Purity and harmony in pinot noir
By Louise Johnson
Frederic Mugnier’s philosophy is to do as little winemaking as possible. He's not being lazy. He believes complexity and beauty are already there in the grape. A heavy winemakers hand will only hide them.
Renowned as one of the purest winemakers in Burgundy, Mugnier was in Australia earlier this year presenting his wines as part of the Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir Celebration.
Mugnier believes there’s nothing special in what he does as a winemaker. “What is important is not what I do, but what I do not do,” he says.
“Every time I progress my wines it’s by doing less not by doing more. I take as much care as I can in the transport and handling of the grapes with good equipment, machinery, care, and taking the time needed, which is important.
“Some wines are harmonious, some wines are not and this is not something you create [as a winemaker]. It’s built in the grapes already. That’s the idea I have in mind when I say it’s better to try to do less than more. I view nature as naturally harmonious, not that there isn’t conflict, but nature has been here longer than us and what didn’t work is no longer there. It must have some qualities that hold it all together.”
Mugnier was a latecomer to winemaking, training first as an engineer and working as a commercial pilot. His first “hobby” vintage, while still flying professionally, was released in 1985 from four hectares of Chambolle Musigny vineyards that had been in his family for many generations.
In 2004, just four years after he stopped flying to focus on winemaking, the lease on the family’s almost 10 hectare vineyard at Nuits St George 1er Cru clos de la Marechale expired, almost tripling Mugnier’s vineyard holdings and forcing him to build a winery and hire six staff members. Domaine Jacques-Frederic Mugnier is now the largest monopoly in Burgundy.
Of the two vineyards Mugnier says the Chambolle wines show a floral character with delicate structure and not a lot of flesh initially, but have a great intense finish. The Nuits St George wines are more structured with more obtuse tannins.
Mugnier says there are many factors that make Burgundy different from other pinot noir produced around the world. Climate is important: “it is supposed to be cold, not a full summer, but fine at time of harvest. Traditionally we are trying to get ripe grapes, but not every variety can be grown in Burgundy so that led to the selection of pinot noir,” he says.
Also, the complex geology and history of human occupation of the valley are important factors.
“Our vineyards are very small, just a narrow strip 30 kilometres long with a width that does not exceed two kilometres – it’s just 200 metres at Chambolle. In this vineyard geology varies every few metres. When you walk from the top of the cote (slope) west to east you are crossing different geology layers every 20 metres and north to south the valley changes every few kilometres,” he says.
People have been living in the area for more than 2000 years and the land has been farmed intensively. Quarry sites, dug to provide stone for houses, were filled in with whatever the farmers of the time could find.
“The vineyards are owned by farmers, people who for centuries have grown what they need to eat. Where nothing else could grow they planted vines to have something to drink, so this is not the most valuable land. And each very small plot in the vineyard was fermented separately to make wine. This combined with complex geography allowed us to draw very early the detailed map of the terroir we have in Burgundy.”
Mugnier says the influence of the Catholic Church was very important. “They were the ones that developed many of the vineyards in Burgundy and set the standards for making wines. They drew the maps and the rules [for how pinot noir is made in the Burgundy region] were created in response to deviation from purity and the Christian way,” he says.
“Purity, authenticity and also proximity to nature. It leaves very little control to the winemaker to design his wines. It took me more than a few years to understand that. Now I’m comfortable. I let nature speak and do not try to impose my own signature on the wines. That is what produces the most in the wines. Nature knows better than us how to produce complexity and harmony.”
Wines presented for tasting at the Mornington Peninsula Pinot were:
- Nuits-St-Georges 1er Cru clos de la Marechale 2004
- Nuits-St-Georges 1er Cru clos de la Marechale 2005
- Nuits-St-Georges 1er Cru clos de la Marechale 2006
- Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Fuees 2004
- Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Fuees 2005
- Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Fuees 2006
- Musigny Grand Cru 2004
- France - all (FR)
- Mornington Peninsula (VIC)
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