(The following column by Eric Asimov was published online on April 11, 2013, and in print on April 17, 2013.)
To watch Jacques Lardière scoot about the cellar at the headquarters of Louis Jadot in Beaune, France, the crossroads of Burgundy, is to see a man in his element. With white hair cascading from his head like a puffy cumulus cloud, red pants the likes of which only a Frenchman could even think of carrying off, twinkling eyes magnified by spectacles and an ever-present smile, Mr. Lardière is a cross between a wizard and an elf, climbing over barrels and digging deeper into Jadot’s rich Burgundian holdings in a determined effort to explain the wondrous mysteries that keep Burgundy lovers so everlastingly entranced.
In his 42 years as technical director, supervising winemaking and viticulture, Mr. Lardière has traveled the globe promoting Jadot and Burgundy while solidifying his status as one of the most unforgettable characters in wine. He has led tastings, sat through thousands of dinners and greeted countless collectors. If a record exists for posing for most snapshots with awe-struck Burgundy fiends, Mr. Lardière most likely holds it.
I, for one, have run into Mr. Lardière in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Pismo Beach, Calif. I’ve walked vineyards with him in Beaujolais and tasted Pouilly-Fuissé with him in the Mâconnais. Yet in my mind, I will always see him scampering through the Beaune cellar, a scheduled 30-minute tasting of the new Jadot wines turning into an hour, then two hours, the points he is trying to make never quite catching up to the rush of thoughts conveyed in a combination of French, English and Lardière-speak, a mystifying torrent of brain-twisting notions that communicate in passion and impressions rather than in smoothly linear ideas.
He was at it again in New York last month, though this was different. Mr. Lardière, 65, was stepping down. He had already turned over his duties to Frédéric Barnier. “The breadth of the new generation is very good,” Mr. Lardière said.
It was the culmination of a two-year retirement tour in which he had spanned the globe, receiving honors and tributes even as he continued to offer the usual thought-provoking monologues.
The occasion was an extraordinary tasting of 20 vintages of Jadot’s Chevalier-Montrachet “Les Demoiselles,” a superb grand cru white Burgundy, as part of La Paulée de New York, Daniel Johnnes’s homage to a Burgundian harvest festival.
“This is maybe your 20th last event,” Mr. Johnnes said, by way of an introduction, to the audience in an upstairs dining room at Eleven Madison Park.
Mr. Lardière plunged right in, only hinting at the elegiac.
“When you drink wine, you must realize you are drinking something more than wine,” he said to start things off. “It’s a very meditative beverage.”
He spoke of the vines pumping minerality from the ground and pulling molecules from the air, “some lighter and higher than others.” He referred to the flavors of hawthorn and green hazelnuts, studding his English sentences with regular “doncs,” a French transitional that served as connective tissue between thoughts. “The more you drink, the more you are,” he concluded.
More concretely, Mr. Lardière played the sly provocateur in assessing the wines, his own views of vintages often contradicting the conventional wisdom. The first flight included three recent vintages, 2011, 2010 and 2009. I loved the beautiful, energetic, tightly coiled 2010, but Mr. Lardière selected as the best of the three the ripe, opulent ’09, a year in which many white Burgundies seem to lack finesse.
“It will be more elegant than we suppose,” he said.
As a group, the wines were gorgeous, showing the differing characteristics of many vintages yet bound by their vitality, the persistence of their flavors and their savory mineral character. Among my favorites were the precise, transparent 2008, the sedate ’97 and the urgent ’96, the rich yet balanced ’90, the grand ’85 and the golden, placid ’84, a notoriously poor vintage in Burgundy.
“I must be crazy to show you the ’84,” Mr. Lardière told the group, “but after 30 years, ahhhh.”
Older vintages included a shining ’78, a minty, apple-tinged ’67, which happened to have been bottled by Mr. Lardière in his first year at Jadot, and a fresh, spicy 1929 that got better and better in the glass.
It was left to others to speak of what Mr. Lardière has meant to Burgundy and Jadot, a leading négociant who over the course of his tenure has improved the quality of its wines to the point where they are now among the best values in Burgundy.
“Jacques taught me everything,” said Pierre-Henry Gagey, who succeeded his father, André, as president of Louis Jadot in 1992 after joining the company in 1985. “He’s been so energetic and positive in his outlook. For me, who has tasted with him every day in the last 28 years, I am always amazed by this capacity.”
More specifically, Mr. Gagey credited Mr. Lardière with making the wines purer, with a finer texture, after they had been darker and more concentrated, and for pushing Jadot to adapt biodynamic viticulture in its own vineyards. Mr. Lardière is originally from the Atlantic coast, near the Fiefs Vendéens, a small wine region near the mouth of the Loire, and Mr. Gagey said not being a native of Burgundy had been a tremendous advantage.
“He didn’t have an idea of how things were supposed to taste, which allowed him to find the direct link between the soil and the wine,” he said.
Larry Stone, a leading American sommelier and wine executive, who has known Mr. Lardière since 1988, said he had helped improve the region as a whole, and had especially inspired small producers.
“His winemaking is very modern and intuitive, with lots of room for creativity and different styles,” Mr. Stone said. “He gave small producers the courage to move forward, inspiring them by the improvement of the négociants.”
As for Mr. Lardière’s flights of oratory, Mr. Gagey said, “It’s absolutely true, we don’t always understand Jacques, but we understand the meaning of what he says.” He said that Mr. Lardière would continue to work on various projects for Jadot, but that Mr. Barnier was now in charge.
As much as I’ve enjoyed Mr. Lardière’s company and learned from parsing his words, I’ll probably remember best one of the clearest bits of wisdom he imparted to me.
“Good wine is not enough to explain the potential of Burgundy,” he told me on a visit in 2008. “Some wines are like mystery books that you read fast, enjoy and forget. Burgundy is like a classic that you take in slowly, assimilate and always remember.”
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