Article By: Harvey Finkel
Burgundy (i.e.: the Côte d’Or) is mysterious. Despite the misleading simplicity of essentially one white and one red grape sources, it is the wine region that novices are never comfortable confronting. Many winemakers make what is labeled as the same wine. Many winemakers are not equal. The terrain is divided into very many small parcels, sometimes by no visible physical boundaries. The very many small parcels exhibit infinite variation. There are growers and there are négociants, who used to be called “shippers,” though frequently the same people are both. Perhaps my message is best encapsulated by two quotes from Alex Gambal, an American grower/négociant in Beaune: “Burgundy is not a spectator sport; it is a contact sport” and, “Good Burgundy is not expensive enough; bad Burgundy is much too expensive.”
He believes that who made a wine is of first importance; where it was grown second. I fully agree.
Before we go on to elaborate on Maison Alex Gambal and the exciting 2OO9 and 2O1O vintages in Burgundy, let me make two personal observations. White Burgundy can be a magician, playing hide and seek with us. On first being poured, it may seem uninteresting, monotonic, but after some time in the glass, perhaps with warming and aeration, it often reveals all kinds of delicious nuances. Where were they hiding? Well-crafted red Burgundy should be delicate, its qualities transparent, rather than opaque and impenetrable. At its best, Burgundy of either color can be ethereal.
Gambal and his wife Diana, visiting recently, among other duties presided at a dinner given by the Massachusetts chapter of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, the Burgundy educational and chowder society. I was privileged to attend, and lucked out by being seated between the Gambals. The focus of the evening was Gambal’s array of wines of the esteemed 2OO9 vintage and his pithy remarks on the wines, that vintage, and Burgundy in general, enhanced a few days later by receipt of his diary notes on 2OO9 and 2O1O. Alex generously (and bravely) has allowed his remarks and notes to be quoted without restriction.
Alex Gambal, a remarkably youthful 55, has been in Burgundy for 19 years. He took a Sabbatical from a real estate business in Washington, DC, and wound up working in sales for Becky Wasserman, a respected Beaune exporter. Bitten by the wine bug, he went to wine school, Le Centre de Formation et de Professionnelle Promotion Agricoles (CFPPA) de Beaune, and in 1997 set up as one of a number of new négociants. Because finding good-quality grapes is often a struggle, Gambal purchased his first vines in 2OO5. Now, about one-third of his 4,5OO-case production comes from his own 3.5 hectares of vines. He is moving toward biodynamics, in order to improve the soil. He makes about 2O different wines (1O of each color) in an average vintage, selling them mainly in the US, France, and Japan, in that order.
Gambal is excited about the notable vintage of 2OO9. I’ll allow him to expound via his diary notes, lightly edited for brevity and clarity. As a bonus, his comments on the “terrific” 2O1Os are appended. I’ll conclude with my brief tasting notes on the six 2OO9 Alex Gambal wines that accompanied the dinner.
Not much increase in sugar since the rain the last two days, but the grapes taste better. Sugars mean less in making wine than experts say. The question is whether the fruit is ripe through and through. The definition of ripe fruit is when the seed is ready to regerminate, to make baby vines. Here at the 47th parallel it is difficult to get grapes to do this. It takes a rapid flowering, sunshine, a breeze, warm but not blistering hot sun all summer, some rain so photosynthesis continues, and a beautiful September, all about 1O5 days from flowering. We get our maximal sun for a short period in summer. Anything that reduces sunshine shortly before or shortly after June 21 reduces photosynthesis severely. Unlike California, we count on luminosity rather than heat. We are further north than the northern tip of Maine. The weather has been memorable since spring, and the grapes are healthy. Not too many on the vines. They taste wonderful. They are sweet, complex, perfumed, and have supple tannins. The red grapes are crunchy, not astringent. They are balanced, with acids and sugars mutually enhancing (a favorable tartaric:malic balance). The indicator was the most wonderful crop of cherries I’ve seen in 17 years here. (As cherries, so the grapes and other fruit.)
In 2OO5, were very ripe seeds, a 1/3, 1/3. One-third balance between fruit, tannin, and acid. In 2OO9, a much higher proportion of ripe tannins, lower acid level, and normal to high sugars – gives a sweet, velvety wine with no rough edges. You do not notice the very high tannin levels because they are ripe and supple. The wines will give great pleasure early, yet will last for ages.
2OO9 appears to be an outlier vintage, akin to the legendary 1947 and 1959; not classic, like 1999, 2OO2, 2OO5, even 2OO8 (cool growing seasons that stretched out).
The 2OO9s in perspective: The reds are lovely, pure silky Pinot Noirs that will last for many years. The wines from the start seemed too easy, but at the end of their élevage they showed underlying structure. This is a year one can buy all levels of Burgundy: Bourgogne, village, premiers and grands crus. In 2OO9, the Bourgognes and village wines “punch harder for their weights” than do the prestigious crus. The whites are lovely, ripe, exuberant wines, and are delicious now. They have begun to show more spine since bottling.
The 2O1Os, both white and red, are concentrated, dense, delineated, in some ways a throwback to pre-World War II low-yield, complex vintages. Very difficult growing season: killing cold in December, 2OO9; impaired flowering and poor fruit set in the spring; very hot July, but cool August. Drastically lowered yields of thick-skinned, small, highly concentrated grapes. Red wines very dark, for the long haul. White: fantastic balance of ripe fruit and wonderful acidity. May not be wines for novices. The most interesting and best wines we’ve ever made.
BOURGOGNE CHARDONNAY 2OO9
From parcels in Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, and half from estate vines in Volnay. Barrel fermented in 1O-15 percent new oak. Balanced, pure; quality above its station. Finishes well.
75O cases made. $26
MEURSAULT CLOS DU CROMIN 2OO9
A lieu-dit. From 7O-year-old vines, a small percentage probably muscat. Made in one-third new oak. Fruity, perhaps slightly rustic, but satisfying. 15O cases. $56
CHASSAGNE-MONTRACHET CLOS ST. JEAN 2OO9
A premier cru. Fuller and finer. Good fruit. 87 cases. $74
SAVIGNY-LÈS-BEAUNE VIELLES VIGNES 2OO9
Matured in 2O percent new oak. Fine fruit, with good acid balance and a little overt tannin. Not complex, but most pleasant.
25O cases. $36
Made with a small percentage of whole clusters for complexity. One-third matured in new oak. A little less color than the preceding, but fuller fruit, more complex, longer. (An illustration that color is of little importance in Pinot Noir.) Fine wine. 15O cases. $65
VOSNE-ROMANÉE VIEILLES VIGNES 2OO9
One-third new oak. Ripe and full. Good balance and length. Youthful. 175 cases. $69