Lots of people, it seems, have vinous epiphanies. They drink a special bottle of wine, and suddenly they are converted. Wine is no longer just an alcoholic drink for them; it is something more fundamental. For some, it becomes their life.
Andrew Nielsen (above), originally from Australia, was working in advertising with publications such as The Economist and The Week. Working around the world, he’d spent time in Singapore and Hong Kong, but it was while he was based in Los Angeles that he had his wine epiphany, in 2006, with a bottle of Dujac Clos de la Roche (he can’t remember which vintage, although he says he still has the bottle at home).
Wine became his passion, and he did vintage that year with Californian Pinot specialist Kosta Browne. Following this, Nielsen worked harvests with Felton Road in New Zealand’s Central Otago region, and then Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley of Australia. Connecting with James Halliday at Coldstream Hills proved fortuitous, because Halliday was buddies with Patrick Bize at Simon Bize in Savigny les Beaune, and this is how Nielsen found himself working in Burgundy.
Simon Bize has 22 hectares in Savigny, which by Burgundian standards is a big domaine. And when Andrew was working there, an idea popped into his head. ‘I saw all this amazing fruit come across the table, and thought why don’t we make 10 different Savignys?’ he recalls. But for a domaine like Simone Bize, the economics don’t work. So Nielsen had the idea of becoming a micronegociant telling the story of Savigny by identifying special parcels and bottling them separately. ‘I’m looking to make wines from terroirs that people overlook and working with growers who are prepared to take things further and do things a bit differently,’ he explains. ‘What if we don’t cut all the weeds back all the time? What if we do the first hedging a bit later?’ His approach is to try to apply a bit of modern knowledge, in partnership with the growers. ‘Because I am small we can go out and do things differently.’
As an example is his red Savigny parcel, which consists of 60 year old vines in a lieu dit called Aux Fournaux (he doesn’t put this name on the label because there’s a premier cru vineyard called Aux Fourneaux, with possibility for confusion). This plot is high on the slope and is subject to morning mists. As a result, growers tend to pick it a bit early to avoid problems with rot. Nielsen will go in and manage the canopies, and remove any rotten grapes, while the others are harvesting. ‘Hey Obelix’ [his nickname in Burgundy, due to his size and bearded appearance], they call to him. ‘You are harvesting at last!’ He’ll tell them that he’s not, and will leave the grapes on the vine for another week before picking. ‘We do a crazy amount of sorting,’ he says.
Le Grappin is based in Beaune, and the wines are made in Fanny Sabre’s old winery opposite the mayor’s office. In 2013 Nielsen made 18 barrels of Le Grappin; in 2014 there are 26 barrels. In addition to the Le Grappin wines he makes less expensive vins de soif under the Du Grappin label. These are sold in kegs, refillable bottles and also 1.5 litre bags (he dubs them ‘bagnums’), and the wines are sourced from Beaujolais and Macon. Nielsen is passionate about the wastage in wine packaging and for this reason, he doesn’t use capsules on his Le Grappin wines. The Du Grappin project allows him to experiment a bit with his winemaking, and it also allows him to keep Le Grappin small and focused.
As a negociant, his biggest cost input is buying the grapes. In Burgundy, prices are getting a bit crazy: his fruit cost has doubled over the last three years. As a result, he’s had to put prices up.
Andrew and his wife Emma spilt their time between London and Burgundy. Emma works for Barclays (she’s not been able to give up the day job), but managed to get three months’ leave to work harvest last year. She doesn’t know how she’s going to manage it this year.
Bottling is done by hand, using David Clark’s specially designed gravity bottling device. Nielsen has used a bottling line in the past, but he says that even though it takes a long time, the hand bottling is gentler and the result is no bottle shock.
The packaging of the Le Grappin wines is striking. The labels are designed by Brooklyn-based artist Louise Despont who uses drafting tools such as compasses to create intricate (and beautiful) designs on old ledger paper. With the wine name on a necktag in a lovely font, and lacking capsules, these are beautiful bottles.
But what about the wines? I tried the 2013 releases and fell in love with them. They’re quite beautiful, with freshness and a transparency that really allows the terroirs to speak. Nielsen is very light on his extraction with the red wines, and the result is real elegance.
Le Grappin Savigny-lès-Beaune Blanc 2013 Burgundy, France
Lovely tension here, with nice rich nutty notes alongside pear and white peach, but also some fresh mineral quality, too. Real purity to this wine. 93/100
Le Grappin Santenay 1er Cru Les Gravières 2013 Burgundy, France
Fine and fresh with lovely lemon, nut and herb notes. Lovely density of fruit but also freshness and minerality. Textured and pure showing real finesse. 94/100
Le Grappin Beaune 1er Cru Les Grèves 2013 Burgundy, France
This is from a parcel right next to Bouchard’s Vigne de L’Enfant Jésus plot, and it’s 50 year old vines. So lovely and fine with expressive lemony fruit. Fine, pure and textured with some mineral notes, incredible precision and real elegance. Unsurprisingly, this is sold out. Thrilling. 95/100
Le Grappin Savigny-lès-Beaune Rouge 2013 Burgundy, France
12.5% alcohol. From the Aux Fournaux lieux dit, right next to Aloxe Corton and Pernand Vergelesses. Andrew Nielsen says, ‘this is the wine that defines Le Grappin.’ So fine, fresh and pure with lovely elegant red cherry and raspberry fruit. Lovely tension and purity here. Super-elegant with real delicacy. 94/100
Le Grappin Beaune 1er Cru Boucherottes 2013 Burgundy, France
Andrew Nielsen describes this as a great little site that no one knows aboiut. It’s tense, fine and bright with crisp, crunchy raspberry and red cherry fruit with nice grippy structure. Lovely savoury, spicy edge. Pure, fine and detailed. 94/100
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