When Canadian Matthew Chittick moved to Bourgogne in 2011 to start his winemaking journey, he worried about being accepted by the local vignerons.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m only 29. How will I talk to people with 30 years of vineyard experience?’” he said. Fortunately, things worked out well, and not only have he and his Parisian-born wife Camille successfully founded Maison MC Thiriet, they’ve also formed many lasting friendships.
The French wine region of Bourgogne, widely regarded as the benchmark producer of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, frequently attracts ambitious, young winemakers from across the globe to its alluring terroir. However, the area is steeped in centuries-old winemaking traditions, and wineries are typically handed down through the generations. New arrivals have a hard time finding property for sale, and if they do, it doesn't come cheap.
The price per acre of vineyards starts at around $70,000 on the lower end and reaches staggering figures in the millions throughout the renowned Grand Crus. According to Safer, a French land acquisition firm, a single hectare of vines in the Côtes d'Or averaged about $7 million in 2020, a 4% increase from the previous year.
Nevertheless, success stories are not unheard of. Some newcomers, without familial vineyards or generational expertise, are able to navigate the intricate process of finding, buying, and establishing their own wine estates. During a recent visit to the region sponsored by the Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB), I met three young winery owners, including Chittick, who have established new estates in a place where vineyards have long been synonymous with lineage. These next-gen winemakers, driven by passion and, perhaps, a bit of luck, are joining their Bourgogne-born peers in crafting wines with a sense of place while safeguarding the land for future generations.
Domaine La Croix Montjoie
One tale of success is that of Domaine La Croix Montjoie in Vézelay, a beautiful village in Bourgogne’s north-central area, about 60 miles northwest of Beaune. The estate, founded in 2009 by Sophie and Matthieu Woillez, draws its name from a cross situated at the juncture between Vézelay and Tharoiseau, part of an ancient pilgrimage route.
Vézelay is an appellation known for crafting high-quality, affordable, Chardonnay-based white wines from its clay-limestone soils. The clay contributes to the fruitiness and roundness of the wines, while the limestone imparts a minerality reminiscent of the more famous Chablis. Domaine La Croix Montjoie produces about 120,000 bottles annually of AOC Vézelay white wine and AOC Bourgogne Rouge. The Woillezs have, in a short time, become known for diligently producing fresh, mineral-driven wines that represent Vézelay's unique terroir.
The young couple met while studying agronomy and enology in Montpellier, afterward working in Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley before pursuing their dream of owning a winery. Initially, they looked for property in Beaujolais, where Sophie's grandparents had been winegrowers, but found nothing suitable. Turning their attention to Bourgogne, they focused outside the most pricey areas, discovering a Vézelay property with breathtaking views of the Morvan mountain foothills.
“We found ten interesting hectares adjacent to a 19th-century farm that were very low priced for Bourgogne,” said Sophie. “I think sometimes things work out by chance, and we are very happy to be a part of Bourgogne.”
Woillez noted when she and Matthieu first arrived, the local wine producers were watching them to try and understand who they were and how they wanted to work.
“As they understood that our arrival was good for the appellation and the vineyards, they became friendly,” said Sophie. “Vézelay is a small appellation that is not well-known like the stars of Bourgogne, and there is not a lot of competition between the producers. Everybody knows each other, and people, like us, who work hard and want to promote good Vézelay wines are welcomed into the close-knit community.”
The young couple has also strengthened bonds with the local community by engaging in village life. “I am an active member of the local and regional tourism offices,” said Sophie, “and the Association of Women and Wines of Bourgogne. Matthieu is very involved in the BIVB (Bourgogne Wine Board) and is President of the Vézelay appellation.”
Showing how newcomers often bring new perspectives, Domaine La Croix Montjoie welcomes visitors, a departure from the historical practice of limited winery access in Bourgogne. Tastings and tours are available year-round, with a summertime pop-up wine bar on the terrace which draws those seeking a scenic aperitif.
Additionally, in keeping with the ethos of the up-and-coming younger generation, the Woillezs are dedicated to the long-term health of their vines and soil. They have been practicing organic since 2018 and certified in 2021, embracing eco-conscious practices despite the difficulties posed by the region’s typically cool and damp climate.
“Vézelay is so beautiful and well-respected that vintners here are trying to farm without the use of synthetic chemicals,” affirms Sophie. “With climate changes bringing more sunshine and warmth, it has become easier. Today, 50% of the vineyards in Vézelay are organic or in conversion, whereas the average for organic viticulture for all of Bourgogne is less than 10%.”
Domaine de La Monette
Adding a unique take on the story is Pierre-Etienne Chevallier, proprietor of Domaine de La Monette in the Mercurey appellation of the Côte Chalonnaise region. While Chevallier is not a newcomer to Bourgogne since he was born and raised in the region, his story is not one of inheritance; he became the first in his family to establish a winery when he acquired an estate in January 2023.
Chevallier's journey into winemaking took an unconventional route. “I didn't begin my life with wine, but rather with politics and literature,” he said. “However, I realized I needed to be outdoors, working with my hands, and I've been working in the wine business for nine years now, primarily in production.”
Following a three-month stint in Sonoma, California, Chevallier returned to Bourgogne, where he found work at several local estates. His story illustrates how individuals shaped by international exposure and varied work experiences can thrive in Bourgogne, bringing fresh perspectives to a traditional environment.
The Bourgogne-born Chevallier said that his local origins helped him navigate the purchase of his estate. However, the main reason the community accepted him was his experience in the field. “To be accepted here,” he noted, “it’s crucial to prove that you know what you are talking about. And also, because of my previous jobs, I already knew a lot of winemakers.”
And most important, says Chevallier, is to have a deep understanding of the specific region where you plan to establish a winery. Working at Domaine du Cellier aux Moines, situated in nearby Givry, provided Chevallier with valuable connections in the local winemaking community. Philippe Pascal, the proprietor of Cellier aux Moines and former LVMH executive, had his own sets of hurdles when creating a winery in Bourgogne. Originally from the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, Pascal came from a family whose business was in the textile industry. When he and his wife Catherine arrived in Bourgogne in 2004, they were initially considered strangers, despite Catherine being from Beaune. “It took years,” Pascal told Grape Co...