When we die, all that is left of us is what is mineral and material – our skin, veins and tissues, all that decays. Wine gives us a sense of life, of what persists.In one simple quote back in 2010, the legendary Jacques Lardière summed up what is arguably the very heart of the passion that carried him through a nearly half century of winemaking.
Lardière is an animated man, both in word and deed, and those who have met him say his enthusiasm for wine (and life in general) is almost impossible to contain, but don’t let the flowing mop of snowy white hair and penchant for tangential conversation fool you – this is a man whose connection to wine goes far beyond the superficial.
The Road to Burgundy
Jacques Lardière was born in Western France, the second youngest of five children. Though many French winemakers are following in ancestral footsteps, Lardière’s early exposure was purely from a retail point of view.His mother worked in the nearby city of Montaigu in her family’s wine merchant business; her father purchased huge 300-600 hectoliter barrels (somewhere between about 8,000 and 16,000 gallons each), then sold off the contents in recycled bottles.
Young Lardière was interested in biology and biochemistry and headed off to Nantes to study. While at school in 1967, he wrote his thesis on malolactic bacteria and sent it off to Beaujolais master Jules Chauvet, whom he had met while at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He was soon invited to come and apprentice with Chauvet, an opportunity that allowed him a first-hand chance to observe how malolactic bacteria operated and was used, including Chauvet’s preference for natural yeast and minimal sulfur. This sidestep away from his scientific pursuits became more serious when a job offer from Louis Jadot’s managing director Andre Gagey arrived in 1970.
Making Maison Louis Jadot
Perhaps it was hands-on experiences like the one with Chauvet in Beaujolais that gave Lardière the confidence to head over to Jadot or perhaps it was the vigor and pure optimism of youth, but either way, the serious departure from Lardière’s previous career path was a remarkable one, and the transition was anything but smooth. The newly minted technical director’s first test was a trial by fire – or hail, rather, as the great storms of 1971 swept in, devastating vineyards all across Burgundy. Panic was widespread and immediate, but Lardière assessed and came up with a possible solution: “I could see how badly bruised the surviving grapes were, so I gave the must a short maceration…the wines turned out very well, and some are still drinking beautifully today.” A vintage was saved, Lardière’s worth was proven, and his position very much cemented.
Back in the 1970s, Louis Jadot was not nearly the juggernaut it is today, but with Lardière at the helm, the company’s holdings grew to including property in the Cote d’Or, Pouilly-Fuisse, and Beaujolais. Their offerings are made using grapes from vineyards located in eight grand crus and total more than 100 appellations spread over a jaw-dropping 834,000 or so cases per year, a truly impressive production portfolio that many attribute to the powerhouse that is Jacques Lardière.
The Tao of Lardière – One Man’s Philosophy on Wine
Lardière’s resume is daunting in its breadth, but the man himself is far more interesting than any paper could possibly convey. He is known for speaking in torrents, often leaping from one idea to the next, yet even through the jumble of ideas tumbling over each other he manages not only to make sense, but to inspire everyone he’s speaking to. He sees connections that elude others – in short, he is a visionary, and a very entertaining and engaging one at that. He speaks with the passion of someone intimately connected with the world they inhabit, and he cares deeply about the product he has spent most of his life creating. From his commitment to biodynamic practices to his love for terroir, the belief that a wine is the reflection of a place and its history is paramount in everything that Lardière does.
Almost immediately after joining the Jadot team, he set out to make wines that with higher density and more extraction. From pruning vines to concentrate crop sizes to increasing maceration times to get the best possible juice-to-skin contact, Lardière fought against the wave of bigger-is-better tendencies and focused on increasing quality and creating wines that were true to the soil their grapes grew in.
He is not afraid to contradict popular opinion, often citing vintages widely regarded as “off-years” as personal favorites, and often time has proven him to have an almost psychic ability to predict the lofty heights a once ordinary wine will eventually attain. It’s as if he knows things the rest of us do not – and he probably does. Pierre-Henry Gagey, who like his father before him is president of Louis Jadot and has worked side-by-side with Lardière for a many years, surmises that part of the winemaker’s insight is probably due to the fact that he is not, himself, Burgundian. “He didn’t have an idea of how things were supposed to taste,” said Gagey, “which allowed him to find the direct link between the soil and the wine.”
Lardière tells a story that back in the late 1970s he had said that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay contained more than 2,500 flavors, an idea that was received with about as much skepticism as Galileo’s famous the-world-is-round declaration. “People said, ‘Jacques, you are completely crazy.’ I said that flavor is not one molecule. And now scientists say that we have 4,000 flavor molecules.” It seems that Lardière is almost constantly thinking ahead of the curve, and with consistently delicious (and imminently intriguing) results.
Stepping Down and Starting Anew
At the end of 2012, Jacques Lardière stepped down from his duties at Louis Jadot, ending an incredible 42-year tenure. Such a monumental change in the Jadot hierarchy didn’t pass by unnoticed; Lardière spent almost two years saying goodbye and receiving the many honors he and his contributions are due. His legions of fans waited with wine-tinted breath to see where he would end up next, and the answer came swiftly – and with plenty of press. Mere months after his farewell tour wrapped up, Lardière joined forces with his former employer to purchase Resonance Vineyard, a property in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA in Oregon. The move, though no small distance geographically, makes a weird sort of sense; Oregon has long been referred to as the Burgundy of North America, and its soil and climate provide comparable growing conditions from the same varietals Burgundy is known for.
There are tentative plans for building a new winery but the for his inaugural harvest, Lardière shared facilities with James Frey at Trisaetum, who, in an interview with Wine Spectator, expressed amazement that Lardière himself was spending time on the sorting line, feeling his way through the grapes. Lardière himself shrugs it off. “When you touch the grapes, you understand a lot. In Burgundy, I also touch the grapes. I can tell whether they have thick skins or thin, if there’s a danger of mold. I taste. For me the reading of the tannin is the key. I accumulate this information, so I can see what we need to do.”
He may have referred to the new Oregon winery as a post-retirement hobby of sorts, but with many fans are eagerly awaiting the first release, this is no sit-in-the-corner-and-knit kind of leisure activity. For almost 50 years, Jacques Lardière has lived and breathed wine, often spouting off new ideas with the same level of surprise and excitement found on the faces of his followers. The plans for the new project are small, but so was Louis Jadot when Lardière came aboard. What comes from Resonance remains to be seen, but if the past proves anything at all, the wines will be a beautiful snapshot of their vineyard and the energetic, enthusiastic, and unparalleled individuality of the man who makes them.