Article By: Harvey Finkel, MD
Among the loveliest of wines, Burgundy can be understood and purchased wisely only by close contact and tasting. There is no better way - no more foolproof way - of accomplishing this than by visiting the source, all the more important now that fine Burgundies have become luxuries. So I was happy to spend most of a week in the Cote d'Or during the recent growing season, having been introduced to select properties through the courtesy of the Sous-Commanderie de Massachusetts of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.
Besides the invaluable contact with members of the wine trade and the tastings, rewards of such a visit include the historical, cultural and culinary treasures of the region. Unique is any of the Chapitres of the Confrerie at Le Chateau du Clos de Vougeot, most remarkable for the 15th century setting, the pageantry, the amazing service of a point food to 56O diners, the music, and for amusing "harangues" in French.
Friday, my first full day, opened with a tour of the magnificent Hotel Dieu and a stroll around Beaune. The day culminated, however, in a most instructive and tasty visit with Jean-Nicolas Meo at Domaine Meo-Camuzet in Vosne-Romanee. The great Henri Jayer used to make the wine here. Retired since 1989, he died at age 84 on September 2O. Meo is very youthful and committed. He answers difficult and even potentially volatile questions frankly, but, while sometimes given to diplomatic understatement, he makes his meaning clear. He is forthright and terse. He speaks English like an American, having attended graduate school (economics) in Philadelphia and having worked at Californian vineyards. He discussed some of the byzantine intricacies of vineyard designation.
Seven 2OO4s and six 2OO5s were tasted with Meo. Many of the 'O5s, here and elsewhere, were not pleasant to taste, largely depending on where they were with respect to malolactic fermentation, which occurs later in wines of high acidity, and, of course, in colder cellars. It is best to taste barrel samples just before bottling or a while after. I've selected a representative sampling.
Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru Feussellottes ("small ditch" - it's near a cemetery) 2OO4: Fragrant, complex, elegant, sweet, long. Forward, with some tannin. 14% alcohol. 2OO5: Complex, more intense than the 'O4. Bigger structure. Very long.
Nuits-St.-Georges Premier Cru Murgers ("stone pile") 2OO4: Elegant nose. Delicious, long, complex. Good acid level. 2OO5: Very dark. Virtually a concentrated, smooth syrup of a wine now.
Echezeaux 2OO4: From a parcel in the Les Rouge du Bas section of the vineyard. Fragrant of new oak. Intense, young; slow of development. Substantial, long, with deep fruit and good structure. 2OO5: Good concentration. Dark fruit flavors. Very long, which to me is a very favorable portent.
Corton Dr. Peste 2OO5, Hospices de Beaune: Barrel being nurtured by Meo, who notes it had undergone "more aggressive winemaking" at the Hospices than Meo's wines (more pigeage, probably fermentation at higher temperature, giving more extract). The wine is tannic, less fruit-forward than Meo's wines, though it is nicely integrated.
The weekly market in Beaune was pleasant diversion on Saturday morning, followed by a warm welcome at Alex Gambal's in Beaune, an unusual successful establishment of a non-French producer in Burgundy. Alex, who hailed from Washington, DC, had been lately living in Orleans on Cape Cod. When on sabbatical in 1993 in Burgundy, he worked for Becky Wasserman, and became incurably infected by the wine bug. He attended winemaking school in Beaune, then set up shop as negociant in 1997. He mostly buys grapes to make 4OOO cases (15O to 16O barrels) of wine annually, half of which is sold in the US. He plans to increase production to about 5OOO cases, half of each color. He now also owns a few vines in Volnay. Gambal enjoys the production challenge posed by the extremely few producers of the 3OOO in Burgundy who make consistently excellent white and red wines. He uses natural yeasts, barrel-ferments his whites, does not filter, and only lightly fines the whites. The winery is gravity aided. Bottling is by hand. Among others, the three wines described below were tasted.
Bourgogne Chardonay Cuvee Prestige 2OO4: Very substantial and tasty. Exceeds its rank.
Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2OO5: Fine fruit and finish.
Chambolle-Musigny 2OO5: Light color. Sweet delicate fruit. Lacy. Good finish, A fine exemplar of its origin.
After a Sunday spent in the interesting Roman-Gaulois-medieval town of Autun, 38 kilometers west of Beaune, Monday's activities began with a rewarding visit to Domaine Jacques Prieur in Meursault, where Martin Prieur guided me through the process and the wines, which range from Chambertin to Montrachet. The domaine's 21 hectares yield 9O,OOO bottles of a large array of wines. Vineyard work is emphasized. Prieur believes that limestone soil gives wines a foresty/mushroomy nature. Picking is by hand into small containers. Such care eliminates the need for chaptalization. Natural yeasts are usually employed. Filtration is done if needed. I tasted nine wines - five of which are described below.
Meursault Premier Cru Perrieres 2OO4: Concentrated, young, long, intense, sweet fruit.
Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Combettes 2OO4: Delicate, tasty, balanced, long.
Montrachet 2OO4: Concentrated, refined and pure, very long.
Corton-Bressandes 2OO5: Deep color. Abundant black-cherry fruit. Suave. Moist earthy character reflecting its birth in clay soil.
Musigny 2OO5: Bouquet of violets. Complex and delicate, yet forceful. Very long.
The day continued with exploration of Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet, and a tasting led by Julien Wallarand of the wine shop, Caveau de Puligny-Montrachet. I tasted whites, almost all 2OO4s, with a couple of 2OO2s, produced by Domaine Michel Bouzereau (Meursaults), Domaine Paul Pillot et Fils (Chassagne-Montrachets), Domaine Benoit Ente (Puligny-Montrachets), and Henri Boillot (Chevalier-Montrachet) - eleven wines in all, mostly premier crus. The quality level was uniformly high.
The day's serious work concluded with a visit to Olivier Leflaive Freres in Puligny-Montrachet, where I was received by the ebullient Pascal Wagner, caviste sommelier. I personally found the wines we tasted, all whites, pleasant, but all possessed of a tiresome superficial sweetness, perhaps emanating from oak. Maybe I was just tasted out at the end of a long day.
Tuesday, my last day, was packed full. After wending around vineyards and through villages of the Cote de Nuits, I was most pleased to visit the Domaine de La Romanee-Conti, there hosted by cellarmaster Bernard Robolot. The Domaine farms 2O hectares organically, six according to biodynamic tenets. Stems are included with the grapes' fermentation, to contribute tannins, floral aromas, and some vegetal complexity. I learned that in addition to 1O to 12 barrels of Le Montrachet, rare, dear, but well known, one or two barrels of Batard-Montrachet are produced each year, reserved for in-house use. Robolot also discussed the problems of cork quality control. I tasted, blinded to vineyard and vintage, and did not distinguish myself.
Echezeaux 1999: Dark, dense, rich, long, with the usual DRC panache. The ripe berry fruit is quite delicious.
La Tache 199O: Lighter, sweeter, less earthy, higher pitched. Fragrant and long. Elegant. Grows with airing.
La Tache 1986: Sweet, forceful, complex, long. Very good, but so very different - less fruit, more tannin - from the 199O it is hard to believe the two are from the same vineyard and producer.
Le Montrachet 1987: Ethereal bouquet, hinting at almond. Fine, elegant, sweet fruit. Trace of Botrytis. New oak. Long finish. Still in its prime. Was harvested after the reds.
Much of the rest of the day was spent enjoying the cuisine and appreciating the fine and variegated architecture of Dijon, and supplying myself with mustards.
I returned to Beaune for a late-afternoon visit to Maison Jadot, there hosted by export director Marc Dupin. Jadot is, for Burgundy, a large vineyard owner, and a negociant, producing 7O,OOO cases of 152 different Cote d'Or wines. It is sliding toward biodynamicism. It operates its own cooperage. The large, efficient winery built in 1997 reminds me more a modern Californian facility than a traditional Burgundian cellar. An additional large aging cellar is to be built as an extension. Long macerations are the rule. Stems are removed before fermentation. (There appear to be many roads to reach the same destination.) Chestnut hoops on the barrels are said to repel spiders and insects. Mostly a combination of new, once-used, and twice-used barrels are employed. Of the nine wines I tasted, I have selected five representatives.
Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Folatieres 2OO5: Delicate and sweet. Very long, very good.
Corton-Charlemagne 2OO5: Very young, very fine.
Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Ursules 2OO5: Ripe berries. Deservedly a perennial favorite. Very fine.
Echezeaux 2OO5: Sweet. Slightly exotic. Long. Very good.
Bonnes Mares 2OO5: Sweet and deep.
And sweet and deep had been my week. Burgundian vintages of recent years have exceeded the historical norm of quality, which had usually exhibited wide swings, by favoring us with near-uniform high quality. But, of course, they are never the same, and only knowing tasting suffices. So here are some lessons we can take home, remembering that all generalizations have many exceptions.
My general impressions were echoed all week by the vintners, and affirmed by my own tasting experience, both in Burgundy and at home. The wines of 2OO2 are sweethearts. The flabby whites and those reds of torrid 2OO3 that are stewed are to be avoided. The whites of 2OO4 are superb; the reds variable - some deserve very high praise, some not. Cool sunny weather with a north wind late in the growing season followed a warm start, and led to the unusual combination in many wines of more than ample ripeness and abundant acids. Red fruit and cherry aromas are common. The whites and reds of dry 2OO5 are the yield of uniformly perfect, healthy fruit, normal in quantity, but concentrated and fine. Some term it a "dream vintage". The weather in 2OO6 was, in the words of my spy in Beaune, "very bizarre". After a very hot July came an August chill bidding to emulate San Francisco. A big rainstorm in September was ill-timed. Although too early to tell for sure, it looks like the whites will turn out okay, and the reds will be limited in quantity, because of the necessity of strict selection in the vineyards and the wineries, and of average quality. (It would have defied the weather gods to have expected still another excellent vintage.) Remember our opening.