‘We try to do nothing, or at least as little as possible,’ says Stéphane Follin-Arbelet, the CEO of the rejuvenated Château de Meursault. ‘When I was at Bouchard [Père et fils, the négociant house] it was all about the process, all about trying to achieve a style. Here it is all about permitting the vines to speak for themselves.’
Allowing self-expression is sometimes easier said than done, but maybe less so when you own 67 hectares of prime vineyards over 33 appellations in the Côte de Beaune, including bijou Grand Cru sites in Corton and, since 2022, in Corton Charlemagne.
Such is the fortunate position of Château de Meursault, a fantastic building, grand and imposing in, dare one say it, the Bordelais mould. Its cellars, first dug by Cistercian monks in the 12th Century, now host 600 people for the Paulée de Meursault at the end of the Trois Glorieuses (three glorious days) of the Hospices de Beaune sale.
It is fair to say that when Stéphane arrived in 2012, the wines were nowhere near as good as they should have been with such a pedigree. Fortunately, the new owner, businessman Olivier Halley, who had made his money in the Carrefour supermarket group, is one of France’s most avid collectors of fine wine. And he is determined that Château de Meursault should reassume its rightful position near the top of the Côte de Beaune hierarchy. He also owns the sister Domaine of the Château de Marsannay, which has similar aspirations in the Côte de Nuits.
What has changed during Stéphane’s tenure? ‘Everything,’ he jokes. Stéphane has tried to foster an environment of sustainability, for example planting 2,000 trees including fig, walnut and Khazakstan apples, in the Château gardens to nurture a very special atmosphere. He describes it as a ‘riparian forest’ and is very proud to be at the helm of the largest organic producer in Meursault.
Full organic accreditation was gained in 2022 and the vineyards have been transformed, not only aesthetically with cover crops and neat trellising but also in terms of yields (now averaging 35 hl/ha) and many improvements that one does not see. The organic matter in the vineyards is now twenty times greater than the Burgundian average, Stéphane says, and the soil’s water retention has increased accordingly. The vines are thus healthier, with a symbiosis of roots, fungi and bacteria supporting the wellbeing of the grapes.
This is important given the changing climate. In 2022, the picking started on 24 August and was finished 10 days later; in 2020, it was all over by the end of August. One has to counter such precocity and the implied dangers of global warming with a carefully orchestrated programme of canopy management. Stéphane advises that the quality is getting better and better, warming climate notwithstanding, and is optimistic that 2022 will turn out the be every bit as good as the outstanding 2019. Praise indeed, but the full organic accreditation underwrites such confidence. All of the wines are made from fruit harvested at the domain too.
Betwixt the murmurs of the forest there are, of course, some very impressive vineyard addresses. The range runs the gamut from generic Bourgogne to Grand Cru; half and half red and white, with key holdings in Beaune and Meursault. I ask Stéphane which wines are his favourites; he does not hesitate to reply that they are Meursault Les Charmes Dessus and Pommard Clos des Epenots. Both are top Premier Crus…both excellent. He would have been equally justified in selecting the 2.6 hectares of Volnay Clos des Chênes or their separate bottlings of Beaune Grèves and Cent Vignes.
And in the winery? Despite the introduction of modern technology such as an optical sorting machine, the philosophy is firmly, ‘less is more’. Gravity has replaced pumping and a natural cold soak exploits aromatic potential. The wood ageing is shorter than it was previously (12 – 18 months and normally less than 30 per cent of it in new barrels), natural yeasts are used more and the lees work for the whites (such as stirring) is employed sparingly. ‘I am looking for wines where the sensation in the mouth is key’, says Stéphane, ‘and this is something which cannot be engineered’. With sensible and sparing use of oak, the reds now have a velvety sensation while there is a mineral purity to the whites.
Exciting times then, chez Château de Meursault. There will be a new tasting room and enhanced corporate opportunities to show off the impressive Château itself. This wonderful backdrop will stay just that, however; the wines must and will always come first. Stéphane is adamant about this. The highly promising pas de deux between organic viticulture and non-intervention winemaking is being performed with great dexterity. The future looks bright indeed for this historic Domaine.
The wines of Château de Meursault are distributed in the UK by Justerini & Brooks.