What is Meursault?

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The village of Meursault / Photo: Gretchen Greer

Perhaps Meursault’s reputation as a rich wine, evocative of peaches and hazlenuts, was never more than a cliché; but for an inaccurate caricature its persistence is impressive. Tasting in the village this summer, vignerons assured me time and again that, though Meursault is often a ripe, ample wine, their intention was to produce something more taut and focussed. The one problem with this contention is that ample and oaky Meursaults are practically nowhere to be found; a dying breed since the turn of the millennium, the gradual emergence of a young generation of winemakers seems to have only confirmed the style’s extinction—at least among fashionable and sought-after domaines. As Anne Morey observed during our tasting together, more and more producers are picking earlier and earlier.

Where does that leave the identity of Meursault in 2016? The answer to the question is not merely a matter of harvest date and winemaking style. Meursault is a large appellation: 314 ha are entitled to the AOC and a further 133 ha are classified as Meursault Premier Cru. By comparison, the corresponding figures for Puligny-Montrachet are 114 ha and 100 ha respectively. If even smaller Puligny’s finage comprehends climats with very different personalities, that is true a fortiori of Meursault. Nor is Meursault’s diversity confined merely to its Premier Crus: a broad swathe of characterful hillside vineyards—vineyards which occupy the same altitude as the Premier and Grand Crus of Puligny—are denied anything more than the humble village AOC by virtue of their more eastern exposition. And in fact, even Meursault AOC vineyards on the flatter, rich soils below 250m benefit from a water table considerably lower than that of the village’s southern neighbours.

Since René Lafon began to bottle his Clos de la Barre separately from his other village parcels almost half a century ago, village lieu-dit bottlings have become increasingly common, and it is not unusual to encounter the likes of Le Tesson, Les Rougeots, Les Chevalières and Les Narvaux in their own right. From the cellars of Domaines like Fichet, Roulot, Coche-Dury and Pierre Morey, these wines surpass many of the Côte de Beaune’s white Premier and even Grand Crus from less exalted addresses. And the distinctiveness of these lieu-dits means that it’s hard not to look at Meursault’s identity through a kaleidoscope: the piercing tension of Chevalières; the greater amplitude and authority of Les Rougeots next door; the glossy expansiveness of Le Limozin to the south—all are Meursault, but it can be hard to isolate what exactly they have in common.

But all that notwithstanding, it’s equally clear that the village’s stylistic paradigm has shifted: people are picking earlier. The style in vogue is taut, focussed—even lean—and often marked by a noticeably reductive tang on the nose; sometimes seeming to nod more to dry German Riesling than the white Burgundies of yesteryear. It’s not a style I by any means dislike. In the hands of someone like Jean-Marc Roulot, the results can be profound, expressing the differences of Meursault’s lieu-dits with striking clarity and transparency. Indeed, Roulot, who has thoughtfully honed a very distinctive aesthetic since his inaugural vintage in 1989, produces some of the most original wines in the village.

On the other hand, Meursault today sometimes seems to run the risk of becoming a monoculture, and tasting wines from the 1970s and 1980s does make me nostalgic for the older style: wines with a more gourmand side; the fruit of old vines, ripe grapes, and long élevage—wines with tangible dry extract and tremendous aging potential. This was the style which was bowdlerised in the late 1980s and 1990s: too much ripeness, too much oak, and too much battonage reduced it to a parody; a parody which launched the more minimalist stylistic paradigm of today, as vignerons reacted against earlier excesses. That old-fashioned style produced the Meursaults I’d love to see again: wines like Lafon’s 1979 Genevrières and 1980 Gouttes d’Or or Monnier’s 1978 Charmes.

Meursault can be many things, but can it ever taste like that again?

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1976 Domaine du Duc de Magenta Meursault: still youthful at age forty

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