The wines of Domaine René Engel

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When I was cutting my teeth as a Burgundy taster, I took the wines of the Domaine René Engel for granted. During my student days, they were abundantly represented and inexpensive  from the list of a local Oxford restaurant, and also always seemed to be well-represented in friends’ cellars. It was only as their prices began to increase asymptotically that I paused to contemplate what had been under my nose. That’s not to say that I guzzled my bottles of Engel unthinkingly, as the notes below (many of which derive from an Engel dinner that I and some like-minded wine lovers arranged with Jasper Morris in Oxford in 2015) hopefully attest. What prompted me to look back at those notes was a truly stunning bottle of 1964 Clos Vougeot from Philippe Engel’s father Pierre, which is included as an addendum to the reviews which follow. It’s clear that this family knew a thing or two about making wine, and that bottle from Pierre helped me to understand what it was that Philippe was doing.

So what was the Domaine’s style under Philippe Engel, the period with which I am most familiar? I’m inclined characterize it as noble rusticity. While the wines were never coarse, nor were they polished: Philippe Engel’s lovely Clos Vougeot never approached the elegance of the Mugneret sisters’ beautifully suave rendition, for example. But they were always characterful, full-bodied and hearty. I’d speculate that it’s this characteristic—their unpretentious authenticity—that makes them so sought-after today.

It should be remarked, I think, that Philippe did not always succeed in difficult vintages and that his wines were not especially consistent. That’s true a fortiori of his 1996s, which were bottled with a bad batch of corks. But on the other hand, he never seemed to miss the mark in the good years—and for the modest tariff he demanded for his wines, that seems reasonable enough. We can only speculate how much better the wines might have been with more attentive viticulture and cellar work.

Of the two Grand Crus I know the best, the Grands-Echézeaux is the more tight-knit and firm at the core, with amazing depth and potential longevity. The Clos Vougeot is more rounded and less reticent, though also a large-scaled and firm-framed wine which evolves very nicely in the cellar: it seems to aggregate some of the characteristics of the climats which surround it. The Echézeaux, by contrast, is the most supple and expansive Grand Cru in the portfolio, without the same reserves of depth and concentration, but a lovely wine in good vintages.

A selection of Engel tasting notes

The 2002 Engel Clos Vougeot is a glorious wine, with a gorgeous bouquet of wild berries, even blueberries, and cool fruit tones that are the essence of Pinot Noir. The framing acids are lovely, and the crisp tannins are perfectly ripe. This is an exceptionally elegant wine, bursting with crunchy fruit and pinote. 95/100

The 2002 Engel Grands-Echézeaux is another bomb from the late, great Philippe Engel, bursting from the glass with lovely pure aromatics of wild berries, hedgerow fruit and subtle soil tones. The nose is not unlike Engel’s 2002 Clos Vougeot, but on the palate the wine is even more intense, focused and firm at the core, with bright acids, crunchy fruit and beautifully ripe tannins, and it is here that the terroir differentiation is most apparent at this early stage. A terrific success. This is a long way from peak maturity, but the stunning quality is already apparent: what a legacy! 96/100

The 1999 Engel Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Aux Brulées is really à point: a fleshy, joyous wine which bursts from the glass with aromas of red plums, Vosne spice and sous bois. There is lovely balance and breadth here, and what the wine lacks in focus and depth is amply compensated for by its generosity of spirit. 92/100

The 1999 Engel Clos Vougeot is a real stunner, with spectacular aromatics of ripe plum, black cherry, dark chocolate, truffle, woodsmoke and soil. On the palate this wine is very deep, rich and three-dimensional, with incredible concentration: a great wine, which is still a good five or six years away from its true peak, though the quality is already obvious. 96/100

The 1998 Engel Clos Vougeot is marked by the difficult vintage, as there is a touch of volatile acidity on the nose and a touch of rather rustic tannin on the finish, especially as the wine sits in the glass, but it is still a very good Clos Vougeot, with an attractive bouquet of wild plums, blood orange and fennel seed, and ample volume and flavor on the palate. 91/100

The 1996 Engel Clos Vougeot was surprisingly accessible, and really quite expressive on the nose and palate. The bouquet is quite lifted, with a touch of volatile acidity (a trait common to the 1996 Engel wines), and an appealing melange of wild plum, roast game, herbs and some hints of oak vanillin. On the palate the wine is fresh and seamless, with quite a broad, expansive attack but without all that much concentration or structure at the core. A second bottle was corked.

In 1996  the Engel wines all reveal noticeable volatile acidity, and the domaine also seems to have had an especially bad batch of corks in this vintage, so caveat emptor, but the 1996 Grands-Echézeaux wine opens up in the glass to reveal a nice nose of plums, spice, blood orange and leather, without every quite losing the rusty pipe bloodiness it showed on opening. On the palate the wine has considerable authority and volume, with nice bright acids, but it’s ultimately disjointed. I found it really hard to get a read on this wine, and despite the vintage’s good reputation I would go for almost any other if given the choice.

The 1993 Engel Clos Vougeot is an extraordinary bottle of red Burgundy, with a stunning and pure bouquet of black cherry, wild plums, woodsmoke, violets and lovely soil tones. On the palate the wine is has a lovely core of tannin and acidity and is still five or six years away from the real prime time, with amazingly three-dimensional breadth and depth, and fine old vine intensity. Simply magical. 96/100

The 1989 Engel Echézeaux is a terrific wine in this underrated vintage, blossoming in the decanter to reveal a beautifully expressive nose of red cherry, sous bois, subtle leather and details of burnt blood orange. On the palate the wine displays fresh acidity and remains firm at the core, though the tannins are sufficiently melted to be entirely unobtrusive. Good bottles should continue to cruise along for another couple of decades, as this was wonderfully vital and energetic. 93/100

From a Burgundian cellar, and bearing the name of Pierre Engel, René’s son and Philippe’s father, the 1964 Engel Clos Vougeot had been bottled by its purchaser rather than at the domaine. Whoever conducted the mise clearly did a magnificent job, and also selected a splendid barrel, as this was an utterly brilliant bottle of mature red Burgundy that it would be churlish to score any less generously. A spectacularly kaleidoscopic bouquet of ripe black fruits, licorice, rose, incense and squab evolve in the glass, seguing into griotte cherry over the course of the evening, with notes of nutmeg and other warm spices beginning to emerge with the last glass. On the palate the wine is rich, concentrated, and incredibly intense and satisfying, framed by a beautiful chassis of melted tannins, and ending with a long, sapid and penetrating finish. 100/100

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