English cricket and the wines of Burgundy – especially the somewhat elusive reds – do share some things in common. After a summer of England beating Australia and taking a leading position after three winter Tests against South Africa, it was entirely in character that this Burgundy trade tasting should take place at the home of cricket when England were having a disastrous first morning in the decisive final Test of the series in South Africa. All that talk, before the final game, of a historic victory over South Africa away from home, evaporated in a morning of poor batting. In a similar way red Burgundy can be the most exciting and complex wine in the world but there are also many disappointing bottles, some of them quite expensive.
The tasting Terroirs & Signatures de Bourgogne 2010 took place in the Nursery Pavilion at Lords, overseen by the somewhat improbably futuristic outline of the Lord’s Media Centre. The immaculate green turf of Lords was under snow. One grower asked me if this was an important stadium for the city … and I replied that it was the most important cricket ground in the world, but, of course very few countries actually played cricket so that wasn’t a very strong competition. Similarly, the wines of Burgundy, despite their hundreds of years of history, are relatively under appreciated in world of wine dominated by by big flavours and heavy weight bottles.
96 growers and over 500 wines – of which it was only possible to taste a fraction – certainly allowed an appreciation of the styles of Burgundy. The basic grape varieties are simple. The great majority of the whites are made from 100% Chardonnay and may or may not be matured in oak barrels. Equally, most reds are Pinot Noir, usually given some oak. Below this generalisation, there is an explosion of complications – appellations famous and obscure, double barrelled village names, thousands of vineyard names, variation of quality within individual vineyards because of changes of soil, climate or aspect, sizeable or subtle differences between vintages and, of course, the myriad small differences brought about by the choices made by individual growers and wine makers. Burgundy is fascinating because of its complexity.
The minor grape varieties are always worth looking out for. A wine made from the Aligoté grape variety was shown by Jaffelin, though they don’t market it as such but give it the name ‘Bouzeron’. The grape variety accounts for only 6% of grapes grown in the region, is pretty neutral in character but some interest is created in the wine by barrel fermentation and stirring of the lees, the layer of dying yeast in the vat. The 2006, finished with glass stopper for freshness, quite a novelty in conservative France, is a worthwhile curiosity. Sauvignon is restricted to the St Bris area in the north, next door to Chablis.
There were also a handful of Cremant de Bourgogne, sparkling wines made with either the range of local grapes (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Aligoté, Gamay) or as Blanc de Blanc, just from Chardonnay. Two main styles were on show: Bailly Lapierre’s Reserve Brut was distinctly yeasty and toasty, even the hint of mushrooms, with some good fruit, a decent sparkler. Meanwhile Paul Chollet’s Blanc de Blanc has a fruit-led nose, rather more refined with a good sharp profile, clearly a cool climate wine. It reminds you that Burgundy is not that far south of the Champagne area. A tiny amount of Pinot Blanc is also grown, represented here by Desertaux-Ferrand.
Like the England cricket team on a good day, what is good Burgundy about? It’s not consistency or simple good value. You can buy a bottle and be rather underwhelmed. But you need some good examples to get the bug, so let’s start with some.
It’s quite clear from its complicated name – Domaine A-F. Gros & François Parent – that this winery is not leading on its marketing. It is a husband and wife team, presenting their take on the red wine that has been made here for hundreds of years. In the brochure they are keen to tell us that they come from winemaking families. But above all, they produce terrific wines and, as you can see, a lot of lines, which probably means that they have a lot of parcels of land, some of which can be quite small or even tiny. But from the first sip of the basic Bourgogne Haut-Côtes de Nuits 2008 you can tell they have something special – it’s fresh and full of red fruit flavours, strawberry and cherry, with a simple but evocative fragrance.
The leap in interest to the so-called ‘village’ wines is marked. Chambolle-Musigny 2008 is pale to mid red with purple edges, with gorgeous ripe fruit and a wonderful acidic edge. Pommard, from the single vineyard, Les Epenottes, also 2008, has dense fruit of dark cherries, more powerful. You begin to see that flowery wine-speak is beckoning here. Apart from simple comparisons how can you describe the subtle graduations which mark the quality ladder in Burgundy? The three Grand Cru, Echézeaux, Clos de Vougeot and Richebourg, follow in quick and grand procession – all very young, tight, dense wines which will unfurl with age, though the Richebourg is already gorgeously perfumed, rich, with a magnificently satiny texture.
If the red wines are difficult to get your mind around, so is the structure of the trade. Talking to representatives it quickly became clear that sometimes you were talking to the wine maker, but often to people whose business was part growing, part making and part handling others’ wines. Jean-Pierre Nié’s Compagnie des Vins d’Autrefois offers the wines of 100 different growers with an average of 10 wines each – rather different from the small family companies also present at the tasting. He also trades as Pierre Ponnelle. An advantage is having the reach to cover all Burgundy’s major areas. By contrast in some domaines, the family members have to be grower, wine maker, marketing, admin and sales, front of house.
While virtually all Burgundy’s whites are Chardonnay, they come in perceptibly different styles. In the North, closer to Paris than to Beaune is the Chablis area, whose wines I comment on in more detail in an earlier post. Here Chardonnay is famously taut, mineral and edgy. Ponnelle has Domaine Chatelain’s Chablis 2008 which shows a good balance, sharp apple flavours and some minerality. Skipping lightly over the Côte d’Or, there were two good whites from the south of Burgundy, Pouilly-Fuissé 2008 (nice floral nose, good acidity but now complemented by more exotic fruit, apricot, very good) and Pouilly-Vinzelles from the cooler 2007 vintage (a lighter and drier style). Then it’s back to the heart of Burgundy, the Côte d’Or, to taste two grand whites. The mid-weight Puligny-Montrachet from Domaine Henri Clere is from old vines. It has excellent attack on the palate, but still very drinkable, with noticeable use of oak. The fruit is characteristically in the apple and pear range. Finally, there was Château de la Maltroye’s Premier Cru Chassagne-Montrachet, ‘Morgeot Vigne Blanche’ 2007. The biggest differences here are in weight and mouth feel – this is a big, mouth filling wine, the oak is less obvious, but with the structure to last for some decades.
Burgundy’s fragmentation – of ownership, of vineyards – makes it fascinating for the real enthusiast but also presents huge problems in marketing. A causal survey of the 500 wines here show that the locals have stuck to traditional labels and of course there wasn’t a screw top to be seen. One exception on the labelling was Maison Louis Max, with its quirky but still very French style.
Full marks on the styling – they really stand out.
The joy of minor appellations
One of the problems facing Burgundy lovers is the price of famous appellations, especially when they are doubled or triple in restaurants. So most of us won’t be drinking Chassagne-Montrachet or Vosne-Romanée except on special occasions. But there are many little appellations which can make up for this. Desertaux-Ferrand had red wine from Ladoix 2007, with an excellent fragrant nose, in a light and elegant style. Ladoix – to save you reaching for the wine atlas – is on the Côtes de Beaune, next door to Aloxe-Corton. Equally close by, if tucked on the other side of the Corton hill, is Pernand-Vergelesses, a great source of good value wines, here represented, for example, by Jaffelin with its Premier Cru ‘En Caradeux’ 2007. It is made from 60-80 year old vines and leads with lovely strawberry fruit and freshness. For whites, you might try Rully (Jaffelin again, partially barrel fermented, nice fruit, lively), Santenay or Saint-Aubin, the last two either side of the prestigious Montrachet vineyards. The sixth generation of Legros, now fronting Bachey-Legros, produce a good Santenay, Sous la Roche 2008, with some quite tropical flavours and dense fruit. They pride themselves on their old vines, including the 60 year olds which produce the fruit for their Premier Cru Morgeot, Chassagne-Montrachet 2008. A big nose, more pronounced than their Meursault and certainly the Santenay, luscious fruit with a good mineral streak – but we do seem to have wandered off from good value, lesser known wines - as of course the Burgundy lover does!
In the end people are gripped by Burgundy because of the great structured whites and the complex, hedonistic reds. These can be great and glorious, like the England cricket team on a very good day. From this tasting the Gros-Parent Grand Crus stood out – as so they should – and the occasional wine which had the advantage of a bit of bottle age: Antonin Guyon’s Corton Grand Cru, les Bressandes, 2005, rich seductive nose, excellent red fruits, good acidity for the long haul, very good to excellent. As with the cricket, we put up with a lot of disappointments and dull days, for those few glorious, unrepeatable moments.