This was to be an exceptional Friday night. I had been invited to a wine dinner by George Debailian of Atherton Imports, featuring of Burgundy’s Lucien Le Moine. Mounir Saouma, the owner/winemaker this small, well-respected negociant , was in town, and would be there to talk about his wines. I must admit, I am predisposed to like Mounir’s wines. I was introduced to them upon the release of Mounir’s first vintage, at a very memorable dinner in 2001 George Morrone’s newly opened The Fifth Floor, in San Francisco. I fell head over heels for Le Moine’s silky, sexy 1999’s, with the highlight being the Clos de la Roche, which was simply phenomenal. I was buying Burgundy for The Wine Club back then, and ordered every bottle I could get my hands on, knowing I was onto something special. As it happened, a couple of months later, Rotem Brakir, Mounir’s wife wandered into the The Wine Club (in S.F.) and was surprised to see so much Lucien Le Moine. She had been working at Bonterra, learning about Bio-dynamics. She was so excited to see their wines on our sales floor, she brought Mounir in the very next day. Mounir was traveling the United States promoting the wines of Picard, (where he was head winemaker,) and, there was the added bonus of seeing his wife Rotem. We had a great conversation. He is so personable, very intelligent, and he has the gift of being able to talk easily, listen carefully, and engage others in conversation. Talking to him just flows.
Vineyard in the French wine region of Côte de Beaune the Cote d’Or (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
He invited me to a Picard dinner the following night, even though I sold no Picard wines, at the now closed Cypress Club. He would resign from Picard a week later. He said it had just was too large and unwieldy, causing him not to be able to make the quality of wine he wanted to make. He was also ready to make Lucien Le Moine a full time endeavour, not just a side project. I would not see Mounir again for 11 more years.
It is a hard thing to share, since there is little enough of Mounir’s wine to begin with. They are spectacular Burgundies.
Mounier is Lebanese. Living and making wine in Beaune, he seems to acutely feel he is an outsider there. I distinctly got the feeling that he isn’t always treated well in Beaune, and as such, keeps a very low profile. As Americans, this works to our advantage. He is not willing to sell his wine to the French. This allows a good portion of his tiny 2800 case production to come to the United States, than if the French had favor for his wines too. While the Lucien Le Moine has never appeared on French wine press’s radar, he has received many accolades by the major wine writers in the United States, including the Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate. Other than what wine he sends to his two importers in the United States, the balance of Mounier’s production goes to the English and the German markets. It is a hard thing to share, since there is little enough of Mounir’s wine to begin with. They are spectacular Burgundies.
Mounir produces seventy lots of wine, all purchased from growers during the second week of fermentation. This is a common practice, because many small growers who own significant portions of Burgundy’s greatest vineyards. Unlike vineyards in other parts of the world, most vineyards in Burgundy have more than one owner, each owning a particular parcel. This is partially due to French inheritance laws which continually break up parcels, and partially due to the incredible value and prestige ownership of even a few rows of a great vineyard brings to those that possess them. Each grower tends his own vines. At this point the grower may make and sell the wine himself (a domaine) or they will pick and crush the grapes, starting the fermentation, and sell them to negociants like Mounier, or they can pick the grapes and the negociant will start the fermentation at their facility.
Mounir and Rotem don’t have the resources to monitor, get picking crews to harvest, multiple vineyards – that are all coming ripe at more or less the same time. Nor would he have the manpower, equipment, or space to even get fermentation started on seventy lots of grapes. For a small negociant, this is really the only choice, and that is why the system in Burgundy has evolved the way it has. For all of the talk of vintners controlling what growers do, Mounier says that a good grower will make good choices, and you have to trust them to know their vineyards. I suppose having the right of refusal should ensure the growers will yield the best results possible.
He often buys from the same growers year after year, but the process, like at the Hospice de Beaune where Mounier is a regular buyer, is to taste the must. Mounir fervently believes that even fermenting Pinot Noir should taste good, and not be too tart, or too tannic, from the very beginning. He says he is often surprised that many winemakers of considerable reputation (who he tastes the must with) will choose very tannic vats to purchase, saying these will make powerful wines. He shakes his head, believing these vats that the respected winemakers choose may never come into balance, because they are too bitter or too hard edged. He said they might be good winemakers, but the don’t know how to taste young must. It should come as no surprise that Mounier’s wines are not tannic, and have beautiful balance, and that inner sweetness that Burgundy must have to be successful.
We started by tasting his whites with successive courses. The first white Burgundy we were poured was the 2006 Puligny-Montrachet from the premier cru vineyard, “Folatieres”. Many whites from the 2006 vintage were boytritised. Mounir had a slight amount, but the wine was long and clean with a beautiful baked apple fruit, with a broad complex palate that show the some softness of age appearing at the edges. The second wine was a taut, 2009 Chassagne Montrachet Cailleret. Green apple structure, vivid, lime-like acidity and elements of minerality, all which are hallmarks of the vineyard. Still this seemed surprisingly tight. It needed at least a year or two in the cellar. Interestingly, several thought this was the best wine, and I teased them that they were judging on the potential of the wine, rather than the wine in the glass as it drinks tonight. I think this is a common mistake in wine evaluation, being drawn to wines based on their perceived potential, rather than enjoying the wine that is drinking best now. The end result of this is the constant frustration of wishing a wine is something it is not. The mature wine is too mature, the young wine is great, but eternally not ready – until it is mature, and then it is lamented that it hadn’t aged as well as long as it should have.
An example of the walls that often enclose “clos” vineyards in the French wine region of Burgundy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Following the Caillerets, was an open knit 2007 Chassagne-Montrachet Grands Ruchottes, 1er cru. Some of my dinner companions felt this was too developed for 2007, but I have no quarrel with a wine that is drinking perfectly right now, regardless of it’s age. For me though, for drinking now, this was better than the Folatieres which needed more time and didn’t meld with the food as easily. For me this was the only wine of the night that actually showed any obvious oak at all, and a pleasant touch of reduction. These, of course, can be viewed as a criticisms, but I found the Grand Ruchottes to be quite delicious, and would happily drink it any evening over the next two or three years.
The reds begin with a lovely 2007 Chambolle-Musigny, Haut Doix. This was decisively lighter and moderately complex, with pure, warm, red cherry fruit, excellent aromatics, and long and diaphanous finish. A 2007 that precisely fits the vintage’s stereotype. The second red was the superb 2008 Corton-Renardes Grand Cru, featuring a dark cherry liqueur fruit with a pleasing duskiness, as well as floral qualities, and the smell of freshly whipped cream, and a stripe of acidity that gave character and structure to the wine. It has excellent power and length, and that inner sweetness that Mounier looks for in his must. The tannins are firm but not at all overwhelming, being quite round.
The following wine was from the highly touted, more densely fruited 2009 vintage, stellar Nuits-St-Georges “Les Cailles” 1er cru. This was significantly tighter than the 2008 Renardes, but packed with equally dark cherry fruit. This carried some earth, but also defined notes of licorice, lavender, and a creamy palate which saves it from being too tight and unyielding. This is certainly a vin-du-guard, or a wine to watch as the French say, meaning it will improve in the cellar.
One of the diners was very generous and brought two bottles of the 2002 Chambertin Clos de Beze. These were the wines of the night, having just entered their prime. Mounir explained that you can tell a wine is entering maturity because the details of the wine are not clear, they are a little foggy. They have melded together. He went on to say, ” If I were to ask you what strike you about the 2009 Les Cailles, you would not hesitate because the wine is vivid. You would say the wine has sharp acidity, and bright cherry fruit. But if I were to ask you what struck you about this 2002 Clos de Beze, you would hesitate. It this hesitation that is maturity. The features of the wine are not clear, so you hesitate.”
The Clos de Beze has a rich, soft, sumptuous palate, that was long and lingering, caressing. Where the Les Cailles was sharper, denser and more muscular, the Beze had relaxed and had become luxurious. Of course the Nuits, will never become a Chambertin Clos du Beze, it simply will not develop that way.
Mounir on Premox
During the course of tasting the whites, I asked about the ongoing problem of white Burgundies having premature oxidation, commonly referred to as premox. This is question I routinely trot-out to any producer of white Burgundy. Every time the answer is different. It seemed particularly appropriate since we were going to taste 2006 and 2007 whites.
He said he believed there were several culprits. The first being pneumatic presses. He said he thinks the common use of pneumatic presses causes wines to not have enough structure. In 2004 he made two barrels of wine from the same parcel, made the same way, barrel aged the same way, except how they were pressed. One was pressed in a pneumatic press, the other was pressed in a traditional mechanical press. He said the amount of dry extract in the wine pressed from the mechanical press was much higher than from the wine pressed with the pneumatic press, even pressed at the same bar (measure of pressure). He believes this dry extract protects the wine and gives it strength.
The second issue says Mounir, is it is much warmer now. He said that in the past, grapes picked in October would have a potential alcohol of 11% when picked. To this the wine would be chapitalized to 13% and the pH would be very low. Now, the grapes are picked at 14%, no chapitalization is needed, and the pH is quite high. To add acid is disastrous says Mounir. He believes adding acidity throws everything off, and causes a wine not to age. He said he has learned his lessons about adding acidity. He said white Burgundies are losing their ability to age because Chardonnay, is first picked late, with high potential alcohol, and low pH then they are pressed using pneumatic presses which don’t extract enough dry extract. Because of these things, the wines are weak. He says now there are four, maybe six wines out of a case that will succumb to prem-ox, but the percentage will increase with time, and the percentage will increase.
The answer to many of the Burgundian winemaker’s problems, (my words, not his) he believes, lies in five factors.
1) The first is to use a mechanical press – at least with Chardonnay.
2) leave the wine on the lees for 2 years, to not add SO2 until the wine has been on the lees for 18 months.
3) Wine must be made in a cold cellar.
4) Wine should rest on their lees, and not be racked for an extended period of time. His prescription 18 months to two years.
5) Barrels must be topped every week.
Yet, Mounier says the biggest mistake, is often the little mistakes that compound upon one another, like not topping up the barrels often enough. He said to me
“In difficult years, a lot of time you will see some of winemakers best wines. Why? Because they are diligent and they are doing everything they can to make the wine be as good as it can be. But in great years, winemakers feel the wines are strong, and don’t think their wines need to be topped as regularly, so instead of topping every other week, they top every three weeks, and sometimes once a month. It is these little mistakes that build upon one another, slowly robbing the wine of its freshness.”
Leaving the wine in barrel, on the lees for two years is a re-occurring theme with Mounir. He believes that the lees naturally protect the wine, and give it strength for the future. He does not add SO2 for the first 18 months, because he wants the wine to protect itself, and living and dead yeast does that. Adding SO2 kills living organisms in wine, which of course is why it is added. To add SO2 would inhibit the wines interaction with the lees. Which brings me to his new property in Chateauneuf-du-pape.
Mounir and Rotem have in the past few years purchased a small property in Chateauneuf. He makes a white and a red. The vineyard had a small parcel of old vine Grenache Blanc, which is a lesser varietal in Chateauneuf, because it oxidizes very easily. Most producers have long since grafted over their Grenache Blanc to Roussanne or Marsanne. He says in addition to the lack of popularity of Grenache Blanc, everybody in the region leaves the whites in barrel no more than 6 months. What would he do with these Grenache Blanc grapes?
“I decided to make the wine like we do in Burgundy.” He said. “I leave the white on the lees for two years, not adding SO2 for the first 18 months.” The wine turned copper in color at first, and he thought, “well, lets just see what happens,” and after around six months the lees pulled the color out of the wine, and it was clear, and creamy and rich. Most importantly, it was not oxidized. Instead, it was strong and powerful with a creamy honeyed mid-palate.