From “Rat’s Jump” to Sublime – Getting to Know Meursault

meursaultNo one knows for sure where the name “Meursault” comes from, but in the village here’s the story they tell.

The Romans had a fort up on the Meursault hill and near it was a stream. The soldiers observed mice coming up to the stream and then jumping over the cold water to get from one side to the other. They soon began calling the stream “Muris Saltus” – or the “rat jump” – and the name eventually stuck to the small village growing beneath the fort.

Whatever the source of the name, the three communes of Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault make up the finest collection of Chardonnay vineyards in the world. But with no “Montrachet” to add caché, Meursault has spent much of its history playing second fiddle to Puligny and Chassagne.

Comparing Puligny and Meursault
In fact, Meursault’s wines are no less outstanding than Puligny to the south, but the wines are a bit different. Fine Puligny is peachy, citrusy, floral, and sports a deep, pervasive, wet rock minerality with a strong citric drive.

Meursault, in contrast, is richer, even fatter, with more golden fruit – pear, apple, apricot – and classically shows a wonderful layer of buttery richness – “buttered and toasted nut” is a common tasting note here. In part the differences are a reflection of terrior.

Meursault and Puligny’s vineyards are both rich in limestone, but the types are different (Pierre de Chassagne in Puligny vs. Comblachien for Meursault). More importantly, Puligny’s best vineyards are higher and more exposed while Meursault’s are lower and more sheltered.

Digging Cellars
But a fluke in the terrior of the villages themselves – vs. the vineyards – plays a role, too. The water table in the village of Puligny is high, so digging deep cellars is difficult and rare. Limited cellar space means most Puligny-Montrachet needs to be in and out of barrel before the next harvest comes in. Or, as is often the case, taken by negotiants to more spacious cellars in Beaune for elevage.

michelot-cellarIn Meursault, the soils are dry and soft, making cellars fairly easy to dig. And over the past 50 years, negotiants have been willing to pay much more for wine from Puligny than Meursault, leading more Meursault growers to make and sell their own finished wine. Winemaker Francois Mikulski tells the story of bringing in his first crop and then trying to sell his wine in barrel to the negotiants. The prices he was offered were so low that he went to the bank and borrowed enough to buy bottles and corks and sell the wine himself!

With cellar space ample and negotiant prices low, more Meursault growers not only made their own wine – they could afford to allow it to spend more than 10 months in barrel to gain richness, complexity, and notes of nutty deliciousness. So today’s Meursault reflects both the unique character of its vineyards and a funny quirk of Burgundy economics!

A Benchmark Storms Back
Writing in 2008, Burgundy expert Clive Coats said, “Nearly 40 years ago, when I was studying for the Master of Wine examination, one of my tutors recommended two estates which produced yardstick white Burgundy: Michelot in Meursault and Sauzet in Puligny-Montrachet.”

That “yardstick” status came from the hard work of Bernard Michelot, a fifth generation winegrower who modernized the winemaking, increased the use of new barrels, and tended his large set of vineyard holdings with meticulous care.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, though, the estate failed to keep up with the ever improving quality of its neighbors. As Bernard aged, he was forced to split up the estate between his children and sell off some vineyards to deal with France’s punitive inheritance taxes. Daughter Genevieve Michelot took 7ha and founded Michelot Mere et Fil. Son-in-law Jean-François Mestre and his wife, Odile Michelot, kept Domaine Michelot but were forced to place some of the wine and vineyards in a separate cellar, Domaine Mestre-Michelot. The separate cellars and Bernard’s continued presence (he passed away earlier this year at age 99) perhaps served as barriers to further innovation.

michelot-familyOver the past decade, though, Domaine Michelot has come roaring back. Jean-François has been allowed to merge the two separate cellars – so all the wine is Domaine Michelot now. He and his son Nicolas have converted all of their vineyards to organic farming. Grass is allowed to grow between the rows to stress the vines and then plowed under to enrich the soils. Most chemical treatments have been dropped and copper and sulfur use have been reduced substantially.

michelot-mersautIn the cellars, Mestre has slightly increased the amount of new oak used – around 33% for the 1er Cru wines – but also moved to larger barrels to prevent too much oak flavor in the wine. All of the wines – from Bourgogne Blanc up – spend 12 full months in barrel before wracking by gravity into tank. There they rest for an additional 4-6 months to harmonize and settle before bottling.

The result of all these changes: superb wines that are once again “textbook” (or “yardstick” if you prefer) Meursault. Rich, full of ripe fruit, creamy in texture with plenty of vibrancy, and laced with plenty of toasted buttered nut goodness. Do not miss them!

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