Meursault with Nicolas
DISCLAIMER: Lengthy with a predisposition to attract wine geeks, and possibly bore others.
NOTE: If you ever find yourself in Bourgogne, France, you must go to Meursault; and if you ever find yourself in Meursault, you must find Nicolas of Domaine Michelot.
As I had previously learned that it was best to call ahead before visiting family wineries, I decided to do so that morning. I was headed to Meursault, infamous for it’s brilliant white wines, and by random chance decided to call Domaine Michelot. A French man answered the phone and he did not speak English, but quickly returned with his son who did. I told him that I was a writer from the States traveling through France to find the best wine to feature in my book. (....)
He asked what time I would like to come in and I proposed noon.
He laughed and said, “No. That is lunch.”
Um, okay … “2:00?” I asked.
“Fine. See you then.” He hung up.
Meursault was beautiful. Rolling planes of luscious green vines raced alongside my car daring me to outrun them. Small stone cottages popped their heads up from behind hills and plains, and tiny, clustered villages rose from the ground out of nowhere. The town of Meursault could hardly be called that. Quaint and remote, it was comprised of narrow dirt roads and sharp corners, leading you to believe you could possibly get lost and then popping you out on the other side right after. The buildings, all dressed in large grey stone, seemed to only have the freedom to express their individuality through shutter and door color, which ranged from teal, to red, purple to yellow … however creative one could be.
At the fringes of the town lay Domaine Michelot, much more confident and independent than her surrounding brothers and sisters. With her Spanish tile roofing, white washed stone walls, and pink accents (doors and shutters only), she stood proud with a respectable, yet humble defiance … if there ever was such a thing.
As I pulled up in between the skyward stretched vines and their Domaine, I could see a woman in the garage working on what looked to be a bottling line. She could see me but neglected interest. I walked around, awkwardly, searching for an entrance, but to no avail. So, I stood by my car and gazed outward at the unending green lushness, soaking in the temporary warmth of the sun as the vines did before it was overtaken
Coming up from the field, a French man grunted at me and beckoned me inside. After a few very silent moments with the man and the woman, the clinking of bottles and the exhausted efforts of the machine, the son, Nicolas, walked around the corner. He wasn’t much taller than me, but strong and stocky; he had an explosive, mushroom cloud of dark hair that stuck straight up and out in every direction, giving him a good 6 inches on me. I noticed his hair before I noticed him and had to bite my lip to force my laughter into a polite smile. It was the most outrageous, best thing I had ever seen. He had a friendly, toothy grin and a mere smattering of freckles that danced along his nose and cheeks, betraying his Italian-looking appearance. I liked him instantly
He walked me through the upstairs room and explained to me, in very rough, broken English, that the woman was not bottling, but labeling. The bottling was done a long time before the labeling and the bottles were aged in the cellar until that time. Nicolas was a 6th generation member of the Michelot family. As the weather currently still had a personality disorder, dodging between downpours and sunshine, Nicolas said that he was very happy to have a break from the vineyard work to welcome the American journalist (I didn’t quite know how to correct that in French, so I didn’t...). I asked him if this weather was typical of Meursault in May and he shook his head with wide eyes and told me this was March weather. However, this year in March, they had June weather, so they were hoping it would all balance out somehow. He explained to me the concern about the weather, although I knew it all too well, and told me that in 2013, they only had a 50% harvest due to a cold, rainy spring. It was begining to seem that 2013 was a bad year for most places.
We went underground to the 15th century cellar and it was absolutely gorgeous. Renovated in a way to preserve how old and rustic it was, while still exquisitely showcasing clean, modern design. Further underground, it was not so clean, nor renovated; dark, yet completely authentic. The ceilings hung low and a pungent, damp stone surrounded us. There were bottles everywhere stacked up in corners on wooden and steel shelves. Massive old barrels were built into the stone walls in the first few rooms. We had to duck under archways and around corners as we followed the maze. I was going in completely blind as Nicolas lit each room as we entered. Around several corners, the biggest room stretched out with new French oak barrels, which betrayed the rest of the cave with their unstained casks and fresh forest smell. Nicolas did his best to answer my questions and explain to me their process through a means of French/New Zealand slang and charades. I mainly leaned on what I formerly knew.
Following him from this room, we then entered a small cave. It was the old tasting room from several generations before. Dark and damp with mold covered, black stone walls and ceiling, Nicolas asked if it was okay if we tasted down here instead of the nicer upstairs tasting room for the public. It was 100% okay with me. The only light in the room came from an old handmade, wine bottle chandelier that hung above us. Complete with rust, cobwebs, green, yellow, and rose tinted bottles, his great grandfather had made it many years ago.
I sat at the small wooden table in front of Nicolas and noticed at least two dozen open bottles behind him. They all looked much the same with plain white labels stating only the vintage year and region, or scribbled in sharpie on the bottles with no labels at all.
Pouring the first wine into my glass and then his, Nicolas began to tell me about it. In search of the correct word and using his hands in attempts to portray it, he swung his right arm out toward me, sending his glass flying across the table and landing in a pool in my lap. I laughed, but wide eyed and frozen, Nicolas panicked trying to find something around the old cave to clean it up with.
I learned that Meursault was comprised of many different sects (large and small areas), each containing different soil and possessing different elevation levels. For this reason, there are so many types of white wine that can be made from Meursault and they are all named after the sect from which they come from, rather than the varietal (as in the U.S.). All of the subtleties, inflictions, notes, and artistic designs of these wines lie in the vineyards from which they grow. Therefore, a single wine cannot be characterized as a Chardonnay among a world of Chardonnays; so much as a person could be encompassed solely by the surname they were born with. Each has a personality, a story, a history, family, and a home from where it is rooted and developed.
Nicolas started us (and then restarted after the spill) with the Bourgogne Blanc Stel Vin 2012. A Chardonnay; this wine can be made from any region in Bourgogne (Burgandy), however, Domaine Michelot uses only grapes from Meursault, a region that yields the very best whites. This wine was very fresh and easy to drink. Open, with a tingling acidity in the front, a buttery warmth in the middle and a smooth melon finish. It was your everyday table white and nothing particularly special.
We went on to the Meursault Sous la Velle 2012. Nicolas showed me the “jam cork” that they are now using, which is made from breaking down the cork and pressing it into a very compact material, eliminating larger air holes. Although young, this wine has a fuller body and a pineapple taste. Nicolas presses his first two fingers against his thumb and flexing his wrist back and forth to search for the words, says it has “more fat on the tongue.”
Nicolas poured for us a glass of 2012 and 2010 Narvaux, a sect colder than the others with a higher elevation. We tried the 2012 first. With a lot of minerality on the nose, this wine starts fresh and then becomes spicy, warming the mouth in the middle, and ending with a salty finish. The 2010, however, was entirely different and much fruitier. It was very refreshing with flavors of prickly peach and mandarin oranges. I was transported to Baltimore on the brink of summer, sitting outside on Thames Street by the water.
The Meursault Charmes 1 er Cru 2012, which I expected to be good, had almost a vegetable quality to the nose and taste. Celery salt jumped to mind but that’s just because it’s one of those frequent and “appropriate” descriptors that weasel their way into filling the space while you are trying to place the smell. It wasn’t quite that; although, it was reminiscent of the celery aftertaste, the stringy part. It had a spicy finish that didn’t quite fit either. Nicolas tells me that this wine is very young and you are not to open it for 5 years.
“When too young, all taste same,” he explains as he dumps the rest into the pitch pot.
Nicolas poured us the Meursault Clos St. Felix 2011, whose grapes came from the Clos directly behind this Domaine, where I had looked out upon on my way in. He explained to me that “Clos” simply means a lot of vines that are enclosed with a stone wall. The sun warms the wall during the day, allowing the stones to hold that heat and warm the vines through the night. For this reason, they grow the quickest and are the first parcel picked during harvest. St. Felix has a compact limestone and clay soil with gravel overlay, “like a river,” Nicolas says. He points to the black, rock walls of the cave and says, “same.” The Clos St. Felix had a vanilla and perfume nose like spring flowers, and was much fruitier to the taste than the previous wines we had tried.
The Meursault Grands Charrons 2010, was one of the more interesting wines that I tried. Immediately, upon swirling and smelling the wine, you could pick up flint and salt on the nose. Nicolas called this “yod,” the first smell you get after just opening an oyster. He mimics shucking an oyster and then opening both hands, smells them as if he were inhaling the oyster. For the most part, this I how we communicated. He said it also was the smell of being served a plate of fresh seafood. It tasted entirely different than it smelled. There was high acidity on the front, but an unexpected honey in the mouth, followed by a citrus finish. It didn’t make any sense and I liked it for that reason.
Although we tried many of the different Meursault region wines, Nicolas focused on a few in particular to show how different they were – Charmes, Genevriere, & Perrieres. He described the differences to me in a way that made perfect sense to him but probably won’t to the rest of us. Charmes produced a more charming, fine, and fresh wine, while Genevriere lent to more of a generous one, and Perrieres was simply “straight.”
We compared the 2009, 2008, 2007, & 2003 Charmes. (A private vertical tasting by the winemaker and I was in heaven!) Nicolas told me that 2009 was an easy year with beautiful weather the entire season and an early September harvest. Nicolas said this wine smelled like “a forest after big rain, with mushroom.” I didn’t know about all that. To me, the aroma was reminiscent of dried fruit and the taste a more candied apricot or prune. But he was the expert and I liked his descriptions. They seemed to be just as off the wall as mine tended to be.
With a nose of Brioche, patisserie, and almond, the Charmes 2008, had a much fruitier taste, like ripe peaches. This wine was lovely - fully open and ready to drink. The Charmes 2007, however, strangely seemed younger than the 2008. With more acidity, it was harsher and not as well integrated. There was brief nuttiness on the nose and oak on the tongue, but it lent quickly to a citrus and salty finish.
Pouring the Charmes 2003, Nicolas told me that this was a very warm and dry year – too much so, that they had to harvest in August because the grapes grew too fast. Nicolas said, “you can smell the sun, the maturity.” It did have a burnt characteristic to the nose and mouth, but it smelled like salty ocean air to me, and tasted like salted caramels.
I liked to think of these wines as living things and give them personalities unique to themselves. I imagined them all to be siblings, born from the same family, growing up in the same town (Charmes or Perrieres), but in different time periods. They all had a similar foundation, but a different life. Growing up with the influence of their specific spot in time, as well as, experiencing different hands and circumstances along the way, they each yield an individual outcome. No two years and regions developing in the same way.
Genevrieres was the most forgiving of the families (sects) within Meursault. There was more soil in this region and thus produced a more generous wine. We tasted the Genevrieres 2009. The aroma of this wine was doing all sorts of things; I smelled herbs, flowers, and a slight licorice that was uncommon to me among white wines. It had something for everyone and the combination was not off putting as one might suspect. The mouth was filled with smooth flavors of dried fruits and nuts and had a long finish. One might call Genevrieres a skilled people pleaser; too reluctant to stand out overwhelmingly, she has a subtle way of relating to everyone she meets.
The straight shooter and fighter of the group was Perrieres. The vines in this sect grow out of volcanic rock above a quarry. Nicolas poured us the Meursault Perrieres 1 er Cru 2007. “It smells just like that place,” he says, “you can walk under Perrieres vines, drinking a glass of Perrieres.” I had never heard of anything like that before and was fascinated by the idea of a tunnel below the roots of the vines. This wine had very stubborn minerality on the nose and front, but if patient, finished softer and sweeter than expected.
Being the last bottle and 2 hours into this tasting, I thanked Nicolas and motioned that I would go now. He hesitated and drawing his finger, insisted that I wait for one last bottle, a “surprise.” He left the cave and returned several minutes later with a different looking, older, and unlabeled bottle bearing no indication of what it was. Blowing the dust off it, he looked up at me with a playful grin.
Discovering that the cork was all wet and no good upon opening it, he explained to me that, usually, every 15 years they take bottles like this one and transfer the liquid to newer bottles and re-cork them with current corks, in order to preserve them. This one, however, may have been skipped.
Pouring us each a full glass, he announced, "Le Limozin," and pushed it over to me. “Say vintage,” he said, watching me with amusement.
It was a deep golden hue, and I knew that it was going to be funky. I couldn’t help but think of a co-worker back at Boordy that would go crazy over this wine. At first, it smelled like dried fruits and toast, but it began to constantly change by the minute.
Dried fruits, toast, foie gras, bread, pâté on toast, mushrooms, salt. It was all of that. One of the most interesting wines I had ever tasted, between aromas and flavors, it was a complete meal. To me it was, quintessentially, sitting somewhere on the sea and eating some sort of duck pâté on buttered toast points, and couldn’t be anything but.
Nicolas beckoned for me to return with the year of this wine.
“2000?” I guessed, not wanting to seem presumptuous that he would open anything older for a stranger.
He shook his head, “Earlier,” he said, with his nose in the glass and his eyes on me.
“1990?” I said, skeptical and feeling that it was even older than that.
“1982,” he said as if it were no big deal.
“Wow. When you said special, I didn’t know I was that special!” I said with a grin.
He shrugged and with a smile said, “When it raining, I open ’82.”
I laughed. “Do you sell this?”
Nicolas shook his head, “No, no, we drink this.”
It turned out there were stacks and stacks in rooms that stretched out along the underground tunnels from years dating back over all 6 generations, that the family saved to simply drink together. This wine, Nicolas explained, would not be drunk with food. This wine was only drunk here, at Domaine Michelot, with the Michelots.
After finding out that I was headed to the south the next day, Nicolas gave me the contact information of a friend of his in Bandol, and thus the gypsy wishers were blown from winery to winery from then on; the present contact sending me on to the next and so forth. Hooked blissfully on a path designed and unfolded by fate, I smiled, knowing that this was exactly how it would go.