From the archives…An Evening with Aubert de Villaine

by Kermit Lynch     

[From the July 1997 Newsletter]

Bouzeron, population 151, is a little tail’s end of a village in Burgundy where winter’s night can fall with an especially icy clunk. Its three or four streets were already dead and deserted when I drove up to Aubert de Villaine’s iron gate last November. Actually I was running a bit late, so after a handshake we descended straightaway into the cellar and its heady smells of earth, oak, and newborn wine.

Aubert de Villaine has a ready sense of humor and an enviable combination of lucidity and discretion. When I picture him, I see him just breaking into a smile, a playful gleam in his dark, intelligent eyes. Having known each other for more than 20 years, we always have too much to talk about, so our tastings bounce chaotically from comic asides to catching up on friends and family to wine trade gossip and a no-holds-barred critique of whatever we are tasting.

Aubert de Villaine (© Gail Skoff)

Of course we begin with his Aligoté de Bouzeron, considered Burgundy’s best, and Aubert said that personally he prefers 1996 to 1995. I said 1996 ($14.95) seemed leaner than the 1995. “J’aime bien les vins austères,” he said, contradicting almost the entire American wine establishment.

Then he announced that for the United States he left his 1995 white Burgundy “Les Clous” ($16.50) completely unfiltered. A true stony hillside wine, “Les Clous” always shows more race and structure than flatland Bourgognes, and I must say that it gains by remaining unfiltered because there is more flesh left on that impressive bone structure. He uncorked a 1993, too, which has opened up beautifully. If ever I make a wine, I would hope it shows such subtlety and class.

Aubert’s newest acquisition, a premier cru from Rully, Les Saint-Jacques, is a real prize. (But then, could a de Villaine settle for an ordinary terroir?) The 1995 has a delicious pear-skin aroma and a firm, full palate. The 1994 ($18.95) has so much personality that I made it a Jaded Palate selection, and the 1995 shares that same goût de terroir.

My tasting notes on the 1995 red Burgundy “La Digoine” ($18.50) begin with the word WOW and then I repeat it at the end, too, which isn’t like me. Due to 1995’s short crop, I had to settle for half the quantity I wanted.

His 1995 Mercurey “Les Montots” ($19.95) is something else entirely. “La Digoine” is so pretty a wine, but the terroir of “Les Montots” produces a more tannic, old-fashioned style. “Un vin d’autre fois,” Aubert said. But it also seems to smell of grape skins and stems and freshly cut Pinot Noir. “That is one reason I love the Mercurey,” Aubert said, “because it always recalls that smell of the harvest, you know, working the grapes, the crush.”

Something about the 1995 “Les Montots” made me think of Conrad’s title The Heart of Darkness, and the title would occur to me again before the night was over.

Right about then, as Aubert poured a taste of the 1994 Mercurey, I mentioned that I was wearing espadrilles from Provence, and that my toes were chattering. During wintertime that earthen cellar floor is like standing on an iceberg, so carrying along the 1994 Rully blanc to serve as our apéritif, we walked out into the darkness up to his house.

He built a fire first thing, poured that wonderful Rully, then showed me two new recordings of the Bach Cello suites, one by Yo-Yo Ma, the other by the Russian Mstislav Rostropovich. We decided to “taste” and compare the two performances.

I grew up with the Pablo Casals version of the suites, one of the great recorded performances of the century, so truthfully I was prepared to be a little underwhelmed by the new recordings. The Casals seems soulful, existential, the Rostropovich so emotionally vast. How their cellos seem to sing and speak. The Yo-Yo Ma is more lively, dance-like, but not as subterranean.

Right about then Aubert left to search for another white. Many of you might not be aware that he owns part of another winery farther north, in Vosne-Romanée. Anyway, he returned with a 1967 Montrachet from his other winery, which really hit the spot as we listened to the second cello suite à la Rostropovich.

Aubert began to tell me what he had heard about the actual recording of the suites, which the Russian must have believed will remain his foremost legacy as a cellist.

Rostropovich chose to record the suites in France in the ancient cathedral at Vézelay from which the Crusades were launched because, he wrote, “I saw the rhythm of the internal architecture shorn of all superfluity, with none of the gilt and ornamental trimmings of the Baroque style. I saw the severity of line and rhythm of this vaulted construction, which reminds me so powerfully of the rhythm of Bach’s music.”

Recording took two months. He recorded at the midnight hour, the cathedral silent, empty, except (I’ve been there) for whatever spooky stuff might be emanating from its crypt (which is said to have some remains of Mary Magdalene). Imagine the texture of the cello’s sound in that vast, dark, stone cathedral! And my God it is fabulous as it growls and soars.

We listened to the Sarabande from Suite no. 2. (Film buffs, didn’t Ingmar Bergman use this piece in Through a Glass Darkly? I seem to recall hearing it during a scene in the dark hull of a wrecked ship, with…was it incest, sexual initiation, both?) Is there music that searches deeper? It is terrible and magnificent. The cello’s bow seems to scrape right across your own guts.

While recording, the Russian and his wife lodged with Marc Meneau, who has the three-star restaurant L’Espérance just down the hill from Vézelay. A cellist who apparently has a healthy appetite, Rostropovich might have enjoyed some of our Bourgogne blanc “Henry de Vézelay” from Bernard Raveneau ($12.50), which is made practically next door. I like to think he did.

Back now, though, to Bouzeron, where dinner is served with a 1961 Romanée-Conti. I have, I admit, during my career, enjoyed many an old vintage, but this, this!!! I told Aubert that is has a goût de terroir, mais pas de cette terre. It is from another planet. Tasting notes? Are you kidding? I am in no mood to attempt the impossible. But what a culmination to the evening. Would I have been so receptive to the glorious intricacies of the 1961 Romanée-Conti had it not been for our passage through the Bach Cello Suites? Forget wine-and-food marriages. Here was a fusion of music and wine. The only way I could describe the wine would be to play the music.

And what a voyage the entire evening had been, starting with that first innocent burst of fresh Aligoté.

You can find the latest Bouzeron Aligoté from A. & P. de Villaine here as well as our current selection of wines from Vézelay here.

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