Domaine Michel Lafarge – Benchmark Volnay

Circa 2007 Valentine’s Day in Charlottesville, VA; I was a student and while I had lots of interest in fine wine, I had little experience due to the cost. Luckily for this particular dinner out, I had a date that was not a student and she offered to pay! In an attempt to impress at the little French bistro we were at, I selected a wine I knew by name, but nothing else. A 2002 Volnay 1er cru. Sadly I don’t recall the producer which shows my lack of knowledge at the time… What I do recall is the most vivid and beautiful fruit and floral notes in a wine I had ever experienced. The purity in the bouquet with a line of underlying mineral tension that created this weightless and ethereal quality. Wow. I was hooked and still am!

Volnay is a beautiful little village in the Cote de Beaune (southern part of the Cote d’Or) and the wines can be absolutely exquisite. Volnay has no grand cru vineyards and is the last village that focuses on pinot noir prior to the transition to chardonnay that occurs in Meursault. The lack of grand crus probably keeps some trophy hunters out of Volnay, though there are a couple of grand cru quality vineyards there in my opinion. Thankfully due to this lack of flash and a bit less prestige, the village has remained just slightly more affordable for high quality Burgundy. In addition, there are a number of truly excellent producers in Volnay that produce great wines year in and year out so the overall quality level is quite good. Today I’ll review a bit about one of my favorites, Domaine Lafarge.

Cycling through Volnay in 2018

Domaine Michel Lafarge was founded in Volnay in the early part of the 1900s by the Lafarge family. Clos du Chateau des Ducs was one of the earliest vineyards they purchased. Michel Lafarge began working with his father at the domaine in 1949 and was subsequently joined by his son Frederic in late ’70s. Frederic is still at the helm co-managing with his wife Chantal. Recently they have been joined by their daughter Chlotilde so the family investment in the domaine continues! Michel Lafarge passed away at the age of 91 in 2020 and will be forever remembered as a great vigneron who had immense knowledge and talent, but also immense humility. The domaine was one of the first in Burgundy to domaine bottle and sell wines which they did as early as the 1930s. Also of note, in the chemical farming and clone selection era that dominated post-WWII, Michel largely avoided it. He continued his own massale selection and stayed mainly organic in his farming. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the wines have always been so consistently excellent. The domaine now farms about 12 hectares in Volnay, Beaune, and Meursault. They are certified organic and biodynamic. They have also expanded into Beaujolais under the label of Lafarge-Vial. All of the wines I’ve tried have been excellent, but without a doubt the true home and greatness of the domaine is in Volnay.

’98 Clos des Chenes paired with poulet de Bresse in 2016

Volnay as mentioned above is the final outpost of pinot noir in the Cote d’Or before production turns to white. The village is small and total area under vine is about 222 hectares. There are a number of 1er crus in Volnay many of which are excellent with a couple that can be truly transcendental. My personal pick for the best vineyards would include Clos des Ducs (a monopole of d’Angerville), Clos du Chateau des Ducs (a monopole of Lafarge), Clos des Chenes, and Les Caillerets. There are numerous other excellent 1er crus including Champans and Taillepieds so feel free to explore! The wines of Volnay are typically considered to be very elegant and feminine in style. The most similar village for comparison would be Chambolle-Musigny, but to me Volnay has even another layer of elegance and minerality that gives it a truly ethereal nature. I love that style of wine which is why Volnay is probably my favorite village. If you prefer big, burly pinot noir, this is probably not going to be your cup of tea, though there are some vineyards that make a more robust and muscular style. As I mentioned above, Lafarge is in my opinion the benchmark producer of Volnay and other than maybe the wines from d’Angerville no one is on the same level. The purity and finesse is simply beautiful!

Let’s look at a few more specific wines from Lafarge. I won’t comment extensively on the specifics of the wine making as this is always a moving target, however I believe that grapes are generally destemmed here and the amount of new wood used is small. A very traditional approach to wine making in general, though the extraction has decreased a bit with the warming climate. There are 2 village cuvees, a straight Volnay and a Volnay “Vendages Seleccion” which is a barrel selection from the village lots. Both are excellent though on the occasion when I’ve been able to sample them together, the “Vendages Seleccion” is generally slightly riper, a touch more silky and harmonious. These are both wines that I try to buy nearly every year as they offer excellent value, age well, and capture the essence of Volnay. Most recently I’ve had a few bottles of the 2014 Vendages Seleccion and it shows the beauty of that vintage with pure red berry fruits, maybe a hint of plum, floral notes, and a huge vein of minerality. The delicacy of the palate is beautiful, yet it delivers a big punch of flavor and a long finish. With regards to the 1er crus that Lafarge makes, many would consider the Clos des Chenes to be the best wine of the domaine. I personally tend to prefer the Clos de Chateau des Ducs which is a monopole of the domaine. The Clos des Chenes is a bigger wine with more structure and power. The Clos de Chateau des Ducs delivers more of what I desire in Volnay which is beautiful and pure ripe fruit, a sensual texture, high toned floral notes, and stony minerality. I’ve been fortunate to have a few different vintages of this wine and have never been disappointed. Even in difficult vintages such as 2011, the wine absolutely sings. Both of these 1er crus can age well for decades. The prices on these two benchmarks of the domaine have increased in recent years, but given the fact that they are often of grand cru quality they are worth the investment if you can swing it. Also, as I mentioned, look for “off” vintages as this domaine seems to do well regardless and you can often save 30-40%. Two other 1er crus that I really enjoy from Lafarge are Les Caillerets and Mitans. Caillerets would certainly be the more well known name and is probably the better of the two wines. Classically stony and driven with minerality, it offers excellent depth and ages well. Mitans which is certainly the more affordable of the Lafarge 1er crus can offer loads of pleasure. It is a very elegant and lacy wine with a graceful and ethereal feel alongside very pure fruits and some spice. A wine of hedonism for me. While outside the focus of this discussion, the wines from Beaune that Domaine Lafarge makes are also excellent and often available for less money than the Volnay wines. Lastly, though I can’t comment personally as I’ve never tasted them, the Meursault produced by Lafarge has a very good reputation. I need to try one so I can see how the domaine does with whites!

To sum things up, Volnay is a lovely village that produces exquisite wines for often significantly less than northern neighbors such as Vosne and Chambolle. Domaine Michel Lafarge is a benchmark producer that rarely misses with any of their wines and is highly recommended as a domaine to explore. I hope that you can find some Volnay and enjoy sipping it in the near future!

J. Newman, CSW

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