Dubbed “the magician of the Mâconnais”, Olivier Merlin has helped transform the reputation of Burgundy’s most southerly terroir. Here, he talks 2019, climate change and the arrival of the next generation.
Olivier Merlin is at a tipping point in his career. In his three-plus decades as a winemaker, he has diligently and dynamically worked to help the Mâconnais shrug off its reputation for producing humble wine; he has built up his holdings from 4.5 hectares to around 29, and he has come to produce a range of exceptional quality. But now, he is gradually handing over the reins to his sons, Paul and Théo – the next generation.
The 2019 vintage
“When you have 35 vintages behind you, it’s easy to approach the next,” Olivier says. “To me, it’s not complicated – but it takes time to learn. My son Théo has three vintages behind him so for now, I am still involved in the complex parts of the process.”
There are, Olivier suggests, two points which really draw down on his skill as a winemaker. The first is when to start picking. “The 2019 vintage was very early – it is almost every year now,” he explains. “The choice of the date when we start picking is crucial, so we sample a lot before the harvest.
“When you pick in August you are dealing with completely different weather to the more traditional harvest month of September. You have to react quickly; if you start too late, you can end up with 15, 15.5 or 16% alcohol and we don’t want that style of wine. In Burgundy, you want freshness and here in the Mâconnais we want to preserve the minerality too.”
Olivier’s experience is also required when it comes to pressing: “This is because we change the pressing system every year according to the quality of the grapes.”
Elsewhere, though, Paul and Théo follow a well-honed winemaking technique. “The style is very classic,” Olivier says. “Unlike my colleagues in the Mâconnais, we pick entirely by hand using small crates for the fruit; we don’t crush and we don’t destem; we use a vertical press and we don’t ferment before the juice goes into the barrel. We might apply modern technology, but we make our wines in the same way as they were made 200 years ago.”
It is this refined technique, and meticulous vineyard practices, that have marked Olivier’s wines out as exceptional. These are wines which, like the finest Burgundies, truly express their terroir. “If you take any of the wines in our range and compare them, they’re totally different,” Olivier says. “But the process used to make each one is the same; this is very important to me – it means my technique shows the terroir. The wines express the difference of the soil, of the slope and of the altitude.”
What lies ahead
Confident in his technique, and confident in his sons’ abilities, Olivier has a positive outlook when it comes to what lies ahead – especially because of the changing weather patterns. “We have an advantage with global warming,” he says. “We are almost 100 metres above Meursault, which means we can keep the freshness, minerality and that slight saltiness you can feel in our wines.”
The shift in climate also bodes well for Clos de France, Paul and Théo’s recently leased vineyard in Vergisson. “When I started making wine, people said Vergisson had good terroir but it was very difficult to have a good maturation - but now that part is easy. Global warming is giving us an advantage and right now this kind of site is really very, very good,” he says.