So I have a rather selfish reason to be writing this piece today- I will be in the region I am writing about in a few days! I fly out to Burgundy tomorrow night, and will be spending 10 days checking out how the 2017 vintage is shaping up as well as seeing how some of the soon-to-be-released vintages are looking now. Tough life I know! If you’re on Instagram, you can follow my journeys through our handle wine_ark and I’ll be using the hashtag #winearkontour for all my posts. But for now I’ll have to be patient and get back to my studies- on to the article!
Where northern neighbour Gevrey-Chambertin is all about power and structure, and southern neighbour Vosne Romanee is about complexity and finesse, the wines of Chambolle-Musigny are more subtle- often this region is recognised as the most ‘feminine’ of the appellations of the Cote de Nuits, in the very north of Burgundy. Restrained and often slow to show its true form, the wines of Chambolle-Musigny rarely show up as well as those of neighbouring districts when first released, however given time- and the correct cellaring conditions of course- the wines of Chambolle-Musigny, and most specifically those that come from the 2 Grand Cru sites, are often described as “Ethereal”, expressing the fineness and grace of the Pinot Noir grape to perfection, but with a haunting power underneath it all; the classic term “an iron fist in a velvet glove” seems to summarize Chambolle-Musigny quite well. So the question is; what makes Chambolle-Musigny so unique? What is so special about its Grands Crus? Let’s dig a little deeper into not just the where, but the why and the how of Chambolle-Musigny.
The quality and unique characteristics were recognised early-on in Chambolle-Musigny. The church set up vineyards here millennia ago and the wine achieved acclaim locally, then further afield. Despite the tiny size of the town- population approximately 400- the wines of Chambolle Musigny were one of the first in all of France to be awarded the AOC designated quality status back in 1936, the same year its crowning glory vineyard, Le Musigny, was awarded Grand Cru status. The quality of this particular vineyard was known by locals long before- so much so that in 1882 they legally added it to the name of the village, known just as Chambolle before, so that nobody would forget where these wines originated. Like many of the absolute best vineyards in Burgundy, the slope and aspect of the vineyards play a major part in the final quality of the wines. All vineyards lie between the small town at the top of the hill, and stop at its base. All the best vineyards (both Grands Crus as well as the best Premiers Crus) face south-east, and lie just below the base of the hill, in the mid slope. Of course, fantastic, world-class wines are made around this “sweet spot” however there is something particularly special about this angle that shows Pinot Noir in its best light.
This mid-slope section runs down the hill at a gradient of 8-10%. This gives the vineyards planted here certain advantages over those planted to the exposed and windy steeper top of the hill, as well as those down on the flats. At this point, any water that falls will either pool at the top of the hill, or run to the bottom of it. This means that even in the wettest vintages, the water runs off and the vines will never have enough water to grow vigorously. In fact the name Chambolle is a bastardization of champ bouillant, meaning ‘boiling/bubbling field’, and references the torrents of water which flow down the slopes after heavy rainfall. This rainfall and running rivulets have, over millennia, taken away much of the topsoil level of the vineyards in the midslope, meaning the tougher limestone subsoils are closer to the surface, and what’s left of the clay topsoil is thin and poor in nutrients; another method the vigour and yield of the vine is controlled.
The slope of the vineyard also adds advantages against the weather; it protects against frost damage- very important in the short, cold seasons of Burgundy, by funnelling the denser, heavier cold air to the base of the hill. This frost-protected area is technically known as the ‘thermal zone’. The sloping hill also protects these vines on the south-eastern slope from cold winds which come from the north. The south-east aspect of the hill in Chambolle-Musigny also plays a role in maximising ripening and flavour development in the grapes. As the sun rises in the east, the mid-slope vines catch all the gentle morning rays and continues all through the day, though they miss out on the harsher afternoon sun, which tends to hit the top of the hill and flats harder, robbing them of the elegance and finesse this region’s top wines are known for.
The final advantage the slope gives these wines is uniformity. On the hilltop and flatlands, only the vines on the edges receive the sun as it nears the horizon in the morning and afternoon, and those in the middle of the vineyard will not ripen as much as they only catch the sun in the middle of the day- especially problematic in cooler vintages. This often means that different flavours and ripeness levels are found in these flat vineyards, and harvesting dates can be dramatically different in different parts of the vineyard. On the slope however, the vines are stacked one above the other as they go up the hill, and every vine receives the same amount of sun all day, allowing aspects like the soil and the vintage to show more in the wines, rather than under- or over-ripe characters. See how important the slope of the hill is!
As mentioned above, Chambolle-Musigny has 2 Grand Cru vineyards; Le Musigny to the very south bordering the Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru in Vougeot, and Bonnes Mares to the very north of the region bordering Morey-Saint-Denis, which are some of the highest-rated sites for Pinot Noir on earth. However there are several Premier Cru sites which have long been considered very close to the quality of Grand Cru, and potentially worthy of elevation to this status. Les Amoureuses is one of these, located directly east of Le Musigny, though wines from here often achieve Grand Cru prices, so it potentially makes no difference! Other sites of high esteem are Les Charmes, Les Cras and Les Fuees- all at near-identical regions of the Chambolle-Musigny slope; what a coincidence…
As you have probably guessed by now, the Chambolle-Musigny appellation produces 100% Pinot Noir- well almost 100%! One of the largest land owners, and a highly respected producer of the area, Comte George de Vogüé owns 0.6 hectares of Chardonnay in the Musigny Grand Cru, which is labelled as Musigny Blanc; making it the smallest production white Grand Cru in all of Burgundy!
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