Drink a Lot of Burgundy
Everyone that reads this blog knows I’m a Bordeaux aficionado and even the name of this site is a reference to Bordeaux. But great wine from any region is still great wine, so life can’t be just about Bordeaux. I recently attended a Burgundy tasting and it again reminded me of why so many people love this remarkable region. I do too.
I’ve had more than my share of great Burgundy but this event, put together by Brian Owens for his Wine Salon, brought we collectors together with a number of very talented sommeliers, including a Master Sommelier and several studying for their Master of Wine or Master Sommelier designation. We all brought Grand Cru and Premier Cru Burgundy to this salon so the somms don’t have to just read about these storied wines, but rather they also get to actually taste them. Regardless of how much book knowledge one has acquired, tasting is really mandatory in terms of truly understanding a region, an appellation, a château or domaine, a grape, a wine producer, a vintage, and a vineyard. There were also several Champagne Grand Crus, and what would be Grand Cru if the Rhone had such a designation – top wines, all. At least 54 extraordinary and legendary wines were served to about 24 people along with a masterfully paired selection of charcuterie from Chef Wolfgang Murber at Fabi & Rosi.
On more than several occasions I have tasted Burgundy’s finest Grand Cru white wines side-by-side from the same vintage and producer but this time it was a 1996 horizontal, which are wines from various producers but all from the same vintage. Lining up Bâtard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, and Le Montrachet is a study in greatness; each time I am completely dumbfounded by what Chardonnay is really capable of doing. These wines perform like a great red wine only obviously with different flavors and aromatics. They have very deep complexity, are positively huge on the palate, and require aging like a fine red wine would require. In this case these wines were 18 years old and still fresh, having inspiring youthfulness and liveliness to them. I must say that part of the perfection of this triumvirate was due to them having been laid down in a perfect cellar since the date of release. These are wines that can easily age this amount time and finally give you everything they have to offer. Apart from dessert wines, there are not a lot of other white wines in the world that can survive this long and still taste fantastic. Do this with a domestic white and you’ll be spitting out what’s in your mouth and pouring the rest down drain, probably simultaneously. There is nothing else like Grand Cru White Burgundy on the planet. They are at least as expensive as the reds, very often more so by several magnitudes, because the production is extremely small with the best producers typically making 20 to 50 cases per year. That’s for the whole world.
There really isn’t anything comparable to red Burgundy either, even though high-end mature Barolo can sometimes take on some of the attributes of red Grand Cru Burgundy. Made with only a singular grape, Pinot Noir, Grand Cru and Premier Cru reds are without a doubt some of the finest and most amazing wines in the world. In Burgundy vineyards are the stars, then the producers, which is quite different than Bordeaux where the château is the star.
Relative to the vast number of vineyards and appellations in France, a few vineyards in France are designated as a monopole, which might be considered as something along the lines of a monopoly. Essentially, it means that a geographic area (or a vineyard) is legally designated as an AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée), and that AOC has just one owner or domaine having access to its grapes. Among the standouts for me was a vertical of Clos de Tart, a monopole owned by the Mommessin family since the early 1930s but was considered a monopole since the 1100s. We tasted through six vintages of this amazing Grand Cru beginning with the 1996. These all had wonderful depth, balance, and power in one stroke and even the last two more recent vintages showed that they too would someday become great. These wines have the structure to easily last thirty + years and the multidimensional aromas and flavors are what many collectors and I are drawn to.
Bonnes Mares is another of my favorite Grand Cru vineyards, bordering Clos de Tart vineyards to the north. There were five vintages from three different winemakers to taste through beginning with 1995 and the finesse and elegance of these wines can raise goose bumps just thinking about it. Bonnes Mares deftly illustrates that Pinot Noir, despite its fickle and difficult nature, can produce some of the world’s most remarkable wines, with a nearly endless litany of aromatic and flavor profiles. Sheer disbelief at times! We moved on through multiple mature vintages of Corton, Latricières-Chambertin, Clos de Bèze, Romanée-Saint-Vivant, Clos de la Roche and Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru but always to me, Musigny Grand Cru from Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé just shines. At around $700 a bottle, it should shine I suppose but even at that price it over delivers. Remarkably endowed with both power and finesse, this wine is a textbook beauty and I might select it for the ‘if I were stranded on a desert island’ scenario, although DRC Richebourg from a good vintage could be the main challenger.
Also there were a number of Premier Cru vineyards that excelled in this lineup, as they do, and many Burg-fans continually challenge the Grand Cru status quo because of wines like these. For me, I have found a number of Premier Cru vineyards that come close to Grand Cru but none in my experience that can eclipse Grand Cru from the same vintage – it would be easy to take a poor vintage Grand Cru and put it up against a great Premier Cru vintage and have the Premier Cru handily beat the Grand Cru so, it has to be apples to apples when comparing the two designations.
Burgundy is indeed the last frontier for collectors and although some of us are stuck on Bordeaux or other great wine regions, anyone that truly appreciates quality wine must recognize and pay homage to this remarkable region. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Ernst Loosen, a great winemaker for whom I have much respect (Dr Loosen), and is renowned for making high quality Riesling from the Mosel in Germany. I asked him what wines in the world were his favorites and he replied with a smile, “I love Burgundy . . . but, I live across the border from that region, I go there quite frequently, and I can’t for the life of me figure it out. Burgundy is too complicated!” And that really sums up the area. If Burgundy is too complicated for a world-class winemaker like Ernst, what chance do I have? The only way to learn Burgundy is to spend a lifetime tasting through the wines from many appellations, vineyards, winemakers, and vintages and even then, it’s a long shot. I have resigned myself to just enjoying the best of the best, and I can’t think of another wine region that is this confounding and incomprehensible, yet, so rewarding as Burgundy. Thank you Mr. Owens, Gary Glass, Susan Thomas, Mark Patterson, Tom Carlson and a host of amazing collectors and sommeliers I have come to know with respect and fondness, and count as my friends.
I’m a lucky guy, no question.
Photo: only a few of the greats at The Wine Salon