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Spring Blossom, Hope & Chardonnay

It has been a long time since my last post, and that was a rather depressing one on the problems of dead white burgundies, so with spring upon us with all its glorious riot of colour, blossom and fragrance, I thought it time to be more upbeat, helped by the fact that we’ve enjoyed an unusually fresh and lovely series of chardonnays, all in the pink flush of health.

It all started down in deepest Argentine Patagonia, on an enormous cattle ranch where I was, after 2 years of covid roll overs, finally able to meet old friends. As you may have read in these pages, one of my favourite wine producers is Jean-Marc Roulot, (a theme we will develop further here), but alas his Meursaults have become luxury items sought after by one and all so that the price has escalated to levels of sheer stupidity. However good a wine is, surely it needs to carry with it at least a modicum of value for money?

Anyway Mr. Roulot is a movie actor as well as genius winemaker, and I guess he was looking beyond his hometown. Another great love of mine is Italian wine (& all things Italian) so when the genie of Meursault meets the genie of Tuscany, you’d think sparks might fly. And, of all bizarre places, this meeting of minds just happened to be located deep down in the Rio Negro province of Patagonia, another place I love to spend time.

Chacra. It’s the best-known pinot noir estate in Argentina/Patagonia, founded by Piero Incisa della Rocchetta in 2004, grandson of the marchese who created the famed Sassicaia estate (super-Tuscan cabernet blend). They found vines dating back 80+ years, but it’s not actually the pinot I’m interested in. No, they had some vines, I think merlot, which were the wrong grape variety in the wrong place, so as there was limestone, they grafted them over to chardonnay and brought in guess who as the consultant winemaker. Calcareous soil, concrete eggs, little oak, biodynamics and old Meursault barrels. Under the aegis of the very same Mr Roulot. A compelling story.

The Charca chardonnay itself sits in my cellar, but it’s expensive (I think about 80 pounds) and so needs a little time to show its stuff. But they also make Mainque (named after the region) which is more affordable and available in London. So you can find a hint of Roulot at a relative bargain price. (As an aside, the same wines in a smart wine boutique in Buenos Aires, five thousand miles closer to the vineyard than London) were twice the price! I guess rich, patriotic Portenos will pay for it whereas Europeans at that price will not - too much local competition from Burgundy just to start with).

Anyway, the 2018 Mainque was gently reductive, pale, citrus, picked early with ripe green fruit, a touch of honey and a characteristic salty tang which you sometimes find in Chablis. All at 12,5%. Lovely, and, these days, good value as well as being a breath from the beautiful Andes.

But whilst down south, let me digress a bit further. I love to fish, and as I was heading down to the Rio Futaleufu in Chubut province (again in Argentine Patagonia, but south of Rio Negro) I kept finding that as the four-wheel drive lurched down the dirt tracks pothole after pothole, when I looked up, the fields, instead of being full of willow trees or cattle, were lined with neatly trained young vines. They were springing up like the dandelions on my lawn. How they will all compete with the far greater marketing power, alcohol levels and reliable sunshine of Mendoza up north, who knows, but it’s the latest trend.

On the plane I saw a post from Tim Atkin, master of wine, which pictured a familiar mountain, The Throne in the Clouds, seven thousand feet of rock and ice, which I could see framed in my bedroom window. In front of it were vines. As we drove impatiently after 3 frustrating years away, I noticed a sign three minutes’ drive from my bedroom. Casa Yague. It had just featured in Tim’s write up.

Of course, famous wine critics can be a blessing if you are a winery, or curse if you are a consumer. Sold out. Not a wine to be had. They sent me to their wine bar in town (Esquel) but at (I guess) restaurant prices they wanted 80 euros for their new chardonnay. Much that I love the place and was keen to try it, well…

But the internet back home got me a bottle from Spain for well less than half that. It was quite autolytic (champagne-like without the bubbles) and again very citrus with that distinctive salty tang. And at only 11,5% something you could drink in abundance and not risk a headache. A wine from really, really far south. Refreshing. I hope it succeeds.

And talking of south, let’s whip across the Atlantic to Heaven on Earth, or Hemel-en-Aarde, down in the Cape, a place of mountains, whales and protestant settlers, of Table Mountain, roads lined with agapanthus and (amidst others) chardonnay and pinot vines. The valley is very pretty and brought to renown by Bouchard Finlayson and Hamilton Russell with those burgundy varieties. The winemaker at HR was Kevin Grant who set off in 2004 to found his own winery under the Babylon’s Tower mountain range, and makes another of our favourite non-French chardonnays.

We discovered it entirely by mistake. We’d tasted at BF and HR and I was particularly happy as at HR in front of the tasting room (with olive oil as well as wine) was a lake and as we parked, a fly fisherman strolled up with trout in hand. Given the scenery as well, it was difficult to leave. But our dinner plans were scuppered by a wedding that meant our restaurant choice was unavailable, and as we set out to find a replacement, a power cut started, and we ended up with a romantic dinner by candlelight (complicated for the chef as half his cooking equipment was now inoperable). If the idea of no electric light or cooking utensil was not bad enough, they also had no HR chardonnay. They proposed something with an odd Greek name instead…

2013, nine years young, a whiff of reduction, some ripe green fruit and lots of palate refreshing acidity. Though I don’t like to compare everything to France, it was very Burgundian, but a wine with its own sense of place and another great value. I will get more.

If we stick with classical names, and holiday visits, my wife and I were also in Napa 15 years ago and thanks to friends were invited to lunch at Stags Leap Wine Cellars no less. As they were holding a Napa reception for over a hundred winery invitees that evening, they apologised profusely, but sent us up to their private picnic area overlooking the Fay Vineyard and left us lunch and four bottles of wine. They included their top 3 cabernets, but also a chardonnay. Not the usual, commercially available Karia, but Arcadia, their top chardonnay from Napa. Interestingly it was from the valley floor, not high up, but was picked early at lesser brix levels to reduce the sugar and hence the alcohol. Thus whilst most Napa chardonnays came in at 14.5% or more, Arcadia was around the 13 mark. Thankfully. It, joined later by Ataraxia, were our proof that Burgundy did not own a monopoly of good chardonnay.

So when writing this, I saw one last bottle on the wine rack, a 2015. Time to try. However, in the intervening decade, SLWC had changed hands, Warren Winiarksi was gone, and the estate bought by Antinori and Ste Michelle in Washington, two huge wine businesses. What this may have changed I know not, but I see the recent release Arcadia is at 14.5%. Global warming again, or just picked later to please the critics?

And the 2015? Hmm, a glance at the label (back and front) was not promising. 14,5%, and a new logo stating ‘Estate Winner Paris tasting 1976’. That refers to the blind tasting held by Steven Spurrier between Californian chardonnay and cabernet and Burgundy and Bordeaux. Chateau Montelena ‘won’ the white and SLWC the red.

My wife worked with Steven (now sadly departed) and I have met him several times. To put that now on your front label 46 years later seems a bit like flogging a long dead horse, and anyway SLWC’s great victory was red not white. And even the greatest California patriot would not put the modern day Montelena chardonnay or SLWC Arcadia (both of which I have enjoyed many times) anywhere near the 1e let alone grand crus of the Cote de Beaune.

So how did it taste after all this? My wife said ‘oh, it smells very French’ which it did, but on analysis it did not smell ‘French’ but reductive, these days the calling card of so many Burgundian estates. Once you swallowed it the back label promised ‘an alluring perfume, delicate fruit, vibrant minerality and understated oak.’ Wow!

Oh dear. Apart from the fact that I am not sure I need to be told what a wine tastes like on its marketing brand label, it was wrong on every count (though probably used to be a fair description). The wine had distinctive caramelly oak, blousy ripe fruit, no minerality, light acidity and a rather hard finish which I suspect betrayed the elevated alcohol level. We don’t like most Napa chardonnay which was why we were so happy with Arcadia as it was so different. The 2015? Well, it was Napa chardonnay…

At the other end of the spectrum, in Puligny-Montrachet, the story is rather different: world famous vineyards and domaines with billionaire’s pricing. At the top of the tree sits the much hallowed and biodynamic Domaine Leflaive, though in the 2000s their wines have been plagued with premature oxidation and, if that were not enough, excess reduction and even (2006) grapes picked too late - a horribly unreliable mixture of sometime delight and other time expensive rubbish. Thus when I decide not to sell, but to take the risk and open one of the few precious bottles I possess, I always have a reserve bottle of something else ready in the fridge in case the icon goes down the sink.

When I recently opened a 2011 Clavoillons 1e cru, from a vintage not loved by the critics, I was none too confident. It’s interesting in that it sits next to their Les Pucelles which is probably the finest 1e cru in the village and abuts Batard-Montrachet grand cru, yet Clavoillons lies in a bit of a hollow with heavier soil and carries a far more rustic reputation, all be it a stone’s throw from the elite. The wonder of Burgundy terroir.

But the 2011? Surprise! A lovely light, bright colour with lots of green hue mixed in. No hint of age here. Indeed, the wine was full of white flowers and ripe fruit, plus lemony acidity and thick, tooth coating mineral extract. Big and, I thought, very classy. A really splendid glass of chardonnay. Phew!

And when you’re on a roll? Keep going, fingers and toes crossed. As it was my wife’s birthday, and I’d cooked langoustines, I thought we should try the much more revered neighbour, the 2011 Pucelles. I almost trembled as I uncorked it, as this is way too expensive to tip down the sink or pour into my pasta, but lo and behold, the same lovely colour. The nose was more floral, more elegant, but in the same vein. It was only as the wine warmed up and you got to the finish in your mouth that you saw the difference. The acidity was trenchant and the extract textural – if ever you have winced at the clichéd description ‘licking rocks,’ then this was actually it. Very impressive and doubtless needing another few years to soften out.

What did I say about hope? Two bottles of star Leflaive on star form. Hurrah.

But my stock of these gems is ever dwindling and until I win the lottery, irreplaceable. The prices have doubled, or more, and I am semi-retired and anyway balk at paying hundreds (yes, plural) for a bottle of wine that disappears in a few tens of minutes. So, what to do?

If you stand in Batard, with the village and main road behind you and the gentle vine-clad slopes leading up to the treetops in front of you, Pucelles is to your right, Chassagne to you left (Batard straddles the 2 villages) and the world’s greatest white wine vineyard, Le Montrachet, slap in front, with Chevalier perched above. Great you say, whoopee, a nice view, but wines from four hundred euros a bottle at your feet to a thousand up the slope? Who cares?!

Indeed. But every hill has its other side just as every coin has its opposite face. If you follow the contour round from the more south-easterly facing Montrachets to the more south westerly, and head up the valley between Puligny and Chassagne, you end up in Saint Aubin. If you were a crow, you could fly to their En Remilly premier cru vineyard in just a few wingbeats. But your fame – and price – drops by multiples.

Why? Perhaps global warming has recently helped all the lesser-known ‘satellite’ villages (Monthelie, Auxey-Duresses, St Aubin etc) but I also suspect that any village needs its star families to fly the flag. Puligny has Leflaive and Sauzet, Meursault has Coche-Dury, Roulot and Lafon. And nowadays St Aubin has at least Hubert (or Olivier today) Lamy and the Colin family.

The Colins really started with father Marc, who had vineyards in Chassagne, but principally St Aubin, and made great value, good wines. In 2009 his eldest, Pierre-Yves split off and joined with his wife Caroline Morey to found PYCM, now one of the most sought-after names in white burgundy. The father has retired but his daughter and two younger sons took over until Joseph followed Pierre-Yves in 2016 to set up on his own and he is also an up and coming (low sulphur) young star. Talented family!

La Chateniere sits high above the Montrachet side of the hill, and gets all the south/south-west afternoon-evening sun. 2014 is a super vintage, and this was again white flowered/fruited but quite ripe, a touch of acidity and minerality, but mainly on the fruit-side.

The 2017 Le Banc, made by the elder sibling PYCM (his wife also markets serious whites under her Caroline Morey label, which cost less than the joint PYCM wines) comes from the other side of St. Aubin, and is ‘only’ a village wine. Also a great vintage, though young. But here, even if perhaps the weight was a bit less, the wine had more acidity and extract and a crystal purity, really classy winemaking.

Of course, all of this rise to stardom comes with a price. I think you can still get the Marc Colin 1e crus for just under 50 euros. The 2017 village wine from PYCM cost me a remarkably cheap 38, but I now see the 2019 at 2 to 3 times that – and once you get to triple figures for a village St Aubin, I am afraid you’ve lost the point. Well for me at any rate. I also have to say that the bottle is large and heavy, with a huge punt and waxed top. It looks like bottles from Domaine Leroy (or champagne), but why you need that for a village wine I don’t know. It weighed 910grams (2lbs) empty! Ridiculous and very politically incorrect. For how long will top domaines continue to show off with their ultra-heavy bottles? It really impresses no one and makes not a dime of difference to the contents.

Still, if you can find wines with Colin and/or Morey on the label, let alone both, you’re probably onto a good thing.

If you find one with Roulot, you definitely are, you just need someone else to be paying for it! Which was why we were so happy at our Norwegian friends 60th when they pulled out a blind white wine which we guessed as a 2012 1e cru Roulot (with a little help I might add – the guess that is). The wine was back to everything I said about those wonderful Leflaives, floral, fruited, tingly and chewy, with years left in the bank. We had a ridiculous series of top name chateaux and vintages, but at the end of the dinner, most people voted it wine of the night, and that was after two 100 score 1986 first growth Bordeaux and an Yquem!

It was so good that when back home I pulled out the humblest of his offerings, a simple Bourgogne. In the good old days, I got it for under 20 euros from the domaine. Now, well, they stopped even replying to emails years ago and the price is similar to that village PYCM St Aubin (and I mean the inflated modern price). For a ‘humble’ Bourgogne. A wine that, at retail prices, has lost its raison d’etre. But it has all you want in terms of bouquet, fruit, citrus, minerality and tension, just at a lower decibel rate.

Which made me wonder what it is about white wine as opposed to red that is so alluring at the lesser levels of the hierarchy? This point was really rammed home by another Roulot, but this time a village wine placed well upslope of the lesser 1e crus in Meursault, a Tillets, but from 2005 – seventeen years young.

First of all, it struck me that we drink a lot of serious chardonnay five years too young to get it at its peak, a problem of course exacerbated by the fear of premature oxidation, though to drink these sorts of wines when they are aged five is just a waste. This 2005 exhibited an intriguing green fruit that my wife cleverly suggested smelled of tarragon, an unlikely but accurate description. It was gently oily and nutty, but still vibrant, with acidity and texture. Just a wonderful glass, the sort that fills you with a sense of well-being. We were still smiling the next day, long after the alcohol had worn off.

The sommelier (in a restaurant famed for its wine cellar) remarked that whereas a decade ago, everyone ordered Bordeaux, now it’s all Burgundy and that a lot of crazed wine lovers come in, order the fixed price (least expensive) menu and two bottles of top label burgundy each! Yes, per person. For lunch. He said that the demand for the top domaines was insatiable, but also remarked on how many they had thrown away over the years with oxidation. What interested me was that I suspect Bordeaux lost its soul from 2005 when the top chateaux tripled their release price overnight and basically said to their faithful western customers that they were no longer needed, such was the wealth and desire in Asia. Lafite and Mouton even came out with Chinese symbols and artists on their labels which made it pretty clear where they saw their customer base and whom they wanted to please. I also think that the wines have become more uniform, later picked and riper, in an effort to please the US uber-critics and garner those high scores needed to support the high prices (and required to pay for the crazy boom in designer architects as chateaux competed to build palatial new cellars). It’s a sorry tale of ego and greed. I no longer buy any top Bordeaux, and they’ve been overtaken by Burgundy in the auction houses and restaurants. I just hope Burgundy does not go the same way, though I see no desire to please the critics with over-ripe wines and the stratospheric pricing seems more due to the secondary market and insatiable demand than the domaines themselves. But it is heading for oblivion as more and more wines become frankly pointless at over a hundred euros per glass… As I said, even if you are lucky enough to afford it, what about a sense of value? Rich folk don’t generally appreciate being ripped off.

Which brings me back to Roulot and my point about whites. I have never got that excited about a simple Bourgogne rouge and rarely age or expect great things of a village level pinot noir. And yet I do if its chardonnay from the likes of Roulot, Coche, PYCM etc… Why?

I suspect it’s to do with weight and density. In reds you need it. I don’t like big heavy or alcoholic reds, but as you go up the scale from village to 1e cru to grand cru, the weight increases and it matters. Often, I’ll drink a grand cru with lovely nose and fruit, but say it just lacked a bit of density. With whites, yes, you do also have less power, less textural presence, but somehow it doesn’t matter. If the wine has that crystalline purity, acidity and minerality, even at lesser levels, it can still be a delicious, memorable wine.

Perhaps I need to age my village reds longer too. In the meantime, it’s been a great few months with the whites. Not one bottle oxidised, but also nothing suffering from the other modern curse of over-reduction (due in part as a reaction to the problem of oxidation). We all enjoy that smell of struck match, or gunflint, but the more I read tasting notes on social media, the more I think people mistake that for something to do with the grape or terroir. It’s not. It’s just pure winemaking technique and though it be might be necessary in part, and certainly trendy, it’s got nothing to do with chardonnay or limestone slopes. And so often it can now dominate the taste, to the detriment of the underlying wine. More and more I read about ‘signature notes’ of struck match and gunflint, but’s the smell of winemaking, not the mineral essence of argilo-calcaire soil and the gold coast’s wonderful slopes.

But when chardonnay, especially from Burgundy, gets it right, it’s unmatchable. Whether it be a humble village wine or an exalted grand cru.

I just need to get those lottery tickets out again…

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