always start my tastings by saying that we can and should make the best pinot noir and chardonnay in the world here in the Côte d'Or. Sometimes we do, often we don't.
Alex Gambal is very optimistic about the future for Burgundy. But he also stresses the importance of constantly questioning what you are doing. There is always room for improvement.
– In that way we can move forward, he says. We are not content. At a certain point it can drive you crazy, but we know that we can always do better.
The fifty-ish Alex Gambal has been in Burgundy since 1993. He is originally from the Washington DC area in the United States. In 1997 he started his own négociant business in Beaune after having attended wine school.
– In the early 90's my wife and I thought it would be great to take a year off and live in Europe for a while with our children, he explains.
When they came over in March of 1992 for a first orientation they had very vague ideas of what they were going to do, or even in which country they would settle. Since they knew more winemakers in Italy they thought they would have a better chance there.
– We met this American woman Becky Wasserman, who is a broker for a bunch of small domaines. We got to know her pretty well and she said "Why don't you come and do a stage, an apprenticeship, with me for a year or so?". Both my wife and I were 35, so we said "Why not?".
Alex Gambal ended up working three and a half years for Becky Wasserman after he and his family had returned to Burgundy in May of 1993. He then signed up for wine school in 1996 and founded Maison Alex Gambal in 1997.
– We were just open to the possibilities of having a new life, of having a new experience. Part of the reason why we ended up staying was that we came here with two children, who were eight and ten years old at the time, and they went to French schools. So as a result all of their friends' parents are wine makers. I can't stress that enough… Your kids' friends' parents become your friends. So between birthday parties, school functions, Easter and Christmas; that's how you make friends. We just had this wonderful life of family here. That really made it.
His first vintage was 1996. He started buying semi-finished wine in barrel and the first year the total production was 60 barrels (18240 bottles). The following year production was up another 50 percent and then with the 1998 vintage he went towards buying grapes instead of wine.
– Going to the wine school put me in touch with a whole new group of young wine makers and frankly got me part of the club, Alex Gambal explains.
– I don't think I picked Burgundy. I think Burgundy picked me. I was in Japan on a sales trip and people kept asking me this. I felt like the movie with Bill Murray, "Lost in Translation". It finally occurred to me why I was in Burgundy. I don't think you can choose to be here. If I had been a wine maker from California and came in here with guns blazing saying "I'm going to change tings" I would not have been accepted the way I have been.
– I came in frankly not knowing the first thing about Burgundy or how to make wine, but to have an experience with my family, trying to enrich our lives. If things turned out well that would be great. But if it didn't we'd go home to our former life.
When he started his business Alex Gambal wanted to create a small négociant company with a focus on high quality. Compared to the big négociants Maison Alex Gambal is very small. While the big houses count their production in millions of bottles Gambal's output is around 60000 bottles a year. The plan is to stay small and maybe buy some more land to add to the two hectares he owns today.
– When I first saw how small Burgundy is and how diverse it is I realised that it would take me a lifetime to begin to understand it. That's what I love about Burgundy, because I continue to learn something new about it every day.
That's what makes it so wonderful, and also so maddening. Here we have two principal grape types and how can it be so different from one little place to the next. Burgundy isn't a spectator sport, it's a contact sport. You really have to be willing to get in and get your hands dirty. Otherwise, forget about it.
Alex Gambal talks enthusiastically about the charm of Burgundy. He loves the fact that it is so small. He loves the fact that he gets to work with people that have a passion for growing grapes. 95 percent of what he buys today is grapes and the vinification is done at Maison Alex Gambal. There are 18 wines in the portfolio – ten white and eight red – and the raw material comes from 25 different growers.
– You have real people here. You have real farmers here, and I use that in the best sense.
– There is no ego involved in Burgundy; leave your ego at the door. What I love is that if you're a kid with a backpack you go can go in to one of the great domaines; if you speak a bit of French and are very enthusiastic you will be tasting for two or three hour and they will give you a couple of bottles on your way out. If you show up in your Rolls-Royce and try to put on airs, nothing is for sale and you might have a 20 minute tasting. The Burgundians can pick out a phoney pretty quickly.
Back in 1999 the wine portfolio at Maison Alex Gambal had reached an all-time-high when it came to the number of wines. 50 different wines were made.
– It was crazy, laughs Alex Gambal. I mean, it was wonderful; people would come in and have a ball. But it was impossible to manage it and follow that many wines. We felt like we were bottling all year and the next thing we knew there was another harvest. Now we have reduced the number of wines, with the same wines year in and year out.
When it comes to favourite appellations Alex Gambal has a soft spot for Chambolle-Musigny; the perfume and silkiness of it.
– I also love making all the whites. I love white burgundy. The interesting thing is that when we started out we were making almost a hundred percent red. I never thought I would be making this much white or having this much fun. That's been a real pleasure for us; the elegance, the nuance, you get with the white wine.
© 2007 Ola Bergman