Anyone who’s watched Jean-Charles Boisset’s trajectory in California probably wonders about his origins in France.
His family business bought De Loach, Raymond and Buena Vista here, completely reinvigorating those properties, established other local brands and a retail presence in Healdsburg. Boisset also married Gina Gallo and had two daughters, and bought Bob and Margrit Mondavi’s old house.
He’s created showplace visitor experiences, is converting vineyards to Biodynamic farming and even launched a home wine-selling program, something like Mary Kay cosmetics.
A recent trip to a few of his properties in his home territory of Burgundy shows that’s he’s introduced many innovations there, too, some, ironically, inspired by the California wine business.
A huge empire
The Boisset empire is vast, reportedly the third largest in France, but interestingly, little is actually identified with his name.
France is a land of tradition, and Boisset has acquired many renowned wineries, with a focus on improving their winemaking and marketing while building on their traditions. The 13 wineries act independently although all the employees I talked to acknowledged Boisset’s touch.
The family name is on some wines, however, including Maison Jean-Claude Boisset in Nuits-St.-Georges, which is making wines with a modern hand. It is named after his father.
The diversity of the Boisset family’s holdings is almost mind-boggling, from huge negociant brands like Bouchard Aîné & Fils in Burgundy and the recently acquired Skalli Fortant de France line from the south to tiny Jaffelin and Domaine de la Vougeot with grand cru vineyards.
Although many of the brands are based on bought grapes or carefully monitored wine, Boisset also owns a large amount of vineyards, including some of the top grand crus.
Geographically, Boisset has wineries in Languedoc and the Rhone Valley but notably in the famed regions of Burgundy – Beaujolais, Macon, Cote Chalonais, Core d’Or, and Chablis, the latter his wine business’ historic home.
Wines from Burgundy’s Napa and Sonoma
The famed Burgundy wines are made from chardonnay and pinot noir. The most famed vineyards of Burgundy lie on the east-facing slopes of the Cote d’Or, a north-south limestone ridge that stretches to the west between Beaune and Dijon.
Vineyards in Burgundy are often very small, but Boisset has holdings all through the area, including in Cote de Nuits in the north, Cote d’Or, which might be considered the Napa Valley of Burgundy to us provincial Californians, just as Cote de Beaune, which is better known for its whites, might be considered the Sonoma County.
Not to stretch too far, but Beaune is the larger and more historic equivalent of St. Helena.
Chablis is north of the prime Burgundian appellations around Beaune and Dijon, and Macon, famed for pleasant Chardonnays including Pouilly-Fuissé, lies between Beaujolais and the Core Chalonais.
Boisset has introduced many innovations in his wine properties, from replanting and improving vineyards to updating equipment and processes. Many of his winemakers are young and have experience outside Burgundy, including California.
While upgrading vineyards and wine production, Boisset has also brought California-style visitor experiences to many brands. Some remain closed to the public, just as many top wineries are here, but others would make any visitor from Napa Valley feel at home.
A good example can be found at Maison Antonin Rodet in Mercurey in the Côte Chalonnaise south of the Cote d’Or.
Although the Côte Chalonnaise wines are excellent, none are grand crus as in the Core d’Or. Mercurey is the largest appellation in the heart of Burgundy.
Antonin Rodet has been synonymous with Mercurey since 1875 and comprises a total of some 200 acres of vineyards, including the Château de Mercey estate with 115 acres and Château de Rully estate of 78 acres, and this land is even more expensive than Napa.
It also has a number of small vineyards.
The winery’s production facility, where winemaker Anne-Laure Hernette makes excellent wines and manages others she supervises, is not presentable for visitors, so Boisset bought a historic chateau in the center of Mercurey for a visitor center.
Mercurey is a town so picturesque that it only has one street; traffic lights switch the traffic flow periodically like those a mountains road with a washed-out lane.
At this attractive site, Boisset has developed a large and modern tasting room with videos in various languages to tell visitors the winery story, plus an atmospheric aging cellar for another video and a small museum. You can visit, taste and buy with no appointments and in English, as in all of these Boisset facilities.
By contrast, Bouchard Aîné & Fils is a negociant; it buys carefully selected wines under long-term relationships involving 70 acres of vineyards but doesn’t own production facilities although it does blend and age wines.
Its name is closely linked with that of Burgundy wine and the town of Beaune since the 18th century. Its hospitality center in the historic Hôtel du Conseiller du Roy also includes a nominal cellar for tours and offers visitors a historic, cultural and sensory voyage of discovery including Le Parcours des 5 Sens (Tour of the Five Senses), reminiscent of the Hall of Tastes at Raymond.
As at Antonin Rodet, it’s an experience like that of a top Napa destination tasting room.
Perhaps the most California-like experience, however, is at the Imaginarium, a large hospitality center in Nuits-Saint-Georges. It boldly highlights wines from all of Boisset’s properties, including some from each California winery.
The Imaginarium is a “oenotourism” and “oenoentertainment” adventure totally new to staid Burgundy.
It offers four wine and vine-themed adventures, including “Sacrée Vigne!,” a 40-minute trip through a history of winegrowing and winemaking tools with accompanying videos, and “The Magic of Bubbles,” an exploration of sparkling wines for the whole family.
The Imaginarium shares a large building with production of Louis Bouillot sparkling Burgundy. Boisset is the largest supplier of Cremant de Bourgogne, Burgundian sparkling wine, in France. Think JCB, which is popular locally.
A visit to Beaujolais, a part of Burgundy to the south of the “real” Burgundy wines, told of another kind of innovation — in viticulture and winemaking.
A bit of background: The Beaujolais region, which is comparable in size to Napa Valley, is an attractive area of rolling hills and tiny villages.
It sits on decomposed granite soil, perfect for the gamay grape, a cousin of pinot noir, a vine that doesn’t grow well there. Pinot noir and chardonnay prefer limestone.
Beaujolais wine is generally a light, fruity red wine very popular in bistros throughout France, and once a top seller here.
It’s generally made with an unusual process called carbonic maceration in which whole berries are left to ferment in closed containers. Enzymes convert sugar to alcohol inside the berries, leading to the fresh wine low in tannin and color but with good acidity for pairing with everything from chicken to steak.
The better wines include the names of specific villages like Moulin a Vent, Morgon, Fleurie and Brouilly, while the middle class of wines is called Beaujolais Village and the ordinary wine made in highest quantities is simply labeled Beaujolais.
Traditionally, Beaujolais winemakers also made Beaujolais Nouveau, released in November, when a fad developed of celebrating the release by drinking copious amounts of this immature wine.
Unfortunately, that fad has spoiled the name of the “real” Beaujolais wine, which is an excellent wine.
Boisset is trying to correct that misconception.
He bought Château de Pierreux with 185 acres of vines at the foot of Mont Brouilly in the heart of the Beaujolais in 2002. It’s an imposing estate in a region filled with large estates, many homes for the wealthy who work in Lyon about an hour away.
Boisset’s vines, which are all cultivated according to a sustainable organic strategy, are the showcase of Maison Mommessin, and it has a winery at the chateau, although winemaker François Jaubert also buys grapes and wines from about 35 growers who grow the grapes and produce wine under his close direction.
It also has a large, modern production and bottling plant nearby used for many different Boisset brands.
Jaubert has been converting many of the traditional “goblet” vines to cordons like those found here and replanting the vineyards for more sunlight and drier grapes to figure mold. He’s also using cover crops, rare in Beaujolais.
He’s even making part of the wines like Burgundies, not with carbonic maceration, and aging them in small barrels like those used elsewhere for top wines.
The result are wines comparable to — and sometimes fuller than — Burgundies, less costly and excellent for pairing with food. Because of recent changes in the law, these wines can even be labeled “Burgundy.” They couldn’t even be made legally in the past.
This winery isn’t really set up to welcome visitors, and the area isn’t oriented toward tourists. Many wineries in Beaujolais welcome visitors to taste and buy wine with appointments, but you better speak French and expect a casual atmosphere.
Some homes to tradition
Still, some of Boisset’s properties are traditional.
Tiny Jaffelin in Beaune is one of the few wineries that still produce wine – 3,500 cases – in the historic center of Beaune, half a block from its famed cathedral. I can’t imagine the scene during harvest in the crowded streets and tiny courtyard.
Vinification takes place in large oval wooden vats, and winemaker Marinette Garnier presses the grapes in a small basket press, a rare practice these days, which preserves the character of the small cuvées, and follows the practice of eight centuries before.
The wines are aged in cramped caves under the city; they once were part of the church wine production and are partly built with the remains of Roman buildings.
Just north of Beaune is Nuits-St-Georges, one of the most famed appellations in Burgundy.
Domaine de la Vougeraie owns 80 acres there that have been cultivated organically since its creation in 1999 and are now Biodynamic.
Winemaker Pierre Vincent produces about 8,500 cases of first-rate wines, some from grande cru vineyards.
The winery uses sorting tables, one vat per parcel with cooling coils and a modern basket press, just like the best small producers here.
Burgundy is between Lyon and Dijon, both intriguing cities connected to Paris by TGV, the fast train. A local train runs between them and near most of the wine country, but you need a car (or a driver) to see most of the wineries.
I stayed in Beaune at modern and reasonable Hôtel Henry II, which even has a garage, very useful there. Beaune is the heart of Burgundy, a small and histopic city worth visiting even if you’re not a wine nut or in the business.
I enjoyed a remarkable lunch in Beaune at Loiseau des Vignes with Nathalie Boisset, Jean-Charles’ charming and chic sister, and Véronique Desmazure, her business partner in the public relations agency that handles Boisset’s communications there.
It was a quick trip, and I know there are many more treasures awaiting my next visit, both among Boisset’s wineries and the many other treasures of the Burgundy region.