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February’s 29 days of Chardonnay

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White Burgundy’s Identity Crisis

Authored by Clive Coates MW

Excerpt provided by Filip Verheyden, editor and publisher of TONG


When Filip Verheyden asked me to write about white Burgundy’s identity crisis, my first reaction was to ask myself if the thesis was right. Yes, there are problems, but not so different from many wine regions.

Demand in the West has dropped and in the East the market is still largely confined to top Bordeaux. Prices have risen, especially for those paying in US Dollars and Pounds Sterling. Many collectors already have full cellars because they bought more than they consumed. There is the residual effect of prematurely oxidised bottles, which Arne Ronold MW covers elsewhere in these pages. And it is clear that standards in the Côte d’Or and Chablis – I exempt the Mâconnais – could be improved. But “crisis” is putting it too strongly. The growers and brokers I spoke to did not seem unduly alarmed. The top domains still have no difficulty selling their products. I asked around.

Becky Wasserman, a leading wine broker whose market is largely in the US, describes business for white Burgundy as “steady”, and for Mâconnais wines in particular as “encouraging”. On the other hand, Richard Elia, publisher of the Quarterly Review of Wines in Boston to which I contribute, pronounces interest in both red and white Burgundy in his market as “flat” if not “negligible”. Bob Feinn of Mount Carmel Wines near New Haven, Connecticut, confirms that sales of Grand and Premier Cru white Burgundies have taken a hit, but more as a result of current prices ($75-100) than because of fears of premature oxidation. And no more than other white wines such as Condrieu and top Californian Chardonnays in the same price bracket. “I wouldn’t call it a crisis,” he says. “It’s just that customers have less confidence that they can put these bottles away and forget about them than they have with red wines.”

Jasper Morris MW puts it more bluntly. A senior buyer for Berry Brothers and Rudd, and author of the excellent “Inside Burgundy”, he says: “If white Burgundy is not in crisis then it certainly deserves to be. Those who used to buy white Burgundy for laying down have stopped, not only because there are less of these sort of white wines but because of fears of premature oxidation.” And because we still don’t seem to know why this problem arose, it is difficult to be sure that it won’t recur. Yet more recent buyers on the market are to some extent taking up the slack by drinking the bottles earlier. Prices in real terms ex cellars, Jasper points out, have remained stable over the last 10 years. It is when you consider the progress with red wines over the last decade or so that the lack of improvement and consistency among whites is disappointing and even alarming.

So there may be no storm at the barricades demanding every last drop of Meursault as soon as it is in bottle, but the bottom cannot be said to have dropped out of the market. The old rule remains. Make good wine and you will have no difficulty selling it. And make wine that is only average, or worse, and your cellar will remain full. In many ways, white Burgundy is a unique wine. With the exception of a few dry Rieslings from Alsace and the Wachau in Austria it is the only dry – and therefore food-friendly – wine that at its top levels is better from five to 10 years after the vintage than before. I stress “top levels”. Consumers sometimes commit the error of assuming that all Burgundian Chardonnay can, indeed should, be cellared this long. The fact is that all Chablis with the exception of first division Grands Crus (Raveneau, Dauvissat and their peers) and from a fine vintage needs consuming sooner. The same goes for Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais. I am enjoying Jacqueson’s Rully, La Pucelle, and Saumaize’s Pouilly-Fuissé from Vergisson, both 2008 (the 2009s are richer but softer) right this minute. The same would apply to all but the best Côte d’Or whites.

Dominique Lafon told me of a recent experience. He was in a bistro in Beaune and noticed two men sending back a bottle of his Meursault. The words “prematurely oxidised” rang around the restaurant. He called the waiter over. The bottle was his basic Meursault 2004. Not a brilliant vintage, and now showing a little age, but perfectly acceptable if you’re looking for a full-matured white Burgundy. But prematurely oxidised? Absolutely not. “Messieurs,” said Dominique, “This 2004 is exactly as I would have expected it to be after all this time. This is what a fully mature Meursault tastes like. It is not “prematurely oxidised”. However, it is obviously not to your taste, so please accept a bottle of my Clos de la Barre 2008 with my compliments.

However, should more white Burgundies be able to hold up beyond their fifth birthday? Those that do are certainly much the more interesting and rewarding. And there is an ocean full of Chardonnay from around the world, much of which is more than decent (if tending to be overoaked) for those producers and consumers who can’t wait that long. It is difficult to be absolutely certain, but I suspect that more bottles of first-growth Puligny-Montrachet and others made better 10-year-old bottles in the old days than now. If this is true, and I have notes from the days when I was newly hatched in the business about 1959s and earlier vintages enjoyed 10- to-15 years after bottling, then this is a subject that needs to be addressed. However, it is easier to explain why this has happened than to be confident that the demand is there for the trend to be reversed.

Over the last generation or so, if “revolution” is putting it a bit strongly, there have been some major changes, many for the good, some for the bad, in the way white Burgundy is produced. The changes in the vineyard have been largely highly positive: the rise of biodynamism, the reintroduction of the plough, the fall in the use of herbicides and pesticides, the move towards the use of predators and techniques such as sexual confusion to reduce insect damage, the change from spraying by rote to the reactive lutte raisonnée, the limitation of the crop, the exclusion at the top levels of the picking machine, and so on. In the cellar itself much that is in vogue at present is for the better: sorting machines, bottling after 18 months rather than 12, and the overall reduction of racking and other manipulations. Not to mention the general improvement in overall cleanliness. Throughout Burgundy, as elsewhere, winemakers are interfering less than before. It has become a cliché, but it sounded new the first time I heard it from René Lafon’s lips 30 years ago. “Il faut avoir le courage de faire rien” (“One must have the courage to do nothing”).

It is when you consider the progress with red wines over the last decade or so that the lack of improvement and consistency among whites is disappointing and even alarming.

Subscribe to TONG to read the rest of the article. TONG is based in Belgium, at the heart of Europe. The word is Flemish for “tongue”.

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Clive Coates MW is a world expert on Burgundy. He lives in the region and knows practically all the growers there. In 2008, he revised his seminal “Côte d’Or: A Celebration of the Great Wines of Burgundy” under the new title “The Wines of Burgundy“. It is still considered the “Bible of Burgundy”. Coates published his fine wine magazine “The Vine” from 1984 to 2005. His website www.clive-coates.com features news from Burgundy, vintage reports and the results of comprehensive tastings. Access is free.

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