Olivier Bernstein’s Bespoke Burgundy

Undoubtedly one of our most memorable stops during our Autumn visit to Burgundy this year was the magnificent cellar of Olivier Bernstein in the heart of the old district of Beaune. Olivier Bernstein’s property is breathtaking, even before trying the wines in the cellar below.

Olivier had the property completely renovated between 2005 and 2010, with the help of celebrated architect Michele De Lucchi. The level of detail and the authentic craftmanship that the building exudes is staggering,  perfectly matching both the obsessive level of attention to detail and the authentic beauty you find in his wines.

Amongst the growing breed of micro-négociants coming out of Burgundy these days, no one producer has been quite as successful as Olivier Bernstein, who from the very start set the bar so high as to compete with some of the finest wines coming out of the Cote d’Or.

His access to some of the world’s greatest vineyards certainly helped, including the Grand Crus of Chambertin, Bonnes Mares and Clos de Beze. Whilst he doesn’t own these vineyards, he does manage them year-round under the watchful eye of his head viticulturalist Richard Seguin. Seguin (a local vigneron from Gevrey Chambertin) has been working with Olivier since setting up the project in 2007.

Our visit to Bernstein was our last tasting of the trip and arriving there we already had a clear understanding of the vintage, its highlights and its potential pitfalls. With this in mind, we came out of the tasting confident that Bernstein had navigated 2018 with aplomb, capturing the density and concentration of the vintage whilst retaining pure, fresh fruit appeal and real terroir transparency. We couldn’t have asked for a better ending to an incredibly insightful trip with Bernstein’s wine living up to their reputation as some of the finest being made in the Cote d’Or today.

The micro-négociant in complete control

Whilst most of his production comes from rented vineyards, he does in fact own a portion of his Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru and his Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru – Les Champeaux vineyards. Olivier however does not specify between technically “domaine” wines and négociant wines. With his year-round access to the vines he is a micro-négociant with complete control of his production including viticultural management. His négociant vines are therefore treated with as much care and attention as his domaine-owned vines. This is an important point, since practically every quality winemaker you speak to in Burgundy talks about how viticulture equates to at least 90% of the final quality of the wine. Therefore, a micro-négociant who buys their grapes and plays no role in growing them cannot guarantee the quality of their fruit in the same way a micro-négociant such as Olivier can.

In total, Olivier Bernstein has control of 7 hectares of vineyards. He produces a staggering seven different Cote de Nuits Grand Crus  (Chambertin, Clos de Beze, Charmes Chambertin, Mazis-Chambertin, Clos de la Roche, Bonnes Mares and Clos Vougeot), two 1er Cru Gevrey Chambertin (Cazetiers and Champeaux), one Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru Lavrottes and a Gevrey Chambertin Village. The production of each averages around just five barrels although he produces more Charmes Chambertin, Mazis-Chambertin and Clos Vougeot – typically eight barrels of each cuvee.

Bernstein’s bespoke barrels

With this access and control, allied with his philosophy that “one can always do better”, Olivier Bernstein has very quickly become one of the region’s most ambitious producers. His attention to detail extends beyond the viticultural, working directly with esteemed cooper Stéphane Chassin who visits Olivier following harvest every year to taste each of the cuvees. Based on each of the wine’s profiles, Stephane adapts the type of oak and the toast levels of the barrels depending on the profile of the vintage.

Olivier’s attention to detail extends to where his oak is sourced from and the proportions used vary from vintage to vintage.  They source from two different forests, Jupilles and Fontainebleau, the Jupilles giving amplitude and roundness to the wines whereas the Fontainebleau provides tension and flavor complexity. In the 2018 vintage, two thirds of the barrels came from Fontainebleau and one thirdfrom Jupilles.

Winemaker Pierre-Olivier Soares

Winemaking at Olivier Bernstein

Tasting through the range of Bernstein’s wines from barrel with talented young winemaker Pierre Olivier Soares, it becomes immediately clear the tremendous variety one finds across the top Grand Crus. At the same time there is a distinct and recurrent style to the wines, which carry the signature of Olivier Bernstein.

The wines all share a lovely textural quality, a concentrated level of tannins that provides initial structural depth but then beautifully melt on the palate. The size and profile of the tannins vary from one site to the next. The wines all carry plenty of intensity too, helped by the high proportion of new oak that beautifully frames the fruit without overpowering it.

All the wines have a high proportion of whole bunches used in fermentation (typically from 60% to 80%). The wines are exposed to very gentle extraction methods as Pierre Olivier explains, he does not want the stems to be over-extracted and bitter given the  high proportion of whole bunches in the fermentation. Instead they only carry out a very light pump over, taking the juice from the bottom of the tank and pumping it back over the top of the tanks where the skins and stems have formed a hard cap on the surface.

Fermentation temperatures are controlled and maintained below 31 degrees to retain a fresh fruit profile. The grapes and stems are typically macerated for 16 to 18 days before being pressed. The wine is pressed at very low pressure before being blended in with the free run juice. The wine is then transferred to barrels where they are aged for a further 15 months, with just one racking in July.

According to Pierre Oliver, Bernstein’s wines can be enjoyed as soon as they are in bottle but will start gaining complexity after five years. They believe the 2018 wines will last a century in bottle!

The 2018 Vintage

Pierre Olivier says that 2018 was a challenging vintage overall and many vignerons read the vintage poorly, ending up with overripe, jammy wines. Bernstein was keen to retain freshness in the wine as well as the natural density from a warm and dry growing season. They were very keen to retain a red fruit profile rather than riper black fruit notes – perhaps more typical of the 2018 vintage. He managed this fundamentally by picking relatively early. Pierre outlines how they managed to pick all their grapes in a three and half day window starting on the 1st September.  

However, this was not the whole story. For the grapes to have reached their phenolic maturity whilst at the same time as retaining freshness, they had to carry out a clinical green harvest enabling each of the vineyards of various vine age and climate to reach optimum ripening in the same window. Despite 2018 seeing bumper crops throughout Burgundy, Olivier Bernstein’s production was in fact down 20% compared to 2017 due to the green harvests they carried out in the Spring.

The natural concentration in the vintage also meant that light extraction methods were essential in retaining the freshness and not over-extracting the tannins from unusually thick skins due to the dry weather in 2018. Bernstein varies his use of whole bunch fruit used in his fermentation but is a strong advocate for it and in the 2018 vintage upped the percentage to 80% bringing real aromatic complexity to the wine and real saline minerality on the finish.

Olivier Bernstein

Olivier describes the small 2018 vintage as “fascinating”. Outlining that the wines are both “mature, rich and fresh at the same time.” He emphasises that 2018 is very much a winemakers vintage – “It was necessary to take the right choices to preserve equilibrium… the decision to harvest early and the choices in winemaking have borne beautiful fruit, the wines have explosive notes from small red berries and an impressive balance in the mouth.”

The 2018 Wines

  • Gevrey Chambertin 2018 – Olivier Bernstein

Deep translucent purple colour with fragrant blackberry fruit aromas. Structural tannins complimented by a lovely mid palate viscosity that softens the crunchy acids and added licorice spice and black cherry fruit tones add complexity.

  • Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru  – Lavrottes 2018 – Olivier Bernstein

Lots of spice and smoke aromas on the nose with high toned violet notes. The palate is wonderfully fresh and bright dominated by very pure, crunchy, red cherry fruit and softer edged red berry coulis. Structural tannins provide a nice 3D breadth to the palate.

  • Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru – Les Champeaux 2018 – Olivier Bernstein

Great complexity on the nose with both herbal notes contrasted with sweeter, dried floral notes and red berry fruit. This is matched by a lovely textural quality on the palate, a concentrated level of tannin that provides structural depth yet starts to melt on the palate. (A trait in all the wines). Power, framing of the fruit and intensity are all increased but by the 100% new oak but not at all overpowered.

  • Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru  – Cazetiers 2018 – Olivier Bernstein

The Cazetiers is a more full-bodied, gourmand expression of Gevrey with a high density of structural tannins yet beautifully contrasted with vibrant mouthwatering freshness and great mineral salinity too. This needs time to integrate but all the components are there.

  • Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru 2018 – Olivier Bernstein

Clean, compact beautifully framed red fruit profile allied with complimentary earthy savoury notes. There is a broad spectrum of flavours here – dried spice to sweet red berry coulis beautifully integrated with very fine, elegant, silk-like tannins. Mouthwatering freshness and a mineral salinity add lovely breadth, vibrancy and length to the finish.

  • Clos Vougeots Grand Cru 2018 – Olivier Bernstein

Sweet floral perfume of dried flowers and grilled herbs with a broad fruit spectrum with bright red berry fruit profile with fresh redcurrants and dried red cherry flavours along with sweeter spice tones. The tannins are bigger, more structural compared to the Charmes and still retains a slight phenolic crunch, but these tannins are ripe enough to melt in the wine with time.

  • Clos de la Roche Grand Cru 2018 – Olivier Bernstein

A very complex fragrance to the CDLR – fresh blackberry, wild spice, licorice, aniseed, dry tobacco. Structurally, a very concentrated tannin profile with a great mid-palate density integrated with lots of natural fruit concentration – really juicy blackberry, red cherry fruit with a refreshing phenolic crunch and a lovely energized finish.

  • Bonnes Mares Grand Cru 2018 – Olivier Bernstein

An explosive nose of very pure blackberry aromas which follows through to the palate – incredibly juicy, mouthwatering freshness and an amazing clarity of fruit. Fantastic precision and breadth to the palate with a lovely silkiness to the tannins. This is a vibrant, dynamic Bonnes Mares.

  • Mazis Chambertin Grand Cru 2018 – Olivier Bernstein

An explosive start with an uplifting exuberant complex perfume of dried flowers, hard candy and herbs with high tones of lavender and rose. There is a real freshness to the palate giving great breadth and filling the mouth whilst an underlying pulsating power adds energy to the palate. The tannins remain dense but extremely fine and well-integrated.

  • Chambertin Clos de Beze Grand Cru 2018 – Olivier Bernstein

Smoky toasty notes on the nose dominate for the moment whilst underneath this sits very concentrated fruit flavours across the red berry spectrum – dried raspberries, cherry stone, dried redcurrant. Amazing density to the palate and real power too but the tannins whilst structural remain very elegant on the finish. Exceptional length to this wine. 

  • Chambertin Grand Cru 2018 – Olivier Bernstein

A beautiful deep and complex nose of fresh soil, cherry stone, lavender and purple flowers. The palate has great precision with very clean fruit profile of fresh red and black cherries and a brooding power that oscillates from the mid palate with a beautifully poised quiet intensity. Great weight and balance to the palate with extraordinary depth and a long finish.