasure to drink this! GREAT” … and promptly purchased six bottles en primeur for €72 per bottle. It is important to note perhaps that the actual alcohol level is 13.1% – so less than what the label (13.5%) indicates.
So it was with great pleasure to discover how fine that wine is over five years later, as I enjoyed over a barbecue lunch, prepared by friends MW student Thomas Curtius and his wife Fea, who organizes wine tastings.
As in the above video, the wine proved initially quite opulent with fruit-forward notes of red cherry, its alcohol well integrated but noticeable in the form of copious legs on the glass. It was a bit hot outside, so we took the wine inside and tasted again over a two hour period (after it had been decanted for two hours already).
It turned earthier and yielded a wild forest strawberry aspect – even slightly cooler. Its 13.1% alcohol very well integrated. The body was medium plus to full, with nuanced texture and a long, pleasing finish. Certainly, this wine fulfilled its promise from barrel.
Is Clos Saint Jacques grand cru material?
I suspect that could depend on the producer and the vintage. From memory, I do recall that the Chambertin I tried at Armand Rousseau seemed deeper and longer from barrel than this Clos Saint Jacques. And at Louis Jadot, some of the grands crus I tried proved more impressive. One thing is certain: it would be safe to rank this as the top of the premiers in Gevrey Chambertin.