La Roche Vineuse (means "winy rock"), Macon (Burgundy).
Macon may be in southern Burgundy, the winter is just as cold as in the rest of the region. Before visting Olivier Merlin, we walked for a hour in his vineyard with sub-zero (°C) temperatures that felt even colder with a piercing humidity freezing our bones. The cold, the fog, the frost and the quiet beauty of the low stone walls along the vineyard, this is Burgundy in the middle of winter.
Olivier Merlin, who made this year his 20th harvest, makes some of the best-valued white wines of Burgundy and Beaujolais, plus a handful of equally beautiful reds. In a region where good work in the vineyard plus patient vinification means high prices, he manages to keep most of his wines between a 7 to 17 Euro bracket.
Olivier Merlin started with a 4,5-hectare surface in 1987 and owns today 12,5 hectares, making wine out of a total of 20 hectares if you count the purchased grapes, which is quite big for Burgundy and Beaujolais. He recently bought 1,2 hectare in the Moulin à Vent Appellation. His originality is that he also vinifies contracted grapes, 60% of the wine production coming from his own vineyard and 40 % from purchases. He says that it limits the weather-related risks : due to frost, hailstorms or drought for example, the yields were only 40% of a normal harvest in 2003, 20% in 2004 and 60% in 2005 in his own vineyards, making a very low medium yield on 3 years. With the purchased grapes, he could cushion the shock. At the beginning, 20 years ago (and until 6 years ago), the main motive was that buying vineyards was out of reach with the real estate price. Recently, the prices have dropped to such a level that he bought additional vineyards, like the ones on the Moulin à Vent Appellation.
As we walked in the vineyard, we met Frederic, his employee, who was busy cutting the dead shoots on the Chardonnay vines of the Macon La Roche Vineuse plots. He said that on Merlin's vineyards, they work hard to keep the vinestock low on the ground, which means correcting it every year, or even gradually sawing the over-extended vinestocks on recently purchased vineyards. A short, low-on-the-ground vinestock makes a vigorous vine with a healthy foliage. They use pheromone deception on the vines but will stop doing it, as since the 2003 heat wave and maybe the climate change, there are not many bugs around. Also, because of fewer customers, Bayer (the manufacturer of the pheromones) stepped up the price. The vineyard hasn't the organic label but is farmed on a nearly-organic way. Olivier Merlin prefers to keep the possibility to correct an eventual disease. Plus, he says that the organic label does not mean always a real environmental respect. He knows people who have the label and use excessive amounts of copper or sulphur as it is allowed by the chart, or use harvester machines in spite of the spoilage it brings with the grapes.
No additives here, except on rare occasions. External yeasts are used exceptionally. This year, on a total production of 1300 hectoliters, 50 had yeast adding.
He and his wife Corinne have been re-investing every year in the winery, on tools, on building renovations and the likes. Speaking of the crisis in Beaujolais, he says that many of the vignerons of the region work on small-size estates on a quasi-artisanal way, with very little investment, keeping the old-time autarcic farmer mentality. The good side is that they are not endebted (many have another job), but the down side is that they don't do the necessary changes in their practices, some of these changes needing costly investment. Olivier Merlin made sacrifices (with high mortgages) for the best tools, like his 60 000 Euro pneumatic press, but he considers that this is the price for quality.
One of his biggest investment was the complete renovation of a big, 18th-century stone barn in La Roche Vineuse. That's the white wine chai and cellar. The reds are still vinified and stored in the first location, where they live, a couple hundreds meters away. In the renovated facility, a few stainless steel vats for the basic cuvées (priced 4 to 7 Euro), and, in the basement, the vaulted cellar with hundreds of casks. This one-piece cellar is 20 meter large by 133 meter long with a 6 meter maximum height. About 300 casks here (whites only) and 100 others for the reds at the other location. They only use new casks, using them a few years (7-8 years) before selling them. They invest 30 000 Euro every year (40 to 50 casks) in new casks. Most of them are 228-liter casks made by Dargaud & Jaeglé, a small but quality-minded cooperage located in Romanèche-Thorins (south of Macon). 100% tronçais oak with mostly medium and high toast.
Olivier Merlin offers us to taste his wines in the cellar. We'll not taste all of them, as he makes 18 different cuvées on Beaujolais and Burgundy Appellations, but enough to appreciate the range of his wines.
__1 Merlin, Macon-La Roche Vineuse 2005, Chardonnay. A basic cuvée vinified partly in 600-liter demi-muids casks and the rest in vats. Light, aromatic. Some richness in the mouth. clear with greenish reflections. 7,3 Euro (public price).
__2 Merlin, Macon-La Roche Vineuse old vines 2005, Chardonnay. 7 different plots vinified separately and blended at the first racking. 10 months in casks and 4-5 months in vats before bottling (3 weeks ago). Nice mouth. 10,2 Euro.
__3 Merlin, Macon-Viré Clessé 2005 "terroir de Clessé" (Chardonnay). Bottled 2 weeks ago. Fresh and floral nose. In spite of the new oak, there's harmony in the wine. He says that the quality of the wood is primordial for that. 10,25 Euro.
__4 Merlin, Pouilly-Fuissé "Clos des quarts" 2003 [picture above]. 100% purchased grapes here. Very suave, soft and harmonious mouth. Nice wine indeed. 17 Euro.
__5 Merlin, Saint Veran "Le Grand Bussière" 2000. That's a nice nose ! Straight and powerful. Price for the 2004 now on sale is 15 Euro.
__6 Merlin, Fleurie 2004. Gamay. His 2004 reds are a bit clear because of the millesime and because he does not use any trick to deepen the color. He regrets that some customers view it as a default when it is a proof of a true, non-manipulated wine. Now, he says, you only see dark beaujolais on the market because of the general use of reverse osmosis or taninn additives, and when the uneducated customer has a light-red color in his glass, he automatically thinks "lower quality wine". Nose : fruits, morello cherry, some spices. Still young, promising wine.
__7 Merlin, Moulin à Vent 2004. Also a nice, clear red. Nice texture in the mouth. Pepperish notes. 10,6 Euro. Speaking of the color, he says that some consumers keep as reference 1995, 1996, 1997, which were dark-red years in Beaujolais and they keep looking for the same color in very different millesimes.
__8 Merlin, Moulin à Vent 2003. This Gamay is darker of course (Heat wave year). Natural concentration. Yields were 22hectoliter/hectare. Bottled a week ago. Jammy nose. Still very young, he says. Already a very nice mouth, with much more in store in 3 years or more, I think (B. says that 10 years will do a good job). Olivier Merlin says that even though the majority of his production is in white wine, he loves more and more the challenge of making red wine. Red-wine vinification asks for decisive actions where talent, feeling and instinct are primordial. You have to make decisions on the instant, often without quiet planning. For the white wine, he considers that the vinification is easier and offer less risks, especially with Chardonnay.
__9 Merlin, Bourgogne Rouge "Les Cras" 2005. His first cuvée in red Burgundy. Pinot Noir. Nice peppery mouth with integrated tannins. He says that when he replants a vineyard, he lets the land rest 3-4 years beforehand. It is rarely done elsewhere and it's why diseases come in some newly-planted vineyards.
Merlin wines are 75% exported, mainly in Europe (UK, Holland and Belgium being the biggest buyers in Europe, with fast-growing Ireland looming behind) and Japan (20% of the production). There was a time when he exported 40% in the US, but he was lucky to diversify his exports before the Iraq crisis, because sales then dropped abruptly, and even stopped altogether in Texas. His wines are sold at Polaner Selections.
Olivier and Corinne are the parents of two boys, the oldest is 15.
Thank you to Jerome, B.'s brother, who tipped us about this estate.