When Roots Go Deep

I met two French winemakers recently, and one was Xavier Monnot, from Meursault, in Burgundy. I met him straight off his long international flight, looking haggard, and I could tell he was desperate to get upstairs in the hotel and get some sleep. But he was also gracious, and sat there in the empty hotel restaurant pouring wines for me to taste, including a white that I loved. A devoted and passionate winemaker, he talked with great intensity about fruit loads, pruning, and terroir.

He talked about plowing deep to bring up the minerals of the subsoils, and about how certain soils can become deadened, with no microbiological activity. Roots apparently won’t go deep in this Burgundy soil, and the vines will grow lazy and feed only in the superficial strata.

But the part that struck me most was that he represents the 11th straight generation of his family to make wine on the same property. This came up at first because he said that his father’s generation made a very big break in winemaking technique from his grandfather’s generation; in Xavier’s time, the effort has been more of a return to the past, but with better equipment. “In the end,” he said, “the goal is to have a wine that transcripts the message of the soil.”

As he talked, I began to wonder what this kind of family continuity might feel like—what sort of shared wisdom they would pass along, or shared memory. It’s so utterly alien to most Americans.

So I asked about vintages his family considered past classics. He mentioned 1959 first, saying the grapes had grown very ripe very early; then he mentioned 1919, but admitted that he had no idea what had made that postwar year so special, when the battlegrounds of France were still saturated with the blood of many millions of young men.

I asked if the family didn’t still have any truly old bottles, from way back in time, and Xavier told me that his grandfather’s brother kept that stuff. There’d been a family split, with two branches forming; the other branch got the cellar.

2005 Domaine Xavier Monnot Bourgogne Blanc
Grapes: 100 percent Chardonnay
Wood: 20 percent new oak for 12 months
Alcohol: N/A
Price: $27.49 from WineAccess
My Tasting Notes: This wine had a beautiful smell of honey and lemon, and a feel in the mouth that was astonishingly different from California Chardonnay. Very firm and clear and crisp.

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