In Burgundy, Meursault Vintners Put on the Brakes
By Per-Henrik Mansson, senior editor
My hat is off to Meursault for saying enough is enough. It wasn't easy for them to stem the tide of ever-increasing yields. The Meursault folks screamed, swore and fought among themselves. But in the end, the 100 or so growers in Burgundy's famed Meursault village voted, in a show of hands, not to start down the slippery slope to larger and larger crops.
The vote concerned the '96 white Burgundies now arriving at retailers in the United States and elsewhere around the world. The vote occurred in the fall of that year, after the region had harvested an abundant crop. By French law, Chardonnay growers are always allowed a base yield of 45 hectoliters per hectare (3.3 tons per acre). But when they pick a lot of grapes, they can ask for a 20 percent increase in the crop ceiling. That brings the permissible yields up to 54 h/h (4 t/a).
But in 1996, that ceiling felt too limiting for vineyard holders up and down the world-famous Cote d'Or. So they convened big meetings in which they voted to petition authorities to add not 20 percent, but 30 percent, to their base yields. A 30 percent increase comes to 59 h/h (4.3 t/a).
Out went the commitment, so often stated in the past, that less is better when it comes to the quality of wine. In came the clever justifications as to why this was the year when you could make great white Burgundies with 59 h/h. By comparison, in 1995 the allowable yields were 54 h/h for Chassagne, Puligny and Meursault, although the real yields were often much lower.
Only five appellations in the entire Cote d'Or decided to stick with the 20-percent-increase rule. And the white grands crus got only a 20 percent increase as well, for a crop not to exceed 48 h/h.
Remember the following five heroes of the '96 vintage: Beaune, Cote de Beaune, Monthelie, Pernand-Vergelesses and Meursault. In these places you'll find a majority of growers who think the future is in lower yields, not in increasing them whenever an opportunity presents itself.
Meursault made the right move. But it's particularly commendable that places such as Monthelie and Pernand-Vergelesses, which get less money for their wines, decided to keep yields lower; such a strategy might have meant that they had to select out and throw out or distill surplus wine.
Now compare that attitude with the approach taken by the region's ritziest villages: Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. These two villages are home to some of the most expensive vineyard acreage on earth, including the grand cru Montrachet, which spreads over both communes.
Did the growers in Puligny decide to eliminate some vats to raise quality? No. Did they make some gesture, even symbolic, toward consumers? No. Did they show that they're thinking of their clients' interest, not just milking every penny out of their vineyards? Did they hold the line with a 20 percent increase? No, no, and again no.
Like everybody else, Puligny and Chassagne went into the harvest of 1996 knowing full well that they could not, under regulations, exceed 54 h/h. After a great bud set, or flowering, in June, followed by favorable summer conditions, it was soon clear that the harvest would be abundant. Did they do a so-called green harvest, eliminating fruit to lower the yields? No.
But they did vote to be allowed to make 30 percent more wine. And according to Meursault producers, Puligny and Chassagne even lobbied hard for the Meursault growers to follow suit, arguing that the three famous communes had to "show solidarity."
"But we didn't see a reason to show solidarity, because we didn't need to apply for such high yields," said Jean-Baptiste Bouzereau of Domaine Bouzereau et Fils in Meursault.
I can see their concerns; Puligny and Montrachet feared it wouldn't look good if they voted to hike yields by 30 percent while Meursault didn't. They're darn right it looks bad.
In fairness to Puligny and Chassagne, they do have different soils and microclimates than Meursault. Some argue that they can produce a bit more wine than Meursault without a loss in quality. But who is to say they couldn't do even better if they had kept the yield ceiling at 54 h/h instead of raising it to 59 h/h for their villages and premiers crus?
Still, for Meursault, this was no easy decision. Driving past the well-tended vineyards of Cote de Beaune offers little insight into the passion surrounding important issues concerning quality and winemaking. But in the fall of 1996, confrontation was brewing in the village of Meursault as the growers met to vote.
"It was very tense," recalls Jean-Francois Mestre of domaines Mestre-Michelot and Michelot. His domaines frequently produce among the highest yields in the village. That's partly because of his vineyards' location in some flatter part than the coteaux, or hills. His vineyards are planted in heavier soil that produces larger yields. Also, Mestre's younger vines produced a large crop in 1996.
But above all, Mestre makes a point that many other growers all over Burgundy share: In 1996, the quality of the vintage was so high that you could make more wine without creating a problem of dilution.
Another point: Mother Nature simply dictated the high yields, and once you had the wines in the cellar, it made no sense to throw them out. Taking out 10 percent of the crop would only marginally raise quality.
So Mestre spoke in favor of 59 h/h, but he felt isolated. He knew others favored his position but were afraid to speak up. "They didn't let people express themselves, and it was all very tense. We raised our voices. Finally, there was a vote, but it should have been a secret ballot, not a show of hands."
After the vote, the three-man team that headed Meursault's trade organization--including Mestre--resigned. They were replaced by Dominique Lafon of Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Jean-Marc Roulot of Domaine Roulot and Thierry Matrot of Domaine Joseph Matrot. All three are considered among the best and most quality-oriented winemakers of their village.
Lafon said he was outraged by the high yields people keep asking for. He wants to propose that the basic yield ceiling, now 45 h/h, be dropped to 40 h/h. "But I recognize that will be hard to achieve, because the 45 h/h was obtained through a hard political battle."
Lafon would like to propose a compromise. If growers agree to drop the ceiling to 40 h/h, they could get in return the right to vote for much higher yields in exceptionally abundant years, such as 1996. So they might end up making 60 h/h in such years. But they must try to prune for an average of 40 h/h on a yearly basis, and that would bring more discipline in the vineyards. Short pruning can lower yields, and lower yields can bring about more flavorful wines.
Lafon and the others who voted in 1996 for a 20 percent increase rather than 30 percent are well aware that their decision may have had little effect on overall quality. That's because the wines were already made from high yields due to a superb bud set in June and lack of green harvest in the summer.
Critics also suggest that the media-savvy Meursault growers--Roulot is an actor, Lafon is worldly, Matrot is the proverbial spin doctor--took a decision that would bring Meursault a public relations windfall. That has indeed happened.
But Jean-Francois Coche of Domaine J.-F. Coche-Dury, one of Meursault's finest, sees the whole affair as a watershed moment in the commune's life.
"The old generation here in the village wanted to have high yields. But all those growers who are 25 to 35 years old, they were against it," said Coche. "It's not because we made a lot of wine that we have to raise the crop quota, so I was against raising the yields. If you bring up the ceiling, you encourage people to make more wine. You must put on the brakes. Look at '97. We had big yields, but nobody asked to make 30 percent more wine. They have to learn to put less fertilizers in their vineyards. Why push your vines if the extra wine you make ends up at the distillery?"
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.
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