Jean-Louis Trapet on his visit to South Africa

Earlier this year Great Domaines was proud to host Burgundian winemaker, Jean-Louis Trapet in South Africa. This was his first visit to South Africa along with his wife Andée, to see the wildlife, our wine estates, and present a tasting or two. On his final night in Johannesburg, I had an opportunity to sit down with Jean-Louis for a chat about his time in South Africa.

JL comes from the Burgundian village of Gevrey-Chambertin, and is one of only a handful of producers to own more than a hectare of the renowned Grand Cru vineyard “Chambertin.” I start by asking JL if his wine tastings held in Cape Town & Johannesburg received a positive response from the local audience. This seemingly simple question began one of the most insightful discussions I’ve had about the philosophy of winemaking.

“You must ask the people who tasted. It is not my creation, and any response I am not entitled to.” JL has a respect for soil and vines seldom experienced. He sees himself as no more than the guardian of his vines, looking after them for the next generation. This comes from his belief that wine is an expression of the soil. Soils and vines are to be free from external influence – even if those influences are not synthetic. “Organic classification allows things like copper to be used – this is natural, but is not good for the soil or the vine, and ultimately not good for the people.”

His approach to his wine is rustic, and I find it awe-inspiring. A visit to Reyneke wine farms was particularly amusing; as soon as we arrived he jumped out of the car and disappeared into the vineyards. We found him on his hands and knees sifting through the soil and getting a feel for the terroir. Most onlookers would have thought he was mad!

JL’s domaine was one of the first to go biodynamic – a step up from organic, letting the vines “defend themselves” from pests and so forth. This could be due to the effect of the “phylloxera” blight, which killed off many vines in the 19th century. He tells me that he’d much rather his vines build up their own “immune system” against pests, and tells me that “the vine is not only clever, but also a good mother and will protect the grapes”, becoming more resilient with each season. The role he has is merely to guide his plants, no more.

Seeing vines from this angle is a refreshing change for me. I had thought of vines (all plants, in fact) as merely a crop and the winemaking process as being under the control of the winemaker. This is not the case – I have been enlightened that wine is its own maker. The winemaker has just one real responsibility in the cellar: to act as a link in the chain between the various steps during vinification.

The rest is the work of the grape, who is the true master of its destiny.

Want to know more about his winemaking philosophy? Here is a video from our visit to the domaine: