The Transition of William Kelley: A Story of Switching Sides

By | 12 April 2024

How a leading wine writer became a Burgundian vigneron.


Paul Day

William Kelley, one of the world’s most influential wine critics, is now making his own wine in Burgundy—and the results are extremely impressive, says Paul Day.

William Kelley, still in his early 30s and Editor-in-Chief of The Wine Advocate, is one of the most influential wine critics globally, covering Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne inter alia. But despite such success, he has found the time and energy to make wine while maintaining his writing commitment. There is some synergy. As he has written, “Making wine has immeasurably improved my work as a critic.” Conversely, his writing has given him the opportunity to access many leading winemakers, taste their wines, and understand their approaches. 

The intermingling roles of a critic and producer are not without inherent hazards, most notably, the potential for conflicts of interest. The first acknowledgment of this was given during his review of the 2018 Domaine Felettig wines for The Wine Advocate, and has been reiterated on each subsequent occasion:

“I believe it is necessary to disclose to readers that, from the 2018 harvest onwards, I have purchased a modest number of grapes from Felettig to produce a small batch of my own Chambolle-Musigny. This endeavor has offered some invaluable insights into the characteristics of each new Burgundy vintage. However, I can assure you that the wines reviewed here have been held to the same rigorous standards I apply to all the domaines I visit in the Côte d’Or. Of course, the ultimate test is in the tasting, which readers can undertake for themselves.”


Ever since that original disclosure, the wine production has expanded though its scale remains quite modest, and it is expected to remain so in the immediate future. His ultimate ambition might be to become a full-time producer. As he has articulated on his social media, “I also don’t intend to continue reviewing wines into my 60s.” Time will tell.

Our interest is piqued because, despite the fact that only a few wines have been released so far, they’re among some of the most thrilling creations currently emerging from Burgundy. These wines not only offer excellent early drinking pleasure, but also possess the balance that promises rewarding ageing. Above all, they often go beyond what we’d normally expect from the supposedly minor appellations from which they hail.

William Kelley, known for his work as a US correspondent for Decanter and later for The Wine Advocate, made his first commercial wine in 2017. It was a Chenin Blanc under the Beau Rivage label, a wine he continues to produce annually. His sources of inspiration and advice included the late Terry Leighton of Kalin Cellars, about whom he wrote a heartfelt obituary (featured in WFW 79, 2023 on pages 34-35).

Following this, Kelley’s Burgundian venture began in 2018 with the introduction of a single vintage, which was bottled under his own name, as have all subsequent releases. Officially named “La Dauphine”, this venture bears various monikers among its importers, including “William Kelley”, “Domaine William Kelley”, and “William Kelley Wines”.

Most of the grapes used are purchased from different vineyards, with only two small parcels owned (amounting to just under 0.6 acre, or 0.25ha). As it stands in 2023, the production is sourced from approximately 3.7 acres (1.5ha) of vineyards, with no immediate plans to increase this volume. With limited vineyard ownership and primarily modest appellations for the purchased grapes, Kelley has managed to retain the majority shares of the venture, with the other stakeholders being two of his university friends. In order to manage the vineyards and wines, the team now consists of two full-time employees who assist William.

The primary focus is on creating high-quality products. The aim is to yield sensual red wines with a desired alcohol target of 13.3%, and powerful yet balanced white wines. This producer prides itself in utilizing traditional techniques from the 1950s with the addition of modern testing to prevent Brett and other issues. Despite gaining wisdom from accomplished producers like Cécile Tremblay and Jean-Marie Guffens, this producer has his unique approach.

The producer acknowledges that complete control of viticulture is limited. Hence, it’s essential to collaborate with grape suppliers sharing the same values. For instance, grapes for the Chambolle-Musigny Les Fouchères are bought from sources like Felettig. The producer can define the harvest date and uses his team for early day harvesting. The aim is to have ripe grapes free of overripe flavors. This practice results in red wines with pHs around 3.40 and alcohol between 12.5% and 13.5%. And white wines have pHs from 3.05 to 3.15, with alcohol levels of around 13% to 13.5% in Chardonnay and 11.5% to 12.5% in Aligoté.

The producer owns two vineyards, one in Beaune premier cru Les Chouacheaux and one in Côte de Beaune AOC. In the first vineyard, the vines are trellised higher than neighboring ones to move them away from the heat-retaining ground. This method is different from the traditional one that was used to secure warmth. Inspirations for this high-canopy viticulture come from Leroy, Bernard Dugat, and Pascal Roblet. The viticulture is quasi-organic, using phosphonates, leading to less copper use per hectare. The second vineyard’s soil is shallow with a high proportion of active calcium, in lieu-dit Les Pierres Blanches.

Initially starting with borrowed space, a dedicated winery was necessary due to increased production. Now, the winery is located in the building that formerly housed Domaine André Mussy in Pommard.

All the grapes are fully destemmed, contrary to most contemporary trends. This is more of a deliberate choice to experiment with this method, rather than a rejection of destemming. The grapes undergo an extended maceration process, then basket pressed. The small-lot fermentations are typically cooler and not encouraged to be overly extractive. William views chaptalization as a pillar of traditional Burgundian winemaking. It’s not used to increase alcohol content or prolong fermentation, but occasionally used as a fine adjustment to perfect a slightly uneven cuvée. Élevage is somewhat reductive, but the minimal necessary sulfur-dioxide is meticulously incorporated and used as late in the process as possible.

It might surprise one to learn that all wines are now matured in 100 percent new oak barrels. The very first batch, the Chambolle-Musigny Les Fouchères 2018, was stored in reused oak barrels purchased from a renowned producer. Unfortunately, these barrels contained a small concentration of acetate that resulted in the wine having a somewhat dry finish, which rendered it unfit for release due to high-quality standards. For the next couple of vintages, a mix of new and old oak has been used. However, the produced wines seemed more oaky than the ones now being matured in 100 percent new oak. The objective is to steer clear of excessively toasty wines with hard tannins, and finding ideal barrels has been a journey. The solution was to work in close collaboration with three barrel-makers, specifying the exact quality and nature of the required barrels. This entails the usage of well-seasoned, fine-grain wood and a very light toasting, among other details.

The élevage process is long-lasting (typically between 18 and 36 months) and fairly reductive. Both colors of lees are retained and there’s no racking. The rationale behind this is the pursuit of a fuller mid-palate, stability, and the avoidance of wines that have much of a “closed” phase. As of early 2024, none of the 2022 wines have been bottled.

The bottling process is manual, conducted under an inert gas, with notable recent advancements to minimize variations at the barrel’s bottom. Whites are bottled with Diam30 closures, aiming for approximately 20ppm of free SO2 upon bottling to prevent whites that are either slow to evolve or have a bitter finish. Reds are bottled with top-quality natural cork.


2021 Aligoté

William highly values Aligoté, using Domaine d’Auvenay’s Bourgogne Aligoté Sous Chatelet as a reference. Despite hot years, this grape variety does not excessively increase its alcohol content, making it manageable under climate change conditions. Taking after d’Auvenay’s wine, this product is matured in 100% new oak (Burgundian barrels) and sees 24 months in barrel on the lees. The grapes originate from old vines in Meursault.

The 2021 edition was bottled in August 2023 at 11.6% ABV from 100% new traditional oak (228-liter) Burgundy barrels. Come November 2023, the new oak was apparent in the taste, exhibiting decent depth, but a lemony and lean tendency. After being tasted twice in January 2024, the wine had harmonized and highly impressed. The combination of carbon dioxide, good acidity, and low alcohol almost gives a false sense of lightness, but there is certainly depth. The oak presence provides a desirable attribute by suppressing the grape’s natural fruity character and introducing a complex, savory component. This is the inaugural white wine produced here, and the only one bottled as of yet. It’s not just a brilliant first effort—it’s simply brilliant. 93+

2022 Aligoté

The 2022 Aligoté reached 12.5% ABV and was matured in both the traditional 228-liter and a larger 500-liter barrels. Upon tasting from cask in November 2023, the enhanced integration of oak compared to the 2021 vintage was noticeable and the wine displayed a slight increase in body. Truly striking. 93–94

2023 Aligoté

The 2023 Aligoté is projected to reach around 12.5% ABV and is currently being aged exclusively in new 228-liter barrels. The malolactic fermentation concluded ahead of schedule. When it was tasted in January 2024 straight from the barrel, the quality suggested that it could potentially outshine the first three vintages. 92–95

2023 Coteaux Bourguignons Blanc

This is a unique blend of Aligoté combined with some Chardonnay and about 5% Pinot Noir. Sampled from one of the two new oak barrels in November 2023, it presented as very fresh yet already enjoyable to drink. Excellent for the appellation. 91–93

2022 Meursault Les Pelles

Only a single new barrel of this is available. Tested from the barrel in November 2023, it is remarkably polished and unexpectedly easy to approach. Even though it is “merely” a Meursault village lieu-dit, it is potentially a premier white Burgundy. Restricting comparisons to other hors classe village Meursaults, it is reminiscent of a rich vintage of Coche-Dury Rougeots, Arnaud Ente Sève du Clos, or D’Auvenay Narvaux. It’s probable that the release of this wine will be delayed. I’m uncertain about what a score implies in this context … perhaps simply “grand vin” is adequate. 95–98

2023 Meursault Narvaux

The wine from two distinct batches may potentially be bottled separately. Additionally, early completion of malolactic has resulted in a finely balanced wine at this early stage. 93–95

2023 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru

Only a single barrel of this wine has been created, expertly crafted by Gauthier Frères (who also supply to Coche-Dury). The grapes for this wine, sourced externally, were harvested around 13% potential alcohol. This is higher than usual for the supplying vineyard. Originating from En Charlemagne, this wine boasts a profound mineral core. Currently, the finish feels a bit awkward, prompting a light dose of SO2 to be added. Despite this, the wine shows a lot of promise. 94–98


2021 Moulin-à-Vent

Quite “natty” in the making, like many fine Beaujolais. From old vines, picked at 12.6% potential alcohol, just before the rain. One of only two Beaujolais wines that William has made—and he won’t make any more, because he says it is too difficult to manage the harvest timing from his Pommard-based winery, the grapes going from potentially underripe, to overripe, in only a few days! This is an excellent, pure example, though. 93

2019 Chambolle-Musigny Les Fouchères

The initial attempt happened five times with a bottle, first experienced prior to release in November 2022. Its allure was evident from the get-go. The only detraction at this point is the noticeable presence of oak. Perhaps it’s the oak giving an impression of being slightly rustic and extracted. Nonetheless, this is an exceptional bottle that pairs excellently with a meal. 93++

2021 Chambolle-Musigny Les Fouchères (Magnum)

This later vintage demonstrates the improvements made in blending oak in the short intervening period. It has a relatively light hue, manifesting as a remarkably fine, pure Chambolle that’s ready for immediate enjoyment. 94+

2020 Gevrey-Chambertin Aux Etelois (Magnum)

The oak barrels used for aging this particular batch were mostly new, making up two thirds of the vessels. The result is a potent and well-structured wine, with the barrel tannins evident for the moment. Quality is excellent. 91+

2021 Gevrey-Chambertin Aux Etelois

A sample of this wine was tasted in London in January 2024 and found to be a somewhat restrained and muted. The aforementioned experience was contrasted by a fellow diner, who had tasted it in Germany a week earlier from an opened bottle and discovered it to be exceptional. Notably, there is a minor presence of CO2, and the wine’s tannin is discernible. However, after decanting the wine and agitating it lightly, it displayed much more dynamic and clear fruit flavors. This particular bottle is the first observed example of a slightly closed-down William Kelley red. Nevertheless, it remains high-quality and demonstrates the amelioration in barrel selection compared to the previous vintage. 93+

2021 Bourgogne Rouge Tête de Cuvée

This wine is truly remarkable. It isn’t merely a “Bourgogne”, but a mix of grapes sourced from two “domaine” vineyards – Beaune premier cru Les Chouacheaux and Côte de Beaune Les Pierres Blanches. The frost-heavy yields in these vineyards during this particular vintage were small, thus unable to be vinified separately. Unfortunately, only 292 bottles of this wine were ever filled. Drinking this alongside a friend in London in the year 2024, and with knowledge about the wine’s vineyard origins, it made me question the significance of Burgundy’s classification and terroir. How is it possible for wine from seemingly unremarkable sources to be so exquisite? This particular wine has both strength and equilibrium, with its new oak components flawlessly merged. What’s surprising is how you can’t even tell that this is a Beaune/Côte de Beaune blend, and you might associate it with loftier appellations to the north. The most exceptional part? How beautifully it drinks now, yet demonstrating clear signs of potential ageing. Truly a grand wine. Grand vin indeed. Score: 97+

2023 Beaune Premier Cru Chouacheaux

Could this potentially surpass the 2021 Bourgogne Rouge in its quality? The wine achieved an ABV of 13.1% and then, with a gentle chaptalization, hit 13.3%. Sampled from an un-sulphited barrel – this batch saw three barrels’ worth – with its malolactic fermentation fully completed, a refreshing purity of fruit was observed. It showed great balance too. Potential score: 94-98

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