Jancis Robinson once wrote: It's the dirt that makes me love Burgundy so. There's an earthiness about the place that is entirely lacking in France's other great wine region Bordeaux. Burgundy has near mythical status for oenophiles with prices for the top bottles skyrocketing in the last 20 years. But it's still a close-knit rural community, a small area steeped in history and tradition. Land passes down through the generations and contracts are made on a handshake.
When Michael Ragg was working at London merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd in the late 90s, the focus of the fine wine market was very much still on Bordeaux, where First Growth prices were rising stratospherically. Burgundy was an important fixture on any list, but without the buzz there is today. Traditional negociants like Joseph Drouhin and Louis Latour were making solid, but not always exciting wines. The new generation of sons and daughters - educated at wine school and with new ideas inspired by stages (internships) in other regions or countries - hadn't quite arrived on the scene.
Vive la différence
Michael started to visit the region not just for work but also in his own time: "Being exposed to the wines, the region, the whole network [of growers], it was the diametric opposite of the Bordeaux Chateau model. I was fascinated that people could make such different styles of wine in a geographically really tiny area".
He vividly remembers a trip with Fiona in September 2002, when they found a place to live in Aloxe-Corton. "It snowballed quite quickly from something that was an interesting concept, to actually happening"!
With no formal training in viticulture nor winemaking: "We knew that it would be a difficult thing to do, but we didn't know quite how hard, and that probably was a good thing"!
Were there any producers that they found particularly inspiring or influential?
Michael emphasises the importance of the contacts they made right from the early days with growers, who were making quality wines in the region; Burgundy is a small, traditional place, word of mouth and relationships are vitally important.
They met the young Jean-Nicolas Méo from Méo-Camuzet; Jean Marie Fourrier, who had inherited the domaine from his father, and has revamped it over the last 20-25 years; Etienne Grivot from Domaine Jean Grivot in Vosne-Romanée was inspirational, and very supportive; Ghislaine Barthod in Chambolle Musigny was one of the first producers they tasted and illustrated how a dedicated winemaker could transform relatively humble fruit. "Her ‘basic’ Bourgogne Pinot Noir is a phenomenal wine".
These winemakers, and many other people were extremely supportive and generous with their time. Maybe because they could see some of their passion [for the region and wines] in us.
Michael and Fiona started the company at a modest scale. Having lived in London for many years, however much they loved the wines they didn't know if they would be happy living in Aloxe - a village of 110 people, average age about 70! The first year to 18 months was spent getting to know people and finding a group of growers willing to work with them and mentor them. They continued purely as a négociant - a company that buys in grapes, must, or wine - until 2011 when they bought their winery and barrel cellar. This was a milestone. Some of their grape contracts are based on a handshake, and are rolling agreements, so relationships are important. Once they had a winery, it enabled them to commit to longer term contracts for grapes, which are typically 9 or 18 years in Burgundy, and access better fruit.
2012 was another huge milestone, they purchased their first vineyard - a small plot in Aloxe-Corton Les Caillettes. This enabled them to become a domaine - an estate that makes and bottles its own wines. Being hands on in their vineyard in Aloxe was viticulture boot-camp - from February pruning to harvest - Michael says they learned so much more in that first season than you would from any course. And it showed them how a vineyard should look if it’s being properly managed, which in turn gave them more confidence in choosing the vineyards they buy from.
A broad range of wines
Being a négociant gives them flexibility to look across the region as a whole and buy grapes from less prestigious areas. “Production costs in certain areas in 2020 are 30-40% higher than in 2015. There's still a demand for those wines, but not from everybody”.
The price of fruit in areas like Mersault is like London property prices, you think you've reached a ceiling, but you haven't.
"We've made a conscious effort to have a good spread of wines in different price brackets from Bourgogne Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Aligoté, St Aubin and Pernand-Vergelesses. They're brilliant vineyards - warmer weather seems to be affecting those sites beneficially - but also make commercial sense".
Some Burgundy domaines have run through families for generations. I asked if their approach was different to producers who were born and have grown up in the region?
“We're not visionaries doing something completely radical that no-one else has ever thought of!”
Better understanding of vine physiology, and the biology and chemistry of winemaking have led to enormous improvements in viticulture and winemaking globally over the last 50 years. Coupled with a generation of winemakers who have travelled and attended wine school, the key being when you know the rules you can break them. The new generation in Burgundy understand that a combination of soil, climate, grape variety, and the human choices made in both the vineyard and cellar allow them to produce wines with a sense of place. "Things which were starting in the late 90s early 2000s - lower yields, moving away from chemical treatments, a focus on soil health and fruit quality - are now almost the norm," Michael explained.
"[In Burgundy] we're lucky to work with some of the best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay fruit on the planet”.
"We are passionate and absolutely fastidious about everything in the vineyard and in the winery. That is our mantra, which we hope reflects in the wines. It's a continuous learning curve, you can always say with hindsight if we'd done this earlier or later, or differently - there's always a 'what if' element to it!"
It's their house style to pick relatively early to maintain freshness and purity. "We're neurotic when it comes to acidity as a subject, focused on maintaining it as the skeleton of the wine."
"[The wines are] very pure and very natural, by which we meant 'not interfered with’ we don't use any of the 60 or so additives allowed in winemaking".
By working with natural yeasts, spontaneous fermentations, etc. you're removing a safety net, but you'll end up with something that's less engineered, purer and a reflection of the individual plots.
Michael used the analogy of a ready-meal: "You just stick in the microwave, it'll be OK but never the same as if you cooked it yourself. You can't really screw up a ready meal but it's only ever going to be so good".
This might sound like a curious way of looking at Burgundy, but with a winemaker who trained in cordon-bleu cookery, Mischief & Mayhem was always going to be a meticulously crafted project making precise, delicious and very drinlable wines.