A Little Luck, a Lot of Hustle, and Mind-Melting Burgundy: Tomoko Kuriyama-Bott of Chanterêves

A Little Luck, a Lot of Hustle, and Mind-Melting Burgundy: Tomoko Kuriyama-Bott of Chanterêves

Tomoko Kuriyama-Bott calls Savigny-Les-Beaune a “modest appellation” — a region of Burgundy sometimes viewed as a sort of understudy to stars with names like Vosne-Romanée and Volnay. But in her hands, there’s nothing modest about it.

Tomoko is one half of Chanterêves, the other half being her husband Guillaume Bott. Their tiny domaine began as a négociant project in 2010, sourcing fruit from less modest sites like Pommard, Auxey-Duresses, and premier cru vineyards in Chassagne-Montrachet and Nuit St-Georges, among others.

But in 2020, through a combination of sheer luck and a decade of hustling, they were able to purchase land in Savigny. It might not have the glamor associated with other appellations, but the wines coming out of Chanterêves — both domaine and négoce cuvées — are exceptional.

Given her and Guillaume’s respective pedigrees, that’s not surprising. Tomoko is originally from Japan, and began her wine career in Germany. After receiving a degree in enology she worked at Weingut Altenkirch in the Rheingau and later managed the vineyard at Savigny darling Chandon de Briailles alongside winemaker Christian Knott, another expat.

Guillaume is a Burgundy native. Up until last year, he was the winemaker at Simon Bize, the other darling of Savigny. That’s where he and Tomoko met and fell in love. They both kept their respective jobs — him at Simon Bize, her at Chandon de Briailles — while they worked to build Chanterêves from the ground up as a négoce project.

I’m guessing if you asked half the people reading this right now, “What was the first bottle of wine that truly made your brain melt,” they would say “Burgundy.” Modest or diva appellations alike just have that kind of power. But being able to make those mind-blowing bottles isn’t easy. Land is notoriously expensive, and hard to come by even if you have the money.

Négoce projects are one of the ways we are able to see younger, unestablished winemakers breaking into this lauded turf. What’s even more exciting is seeing one of those younger projects begin to grow roots and add phenomenal entries to the compendium of cuvées that will blow minds this year, and the next, and so on.

We sat down with Tomoko to talk about her work with Chanterêves, from cover cropping to mentors to the last wine that blew her mind.

This interview took place on May 24, 2022 between Tomoko Kuriyama-Bott, Sadie Williams, Brittany Galbraith, and Nicole Bull. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tomoko Kuriyama-Bott is standing on top of a truck with a large silver tank on the back. She has one brown leather boot on the edge of the tank and the other on the back of the truck. Two of her team members are pouring bright green grapes into the tank, which she is prodding with a long wooden pole held at a 45 degree angle. Her arms are strong, she's working hard, and she has a look of intense concentration on her face. Her husband Guillaume is standing on the ground holding an empty red and grey plastic bin. He's looking off in the other direction at a stack of similar bins. Behind them is a basketball hoop.

Tomoko: Hi Sadie.

Sadie: Hi Tomoko, nice to meet you. We have Brittany here, who you know, and Nicole with us today. 

Tomoko: Hi Nicole.

Sadie: And we're just excited to chat and learn more about you and what you do. Tomoko, you said that you were working pretty much nonstop in the vineyard these days.

Tomoko: Yeah, because we are a small team. We have, five hectares, and Guillaume and I are full-time, and then we have an apprentice who's half-time. We have contractors who come to help us till when it needs to be done, but that's pretty much it. So we're really hands-on. And we have to do everything on our own. Except tilling.

Sadie: And you said five hectares, are these the vines that you own now, that are your domaine vines?

Tomoko: Yes, these are the domaine vines, mostly that we own since 2020 vintage. Before 2020 we had one small parcel of Aligote from which we made five barrels. So that's Aligoté Les Chagniots, that's the first Aligoté that we made that came to the US as well. And the 2020 vintage is arriving soon to you guys, I think. All together, we make five single-vineyard Aligotés now.

Sadie: That's pretty exciting, in a couple of different directions —that you're focusing on Aligoté and also that you have your own vines now.

Tomoko: Yeah, that really was a big opportunity for both Guillaume and me to go full-time. To own our own vines. And I mean, it's the bank who owns it, you know, but if all goes well, then it'll be ours in 18 years. The point is that we have “modest appellations” as we call them. We have 3.5 hectares in Haute-Cotes. And then we have 1.5 hectares in Savigny Chorey and then Aligoté Les Chagniots which is between Ladoix and Corgoloin.

Had we been proposed like premier cru [vineyards], you see, one hectare of Savigny premier cru costs now 1 million euros. So, that is the kind of money that we would need to have an investor for. But what we bought was exactly within the reach of us organizing a bank loan.

Nicole: And is that why initially Chantereves started out as a négoce project? Because of the cost barrier to buying land in Burgundy?

Tomoko: No. It's because you don't find it. It's so scarce that even... Those [properties that we could [have bought], it was like, there were like millions of people who are on it and our luck was that we knew the broker well because he's a second cousin of my mother-in-law.

Sadie: Oh my gosh. That's a crazy connection.

Tomoko: Yeah. We had been hustling since 2010, and then we made Aligoté Les Chagniots from our own farm in 2018, and then he saw us in a little local newspaper article. Then came along this offer and he said, "Well, look, you guys, maybe this is something that’s realistic for you to look at." But he was also saying, "Give me an answer right away, don't hesitate because there are  so many people waiting for this kind of thing."

So we quickly calculated it, with our accountant, and said, "I think we'll be able to do it," we talked to the bank the next day, and the bank gave us an okay. And so like, boom,  in three days, we told the broker and the owner that we're interested. That's how fast you gotta go.

Sadie: And so it sounds like it was something you wanted, but it was also a surprise — you had to make this offer in such a short span of time, and then you were landowners.

Tomoko: Yes. It's a surprise, and a great surprise in many senses because, number one, it's in the range that we could afford with the bank loan. Number two, it's exactly the right size, to do it on our own, with just Guillaume and me. We had great luck.

 

Three bottles of Savigny wine float on a white background. A black button at the bottom of the page suggests you check out the Dedalus collection of Savigny All Stars.

 

Brittany: So now that you are working with estate fruit, are you going to continue to work with any of the negociant vineyards? Are you still gonna have like your premier cru Chassagne Montrachet and your premier cru Nuits Saint George?

Tomoko: Absolutely. We are very happy to continue with these cuvées. I mean, we've been honing our process for more than 10 years now. So definitely we need to continue because part of the profit that we get from négoce also is important for us to pay back our loan.

Do you know why I say all that? Because we associate wine with so many romantic elements. But at the end of the day, it has to be economically sustainable as well.

We see a strip of green grape vines framed on the top and bottom by golden grasses, so it looks like a neat strip of green running horizontally through the center of the photo. There is a tall white dappled work horse in the vines, he is likely there to assist with the harvest, his head is bowed and he is resting, but there are lines extending back behind him from the yolk on his neck. We see Guillaume behind the horse. He's wearing a dark blue polo shirt and is looking at a man wearing a red shirt, who is likely the horse's handler. All three figures appear to be swimming in the vines, which are a lush chartreusy-green in the height of summer.

Nicole: And just to follow up on that, how do you find growers you want to work with?

Tomoko:  In three different ways. Like all the other négoce, we work with brokers. They have the biggest and the most important network to connect négoce like us and the growers, and they also play a very important role in stabilizing the prices. If there weren’t any brokers I think like Burgundian négoce prices would be even more expensive. We can also meet growers through friends, and then sometimes friends propose to us their own fruit. 

If we like the grower, if we find the farming acceptable or very good, then we will work with the grower, no matter which appellation. That's most important. Because we think if the farming's well done, then we are confident we can make wine that we want to drink.

The picking date is very important. We need to be able to agree with the grower — if they don't have an open mind-ness to agree that they will pick on the days that we wish, then we can't work with them. It's very difficult to come to agreement with them because everybody wants the good fruit, and the good fruit is hard to get...

Sadie: You have this kind of extensive experience in Germany before you moved to Burgundy, right?

Tomoko: Yes.

Sadie: Something I wonder is, if it's so hard to be doing this in Burgundy, either owning your own vines or as a négoce trying to find a grower who you can work with, then why do it there? Why not go somewhere else?

Tomoko: It would be easier in Germany for sure, to find vines. My fastest answer is because Guillaume wasn't okay to come to Germany to make wine.

I would be truly happy people making Riesling and Sätburgunder there because Riesling is still to this day my favorite white wine variety. We think there's enormous potential in Germany. The vineyards are great, and the quality of farming is incredible. I mean, people don't know that because not many German wines are exported.

Because Germans incorporate an organic approach so naturally in their lives. For example, the recycling rate of plastic in France is the lowest in Europe. They're great organic farmers here sure. But I don't see their organic approach extending through their lifestyle [the way I do in Germany], you know what I'm saying? Whereas in Germany there's this awareness and there's this reflex of thinking like an organic farmer, even if you were conventional. Cover crops are so normal in Germany, so normal. Whereas here it's people just starting out. Still, ninety percent of Burgundians would consider herbs and grass to be an unwelcome competitor in the vines.

Sadie: I’m interested in the practices you may have picked up in Germany — what of those are you implementing in your own domaine or looking for at the vineyards you source from.

Tomoko: Probably what I'm incorporating the most, from the German point of view, is breaking the monoculture in the vineyard. In winter, the vines are dormant, right? But a cover crop is wonderful because it keeps on growing in winter. Cover cropping is a big, big, big, theme because it's so diverse, so complex, and so different from site to site, so you just have to learn by doing it.

Brittany: The time spent with Chisa Bize, and also the time at Chandon du Briailles — were conversations about cover crops continued at those places as well, and what other vineyard practices did you absorb? 

Tomoko: I think for me the biggest inspiration, especially when it comes to farming, came from Chandon de Briailles. Because they are from my point of view, the people who today in Cote d'Or are most committed to this inclusive approach to organics. If you go to Chandon during the harvest, lunch and dinner are all cooked with organic ingredients, because they live that life. All the staff would pretty much buy organic ingredients. From secretary to vineyard worker, we all have a similar mindset. 

And what I discovered at Chandon was how great to be walking on the land and working in the vines that are tilled by the horses. The texture of the earth is completely different — it’s so comfortable. And that was so inspiring. I worked eight years at Chandon, and so I told myself and I told Guillaume that one day when we have our own vines, it's gonna be tilled by the horses.

A grey and white dappled work horse stands on the concrete road in front of the vineyard. Behind the rows of verdant vines, the sky is a deep grey blue, it looks like a storm is coming soon. The lines extending back from the horse's yolk are tied to a wood and metal sled loaded with plastic bins. Guillaume is there talking to the horse's handler, he has his hand on the highest bin as if he is checking on the grapes inside. The handler is looking away from us, out across the vines.

Sadie: So you're doing that now?

Tomoko: Oh yeah, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. We till three parcels, 1.2 hectares with horses. And we don't own horses ourselves.

Sadie: That was my next question.

Tomoko: We have two close friends who are contractors, great plowers, and they come with their horses to till for us about five times beginning in April into mid-July. That's it. Because we still want to minimize tilling as much as possible, but it's just great to have their presence. And one of them comes to help us with the harvest. He carries out the harvest bins with his horses for us. It's so wonderful. It's very efficient actually. Fast and efficient.

Aside from the farming, the vinification of Chandon de Briailles is different from ours — Christian Knott has been making wine at Chandon for the last 10 years or 12 years now. He is the better half of Morgane, CEO of Domaine Dandelion.

Actually why I could come to work at Chandon was thanks to Christian. Christian introduced me to his boss. I mean, our boss. I felt so happy. And so Christian is probably for our taste, the best winemaker in Cote d'Or right now. He is very talented. And even though we don't do exactly the same thing. 

But every harvest, whenever I have time, I just drop in, because he's only five minutes away from our cellar, and see what he’s doing. He is very open-minded and very kind. So whenever I would hop by, he would let me taste the fermenting juice, which is always great — it’s a great inspiration for sure. So I must say the people that I learned from the most are definitely from Chandon de Briailles, Christian and Morgane. There are, of course, many others. Olivier Lamy in white winemaking has of course always been a great inspiration for me.

Sadie: It's really cool to have such a strong community, and also that the people who inspire you are your friends, and they're your neighbors.

Tomoko: Exactly. Yeah. I think that is the capital of this region — that it's not like 50 years ago. People can still be cliquey, but many people are open-minded, they exchange ideas, they exchange their experiences. It's so valuable.

Brittany: And just kind of leap-frogging off of sort of the differences you were talking about between what you're doing and what Christian is doing. Can you talk to us about kind of what makes the Chanterêves winemaking different than some of your neighbors?

Tomoko: Sure. I think one of the biggest differences maybe is that we don't compromise on whole bunch. We do every vintage, any appellation, 100% whole cluster. That's one thing that we don't change. Other than that, the vinification is adjusted to every vintage. Of course, there are details that change from vintage to vintage: skin contract, fermentation. All that will change. 

At Chandon de Briailles, Christian will change the whole cluster percentage. But that's because they have their own philosophy. They know their vineyards very well. And at Chandon de Briailles they de-stem in the middle of fermentation, which I find very interesting and it actually works very well for those wines. We just do whole bunch from beginning till the end, but it's always extremely inspiring to see what Christian. He's had a lot of success with that.

Sadie: Now…what does stem inclusion do to the wine? Why do the whole cluster, as far as the drinking experience?

Tomoko: For us, fermentation is a process of transforming the energy in the fruit into wine. Because what we consider the most important in wine is its energy. And that energy comes from the fruit. And we found whole cluster is the best medium to realize that transformation. if you ask that question to a grower who uses whole cluster, I think the answer will be different from grower to grower. There'll be hundred different answers I'm sure.

Brittany: I think it makes your wines just so, so beautiful and so drinkable and the texture has always been really lovely. There's a silkiness to your wines in some way…

Nicole: Speaking of other beautiful wines, what was the last bottle of wine that you drank that you fell in love with?

Tomoko: I can answer that question very quickly. It’s from Chandon de Briailles, the Savigny-Les-Beaune Aux Fourneaux 2019. And it's actually from a vineyard that I have been taking care of. That wine is just mind-blowing, I don't know how much stock they have...but I’m sure I’ve had six of them already.

The shot is of the floor of a winery, and it's lined neatly with plastic bins containing ripe green grapes. Some of the bins even have a few clusters of black grapes. We see three pairs of feet and legs in three separate bins stomping the grapes to release the juices.

Brittany: I'm just always interested in when we have partners making wine together, do you and Guillaume see eye to eye on how things should be done in the vineyard or in the winery? Are there challenges? Have there been goofy times? What is that partnership like?

Tomoko: We’ve been working together since 2010. And Guillaume is great because, until this year, I have been in charge of the winemaking 100%, because Guillaume had been making white wine and a natural wine range at Simon Bize until now, and that's a big responsibility. During the winemaking period he would be able to come to our cellar maybe once a week, but not more. And so, I really needed to be in charge. 

If I wanted to change something fundamental, then we would definitely talk about it before the harvest. Otherwise, he would entrust me just 100% and he would come and taste from time to time, and that is always a great exchange because he has his point of view, which is a big asset. 

When it comes to farming, he is relatively new. So especially in the last two vintages, I needed to make all the farming decisions. Of course, I would ask Guillaume what he would think.

But I think because we have been working side by side for 12 years, we know which buttons not to push, right? My biggest reward has been that he always really loved our wines. The wines that Patrick [Bize] had been making were always his very favorite but in recent years, I think he really likes the reds that we've been making. And that's flattering.