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  • adrianlatimer61

A Ride on the Burgundy Rollercoaster

Occasionally a kind and vinously very well-connected friend invites me to a tasting with one of the grands. I don’t usually post anything on big label wines or meeting superstars, as social media is awash with much that looks ego-boosting and in my opinion flirts dangerously with the ‘look at me’ mirror image. But sometimes there is something to say that might be of interest, at least I hope so.

Flagey-Echezeaux is on the wrong side of the tracks as it were. Or at least of the Route des Grands Vins. The monastic edifices of Clos Vougeot and the gold-dust slope are all to the west, as of course is the ‘real Vosne’ but its alter ego village hides to the east, surrounded by, mon dieu, fields of crops that were being harvested as we were there. It seemed incongruous as all the famous vineyards were across the way, though the village was typically old, sleepy and pretty.

Of course, I arrived early from my cheap hotel in Nuits-Saint-Georges as I did not want to be late. Waze announced ‘You have arrived at your destination!’ and I promptly drove past it. Stupid machine, it couldn’t be here. There was no plaque, no grand entrance, it looked like someone’s backyard.

Five minutes later I returned, parked the car under the most magnificent, enormous tilleul linden tree and rather briefly, I’d say almost brusquely, met someone who was rather stressed because his computer was down and, worse, the generator had been on the blink and the air-conditioning off. Given the June drought-heatwave (already), this was not good. No tasting in the normal cellar, and he was kitted out in shorts for which he humbly apologised as he felt it disrespectful to us.

To us? Let’s face it, the nephew of one Henri Jayer could turn up dressed in whatever he fancied, and we’d all be thrilled, but Emmanuel Rouget has no airs and graces. He was a man that was passionate about his wines, listened to what you said and had plenty of wonderful stories.

The most famous vineyard is the legendary Cros Parantoux, blasted out of the rock by his uncle and originally, post War, used for growing vegetables, topinambours (Jerusalem artichokes?). When it was finally planted with pinot, it was too high up slope (above Richebourg the very grand cru) and classified as village wine (find a 1976 Henri Jayer Vosne, if you win the lottery that is, and you will have, in the most part, the infant Cros Parantoux). It is now classed as 1e cru, made by Rouget and Meo-Camuzet, and the plaything of the ultra-rich, outselling nearly all grand crus apart from the stratospheric crème de la crème.

But I digress. Apart from his modesty, the one thing that struck me most, and is indeed the modern leitmotif of Burgundy, is the obsession with how to cope with global warming. Alcohol levels are reaching Languedocian levels, fruit is getting cooked, irrigation is both banned and logistically impractical. What to do? Yes, maybe the vines adapt naturally to a certain extent, but what can growers do to help, more leaf cover, lower or higher density plantings, closer or wider rows (for shade), re-orienting the compass direction of the rows, etc… Anything and everything is being tried to stop Romanee and Musigny becoming the next best place for syrah…

And, yes, 2021 was a return to the more classical norm, a dreadful growing season, hail, rot and you name it, heavily impacted yields but more balanced, elegant wines. If 2022 was (again) sunny (or super sunny) the previous low crop seems to have helped, the result being an abundant vintage (by modern standards) with relatively good balance. As I write this, alas, hail hit earlier this week and I have seen sad photos of St Aubin and Meursault grapes chewed up by hail. How this will affect yields, quality and pricing for 2023s remains to be seen. Whatever the result, it wont be good.

But the wines? With super generosity we tasted up the whole range and as always, the gradual ascent is marked, but if I had to pick out the wines that struck me, they were the three generic villages, Savigny, NSG and Vosne. All seemed beautifully made and very true to place and what you think they should be. And if you are sceptical about terroir, taste the two Savigny 1e crus – chalk and cheese, one with new oak the other with none as the heavier soil imparts more than enough structure to the wine without the addition of wood. You’d simply not believe they were both Savigny.

And then of course came ‘it’. The much awaited, tense moment when you reach nirvana, when someone pours Romanee-Conti, Musigny or de Beze into your trembling glass and you wonder just whether it can really be worth all the hype. Sniff, swirl and swoon?

To be honest, in the past I am usually underwhelmed or, to be more precise, overwhelmed by the impossibly exaggerated weight of expectation. No wine can really taste of thousands of euros (in my mind). But here, after the Vosne 1e and the Echezeaux GC, the renowned Cros Parantoux honestly stood apart in terms of freshness and a cool minerality. Naturally I did not spit. It was way too good (& expensive) to let go and, really, it did seem to convey what you read about in all those glowing tasting reports. Without doubt it stood above, both in terms of altitude and quality. I will not have the opportunity to taste it again, so I have tried to log the privilege well into my mind. Thankyou Peter and an even bigger thankyou to Mr. Rouget.

Back in NSG the next morning, I found myself by chance just across the (same) road from the heart of the 1e crus. A breakfast walk seemed a must, especially as it’s an area that I have never explored on foot, but which represents a lot of my cellar under the labels of Chevillon, Gouges and others. Surely some of the best value (if such a term can still be used) in (red) Burgundy?

Once again, the only way to understand these terroirs is to plod around (or bicycle) and see it for yourself, to feel the gentle slopes, to see the combe coming down from the tree topped hill, a small valley that lets the cooler air flow down and deposits its alluvial silt down the slope. There was the glorious trio, Les Cailles, Vaucrains and Saint Georges, the latter vying for an upgrade to grand cru as NSG has none (but like the more happily bestowed villages to the north, appended its most famous vineyard to its village name). Selfishly I rather hope LSG stays 1e cru, as NSG without grandeur remains almost affordable. For now. Just.

Tractors were out everywhere, the ‘enjambeurs’, those funny skinny ones that squeeze through the spaces between and over the rows of vines. You could see the different methods of farming, some leaving all to Nature, some (as in Mme Bize-Leroy, Lachaux etc) with higher trellis and top shoots left to run amock like a hippy with crazy hairstyle, some trimmed and neat, some ploughed. You tell me whether cover ‘crops’ are good or bad, whether ‘excess’ growth should be paired back, just how much Nature should be tamed or assisted. Either way, it was all on display. It’s not just the terroir, the farming makes a huge difference before the winemaker has even cleaned out his tank.

I was only in Burgundy for a day as our Norwegian (wine-loving) friends were at home, so I needed to hurry back and get the corkscrew to work. And as I then came back from Iceland with some freshly picked arctic thyme, some fish seemed in order, a fabulous fletan (halibut) broiled in the oven with butter, wine and herbs. The perfect excuse for their last night send-off meal and an all too rare tasting of top white burgundies that none of us can ever afford again. But at least a chance to compare and learn, for now.

Opening mature white burgundy at the moment is a fool’s game. It costs too much and a lot of it goes straight down the sink, browning, flat, sherried and oxidised. Before we got to this evening, we’d already had two bottles join the hall of shame.

Andre had brought a 2008 Chablis Les Clos from William Fevre. Nice vintage, the most famous vineyard and from a top grower. But… and it’s a large but. 2008 was one of those problem years. He’d already tipped some away, and this was the last chance for redemption.

I guess he didn’t pray hard enough. Dull, fruitless, dead.

I had ratcheted the risk up a level. Fevre’s grand crus from the domaine are now in triple figures, but Domain Roulot in Meursault has gone into orbit. Years ago, I had a tiny allocation, but then they simply stopped answering my emails. I love the wines hugely, for their purity and minerality, they are just so delicious, but they too suffered from the pox.

Meanwhile the market copped on, and the prices began to skyrocket. Their generic village wine is now well over 400 euros. For a simple village wine. Even in the hands of a master, this is beyond ridiculous. I don’t know what they charge at the cellar door, but unless you have an allocation, it’s not just unaffordable but idiotic.

As was the 2012. Just look at the colour. No need for further comment.

Well that’s half a thousand euros down the drain already (in terms of replacement cost).

Time to roll the dice again. Up the stakes? If I had to pick two of the worst offenders (for premox) they’d be Roulot’s neighbour Comtes Lafon and the superstar of Puligny, Domaine Leflaive. But I guess once you’ve started to gamble, you don’t stop.

I stopped buying Lafon and sold what I had as the premox risk was too high. But in 2013 they switched to DIAM 30 corks and I heard that ‘Lafon was back’. In 2008 he had grubbed up the chardonnay vines in the Desiree vineyard, a part of Santenots (Volnay) but white. It had never received the same critical acclaim, or price as his other village wine, the walled Clos de la Barre and some suggested it should be grafted over to pinot noir.

On top of that, 2013 is not a good white vintage, but it was the first of the new Desiree with the new cork. Infantile vines, but what was it going to be like? The colour was an encouraging light greeny-yellow. Quite reductive, bitter green fruit skins, nice tooth-coating extract, mineral, citrus, very dry, powerful, but a touch austere. All in all, impressive stuff and promising! Sadly his prices seem to be trying to follow Roulot or Coche-Dury, so it’s all rather theoretical now.

We were so relieved that we stuck our neck out further with perhaps the star domaine of Puligny but one which in the first years of this century was a byword for unreliability, wines premoxed, reduced to death, over-ripe and maybe slightly botrytised (2006). I looked at the 2011 Domaine Leflaive Les Pucelles, their top 1e cru, and wondered. Did I have the courage to open it, be possibly disappointed, throw it away and wish I’d sold it? Or take the risk and try…?

Wow. Lovely pale bright green-yellow. White flowers on the nose, a ripe fruit centre, good acidity, as it warmed up it opened, super thick extract & citrus finish, tooth coating, long, elegant and in perfect condition. When it’s good, it is so good. Eureka!

And so to our halibut and the big dinner. Andre had brought a 2009 Bourgogne Blanc. Before you sniff at such, it’s from de Vogue, young vines chardonnay planted in what some would say is the finest vineyard in Burgundy, Le Musigny. And from de Vogue, who declassified what could be young vines Musigny grand cru down to generic Bourgogne (it’s now back to Musigny as it was pre 1993 and post 2015). Should you wonder at the price level, the 2009 plonk retails at around 700 euros. Yup, for basic Bourgogne blanc.

De Vogue is famous for its huge (7 hectare) holding in Musigny and Chambolle sells on its red wines and its superstars (principally Roumier and Mugnier as well as de Vogue). Yes, Roumier makes some Corton-Charlemagne and Mugnier grows some (very nice but now over-priced) chardonnay in his Clos de la Marechale vineyard at the southern end of NSG, but basically this is red wine heaven and pinot noir supremos.

I’ve tasted the Bourgone before, once it was oxidised, once it was nice, but not worth the price level back then (which was a fraction of current levels). I suppose if DRC dug up a few rows and planted chardonnay in Vosne that too would sell for thousands. Stupid.

Ah, forgive me, but I can’t avoid an aside. Years ago, I’d bought some Hautes Cotes de Nuits blanc for myself and Andre. It cost 35 euros, I remember it well as the shop charged me 50 and I had to go back and demand a refund.

So what you might say? Well, it’s a humble appellation too high up the valleys to be very good, though in the hands of some (Meo-Camuzet’s Clos Philibert comes to mind) it can make great value and really rather good chardonnay. Sadly, Meo has just had to replant some of the vines so this year I did not get any from my usual merchant in NSG.

Andre called up to say he had some of the 2012 (not from Meo) and should be bring it? He was a bit bemused as he’d seen some Asian prices on Wine Searcher. There must be some mistake.

Ah hah, a mistake. Oh yes. I have seen this wine being bottled. In a well known domaine in Vosne, behind very locked red gates. It is sold for charity, to raise funds to restore the Abbaye de Saint Vivant. A clue?

No. Okay, look at the label closely. You’ll see it was bottled by someone with 3 letters. DRC. Domaine de la Romanee-Conti.

DRC’s whites are known to be picked late and tend to the opulent and heavy in style. I’ve drunk a fair few of the HCN and it’s very nice but no more. Definitely not going to show up a good Meursault or Puligny. But…

Andre also asked me whether I could pass via Fixin on my drive home to collect some wines from Gelin. When tasting there we discussed this and that, and the fact that DRC was holding a concert I think at the Abbaye that day. A client had given them a box of guess what. The HCN. She did not like it that much. I asked if she had any left. She did. Two bottles.

I suggested that she might send them to IdealWine to sell. The reserve price would be over 500 euros. I kid you not. On, and that is per bottle.

I thought she might give me a bottle of Clos de Beze as I’d just handed her a thousand euros, but no.

So, back to Musigny and the hallowed Bourgogne.

At a cool hundred euros a glass, the wine was undrinkable. A dull straw colour, oxidised, no fruit, flat and unpleasant. Oh well.

As another aside, though of little practical use now, de Vogue made(makes) a splendid village wine (which included parcels of 1e cru that were too small to vinify separately) that to me was everything I ‘expect’ (hope?) Chambolle to be. Perhaps I tend to caricature the village, but Chambolle should be red fruited, floral, a bed of roses, a touch of caramel and then that iron fist in velvet glove core of stony minerality. You get it in spades from the 3 stars and the de Vogue village used to be affordable and classic. And the 1e cru, like the Bourgogne, was in fact young vine Musigny and tasted as such. It used to fly a bit under the radar, so people in the know got their Musigny ‘on the cheap’ (all things being relative), but nowadays any hint of value in Chambolle is long, long gone. Indeed, I suspect it offers the least good value in Burgundy. Yes, the summit is doubtless marvellous, but there is a lot of Chambolle selling at high prices that I find way too spicey, thick and quite extracted, bearing little resemblance to my iconic vision, in which case why are you paying for it, other than the label?

Ok, so that was a ‘bit of a bummer’. The most expensive wine of the evening (but I expected the least good) was off. What next? The three bottles I had in the fridge all suffered from premox problems back then (hopefully not now), but I had nothing else.

Bonneau du Martray is the Vogue of Corton-Charlemagne in that they own a huge swathe of it (and have recently farmed some out to DRC, wouldn’t that make a fascinating tasting one day off yonder? Sadly, the one has tripled its price since the American billionaire buy out and dropped me from their client list without comment or reason and the other makes the de Vogue look cheap).

I had the 2008 in Flagey and it glimmered with a lovely green tint, and was all about green fruit, grapefruit, extract and austerity. Powerful but still quite backward. Whether time will soften the wine and better balance the bite, I’m not sure. In contrast the 2009, a sunny year, was also a nice green, but riper, though retaining the minerality and citrus finish. It was hugely minty and quite splendid, a lot easier now than the 2008, though I couldn’t help the heretical thought that a splash of the 08’s lean restraint in the plusher 09 would have made for something amazing. Perish the thought of course.

After that we went for bust. Oxidation apart, I love Sauzet’s wines in Puligny. They don’t get the same acclaim as Leflaive (or price), but certainly in the 2000’s have shown far greater reliability and I find are a standard bearer for terroir and purity, chalkiness and balancing acidity.

As you head from Puligny towards Chassagne and enter the hallowed grand cru zone, to your right (west) upslope sits Le Montrachet with Chevalier above that. To your left downhill is Batard and the small north-east corner is Bienvenues. It looks like someone just carved out the bottom right-hand corner of Batard.

I don’t get the chance to taste the illegitimate and the welcome illegitimate very often side by side (well, pretty much never), but here they were. And Bienvenues abuts Les Pucelles to keep the neighbours close.

The colour was different from the C-C, more yellow in the spectrum. The BBM had a touch of that mintiness, but the fruit too was yellower, riper, though kept in check. The weight was bigger, until you tasted the Batard which was even more dense and tasted a couple of years younger. If I had to characterise them, I’d say the BBM was the more elegant and a touch more forward, the BM the more backward and powerful. Big wines with, happily years to go and, hurrah, neither oxidised nor overshadowed by the modern vogue for reduction, struck match, gunflint etc. No, they tasted of chardonnay grapes, the sun and the place.

I can’t really comment on the 2010 Fevre Chablis Les Clos as Andre threw it in at the end to see if it was good and yes it very much was, but you can’t seriously taste Chablis after Batard, it’s unfair and we should have enjoyed it reverently on its own in a few years’ time. Greedy, and pretty dumb. But it did show the difference that an hour and a half in the car can make, between the great bookends of Burgundian chardonnay.

Conclusions? If you want to throw money at great whites, at least do so with the best chardonnay experts; the grand crus are a level above and need to get into their teens to show their mettle, but are now priced into the stratosphere; stylistically you take your choice between the linear, oyster shell elegance of Chablis, the heavier, ultra chalky density of Charlemagne and the riper, solid weight of Batard. The nose shifts from the marine/saline mineral and greener fruited to the same profile but with the emphasis on chalk and more depth to the southern end where the fruit turns to yellow fleshed and the punch to heavyweight.

I don’t believe in scores and wines are not contestants in Miss World. We had much debate as to which was the most enjoyable now, or the most impressive, or the best, but came to no conclusion, which is as it should be. Each wine was an utterly compelling treat and should be judged as such.

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