If you’ve spent anytime at all around French wine then you know that figuring out the label can be a bit confusing. You’ve got the region, the sub-region, the village, the Cru, the vineyard site, and the specificity can go on from there. And if you don’t know yet, we are big fans of wines from France and from specific places like Burgundy, Champagne, Beaujolais, Northern Rhone, and pretty much everywhere else too. But what we really look for in addition to the regional information is the name on the label, because for us, the name on the label represents a real person who lives a real life, just as we do, up’s and downs, birthdays, family drama, and all the rest that comes with being human. This human connection is what drives us, well, that and some very delicious juice that certain skilled humans can craft so that we can enjoy 4,619 mi away. To be clear, not every label is like this and I wouldn’t take this approach everywhere. But for the wines on our shelves, the name means something.
But sometimes the name on the label represents the name of the Domaine or the winery and is not the name of the person making the wine. Case in point- Chandon de Briailles. Chandon de Briailles is managed by François and his sister Claude de Nicolay. The property’s history begins in 1834. François and Claude de Nicolay are the children of Count and Countess Aymard-Claude de Nicolay. The Countess was heavily involved in the winery until 1988 when Claude took over the reins. Nadine AKA the Countess stopped using pesticides in the vineyards in the early 80s and Claude oversaw the transition to organic certification in 1998. In 2001, François de Nicolay, who was running his own wine shop in Paris decided to join the family business and now the duties are split between François, Claude, and a team of winemakers and vineyard workers. Side note- Wine typically isn’t solely made by one individual, even if they are the “winemaker”, it takes many hands to make that delicious wine that you are drinking right now.
A few months ago we had the opportunity to visit Chandon de Briailles which is located on a stunning property in Savigny-lès-Beaune. (If you want to stop reading this now and go book your trip abroad, I won’t blame you.) We also had the unique opportunity to stay at the Chateau which was pretty epic and is about 20 yards across the courtyard from the winery. They have the best mini-bar in the world. Fully stocked with the Chandon de Briailles and the François de Nicolay wines at great prices.
When we arrived at the property it was dark and I was expecting the person I had been communicating with prior to arriving in France about the lodging to welcome our group. But when I saw a cute little pickup truck pull up and a guy gets out and says hello I’m François, I kinda lost my cool. “Wait, like François de Nicolay?” He laughed. And politely shook his head. I laughed. “That’s amazing, I love your wines!” We work with the Chandon de Briailles wines as well as François’s negociant project aptly labeled- François de Nicolay. Remember that thing about the name on the label?
After raiding the mini-bar and a good night’s rest we met François at the winery and proceeded to fall even deeper in love with what the de Nicolay's are doing with their wines.
In the early 2000’s François became very interested in Biodynamics and the brother-sister duo decided to create a test by planting ⅓ of one of their plots traditionally, using allowed chemicals. ⅓ of a plot following organic certification protocols and ⅓ following Biodynamic protocols. After harvest, they sorted the three separate lots and used the exact same methods to make the wine so they could try to taste the difference in the plots and see if there really was something to this biodynamic thing. François claims this test was a way to win his mother over, but admits it was a bit nerve-wracking if his desired method didn’t actually win that taste test.
Can you guess what method won?
By 2005, they fully converted the vineyard to biodynamics and even started using a new practice of using milk in the vineyard instead of a copper sulfur mix. Now the milk method is used by wineries all over the world and is an accepted certified organic agriculture practice.
There is a lot of amazing history about Chandon de Briailles, and it is a beautiful property, but the wines speak for themselves. These are extremely well-made Red and White Burgundies. Chandon de Briailles is using a lot of whole cluster fermentation and never more than 15% new oak. This is pretty atypical for a lot of Burgundy. They are also using less and less sulfur at bottling and making some wines that are completely without sulfur. The François de Nicolay wines are truly some of my favorites as well. Using fruit from vineyards that his family doesn’t own, François has put together quite the portfolio of cutting-edge White and Red Burgundy that is still clean as a whistle, all the while keeping a unique character that makes the wines so fun at the same time.
It’s clear that the de Nicolay’s care about the earth and what goes into their vines and in the winery. One thing that I glean from the Chandon de Briailles story is that the mother took what she had- beautiful sites in Corton and around Burgundy and took a step towards a more regenerative way of farming by stopping using pesticides. And then from there, her daughter Claude took another step by getting an organic certification in 1998, and then in 2005, François led the vineyard to become certified biodynamic. It’s an insightful lesson that as a parent or a business owner, taking the step in front of you is an important step in your journey, as you never know what that step will lead to and what path you are carving out for the future.