The Restorative and Joyful Wines of Domaine Pierre Guillemot

At One Savigny-les-Beaune Domaine, the Next Generation is Facing Climate Change with Grace

1966 Domaine Pierre Guillemot Premier Cru Aux Serpentières Savigny-les-Beaune
12 min read

The wine region of Bourgogne ought to bring joy to one’s soul. Ancient vineyard plots, stone villages in a time capsule, wines of unfathomable depth and nuance. Even the mysterious, ancient protocols obeyed at a cellar tasting have a weird way of captivating your heart.

Dark clouds have been looming over Bourgogne’s horizon in recent years, reminding us that joy has a sinister foil: anxiety.

But dark clouds have been looming over the region’s horizon in recent years, reminding us that joy has a sinister foil: anxiety. Despite its iron-clad position atop the world of fine wine, Bourgogne has taken a pounding in recent years. Brutal late-season frosts and violent spring and summer thunderstorms — the “new normal” of a climate gone haywire — have been unrelenting in recent years, making each vintage report an accounting of who has dodged what bullet more than a rapturous telling of who made the most of the region’s esteemed terroir.

Bourgogne has plenty of peers on the gnarly front of climate change, but where it remains peerless is in the history and its ensuing expectation, which heaps even more pressure to perform on the modern-day vigneron.

Over five strenuous days last June traversing the Mâconnais, Côte Chalonnaise and Côte d’Or — visiting roughly three or four producers each day — I got a sense for how producers feel right now, and they’re justifiably stressed. All of the winemakers I met were lovely people. The wines tasted were precise and ever-so-informative. But the main narrative kept coming back to matters of anxiety. At several domaines, the most recently bottled vintage (2022 at the time) could not be tasted because what little was made had been allocated and already sold. One Maconnais producer relayed a murder’s row of weather events beginning in 2018, and stated “we haven’t been able to make a proper vintage in five years.” This, while we tasted an average Pinot Noir he had made out of necessity in the South of France with a friend of his.

So as I approached Domaine Pierre Guillemot in Savigny-les-Beaune on a glorious summer evening, several screws were turning in my head. It was my last domaine visit, and while I had enjoyed the company and conversation with each vigneron, something had been missing. Was it joy, or was it just an environment free of anxiety?

And that’s when I met Vincent Guillemot and his brother, Philippe.

Vincent and Philipe Guillemot of Domaine Pierre Guillemot in Savigney-les-Beaune, France
Vincent Guillemot (left) holding a bottle of the family’s 1966 “Les Serpentières” Premier Cru; Philippe Guillemot (right) in the vineyards above town. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

The Brothers Guillemot

Both were tall, slender, bespectacled and dressed in T-shirts and shorts. Vincent, in particular, greeted us with a welcoming smile that neared giddiness. He spoke in a whimsical way, his voice high, his French fluid, his English non-existent, but his smile undeterred by the barrier. Philippe was more subdued; almost monastic-like in how he radiated patience and calm. “You’re on Mute” proclaimed his T-shirt.

Philippe understood English, but was more comfortable responding in French. My savant-like guide, Stevie Bobes, would deftly translate for us.

Philippe oversees the viticulture and he agreed to take us straightaway to one of his vineyards — any of his choosing. He opted not for the Premier Cru Aux Serpentières, for which the estate is most famous, but Dessus Les Gollardes, a special Village-level plot of red soil above town where the family grows an unusual Pinot Blanc.

Eighty-seven percent of the Savigny-les-Beaune AOC is planted to Pinot Noir, so this is a village known for its reds. But per the regulations, the blancs can be inclusive of both Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, even though most producers rely entirely on the former. I asked Philippe if he believed the region would be better off with more grape diversity, and he shrugged. In a sense, yes, for climate change reasons it would be better to have more tools in the toolshed, but: “The cépage does not matter as much as the terroir,” he concluded.

Collage of images from Dessus Les Gollardes vineyard in Savigny-les-Beaune with winemaker Philip Guillemot.
Above Savigny-les-Beaune in the Dessus Les Gollardes vineyard, a Village-level parcel that yields an extraordinary Savigny-les-Beaune Blanc. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

“The important thing is not what we see. But rather what we don’t see. As long as the plant can adapt naturally, nothing is going to change. Everything will be fine.”
Philippe Guillemot

He illustrated this not by waxing poetic about geological epochs or acute angles of sunlight, but by pointing out features of a stout, 55-year-old vine at our feet emerging from Savigny-les-Beaune’s iron-tinged soil. What I saw looked like a woody fire hydrant with leaves, but what Guillemot saw was an engine for the shoots and tendrils and canopies and grapes that would provide wine for the next generation.

“The important thing is not what we see,” he said. “But rather what we don’t see. As long as the plant can adapt naturally, nothing is going to change. Everything will be fine.”

And in answering my first simplistic question amidst the vines, Philippe Guillemot seemed to shrug off the entire trip’s theme of anxiety. Yes, climate change is a big challenge, but there are also timeless forces at play. His job was to stay out of the way of the latter.

After that, questions about clones, massal selection, and soil — you know: the usual turf of Burgundian reporting — just didn’t seem that interesting.

So If the Cépage Does Not Matter …

If the villages of the Côte de Beaune were stars, then Savigny-les-Beaune would form a constellation in the northern sky with Pernand-Vergelesses, Aloxe-Corton and Ladoix-Serrigny — a sort of Ursa Minor for Pinot Noir lovers, with the great hill of Corton forming a nebula of Grand Cru vineyards between the other three villages. Savigny-les-Beaune sits off to the side, facing away from the brightest stars in a semi-forested valley. Despite the four-lane A6 motorway connecting Beaune to Paris that runs just south of the village (or maybe because of it), Savigny-les-Beaune has a bit of an outpost feel. All the while, the Grand Cru hubbub of Corton is a mere mile away.

Throughout the 20th century, Savigny-les-Beaune was more known for the work of négociants than independent domaines, even though many of today’s celebrated wineries — Domaine Pierre Guillemot included — were patiently laying the groundwork for a renaissance. Read any archival reporting on the village, and the curious word “rustic” appears over and over again, as though the tasters knew this wine came from a cleft in the hills where prestige dare not go. (Vincent Guillemot would show me the silliness of that reputation a little while later).

Savigney-les-Beaune and Philipe Guillemot
Wine tasting at Domaine Pierre Guillemot includes a lovely walk around Savigney-les-Beaune, visiting various unmarked cellars belonging to the family while Philipe carries a giant spittoon for tasting. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Recently, the wine world has spun the spotlight onto Savigny-les-Beaune in a way that defies its history. High prices elsewhere, a cadre of independent and conscientious producers (Guillemot included) and a sense of discovery have made the village incredibly appealing. It’s not that Savigny-les-Beaune’s terroir has been uncharted up until now; it’s just that many of wine’s most influential voices haven’t bothered to understand it.

It’s not that Savigny-les-Beaune’s terroir has been uncharted up until now; it’s just that many of wine’s most influential voices haven’t bothered to understand it.

Yet the vineyards here are as beautiful as any, and the potential is tremendous. More than one-third of the Pinot Noir vineyards have their roots sunk into Premier Cru status, with the vineyards of Les Narbantons, La Dominode, Les Vergelesses and Aux Serpentières garnering the most attention. Also promising is a quadrant of Village-level vines to the north of town — inclusive of Dessus Les Gollardes — which are largely surrounded on three sides by forest and could be a bastion for superior value wines as the climate warms (and, one might assume, while the Grand Cru roast).

Upon returning to the winery on the village’s main square, Philippe retrieved what looked like a red, double-sided toilet plunger — a spittoon — and led us from the winery to a hidden cellar a few blocks away. We descended a steep, medieval set of stairs to the first barrel room where the whites undergo their élevage, and tasted the brothers’ work in action: a newer barrel of the 2022 Dessus Les Gollardes blanc followed by the same wine from an older barrel. This is the wine with 70% Pinot Blanc, which can be detected on the palate with amped-up citrus tones scampering through the middle. “White Burgundy” it does not scream, but it is sumptuous and evocative of so many other things.

I asked him about the notion that blanc essentially means Chardonnay in this part of France. Does this wine defy expectation for consumers in any way that is harmful to sales?

Philippe was circumspect. He admitted that they’ve contemplated replanting the vineyard with all Chardonnay, but in the end, the family’s history with this wine is too strong. “C’est notre marque,” he concluded. It is our brand.

Cellar door at Domaine Pierre Guillemot in Savigny-les-Beaune, France
Descending the stairs into one of three wine cellars belonging to Domaine Pierre Guillemot in Savigny-les-Beaune. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Onward to the Pinot Noir

We left the cellar and proceed through the streets. A gorgeous early-summer evening was painting Savigny-les-Beaune with its light, yet the village wouldn’t budge with its stubborn color palette: just like the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir dichotomy of its vineyards, the pale limestone walls and sanguine roofs of Bourgogne were impervious to change.

Another unmarked door, another hazardous staircase, another environment that smelled of fermentation and dust (yet sounded like compressed history with its echos). We had arrived at the Pinot Noir, and while we only had one vintage to sample from barrel (2022), it still took ample time.

There was the Savigny-les-Beaune rouge (“already silky tannins,” I wrote); Les Grands Picotins from the lower outskirts of town (“deep dark fruits”); the Premier Cru Les Narbontons, which is kissed by the morning sun each day (“beguiling and long finish”); the Premier Cru Les Jarrons, which gets to look across the valley at Corton every day (“superb momentum”); the Premier Cru Aux Serpentières, which angles directly south (“beautifully savory”); and the adjacent Premier Cru Aux Gravains (“more tannic, yet more fresh”). It was an in-depth tutorial on the terroir of Savigny-les-Beaune — the terroir that has always been there, but overlooked until the wine world needed it more than ever.

Collage of barrels and Philippe Guillemot in the wine cellar at Domaine Pier Guillemot.
Philippe Guillemot in the wine cellars. While known as specialists of Savigny-les-Beaune’s terroir, the family also produces a single Grand Cru wine from Corton. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

But it was also the moment I had long been hoping for in Bourgogne: a joyful delirium of confusion, rather than clarity, thanks to the unknowable depths of the world’s most lauded terrain for wine. The Guillemot family’s wines were running wild with my senses, and while I wasn’t fluent in their language, I didn’t need to be. This was Pinot Noir at its most basic yet brilliant level. No make-up, no filler, no tricks, and no over-extraction or over ripening. In its place, something was being conveyed about each wine’s specific origin, the crux of Bourgogne and its wines. Chasing the answers on a technical level didn’t seem to interest Philippe, so I asked what he had learned from his father about their craft as vignerons.

“You have to like working the land. After that, everything becomes intuitive.”
Philippe Guillemot

He smiled, and said what he learned was simple. “You have to like working the land. After that, everything becomes intuitive.”

The Persistence of Joy

Back at the winery, with the late afternoon giving way to evening, we reunited with Vincent Guillemot, who oversees the winemaking. Philippe said he had a commitment and apologized for leaving. We shook hands.

“He has to wash the tractor,” his brother laughed after he departed.

It was now time to taste the finished product from bottle, as well as something with age. At the threshold to the last cellar, I saw a small shelf containing empty bottles of past glories tasted by the brothers. There was a Domaine Coche-Dury from Les Rougeots in Meursault, a Nuits-St-Georges from Arnoux-Lachaux, and — catching my eye — a 2017 Francia Barolo from Giacomo Conterno and a 1988 Renato Ratti Barolo. The kinship between Bourgogne and Barolo persists.

Vincent poured the 2021 Premier Cru “Aux Serpentieres” for starters, and noted that during that harvest, they passed through the vines five times to get the selection right.

The Premier Cru vineyard Aux Serpentières in Savigny-les-Beaune, Burgundy, France.
Premier Cru Aux Serpentières in Savigny-les-Beaune — a vineyard of wild mysteries. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

“We are coming from the point of view that we need to have exceptionally high standards given the price of these wines nowadays,” he said, and shrugged. “We’d prefer to be on the safe side given how demanding the clientele now is.”

The wine was massively energetic and statuesque in its detail. A promising start.

We moved to the 2020 of the same wine, as well as the 2016 — to show how Aux Serpentières evolves over time. But 2020 is an outlier in many ways, a year where the forces of climate change — late-April frost, low yields, heat — conspired to make the serpent behind Aux Serpentières coil with ferocious tannins. Yet I was enthralled by how the step back to 2016 revealed more breadth, more earthy aromatic character, yet hardly any change to the vigor. All 13 Guillemot wines to that point felt like living beings, on their way to somewhere more interesting.

Meanwhile, Vincent was having a great time entertaining us. Technical questions — such as what percentage of whole-cluster they used in fermentation, a technique they employ but alter each year to suit their needs — were met with a playful smile and an urge to take a guess. In fact, this seemed to be a game he enjoyed playing: “take a guess,” he kept saying. He wasn’t trying to fluster us, it was just more fun and amusing to hold a wine tasting this way.

“Encore un vin,” he said, getting an unlabeled bottle and pouring. “I am going to sit down now because I am enjoying this,” he laughed.

“And which vintage is this?” I asked.

“Take a guess,” he replied.

I must have blacked out or something — so evocative and otherworldly were Aux Serpentières’ aromas: like rose petals and mushrooms, wet soil and spiced orange tea.

I buried my nose in the glass and, well, I must have blacked out or something — so evocative and otherworldly were Aux Serpentières’ aromas: like rose petals and mushrooms, wet soil and spiced orange tea. This was the realization of the Burgundian ideal, drifting into my head. And upon the palate, it was silky, sleek, mellow yet divine in its energy. Sometimes you know it in an instant: this was one of the top ten wines I had ever tasted.

From 1990 to 2009, Vincent told me, the family filtered their red wines. And this wine seems unfiltered. A clue perhaps? Yet the radiant color, sent me way off course. No way this pre-dated 1990. I was guessing. No way. And there was still so much berry- and cherry-like fruit … and none of it dried or prune-like as you’d expect with decades in the bottle.

“C’est compliqué,” Vincent said and smiled.

After some more inquiry for clues, more laughter, and a damn-the-torpedoes guess of 2006, Vincent revealed the other side of the bottle. There, written in white paint was “1966.” A 57-year-old without a wrinkle or gray hair.

Over my career, I’ve been lucky to taste a small handful wines from the 1960s and 70s, and even in the best ones, they have all lost something: color, fruit, tannin. Something.

But the radiant 1966 Premier Cru Aux Serpentières — a wine shepherded into existence by Vincent and Philippe’s grandfather, Pierre — harmonized wisdom and youth in a way I’d never thought was possible. Rustic? Magical is more like it.

I left Domaine Pierre Guillemot with very few answers, and a whole lot of feelings. No, it did not sweep the anxieties of a region under the rug, nor did it give me the article I wanted, about Savigny-les-Beaune being the next big thing. It gave me something more personal, and it reaffirmed why Bourgogne still matters in a way that no other wine region can match. C’est compliqué, indeed.

 

Note: My travels were sponsored by the Bourgogne Wine Board as part of a press tour. This, however, was a customized tour based largely on my editorial objectives and the wineries I personally wanted to visit, Domaine Pierre Guillemot included. Learn more about my editorial and travel policies.

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