Picture This: Domaine Henri Gouges 1945 – 2016
BY NEAL MARTIN | OCTOBER 16, 2018
Photographs so often convey history better than words. They can stimulate our imagination and trigger emotions. A photograph presents minimal information, its temporal limitation governed by the click of the lens that ensnares a moment in time. Our minds are left to colour in what comes before and after.
This article was virtually finished. My finger hovered over the “SEND” button when I remembered a friend, married to the Gouges family, once mentioned that his wife’s grandmother was celebrating her 100th birthday that coming weekend. Having just researched various family members, I was intrigued by how she might be related to the Gouges family and assumed that realistically, she may no longer be with us. Thirty minutes later, Aurelia Haynes-Gouges replies with a photograph of 104-year old Paulette Gouges, daughter-in-law of Henri Gouges, who at that precise moment is enjoying lunch with a bottle of 1991 Hermitage La Chapelle and a bottle of 2004 La Mission Haut-Brion, just in case she is still thirsty. Looking at this wonderful photograph, I contemplated the passage of time. Mme Gouges witnessed nearly everything I wrote about the Domaine, the most venerable wines in this article born in 1945 and 1949, when she would have been in her thirties. It changed the entire perspective of the article. I scrapped the draft and rewrote the piece as Aurelia kindly passed on more information about the Gouges family.
This article looks at the past and present of Domaine Henri Gouges, both in terms of content and attendant reviews spanning eight decades. Nothing I can write is as evocative as these black and white photos, but I will do my best. The article provides insight into one of the most important growers in Burgundy, with over 60 reviews from simple Bourgogne Rouge to postwar gems. As an added bonus to Vinous readers, free of charge, I will also reveal the key to living a long life. So let us start in the obvious place. The beginning.
Henri Gouges circa 1948 with glass and bottle in hand at the winery doors. This poignant image captures his personality more than words. Photograph courtesy of the Gouges family.
The Gouges lineage within that ambit of Nuits Saint-Georges extends back to the 1600s. At the turn of the 20th century, Henri-Joseph Gouges worked both as a vineyard manager for négoçiants and as a pépiniériste, a nursery where he sold cuttings to be grafted onto American rootstock to save vines threatened by phylloxera. Interestingly, according to Clive Coates MW, Henri-Joseph Gouges married a Grivot, so there is a distant family connection between the two dynasties. Gouges’eldest son, Henri, was born in 1899. Henri Gouges served four years of military duty including time in the Dardanelles and returned to Nuits Saint-Georges in 1919. According to Coates writing in his “Côte d’Or” tome, the twenty-year old Henri presented his father an ultimatum: to transfer the vineyard holdings into his name or he would return to the army. However, Gouges’ his eldest grandson, Pierre, cannot recall any mention of this. Whatever happened, the following year the namesake Domaine was established and Henri Gouges expanded the holdings in a period when land was virtually being given away. Parcels included Les Pruliers in 1920, Les Saint-Georges in 1921 and a monopole of Clos-des-Porrets in 1934.
Henri Gouges was by all accounts a formidable man who bestrode the appellation, indeed, the region as a whole. His nickname was “le gendarme de la Bourgogne”, not only because of his activities dealing with the AOC but also because the house in Nuits Saint-Georges, the same that stands today, used to be the town’s police station. “He had a very strong character,” Aurelia Haynes-Gouges explains. “He could be seen as autocratic, but it was mostly a reflection of his passion and determination. As you know, very early on, he understood that one needed to give confidence to consumers again by guaranteeing the origin of the product and that could only happen through strict regulations. So he needed to be tough.” Indeed. Incensed by the imbalance of power between négoçiants and growers, Gouges resolved to break the stranglehold that merchants had enjoyed since time immemorial. Together with the Leroy, Rousseau and d’Angerville families, he took the provocative step of bottling his own wine instead of contracting his fruit to merchants and letting them reap the profits. The first vintage bearing his own name was the 1924. From 1928 the labels were stamped “Authenticité garantie”, a poke in the eye for unscrupulous négoçiants passing off cheaper wine, not necessarily from Burgundy, as Premier or Grand Crus. Timing was fortuitous. With American Prohibition rescinded, Gouges suddenly had a new market to exploit and of course, now he could sell directly via his importer, the influential Frank Schoonmaker. The likes of Gouges ultimately led to the formation of AOC rules in 1936. Although the pepping up of Burgundy did not necessarily cease, at least it was now illegal.
This image captures a glimpse of the side of Henri Gouges perhaps less known, a family man casually dressed outside the winery with his wife around 1948. The child is Pierre Gouges. Pierre can be seen standing on a barrel. Photograph courtesy of the Gouges family.
As with all people, there was another side to Henri Gouges. He was an epicure, whose dining room hosted hoteliers and restaurateurs for long weekend dinners. Clive Coates wrote an amusing anecdote about a pike and a bathtub that I had to investigate further. “The other side of Henri was that he was a bon-vivant, a real patriarch and gastronome,” Aurelia explains. “He loved gathering friends and family and doing the cooking himself when he became a widower. He was friends with all the great Parisian chefs and often spent time at Taillevent, Chez George and all the famous restaurants of the time in the 1940s and 1950s, except for during the war. Of course, he was in Paris regularly for AOC meetings. The story about him keeping pike in the bathtub is true. There was no sea fish and so all fish came from local ponds or the Saone River. The problem was that the meat was not good if it contained lots of mud so you had to let them “dégorger” in clear water for a few days until they didn’t taste of mud anymore. We still have that bath and it still looks super clean.”
Gouges had two sons, Marcel and Michel, though neither ran the Domaine when their father was alive. I asked Aurelia to what extent Henri Gouges maintained control of the Domaine and how autocratic he really was. She pointed out that every generation has worked alongside the older generation for a number years. The running of the Domaine at that time was more a “shared responsibility” rather than one person maintaining an iron rod of control. It was and still is, a crucial way of passing down savoir-faire.
Henri Gouges, centre, flanked by Marcel and Michel outside the winery in August 1954. My immediate impression was of the differing attire between father and sons. Photograph courtesy of the Gouges family.
At this point I should answer how Paulette Gouges, who we met at her bibulous lunch in my introduction, fits into the family. She was in fact married to Marcel Gouges. Her older sister passed away in 2017, aged 106. I should also mention that her sister-in-law, Huberte, who was Michel Gouge’s wife, is also with us at a sprightly 95 years of age. I also learned that Paulette Gouge was the first female taxi driver in the Côte d’Or. In 1940, when the German army invaded France, she drove the family away to safety.
When Henri Gouges passed away in 1967 his seven grandchildren inherited the Domaine. Amongst the brood, cousins Pierre and Christian Gouges took over the running, the former tending vineyards and the latter overseeing the winery from the 1985 vintage. At this time, the reputation of the Domaine had slipped from its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, so Gouges cousins were tasked with reestablishing the family name. The only way to do that was by improving the wines, which I will detail in the following paragraphs. In 2003, Pierre’s son Grégory, oversaw his first vinification and has gradually taken over from Pierre and Christian, both now retired. In 2017, 30-year old Antoine, son of Jean Gouges, former chef at the well-known restaurant “Le Chevreuil” in Meursault, joined Grégory so that cousins replaced cousins.
Grégory Gouges down in the cellar tasting room, posing in front of bins of ancient bottles.
Domaine Henri Gouges owns 14.50 hectares. The twelve hectares of Premier Cru have remained unchanged since the 1930s. Sélection massale is used to replace vines that are pruned single-Guyot with 8 to 10 buds left of each branch in winter, reduced to five the following spring. Grégory Gouges prefers limiting years by de-budding and clipping off side-shoots, but will conduct a green harvest in July or August if necessary. In 1977, Pierre Gouges began planting rye grass between the rows of vines in order to prevent soil erosion, an on-going problem. This technique can also control vigour as the vines have to compete for water however, apart from the necessity to manage the grass, it can increase the risk of frost damage. Unfortunately, in 2016, frost wiped out 70% of production, forcing Grégory Gouges to take the tough decision to resort to protective sprays to salvage what had survived, though he managed to remain organic. When I spoke to him about that difficult decision at the time, he told me he was unsure whether he would do the same under similar circumstances.
Chemicals have not been used in the vineyard since 2005. Three years later the entirety of the vineyards had been converted to organic viticulture, following the tenets of agronomic engineer, Jacques Moreau. The domaine emphasizes that the goal is not for certification but simply using viticultural techniques to respect the terroir and the wine. Antoine Gouges also pointed out that the domaine has sought to decrease the use of tractors in the vineyard to reduce soil compaction.
Apart from a Bourgogne Rouge and Blanc and the Nuits Saint-Georges Villages, there are seven Premier Crus: Les Chaignots, Chênes Carteaux, Clos des Porrets-Saint-Georges, Les Pruliers, Les Saint-Georges and Les Vaucrains, plus the white La Perrière from a mutated Pinot Noir that Henri Gouges noticed growing in 1936 within Clos-des-Porrets and subsequently propagated so that he could eventually produce a barrel or two in 1947 (though not commercialized until the following decade.) I will present background information on the three vineyards that are extensively covered in this report.
The Clos de Porrets-Saint-Georges is a 3.57-hectare triangular monopole in Prémeaux. It is in fact a former quarry used by the monks at the abbey of Citeaux, tempted by the pink Prémeaux limestone above which lies clay-rich soil. It was Henri’s favored vineyard to the extent that he did not replant the vines for many years, arguably to the detriment of quality. By 1975 Clos de Porrets-Saint-Georges required major replanting and nowadays vines have been planted in fifteen stages so that they can be replaced without uprooting a sizeable percentage of the vineyard. The parcel in Les Saint-Georges consists of 1.08 hectares that was planted in 1961, and is located towards the southern end of the appellation, between Domaine Chevillon-Chezeaux and Hospices de Nuits Saint-Georges. The soil here contains a lot of limestone debris over Bathonian limestone bedrock. The Les Pruliers comes from two parcels totaling 1.88 hectares planted in 1960.
The domaine is located in the heart of the village of Nuits Saint-Georges, overlooking the Meuzin River, not far from Maison Faiveley. It is quite an imposing four-story family abode, the front door directly opening onto the outside pavement. The interior is soaked in history. There is a timeless atmosphere with all the antique furniture, old paintings and rather tenebrous light.
However, the domaine has not stood still. A new, pump-free and gravity-fed cuverie was constructed in 2007 behind the maison. At picking, bunches are sorted on two tables de trie, one vibrates to get rid of insects and dirt, while the second is for manual sorting. The fruit is then completely de-stemmed with a recent investment in a Pellenc de-stemmer. Due to the style of Gouges’ wines, in my early days I incorrectly presumed that there was stem addition, but this is not the case. In fact, I learned during this tasting that Henri actually purchased a de-stemmer before the Second World War! After light crushing the fruit is transferred into concrete vats, originally installed by Henri Gouges in the 1950s, though with technological improvements to conduct gentle remontage and pigeage and without breaking the cap. The fruit undergoes a brief cold soaking and the natural yeast usually triggers alcohol fermentation within a couple of days. One aspect that in my opinion impacts upon the style of Gouges’ wines is the low fermentation temperature, usually around 28°-29° Celsius compared to other domaines that will rise up to 33°-35° Celsius. The skin maceration period will probably last up to 10 days, when the press wine is added. Gouges uses a pneumatic press, as they favour a soft and precise pressing.
The barrel cellar lies below the family house. By walking through the cellar you reach the adjoining tasting room, where your eyes can gaze upon the collection of old bottle. The most venerable is a 1919 that was bottled by the parents of Henri Gouges. The wines are transferred into barrel, usually from the Sirugue cooperage in Nuits Saint-Georges, with a preference for Tronçais oak. A modest 20% of the barrels are renewed each year. After malolactic fermentation, the wines are racked and blended. The total barrel maturation period is around 18 months before bottling without fining or filtration.
The wines included in this piece derive from two major tastings conducted on the same day, one in the morning and one in the evening, both at La Cabotte restaurant in London, which is thoroughly recommend for Burgundy lovers. UK importer Flint Wines organized the morning session, which examined recent releases plus a vertical of Clos des Porrets-Saint-Georges back to the 2007 vintage. The evening tasting looked at more ancient vintages back to the 1940s. It was organized by Jordi Oriols-Gil and attended by Antoine Gouges.
In my experience, the wines of Domaine Henri Gouges are not those that I would pour for a Burgundy novice. They are not fruit-forward, velvety smooth, sumptuous expressions of Pinot Noir predesigned for mass appeal. I guess you could say that they are an acquired taste, appealing more to drinkers with experienced palates. There is nothing wrong with that. The wines lean towards the “traditional” side of the Côte de Nuits. Some Nuits Saint-Georges, especially those in proximity to Vosne-Romanée, are usually infused with disarming floral scents and silky tannins. Domaine Robert Chevillon is a master of this style. Instead, I often think that Gouges has more in common with the structured wines from Morey-Saint-Denis. As I already mentioned, there is often a leafy, sous-bois leitmotif that dupes tasters into believing there is some stem addition when there is none. Moreover, Gouges’ wines are notoriously reduced when first released, to the point where sometimes I cannot read them. Some say that the domaine needs to address the SO2 issue, although perhaps it is more a case of simply permitting the wines to age in bottle. Antoine Gouges suggests that the new winery has remedied some of the reduction issues and that this applies more towards vintages before 2007. However, personally I still find reduction evident, especially when the wines appear blind in the annual “Burgfest” tasting, so I recommend decanting them when young, or cellaring bottles for an appropriate length of time, for example, 8 to 10 years for the Premier Crus subject to growing season. Antoine Gouges expressed a desire to retain the idea of vins de garde and so whilst the domaine has decreased the amount of sulfur during vatting, they would never totally eliminate SO2 and therefore accept a level of “protective reduction” so that the wines can age.
I am not going to trawl through every single wine – the tasting notes are there for readers to peruse. However, we should look at three vineyards. Let’s begin with the Clos des Porrets-Saint-Georges, vintages from 2014 back to the 1945. For many years Clos des Porrets-Saint-Georges was regarded as a bit of an underling compared to prestigious Premier Crus such as Les Vaucrains and Les Saint-Georges. The commonly held view is that the procrastination in replacing unproductive vines stymied quality and only since new plantings reached maturity has Clos des Porrets-Saint-Georges become noble. That was not really proved by this tasting. I was very surprised by the winsome 1950, which conveyed a beguiling sense of transparency in a difficult Burgundy growing season, whilst the 1969 Clos des Porrets was outstanding, and one of the best venerable bottles of the entire retrospective. Apparently this was a late picking, on 7 October to be exact, and the wine was said to have peaked only after 30 years. It appears that this peak was more a very long plateau! Sure there are some misfiring vintages such as 1983, 1996 and perhaps 2007. But generally, my estimation of this Premier Cru was certainly enhanced by these wines.
The impressive Clos-des-Porrets-Saint-Georges 1950, one of the more venerable bottles that stood out.
How about Les Pruliers? This vineyard is renowned for its more mineral-driven expressions of Nuits Saint-Georges. Certainly recent vintages are consistent; even warm vintages such as the 2009 flaunt a flintiness that complements the vibrant red fruit. Sometimes I noticed a ferrous tincture as expressed by the 2008. There is often depth and structure to Gouges’ Les Pruliers, clearly a wine for long-term cellaring, although I found recent vintages more approachable. The finest example is the magnificent 1959 Les Pruliers, so precise and vivacious after almost six decades, though the 1964 Les Pruliers was a little underwhelming given the vintage reputation.
Of course, we must take a look at Les Saint-Georges. Vintages here extended back to a sensational 1949 that should probably be placed in front of INAO officials when debating whether to promote this vineyard to Grand Cru. Well, if they can produce elixirs of this quality, then most certainly. The 1949 is a spellbinding wine with symmetry, focus, nuance and refinement. I suppose there is a counterargument in that both the 2000 and 2012 Les Saint-Georges underperform, yet every Grand Cru surely has its off-days?
It is very rare, even within professional circles, to be granted such an overview of a domaine of this stature. Certainly there is a particular style to Henri Gouges. The wines tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves and reflect the vagaries of the growing season. I would not claim Gouges to be the most consistent over the years, then again, I appreciate that the wines mirror their respective terroirs and their interplay with the weather. I was very impressed by the performances of some of the older bottles. Domaine Henri Gouges does not enjoy the kudos or reputation of the elite growers like Rousseau or Roumier, so there was some trepidation approaching the antiquities. Yet Burgundy experts have long advised that Gouges’ wines do repay long-term cellaring. To quote Jasper Morris MW in his Inside Burgundy tome: “If they happen to show awkwardly in their youth – tant pis.”
I have revised my appreciation of the monopole, Clos des Porrets-Saint-Georges following the impressive performance of vintages young and old. Even if the vineyard was re-planted in the mid-seventies, it did not seem to really interrupt what transpired to be a very fine set of wines throughout the decades. Maybe because of its monopole status, Clos des Porrets-Saint-Georges has not gained as much traction beyond Gouges aficionados? I suppose, instead, one question must be whether Les Saint-Georges merits promotion. I have conducted two or three tastings on this very subject and whilst I fully appreciate it as one of the finest Premier Crus in the appellation, I have not encountered a set of wines that would convince me as much as say, Clos Saint-Jacques or Les Amoureuses. That said, there is no doubting the stellar performance of that 1949 Les Saint-Georges – a wonder to behold.
Perhaps the final word should belong to 104-year old Paulette Gouges. Of course, I had to ask what is the secret to a long life, as I am sure all Vinous readers would like to enjoy libation for as many years as possible. So apparently, you need to drink a glass of Gamay each day, though I can confirm that Paulette has traded up to Pinot Noir these days, preferably from a good cru. If that is true then I suspect most Vinous readers will live to a ripe old age. Santé.
(My thanks to Jordi Oriols-Gil for organizing the tasting and Aurelia Haynes-Gouges for sending me the photographs, liaising with Pierre and Paulette Gouges and replying to my questions.)
View all the wines in this article
You Might Also Enjoy
Priceless: Roumier Bonnes-Mares 1945 - 2015, Neal Martin, September 2018
Plundering Burgundy Past, Neal Martin, July 2018
Mugneret-Gibourg: Ruchottes-Chambertin 1945 – 2014, Neal Martin, June 2018
Life Is Funny Like That: 1999 & 2015 DRC, Neal Martin, April 2018
The Magic of d’Auvenay: 1989 – 2011, Neal Martin, March 2018