Thibaud Clerget can’t be certain, but he believes his family has been making wine in Burgundy since the Crusades. “My great-uncle made a family tree, but we can’t find it,” he says as he shows me around his family’s small winery in the town of Pommard. Its cellars only date back to the 17th century—practically yesterday by Clerget standards.
If a business has been in operation for eight centuries, give or take a few fallow years, you might think twice before choosing to shake things up. But when he took over the Domaine Yvon Clerget from his father three years ago, at the age of 23, Thibaud refused to let history weigh him down.
For one thing, he wasn’t sure he even wanted to be a winemaker. He’d been hoping to play professional golf, not exactly an ancestral Burgundian pastime, and the incessant demands of tending to vines would keep him bound to the land for a good portion of the year. (Don’t let his lavish Instagram feed fool you; he actually spends much more time on his tractor than gallivanting on the jet-set circuit.) If he was going to dedicate his life to making wine, he’d make it his way.
Thibaud’s father stopped producing wine in 2009, during the global economic downturn, and instead sold his grapes to other vintners in the region. That relieved some of the pressure on Thibaud when he decided to pick up the mantle and relaunch the winery in 2015. It allowed him to start as if from scratch—albeit with some of the choicest soils and vines in the world, including several grand cru plots.
Recognizing that it takes more than youthful moxie to make a great wine, Thibaud credits his fellow Burgundy winemakers with helping him along the way, singling Véronique Drouhin, who gave him an internship on the Drouhin estate in Oregon. He’s also grateful to the U.S. edition of La Paulée—a yearly gathering of makers and enthusiasts of Burgundian wine in New York and San Francisco, inspired by the original event in Burgundy and organized by sommelier Daniel Johnnes—with boosting his international profile.
Thibaud, who could be played by actor Michael Fassbender if Fassbender was even better looking, decided to focus less on maximizing production—his father’s objective—and more on the quality of the product. For him, that meant adapting his methods to each year’s harvest, rather than sticking to one method regardless of climactic conditions or yield. Such experimentation might seem reckless, but for Thibaud, it leads to a “more precise, more elegant wine.”
By way of example, he says the grapes he harvested in 2017 were the most beautiful he’d ever seen, so he decided to use the “whole harvest method” for half of the vintage. Ironically, the technique, which calls for macerating not just the fruit but the stems as well, was much more common centuries ago, so modernizing in this case actually meant a return to ancient ways. In that vein, he’s also eliminated pesticides and practices a treatment regimen called lutte raisonnée, which is far gentler on the land than typical farming methods while not quite being quite as radically toxin-free as biodynamic wines.
Thibaud’s wine is more suited to his tastes: fresher, and brighter than the “austere” wines he says his father prefers. Skeptical at first, Thibaud’s father was thrilled when he sampled the final product. And with that sip, the line of Clerget winemakers officially extended to its 20th generation.
The team behind La Paulée will celebrate another popular wine region, Champagne, when La Fête du Champagne returns to New York City November 8-10, 2018. American Express is the Grand Cru sponsor of La Fête du Champagne, offering Card Members exclusive events, ticket packages, and a 2-week presale to the entire program. Terms apply. Learn more here.