Meet winemaker Olivier Merlin
Author: Emily Miles
Winemaker Olivier Merlin has 35 vintages under his belt. He’s far from a “new” winemaker; in fact, he’s the most established producer in the Mâconnais, Burgundy’s most southerly terroir. And, while for some producers longevity could translate to complacency, nothing could be further from the truth for Olivier.
He is the region’s most dynamic winemaker, and his dazzling cuvées continue to challenge conventional views about the Mâconnais’ reputation for humble wines.
“Unlike my colleagues in the Mâconnais, we do everything by hand,” Olivier explains. “We might apply modern technology, but we make our wines in the same way as they were made 200 years ago.” He makes it sound simple, but at the heart of this approach is a commitment to meticulous winemaking – stripping everything back until what is left is the terroir. And, in Burgundy, terroir is everything.
THE IMPORTANCE OF 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.”
Of all his different cuvées, one remains incredibly close to Olivier’s heart: Mâcon La Roche Vineuse Vieilles Vignes. “This cuvée is our flagship: it’s the wine we started with. It’s a blend of four different sites – all very old – the youngest vines are around 55 years old and the oldest is around 80 years. It’s a good reflection of the village – the terroir has a lot of limestone and a very high level of chalk and you can taste that in the wine. The finish is long, and the minerality really comes through along with flavours of white flowers like verbena also sometimes citrus and a kind of saltiness.”
What would Olivier eat alongside it? He ponders the question for a while: “Perhaps good roast chicken; a nice filet of sole or turbot; of course cheese – Swiss style gruyere or Gouda and goats cheese goes very well; veal, or scallops would be good… but maybe not lobster because it would be too strong. With lobster,” he smiles, “you want to go to the Poully-Fuissé for that.” Delicious.
MERLIN’S PAST AND FUTURE
Olivier has grown his holdings from the modest 4.5 hectares he, along with his wife Corrine, took on in 1987 to around 29 hectares today; his 20 different cuvées range from understated Bourgogne to tiny high-end projects such as his Pouilly-Fuissé Clos de France (a diminutive vineyard taken on in 2018 by his sons Paul and Théo). They are, he explains, no plans to expand further.
“We cannot get bigger because the harvest, now, comes so early – there is no room for error,” Olivier explains. “Now it takes 50 people 13 days’ picking minimum, and if it takes too long, you end up with too much alcohol in the wine, and you loose the acidity, freshness and minerality which is so important. The challenge now, is to start picking at precisely the right time.”
Although the increasingly early harvest poses a challenge, it is one Olivier feels well placed to meet: “We are lucky in the Mâconnais because of the altitude here; it means we will not be so impacted by the changes of global warming. In fact, some sites where it used to be hard to get the fruit to good maturation, it is now possible; I think now it is a big advantage to have vineyards at this elevation.”
OLIVIER MERLIN LOOKS AHEAD
With the 2020 harvest behind him, Olivier is keen to talk of the challenges to come: “The virus has changed many things – the distribution of wine is just one problem,” he says. “But the real challenge is not that – we will continue to drink wine – the real challenge comes from global warming and the changes we make to slow its impact,”
He talks of rootstock changes, growing systems, canopy management, evolving wood strategies. There is – clearly – much to do. Will he retire soon? He laughs. “Does a musician stop playing music? I plan to continue as long as I can; making wine is not my job,” he says. “It is my passion.”