World Champions: Méo-Camuzet, Burgundy, France
Jean-Nicolas Méo leads the Domaine Méo-Camuzet.
© Michel Figuet | Le Figaro Magazine | laif
The man who pulls out his mobile phone in the middle of the Vosne-Romanée sea of vines and starts taking photos is anything but a tourist. He doesn't need souvenir photos, and he knows the finely structured geometry of the vineyards inside out. Nevertheless, on this day at the end of October, he wants to capture the sight of the vines in a picture. "After the harvest, I find the atmosphere in the vineyards particularly special," says Jean-Nicolas Méo and taps his device again: the foliage of the Grand Cru Richebourg in green, yellow and red, a vineyard wall in the foreground and, down the slope, the village of Vosne-Romanée with its little church. One more photo up the slope, where the legendary Premier Cru Cros Parantoux is located, and a third northwards to the Les Brûlées site, also classified as Premier Cru, then Méo climbs back into his Peugeot 2008.
Not without continuing to share impressions. "The rain at the end of the harvest and the mild temperatures have brought something this year that I have never seen before. The grass in the rows has grown again, has become green and lush, and even the foliage of the vines has gained green." Even after 30 years at the helm of Domaine Méo-Camuzet, there are still surprises for Jean-Nicolas Méo. Even after 30 vintages in which Méo has pressed one top wine after another, he is not someone who thinks he already knows everything.
It was in 1989 that the then 25-year-old was given responsibility for the family estate. As a graduate of the ESCP business school in Paris, he was a career changer: "I studied oenology in Dijon, but I didn't really know anything," Méo recalls of his early days at the winery. All his ancestors had only managed the domaine from afar: Jean Méo, Jean-Nicolas' father, was a member of the de Gaulle cabinet in the 1950s and lived in Paris, where Jean-Nicolas also grew up. Jean-Nicolas' great-grand uncle Étienne Camuzet, to whom most of the vineyard property goes back, lived in Vosne-Romanée, but as mayor of the municipality and deputy for the Côte-d'Or in the Chamber of Deputies, he also had a focus in life other than the vines. It was he who, at the end of the Second World War, gave the family vineyards on a half-lease to three winemakers: Louis Faurois, Victor Tardy - and a 23-year-old talent called Henri Jayer.
»Henri Jayer turned to me and said, 'You know, Jean-Nicolas, it's not complicated at all to make great wines.' I've never forgotten that.«
Jean-Nicolas Méo, Domaine Méo-Camuzet
The system of sharecropping is as old in Burgundy as viticulture itself: The landowner leaves his vineyard to a winegrower, usually also provides tools and materials, but pays no wages. At the end of the working year, the yield of grapes or wine is shared. So although year after year a yield from top vineyards such as Richebourg, Clos de Vougeot and Corton came into the Méo-Camuzet cellar, it would still take until 1983 before the wines were sold under their own label for the first time. Before that, the half of the production that belonged to the family went to the trade. When the decision was finally made that Jean-Nicolas would run the winery, the half-leasehold contracts gradually expired. In two of the tenant families, the leases had already passed to the younger generation, Jacques and Jean Faurois and Jean Tardy. The only sharecropper still directly employed by Étienne Camuzet was Henri Jayer. That Henri Jayer, whose own wines from years such as 1978, 1985 and 1988 are now traded for five-figure sums. He restocked the tiny Premier Cru Cros Parantoux at the very beginning of his career at the end of the 1940s. For decades, the extremely stony site had lain fallow; it is said that even Jerusalem artichokes grew here during the Second World War. But Jayer succeeded in bringing the value of this unusual vineyard into the glass, to 71 ares on his own account, to just over 30 ares on the account of Méo-Camuzet.
Jayer retired in 1988, but he agreed to take Jean-Nicolas Méo under his wing. "I'm sure Henri only made the deal to train me because he knew I had no idea, he didn't feel like having big discussions," Jean-Nicolas Méo amuses himself in retrospect. "He guided me mainly in the cellar. When it came to the vineyard, I learned more from Christian Faurois. Henri was already over 65 and didn't work much in the vines. But in the cellar there was this one moment I will never forget. At the end of the first year, we tasted the '89s together. They were so good! And that's when Henri turned to me and said, 'You know, Jean-Nicolas, it's not complicated at all to make great wines.' I never forgot that."
Méo then quickly took wing and began "making his own things, too. To my father, Jayer said, 'Now the boy has to gain experience himself and make his own mistakes.' And to me he said, 'If you have a problem, call me.' I always loved what Henri did, so I had little reason to experiment. Sometimes, unlike Henri, who basically destemmed, I would include a few whole grapes, but I found that's not my type of wine, I'm more looking for smoothness, creaminess and fruit. My wines are different from Henri's, of course, but the esprit is the same, a certain gourmandise."
A New Era
Jean-Nicolas Méo would never say so himself, but the pigeonhole "Jayer's successor", as flattering as it is usually meant to be, does him no justice whatsoever. Too much has happened since the 1980s - too much that has required Méo's controlling interventions and thus produced his own signature. Today, for example, the use of new wood is much more subtle than it was 30 years ago, even if Méo's style is certainly still one of the more wood-accentuated. In addition, Jean-Nicolas Méo has also managed to avoid any excess of materiality and force, i.e. in a certain sense an overfulfilment of the Jayerian taste profile. Even under the conditions of the global-warming year 2018 - as the barrel samples tasted show - the wines possess a well-measured, subtle understatement.
"But what has changed most in the past decades is the market for Burgundy," says Méo, an economist by training, "although there is more wine of high quality overall, the demand has nevertheless increased enormously." Jean-Nicolas Méo tries to meet this pull with a second mainstay, a trading line he runs together with his two sisters. Solid wines, which may not have the final polish of the winery wines, but are also priced much more moderately.
And as expensive as the bottlings from the winery may seem - the income is still not enough to satisfy the financial demands of all family members. "The value of the vineyards has grown so much in the last few years," Jean-Nicolas Méo begins a sentence and clutches his chin. One would have to add that this has awakened desires. With a value of more than ten million euros for a hectare of Grand Cru - Méo-Camuzet owns three hectares of Clos de Vougeot alone - there was obviously a certain pressure in the family to monetise. Méo speaks of an "honourable" solution that was found: a silent partner stepped in - this made it possible to pay off family members who are not directly involved in the winery. "But the family is still present, of course, and I myself have the majority."
This move, painful as it may have been, sets the course for the winery to continue in the family. Méo's middle son Tristan is now 23 and currently studying agricultural sciences. He could succeed Jean-Nicolas Méo in a few years. "It's good that he's not studying oenology," says the father, "but more generally 'ingénieur agronome'. That way I will have him by my side without him already being deformed."
There it is, then: a continuity that makes Jean-Nicolas Méo think today rather like his mentor Henri Jayer thirty years ago.
SEE MÉO-CAMUZET TASTING NOTES