By the time it was in its fourth generation in Burgundy, there were 30 cousins in the Liger-Belair family entitled to a share in the extensive and famous domaine founded by Count Louis Liger-Belair in 1815. The estate had survived the First World War and other upheavals, but the depression of the 1920s and ’30s and the need to sell unprofitable land to survive caused deep divisions in the family. In 1933, the fifth Count, Michel, had to witness the auction of the Liger-Belair vineyards – 30 hectares, including La Tâche, Chambolle and holdings in the Côte de Nuits. It was only the dramatic intervention of Michel’s brother, a young priest called Just, that saved parts of La Romanée, Aux Reignots and Les Chaumes. Canon Just persuaded Michel and another brother, Philippe, to help him, and together they managed to keep parcels of those three great vineyards in the family before Just sold his share to Michel’s son Henry, the father of the current Count.
Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, who was born in 1970, has devoted the last 20 years of his life to rebuilding the Liger-Belair estate, He has been gradually renting and eventually buying back vineyards such as a large parcel of Echezeaux, Vosne-Romanée Premier Cru Les Suchots and other prime plots in 2006, and a clos in Premier Cru in Nuits-Saint-Georges, the “monopole” of Clos des Grandes Vignes, in 2012. Today, Liger-Belair controls 10.5 hectares of vines in Vosne-Romanée, Nuits-Saint-Georges and Flagey-Echezeaux, in an estate he describes as “very recent [with] 200 years of family tradition.”
In her book Ten Great Wine Families, Fiona Morrison MW takes up the story as she visits her friend Louis-Michel, the seventh Count Liger-Belair, and his wife Constance (“his anchor”), at the Château de Vosne-Romanée…
We walk back through the vine parcels taking the ‘Sentier aux Prêtres’, the Priests’ Way, between Richebourg and La Romanée, used for centuries by the priests crossing over the hillside to say Mass in the next hamlet.
The sun is setting behind us and the birdsong increases as long shadows gradually cover the placid waves of the slope, their colour tinted lime green by the new vine shoots.
We come back via Les Chaumes, one of the first climats bought by the family in 1933. Lower down the hillside on the edge of the village, this premier cru produces charming wines with red fruit character and floral notes.
The farmer didn’t speak to me for two months even though we lived and ate together
We eat in the kitchen watching Constance as she cooks for us while her husband prepares a fantastic tasting of two great vintages of La Romanée, the 2008 and the 2009. The first vintage is fresher, lighter coloured with cooler but juicier fruit, while the 2009 is richer, more tannic, bigger and riper and garnered much praise and media attention when the wines were first released.
To my surprise, I prefer the 2008, which I think better suits the purity and the energy of Louis-Michel’s style of winemaking.
When the pair were first married and came to live here, money was scarce. ‘When I first met Constance in 1994, I introduced myself as an impoverished Burgundy peasant,’ he recalls.
After their marriage, Constance worked for a financial company in Dijon while taking wine tasting courses one day a week. ‘I’m not a great taster,’ she says humbly, ‘but I love the wine’. Louis Michel’s parents always spent half of the year here and his mother, widowed a few years ago, continues the tradition, occupying the first floor of the château. Louis-Michel and Constance and their family still live on the ground floor, sharing their home with a continual stream of clients, journalists and friends.
I love this house; everywhere I look there are interesting antiques: copper pans, a hussar’s uniform, a cast statue of the family’s beloved Weimaraner dog Arak, swords, spears and a table football game placed opposite a painting of the first general and a bust by Houdon of a relative of Constance’s who left to fight in the American War of Independence. Louis-Michel scours the various auction houses and sales rooms looking for any objects that have a connection to Liger-Belair.
Portraits, books and toys line the corridors as I make my way upstairs to my bedroom on the second floor vowing not to brush my teeth so I can go to sleep with the last taste of La Romanée still in my mouth.
The next morning we are up early as Louis-Michel gathers together his small vineyard team to discuss the work to be done. He is out there early every morning and seems to relish the chance to exchange notes and ideas. He has always loved this place and even as a boy, when his father was an army officer and the family were constantly moving around, he looked forward to spending all his holidays here. ‘We worked on the house, painting, watering the garden, polishing the floors. I was so happy here because my parents let me do whatever I wanted. I emptied the stables and cleaned them up. I have many happy memories. But all the money we had went into the house, which hadn’t been touched between 1930 and 1975.’
Louis-Michel went to an agricultural engineering school in Toulouse, which he loved. ‘This was the first time I studied under Jesuits; they are profoundly elitist but not snobs; they really know how to bring out the best in everyone – it reminds me of the parable of the talents,’ he remembers.
‘I was there for five years between the ages of 18 and 23, and learned about all sorts of crops – wheat, beetroot, plums and grapes. Every year we had to do an apprenticeship for three and a half months. I lived with a family in the Lot and Garonne and once had an accident because I didn’t know how to drive a forklift properly and broke 180 bottles of wine. The farmer didn’t speak to me for two months even though we lived and ate together.
To make great wine you have to know when to take risks
‘My second year was a bit better: I went out to work at Far Niente Winery in Napa. In my third year, I worked in industry in Paris; three months in Paris was enough for me. In my fourth year I worked at the Vine and Wine Institute at the University of Burgundy in Dijon doing economic research into the difference in production methods for a village Burgundy and a grand cru.’
It was a good education for the young Liger-Belair, who finished off his schooling with a Master’s degree in commerce in Dijon. In 1991, his father had managed to get two farmers who were working Liger-Belair vineyards to promise to resign their leases 10 years later.
‘Ever since I was eight years old, I wanted to live here and make wine,’ Louis-Michel insists.
‘My parents told me that if I was an engineer I could take over the house but stressed that I must have qualifications; being a winemaker was very marginal and they felt that I had to have something to fall back on in case wine did not work out.’ So while he waited for the vineyard contracts to expire, Louis-Michel went to officer school in Saumur and did his military service before going to work as a vineyard worker in Gevrey-Chambertin at the biodynamic estate Rossignol-Trapet.
‘Louis-Michel is always working,’ Constance tells me, ‘he’s always out in the vineyards’. He replies, ‘To make great wine you have to know when to take risks. I am the boss and the winemaker, I have to be there. I have to take care of the details.’ It may come as a surprise that winemakers actually get their hands dirty, drive tractors, dig, plough and prune, make the wines and work all hours. For them it is a privilege and they like doing this much more than attending a black tie winemakers’ dinner in a smart restaurant in London or New York.
By 2000 Louis-Michel knew that he was finally going to have access to the Clos du Château monopole parcel in front of the house (where he is currently building a new cellar and storage facility – a crane swings precariously over the house during our stay), as well as La Colombière and Les Chaumes, and that in 2002 he would finally get his hands on Reignots and La Romanée.
Little by little he began to equip his cellar with a selection table, stainless steel tanks, a press, a pump and some oak barrels. Over two years, he studied for his oenology diploma and when it was time for his first harvest, a group of 30 friends descended on the château for the weekend to pick Clos de Château and half of La Colombière on the Saturday and the rest of La Colombière and Les Chaumes on the Sunday.
This excerpt is reprinted in Ten Great Wine Families, published by Academie du Vin Library Ltd (London) 2020.
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