Words: Charlie Geoghegan
Published: 21st December 2023
Jean-Nicolas Méo has overseen a staggered revolution at his family estate in Vosne-Romanée, from tenant farmland to Burgundy’s A-list
Jean-Nicolas Méo introduces himself as the winemaker at his family estate and then instantly reconsiders. “Winemaker?” he repeats, a distinctive American twang to his virtually perfect English. No. “Vigneron,” he offers instead. Winemakers make wine, he says; vignerons have “a more global picture between vineyards and wine.”
The distinction is apt here at Domaine Méo-Camuzet. For the best part of 35 years, Jean-Nicolas has led this Vosne-Romanée estate to become one of Burgundy’s most exalted. The Méo family and their descendants have owned choice parcels along the Côte d’Or for generations, including a prize share of Clos de Vougeot and three Grands Crus on the Hill of Corton. Closer to home, there are the Grands Crus of Echezeaux and Richebourg, as well as the storied Premier Cru of Cros Parantoux.
Before Jean-Nicolas came along, however, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a Méo or a Camuzet working these vineyards – nor would you have easily found either name on a wine label.
Today, Jean-Nicolas the vigneron has a crystal-clear understanding of his vineyards and how to express them in his lush red wines. But until quite recently, there was an entirely different way of working here.
“My father wanted to start bottling and selling under our name”
A potted history
Etienne Camuzet (1867-1946) started out as a vigneron before hanging up his secateurs to become a Member of the French National Assembly; he served there for 30 years. He represented the Côte-d’Or department, covering Dijon, Beaune and much of rural Burgundy, and he remained involved and interested in wine-related matters: he bought and later sold the Château du Clos de Vougeot; and he played an important role in the foundation of France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system.
Alas, he no longer had the time to work his vineyards. His solution, common at the time, was sharecropping. Local tenant vignerons were contracted to oversee the vineyards; they paid a fee to the owner and received half the crop each year.
When Etienne’s daughter Maria Noirot-Camuzet inherited the estate, she maintained the arrangement. As she had no children, the domaine eventually passed to her distant cousin Jean Méo – Jean-Nicolas’s father. Managing the estate from a distance suited Paris-based Jean, an advisor to then-President Charles de Gaulle and later a Member of the European Parliament.
The most significant sharecropper here happens to have been one of Burgundy’s most famous names, Henri Jayer. He and his fellow sharecroppers – members of the Tardy and Faurois families – could sell their share of the crop or use it to make, bottle and sell their own wine. Many of those wines that put Jayer on the map were produced with fruit from what is now the Méo-Camuzet domaine.
The Méo half of the crop was either sold to négociants or produced and bottled for the family and their friends. And so it went until the 1980s.
Time for a change
That decade saw a reversal of fortune for Burgundy. As interest began to grow in the region and its wines, Jean Méo got to thinking. “My father wanted to start bottling and selling under our name,” Jean-Nicolas explains.
This was both an attempt to seize the opportunities of a burgeoning international market and also a response to a French tax on assets that effectively left the family with an ultimatum: take over the active running of the domaine or sell it outright.
Méo Senior opted for the former, which necessitated a fundamental shift to the business model. The family needed “much more control” over the vines and wines, Jean-Nicolas says. “It really meant a hands-on approach, not being an absentee owner.” Each sharecropper had been working vines and making wine to their own styles and standards, which would no longer suffice.
In short: a Méo needed to be there.
He has two sisters, but it was Jean-Nicolas that stepped up when his father came calling. “It was both a very quick and a long decision,” he recalls. He had been studying business in Paris and a career in banking had seemed likely; he sighs at the thought now. Instead, he finished his studies – with a winemaking degree in Dijon and a year abroad studying economics in Pennsylvania – before relocating permanently to the tiny village of Vosne-Romanée.
01: A crisp morning at the domaine
Back to school
Jean-Nicolas came with a pristine academic record but “no real experience.” His early days at the helm were formative, and “not always very easy.” He wasn’t alone, though: his goal was ultimately to take the domaine back into family hands, but the sharecroppers would play a key role here for years to come.
Henri Jayer had officially retired by the time Jean-Nicolas joined the firm, so his sharecropping contract had come to its natural end. The others continued until their own retirements; the last was Jean Tardy, as recently as 2008.
Early on, sharecropper Christian Faurois became Jean-Nicolas’s “right hand” – both in an official capacity as the estate’s technical director, and more broadly as a mentor for all things viticultural. In the cellar, too, Jean-Nicolas was well looked after: “I had Henri Jayer as a teacher.”
02: The wines are now made entirely in-house
The 2005 vintage marked a turning point for the region, Jean-Nicolas believes, and times have never been better by most economic measures. Demand for top Burgundy has pushed prices way up ever since, with greater and greater pressure on the price of land – especially in the sort of neighbourhoods in which Méo-Camuzet has holdings.
Families are selling up, though more likely these days for financial gain than out of necessity. And yet, Méo-Camuzet remains firmly in the family; Jean-Nicolas and his co-owners clearly have an emotional connection to the place.
Under Jean-Nicolas’s watch, the estate has grown a little – “a few vineyards here and there.” Notable is Clos Saint-Philibert in the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, a 3.5-hectare site situated above Echezeaux. Jean-Nicolas started to plant the Méo-owned land in the early 1990s with a curious combination of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc; the resulting wine is one of the estate’s most individual.
Expansion has been gentle. Only once has he truly met the market demand, he thinks. Despite selling through his small 1992 vintage, he suspects he “couldn’t sell more.” He hasn’t had that problem before or since. “It’s difficult to evaluate” the unmet demand, he says: twice, three times his production, maybe.
“I saw things change, really, and I was one of the actors of things changing”
He regrets not buying more land years ago, though there wasn’t much of it, and what did come up for sale was expensive. There had been considerable cash needed “to restart the domaine” in those early days, too – leaving precious little scope for material expansion. So, a decade or so into his tenure, he became a négociant.
Méo-Camuzet Frère & Soeurs was “a way to expand without investing in land,” says the frère in question. It too had its challenges, which have become particularly acute in recent years. Jean-Nicolas rattles off a range of vineyard contracts that have come to an end recently due to the fierce demand in the market.
Jean-Nicolas has also consolidated the range somewhat, focusing more on higher-end reds and ceasing production of white wine from the Côte de Beaune. Growing in too many directions had unintended consequences on the core of the business: harvesting Chardonnay in Meursault presents a logistical challenge when you’re based in Vosne-Romanée, for example. And producing wines from more modest villages may confuse collectors that have come to associate your name with Premiers and Grands Crus.
He’s “back on home turf” with the négociant business, making mostly reds from the Côte de Nuits. He values those forays into other villages and styles, which have broadened his viewpoint and deepened his understanding of the wider region and the wine world.
03: Tools of the vigneron’s trade
Goin’ out west
That American accent of his is the real deal. Jean-Nicolas is the “Nicolas” in Nicolas-Jay, the Oregon estate he founded in 2012 with his friend, music producer Jay Boberg. It’s been barely a decade, but he’s convinced they’re on the right track: “The canvas of winemaking that we do here really works in Oregon, too.”
This has in turn shaped who he is and how he works back home in Burgundy. His young team in the Willamette Valley are inquisitive, he reports. And for his part, Jean-Nicolas has become more analytical: the Oregonian approach is more technical than in Burgundy – “too much, sometimes.” On the flipside, “in Burgundy, there’s too much confidence in oneself.”
Nicolas-Jay may not have expanded the boundaries of Domaine Méo-Camuzet, but it has certainly expanded the outlook of its vigneron. “I’m better now than I was 10 years ago,” Jean-Nicolas says. “It’s really brought me a lot of outside experience and exposure. I think you need new challenges.”
04: The Méo family have put their own stamp on these wines
A staggered revolution
It’s decades now since Jean Méo made that fateful decision to take back the family vineyards. His son has overseen a staggered revolution here; the progress has been gradual – and unmistakable. Jean-Nicolas’s wines are among the world’s most sought after. He himself was part of a transformational generation of Burgundians, coming in just after the likes of Dominique Lafon and Christophe Roumier: “I saw things change, really, and I was, I think, one of the actors of things changing.”
Jean-Nicolas is, by any reasonable standard, hugely accomplished. He’s been at this for almost 35 years, starting without any tangible experience and learning from some of the best there ever was. How long did it take for him to feel comfortable with it all?
“I still do not feel comfortable,” he admits with the slightest smile. He’s a little more relaxed now than he was, he says. Harvest-time has become easier, for one. And he tries to spend at least a couple of hours a day among the vines during the growing season. But he seems to spend a lot of time in his head, too.
05: Jean-Nicolas’s village Vosne-Romanée is bright and energetic