Jean-Nicolas Méo - Decanter interview

  • Wednesday 23 August 2006

Once a career as a Parisian banker beckoned. Now Jean-Nicolas Méo is as firmly rooted to his winemaking future as his family’s Vosne-Romanée vines. stephen brook meets him

Once a career as a Parisian banker beckoned. Now Jean-Nicolas Méo is as firmly rooted to his winemaking future as his family’s Vosne-Romanée vines. Stephen Brook meets him.

Jean-Nicolas Méo, with his clean-cut good looks and penchant for formal clothing, looks more like a business executive than a winemaker. And that is precisely what he thought destiny had in store for him until the late 1980s, when he was more or less parachuted into the family domaine in Vosne-Romanée.

The Méos have their roots in northern Burgundy and married into the Lamarche family of Vosne. However, the vineyards that form the basis of the Méo-Camuzet estate have descended through the maternal side of the family. Jean Méo inherited the property in 1959 but was immersed in his career as a technocrat and politician in Paris. In those days the estate, like many others in Burgundy, was run on a sharecropping basis, called métayage, by which another farmer cultivated the vines and was rewarded by a half-share in the profits.

‘In the 1980s,’ explains Jean-Nicolas, ‘there were changes. From 1983 my father decided to bottle some of his wines, and that meant spending more time at the property and selling its wines. More importantly, a law was introduced that gave sharecroppers the right to lease the property. If my father had agreed to this at our estate, he would have lost his status as an exploitant and thus become liable for the recently introduced tax called the impôt sur fortunes. This tax was levied on assets rather than income. In effect my father had two choices: to run the domaine himself or to sell it. He clearly had no wish to move to Burgundy full-time, and my sisters weren’t really interested in the property. So that left me.

‘But I had only spent time in Vosne during family holidays and knew nothing about winemaking. I was also studying business in Paris. So coming to Burgundy meant a major change for me too. But I knew our vineyards were of exceptional quality and I couldn’t bear the thought that the property would have to be sold. So I started oenology studies at Dijon and moved here permanently in 1989.’

Fortunately young Méo had a good support team. A former leaseholder, Christian Faurois, became the estate manager and remains there to this day. Another leaseholder, Henri Jayer, had just retired but was happy to offer a helping hand to the inexperienced but eager Jean-Nicolas. In 1988 the property consisted of 11ha (hectares), and Jean Méo had promised those who leased parts of the estate that they could retain those leases until they reached retirement age. In 2007 the last leaseholder will retire and return his vines to Jean-Nicolas, which will increase his holdings to 16.5ha.

Jayer was a legend in Burgundy, with his insistence on basic principles such as picking only ripe fruit. His wines sold for enormous prices, especially in the US. It clearly did no harm for Méo-Camuzet to be associated with Jayer, though it would be an overstatement to describe him as the estate’s winemaker.

Méo recalls: ‘At Dijon I learnt about theory and analysis, but not about winemaking practice. Jayer taught me that and also conveyed his philosophical approach: that wine should, above all, bring pleasure; that a good wine should have ample fruit, body and integrated tannins. That’s not to say I always followed Jayer’s advice, but I did absorb his general approach.’

It took five years for Jean-Nicolas to modernise the property. ‘The domaine had never been equipped for full-scale wine production. We had no tractors, no facilities for bottling and storage. All members of my family are shareholders here. They’re prepared to invest in the family business but they also expect a return. So there were always financial constraints to inhibit rapid expansion and new facilities.’ Lacking the cash to buy more vineyards, Méo created a small négociant business, making wines from less prestigious regions such as Marsannay that he felt were undervalued. He was also able to plant 3ha which the family owned in the Hautes Côtes de Nuits, and recently reached an agreement with Tim Marshall, who owns 2ha in Nuits St-Georges and wants to retire, to run the vineyards for him and buy the fruit for his négociant business.

What has been remarkable has been the speed with which Méo has begun producing world-class wines. True, he was aided by owning some stunning parcels in Richebourg and 3ha in Clos Vougeot, and the Jayer association helped too, but Méo steered the domaine stylistically.

‘I like it when my wines have a velvety texture, which we get in Clos Vougeot, perhaps because of the vines’ location. There is never any rusticity. As for my ideal style, I look for fruit and elegance rather than stalkiness and tannin. I also want there to be no contradiction between wines that taste good when they are young and when they are old – that is a lesson Jayer taught me. He believed a wine should taste good throughout its life, but some people have misinterpreted that to mean that a wine should give its all right from the start.

‘I don’t like wines that are over-concentrated, as you lose elegance. I want balance and finesse, which are essential components of a great wine.’

Méo still looks more like a banker than the stubble-chinned, pot-bellied stereotype of a Côte de Nuits vigneron, but he says he never had any difficulty fitting in. ‘I had no trouble being accepted when I moved here, despite my youth. I think that’s because there has been a change of generation and my contemporaries aren’t jealous of newcomers. Of course Burgundians are fairly reticent. It’s not like Provence here.’

Méo drove me up to the vineyards to see Cros Parantoux. This rather obscure premier cru in Vosne is regarded with veneration by Burgundy aficionados, and its wine fetches higher prices than many a grand cru. Its scarcity also makes it very sought after. The 1ha site lies just above Richebourg, but it faces northeast on an uneven slope that is hard to work, tractors needing to move sideways to negotiate its contours. A century ago the site was abandoned and became a swede patch.

Today, only Méo-Camuzet and Emmanuel Rouget produce any wine from the cru. Most of the Méo-Camuzet holdings in Vosne form a single parcel, yet the wines, in true Burgundian fashion, are very different. ‘Vosne Brulées is always ripe and rounded, but Cros Parantoux is more incisive, more aggressive when young,’ Méo says. ‘Our Richebourg doesn’t stand out as especially powerful, but what singles it out for me is its length of flavour.’ The Méo wines usually show well when young, yet can lack expression and character. They need a few years in bottle for the individuality of each cru to emerge. Like their proprietor, they are quite shy yet don’t lack personality.

The gradual expansion of the domaine has given Jean-Nicolas a greater palette to work with, and softened the image of the estate as elitist and costly. (The wines are expensive, but négociant wines can offer excellent value.) Jayer has been in almost reclusive retirement for some years now, so Méo has to earn his current reputation unaided. This he does with a range of persuasive wines at all levels.

In public he can still seem stiff and reserved, but walking through the vineyards or gathered around the family lunch table he is happy to hold forth. He remains innately modest, though he does not disguise his discreet pride in the property and its superlative wines.

Steven Brook is a contributing editorto Decanter

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