In January 2016 Andover Wine Friends had the chance to taste eight recent vintages of red Burgundy plus a wine which was four times as old as the second oldest wine of the evening. What did we discover?
The clearest and most immediate indication of age is colour. The 2014 definitely had a blue tinge to its ruby colour which fades in a couple of years. The 2012 was already a standard strawberry/ruby red and the 2006 and 2005 had a small rim and touch of garnet about them. Colour intensity is a different matter, being as much about the length of soaking on the grape skins as about vintage. Our 2012 was pale from a high-quality if small vintage, while our 2006 from a poor year was quite deep in colour. Of course there are other indicators of age – the transition from fresh, primary fruit through a developed phase where the fruit melds with oak to a fully developed finale when good wines show complex, bottle-aged notes of leather and forest floor.
The outstanding wines are (of course) from the best years …
It was hardly a surprise that the wines from 2010 and 2005 shone and were in a different class to the other wines. But nonetheless it is important that they were because otherwise broad generalisations about vintages would be worthless, even in extreme cases. Domaine de Bellene, Beaune Les Tourons, Premier Cru 2010 had a concentration and inner tautness about it which the wine from the same producer and same vineyard of 2012 did not have. Jean-Marc & Anne-Marie Vincent, Santenay Rouge Premier Cru Passetemps 2009 was very good with its soft, ripe fruit and milky, even, chocolate oak notes but it doesn’t have the definition and brilliant acidity of a 2010.
… but wines from lesser years still can have real appeal …
Domaine Maume, Gevrey-Chambertin, en Pallud, 2008 was a bit of a star despite coming from a measly 6 out of 10 vintage (Berry Bros) plagued by coulure (poor flowering), mildew, hail and saved by September sunshine. Now just over six years old there is an initial restraint about the nose which is slightly vegetal but with a red-berry fruit lift. On the palate the fruit is reminiscent of red plums and it has a silky texture and some intriguing stony notes. It may lack precise fruit but this is certainly a complex, satisfying and fascinating wine.
… as long as you choose a really good grower
This tasting only worked because all of the wines were from very good growers. It was based on the Wine Society’s ‘Take Six Red Burgundy Growers’ offer and while the wines came from relatively modest rungs on the Burgundy quality ladder (village level and some modest Premier Crus) the quality really shone through. If you bought eight or nine bottles randomly at this price level you are likely to have some disappointments along side some pleasant surprises.
Red Burgundy costs …
However much we loved these wines – and we did – there is no getting around the fact that they are now rather expensive. The average price in this tasting was £26 a bottle. Even the recent vintage (2014) from a modest village, Givry – in the Côte Chalonnaise, not even on the Côte d’Or – was £17.50. But there is nothing for it, if you want to enjoy and explore these most subtle of wines, that is what they now cost. There are only a total of 9,600 hectares of classified vineyard on the Côte d’Or, 30,000 ha in Burgundy as a whole. By comparison all 60 Bordeaux appellations add up to 120,000 hectares. So as a ball park figure Bordeaux is four times as big as Burgundy. This fact plus world wide demand means high prices.
… but the trick is to look to the minor appellations
Look north and south has to be the motto. There was a time when Marsannay at the northern, Dijon end of the Côte and Santenay at the southern, Chalon end were seen as bit players in the drama of Burgundy. But this is no longer the case. The improvements in growing and wine making means that talented people can make fine wines in less famous locations. Domaine Sylvain Pataille, Marsannay Les Longeroies 2011 was an excellent example with its clove-scented oak, good intensity, still fresh fruit and medium chalky tannins. Given the very good fruit concentration it is no surprise to learn that this vineyard, Les Longeroies, is at the top of the list for promotion to Premier Cru. That Premier Crus are being considered for this status is a sign that the so called minor villages are beginning to be taken more seriously. Equally, at the southern end of the Côte, as noted above, our Santenay example pleased with its soft fruit and fine tannins.
The wines may look pale and fragile … but the best age fabulously
Our two star wines of the evening demonstrated that, where there is quality in the first place, these wines can age and develop remarkable complexity in the bottle. The necessary quality in the first place is a combination of sufficient fruit (so that there is something which can improve with development) and some structural elements (acidity first of all in this relatively cool region, concentration, tannins). Domaine Jean Chauvenet, Nuits-Saint-Georges 2005 stood out a mile from our examples from 2006 and 2008, despite being ‘simple’ village wine, if from a grand village. This was partly due to the intensity of the fruit because of the excellent summer, dry and sunny with no heatwaves. But it was partly because, in its eleventh year, the wine was at a perfect point of development. The raspberry and strawberry fruit has been transmuted by the addition of an exotic blend with aromas of reduced meat stock, truffle and balsamic vinegar. Equally importantly the wine now has a rich, velvet texture and a long, complex finish.
These pale liquids may look fragile but do not be deceived. The final wine of the evening was shared from a friend’s cellar, the magnificent Armand Rousseau, Clos de la Roche Grand Cru 1977. In terms of colour we are now in a pale garnet register. The wine was in very good condition despite the low level, say an inch and a half below the capsule. But I could tell as I decanted it that all was well as I was greeted by that ethereal perfume of a lovingly aged great wine, with its hints of bonfire smoke and balsam. But the real surprise was the lovely, rounded fruit on the palate which lasted about 30 minutes in the glass before it began to fade supported by an elegant, full mouth feel. Not bad for a 44 year old.