It’s hard not to hang on every word of Mounir Saouma’s.
He’s a Burgundy grower with a difference – someone who’s not afraid to go against the grain and challenge the easy stereotypes. He doesn’t mince his words, which makes for a provocative listen as we talk climate change, pricing (sample quote: ‘It’s a disaster!’) and the 2019 vintage. He even manages to bring Churchill into the debate…
Meanwhile, we do a swift tasting featuring everything from a cheap Spar Bourgogne Blanc to a £360 red, and recommend some affordable Burgundies too. Finally, we air some of your inspired views on why you both love and hate Burgundy.
This is the second and concluding part of our Burgundy in 2021 deep dive into the wine world’s most iconic region. (You don’t need to listen to the first part in order to enjoy this episode – but it’s here if you want it.)
‘Nobody knows Burgundy. Nobody in one life can pretend to know Burgundy. When you get the virus of Burgundy, you’re lucky, because it’s an entire life.’ Mounir Saouma
‘Global warming is good for the vineyard but not for the cellar’ Mounir Saouma
Mounir Saouma (MS): I’m Mounir, I produce wines in Burgundy in my little winery called Lucien le Moine, and in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, with my wife, on both sides. We started Lucien le Moine in 1999 and we started Rotem and Mounir Saouma, the domaine in Chateauneuf-du-Pape in 2009, ten years after.
Peter Richards MW (PR): How’s it been? 1999 is a while ago, how’s it been to build up?
MS: Look, we work slowly. In all the domains, in our way of ageing and our development in the market, we are not rabbits, we work slowly. It’s doing not bad. We heard from different actors during COVID during 2020, we heard many times, ‘we want your wines because they are different.’ You know us, we don’t pretend anything, we’re not better or less good than others, but our system technically talking is completely different, and it makes different wine, different category of wine.
PR: Why are you different?
MS: First of all we didn’t create anything. People think: ah the guy must be… or wife must be… We didn’t create. We copied what people did 100+ years ago. Ageing on the totality of the lees. A lot of lees. If you want numbers, normally in a barrel of wine in Burgundy or Chateauneuf-du-Pape you may find 1-2 litres of lees. In our barrels there are 7-10 litres of very heavy lees.
Normally wine is racked, pumped during the ageing, 1-2 times per year to take the clear wine and throw out the sediments. We don’t do this. Normally wines around us average, people are bottling 2019 now. We just finished bottling 2018. So we age with a lot of lees, twice or three times more lees than everybody, and we age longer, 2-3 times longer than others. Again, we don’t pretend anything – they are facts.
PR: Why do your wines have more lees than others? And what difference does this make leaving it so long with them?
MS: I try to guess what people did in the past. Long time ago, we had what we call the continual press. Today we have pneumatic. In middle, mechanical. In history, I guess there was much more extraction and sediments and people didn’t have pumps, tubes, tanks – and didn’t have time. Luxury! We lived in multi-culture. People grew cows, corn, fields, wine. Today winemakers are dedicated to wine, they have time, which is a defect! Because if you cannot do, you let it do. When you can, you use your hands and you use your mind. So, yeah, I’m criticising…
So what we’re doing, it’s what we guess, what I saw in books, I try to imagine how it was before. I guess it was, the wines of the past were aged with long ageing, because cellars were colder than today… Global warming may be good in the vineyard – it is good in the vineyard – but it’s a defect, it’s crazy, not good at all in the cellar. Because things are fast.
In the room where I’m talking to you. Look around. These are 2020 whites [in barrel]. We put them in room, I’m on the 2nd floor. It’s frozen. Cold. We still have something like 20g/l sugar. And wines are going to re-ferment, alcoholic re-ferment, in the coming summer. So, certain people in Burgundy will be bottling 2020 whites when ours still in alcoholic fermentation! So we try to copy what happened in the past. I think wines then were more dirty than today, fermenting slower and longer than today.
PR: You call this the old way of doing things. You also recommend people decant and age your wines. But people these days want instant gratification… Is that not a problem?
MS: Yeah. You are touching a very sensitive subject. We have a lot of discussion and sometimes even not nice, not polite discussions because…
PR: Between Rotem and you?
MS: No, between us and the market! People don’t accept, people tell us all the time, who do you think you are, asking us to decant Burgundy?! We don’t decant Burgundy. Now, this problem was resolved for me…because: why you ask people to decant? Well, when you age wines for a long time with lees, you keep a lot of CO2, natural gas in the wine. It’s a physical thing, not romantic, has nothing to do with being MS or big knowledge or whatever. It’s physical. If you don’t splash them in the decanter, and push the gas out, you’re not really going to get deep in the wine. The wine is going to be auto-protected. People say today: no no no, we don’t decant Burgundy. We were lucky enough to appreciate 3 years ago, a bottle of Gaudichots from Romanee Conti, 1929, and guess what was written on the bottle?! ‘Decant before you serve’.
So I don’t know for sure that people used to drink the wine later than today in the past. We drink fast, we drink quick, we drink young now. The wines made around are with almost one third of the CO2 that we have. You don’t need to decant those. But ours if you don’t decant them, you don’t get them.
PR: OK so I do remember wonderful wines of yours that were decanted. One of my favourites was the 2007 Le Montrachet in jeroboam we enjoyed a while back at the Hospices de Beaune. An immense wine: such texture, depth. I want to pick you up on climate change – you said it’s ‘good in the vineyards’?
MS: Yeah, look. In Burg, when I arrived first year, long time ago, 1989, I was talking with growers, monks. I heard twice the word ‘window’. When you pick – they used to say in Burgundy: it’s raining, area we have rain. Maybe you know September is the driest month in Burgundy but October lots of rain. Until 1980, or 1960-80, we picked 15 times in October. So we were picking in a rainy month. And we were waiting for what we called a window – 2/3 days of no rain – to pick. It happened sometimes picked Vosne Romanee and Puligny Montrachet the same day. In past, we had something we don’t talk about today – a white vintage, or a red vintage. It’s not true any more. It was right in the past cos when that window arrived, if you picked that day Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, maybe the Chardonnay was ripe or the Pinot Noir, or the opposite. Now with global warming, we have the luxury of choosing the date of the harvest. Last year, in the same cru in Meursault, one person picked and then his neighbour picked ONE MONTH after, 29 days after.
So we can choose date of harvest, we can choose the ripeness. We are exaggerating here, badly. Not a good thing. If you look in past, we used to pick at 10.5-11% alcohol and chaptalise to arrive at 12.5-13%. Certain people in last 20 years pushed maturity in Burgundy to 13.5-14%, so you are picking 13.5-14 with the acidity of 13.5-14. While in the past we had 13% alcohol with the acidity of 10.5-11.
So global warming is good but human is weak, human is bad!
But not good in cellars cos cellars are warmer than in the past. And fermentations are very fast. And malolactic very fast. And maturity is fast. So that’s why we, in our cellars, we try to find cold cellars, play with the lees, try to delay everything and we age 24-26 months.
PR: Moving on from that, the 2019 vintage, everyone selling now, I presume asking you about that is too premature, is it?
MS: We don’t know 2019! We are going to have our first serious tasting in two weeks because ours are still full of gas. 2019 was v fast in malolactic cos the after season very warm, it’s a sunny vintage, not very high in acidity. So some malolactics went too fast, we blocked them in Le Moine and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and we were lucky to have certain activity in summer 2020. Our 2019s a few months ago were moving, producing CO2 and protecting themselves.
I like these kind of vintages cos maturity achieved, all raw material is perfect, but they are very dangerous vintages because for a lot of people, sunny means strong. And 2019 is not strong. Skins were not super fat. It’s a very sensitive, I would even say fragile vintage. Like I used this word about 2015 and 2009. I think we must pay attention to this fragility in 2019 because too much racking, fining, filtering will kill something in the wines. It’s a jewel, it’s a riper pitch, you need to handle with a lot of sensitivity, a lot of attention.
PR: Finally, talking of the search for value, you buy around Burgundy. Pricing of top Burgundy is very difficult for wine lovers to afford. Where best to look for for best value in Burgundy right now?
MS: Look: it’s a catastrophe. I don’t have another word. It’s a disaster. When we see the prices today…I was shocked, 2 years ago I was in a wine shop, I saw the price of 2009 less expensive than the ex cellar of the 2016. Burgundy is in a very bad period. It’s a combination of demand, low yield…so we don’t have enough wine and demand very strong. And we see it in our portfolio, we do a Bourgogne that’s a blend of 1er Cru and village, I can produce 3 times what we produce today cos people go to these things…you can go to villages like even Pommard, Nuits-St-Georges are still in a good place. We must wait, Burgundy is crazy, prices are very high, but quality is here, we’ve had a super series of vintages, all vintages in the last 15 years are great. Economically talking, for a customer, it’s a bad period.
PR: Who to blame? You growers? Secondary market?
MS: It’s a human problem. Law of demand. Not enough production, too much demand. It’s out of our hands. No one winning from this. Growers are not winning, they did better in the past. They prefer to have normal production and to sell it all at 10 than to have half and sell it at 15. Growers are not doing money. Negoces or importers are not earning like they did in the past. And customers paying bad prices, or very expensive prices. It’s a bad period.
At the same time, we are happy to buy these bottles. Don’t forget that with Covid – unfortunately for the restaurants, my heart is broken when I talk about restaurants as family pays the bill direct. But lots of people at home, spend 100 rather than 150 in restaurant. And say: yes I’ll buy a 1er Cru instead of buying a village in the restaurant. So people are at hone, like Churchill used to say with champagne – it’s a necessity. So we’re trying to maintain our morale high by drinking a good glass of wine. And at home you don’t drive. So yes people are drinking wine, we are drinking wine, I’m drinking wine. But it’s a tough period economically talking for Burgundy and customers of Burgundy.
PR: I admire your comments about the restaurants – feeling for them. Last question: I’ve stood next to Le Chambertin vineyard with you and you’ve said: ‘Burgundy is a matrix of paradoxes, the more we learn, the less you understand.’ What did you mean by that?
MS: When you arrive first to Burgundy, we explain to you that Volnay is fruity and Pommard is spicy. We tell you Gevrey is strong and Chambolle is classed as fine. And then one day we serve you a glass of Gevrey Clos de Beze. You taste blind and you say: wow, this is fine, so this is Chambolle. But no! And you say: but you told me that Gevrey is powerful! Yah but not Clos de Beze. When you get the virus of Burgundy, you are lucky because it’s an entire life. Nobody knows Burgundy! Nobody can in one life know Burgundy. When you talk with a Puligny grower what he thinks of Chassagne Caillerets he’ll say: I don’t know, I’m from Puligny. Nobody can pretend to know Burgundy! And the more you learn, the more you are confused. The less you understand. But it’s an entire life and we’re lucky that we can taste and we can still learn about Burgundy. It’s an entire life!
PR: And you are devoting your life to it in wonderful fashion! Mounir – thank you.
MS: And to you! Happy new year and to all the world, to all humanity!