White Wine and the Pox
As most of my Burgundy allocations finally get delivered towards year end, I always look forward to December, an excuse to spend time in the cellar clearing space for the new vintage and taking out the goodies we plan to drink over the coming year. Pleasure stored up and then, finally, hopefully, enjoyed.
But there is always a slightly bitter edge, all those bottles that were affordable back then, but are now far out of reach. And, of course, just how many of them might go straight down the sink? Call me sad, but for the last few years I’ve kept track – around 4% of bottles we open at home, half a bottle per case, is dead, (which is actually less than many would expect given the amount of invective written against the cork). Of those, believe it or not, 55% are prematurely oxidised whites. Yes, whilst everyone knows about the problem of corked wines (red or white), over half of mine are in fact white and poxed. To such an extent that nowadays whenever I plan to serve one or take a bottle to dinner, I have a reserve ready just in case, (and sometimes I need a third if we are actually to have a drink at all).
Pox. Premature oxidation. It is a complicated, sad and at times disgraceful story. And, of course, a very scary one for some hallowed domaines in Burgundy as they are the main culprits/victims and, as the top wines increasingly become a luxury commodity status symbol, they must tremble. If your Chanel handbag or Hermes scarf has even a single stitch wrong, you take it back and it is replaced immediately. But if your several hundred euros bottle of wine is totally unfit for consumption, what happens? It’s an increasingly pertinent question as prices skyrocket. If it is corked, you can chemically test for the TCA and it doesn’t matter how you stored it, the bottle was defective from day one. But oxidation is more subtle, and the winery can always suggest that you stored it in the greenhouse or on top of the oven… Domaines may very honourably replace corked bottles, and some, a few, will replace oxidised ones, but not all, not by a long stretch. For them I guess it could have represented economic ruin.
Due to the potential financial consequences, it’s a subject that was kept well hidden by too many for a long time until the news was well and truly out. Certain domaines stuck their heads in the sand and preferred denial, others were proactive and tried to investigate what was causing it. A few journalists beat the drum, but many talked purely in vague generalities and continued to enjoy their tastings at the very domaines that they knew full well were the most affected. Along with the trade, they happily recommended and/or sold wines to you and me when they knew that one or two bottles per case would likely go down the sink. A conflict of interest?
Their advice, if that’s what it can be called, was truly unhelpful. I have read far too many pundits say you should just drink your Montrachet early and avoid the risk. But would you buy a Ferrari to drive only in a 50 mile an hour zone? Do you think the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie would have enjoyed their Hollywood sex symbol fame if they’d stopped making movies aged 12? It is frankly absurd to suggest that you should open wines young if they are premier or grand crus that are made to be drunk aged 10-15 years old (or more). All you get is a tightly wound ball of acidity. The future complexity and beauty are still hidden by puppy fat.
It was even more disingenuous as everyone knew which domaines were the worst affected. Ask any sommelier in a decent restaurant and they’d tell you, and their comments were far from polite. Too often it was the restaurant that ended up bearing the cost, (indeed, I would only buy mature bottles of some badly affected labels in restaurants as I knew that if they were oxidised they’d be replaced). There used to be a wiki site that was very useful (until seemingly attacked by bots or some such) as it gave you a heads up on which vintages and which wines to seek out or to avoid. It still holds a lot of useful information, for free. I updated it every time I drank a serious burgundy over say seven years old so that I could encourage, or warn, other like-minded chardonnay lovers.
Even recently I read an article in Decanter magazine stating that the premature oxidation problem was mainly from 1995-2005. What? Really? I have so far only opened bottles up to 2011 (a year with a bad reputation for premox) and have had oxidised bottles from every vintage 2005-2011. And if you look at most of the measures taken to try to address the problem, they were implemented far more recently than 2005. Indeed, back then the extent of the whole issue was only really coming to the surface. I just hope and pray that the problem really is disappearing, maybe from about 2014. Who knows? Only time will tell. It would be very sad if the magnificent 2014s suffered the same fate.
I recall all too well our first reckoning. We were sitting outside on the patio with our Norwegian friends on a perfect summer’s evening, admiring the roses in full bloom. As it was, I ended up so upset that I tipped two Ramonet 1e cru Chassagne and two Bonneau du Martray grand cru Corton-Charlemagne over them. Very expensive fertiliser and a sobering introduction to top grower vintage 2000 white Burgundy.
I am not a chemist or a winemaker, so my knowledge and understanding is purely second hand, much of it from the excellent work published by Allen Meadows (Burghound), plus other books/articles and a fascinating discussion (& tasting of the fabulous 2014s) with Benoit Riffault at Sauzet in Puligny, which was the most honest and thoughtful explanation I have ever received from a vigneron. Even then, he had no solutions, just experiments and hope (increased sulphur, longer necks to the bottles so that they could use longer corks, older – minimum 12 year old – cork bark).
Burghound first noticed a problem in about 2002, with the 1996 Chablis which is ironic as Chablis tends to be higher in acid and lower in new oak, and 96 was a high acid vintage – factors that in general repel oxidation. As time passed, he realised that the problem was far more widespread, and eventually the wine world had to admit that post 1994 there was a serious issue.
It’s not difficult to spot, though like corked wines, I am sure a lot of people have drunk lightly oxidised wines without realising, and just been rather disappointed. The colour is the first give away, a matt, dullness tending to the straw or gold end of the spectrum, not the bright yellow-green of a young wine. The nose hints at sherry or oxidative wines such as the Jura, the fruit is gone, it’s just flat and rather tasteless. If really badly advanced, you just get a brown-gold glass of nothing, with perhaps a lingering acidity. Awful.
As an aside, all is not lost. In France poulet au vin jaune et morilles is a delicious gourmet meal of chicken and morels poached in oxidative wine, and I have made risotto with dead burgundy for years. I collect those 33cl plastic water bottles you get on planes/trains etc and when I have an oxidised wine, I decant it into them and put them in the freezer. Perfect for sauces, though whether you really want your stew made of 100 euro Meursault, well… better than simply chucking it out I guess.
At the Noble Rot wine bar in Bloomsbury, London, known for its sense of humour and wine list, they had a stalwart on their menu which was Halibut in 2008 Batard Montrachet. Have to say it was very tasty, though, yes, I know…
Burghound stated that he too would have a replacement bottle ready whenever he opened a semi or mature burgundy and that though he continued to buy the wines, he mentally put a 15-20% surcharge on to account for the bottles that would in future be jettisoned. Of course, not everyone can afford to do that, and it does not dull the pain of your precious and rare grand cru that you have stored lovingly for a decade or more going down the drain… I always have a moment of panic when I pour out that first glass and see the wrong, oh so wrong, colour. Sometimes you don’t even need to taste it.
So, what happened, and why? My (then to be) wife used to live in an apartment block, and across the corridor was a French family who’d been (kindly!) given a case of 1990 1e cru Meursaults from Comtes Lafon. Gold dust. He was a wine merchant, and we’d often taste them together. By then the wines were all 10+ and yet we never found a dud. I was so excited that I did all I could to afford the odd precious bottle a year, and yet by about 2015 I was so fed up with oxidation that I sold the few remaining bottles I had left to pass the risk on to someone either braver, richer or less well informed. (I am told they are now back on form and certainly the few recent bottles we’ve drunk have been super, in perhaps a slightly fresher style). Ironically, I then bought Roulot as I so loved their wines and erroneously believed them to be pox-free. Recently I just tipped away a 2007, 2008 and 2009. Out of the frying pan… Oh, but when they are good, they are SO good, it makes the disappointment all the worse.
Three wines stick out as making me realise how wonderful old, old white Burgundies can be. The first was in Iceland when fishing in 2010. A friend brought along an old thing he’d found at the bottom of the cellar. The label had fallen off. He thought I might like to try it. It was 1992 Puligny 1e cru Clavoillon from Domaine Leflaive. 18 years old, bright yellow and spellbinding.
A year later and another fishing friend produced a village wine (Tillets?) from Roulot in Meursault. Also 1992. Again, a conversation stopper. You could not ignore its flavour, intensity and mellowed beauty.
Finally, in a very well-known high end Parisian restaurant, a friend of a friend that I’d never met asked me to order the wine. The (world famous) sommelier sidled over and asked what I liked. The wine list was huge and would take an hour to peruse. In some panic, I muttered something about 1992. He disappeared and came back with another village Meursault, Tessons, from Pierre Morey (who went on to be the winemaker at Leflaive). Epic and by then it was 25 years young.
How tragic if these moments were to become past history, or a millionaire’s lottery game. The investigation into the crime took years and you could say the jury is still out. The Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne allocated 2 full time researchers to it by 2006. The suspects, motives and causes were many and varied. As sorting tables appeared in the 1990s, confidence over the cleanliness and health of the grapes going into the must grew, so sulphur levels (the primary protection against oxygen ingress) were lowered, maybe too far? Nowadays many bottles have back labels that warn you about the sulphite contents.
Too much sulphur may give you a headache, but too little leaves your wine vulnerable.
Fashions shifted and the old vertical basket/cage presses were replaced by the softer pneumatic ones. Lees stirring (batonnage) became all the rage, but whilst it might stir in more flavour and texture, it also adds in air. Filtering, even in rotten vintages, became anathema and as sommeliers struggled to uncork bottles, the paraffin coating of corks was replaced by silicone, a potential oxidant. Some even said that the new farming methods used were reducing the natural oxidants (glutathiones) that were found in vines.
Who knows? Coche-Dury famously continued to use his old press and had very few dead wines. I think he also maintains batonnage. The old press crushes more crudely and roughly, and lets in a lot of air, but the oxygenation of the must at the time might in fact be a benefit as it oxidises out elements that then fall out and are removed by racking. In other words, even if your must turned a terrifying shade of brown, those natural elements that are prone to oxidation can effectively be dealt with early and then taken out, rather than leaving them in there with the risk of them oxidising in the bottle later. The heavier crushing also gave thicker gross lees that contain natural anti-oxidants. You might not get the gentle purity of a pneumatic press, and wines that can be drunk earlier, but maybe you lose a lot of defence mechanisms if you press so gently?
I don’t think many have gone back to using basket presses, or intentional early oxidation, though nowadays there are pneumatic presses that also allow some airflow. But the other significant factor was the randomness of where it hit. After all, if the cause was in fact the grape growing, the soft press, or the lack of sulphur, surely it would be 12 bottles per case affected, not just one or two? How is it that you can drink one bottle that tastes 30 years old, but its exact neighbour in the box is a pale, glinting greeny-yellow with floral aromatics, rich fruit and tingling acidity, a wine in all its youthful exuberance? There had to be something that was very hit and miss, rather than universal, and the obvious suspect then must be the cork.
On the left dead, on the right splendid. Look at the colour. Identical wines.
It might be the coating, or the quality – in the good old days the average cork tree was 21 years old before harvest, nowadays it’s a third of that, and the bark is consequently less dense and elastic. Surging demand for wine and corks has led to overproduction and as cork trees take time to grow, the only solution was to harvest quicker. Good for sales revenue, but not for quality. Hopefully the increase in other forms of closure recently (screwcaps, composites) as a reaction to corked wines may reduce the demand for natural cork stoppers.
Indeed, certain domaines in Chablis and Corton-Charlemagne have admitted they had subpar batches of corks in some vintages and Bonneau du Martray replaced 5 bottles for me with a better batch of corks and, yes, they were all perfect. So, if you paint a background picture of lower protection/higher vulnerability due to farming/presses/batonnage and less sulphur and then throw in random cork failure, well, perhaps you have solved at least some of the riddle?
Of course, the sulphur dosage and cork issues are also the easiest to remedy quickly. Many have upped the sulphur, and as well as longer, older corks at Sauzet, we have fatter corks (from 24 to 25mm) at Pierre Yves Colin-Morey and the introduction of DIAM composite corks at many top domaines, (just to add to the fun, some accuse these corks of excessive reduction and even point the finger at the glue used within them and claim to be able to discern by taste a real cork versus a composite cork wine).
DIAM cork, super wine. Look at the pale 11 year old greeny colour.
The list of DIAM users is very long now, but the majority converted after 2013 so, as I have said, only time will tell. Interestingly, of the superstars who seem to have pretty much avoided the scourge, I believe DRC, Leroy (d’Auvenay), Raveneau and Coche-Dury, have always used straight cork and still do. Sadly, they are now all stratospherically unaffordable to the average mortal, though I agree I have never had a problem with any of them (can’t comment on DRC!) and I have had the luck to drink lots of Raveneau.
If and when the problem is, or will be, properly behind us, I do not know. I think we see a bit less oxidation in recent vintages, but as said, it’s too early to tell, and try as we might, the sample that we heroically test for you at home is small! What is true for sure is that many domaines have done a lot to try to address the curse, but that the trade in its widest sense carries, in my opinion, a lot of the blame as regards the poor, paying consumer. I still recall another magazine article lauding the world’s greatest maker of white wine (or of chardonnay at least) when I knew full well that they were riddled with pox. Perhaps the journalists should decide who is funding them and their lovely tastings, the wineries or the punter who actually buys and pays for their magazines.
Top grade Bordeaux meant to age 20 years... but no.
By the way, oxidation is not just a Burgundian chardonnay malaise. I’ve had dead bottles from one of the best-known chardonnay producers in the Cape, from various grand crus in Pessac-Leognan (Bordeaux semillon-sauvignon blanc), from a God in Hermitage (marsanne-rousanne) and grand crus in Alsace (riesling). Plus chardonnay in Italy and…
Awesome line up of Burgundy, no pox, though Leflaive borderline too reductive. Sadly the decanter is not the sauternes, but France's most famous Hermitage blanc.
However, if there is a glimmer of optimism in Burgundy, there is also another black cloud on the horizon, partly due to fashion and partly due to the desperate efforts to stop oxidation. If you do everything to stop oxygen getting in, you can indeed protect your blessed must from prematurely oxidising, but you can then tip over into reduction, and that is, in my opinion, becoming a major problem also.
If you read wine tasting notes now you will see an awful lot of praise about ‘struck match’ ‘gunflint’ and ‘smoky’ elements on the nose. Hmm. When I first began to appreciate just how amazing white Burgundy could be, and buy some of the good stuff, my two absolute gods were in fact goddesses, the sadly departed Mme Anne-Claude Leflaive and Mme Lalou Bize-Leroy, and I was lucky enough to enjoy a few village wines from d’Auvenay (Leroy) and several grand crus from Leflaive up to 2004. All were mercifully perfect (Leflaive had a simply dreadful decade thereafter) and, yes, they had an intriguing whiff of struck matches on the nose. Coche-Dury likewise. But – and it’s a BUT – it was just a brushstroke, not a whole palette. The wines retained all the fruit, aromatics, extract and acidity that you could ever wish for. Beautiful.
I then bought a few 2004 Clavoillon 1e cru from Leflaive in bottles and halves. Some were lovely, others were undrinkable. We tried to decant, even to drink them the next day, but there was no improvement. The fruit, the bouquet were totally smothered.
That smell is reduction. It’s nothing to do with the grape, or the terroir, it’s purely winemaking choices to control oxygen. When deftly done it adds complexity and the fruit will still shine. When pushed too far, it dominates the whole wine, knocks off the aromatics and gives a rather hard, bitter taste that some conflate with the treasured ‘minerality’ but is nothing of the sort. It can kill a wine and I have never found that it ‘blows off’ as critics like to say. Unfortunately, it has become very much in vogue, and I note more and more wines where the reduction is borderline, where the fruit just manages to surface, but where the reduction is overstating its presence. Certainly, on Instagram you can see a lot of posts where it’s obvious that the wine’s principal taste is reduction, but people think that’s good and normal, probably due to the label.
The good news is that though so many wines are now reductive, I’ve never had one that was both reductive and oxidised! But what does worry me is that it is so random – from the same producer you can expect varying levels of reduction depending on the wine, and as a fashion it has swept the board, though I suspect some winemakers are trying to ‘dial back’ a bit now. But of my favourite domaines, I have had bottles from just about all that were not undrinkable, but definitely not as lovely as they might have been.
As an aside, I find that the Pulignys of Sauzet are less reductive than many, and more pure and crystalline, a lovely balance between fruit, extract and acidity, so if their oxidation problems really are a hangover from the past, well, bravo. I just hope their even more famed (& pricey) neighbour Domaine Leflaive has similarly got their act together, as their wines of the 2000s have been famously unreliable. High time to get back to the glorious wines of the past.
When it’s good, there is no other white wine I’d rather drink, but for classic Burgundian chardonnay, this millennium could not have started much worse.
In which case may I wish you a Happy New Year and one with far less pox, virus or TCA!