Burgundy Focus 3: Mugnier’s Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1er Cru 2007-1980 


British music historian Ian MacDonald perspicaciously remarked that The Beatles’ “middle period of peak creativity” begins with Harrison’s opening G eleventh suspended fourth chord that announces A Hard Day’s Night and ends with the thundering E chord simultaneously struck upon three grand pianos that culminate A Day In the Life. Between those inflection points, it is educational to listen to the Fabs’ albums in reverse order, that is to say, Sgt Pepper back to their debut, Please Please Me, a mind-bogglingly prolific period between June 1967 back to March 1963. It is like listening to Lennon and McCartney* unlearning their craftsmanship, peeling away their preternatural brilliance layer-by-layer from dazzling psychedelia and studio trickery back to the derivative rock ‘n roll precision-tooled during their Hamburg days.

*George Harrison found his muse after this period.

I thought of this during an educational tasting of Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier’s Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses painstakingly organized upstairs at Hide restaurant in London. Approaching the wines in reverse chronological order was essentially scraping away year-by-year of a winemaker’s expertise. It was like pressing rewind on a career. Highlights predictably congregated within the beginning of the tasting with respect to Mugnier’s younger vintages, whereas older vintages were much less consistent.

Frédéric Mugnier photographed in March 2022 outside his home in Chambolle-Musigny.

The Mugnier family have resided in the region since 1863, though they contracted the holdings out to Faiveley in 1950 and then to Bruno Clair from 1977. Born in 1955 to a mother that was a champion curler from Alsace, Frédéric Mugnier pursued a career as an engineer. It was not until 1984 that he heeded the vines’ calling and returned to the family estate in Chambolle-Musigny. After what Clive Coates called a six-month “crash course” at the Lycée Viticole, Mugnier took over the holdings after the lease to Bernard Clair expired in 1985. A sign of the times is that the family could not make a living from the four-hectare holdings. Therefore, he gained a commercial pilot’s license and flew for the TAP airline for half the week, obliging him to hire workers to oversee the day-to-day running. Part of the crop continued to be sold off to merchants until 1988.

Mugnier’s crown jewel is his holding in Musigny. Personally, I have always rated his Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses better than his other Grand Cru in Bonnes-Mares. His 0.53 hectares lie adjacent to Musigny, occupying two parcels on either side of the road. Mugnier has eschewed herbicides since the 1991 vintage and pesticides since 1997 with minimal treatments throughout the growing season. Though biodynamics is in vogue, Steiner’s techniques are not for Mugnier, which one can understand given his more scientific/engineering background. (Mugnier penned what I thought was a very well balanced article on the subject last year that raised the hackles of some proponents.) He has long undertaken a severe selection in the vineyard, using a vibrating sorting table since 2002, and removes all the stems. He usually does a short, three-day pre-fermentation maceration, allowing the temperature to rise gradually for just under three weeks. Germane to the wines included in this article, it should be noted that in the past, Mugnier conducted the alcoholic fermentation at slightly higher temperatures, partial fermentation up to 40° Celsius in 1989 with plenty of pigeage. He has always been prudent with new oak, around one-quarter of his Les Amoureuses seeing fresh barrels each year.

The youngest vintage in the line-up during this tasting was the 2007 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses. Like many wines this vintage, it is an absolute delight, not powerful but transparent and with ethereal beauty. Some on the night were convinced that there was a touch of Brettanomyces, but I simply wrote: “As pretty as they come”, even if it did fade a little in the glass. It shades the 2006, though the 2002 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses is utterly sublime, one of the highlights of the tasting with an almost confit-like finish that leaves your senses tingling with glee. Unlike the 2007, this gained vigor with aeration. The 2000 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses is yet another from this vintage that disproves the theory that the millennial is a Bordeaux vintage. The Burgundy wines, especially from the Côte de Nuits, are really blossoming in their twenties. This is one of the only occasions where I might put the 2000 on level-pegging with the 1999 that was a touch chewy and bold, yet I felt could have benefitted from more complexity. I found it a bit “aloof”. Mugnier produced a commendable 1997 while the 1996 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses definitely deserves a round of applause, one of the best wines from this up and down vintage that I have encountered, replete with darker fruit and a poised and harmonious finish reminiscent of a Rousseau. Divine. There were some questions of the 1995 that was curiously lifeless, though the 1993 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses made amends, gradually building with fine-boned, lace-like tannins and a sapid finish.

So far, so good. It was in the second half, where the spotlight fell upon older vintages, that questions were raised. The 1992, 1990 and 1989 just felt one-dimensional compared to the aforementioned vintages, while the 1991, for which I had higher hopes, was corked. The 1988 and 1986 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses felt a little dried out and certainly rustic. Mugnier was still familiarising himself with the vineyard and getting the dirt under his fingernails. But I speculate whether running another career as a pilot was detrimental to the quality of the wines?

The last two vintages pre-date Mugnier’s arrival. The 1981 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses served as a pleasant surprise even if it felt quite chaptalized. Well, who didn’t in that rainy year? The real surprise was the 1980 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses. I have had this once before, and it was no great shakes (tasting note in the database). But this bottle was cut from a totally different cloth, a marvelous wine with a fragrant bouquet, fully mature and with a lovely tartness and vibrancy. It was appropriate that we ended our journey here on a high note.

It was a strange tasting when one considers that these wines cost a pretty penny on the secondary market, to the disdain of the winemaker who now feels compelled to release his top cuvée late to prevent infanticide. The tasting proves how Mugnier took a few years to find his mojo, unsurprising since winemaking is not a métier accomplished overnight, with the notable exception of Jean-Claude Berrouet over in Pomerol. Winemaking is a scientific form of art learned by trial and error, accumulating experience in dealing with variegated growing seasons and the minutiae of your vines. The next season is always unknown and will invariably test you, unleashing a novel set of circumstances.

Lennon and McCartney took several years to hone their craft from their fateful meeting on 6 July 1957 at St. Peter’s Church fete to composing A Day In A Life or Eleanor Rigby. It’s a journey that you take, a journey that takes time and determination to tap into the talent with which you are born.

See the Wines from Youngest to Oldest

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