With vineyard holdings to die for in Musigny and Bonnes-Mares, those in charge at Comte Georges de Vogüé do not wear their responsibility lightly. Stephen Brook meets a team of perfectionists, who refuse to make wine by numbers...
Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé at a glance
Founded 1450, by Jean Moisson
Owners Comtesse Claire de Causans and Marie de Ladoucette
Estate 12.5ha, of which 7.2ha are in Musigny, 2.7ha in Bonnes-Mares, 0.56ha in Chambolle Amoureuses, 0.27ha in other Chambolle premiers crus, and 1.8ha in Chambolle Village
Terroir Thin topsoils over limestone
Average vine age 41 years in Musigny Vieilles Vignes
Production 40,000- 45,000 bottles
Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé profile
Every estate in Burgundy yearns to have grands crus parcels in its portfolio. Some are quite richly endowed: Rousseau, Damoy, Trapet and Rossignol- Trapet (all in Gevrey-Chambertin); Clos de Tart and Clos des Lambrays (Morey-St-Denis); as well as Bonneau du Martray and Louis Latour (both in Corton). Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is unique in that it possesses nothing but grands crus.
Almost as spectacular is the parcel of Musigny owned by Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé – 7.2 hectares (ha), amounting to 70% of the entire grand cru. Given that many Burgundy aficionados consider Musigny to be the finest vineyard of them all, that’s a holding to die for. In addition, the estate is the largest owner within another grand cru, Bonnes-Mares.
Unlike many estates in Burgundy, de Vogüé has ancient architectural and viticultural origins, tracing its beginnings to the 15th century with ownership passing through 20 generations to the present proprietors. In 1925 it was inherited by Comte Georges de Vogüé, who ran the domaine for 52 years, and is now owned by his granddaughters, Claire de Causans and Marie de Ladoucette.
The estate went through a bad patch from the 1960s until the mid-1980s. The count was absent much of the time and entrusted the property to an estate manager, who allowed quality to slide. Then, in 1986, François Millet was hired as technical director, and 10 years later the aptly named Eric Bourgogne was taken on as vineyard manager – both of them are still in place.
The turnaround was swift, and the 1990 Musigny was one of the great vines of that vintage, distilling, as do all great vintages from this site, exquisite perfume, silky textures, intensity of flavour, discreet but pronounced tannins and incredible persistence. Millet has always adopted a perfectionist’s approach, thus he considers the 1.8ha of vines under 25 years old to be unworthy of inclusion in the Musigny bottling; their production is bottled as Chambolle Premier Cru.
‘Why 25 years?’ says Millet, anticipating the question. ‘Because that’s how long it takes for the vines to express the greatness of the terroir. Young vines remain young vines, however fine the grapes may be. They’re like a gifted teenager, brilliant, but lacking in experience. It’s a question of complexity. The Chambolle Premier Cru is like Musigny in short trousers.’
About half the Musigny vines are cordon-trained, which means that yields are low, bunches are small and production is more regular than in parcels where Guyot-training is the norm. Bourgogne finds he rarely needs to green-harvest the cordon-trained vines, but that procedure is sometimes necessary on the rest, so yields range from 25 to 30hl/ha. The farming is not fully organic, but it certainly comes close. No fertilisers are used and the vineyards are ploughed, but Bourgogne admits that when absolutely necessary he will use sprays to combat diseases such as mildew. ‘We do the minimum, as we need to be humble in the face of nature and terroir. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to work hard to maximise quality,’ he says. One peculiarity of de Vogüé’s holdings in Musigny is that 0.6ha, in two sectors, are planted with Chardonnay.
These parcels, in the southern part of Musigny, are grown on eroded limestone. However, the last vintage of Musigny Blanc was in 1993 because half the vines were replanted in 1986, and the remainder in 1997. Millet decided that the vines were too young to produce Musigny, a view he maintains, and the wines were released instead as a rather pricey Bourgogne Blanc. ‘I’m not sure when we’ll resume production – it depends very much on how the wines taste. I think we need to wait, as with the Pinot, for 25 years. I see no reason to treat the varieties differently,’ he says. When production of Musigny Blanc starts again, possibly in 2017, it’s unlikely that more than 2,500 bottles will be released.
The parcel of Bonnes-Mares is on reddish soils in the southeast sector of the grand cru. The oldest vines date back to 1945, while the oldest surviving vines in Musigny are from 1954. ‘The subsoil varies in depth,’ explains Bourgogne, ‘and certain parcels have very little indeed. The soil is quite stoney and well drained, if less so than Musigny.’
First lady of Chambolle
For Millet, Musigny has higher acidity and more tannin than Bonnes-Mares. ‘Bonnes-Mares is wilder, with ample richness, but also with a prominent tannic structure,’ he says. ‘For me, it’s the antithesis of Musigny, which is more classic. Remember that Bonnes-Mares is a vineyard that continues into Morey-St-Denis on the same band as Clos de Tart and Chambertin. It’s a brother of Chambertin. It’s very direct and comes straight at you. It’s more electric than Amoureuses, like a thunderstorm that’s about to break.’
Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé also owns 0.56ha of Chambolle- Musigny’s Amoureuses vineyard, a premier cru situated just below Musigny and regarded by many as of grand cru quality. For 10 years Bourgogne has used horses to plough Amoureuses to protect the vines, which were planted in 1964 and 1974. Their parcels are on stoney topsoils over oolitic limestone. Millet characterises the wine: ‘It’s the first lady of Chambolle, but not frivolous.’ Or, to extend his metaphor, it’s like Musigny’s little sister, always refined, yet never lacking backbone.
Millet is fond of waxing poetical – I once heard him refer to a wine’s ‘pureté d’innocence’ – but obtaining information from him on how the wines are made is like pulling teeth. I’ve been questioning him about this for more than 20 years, and he delights in a certain vagueness. The grapes are usually destemmed, and Millet prefers to ferment with natural yeasts, though he isn’t dogmatic about it.
He likes a slow start to the fermentation but doesn’t use a drastic cold soak to reduce temperatures, as he is loath at this stage to add too much sulphur dioxide. This reticence is essentially a reflection of Millet’s unwillingness to make wine by formula. ‘We have to adapt the winemaking to the terroir and the vintage conditions,’ he says.
‘With Bonnes-Mares I need a conversation, as it’s a wine with structure and energy. Musigny is more consistent than the other wines. It has cassis aromas, plenty of spice, a mineral quality. It’s a patriarch.’ Fermentation takes place in wooden vats, with regular punching down of the cap, and he’s happy for temperatures to rise to 33˚C.
No more than one-third new oak is used for the grands crus. ‘Too much new oak can obscure the differences between the wines, but I respect the choice of others. There’s nothing systematic here, and we need to show respect for these extraordinary crus.’
These are magnificent and long-lived wines, and those unable to afford the Musigny Vieilles Vignes need not shirk from contemplating a purchase of Bonnes-Mares or Amoureuses instead. Yet despite the estate’s consistent quality since 1990, its wines surely remain less well known than they deserve. They seem to find their way into the hands of a faithful clientele, and perhaps that is why some importers don’t find it necessary to show the wines to the press, focusing instead on well-heeled private customers.
That’s perfectly defensible, but it does prevent the wines from being talked about. Recent vintages seem to be as brilliant as the 1990s lot. ‘I find great clarity in the 2010s,’ Millet says. ‘The 2011s are more ample and generous.’
There are unlikely to be dramatic changes at this ancient estate in the immediate future. Commercial director Jean-Luc Pépin admits they would expand, if the right vineyards were offered, but I suspect they would need to be of exceptional quality. De Vogüé already owns parcels of Chambolle premiers crus Baudes and Fuées, but they are blended with the wines from Chambolle Village. With most of its vines in two grands crus and Chambolle’s top premier cru, there is no clear need for the estate to diversify.
Best of the bunch
Price: POA Justerini & Brooks
Exquisitely perfumed raspberry nose, rich, heady and oaky. Very ripe and intense; high acidity, exquisite and poised, tangy and long.
Vieilles Vignes, Musigny 2010
Price: £624–£900 Falcon Vintners, Fine & Rare, Hedonism, In Vino Veritas, Roberson, Seckford Wines
Splendid nose of sour cherries and raspberries, with intensity and oak. Dense, closed and chewy, highly concentrated and layered, with fine-grained tannins and good underlying acidity. Has grip and energy but without the ruggedness of Bonnes- Mares. Excellent length.
Price: £330–£424.70 Farr Vintners, Fine & Rare, Hedonism, Roberson
Explosive nose, almost earthy; fine attack, with exemplary concentration, splendid fruit and energy. Rugged, virile and muscular; less subtle but more forceful than Amoureuses. This grips the palate on the long finish.
Les Amoureuses, Chambolle-Musigny 2010
Price: £555–£618 Falcon Vintners, In Vino Veritas
Rich, dense nose with cherry and raspberry fruit – very compact and reticent. Fresh attack, with firm, ripe tannins balanced by sweetness of fruit, with a hint of bon bons but no jamminess. Fine acidity gives purity, precision and persistence.
Les Amoureuses, Chambolle-Musigny 1999
Price: POA Justerini & Brooks
Lovely ripe, spicy nose of cherry and raspberry fruit. The lively acidity gives real zest and finesse.