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Stars of Burgundy

At their historic estate in Vosne-Romanee, three women are beating the odds to produce some of Burgundy's most spectacular wines.

Even the most casual glance at any guide to Burgundy reveals that there's something a little different about the Domaines Mugneret-Gibourg & Georges Mugneret in Vosne-Romanée. It's not the word domaine, which simply means that this property is the usual complicated tangle of vines and cellars owned and operated by one of the hundreds of families who owe their living to this corner of eastern France. It's the unique phrase underneath the name and address: "Fermé le mercredi"--closed on Wednesdays.

Working out this telltale piece of information, however, requires some knowledge of the French educational system. To the dismay of many parents, French schools are open on Saturdays but closed on Wednesdays, so as to give the pupils (or teachers?) a midweek break. Domaines Mugneret-Gibourg & Georges Mugneret are closed on Wednesdays because it is run by three mothers who have deliberately chosen to put children before their work.

But theirs is no hobby operation. The mothers in question are the widow and daughters of the late Dr. Georges Mugneret. All are women for whom the French word sérieux, with its connotations of diligence and responsibility, seems to have been coined. Madame Mugneret is distinctly pretty, with a ready smile and the air of one who has delightedly let go of the reins. Marie-Christine and Marie-Andrée are more earnest and anxious to do what is right. Both scientists by training, they are the sort of people you would choose for companions in a lifeboat rather than for a night on the town. Marie-Andrée, I would guess, is the more romantic of the two. She says she dreams often of Noirmoutier, an island off the Atlantic coast where the family often vacations and where she met her husband. "Burgundy has everything," she sighs, "except the sea."

These three women have been running the domaine since the tragically early death of the dynamic doctor in November 1988. In the short period of time since then, they have become widely admired as some of the most punctilious producers in Vosne-Romanée, a village known the world over for the wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, of Domaine Leroy and of retired master winemaker Henri Jayer.

THE SPIRIT OF DR. MUGNERET
It is impossible to write about this domaine without describing Dr. Mugneret; without its being either mawkish or ghoulish, he is still omnipresent. He's at the family table where Madame Mugneret cooks a copious three-course lunch for her daughters every day and delivers perceptive tasting notes almost as a medium would: "My husband was always a bit skeptical, unlike most people, about the '83s," she muses over an obdurate Nuits-Chaignots from that year. When I visited, Madame served a four-course meal, the first of which was poached eggs in red wine sauce. (The recipe for this and other favorite family dishes follow.) The sauce was made with a bottle of the Mugnerets' 1977 Echézeaux and a half bottle each of their 1988 Chambolle-Musigny Les Feusselottes and 1988 Ruchottes-Chambertin. Marie-Andrée offered a brief commentary on the wines: "The '88s are very austere; they go well with the eggs because you need a wine that is not too tender." She added, "Maman once used a Loire wine for this dish and it was terrible!"

Georges Mugneret was the son of vignerons (winemakers) whose Domaine Mugneret-Gibourg comprised about 12 acres of vines around the village of Vosne-Romanée. In those days intelligent young men did things other than make wine, so he became an admired ophthalmologist in nearby Dijon. His widow can remember her husband saying that he couldn't understand why winemakers got so exercised about their fermentations. After all, the worst that could happen was that the wine would be bad, a trivial concern compared with the consequences of messing up an eye operation.

BIRTH OF A DOMAINE
No sensitive person can live on the Côte d'Or, the "golden slope" of world-famous vineyards that is Burgundy's pride and joy, without being "attacked by the wine virus," as Marie-Andrée puts it. In 1953, when her father was 24, he bought a little strip of vines in one of the Côte's most famous (if often famously disappointing) grands crus, Clos-Vougeot. And Domaine Georges Mugneret was born. He claimed he did it because his parents had been forced to sell their holdings in this ancient walled vineyard. Yet, by the time he died, Dr. Mugneret owned more than seven acres in five different appellations, as well as having taken over his parents' domaine.

Dr. Mugneret was clearly a man who liked to do things well. In fact, it was only a matter of a few years before he was even more anxious than his neighbors about the progress of his wines, which were kept in the cellars beneath his parents' house on the narrow Rue des Communes. "He was such a perfectionist," Marie-Christine says.

Marie-Christine had trained as a pharmacist, married and given birth to the first of the Mugnerets' four female grandchildren (who has already decided she wants to go into the wine business) when the family learned that Dr. Mugneret had only a few months to live. Marie-Andrée was barely 20 years old and studying biology as preparation for realizing her childhood dream of working with her father. Every Saturday morning, an increasingly serene Dr. Mugneret held a family meeting to instruct his daughters on how to run the domaine. "Those Saturdays were unreal. It was as though we were receiving instructions for a journey," Marie-Christine remembers.

But as the months passed, he decided he was asking too much of his family. We think he died believing we'd sell the domaine, they say sadly. He was determined, however, that if the property were to be sold, it should be sold whole and managed by someone he respected. (Already there had been overtures from some of their less tactful neighbors: a sly comment after mass about usefully contiguous strips of vines, for example.) Accordingly, he contacted the highly regarded head of one of Burgundy's bigger companies, a man whom the daughters have never met and Madame Mugneret has met only once.

This man, whose identity I can only guess at, sounds like a saint. He agreed to the deal with Dr. Mugneret and, whatever the terms, he would have been a lucky man to get such prize parcels. After the doctor's death, the family had only to pick up the phone to confirm the sale. But this man, amazingly, advised the women to have a go at running the domaine themselves. He even offered to find someone who would, discreetly, help them.

And so they did. "We did it because it was something we could do for Papa," Marie-Christine says. "It felt as though we were almost doing it with him. His 1987 vintage was in cask; we felt we owed it to him to get it into bottle."

Gradually, once they realized there were no rich pickings to be had, the neighbors rallied round. After a bit they were ready to help, especially the women. "A woman is respected if she does what she can, even if we need help from men for the heavier tasks," Marie-Christine says. And although the sisters' husbands, Eric Teillaud and Loïc Nauleau, help out, truck drivers to Domaine Mugneret know that they won't be able to visit "le domaine des femmes" on Wednesdays and that they won't get a hand with the loading. "But," Marie-Andrée says with some pride, "they know the papers will always be in order, and that unlike some other producers, we're happy for them to call between 12 and two." She adds, "You know, a smile makes up for a lot."

The Mugneret wines, which have always belonged to the gentler, less flamboyant school of red Burgundy that I personally favor, seem to taste even brighter and truer today than those made prior to 1988. Says Marie-Andrée, "You know that expression, An iron fist in a velvet glove?" Just don't use the F-word to describe those vintages. Marie-Christine states firmly, "We don't like it when our wines are described as feminine."

Story by Jancis Robinson, who has been described as the Julia Child of wine. The second edition of her opus, The Oxford Companion to Wine, will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.

Published October 1999
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