Hubert Burda Media

Domaine Fourrier’s Twist Of Fate

Jean-Marrie Fourrier shares the inspiring journey of transforming the nearly bankrupt estate to one of Burgundy’s best. 

Domaine Fourrier’s holdings reads like a dream for any lover of Burgundy wine: Ten hectares encompassing Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-Saint-Denis, Vougeot and Chambolle-Musigny, with crown jewels Griotte-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny premier cru Les Gruenchers and five Gevrey premiers crus, namely Champeaux, Cherbaudes, Clos St Jacques, Combes aux Moines and Goulots. Averaging 55- to 110-years-old, the vineyards are planted entirely with local genetic material and no modern clones. From these, the winery produces approximately 45,000 bottles a year — a miniscule volume by any standard.

It should come as no surprise then that Domaine Fourrier is one of Burgundy’s finest producers, hailed for the purity and vibrancy of its wines, but not too long ago, things looked very different.

Established in the 1930s by Fernand Pernot, the estate (previously known as Pernot-Fourrier) was handed down in 1969 to Jean-Claude Fourrier, Pernot’s nephew, as he had no children of his own. But being a winemaker wasn’t top on the list of things Jean-Claude desired to do — his passion was in becoming a mechanic, an interest that drives him to this day. Seemingly out of obligation, he took over the winemaking from his uncle, although he much prefers spending time on his tractor than in the cellar.

It was Jean-Claude, who in 1986, received a visit from Robert Parker, during which the American suggested he use new oak in his wines. The remark promptly resulted in Parker being shown the door in less than hospitable ways and the critic responded by publishing a damning review of the winery, claiming that it possessed one of the dirtiest cellars in all of Burgundy. The domaine consequently lost many of its clients in the US, to the point that it had several vintages it could not sell.

In February 1994, as soon as his own son Jean-Marie came of age, Jean-Claude relinquished the reins at Domaine Fourrier. Jean-Marie was then only 23 and, like his father, had not intended to make winemaking his career. Nonetheless he committed himself to the family business, and in his hands, the estate’s wines were soon met with critical acclaim.

You wanted to be a pilot. What made you change your mind?

I first started working in the vineyard with my father in 1992. At that time, I knew it was only a matter of time before I took over. My heart was in the air, but my brain realised it would be better to make wine. Many of my friends were unemployed because of the economic crisis; I didn’t want to take any risks. I still fly for fun though — it is always a joy to see the vineyards of Burgundy from a different perspective. And I think flying has benefitted me because it requires one to maintain discipline, something that is useful to have in winemaking. In flying as in winemaking, there is a certain logic and order to the things you have to do. You cannot go faster, it takes time and discipline to achieve something.

You worked for Henri Jayer before coming back to the family estate. How was the experience and what was it like working with your father?

It was Henri Jayer who convinced me that I had something special in my hands and I could do something amazing with it. My father is what I call the “sacrifice generation”. Like many of his peers, he couldn’t choose what he wanted to do; and he did not have the spark for winemaking. He’s also not the most diplomatic person in the world, so you can imagine what it was like when he and Parker met. But I’ve always loved an expression that my father uses: “We make wine with grapes, not with barrels.” What disturbs me the most with the excessive use of new oak is the depletion of natural resources. I preserve my barrels for 10 years, after which they are sold to whisky houses. If we don’t respect our natural resources, which include vineyards, barrels and natural corks, then we are abusing and taking more from Mother Nature than she can give. If you look at the evolution of the last two decades, new oak has become less fashionable. Having said that, I’m not fully convinced that you should make trendy wine, because by the time you get the wine in the bottle, the trend has already changed. I believe in remaining persistent to your beliefs because that is how people will judge you at the end of your life.

It is awe-inspiring to see how the estate has made a comeback since Parker’s review.

Yes, the situation was so bad that we didn’t know where we were going to store the wine we were making. We almost went bankrupt because of his article. It was quite depressing, I had to clear the bottles in our cellars for €5 each. Most of the bottles went to Belgium; I would drive there and return on the same day just to save money. Burgundy wasn’t that popular back then; Henri Jayer’s Richebourg grand cru used to sell for €80, which at that time was already four times more expensive than anyone in Romanée. But a lot has changed since; land alone is more than 100 times more expensive than it was 30 or 40 years ago. The face of Burgundy has changed so much it has almost become unrecognisable.

Fortunately, you already own excellent vineyards that are in very good shape.

Yes and I really enjoy working with the old vines because they produce smaller berries with natural concentration. When replanting is required, I adopt what is called Massale selection, which is replanting from cuttings of exceptional vines. Our work is not genetic research, but it’s based on observation and field experience. Sometimes, we tend to be too scientific and lose the logic behind what we do. You have to find the balance between the knowledge that science brings and the knowledge that gives you confidence to do less. After all, wine has been made for 6,500 years, oenology as a science has only existed for 60.

Your viticultural approach is quite different from your father’s, isn’t it?

Actually, one of the reasons I went to Oregon prior to joining the family estate was that I wanted to run away from my father. We have a saying: You cannot have two lions on the same territory. But my father and I reached some compromises — I came back and he left the control of the estate entirely to me, except for the tractor! My approach is indeed different from my father’s. When I was in Oregon, a friend quoted me a proverb: A lion that imitates another is nothing but a monkey. Don’t make the wine of your father, or Jayer, or Drouhin, but do what you believe in. And that has been my guiding force.

How would you sum up your approach?

I think it really boils down to making wine based on what is suitable to the region you are in. Terroir is for those who can see it. I was on a game drive in Africa and the animals were coming to eat at grass at a particular spot and nowhere else in a 10km radius. The animals know terroir, whereas people still think it is a French invention. Mother Nature’s grass is a book we never learned in school. From looking at what grows on the ground, it tells you what could be lacking in the soil, such as potassium or magnesium. The more you are of a biologist, you can be less of an oenologist. It is more interesting to know about the science of life than the science of wine. 

Does your role as a négociant influence your winemaking in any way?

Certainly it does. I buy fruit from neighbouring regions, where I can monitor them throughout the growing season. And when you buy fruit from your neighbours, you realise the kind of adjustments you need to make to your own vineyards. The idea is to keep asking questions and improving.

And the reason you’re not purchasing the vineyards in neighbouring regions is because it has become too expensive?

Yes. Freedom is priceless and the option to buy fruit instead of land means I don’t have financial commitments for the next 30 years; it gives me the possibility to be adventurous. I am not scared to take risks with natural fermentation, for example. And with that, I might be able to make something exceptional. I love the freedom to experiment and innovate, which you cannot do if you have shareholders to whom you have to answer [to]. With the freedom that I have, I could be experimenting with just a few barrels of something new and I answer only to myself. 

If you could, is there anything you would change?

I enjoy balance and serenity in everything that I am doing. I don’t live with any regret. Right now, I am sitting here talking to you and eating delicious food here in Singapore. But by next Monday, I will be back in the vineyards and I enjoy this. I guess there is always a reason for people to find something wrong with their lives, but what for? Fifteen years ago, it was luxury to have a mobile phone; 15 years later, it is a luxury to do without one. I don’t have Facebook or Instagram, but I have a bicycle. I have a beautiful wife and great children. What more can I ask? Sometimes, it is good to just stop and say, my life is not that bad.

The Domaine Fourrier range is available at Vinum Fine Wines