France’s 50 best winemakers: Domaine Thibault Liger-Belair’s Thibault Liger-Belair

Founder and winemaker of his estate in Nuits-Saint-Georges: “I feel like an eternal beginner”.

The 29th interview in Le Figaro Vin’s series finds us once again in Burgundy where we meet Thibault Liger-Belair, #22, one of the most acclaimed winemakers in the region. His renowned estate, emblematic of the Côte de Nuits, lies at the heart of Nuits-Saint-Georges.

The Liger-Belair family has been a fixture in the world of great Burgundy wines for almost three centuries. However, Thibault Liger-Belair represents the first generation from his branch of the family to make his own wine. Founded in 1720 at Nuits-Saint-Georges, Les Établissements C. Marey was one of the most important wine-trading houses in Burgundy. In 1852 the Marey family joined forces, in business and through marriage, with Count Louis Liger-Belair. In much more recent times, after two and a half centuries in business, the famous Maison de Négoce went under in 1979, and what was left was sold in 1982 on the death of Xavier Liger-Belair. Xavier’s son, Vincent, then bought back the premises and maintained the Burgundian winegrowing estate whose lovely terroirs still remained in his branch of the family, namely Clos de Vougeot, Richebourg, and Les Saint-Georges. In 2001 Vincent’s son, Thibault, took over the vineyards and founded the winemaking estate, to which he gave his own name. We should be careful to distinguish it from Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair in Vosne-Romanée, whose owner, Count Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, is a distant cousin of Thibault’s, their respective great-grandfathers being brothers.

In his quest to give sensitive expression to his terroirs, Thibault has, over the years, developed his personal vision of the winemaking profession. In 2004 he started a trading operation to augment the range of his Côte de Nuits terroirs (the wines produced from the grapes he buys in carry the name ‘Successeurs’ in place of ‘Domaine’). His estate has been certified organic since 2005, and he has applied a biodynamic approach since 2004, albeit eschewing biodynamic certification in order to maintain an independent approach to this form of viticulture. He has also produced wines in Beaujolais since 2009, in the Moulin-à-Vent appellation, where he creates exquisite Gamays.

Le Figaro Vin: How does it feel to be crowned a winemaking champion?

Thibault Liger-Belair: I don’t feel like a winemaking champion, without pretending to false modesty. We are on a never-ending quest. Becoming a champion of wine is ultimately unattainable because we are always trying to do things better. A winemaker who thinks he has made it is a winemaker who should give up making wine, because he believes he has reached some kind of pinnacle. That is more than ever the case today, subject as we are to the effects of climate change. We have to keep looking for new solutions. I feel like an eternal beginner, albeit one who makes fewer mistakes than in the past because I have a slightly more intuitive grasp of things.

Have you been training for long?

I have been training for a long time, but there is still a long way to go. My training started from the moment that I started to taste wines with the idea of making them when I began my studies in 1991. I started training as an amateur, but since creating the estate in 2001 I have trained a bit more professionally and consistently. I took a big step forward when I was able to double my training regime. In 2009 I made my first vintage in Beaujolais, which gave me the opportunity to conduct two vinifications in two different terroirs. I then developed twice as fast because working with two different terroirs, climates, and soil structures allowed me to see things from a broader and deeper perspective.

Who is your mentor?

My mentor is my fear of making mistakes, and my determination to keep asking myself what I need to do to improve. I don’t have a mentor as such, but I do have people that I look up to, without idolising them. Our vocation is, first and foremost, intensely personal, founded in our desire to give something back through our wine. And the very foundation of our profession consists in the constant sharing of experience and ideas. The stupidest thing a winemaker can do is to declare they have a secret, particularly in a world in which human relationships are becoming more remote.

Is wine a team sport?

Of course. When you do it on your own you do it badly. When you do it with others you do it well. It’s all down to teamwork. Winemakers are frequently being filmed, photographed, or interviewed like today, but the reality behind the wines lies in the teams we choose to work with. We all work with a shared sense of purpose but everyone, with their unique personality, brings something individual to the table. I am fond of saying that we only have one mouth, but we have two ears. That surely tells us something.

What is the key to making a good wine? The terroir or the winemaker?

A great wine is a triptych. A terroir is like a lovely piece of music, a beautifully composed score, and the notes are the same for everyone. Then there are the tools, like Pinot Noir or Gamay, which are our musical instruments. Finally there is the interpreter, the musician or the winemaker. Even though we play the same notes, we will never produce identical results or emotions. I don’t know exactly why that is, but it is the complementarity of those three components that makes a great wine. I am against the idea that the terroir is what matters most. Every terroir has been planted by men and represents years of research, observation, and the desire for excellence. I give precedence to the men who decided to plant the terroirs in order to make great wines from them.

To what do you owe your success?

I am very open with respect to this question. In the first place I had the good luck to be born with a silver spoon in my mouth, because I have had the opportunity to work with great terroirs. Otherwise we would arguably not be doing this interview today. I believe that my success is also down to the fact that I have been lucky enough to do what I love, and to have a job which makes me happy to get up every morning – even if some days are easier than others. When you do what you love doing it’s no longer work: it’s continuing to grow and live out a passion.

Is your family proud of you?

Yes, I think so. I have an unusual background, in that my father had nothing to do with the world of wine. I and my cousin (Louis-Michel Liger-Belair of Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair, ed.) are the first generation of winemakers in our family. In the 1970s my grandfather had told my father: “Whatever you do, don’t go into wine, there is no future in it.” It was during the time of the OPEC oil crisis and wine sales suffered badly. The fact that we have got the family business back on the road and restored the entire property is the source of some family pride. As for myself, I am proud of it! Without false modesty, I am happy to be where we are today, even though we still have some way to go. I am proud that my family is proud of it.

Who is your biggest supporter?

My wife, who occasionally tells me that she admires what I am doing, although she never lets me get complacent! I think of all my customers who sometimes tell me that our wines have moved them, and that is our quest, our Grail. It is the love and happiness that we have managed to provide. In our profession there is an element of selfishness because we necessarily make wines for ourselves, which suit our own taste and represent who we are, while at the same time we have to demonstrate our generosity in the hope that our wine brings a great deal of pleasure to others. Obviously we make wine in order to earn our living, but in Burgundy we are lucky enough to get very good prices for our wines. That makes it even more imperative to do everything we can to justify those prices through the emotions and happiness that our wines can bring to our customers. That requires a number of sacrifices, but we make them for good reason.

Your favourite colour? 

It’s blue, the blue of the foil capsules on my bottles, of the sky, of the sea. It’s a colour that makes people happy. It goes very well with my landlubber and my nautical sides. Blue is very soothing and comes in many shades.

Your hero among grape varieties?

A hero is someone who does something extraordinary when you are not expecting it. That rules out Pinot Noir because we always expect great things from it. So I would go for Gamay, which can take us much further than we would necessarily expect. Pinot Noir ousted the “disloyal” Gamay in 1395, at the behest of Philip the Bold (Duke of Burgundy, ed.). Gamay, when planted in high quality terroir, with vines cultivated with respect and grapes vinified and matured with care, produces great wines. But it’s about more than the grape variety, you have to plant them in the right place.

Your favourite wine?

Les Saint-Georges. It was my first cuvée in 2002, and the one that I have been fighting to get Grand Cru classification for since 2007. We have a real opening for this classification, and I am convinced we can achieve it and correct what is an anomaly within the next ten years or so. It is my heart’s terroir. Sometimes we don’t need to say any more than that to express our love.

Your favourite vintage?

2008. It’s not necessarily the vintage everyone would expect but it’s a vintage that really helped me develop my winemaking skills. It was really tricky, August was unusually wet, and together with our grape-pickers we ended up separating out every bunch, one by one. Between 2002 and 2007 I found making my wines quite stressful and experienced a lot of self-doubt. So I said to myself: “Thibault, you pretty much know how to make wine, if you make a mistake it’s not such a big deal, but all the same you are going to try to get it right because it’s your daughter Jeanne’s year of birth.” And something shifted. I understood that I couldn’t afford to be stressed because that affects the wine. Some vintages are easier than others, and 2008 wasn’t a vintage with great ageing potential, but when you taste the wines today they are amazingly good!

If your wine was a person, who would it be?

It’s a little bit like me, there is a certain resemblance there. Funnily enough, a customer said to me: “When people look at you, you make them think of wines that are full, rich, and concentrated, but when people taste your wines they find them, instead, delicate, elegant, and often highly distinctive.” People expect my wines to correspond to my external appearance – to my physique in particular. But my wines probably express what I am like inside.

What are the best circumstances in which to taste your wine?

With friends, never on your own. What works best is to taste it slightly chilled to begin with, so that you give it time to warm up and then get to experience all it’s aromatic variations and a gradual intensification.

Have you ever thought about chemically enhancing yourself, or your wine? 

A decent shot of red to get going, that’s a good drug! Yes, I have thought of adulterating my wines in the past, it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise. Like many others I have suffered from doubts. I would try adding a bit of this and a bit of that, but it never worked. On each occasion there was something wrong with the harmony of the wine. I tried things out, I made mistakes, and I learnt from them. Nowadays, while I don’t seek to make “natural” wines, I try to make wines as naturally as possible. Even if my wines can show a degree of austerity when they are young, they will mellow as they age. Wine is a tribute to time, it exists in real time, you cannot cut corners and speed things up or slow things down.

For what price would you be prepared to sell your estate?

I am not prepared to sell my estate. It is my life, along with my family. It’s my working instrument. What would I do without it, were I to sell it? I don’t know how to do anything else; I am not someone who is especially cultured or intelligent. I just try to make a good job of what I love doing. If I were ever forced to sell it would be for the market price. We are the owners of our vineyards on paper only. The reality is that we are merely custodians before we pass them on to future generations. An estate is always being prepared for those who come next, but if my children don’t want to take it over, all the better for them, so long as they follow their hearts. Perhaps they will come back to it, perhaps not. I don’t want to tell them what to do, it would make me too miserable if they were not as happy as I am. As for the vines, they will always be there. I am an eternal optimist!

Who is your strongest competition?

I am always competing against myself because, when I taste my wines, I check for any defects before I look for their good qualities. We only have allies in our profession: in particular, the soil, the climate, and all the wildlife. And even when we experience a climate event like the frosts of 2021, we must always remember to be grateful. We work with an unknown and higher power that we cannot control, and when nature doesn’t help us then it’s up to us to help ourselves.

Which competition do you dread the most?

The biggest struggle is to preserve the freshness in our wines, so that they continue to be like Burgundy wines and are not completely altered by an excessively hot climate. It’s about our capacity to adapt to climate change. We shouldn’t complain about global warming, we have to understand why it’s happening and do everything in our power to prevent it warming up too quickly. Mother Teresa used to say: “We realise that what we are doing is only a drop in the ocean. But without this drop the ocean would be missing something.” On the estate the winery consumes minimal electricity and water. We treat the water in order to return it to nature in the same condition that we found it. We try to ensure that 95% of our materials are recyclable. All these are tiny drops of water, not a revolution. Soil is the most efficient absorber of carbon dioxide, so we should treat it as an incredible factory for capturing the damaging emissions caused by our modern society and then we could really achieve some positive results. For the past 50 years we have focused on the needs of our plants and not on the needs of our soil. Our knowledge of the soil is very limited, we currently only understand 15% of what is going on there. Our work has straightforward aims: to create real freshness in our wines, to produce appetising, mouth-watering wines, and to preserve the fertility of the soil. When all is said and done we are farmers, people of the soil, and we have to concentrate on the requirements of the soil, we have to get back to the fundamentals.

What is your greatest source of pride?

To have achieved a balance between my professional life and my personal life, because it’s a job that can be very demanding and one which requires quite a few personal sacrifices. I have got a team of great people around me, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without my family behind me. When you receive you have to give, it’s a fundamental balance.

What has been your most innovative strategy in the vineyard and in the cellar?

I’ll start with the cellar. In the first place, we are determined not to incorporate anything into the wine which is not naturally occurring, namely sulphur. We have stopped using petrochemically-produced sulphur-dioxide and we now work solely with native sulphur. That has fundamentally changed the appearance of our wines and we no longer feel we are harming the wine like before. On top of that, we have just completed the renovation of the entire winery. You have to work really hard in the vineyard in order to be as lazy as possible in the winery and avoid an excessive workload when it comes to extraction. Our new tanks, based on the golden ratio that we introduced in 2022, create Brownian motion through temperature exchanges between the exterior and interior. For me that is a genuine innovation. As for the vineyard, by contrast, our approach has been to take a step back to the older ways of doing things. I have practised biodynamic cultivation for quite a few years now, having started in 2004. We applied for certification in 2007 but I turned it down in 2012. I found it required a dogmatic approach that jarred with my convictions. I believe in two things in life, science and God. There are lots of good things in biodynamics, but we should not slavishly follow agronomic principles, we should observe them in practice in order to come to an intuitive understanding of what works. I don’t want to follow prescribed formulae.

Who would be your ideal successor on the podium?

Someone with the same passion, whose eyes gleam when they talk about wine. Someone who feels good outdoors, among the vines, and, above all, someone who makes wines that are very different from mine. Someone with awareness, who is sure of their taste, with the strength of mind to do things their own way and not just follow in my footsteps. I am not looking to be a mentor, but if they need me I will be there!

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