Before a recent trip to France’s Burgundy region, I asked one of Tannin’s dear friends Debra Lewis of Vintage ’59 Imports for a few recommendations. A visit to Elise Villiers just outside of Vezelay is a must, she said, and beyond that make some time to enjoy the village of Vezelay as well. This recommendation surprised me a bit because, while I knew Elise’s reputation, I’d rarely had the opportunity to taste her wines as she makes very limited quantities. Additionally, Elise lives a bit off the beaten path of the Burgundy wine route. There wouldn’t be any other growers near Elise that we could visit before or after. We’d likely have to cut appointments short that day in Chablis to arrive at her place at a reasonable hour and it would delay our arrival to Dijon, gateway from the north to the great Cote d’Or vineyards until late (we didn’t realize how late) that night. I was all for it.
As much fun as it is to visit producers that we know and work with everyday at Tannin, a lot of the joy of travelling is experiencing new things and meeting new people. We’d arrived in France the day before and, having a day free of appointments and we spent much of the afternoon travelling the back roads of the northern most Burgundy looking for tasting rooms that might be open in villages like St. Bris (the only Burgundy village known for Sauvignon Blanc) and Irancy (an unusually northern locale for Pinot Noirs that tend to be – er- rustic and not always in a positive way). So going to Vezelay to meet Elise and taste her wines was really just as exciting to us as stops at the most famous Grand Crus.
Vezelay is a hilltop village that has a serious wine growing tradition dating back to the ninth century. The town itself is stunning with narrow winding streets that lead to the top of the hill, where one finds the 11th century Benedictine Basillica of Saint Magdelene.
However, after phyloxera destroyed vineyards all over Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, most Vezelay vineyards were not replanted. Instead, while the replanted vineyards to the north in Chablis and south in the Cote d’Or produced wines that cemeneted the reputations of those respective regions, Vezelay became largely forgotten in the world of wine. In the 1970s as Vezelay began to be replanted, mostly to Chardonnay. Since then, the reputation of Vezelay has rather rapidly re-emerged thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated growers such as Elise and Domaine de la Cadette. Until 1997, wines from Vezelay we only entitled to generic “Bourgogne” appellation. From that year to 2012 the more prestigious Bourgogne-Vezelay designation would adorn the label. With the 2012 vintage Vezelay is now entitled to its name to stand alone on labels of Vezelay, just like its great neighbor to the north Chablis or Meursault to the south.
Elise Villiers wasn’t born into a winemaking family. Her interest in making wine began through an uncle who was a wine merchant. In 1989 she acquired her first vineyard and began her education as a vigneron, or wine grower. She studied with the great Jean-Pierre Charlot at the viticultural school in Beaune, and later at the Institute of Vine and Wine and Dijon. Today she makes three wines, two Chardonnays from distinctive parcels on the hillside slopes of Vezelay and a Bourgogne Rouge Pinot Noir, which, unfortunately, isn’t currently shipped to the United States. She has two employees who help her with work in the vineyard and all of the winemaking is done at home by Elise. The vineyards are in conversion to organic viticulture.
Tasting with Elise in Vezelay really highlighted what makes these wines so unique and enjoyable. The region is a natural geographic extension of Chablis but the wines are quite distinct from their neighbors. Although it’s further south, Vezelay is actually the cooler of the two regions. Whereas Chablis is grown on the famous clay rich limestone Kimmeridge soils, Vezelay has diverse blue, grey and red soils in addition to parcels that are almost pure limestone. Consequently the wines of Vezelay have intense definition and primary rock minerality.
We met Elise after arriving at her gate several minutes early. Assuming that she was still working in the vineyards we hung around until an enthusiastic bicyclist pulled up to the gate and introduced herself. By the time we left, a few hours later, we had asked to purchase a couple of bottles of her Bourgogne Rouge because we really liked it and knew that we’d never find it back in the U.S (also, it was getting late and we were beginning to be skeptical about finding a great restaurant open once we arrived in Dijon). Of her two Chardonnays, we were able to acquire a few cases of Le Clos for Tannin. The wine is produced from about three acres of vines planted in 1976 on the hillside and aged in roughly 1/3 new and old, large oak barrels. It is intense and delicious stuff with briny minerality, really great texture and plenty of fruit. Please join us for a glass while it lasts as you won’t find it anywhere else in Missouri!
Bottles of Elise's Le Clos in the cellar at Tannin.
Le Clos, ready to pour by the glass!