If music be the food of love, wrote Shakespeare, play on. Well there are as many different kinds of love as there are of music – or so I thought while listening to Laurent Delaunay tell the story of his family’s wine business; how he lost control after five generations and then, with a lot of work and a little luck, regained it. In truth, it’s a tale more Jeffrey Archer than William Shakespeare in style but life-affirming nonetheless, especially when washed down with an impressive tasting of his Edouard Delaunay wines and followed by a classical concert in a decommissioned Abbey – one old enough to make five generations look as fleeting as a breath.
“Edouard Delaunay was my great-grandfather and he came to Burgundy in 1893,” Laurent told me, as he poured me a tasting measure of his 2019 Aligoté. The Delaunays were already négociants – that is, they sold wines rather than making them – and good ones: after fighting in World War I, Edouard’s son Jean became a great traveller, developing a network of clients all over the world, doubtless much happier exchanging wine for money rather than bullets for oblivion. “We represented lots of top Burgundy producers,” said Laurent proudly, including having exclusive rights to sell Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC).
Aligoté, Burgundy’s lesser white grape variety, was an appropriate accompaniment to a discussion of inheritance. This is the grape that younger winemakers, chafing at their inability to innovate in one of the world’s most coveted wine regions, have focused on. There are vivid, tense Aligotés, capable of aging, coming from the likes of Sylvain Pataille, Laurent Fournier at Domaine Jean Fournier, Guilhem Goisot, Thibault Liger-Belair, even Pierre de Benoist, who makes wines under his uncle’s label – and his uncle happens to be Aubert de Villaine of DRC. Laurent Delaunay’s goes into old barrels and stays on its lees for up to six months; it is creamy, textured, exhaling herbs and green apples. The vines, on a limestone hill facing the Château de Charmont where our tasting took place, don’t belong to him but they were planted by Professor Feuillat, his professor of oenology – arguably, another form of bequest.
Laurent handed me a glass of his black-cherry Charmont 2020 Pinot Noir, raised as if to toast his illustrious forebears. His grandfather bought this manor house at L’Etang-Vergy, less than 10km from Vosne-Romanée, in 1954, and for Jean, then his sons, for the next 35 years the sky was the limit – literally, once their wines became airline favourites, including the Chassagne-Montrachet that was available on Concorde.
And then it all went wrong. After training as an oenologist in Dijon (where he met his wife Catherine, also an oenologist) and floating around California wineries for a while, Laurent came home to realise that the business wasn’t going well: it became painfully apparent that his father was suffering from Alzheimer’s. “This was the early 1990s, the time of the Gulf War and inflation: people bought Burgundy when things were good but not when they were hard, and they were.” The business was sold to Boisset, another négociant. Laurent and Catherine went south and founded a wine business in the Languedoc – “it was cheaper, new things were happening and they were welcoming new people” – plus they were oenologists, and wanted to make wine. Just one problem – “We had no wine, no vines and no winery!” he recalls fondly. But they remedied that, and by 2016 Catherine was making Les Jamelles, Laurent had Abbots & Delaunay, and they had a small distribution company that had enabled them to put a foot back in Burgundy. Which is why Laurent was having lunch, with clients, in the same restaurant as Monsieur Boisset when the latter happened to mention that he was thinking of selling Edouard Delaunay….
It was a magical afternoon and evening, nourished by the love of wine and music, to say nothing of history, family, terroir and friendship
The name was recovered along with the winery and it is clear in his retelling how much this meant to Laurent. It may even be one reason why he became involved with the Festival de la Musique et du Vin, founded by Aubert de Vilaine and Bernard Hervet, a wine consultant who was previously general manager of Bouchard Père et Fils. The festival takes place every June, much of it at Clos de Vougeot, although the concert we saw was in the Abbaye de Saint-Vivant near Laurent’s winery, and it is aimed at musical wine-lovers, or wine-loving musicians: “I don’t think musicians who didn’t love wine would want to participate,” Hervet has said. There is a wine-tasting before most of the concerts and a fund to provide promising young musicians with instruments, so that the chronological thread runs from the Abbey’s ninth-century founding and the monks’ tending of the Romanée-Conti vines for 650 years via modern Burgundy to the next generation of winemakers – and musicians. It is impossible to forget, while listening to Beethoven and Brahms (played by stars including violinist Renaud Capuçon) in a vestigial structure of limestone-pale brick arches as ideal for the diffusion of beautiful sound as any hi-spec modern audio-visual equipment, that music has long been the food of spiritual love, too.
Laurent Delaunay has participated in the restitution of the abbey, too: perhaps as a gesture of thanks. His reestablishment was enabled by winemakers who don’t normally sell any of their grapes but were, he told me, so happy for him that they made an exception, so that his lack of vineyards (Boisset didn’t include the Chambolle-Musigny in the resale) was assuaged by a wide range of tiny quantities of premium grapes. Whatever the reason, it was a magical afternoon and evening, nourished by the love of wine and music, to say nothing of history, family, terroir and friendship. I wish we could have stayed for the last concert two nights later: Mozart and Bach plus a tasting at the Château de Meursault, where the vineyards are also a millennium old. Continuity, with or without our presence, and I’m sure the musicians played on.