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Becky & Freddie - Rockstars of Burgundy

Sadly, I have never had the chance to meet these two stars of the Burgundian firmament. I have met the son of the first, and have a CD sent to me by the second, plus, happily, a few bottles of his lesser wines, but that’s it. And whilst Frederic Mugnier is very much still with us and producing ethereal wines, Becky Wasserman has just passed away, and the world of Burgundy is in mourning.

She arrived in Burgundy with her then husband Wasserman in 1968, but as he was prone to misbehaviour and things were not going to work out, she was left in an old house in Bouilland, a few kilometres from Beaune, wondering what to do. As she said, she did not want to end up in social housing in town, and the only way to make a living there was, of course, in the wine business, of which she knew nothing.

And so a young American woman launched out into what turned into a remarkable career, and one that basically launched fine Burgundy into the United States. If you listen to the wonderful interview with Levi Dalton (I’ll Drink to That) or La Paulee on YouTube, you will soon realise not just how influential she was, but how respected and liked. And, above all, just what a different age it was then, all be it only 40-50 years ago

She started by exporting oak barrels into California in 1976 and then, crucially, moved into bottles. The US was not a market for Burgundy, and far keener on Napa reds, and you have to remember that the 1982 vintage (in Bordeaux) heralded the ascension of Robert Parker and his followers, and soon wine had to be deeply extracted, dark in colour, heavy with fruit and a veritable ‘blockbuster with gobs of flavour’, the very antithesis of fine skinned, elegant Burgundy. Her welcome from the moneyed classes in the US was not always polite, especially when trying to sell pale, floral ‘Volnay shit’ to millionaires who wanted to show off their cult wines made with power and heft…

It must have been a nightmare, and I wouldn’t say Burgundy in the 80s, at least with the older generation, was necessarily a place to welcome women either. And yet, and yet, she set up friendships with the Gods of the area, to mention but a few, the Fred in our title from Chambolle, Dominique Lafon and Pierre Morey and Dominique Lafon in Meursault, Michel Lafarge in Volnay and of course the most famous of all in Vosne. People who now you’d be afraid even to approach such is their status and the global demand for their wines.

But approach them she did, and I guess due to her warm character she had doors open everywhere and as they say the rest is history. Allen Meadows (the top Burgundy critic Burghound) says she was a mentor to him. Her tastings at home, the week long ‘Bouilland Symposia’ became legendary, and I remember attending tastings in London in the 80s with the rather avuncular, bow-tied Clive Coates MW, England’s then Burgundy local expert and one who often mentioned the renowned American lady of Burgundy. Funnily enough the first time I met him I remember his describing a wine as ‘shitty’ and being surprised that such a foul term should be applied to fine wine. Why the English wanted their pinot to smell of toilets escapes me, but, as said, it was a different age.

It really was. I recall as a pretty penniless insurance broker buying my dad a bottle of DRC Echezeaux for Christmas. To put things in perspective, my salary at the time was I think about 6,000 pounds a year and bottle of Ech now retails for about 1500. You can work out the inflation. To embellish this seemingly impossible story, the wine turned out to be off, and I was so upset that I took it back to the shop where I’d bought it. They did not have another bottle, but gave me I think Romanee St Vivant instead (now worth well over 2,000). If only, if only…

As Becky recalled, many domaines were not even bottling themselves, nobody had any money, foreign travel and marketing was unheard of, and I guess biodynamics were not either. From across the Atlantic came the siren call for deeper colours and more extraction and in France the excessive use of fertiliser to boost production in an effort to make money (but of course cause long term damage to the soil which is only now beginning to repair itself). And yet this foreign woman continued to knock on the doors of both the unknown and the known, and convince people to love true Burgundy. No snobbery, just taste and an unfailing willingness to give more than she got.

When you look at the rockstar status of top Burgundy vignerons now, and the prices and frenzy for their wines today, it seems impossible, but it’s a big risk to presume that wines from the last century are the same as today. Go far enough back, and they were in some cases adulterated to add a bit of extra colour and depth – instead of chaptalizing your wine (adding sugar) to beef up the alcohol, why not just pour in a little juice from the much sunnier south (no global warming back then)? When I first got into wine, Burgundy was known as the heavy wine, to be served after Bordeaux. Heavy?? Who now would dare call the limpid, floral finesse of Volnay or Chambolle heavy when compared to the sturdy structure of Pauillac? Ironically, the world really has flipped, as Bordeaux back then was a lovely 12.5% alcohol and nowadays is all too often 14-15% in the much heralded and hyped vintages, whereas most Burgundy still seems to be in the 13s. It would seem that global warming is site selective in France (the same is true in Napa). Of course, to suggest that this might be exacerbated by later harvesting to get riper grapes, more sweet alcohol and more adulatory high scores from US wine critics, well, that would be cynical. Fortunately, as Bordeaux becomes ever more corporate, Burgundy seems to remain largely still a family business.

All of this within one woman’s lifetime, a pioneer who helped bring the region to where it is now. Somebody who steadfastly believed in the people and the grape, and wines that epitomised delicacy but were not less flavoursome and spectacular for that. And without ego.

Which would bring me to the second star of the show here, for if anyone’s wines represent harmony and elegance, I guess it would be Frederic Mugnier. I was lucky to get an allocation from a wine merchant in Nuits of a village Chambolle plus a red and white Nuits, and was surprised to find with them a classical music CD from Mugnier. Classy and thoughtful. As said, I wish we could meet one day over a glass in his cellar!

The only time I ever drank one of his ‘real’ wines was when a very generous friend served his 1994 Musigny. Unfortunately, I don’t think 1994 was a great vintage and the wine was heavily overshadowed by volatile acidity, so much so that it was difficult to get through to the real fruit underneath. A shame to put it mildly.

But in 2004 he took back production of his monople Clos de la Marechale in Nuit St Georges from Faiveley, who’d effectively leased it and made a very robust, probably rather rustic red. What would the master of Chambolle elegance do with the most southerly vineyard in Nuits (well, in Premeaux to be precise)? As you head out of Nuits south towards Beaune, you cannot mistake the large 10 hectare walled vineyard that slopes steeply down to the road. As a fun fact from Jasper Morris, the sign on the Clos was remade to show the name Mugnier but the a in ‘la’ was for some reason put backwards, and so, if you look closely, it is on the label too.

Thus as a tribute to Becky, I thought we’d drink a wine from one of her star clients, friends, winemakers. And as the Chambolles are these days best left for those who can afford them, why not try the poor often sneered at Nuits? Though I am sorry for the winemakers down there, I am selfishly greatly relieved that NSG has no grand crus, as it keeps the label drinkers away, and means wines of top quality are still both available and affordable at less than half the price of their peer group further north. My cellar has almost no Vosne these days, less and less Gevrey and precious little Chambolle, but is stacked full of Nuits. Besides I think our toast would be more appreciated from a so called ‘lesser’ vineyard.

Having enjoyed a 1948 Marechale blanc, Mugnier also decided to replant the northerly corner to chardonnay, a wine that I have tasted twice, the 2009 and 2010. Aged ten, it is a lovely pale green-yellow, gently minty and bitter green fruit, beautifully balanced and definitely giving more than a nod to the more famous chardonnay domaines further south. No question, fine wine, and with a lovely lightness of touch. A promising start.

So, as a toast to Becky Wasserman, how was the red? 2008, I guess the fifth vintage that he had made the wine, so not exactly a long time to get to learn the vicissitudes of the (large) vineyard. The colour was a pale, light red – just what she had so much trouble trying to sell to Americans brought up on opaque, glistening purple liquids. The nose was refined, red fruited and airy – I know it’s too tempting to read too much into it, but you could easily say that was NSG made like Chambolle. The palate though was thicker, with darker fruit and developing a lovely sour creamy texture. It finished with crisp acidity. You are not going to turn southern Nuits into Musigny, but this had a lovely light touch.

I think the great lady, now I hope in a paradisiacal Burgundy vineyard in the sky, would approve.

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