Profile: Méo-Camuzet & their Clos St-Philibert

Update 23.12.2018(4.7.2004)billn

The Clos St Philibert is a 3.5 hectare vineyard within the boundary of Flagey-Echézeaux. At an elevation of just under 400 metres and sitting some 120 metres higher than the Vosne vineyards that it looks down on, it is classed as a Hautes-Côtes de Nuits. Follow the narrow track up the hill past the Vosne-Romanée vineyards of Les Beaux Monts and finally Les Rouges and you run out of vineyard. The track becomes rougher and turns left, up and into the woods. Perhaps a hundred yards through the woods the trees stop at a gently sloping clearing – planted to vine – this is the Clos Saint-Philibert.

The land was originally owned by the Camuzets, as were most of the vineyards that constitute the current Domaine Méo-Camuzet. For a domaine with such a high profile it’s surprising to learn that all the vineyards were ‘en metayage’ until the early 1980’s – both the father and grandfather of Jean-Nicolas Méo had a career away from the domaine. Domaine Méo-Camuzet is a red wine domain; Richebourg, Echézeaux, Corton, Clos Vougeot, three Vosne premier crus that include the incredibly hard to find Cros Parantoux and from just over the Vosne-Nuits border the Nuits-Saint-Georges 1ers of Aux Murgers and Aux Boudots. Then there is their single white wine from the Clos Saint-Philibert…

Clos Saint-Philibert – the vineyard

Though the name ’Clos’ implies previous use as a vineyard, the current site was actually planted in three stages between 1990 and 1992. Certainly there were traces of old vines when the domaine decided to plant, but whether they were abandoned after phylloxera, or as late as after the 1st World War is not known. Planting was hard work as the soil was quite shallow and very rocky – so much so that in many places the rocks had to be broken up to make planting possible. For a number of reasons Jean-Nicolas Méo decided that the Clos St Philibert should be a white wine vineyard, amongst his deliberations were; given the elevation, and despite being within Flagey-Echézeaux the wine would be classed as Haute–Côtes de Nuits. At this elevation he thought it might be tough to achieve sufficient ripeness with pinot noir, but chardonnay would be able to stay on the vine longer as it can tolerate a little rot. Finally, and perhaps most importantly he decided that it would be fun to make his first white wine!

Having decided the colour of the grapes, the next stage was the decision of what to plant. For the sake of diversity Jean-Nicolas decided to plant as many different clones of chardonnay as possible, besides “sélection massale” was not an option for a new vineyard on this scale. Given that the family still had a little Burgundian pinot blanc in the cellar (wines from the 1960’s that are still giving pleasure) he decided to include a little Pinot Blanc. It’s no longer possible to source Pinot Blanc in Burgundy so Jean-Nicolas had to turn to Alsace – less than ten percent of the planting is devoted to this grape.

Clos Saint-Philibert – the learning process

I find it fascinating that here we are in a cradle of winemaking that’s been refined over 1,000-plus years, yet 100 yards higher up the hill it’s all new – no different to planting a vineyard in the Adelaide Hills or Oregon. I guess it’s like giving Andre Agassi a squash racquet – you know there will be flashes of brilliance – but there’s a lot of learning to be done. Jean-Nicolas has had a few adventures with his first white wine “it’s much more complicated” he says with a smile, continuing “what is good for chardonnay is not always good for Clos St-Philibert”!

Planting Density.
The specifics of this site – the terroir if you prefer – are it’s soil and altitude. As you see from the picture to the left, I use the term ‘soil’ loosely – it’s mainly rock! Jean-Nicolas decided on low density planting as he felt the site was challenging enough without the vines competing for root space. He feels that for this piece of land 10,000 vines per hectare is too high and 3,000 too low, he currently has around 5,000 per hectare, but if he were planting today might go for a little less.

The first wine made was the 1993, harvested from the initial 2.5 hectare planting. Jean-Nicolas described it as a very strange wine, almost sauvignon blanc in character with lots of acidity, some minerality but quite fragrant and open. He soon realised that he was always going to contend with high acidity from this site. The 1996 reflected the vintage in that the acidity was high, but the wine was better balanced than many from the Côte de Beaune whose acidity is now dominant. In addition to the elevation, one of the contributing factors to this site’s high acidity lies in the soil – or rather something not in the soil! Potassium has never been used here, so relative to the Côte de Beaune the grapes will retain more acidity.

When to pick.
The 1997 vintage also marked a turning point in Jean-Nicolas’ understanding of the terrior; here we had a vintage characterised by its low acidity – but not for the Clos St-Philibert – this was when he decided that he would always need to pick quite late for maximum ripeness. For this site very ripe means 12-12.5% – closer to 12% – though 2003 provided the first 13% harvest but it was balanced by a miserly yield. The grapes are harvested directly after the vendanges in the Côte de Nuits, or sometimes a few days later when the grapes are deep yellow or golden. Of course from 1997 onwards we have had favourable ripening vintages, favourable enough for Jean-Nicolas to question the decision not to plant any pinot noir – some clones will anyway ripen more easily. Although close to 10% of the vineyard is planted to pinot blanc the crop has yet to meet his expectations so the selection is more severe than with the chardonnay so typically around 5% goes into the final wine.

199741 hectolitres per hectare
199823 hl/ha (36 hl/ha ignoring last planted vines)
199949 hl/ha
200049 hl/ha
200138 hl/ha
200255 hl/ha
200326 hl/ha

You would expect after 12-14 years that the vineyard would be fully established but Jean-Nicolas still suffers with variable yields – not helped by the last planted section still not producing very well. Yields have been as low as 15 hl/ha in the early years to 55 in 2002 – the average falling around 40 hl/ha.

In 1999 Jean-Nicolas decided to convert a few rows to Guyot training, but 1999 turned out to be a very dry vintage. The dryness coupled with too much crop (from 6 canes) meant that the grapes didn’t ripen enough. He is going to try again with 4 canes on some lower yielding vines.

An interesting site-specific observation is that the wine from the Clos seems to produce a high level of protein. Because Jean-Nicolas refuses to filter his wines this can lead to bottles throwing a slight sediment – I noticed this particularly on the 1997 and 1998 – the problem is that this sediment has a low density, hence, is very easy to disturb. Since 2001 the wine has gone through a bentonite fining to remove this cosmetic problem.

Chardonnay is prone to odium and it seems that this site, probably due to it’s coolness is particularly susceptible. Domaine Méo-Camuzet is a domaine committed to working in a ‘bio’ way, but in the end the odium defeated their best efforts. Today, the vineyard is sprayed against odium and is, hence, the only non-bio site of Domaine Méo-Camuzet.

Clos Saint-Philibert – the winemaking

Jean-Nicolas describes the winemaking as traditionally Burgundian; gentle pressing with a pneumatic press followed by a short (~6 hour) sedimentation then the alcoholic fermentation in barrel using indigenous yeasts. Around 20% new oak, i.e. just enough to replace the old barrels each year. Jean-Nicolas is not really concerned about the length of fermentation, but prefers to keep the temperature below 28°C. The malolactic follows naturally, the wine staying in the barrels for 10 to 11 months until racking into stainless steel for fining – this takes around 4 months for sedimentation. There is no rule for the pinot blanc, sometimes it is vinified separately, sometimes not. Then you have the Clos Saint-Philibert.

Clos Saint-Philibert – the wine

So, that’s a lot of chat but what about the end product… I’ll preface my impression by pointing out that my style preference leans towards the wines of Chablis, Puligny and St.Aubin, and as such I was very comfortable with the levels of acidity in these wines. In youth the wine starts in an elegant, slightly mineral way and takes on additional fat and complexity with age. It’s not a wine you need to rush as can be seen by a good showing from the 1997. Despite some wines taking longer to open out, the nose is very consistent, as is the fruit profile on the mid-palate which Jean-Nicolas describes as Meursault-like. I see no reason to disagree. Perhaps then, the hypothetical blend of a Chablis and a Meursault, and despite the trials and tribulations that Jean-Nicolas has suffered, a very consistent wine too.

The 1997-2001 were sourced from a merchant in Switzerland, and J-N Méo kindly provided a bottle of the 2002 to complete the set. Whilst the notes are my own, the wines were tasted together and then drunk by four people over a weekend in April 2004. After the initial tasting the group chose to drink the 2000 followed by the 1999, followed by the 1998 with dinner and the others were consumed (without waste) the following evening.

2002 Clos Saint-Philibert, Hautes-Côtes de Nuits Blanc
Pale colour. The subdued nose starts with a waxy melon note with a faint citrus edge and proceeds to offer a deeper honey aspect that gains strength with time. Dry, good/good-plus length. Not fat, but rather slender and elegant is a good description. Lovely acidity. Though not overtly fruity, this wine shows a very pleasing (to my palate) crisply mineral style.
2001 Clos Saint-Philibert, Hautes-Côtes de Nuits Blanc
Deeper yellow colour vs 2002. The nose is more developed, slightly nutty but retains the melon, citrus and honey of 2002. The acidity seems a little more pronounced on first tasting, but I decided it was actually a little lower acidity than 2002 – just less integrated. Again an elegant rather than fat style which has a little more length than the younger wine. For the four tasters on first tasting, this was the least favourite of the six wines. Overnighting in the fridge it showed a marked improvement with everyone enjoying on day two.
2000 Clos Saint-Philibert, Hautes-Côtes de Nuits Blanc
Just a little lighter in colour than 2001. The nose is pleasing if a little subdued – eventually coming through with the (now) characteristic mix of melon and honey. Fatter than the previous wines but with a lovely, mouth-watering acidity and good length. Another good wine.
1999 Clos Saint-Philibert, Hautes-Côtes de Nuits Blanc
Pale gold. The nose is the first that offers an oaky note, some pepper too. A little fat – in the manner of 2000 but longer than that wine. Only slowly does the nose start to develop in a similar way to the other wines. Dense mid-palate fruit in a Meursault vein. I think that there could have been a little better integration of this mid-palate with the finish, but it’s a very good wine all the same.
1998 Clos Saint-Philibert, Hautes-Côtes de Nuits Blanc
Pale to medium gold. The nose is unlike all the other wines; high toned, pear-drops. Less fat than 2000/1999 but as long as the 1999. Penetrating fruit in an almost oxidised (but not) style. Well integrated and mouth-watering acidity. The wine starts in a completely different style to the others, but 3 hours later it’s obviously cut from the same cloth – no hint of oxidation and shows the characteristic nose – we were all impressed by the transformation.
1997 Clos Saint-Philibert, Hautes-Côtes de Nuits Blanc
Pale gold. The nose again starts differently – two tasters disliking – but soon settles down to our familiar and characteristic profile. The palate is perhaps a little sweeter than 1998, still with good acidity and a nice punch to the fruit in the mid-palate.

Agree? Disagree? Anything you'd like to add?

There is one response to “Profile: Méo-Camuzet & their Clos St-Philibert”

  1. Scocard13th April 2010 at 5:35 pmPermalinkReply

    Article parfaitement documenté et passionnant pour l’amateur que je suis et qui a découvert le clos Saint-Philibert il y a quelques années au cours d’un menu dégustation au Meurice. Bravo et merci !

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