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Drink Your Idols: Roumier’s Musigny 1976-2008
BY NEAL MARTIN | AUGUST 01, 2019
They say you should never meet your idols because they never live up to your expectations in the flesh. In my lifetime, apart from TV celebrity Jim Bowen, the only hero that I have met is Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, better known as Brian Eno.
To enlighten those not au fait with his astounding curriculum vitae, Eno played the twiddly knobs as one of the glam rock lotharios of Roxy Music, then invented ambient music with a series of groundbreaking solo albums in the Seventies. And in his spare time he produced David Bowie’s epochal Berlin trilogy (Low, “Heroes” and Lodger), Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, U2’s The Joshua Tree and Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, among many others. In 2014, I blagged my way into an interview-cum-wine tasting at his music studio in Notting Hill for Noble Rot magazine. We shook hands. He was just as I imagined: oozing intellect and a sense of coolness only obtainable if you hung out with Bowie for much of your life. I gave him a copy of my Pomerol book since I had decided to present one to any musician name-checked in its pages, then tried to reconcile the surreal image of the man who co-wrote “Heroes” absorbed in my chapter on Clinet. I found him polite and congenial, perceptive to the nuances of wine and, by the end, tipsy. After he departed, I helped wash the wine glasses. My fellow washer-upper seemed just as starstruck, which is odd considering he is the drummer from Coldplay and had just performed at the Super Bowl with Beyoncé.
Maybe wine is the same. We spend years dreaming of the day we finally taste our pinup bottle, long presumed unobtainable and/or unaffordable. But as Gabrielle once sang, dreams can come true. And hopes can be skewed by wallet-busting price tags and, yes, inflated scores; instead of invoking a transcendental experience, our idol turns out to be mortal fermented grape juice. More often than not, unrealistic expectations lead to disappointment that festers into resentment, as you reflect upon all that wasted time dreaming about some beatified 100-point superlative-magnet that turned out to be little more than barely drinkable hyperbole.
Arguably, the Côte d’Or is home to more idols than any other wine region, even more than Bordeaux. At the top of the deification league, seated in their gilded thrones, are Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, Coche-Dury’s Corton-Charlemagne and Rousseau’s Chambertin, plus anything touched by the hand of Henri Jayer. To this select list we should add Domaine Georges Roumier’s elusive Musigny, the J.D. Salinger of Burgundy: it exists, but hardly anyone has drunk it. If you did drink it, would it match your expectations?
Cost aside, let me explain what I term “the Burgundy paradox.” The more exalted the vineyard, the smaller in size it is likely to be. Some Grand Crus struggle to fill a pièce or barrel. Their limited production and consequent prices conjure a sense of superiority over cuvées more abundant and therefore obtainable. But the reality is quite different. If a winemaker is only able to eke out a single barrel from his holding, then their options are severely limited. All your hopes rest on one barrel, which might be scuppered by an inclement growing season, human misjudgment or simply the unpredictable nature of winemaking. If it goes wrong, then too bad; lump it or leave it. That is precisely what happened with Roumier’s 2002 Musigny, where he judged the barrel to be excessively toasted and, midway through élevage, racked it into two used barrels to reduce the influence of oak. A producer blessed with multiple barrels is at liberty to declassify or sell off any that are not up to scratch – a recourse denied to those with just one shot at nailing their wine.
Scarcity also means that objective assessments can be difficult, especially in terms of a vertical, the litmus test for any self-respecting cuvée insofar as you can examine its performances over varying seasons within the context of a definable parcel of vines. Bottles from a single barrel are squirreled away, relegated to trinkets gathering dust or intended for premature and conspicuous consumption. The more expensive and elusive the cuvée, the tighter the hermetic seal that protects it from objective analysis.
But no wine, however expensive, should exist beyond examination or criticism. As Burgundy prices soar beyond the realm of rationality, the task of not only accessing such bottles but appraising them in context becomes ever more challenging (something I broached in my recent DRC and Leroy article). If I wanted to taste mature vintages of Christophe Roumier’s Musigny, I could a) buy bottles and await the irate phone call from accounts, or b) rely on the altruism of collector friends who can not only afford such wines, but uphold the noble tradition of sharing them over a worthy dinner. That is how this vertical became possible, and I am grateful to these Burgundy-obsessed bon viveurs for organizing this memorable evening and fulfilling the raison d’être of wine: to be drunk, to be shared.
With a super-typhoon but 48 hours away, we convened in the private room at Épure restaurant, overlooking Kowloon Bay, with 12 bottles of Musigny Grand Cru standing in an orderly line on the side counter. To my knowledge, such a tasting has only been conducted once before, unsurprisingly also in this part of the world. My own experience is limited to tasting Roumier’s Musigny from barrel and just four or five sporadic encounters in bottle (which was four or five more than I ever expected). So this constituted a journey of discovery for me as much as for others and provided a neat juxtaposition to the Bonnes-Mares vertical. The pertinent question: Is Christophe Roumier’s Musigny better than his Bonnes-Mares? One might reflexively say “yes” because the Musigny is far more expensive. But is that a reflection of intrinsic quality or simply the result of supply and demand?
Here is a bit of background about Roumier’s holding. The domaine owns just 0.10 hectares of vines, or 996 square meters, to be exact. Purchased in 1978, it is the same parcel in the upper northern corner of the “Les Musigny” lieu-dit that had been under the Roumiers’ métayage since the 1920s, between the parcel now belonging to Faiveley, acquired from Dufouleur in January 2016, and Maison Louis Jadot. Steen Öhman, writing on his excellent Winehog website, suggests that the plot probably belonged to the Vienot family in the 19th century, and I concur with him that the Musigny was most likely sold to négociants until after World War II, despite dubious notes from the 1930s loitering on the Internet. Christophe Roumier is always sanguine about his Musigny, perplexed and embarrassed by its secondary prices – which are, incidentally, multiples of ex-domaine tariffs, in case you were thinking that he drives around in a Rolls-Royce and bathes in Cristal. It amounts to no more than one pièce and, unless poor flowering or frost intervenes, a supplementary feuillette (300 to 400 bottles). There is another factor to consider. Like most winemakers, Roumier will add stems to supplement this tiny volume, sometimes 50% and other times 100% whole bunch. This adds another variable into the mix. You can never be certain how well those lignified stems will assimilate into the wine. I often find it difficult to tell when in barrel. It is only in bottle that you get a good idea.
The idea of this vertical was to assess wines with a degree of maturity. Vintages spanned from 2008 back to 1976, 10 years in bottle being a good way to kick off. The first pair illustrated some of the points already made in the introduction to this article. The 2008 Musigny Grand Cru came across decidedly leafy and stemmy, while the 2007 Musigny Grand Cru delivered pure and unexpectedly plush red fruit coupled with an irresistible, surprisingly opulent palate. The 2007 and 2008 could not be more different – chalk and cheese from the same patch of vines. Stephen Tanzer’s observation of the 2008 just after bottling suggested that the stems were not fully enmeshed; a decade later, based on this bottle, one can conjecture that they never will be. That said, I still enjoyed what might be described as Christophe Roumier’s homage to Jacques Seysses. Personally, I was smitten by the 2007, which was perhaps Roumier’s most pleasurable Musigny, if not the most intellectual. As we contemplated the 2007, somebody remarked that it reminded him of the 2007 La Tâche. In any other setting, that would have been the end of the matter, but this being the Mecca of fine wine consumption, our host ran up to his office to fetch a bottle from his wine cabinet so that we could compare (and therefore there was little time for decanting). I have included the tasting note here; suffice it to say that the La Tâche came across as an unusually delicate wine, yet it shared with the Musigny a sense of joyousness and joie de vivre.
The 1989, 1996 and 2001 Musigny Grand Crus were all a little disjointed and lacked the flair and breeding of superior vintages; in a couple of cases they are easily surpassed by their Bonnes-Mares counterparts. The 1976 Musigny Grand Cru, which predates Christophe Roumier’s arrival in 1983, derives from the same parcel when it was under métayage. It is distinctly rustic and probably past its best. The 1990 Musigny Grand Cru reflects the vagaries of that warm vintage more than the terroir, whereas the 1990 Bonnes-Mares encountered at the vertical in January 2018 took the warmth of that season in stride. It is certainly a gorgeous wine, but not the most profound. I expected the 1999 Musigny Grand Cru to steal the show; however, it seemed to be rather saturnine, more shade than light. It has the potential to become a great Musigny, but now is an inopportune moment to broach it. I much prefer the 1998 Musigny, a triumph in a modest growing season with much more fruit and terroir expression, a wine that is singing at 20 years of age.
By now, you might assume that I dislike Musigny or have some other agenda. Neither is true. I am just describing these bottles as I found them. So let us examine and praise some of the standouts of the vertical. Without question, the highlight was the profound 1995 Musigny Grand Cru. Christophe Roumier did not put a foot wrong in this year, and it’s no surprise to find it included in nearly every attendee’s top three wines, including my own. It has a breathtaking sense of completeness, and it seriously flirts with perfection. The 1985 Musigny Grand Cru, which I have tasted once before, displayed bewitching tension and transparency. It is weightless but intense, its length almost otherworldly, and though not quite as good as the previous bottle, it is utterly, utterly sublime.
What a privilege to have tasted all these vintages of Musigny. I suspect that readers anticipated a raft of high or perfect scores given grower, label and attendant prices. But scores do not tell the whole story; they never do. This vertical confirmed Roumier’s assertion that his Musigny reflects the growing season, the whims of Mother Nature, for good and for bad. Roumier can nudge it this way or that during élevage, but otherwise, it is what it is. So while not every Musigny flirts with perfection like the 1985, 1995 and recent vintages like the 2015, it offers something different: a moral obligation to reflect the growing season, to serve as a barometer of unerring accuracy. It has no choice given its size of just “a barrel and a bit.” If this tasting proved anything, it is that Roumier’s Musigny is mortal. It can achieve spectacular highs, but it has its own off-days (or off-years). Don’t we all?
So which is better: Roumier’s Bonnes-Mares or his Musigny? That is the $64,000 question (literally, if you splash out on the actual wines). Contentiously, I aver that it is his Bonnes-Mares. Musigny might have been baptized with the more revered name. It might be the more esteemed climat. Yet its diminutive size means that great Musigny is less frequent than great Bonnes-Mares, whose consistency partly derives from the prosaic fact that Roumier has more barrels to play with. That is a moot point, since the combination of grower and vineyard ensures that every vintage attracts feverish demand for those 400 bottles, minus whatever Roumier keeps for his private reserve. In a strange way I feel sorry for this Musigny. Its idolization is inescapable and exaggerated by its stratospheric price tag, but it dreams of being cracked open, shared and discussed, savored and appreciated, perhaps inducing intoxication like so many other wines with less to live up to. Well, for one night at least, on Kowloon Bay on a steamy Friday night, that is exactly what happened.
You know what they say. Never meet your idols.
Well, sometimes maybe you should.
And if you don’t believe my story about Brian Eno...
Brian Eno at his music studio in Notting Hill
(My sincere thanks to the “Sexy Muscles” tasting group, especially the indefatigable Mr. V, “The Chairman” and Mr. C)
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