It was about 25 years ago that I finally began to appreciate the beauty of Burgundian chardonnay, and it started in Meursault. At the wonderful Vin sur Vin restaurant (sadly now retired), Patrice Vidal used to serve me the simple Bourgogne from Roulot. From there of course I moved up to the village wines and I recall a free tasting at Caves Taillevent (yes, those were the days, the wine merchant of the 3 Michelin starred restaurant in Paris used to hold amazing tastings which clients were invited to) where I was stopped in my tracks by a Corton-Charlemagne which sadly has vanished into nostalgia (vintage and producer) and a Meursault-Charmes 1e Cru from Roulot, 1986 I think. Both wines were not just memorable, but in a different sphere from any white wine I had tasted before, a mixture of power and elegance, of flowers and fruit, of mineral chalkiness and citrus cut. A tightrope act of impeccable balance, finesse and lingering beauty.
At the time, my (to be) wife rented an apartment outside Paris, and across the landing there lived a French couple. She was a rising star in the car rental business, and he was a wine merchant. To be honest I think he was better on quantity than quality (box wines sold well), but they bought my old wine fridge and in it put a case of wine that they had been given as a wedding present (why did none of our friends think of that?). 12 bottles of 1990 premier cru Meursaults from Comtes Lafon, neighbouring star to Jean-Marc Roulot. Super generously, they shared a few of them with us, and, rather like with Roulot, I simply had to get some…
But my timing was rotten. If I was weened on the great Meursaults of the late 80s and early 90s’, by the time I had cottoned on and scrambled together enough euros to buy some, well it was euros not francs. We were in this century. Bad, bad, bad…
Why, you might ask? I mean what was wrong with the early 2000’s? Well, sadly an awful, awful lot if you happened to have a growing penchant for properly aged mature white burgundy. Just as I began to buy a few bottles of Lafon (they were always expensive, so it was a the odd one here or there when I was feeling flush, or just desperate), the wine world was beginning to realise there was a hideous problem. Something had gone horribly wrong and seemed randomly to attack bottles across the board. Many of the top domaines suffered. It became the ugly secret that everyone knew, but nobody really wished to discuss.
This is not the time for me to wade into the complex mess that was premature oxidation (and I use the past tense with hope and prayer, not factual accuracy), but the last vintage of Lafon I bought was 2008 and eventually as I just could not afford or bear the risk of opening bottles that looked and smelled like dry sherry, I transferred the risk to braver souls and sold them.
I won’t go into what I bought instead, as that’s another tale of woe, as all I achieved was to jump out of the frying pan straight into the fire, to such an extent that when I open a bottle of serious white burgundy from 2000-2010 I always have a spare something in the fridge in case the first one goes straight down the sink (or into the cooking - I have some ready for stirring into the risotto tonight).
I guess for 5 or 6 years we didn’t touch a bottle of Lafon. Then we only drank it in restaurants if the price was good, and if it was oxidised we could send it back. But in Beaune, in Ma Cuisine I think, the owner told us that the domaine was back on form. We tried the Clos de la Barre ‘home’ wine from the centre of the village and it seemed tighter, a bit more reductive, full of purity and delicious, ironically reminding me more of Roulot than the slightly fatter Lafon wines of the past. But I still balked at buying it until I was in Maceo/Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris picking up some take-out supper. Mark had converted the front room into an impromptu wine shop and what did I notice. A bottle of Meursault Desiree from Comtes Lafon at a price that I simply could not resist.
Desiree. It actually doesn’t really exist. As a name, it was on the old land register and the Lafon’s have used it for over a hundred years, but as a vineyard it is nowhere. In fact, it sits in the middle of Plures/Petures which is actually Meursaults Santenots. Here it gets even more complicated, as it’s a nice east facing site, but on heavy red clay soil usually used for pinot noir not chardonnay. Indeed, if it’s red it’s Volnay Santentos. Lafon had the choice of a premier cru label or a village Desiree, and being the one white in a sea of reds, he went for the lower classification but the old family name.
Back when I was discovering Lafon, the top critics were pretty snooty about Desiree and generally suggested it should be grubbed up and replanted to red. And so, in 2005, Dominique Lafon did indeed grab the nettle as it were and pull out the vines, but, no, he did not add to his renowned Santenots du Milieu (rouge) but planted 60% massal and 40% clonal selection chardonnay.
And a new Meursault was born, with lofty nobility as parents.
The 2013 was the first bottle of Lafon I’d bought since those 2008s that I eventually sold in despair, and it was the first one to be drunk in the house in a long while. Years. The first thing I noticed was that the cork was long, and composite, a Diam30 made to last for the full three decades. I think they started using them in 2013. Interesting. I know he has also reduced free oxygen and upped the free sulphur levels as well as dropping batonnage lees stirring to try and keep the wines fresh and lively. I think the cork coating has changed (tougher to uncork for restaurants or you and me, but a tighter seal) and years of research and study channelled to fight the plague of premature oxidation. I fear only time will tell whether they have succeeded (here and elsewhere).
One glance was enough – bright, light greeny-yellow, fresh as a daisy. The nose was reductive (like Roulot and Coche-Dury the other two of the trio of Meursaults superstars), with bitter green fruit below and gently tooth-coating extract. And yes, mineral and with a long citrus finish. For a 5 year old vine, the wine was powerful and still young. I can feel my feet (& wallet) heading back to Maceo. We need more. Just for the intellectual curiosity of studying how it ages of course.
Good choice Dominique. There is a lot of great red in Bourgogne, but Meursault is Meursault and, all racism apart, it’s white.