Quarts de Chaume: The Hard Work Begins
“Cent cabarets offrent leur vin
Rochefort, Huille, Quart de Chaume,
Martigné, tous les Saints qu’on chôme
Saint-Aubin, Saint-Lambert, Saint-Cyr
– Nectar, ambroisie, Élixir!”
A.J. Verrier (1841 – 1920)
I don’t know much about Verrier, other than he had a penchant for language and dialect. He obviously knew a thing or two about wine though, as he makes clear in his ode to the wines of Anjou, a few opening lines from which are reproduced above. He doesn’t take long to get around to Quarts de Chaume you note (even if he does spell it differently), followed by several other notable Layon villages.
The wines of Quarts de Chaume, and to a lesser extent Chaume, have enjoyed an exalted reputation for many decades, indeed for centuries. And if you take a look at a map of the Quarts de Chaume the first thing it calls to mind are maps of the great wine villages of the Côte d’Or with which, I suspect, more wine drinkers will be familiar. There, famous grands crus lie nestled in among less well known vineyards, some of which will be premier cru, some of which are ‘mere’ village lieux-dits. The lines are drawn on a plot-by-plot basis, making a patchwork of potential quality within each village.
Note that I write ‘potential’ quality. Sometimes the weather gods conspire against the vignerons, and deal them a difficult vintage where the wines are, across the board, simply not up to scratch. In this sort of situation the grower with a plot of vines in a grand cru vineyard has, I suppose, two options. First, harvest the fruit, ferment and bottle the wine, stick the grand cru label on, which comes with a very expensive price tag, and send the wine out into the world. In other words, try to sell it on the basis of the appellation rather than the quality of the wine. One day that might have worked, but in the modern world of widely available critical review and consumer-to-consumer communication via social media the game would soon be up. It would be like Pontet-Canet or Pichon-Baron during the 1970s; great names, but we all knew the wines fell far short of where they could have been. Would a dedicated vigneron, one who respects the land as much as he respects his customers, want to do such a thing anyway?
The other option is of course to declassify; drop the grand cru fruit into a premier cru cuvée, or even a village wine (or sell it off I suppose). This protects the name of the grand cru, and also the reputation of the vigneron. The declassification of the entire 2004 vintage to village level by Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy was an extreme example of this practice, but a well known one (it was the first that popped into my head anyway). It’s a relatively common practice in Burgundy I think, and a good way not just of dealing with difficult vintages, but also the fruit from inherently ‘lesser’ vines, those that are younger, or lesser clones, for example.
Unfortunately, to declassify is to firmly grasp a very vigourous nettle, because it means volunteering for a financial hit. And so some (many?) vignerons don’t seem to be able or willing to take the plunge, and they would prefer to risk their brand and status instead. The Bordelais have done this in 2013, as described in my post What Erasmus says on Bordeaux 2013, and I think it will come back to bite the majority of them once the wines are in bottle and consumers – who don’t hold back when posting on their favourite wine forum – get to taste the wines. Some other vignerons who might need to think a litle harder about it are those with vines in France’s newest grand cru, which of course is where Quarts de Chaume comes in.
After more than a decade of wrangling the vineyards of the Quarts de Chaume were finally recognised as grand cru, effective from the 2011 vintage. I can imagine exhausted members of the Quarts de Chaume syndicat, led by Claude Papin, breathing a final sigh of relief. At last, it is over! No, wrong! Now is when the hard work really starts on the Quarts de Chaume. Now you have to prove that the title was really deserved, because if consumers enticed by the grand words on the label don’t find the sort of quality they expect, it won’t be long before the grand cru designation is seen as a joke, more of a Clos de Vougeot than a Chambertin, shall we say. I appreciate that the few barrels of wine that were salvaged from the slopes in 2013 and 2014 were born through the blood, sweat and tears of the vignerons, but being blunt that’s of no concern to the consumer. If a vigneron can’t say, hand on heart, that the wine is up to scratch, it should be declassified into generic Coteaux du Layon.
I’m not taking about dreadful wash-out vintages such as 2012, where almost nobody made wine anyway, as here nature has taken this decision away from the vignerons. I’m also not taking about some new body or regulation where wines are deemed, by some tasting panel perhaps, of being worthy – that already happens under INAO regulations anyway. No, I am asking the vignerons of the Quarts de Chaume (and of the premier cru Chaume too, of course), to do this for themselves. They need to take on the responsibility to do what Lalou Bize-Leroy did in 2004, to protect their reputations, and the reputation of this new grand cru. If they don’t, it will all have been for nothing. And besides, if Quarts de Chaume becomes a joke, what wines will the next Verrier have to dedicate his odes to? Surely not something from Burgundy instead?