Author: Charlie Geoghegan
Can it be that it was all so simple then? Caroline Lestimé has spent the past three decades making life complicated for herself – and the wines from her family domaine in Chassagne-Montrachet have never been better
Caroline Lestimé wasn’t expecting visitors until this afternoon. It’s just gone 9am and she’s got a lot on her mind, not least the 2023 harvest; picking finished last month and she’s been working flat-out in the cellar since. It’s a homely cellar, labyrinthine in layout if not size. Space is at a premium because this year’s crop is big, and Caroline makes 11 separate Premiers Crus from Chassagne-Montrachet alone. Finding a home for each will be a complicated logistical operation.
Things used to be simpler here at the estate which still bears Caroline’s father’s name.
Making life complicated
Jean-Noël Gagnard inherited his share of his parents’ domaine back in 1960: a smattering of tiny parcels, mostly Chardonnay, dotted around the village of Chassagne-Montrachet.
The 0.13-hectare plot in the Premier Cru of Blanchot Dessus, for example, might yield 600 bottles in a good year, little more than two barrels of wine.
For Jean-Noël, producing many different wines in such small quantities would have been to complicate matters unduly. Blending individual plots to create a smaller number of bigger bottlings was much simpler. “He wasn’t thinking about micro-cuvées,” Caroline says. His focus was on “volume, volume, volume”.
When Caroline took over in 1989, she had other ideas. “My first decision was to vinify some plots separately,” she explains. Having grown up among these vines, she knew them intimately: the slight changes in exposition or soil composition as you step from one end of a small plot to another; the barely perceptible change in temperature between two sites that almost touch one another.
Blanchots Dessus sits a little lower on the slope than nearby Les Chaumées (0.59 hectares), both at the northern end of the commune. Yet each can yield a distinct expression of Chassagne-Montrachet – if given the chance. Les Chaumées is tight, tense and high in acid, with a chalky mineral character. Blanchots Dessus touches the Grand Cru of Le Montrachet; it’s got some of the weight and density of its prestigious neighbour, with sunny stone-fruit flavours and stinging freshness.
Breaking things down in this way was certain to complicate the operation, but for Caroline, the decision was no decision at all. “It was obvious,” she says – though perhaps not to the rest of the Gagnard clan.
This plot-by-plot approach may be ubiquitous today, but it was a radical suggestion for Caroline to put to her family at the time. “In my family, you always have to struggle a little bit for everybody to agree,” she says.
With the family’s blessing, she got to work, reshaping the range with an emphasis on expressing the specificities of those individual sites. What had been one large village-level bottling of Chassagne-Montrachet soon became three. Her father had bottled a large Premier Cru blend; Caroline split it into four.
The estate today
Three decades on, her vision and her patience have paid off. It is the Premiers Crus in particular that have helped Caroline take the domaine to new heights and critical acclaim. The estate’s modern reputation is built on these age-worthy single-site bottlings, notably her flagship, Les Caillerets.
Caroline can’t make enough wine to meet the increased demand. She has bought additional plots over the years, though hasn’t grown her overall production materially. Her yields have reduced over time, she says, due to working organically in the vineyard (since 2010) and the impact of climate change.
To scale up her production a little, she decided in 2015 to open a négociant business. With her warm, friendly demeanour, round-rimmed glasses and colourful fashion sense, Caroline doesn’t exactly look the part of the hard-nosed wine merchant. Suitably, Maison Caroline Lestimé is less a corporate behemoth and more a gentle extension of the family firm. Her son Philippe now tends a small 1.5-hectare domaine of his own; for now, Caroline buys his grapes as well as fruit from vineyards belonging to members of the wider Gagnard family. The négociant wines bolster her production somewhat, but this is still a very modest operation.
Caroline sells about 95% of what she makes on allocation every year. Demand is so high, and her wines now so highly regarded, that she could surely make a lot of money selling to deep-pocketed suitors. But she seems to value loyalty too much to fall for sweet talk. “This one promises me beautiful things if I work with them,” she says. “But no, first we have to look after the people we work with for the long term.”
Running for everything
Notwithstanding youthful stints living in the nearby cities of Chalon-sur-Saône and Dijon, and ultimately Paris, Caroline remains firmly rooted in Chassagne-Montrachet. The population has declined steadily in her lifetime, with just 288 inhabitants at the last census. At the same time, the village and the wider Côte de Beaune have rocketed to international acclaim.
A lot has changed, and Caroline is a little nostalgic about how her hometown once was. “With age, when you look back, sometimes you think it was better back then,” she says. “It was different, things moved slowly. Now we have to run for everything.”
The pace of life is not the only thing that has Caroline lamenting for times past. The erratic nature of recent growing seasons is an increasing concern. “We’re stressed all throughout the year,” she says. “In the morning it might feel like winter and by the afternoon it’s like summer.” Burgundy has been hard hit in recent years; Caroline has felt it acutely.
Her Sous Eguisons cuvée comes from a small 0.41-hectare vineyard in the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune, above and to the west of St Aubin. At over 430 metres’ altitude, the cooler temperatures here can offer some respite against excessive heat. Yet in 2021, her entire crop here was wiped out by a cruel combination of frost and powdery mildew. Many of her other vineyards were affected that year: Les Caillerets, which can yield as many as 25 barrels, produced just eight.
Many growers facing such challenges would just blend what they could together to achieve some sort of critical mass. Such is Caroline’s belief in her approach, however, that she managed to bottle something from each of her Chassagne-Montrachet sites in vintage 2021. Reassuringly, Caroline was a lot happier with her volumes in 2022. And 2023, still a work in progress, was so generous that Caroline found herself struggling for space in the cellar.
What one little bit of land can do
This morning’s visit, though, is all about the 2022 vintage. There has been a slight scheduling mix-up, but not to worry: as our Buyers bow their heads to get through the low door and descend into the cellar, Caroline is on hand with a bag-for-life full of wine glasses. Fold-up chairs are proffered and passed around. An upturned foudre, sawed in half, makes for a suitable desk.
Caroline was planning on preparing our barrel samples later in the day, so this will be a tasting on the fly. Pipette in hand, she dashes between one part of the cellar and another. She draws a sample of Sous Eguisons, alive and very well in 2022, and pours a delicious drop into each outstretched glass.
There’s sniffing, swirling, spitting. The patter of laptop keys, the scratch of pen on paper. Caroline is up and down, in and out of the cellar’s various little nooks and crannies: a sample of this cuvée here, a detailed account of what happened in that vineyard there. Props, including a large cardboard map of Chassagne-Montrachet, are put to good use. She might not have been expecting us, but Caroline knows her work inside out. Spend an hour or two with her and you feel the benefit of her decades of working in this way. She is completely and utterly prepared.
A tasting here pre-1989 would have involved a small number of perfectly respectable, relatively large multi-site blends. Today is a richer, more complex and more complete experience. These wines are the fruits of Caroline’s labour this year, of course. They are also the result of more than 30 years of meticulous attention-to-detail, of patience and of borderline obsession with what one little bit of land can do that its neighbour cannot.