Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Four Decades of Burgundy

Two celebrations … four decades

Every now and then the Overton BBC (bring a – quality – bottle, to be tasted blind) has a very special evening. June 2013 turned out to be special, even by BBC standards.  If it is a birthday or another special event, the person being celebrated gets to nominate the theme for the evening. First of all, Catherine – who sadly is leaving the area (how can she??) – chose a theme which made everyone want to be there: Red Burgundy. Then there was the announcement of an engagement: congratulations Laura and Tom. Finally, between us, we managed to bring wines from four decades of Burgundy, and not necessarily the four most recent … How can pale red apparently insubstantial Pinot Noir last for nearly half a century?

Au revoir  Happy day!
We tasted the wines in four flights. Though we did not know at the time, they were recent wines from the Côte de Beaune and then the Côte de Nuits, wines from an older decade and from a yet older decade.
Recent wines from the Côte de Beaune

Santenay Beaune Volnay
It is commonly held that the best red Burgundy comes from the slightly more northerly Côte de Nuits, just as the best whites come from the Côte de Beaune. But that does not mean that the reds from Beaune are to be disregarded.  Santenay Charmes, Roger Belland 2010, our first wine of the evening, showed why these wines can be special.  Immediately attractive,  bright raspberry and red plum fruit, a hint of coffee bean and vanilla from time in oak, medium grippy tannins and good if not outstanding length.  If Burgundy is about elegance, then this scores a middling but perfectly acceptable score, but the promise is there. Also good was Beaune Premier Cru, Louis Jadot 2008. Burgundy has this slightly odd system whereby a Premier Cru can either be a named vineyard of real quality (the basic idea) or a blend of the fruit of more than one Premier Cru vineyard not named on the label; Grand Crus have to come from a named vineyard of exceptional quality.  So this was a sort of junior Premier Cru and its quality was in line with that. The wine that did stand out in this Côte was the Volnay Premier Cru Les Taillepieds, Domaine de Montille, 2008, the real thing.  It seemed older and certainly more assured that the other wines, outstanding for its subtlety and fragrance, if really at the very beginning of its drinking life.  .  Here the wines are given their elegance by the very thin soils, resulting in concentration from lower yields.  The fourth of this flight was the night’s only disappointment.  It came from the best vintage of the decade and yet didn’t shine having with a rather tough, even metallic edge.  A faulty bottle perhaps of Aloxe-Corton, Michel Voarich, 2005.
Elegance on the Côte de Nuits

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This second flight of four decades of Burgundy was clearly very exciting as I completely forgot to photograph the bottles.  By the end of the evening, with 13 glasses, in front of me, that would have been reasonable!  The clue as to the wines’ identities was first that, yes they were from the Côte de Nuits and secondly there were variations in quality levels, ie,  potentially, generic red Burgundy, village, Premier Cru, Grand Cru.  First up was a wine of some youthful charm, brambly, blackberry fruit, softer tannins, very creditable. This turned out to be : AC Fixin, Domaine Hubert Frères, 2009. This is from a little known village, always worth looking out for in pricy Burgundy.  If we started with a village level and were on an upward ascent quality-wise, we would have a problem. The explanation was simple: the next wine was from ‘a much better village’!  (Our master of ceremonies clearly has a Burgundy quality hierarchy all of his own.)  And indeed it was a much better village:  Gevrey Chambertin, Louis Changarnier, 1999: fine, leather and compost notes over fresh raspberry fruit, silky tannins, showing some classy signs of development in the bottle but otherwise incredibly youthful.  No one got near guessing that it was a 13-year-old wine.  Upwards can now only mean Premier Cru:  Nuits-Saint-Georges, Premier Cru Les Pruliers, Henri Boillot, 2001: sweet ripe fruit, real elegance, very fine.  Janet and I bought this bottle at the winery and have had it for the best part of a decade, so it was good to share it in appreciative company.  Top of the tree in this flight was Clos de la Roche Grand Cru, Nicholas Potel, 2002, a Grand Cru from the village of Morey-Saint-Denis.  Elegant, precise, mineral, refined fruit, very classy.  So, on this occasion, the Burgundy quality hierarchy delivered exactly what it is supposed to.
Back to the 1980s

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At this stage of tasting through four decades of Burgundy, we were faced with three glasses in front of us with clear, garnet wine in them, mostly bottles long treasured in people’s collections.  As it happened they were all from the Côte de Nuits.  At this stage, when the wines are between 20 and 30  years old, the fruit aromas on the nose have been replaced with a bouquet of leather, compost and, if you are lucky, truffle.  This was beginning to be the case with Nuits-Saint-Georges, Momessin, 1993 the youngest of the trio and not quite in the 1980s!  It was certainly the case with Gevrey-Chambertin, Premier Cru La Combe aux Moins, Phillipe Leclerc, 1987 where the bottle-aged aromas are accompanied by delicious fruit and a good tannic structure.  The last in this trio was another Premier Cru but this time actually bought for this occasion as part of Berry Bros/Nicholas Potel’s Bellenum Collection, that is, fully mature bottles which have recently been moved from the original cellar to Potel and thus to Berry’s.  Chambolle-Musigny, Premier Cru Derrière La Grange (bottle number 102 of 460),  1983: slightly cloudy (no time to decant), fine fruit under leather and gentle decomposition, silky tannins, good length, alive and well.
A leap back to the 1960s

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In anticipation of tasting four decades of Burgundy, I said to friends that someone was bound to bring a bottle from the 1970s – but they didn’t!  Instead, there were two bottles from the 1960s.  We tend to think of Burgundy as light coloured with low tannins – and therefore perhaps not as ageable as Bordeaux or Barolo.  Well here was the test: after nearly 50 years in what sort of condition would these wines be? And what were the stories behind the bottles?  Berry’s Mercurey 1966 was a remarkable survivor, given that it is a ‘simple’ village wine, not a cru of any sort.  It would have been bottled in the UK, in fact in Basingstoke where Berry Bros now have its offices and outlet shop.  Pale garnet, medium-plus tertiary nose, dried figs and milk, perfect long tannins, superb sweet palate.   Bought recently for £6.90 as part of a job lot brought into a wine merchant for resale! The second was the type of bottle you might have high expectations for:  Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru, J. Mommessin, 1969, bought for £2.30 in 1976 and stored in domestic cellars (currently a pretty well-insulated garage), ever since … one careful owner as they say! Another sweet, fully mature, exceptional wine, with fruit still showing well at its core but with fascinating leather, chocolate and coffee bean notes, a greater complexity.

To draw some quick conclusions.  In this completely random if small sample of our four decades of Burgundy, red Burgundy from good producers conforms to some of the basic rules:

  • Choose your producer first and then the Burgundy quality hierarchy works pretty well.
  • Pinot Noir, despite its apparent frailty, is a wine which develops in the bottle over many years and decades.
  • The generosity of wine people in sharing old and great bottles is remarkable.
  • Departures and new beginnings are best celebrated together.

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