Domaine Elise Villiers, Vézelay
|Country & Region||France, Burgundy|
Elise Villiers makes lovely wines and these are some of the best values in white Burgundy that one can find today.
—John Gilman, View from the Cellar 2020
Elise Villiers was born and raised in Précy Le Moult, a village in the commune of Vézelay, which in turn is located in Burgundy’s Yonne Department and lies due south of the town of Chablis. Didier Picq told me about her some years ago. Her tiny winery–see first photo below–is now on the premises where she was born.
Historically, the Yonne had a flourishing viticulture all the way up until the latter half of the 19th century. Then the railroad to the Midi opened the Paris market to cheap southern wine, followed by the appearance of powdery mildew from America, followed by phylloxera. The three together dealt a near-death blow to the vinous fortunes of the Yonne. It only began to bounce back in the late 1960s, led by the appellation of Chablis.
As a young girl, Elise was introduced to wine by an uncle, who was a wine merchant and who would come to holiday dinners bearing bottles of prestigious appellations. When her own children began to come of age, she started to seriously consider a career of a vigneronne. In 1989, an elderly couple among the pioneers in the rejuvenation of Vézelay’s viticulture put their parcels up for sale. Elise offered to purchase the vines on the condition that the couple guide her for the first few years, something that they were delighted to do. Those parcels are on the eastern flank of the Vézelay hillside, which is depicted on Elise’s label, and are located on the right hand side of that swath of vineyards.
Subsequently, at age 30 she attended the viticultural school in Beaune (where Jean-Pierre Charlot of Domaine Voillot taught), and then went on to get a degree in enology from the Institute of Vine and Wine in Dijon. Today her domain consists of four hectares (10 acres) of vines—three in Chardonnay and one in Pinot Noir—on either side of the Cure River Valley (the vines growing on Vézelay’s eastern flank make up the main swath of vines on one side of this bucolic little valley, and if you want to get an idea of what the viticulture looked like 400 years ago, take a look at the link at the bottom of this page). She is now one of a very small number of independent producers in the appellation–they number less than ten–who make and bottle their own wine, alongside of six or seven growers who sell their crop to the cooperative.
She works with a small vineyard company to do the tractor work of spraying, lightly plowing the soil, and hedging the vines. With the help of a young woman, Elise does the pruning and training, and alone makes the wine and oversees its élevage, and of course manages the sales. She’s a minimalist in the cellar, stopping even chaptalization years ago. In the vines she is currently farming a part of them organically, and her aim–shared among all of Vézelay’s independent growers–is to farm them that way entirely once she is confident that this is viable in her wet region.
Signaling its growing recognition for Chardonnay, the appellation name changed with vintage 2017 to simply Vézelay. For the region’s Pinot Noir, the political struggle continues and for the moment the red wine must bear the simple appellation of “Bourgogne.” The growers are petitioning to be able to qualify that as “Bourgogne Vézelay,” but this remains in process.
|La Chevalière||Chardonnay||Elise planted this vineyard in 1990 on the right bank of the Cure River, opposite Vézelay and its hillside. She has 1.3 hectares (3.2 acres) of Chardonnay here in relatively heavy clay-limestone soil, and she makes the wine in tank. This is a finely focused wine that emphasizes fruit.|
|Le Clos blanc||Chardonnay||Her Chardonnay here comes from 1.2 hectares (about 3 acres) planted in 1976 on the impressively steep east-facing flank of Vézelay, where vines were historically planted only to be abandoned for nearly a century until the 1970s (at the bottom of this page is a link to a photo of a remarkable print made in 1610 that shows nothing but vines on all visible flanks of the Vézelay hill). Le Clos is divided among four owners: three are independent growers, and the fourth landholder here is the local cooperative. One third of this wine is aged in new and old demi-muid barrels, and it is a particularly mineral Chardonnay with great elegance and understated power— a lot like the woman who makes it.|
|Le Clos rouge||Pinot Noir||The appellation rules permit yields up to 60 hectoliters per hectare, and Elise normally gets between 40-50 hl/he. She raises this long, elegant Pinot entirely in demi-muids, most of which are neutral. In 2018, for the first time, she fermented half the wine with stems because this extraordinary year yielded completely ripe stems.