With a dozen centuries behind it, this is an estate which can trace its origins directly to the Emperor Charlemagne in 775.
This was the year in which, in compensation for the destruction of their Abbey by the Saracens, the Emperor Charlemagne gifted what is now the domaine’s Corton-Charlemagne vineyard to the monks of Saulieu.
The Church owned the property for just over a thousand years until the French Revolution, when it was acquired by René Bonneau du Martray’s family, descendants of Nicolas Rolin, who founded the Hospices de Beaune in 1443. In the 19th Century, the Bonneau du Martray family controlled almost 24 hectares of vines, including the whole of the Charlemagne climat.
René Bonneau du Martray, born in 1886, left the estate to his niece, Comtesse Alice le Bault de la Morinière, whose husband Jean took over in 1969. Jean began the estate’s renaissance, enlarging and improving the cuverie and cellars and introducing estate bottling and temperature control. Jean’s son, Jean-Charles le Bault de la Morinière, joined the domaine in 1994.
He began the process of conversion to biodynamics, which is now a fundamental part of the domaine’s approach. In 2017, US businessman E. Stanley Kroenke became only the fifth owner in the domaine’s history, bringing Bonneau du Martray into the same vinous family as California’s Screaming Eagle, The Hilt and Jonata.
Chardonnay grapes are brought in from the vineyards in small, slatted crates to prevent them from being crushed.
Upon arrival in the vat room, the grapes are lightly crushed then pressed to extract their juice and phenolics. After settling, fermentation takes place, mainly in oak barrels (25% new), but including “oak of different shapes and sizes” as well as a sandstone amphora and an earthenware dolia.
The wine then spends 12 months on its lees, without stirring. Each of the 11 blocks of Corton-Charlemagne is kept separate for fermentation and the first 12 months of élevage. The aim, as described by Thibault Jacquet, is to achieve a harmony between the three microclimates of Corton-Charlemagne.
The wine is then blended and spends a further nine months in tank. The first blend is between plots of the same microclimate.
The wines mature in a protective environment, in vats on fine lees for a second winter. At the end of this period, a second racking separates the wine from its lees. The wine then rests for a month before bottling in late May.
This occurs “during a reductive phase, a waning moon with a small tidal coefficient.
At the heart of the Charlemagne climat, the holdings span En Charlemagne on the hill’s northern Pernand-Vergelesses side and Le Charlemagne on the southern Aloxe-Corton side.
Following the lease of 2.8 hectares of Corton-Charlemagne to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the area of Chardonnay in domaine production is now 6.7 hectares. Added to the 1.6 hectares of Pinot Noir (Corton Grand Cru), the holdings in 2020 total 8.3 hectares. The hill of Corton, with its voluptuous curves and generous woodland at its crest, some 300 metres above sea level, has a bedrock of limestone, overlain by Jurassic soil.
The upper slopes are mostly heat-reflective white marl, with the proportion of iron and clay increasing as you descend. The only west-facing grand cru in the Côte d’Or, Corton-Charlemagne’s vines get full exposure to the afternoon sun. The free-draining higher slopes are protected from the wind by the hilltop wood, whilst cold humid air passes through the valley at the foot of the hill.
Describing how different points on the slope influence the wines’ characters, Thibault Jacquet singled out three of the 15 plots, which he describes as “microclimate typicities”. An upper section called Rollin Haut has poor soils, bringing mineral tension and acidity to the final blend.
A mid-slope parcel, Grande Plante, confers a more generous, full-fruited character, whilst Les Latours, on the lower slopes, contributes density and viscosity. The earlier ripening lower plots tend to be picked first, the upper ones last.
The 40-strong harvest team typically takes a week to bring in the domaine’s grapes. Each plot is vinified separately. Even mid-replanting programme, the average vine age is over 50 years. Yields are low, 40 hectolitres per hectare (hl/ha) for the white and under 30 hl/ha for the red on average.
No herbicides or fertilisers are used, and yields are kept in check by severe pruning in the early growing season. There is no green harvest, the domaine prioritising rigorous debudding (évasivage) and removal of the lateral shoots (entre-coeurs) in early spring. Biodynamic trials started in 2004, with certification for the Pinot Noir in 2012 and the Chardonnay in 2014.