Sylvain Pataille

Benchmark Aligoté—and remarkable reds—from the High Priest of Marsannay

In his recent Burgundy report, Jasper Morris admitted “I have sometimes found it difficult to hook up with Sylvain [Pataille] in the past.” So have we, Mr. Morris! We first started tasting at the Domaine in 2016. That year Pataille had already allocated his 2015 wines and we left empty-handed. The following year the Domaine lost over half the crop, and so, again, we understandably left empty-handed. To cut a long story short, it was only last year that we finally got our foot in the door at a grower that Morris describes as an “extraordinary oenologist turned vigneron”.

Not only does Pataille run his own 17-hectare, progressive Marsannay Domaine to the highest standards (details below), but he also consults with at least twenty top-flight growers in the Côte-d’Or and Côte Chalonnaise. He insists on not discussing the names of his clients, but let’s just say that there are some extraordinary Domaines on his roster (including a number in our portfolio).

Pataille was born and bred in Marsannay, the northernmost village of the Côte d’Or. His great grandfather was a vigneron, though most of the family vines were sold before his grandfather came of age. Despite this, from a young age, the vineyards of Marsannay were Pataille’s playground. His father, a bus driver, was a great friend of Jean Fournier and would help with pruning and harvest, always with his two boys, Sylvain and Laurent, in tow. Pataille speaks with great affection of these times, and of helping his grandfather tend the family’s small plot of Aligoté—a parcel of old vines that Sylvain still works today and calls Les Auvonnes au Pépé in honour of his forebear.

By the time Pataille had reached his mid-teens, he had started working vintages on the Côte and enrolled at Beaune’s Lycée Viticole. Here, he shared a classroom with Benjamin Leroux, Olivier Lamy, Nicolas Rossignol and Pierre-Yves Colin—how we would love to have been a fly on the wall at this school! While Lamy returned to his family Domaine in Saint Aubin and Leroux took off to Oregon, Pataille moved to Bordeaux to continue his studies. Here he met Kyriakos Kynigopoulos, who took the precocious talent back to Burgundy to help him at Burgundia Oenology in Beaune.

Pataille became one of, if not the first vigneron, to seek out old-vine parcels of the pre-clonal Aligoté Doré cultivar grown in great, rocky terroirs. These wines would become a cornerstone of his offering.

Consulting up and down the Côte, Pataille worked for Kynigopoulos from 1997 to 2001. Halfway through his tenure, he acquired his first parcel of vines—a single hectare of Pinot Noir in his home patch, Marsannay. By the time he had quit the lab—incidentally the same year his friend Benjamin Leroux had taken over at Comte Armand—the Domaine had grown to a solid four hectares, including vines in the great Marsannay terroirs of Clos du Roy and La Charme Aux Prêtres. Some progressive vignerons can be reticent to discuss their roots in the technical side of wine production. Not so with Pataille, who looks back on these years with fondness, not least, he explains, because the scope of his job helped focus his mind on the right and the wrong ways to work in the vineyard and the cellar.

As the Domaine started to take shape, Pataille would make it his mission to restore the reputation of Aligoté. He was in the right place at the right time. Marsannay’s proximity to Dijon meant that, historically, it had a readymade market for bulk wines to satisfy the incredible thirst of the workers there. Because of this, he says, grapes like Gamay and Aligoté were not ripped up to yield to the appellation laws. At that time, Aligoté was completely out of fashion, but Pataille had loved this variety from childhood. His tasting experience as an oenologist, working with hundreds of Domaines, had reaffirmed for him the virtues of this underutilised grape. He became one of, if not the first vignerons, to seek out old-vine parcels of the pre-clonal Aligoté Doré cultivar grown in great, rocky terroirs. These wines would become a cornerstone of his offering.

He prunes Aligoté short, restricting yields to 30 hl/ha, cultivates the vineyards by horse and harvests only ripe berries. In any given vintage, Pataille can bottle tiny volumes of six single-vineyard Aligoté wines and there is also a delicious larger-volume, blended cuvée. These are all white Burgundies of ravishing texture and limestone-driven energy.

As you can draw from the Morris quote on the right, Pataille is an innovator on many levels: to distil his methods into a paragraph or two is like trying to capture a waterfall in a bucket. Regarding the vineyard work, Pataille was first certified organic in 2008 and he has been practicing biodynamics since 2015 (although he refuses to certify BD, citing the quasi-religious nature of the certifying bodies). He was also an early adopter of higher density plantings, Poussard-inspired pruning and tressage (or arching). New plantings are massale selection with cuttings from growers like Jean-Marc Roulot, and he uses a good number of low-yielding rootstocks (strictly no SO4) which he believes has led to higher quality and more complexity.

In the cellar, whole-cluster vinification (where it makes sense), natural ferments, extended macerations, very low sulphur use, and long maturations are the basics of Pataille’s approach. He uses an old vertical press, inherited from his grandfather, that presses very slowly over six to eight hours and is used for both whites and reds. Pataille describes his approach in the cellar as the “new old style”.

Much has been made of Pataille being a ‘whole bunch’ Domaine, but like everything in Burgundy, it is not that simple. He likes to use whole bunches without obscuring the vineyard’s character and so only uses it when it makes sense (basically if the fruit is ripe enough). He also does not like to encourage too much intracellular (carbonic) fermentation (again because he feels it can dominate the terroir) and so he crushes a portion of the grapes to kick off the fermentation. This method also gets his wild yeasts in the game early and leads to fewer problems later in the ferment. In most years, Pataille vinifies and ages his wines in the absence of sulphur, so having a quick start to the fermentation is important.

Pataille has been co-opted under the natural banner, regardless of whether he is comfortable with the dogma and the company that this entails—and he isn’t comfortable. Pataille tells us he has no interest in badges, and while his aim is to use as little sulphur as possible—hardly controversial for a grower at this level—it takes a great deal of work in the vineyard and cellar to ensure that he can work this way. To be specific, Pataille works with total levels of around 30mg/l for whites (added before bottling) and 20-25mg/l for reds.

More importantly, long maturations are a key feature here. The top wines are aged for up to 24 months and new oak is used sparingly; 15% is about the average, although in powerful years, Pataille’s single-site Marsannay reds can handle double this. Most of the whites are only aged in older, 350-litre barrels. But there are no hard and fast rules: Pataille chooses the bottling dates by taste—when the wines are ready, they are ready.

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“There is no assumption in viticulture or vinification that he does not challenge, but there is no sense that he is being contrary for its own sake. The result? Some stupendous wines, mostly from terroirs and sometimes grapes as well, that would scarcely have been on anybody’s radar a few years ago.” Jasper Morris MW, Inside Burgundy

Country

France

Primary Region

Côte de Nuits

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Winemaker: Sylvain Pataille

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