Musigny: Chambolle’s Elusive Grand Cru

“Imagine Musigny like a big lake. It’s a large, luminous, and deep lake. A lake that includes Amoureuses, by the way, that includes also most of the premiers crus, but that doesn’t include Bonnes Mares. Bonnes Mares is at the edge of the lake, and Bonnes Mares is like a mountain above the lake. Bonnes Mares is beginning that range of mountain that goes to the Chambertin, and there you have the forest. And there you pick the blueberries under the forest.”

This imaginary map represents the village of Chambolle-Musigny in the mind of François Millet. Since he became the winemaker at Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé in 1985, most of Musigny Grand Cru has passed through his hands each vintage. To many, Millet emblematizes the Burgundian’s Burgundian—a thinking person who can’t help but drift into metaphor when discussing his life’s work. On my own first trip to the Côte d’Or, de Vogüé was my first stop, as it has been each visit since. I was disappointed to learn that not every resident of Burgundy speaks the way Millet does, as his words fulfilled every romantic fantasy I had dreamed up about the region.

“He is one of the most whimsical men I think I have ever met,” says Becky Wasserman, the famed Burgundy exporter who has worked with Comte Georges de Vogüé and Millet in select markets since the 1980s. “His vocabulary is astounding, and I gave him a copy of the Sam Johnson dictionary for a present once.” Such praise should not be taken lightly from Wasserman, who hung around the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso in her earlier years. She recalls another anecdote of Millet’s prowess as a wordsmith: “One of the most memorable things he ever said was, ‘Would you please tell the customer’—who did not speak French—‘that this wine is very candid, and there’s also an element in the bouquet of it being candied? And then you could say, if you had to talk about someone, the personality is Candide.’” 

Although Millet may have found a unique flair for describing Musigny, he is not alone in his need to wax poetic when it comes to this particular grand cru. “I believe that he sees the appellation as almost a musical score that’s been written,” says Wasserman of Frédéric Mugnier, Musigny’s second-largest landowner, whose family domaine (Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier) is also in her portfolio. Mugnier published a quote by the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould on his website, in reference to Gould’s own 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations: “There is a lot of piano playing going on here, and I mean that as the most disparaging comment possible.” Indeed, Mugnier shuns the label winemaker. “I am not a winemaker, just like a gardener is not a flower maker,” he tells me. 

He carries such an ethos especially in his approach to Musigny, “a wine more spirit than body and flesh,” as he describes it. Musigny enjoys a long documentation of the religious or sensuous—or, for some, both—experience it delivers. The turn-of-the-century French writer Gaston Roupnel describes the sacredly profane impression of one Musigny wine as “little Jesus slipping down the throat in velvet trousers.” For many of its other drinkers as well, Musigny evades the possibility for more precise and technical description. What most will agree on, however, is Musigny’s greatness. 

In 1855, Jules Lavalle classified Musigny as a tête de cuvée, his highest tier, reserved for such illustrious sites as Chambertin, Romanée-Conti, and La Tâche. Denis Morelot noted the same in 1831, and most contemporary Burgundy texts will similarly place Musigny above almost every other red wine grand cru, save the best of Vosne and Gevrey. Their authors might further share their particular affections for Chambolle—whose wines, more so than those of any other village on the Côte de Nuits, represent what is perhaps the most enviable of Burgundian virtues: delicacy.

I, too, am tempted to stay lost in the superlative reverie that is Chambolle and its greatest grand cru. Whenever a glass is in front of me, I imagine feeling like Wasserman did when she first tasted de Vogüé’s 1987s in the cellar with Millet. “I almost became stoned by the aroma,” she says. The greatest challenge in understanding Musigny, though, is this: its viticulture and winemaking are both so altogether ordinary, it’s difficult to pinpoint why the wines are so extraordinary. There is a lot about Musigny that cannot be explained—even by those closest to its hallowed ground. Here is what we do know. 

From Musigné to Musigny 

Precisely when the land that composes Musigny coalesced into a single, named property remains somewhat nebulous. Many historians will point to the year 1110, when one Pierre Gros, Canon of Saint-Denis de Vergy, bestowed his Champ de Musigné to Cistercian monks at the Cîteaux Abbey. At the time, the abbey was hardly a decade old, and in the years surrounding 1110 the monks compiled donations into the vineyard that would become Clos Vougeot. Gros’s contribution corresponds mainly to the lieu-dit of Les Petits Musigny; Grand Musigny, rather, lay in the hands of the Dijon Oratory, and the Cîteaux monks failed to obtain both parcels. Musigny, whose boundaries begin adjacent to Clos Vougeot’s walls, and which was always separated from its neighbor, was probably born several centuries prior to this event. Some suggest that Musigné evolved from Musinus, a Gallo-Roman settlement and potentially the name of its founder. Others reference a Musigny family, who served as chamberlains to the Dukes of Burgundy, but whose name disappears from history around the mid-14th century. Chambolle, further, would have been known by the Celtic name Cambola. The etymology of the village’s name lies in campus ebulliens, or champ bouillant, translating literally as “boiling field,” a reference to the bubbling and flood-prone waters of the diminutive Grône River. By 1302, the name had evolved to Chambolle.

Around 1450, Chambolle obtained permission to build a church at the hamlet’s center. The Église Sainte-Barbe, as it is called, and its notable frescoes still stand today, as does a lime tree just outside, said to date to the reign of France’s King Henri IV. The church was funded by Jean Moisson, a wealthy local who around this time also erected, just opposite on the Rue Sainte-Barbe, the building that continues to house the cellars of Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé. The first mention of Musigny vines under his family’s stewardship is found in his granddaughter’s dowry when, in 1528, she married a Dijon négociant, Michel Millière. Two centuries later, in 1766, Catherine Bouhier, a direct descendant of Moisson, married Cerice François Melchior de Vogüé, a Vivarais noble who gave his name to the domaine. Although the Musigny vineyard observed successive fragmentation following the French Revolution, the de Vogüé lot has remained mostly and uncharacteristically intact for 10 generations.

The Land

Musigny encompasses approximately 10.86 hectares, depending on who’s counting and how. Accordingly, it is one of Burgundy’s larger grands crus, and among the very largest of what are considered the best grands crus. Chambertin clocks in at 12.9 hectares, and Romanée-Conti measures 1.81 hectares, by comparison. Eleven domaines share Musigny, though most of it, 7.12 hectares, remains in Comte Georges de Vogüé’s ownership. Next is Mugnier, with 1.13 hectares, followed by Jacques Prieur, 0.77 hectares; Joseph Drouhin, 0.67 hectares; Leroy, 0.27 hectares; and Domaine de la Vougeraie, 0.21 hectares. Domaine Georges Roumier, whose Musigny is especially prized, possesses a mere 0.1 hectares of the vineyard, as does Domaine Faiveley. A parcel the Faiveley family has owned since the 1920s, their plot amounted to only 0.03 hectares until the domaine was presented the rare opportunity to expand its holdings of the grand cru in 2015. Until then, Faiveley’s annual production comprised a mere 150 bottles—now it’s 400 to 500.

Musigny is further divided into three climats. The largest and northernmost is Les Musigny, or Grand Musigny. As the only climat with multiple owners, it is rather fragmented. Just south lies Les Petits Musigny, a monopoly of de Vogüé, and whose name Millet considers “a bit pejorative.” Instead, he finds no qualitative difference between de Vogüé’s holdings in the two climats, which he blends together. Bookending Musigny is La Combe d’Orveau, where portions of the premier cru of the same name were appended to the grand cru bit by bit in 1929 and 1989. Today, those parcels are owned entirely by Jacques Prieur. Finally, two minuscule slivers of Musigny, both owned by Domaine Tawse and cumulatively totaling 0.09 hectares, grow just opposite the road that borders Grand Musigny and Les Petits Musigny to the east.

Looking outward, Musigny is in an exceptionally prodigious corner of the Côte de Nuits. To the east is Les Amoureuses, Chambolle-Musigny’s finest premier cru, and one that many argue merits elevation in status. Its prices already exceed those of many grands crus. To Musigny’s southeast extends Clos Vougeot, beginning with its climat Musigni, and to Musigny’s south starts Flagey-Échezeaux and Échezeaux Grand Cru. In one point, you could stand in the three villages and the three grands crus all at once. So what is happening beneath the ground to make this place so special?

“There’s nothing wrong about Musigny in terms of topography, in terms of geomorphology,” says Millet. “It’s quite perfect.” But beyond the absence of any obvious flaws, it’s difficult to determine any distinguishing character for Musigny or this portion of the Côte de Nuits. The bedrock for the vineyard is almost uniformly Comblanchien limestone, a white and dense calcareous foundation formed from marine sediment found throughout the côte. The upper portions of the slope, which some attest are superior, are siltier, more oolitic, friable, and lighter in color. The vineyard stretches from 270 to 305 meters at a rough 15% slope, and the rows are planted east to west, from top to bottom. Apart from Leroy’s unusually high vine training, viticultural practices across Musigny are rather standard fare. “We’ve tried hard to understand and find the secret,” says Mugnier. “In fact, I’ve given up.” In short, the explanation I received from most winegrowers as to what makes Musigny great is, “I don’t know.”

That was effectively the response MW Jasper Morris, author of Inside Burgundy, gave as well. He’s worked closely with Burgundy geologist Françoise Vannier-Petit to better grasp the region’s soils and their nuances, and there’s no apparent trait of Musigny’s that should clearly translate into the wines. What Morris has found, however, is that Musigny does not suffer the same contemporary challenges that much of the rest of Chambolle does. “I have a slight worry at the moment, that with global warming the villages that have typically been early ripeners, and that includes both Volnay and Chambolle, are catching a bit of sunburn,” Morris explains. “But it’s not the whole village, and it doesn’t seem to affect Musigny.” Mugnier hypothesizes that much of the magic must lie in the vineyard’s water retention: “Grand cru soils are those that regulate the supply of water to the vines. Grand cru soil must have the capacity of evacuating the excess of water when there’s a long period of rain, but also be able to restitute water in a period of drought.” 

What has historically defined grand cru vineyards is the ability to fully ripen fruit vintage after vintage. With the rush of modern viticultural technology and the advent of climate change—indeed, de Vogüé notes harvest dates creeping as early as August 13 in 2018—reaching certain degrees Brix alone hardly qualifies as the measure of a great vineyard. Reimagining what grand cru status really means in 2020, perhaps we’ll find that what separates Musigny is its ability to produce wines of consistency, rather than ripeness, each year—whether that be attributable to water management, luminosity, or any other factor.

The Wines

Winemaking, too, for Musigny provides little insight into why the results are so fantastic. Both de Vogüé and Mugnier follow similar procedures. They each entirely destem their clusters and try to minimize the impact of new oak, using around 20 to 40%, depending on the vintage. Other producers rely on small-lot fermentations, and some don’t have quite the hectarage to even fill a whole pièce. Yet Musigny seems to provide few obstacles to winegrowers. “It’s the easiest wine to do,” says Erwan Faiveley, who produces a maximum 2.5 barrels each vintage. “Whatever happens, every single year those 0.1 hectares are the best—whatever we do.”

For Millet, the key to making great Musigny is respecting the vineyard’s desire for restraint. “The thing is to be able to accept the fact that you made the wine without almost any intervention,” he says. More specifically, Millet avoids punch downs and any other measures to increase extraction. This might come as a surprise to some Burgundy drinkers, as Comte Georges de Vogüé in recent decades has been criticized for overextraction. Many will point to the mid-20th century as a golden era for de Vogüé. Under the tenure of Comte Georges himself, which began in 1925, the domaine was lauded for a string of vintages in the ‘50s, and ‘60s, many vinified by Alain Roumier, uncle of Christophe Roumier. Critics cite a period of decline, however, beginning in the 1970s. Just as the estate passed to Comte Georges’s granddaughters Claire and Marie de Ladoucette, in the late 1980s, the triumvirate of Millet in the cellar, Éric Bourgogne in the vineyard, and Jean-Luc Pépin in sales was brought in to restore the domaine’s name.

“Everybody expects wonderful things, and the wines do taste wonderful, sort of, in the barrel tastings, and suddenly de Vogüé is right back where it’s supposed to be,” explains Morris of the early reception to the new team. “But then the wines shut down, and they sort of feel as if they’ve been overextracted. But you talk to François Millet, and there’s nothing he’s doing in his techniques which is overextracting them at all.” Despite their more upfront allure in their youth, de Vogüé’s wines, in the fickle-minded spirit of Burgundy, often enter a frustrating “dumb phase.”

But they eventually come back. “There’s been a lot of criticism of the Vogüé style, and you have to wait for them,” says Wasserman. “There is a moment when suddenly they will reach a point.” She suggests waiting a minimum of 15 years. Morris explains, “Some vintages, like 1990, 1991, sort of shut down for the longest time, and people just got fed up waiting for them and felt that they had been misled . . . [and] the wines weren’t any good. They are still a little bit quiet when they’re first opened, but they do blossom in the glass.” 

“He’s such an introvert, François Millet, and it’s almost as if he’s translated that into his wine,” Morris continues. Shy is a good way to characterize Musigny, both de Vogüé’s and that of the domaine’s colleagues. As we’ve already seen, Musigny’s drinkers often struggle to find precise language to describe the wines. Floral, spicy, “mineral”—sure, Musigny is generally all of these things, but where it is most deceiving is in its structure. 

“Tasting it from the barrels can be difficult to understand,” says Mugnier. He, too, prefers to wait at least a decade before opening a bottle of his Musigny. “The great quality of Musigny, which it shares with Amoureuses, is the ability to be very rich, very powerful, without showing any weight,” he explains. “It’s light and rich at the same time.” Millet speaks of the wine in similar terms: “What is really striking about Musigny is the possibility to have such a strength—without ever showing any aggressivity,” he says. “Some people think a wine has to be very tannic at the start to last for a long time. Okay, that may be the case for certain wines, but not for Chambolle.” 

Therein lies one key to unlocking Musigny. It’s easy to be seduced by the exuberant aromas of the wines in their nascent stages; they seem so approachable, it’s easy to denounce them as short-lived, especially once they shut off for a time. Their structure, rather, is just more veiled. Morris calls it the “iron fist in a velvet glove”—a description encountered across the world for wines as diverse as Barolo and Napa Valley Cabernet. As Morris also puts it, Musigny is as if Château Margaux were on the Côte de Nuits. I think of Teddy Roosevelt and his philosophy to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” It’s this quality I observe in many of my favorite wines—Ridge Monte Bello, Montevertine Le Pergole Torte—wines that make you believe they are much more inviting than they actually are. Should you find the patience, they’ll make the wait worth your while.

Le Grand Blanc de Nuits

As profound as Musigny’s Pinot Noir wines may be, the vineyard’s most notable idiosyncrasy is its Chardonnay. Musigny is the only grand cru vineyard on the Côte de Nuits that is permitted to bottle white wines. Like most grands crus, the reds, too, are allowed to include up to 15% of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay if interplanted—though this isn’t typically practiced. 

White grapes in the Musigny vineyard have been well documented for centuries. Lavalle cites that roughly 20% of Grand Musigny was planted to Pinot Blanc in 1855, while the other climats grew closer to 10%. Yet vinifying a monovarietal Chardonnay from Musigny is a particularity of Comte Georges de Vogüé, which has set aside 0.65 hectares upslope for the variety. According to legend, the idea for the wine came from one of the women of the de Vogüé family, who desired white wine for the house. During a period of replanting, Comte Georges de Vogüé ceased production of its Musigny Blanc following the 1993 vintage. As Millet waited for the vines to come of age, he declassified the wine as Bourgogne Blanc for more than two decades. His first 21st-century bottling of Musigny Blanc came in 2015.

Millet won’t use more than 20% new oak on the Musigny Blanc. The wine is whole-bunch pressed and racked three times—once after malolactic conversion, then to take the wine off its lees, and, last, after fining—before being bottled around the same time as the red.

Those who are most experienced with the wine will caution against comparing Musigny Blanc to the great whites of the Côte de Beaune. It has more to do with the white wines of the Côte de Nuits than it does Montrachet or Corton-Charlemagne. Wasserman finds some semblance to Mugnier’s Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru Clos de la Maréchale Blanc. “It’s a handsome wine,” she says of the Musigny Blanc. “It’s a very sure-of-itself wine. It’s very poised. It’s very, ‘Here I am.’” Millet, instead, looks back to the Musigny Rouge. “If you taste the white Musigny, it’s exactly the same shape, the same silhouette as the red,” he says. In that regard, his Musigny Blanc might be as elusive as his red—a wine of structure, though never overtly so, especially as tannin is removed from the equation. As Millet puts it, “The red Musigny is the body, and the white Musigny is the soul.”

Musigny for Mere Mortals

I probably should have prefaced this article with the important side note that I have never actually purchased a bottle of Musigny. Nearly all of my experiences with its wines have occurred within a 20-mile radius of the vineyard itself. Indeed, it’s cheaper for me to travel from San Francisco to Chambolle than it is to buy an example of its grand cru. I nearly shed a tear when I rummaged through the New York Times archives to discover that Comte Georges de Vogüé’s 1991 Musigny, a birth vintage wine I’m perpetually on the lookout for, cost only $80 upon release. 

Today, de Vogüé’s bottlings are among the most “affordable” Musigny wines, because of their relative volume. Recent vintages can be found for around $800 to $1,000. Many of the other leading Musignys are priced in quadruple, even quintuple, digits. On Wine-Searcher, Mugnier’s hover near $2,400, while Faiveley’s sit between $3,000 and $5,000. Both Roumier’s and Leroy’s regularly exceed $15,000.

Even for the most serious collectors of Napa Valley Cabernet or Bordeaux, Musigny today transcends to another level of luxury that few can afford. So what should we drink in its stead? 

Morris suggests you stay close to home. “A good village Chambolle-Musigny from somebody who lives in the village” is what he recommends, offering Roumier, Mugnier, and Ghislaine Barthod as specific examples. Faiveley thinks it’s more about simply tasting greatness. From his own portfolio, he suggests Échezeaux, Chambertin-Clos de Bèze, or Les Amoureuses. Mind you, these are by no means inexpensive wines—but comparatively they range from one-fifth to one-tenth the price of his Musigny. When you reach this tier of very top grands and premiers crus, he believes, the price-to-quality ratio skyrockets exponentially. “The tiny increase in quality, is it worth the money? Amoureuses versus Musigny, the difference is very subtle,” he explains. 

But for Wasserman, the question is more experiential. She believes the quest should be for wines that, like Musigny, demonstrate balance and grace. “Let’s go to some of the Beaune premiers crus, for instance,” she says. “You know there are 42 of them. And there are beautiful, graceful Beaune premiers crus.” Of course, such broad specifications of balance and grace will allow you to search beyond Burgundy, beyond Pinot Noir, too.

And perhaps that only punctuates the impossibility of approximating Musigny. Though the why may be difficult to explain, Musigny, like any great vineyard—whether it be Romanée-Conti or Montrachet, Clos Ste. Hune or d’Yquem, Cascina Francia or Scharzhofberg, Monte Bello or Hill of Grace—is singular in its identity. Is that alone worth the price? Only you, or maybe your financial planner, can answer that question. At the very least, it might be worth the cost of a plane ticket to France.

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Bibliography

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