Q&A with Bernard Van Berg

“Le vin le plus simplement” is printed boldly on every label of Bernard Van Berg’s wines, defining his philosophy behind winemaking. One only needs to taste his wines to clearly see these are far from “simple”. The Dutchman spent most of his adult life living in Belgium as a professional photographer before retiring to Meursault to follow his desire to be a winemaker.

With a knack for precision, and unrelenting pursuit for perfection, Bernard strives for wines of concentration and purity. Yields are kept shockingly low, less than the legendary domains, Leroy or Romanée-Conti. Uncompromising as he is detailed, his hand-crafted wines show through the incredible care and nurture of the vines he talks to daily. The layers of complexity and purity are remarkable not only in his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also in the overshadowed Gamay and Aligote.

You spent many years as a professional photographer. Who or what inspired you to become a winemaker?

BVB: I have always preferred life in the countryside over the big city. When our children were growing up, my wife and I (but mostly my wife) decided it was more convenient to live in the town due to the proximity to school facilities and our parents. When my children left home, we decided to move to France to live closer to nature.

We hesitated between settling in Baie de Somme (north of France) to raise race horses, managing a farm in the Rhône Valley to produce goat’s cheese, but finally settled on coming to Burgundy to make wine. I chose Burgundy because I love this region and knew some organic winemakers whom I bought wine from in the past, when I used to travel here every three months from Belgium. But most of all, because I wanted to produce the wine that I have long-dreamed to drink.

To me, everything is the same, whether it is photography, wine, cheese or bread – you just have to choose the best among your goals… and just do it.

What were the main reasons you chose to declassify your wines and not use traditional Burgundy bottles?

BVB: The idea was to declassify from the beginning, however when I started making wines in 2002, the Vin de France classification did not permit the vintage to be declared on the label. This was very important as a wine can be vastly different from one year to another. That’s why I chose the lowest appellation in Burgundy, Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire which does allow for vintage declarations.

I do not believe in the typicity of terroirs. Clos Vougeot for example, has 70 different owners on the same terroir and each wine truly differs from each other. I believe Burgundy can produce fantastic wine but not solely dependent on terroir, but also the way the winemaker works.

Therefore, ten years later, in 2012, when the regulations for Vin de France relaxed to allow vintage to be printed on the label, I immediately switched to this classification and changed the bottle and label so my wine can be sold at a price that I feel reflects the quality and what is inside the bottle, rather than what appears on the label.

What are the biggest challenges you face making wine on such a small scale?

BVB: Making a small quantity of wine isn’t a problem if one chooses the correct equipment such as small presses, tanks and barrels etc. The biggest challenge I would say is, perhaps, that I do not produce enough wine to let it be tasted by the right people to make it well-known; such as journalists, critics and restaurants.

Fortunately, I am lucky enough to have a few customers spread the word on my behalf, and organize fantastic tastings of my Vin le Plus Simplement.

What does Le Vin le Plus Simplement mean to you?

BVB: To me, nothing can be simpler than making good wine. If you work well in the vineyard, you harvest grapes that haven’t been chemically vaporized, put the grapes in a tank, foulage twice a day, and that’s it – 4-5 days later, the juice will become wine. There’s no need to use yeast, sulfur, sugar, cooling, reheating, pre-fermentation etc.

What is the difference between the Solaire and Solaire Reserve?

BVB: Solaire 2007 was harvested on the 6th November, much later than all the other vines in Burgundy (in 2007, the harvest in Burgundy began on 27th August). We took a risk with the weather to see what would happen, and we were in luck. The wind faced north and we ended up with some nice weather, staying dry throughout the entire October.

The grapes themselves lost a small percentage of liquid, resulting in higher sugar levels. At the point of harvest, the grapes reached a potential alcohol level of 16% (the level that it would reach if the grapes were fermented to full dryness).

After a two week fermentation/maceration in tank, we drained the free-run juice and moved it into one barrel, whilst we pressed the fermented grapes and placed that in another barrel. After 18 months, we obtained two very nice wines. Whilst the difference between the two resulting wines were not enormous, the pressed juice had slightly higher alcohol levels and denser richness, so I decided to bottle the barrels separately and produce two different cuvées instead.

Can you explain in brief detail how you came to make your Rosé, Orange and Mousseux

BVB: The initial idea wasn’t actually to make a Rosé, but a Blanc de Noir, like Champagne but without the bubbles. My intention was to harvest the red grapes, and rather than macerating as you normally do for red wines, press the grapes directly like white wines. However, I harvested late to achieve very ripe grapes (potential alcohol 14% – the alcohol that can be achieved if grapes are fermented to full dryness), and as soon as I pressed the grapes, the juice had already taken on a slight pinkish color from the skins. I was disappointed – I’ve never drunk Rosé wine before. But when I tasted it, I was reassured as it had all the characteristics of a quality white wine. This little anecdote began in 2006, and I tasted the wine in a black glass to prevent myself being distracted by the color. Since the wine was a success, I continued to produce this wine in the following vintages.

I always enjoy discovering new things, so after my experience of making Rosé wine (by vinifying red grapes as if one was making white wines), I immediately thought of doing the opposite – vinifying white grapes as if I was making red wines. My fellow winegrower friends and oenologists tried to dissuade me, arguing that this had never been done before as the resulting wine would not be pleasurable to drink.

I am not a person who just simply believes in everything that is said to him. I prefer to make my own opinion of things. So one day, I wanted to give it a try. I harvested 100kg of grapes (the entire production of Les Echelas 2014), loaded the grapes into a vat, tread twice a day (known as foulage) with my feet, and macerated the skins with the grape must for 15 days. Pressing then occurred after alcoholic fermentation was finished and then “élevage” (maturing/finishing) of the wine took place in new small oak barrels for one year. Only 77 bottles were produced.

I seriously thought I had a discovered something new and innovative. However, when I tasted this wine with Mr Vincent Clement, owner of the Athenaeum shop in Beaune, he told me such a wine already existed, and that it was called “Orange Wine”. So I named it En Busigny Orange.

With the sparkling wine Le Mousseux 2012, as I mentioned, I very much love to discover and experiment. Having already produced Xerez (Sherry), Orange, Rosé and Vin Jaune (as in the styles made in the Jura wine region), I wanted to produce a sparkling wine in the style of Champagne. I harvested Les Gouttes (Aligoté) 2012, and vinified it as I normally do for my white wines. After one year in the cellar, I brought the wine to a specialist producer to help with the traditional method process for producing and ageing sparkling wines normally used in Champagne. This was then disgorged in November 2015.

Your Echalas Blanc is priced significantly higher than the other wines you produce. What accounts for this large difference in pricing for this wine?

BVB: Les Echelas is my prized vineyard, a very small surface surrounded by wild bushes. It’s more of a “garden” in fact. The yields are tiny, and I aim to keep under 7 hl/hectare where possible. More importantly, the vines require very precise and meticulous work, as each vine is grown independently of one another on its own wood, requiring small threads to be attached to each branch, and replaced as it grows higher. This allows perfect wind circulation and captures sunlight on all sides of the vines. Ditches are also made on either side of the vineyard to allow better drainage in case of heavy rain, so it feels like an island.

When I moved to Burgundy 14 years ago, I had a vision to produce the best wine ever made. And it was only in two vintages, 2006 and 2009, in this almost decade and a half that I felt I had achieved this dream with the Chardonnay from Echelas. Normally, wines from the Echelas vineyard is blended with wines from En Busigny, but in these perfect vintages, I bottle my single vineyard “dream wine” Echelas Blanc.

The high price is therefore a reflection of the rarity and vision of what the “best wine” in my mind should be. If the wine is sold, I am happy that I can share my dream. If not, I am equally, or perhaps even happier, to drink with pride over turning my dream into a reality.

If you were stuck on an island with one bottle of wine what it would it be?

BVB: If I were to stay on a desert Island with only one bottle of wine…….I would leave the Island the next day to swim back to Burgundy!

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