Premox Meets New Oak: a New Experience

As I finish off my 2005 white Burgundies, I am continually having surprises. I had a new experience with the last bottle of a half case of Jadot’s Clos de la Garenne from Puligny Montrachet (the Duc de Magenta cuvée). Previous bottles have been wildly erratic: the previous one showed clear notes of oxidation, while the one before still showed new oak. That makes for a pretty narrow window for drinking between the oak resolving and the oxidation taking over.

Well this bottle showed both influences: oxidation in the form of Sherry-like notes at the end of the palate, but wood spices in the form of cinnamon at the forefront. That narrows the window for drinking to zero. It was actually quite interesting until after a while the oxidation took over and all remaining evidence of youthful fruits disappeared.

Beyond the fact that I’ve been unable to enjoy a single bottle in perfect condition, my concern is the sheer unpredictability. None of my white Burgundies have followed a clear path of development so that you might try at least to seize a moment to drink them, even if it’s only a brief opening. The path has been more of a zigzag, with one bottle showing oxidative problems, the next one much better, then a step backward and so on. I remember a conversation with the chef at a restaurant in France. When I asked about the reasons for his success, he said one was the “regularité.” We could certainly do with more of that in Burgundy.

One major surprise has been that just when I was about to give up on the vintage altogether, I had a series of bottles that were much better than the earlier ones. I am sure this is a coincidence, but I am reminded of a conversation with a producer in Burgundy last summer. He had been visited just previously by his English importer, who wanted to try some older bottles. “I’m afraid they are all oxidized,” the producer said. The importer want to try them anyway, and voila! they appeared to have returned to form.

This brings to mind a warning from Mercedes in the manual for one of its cars. “Even Mercedes cannot repeal the laws of physics,” it said. Well you can’t repeal the laws of oxidation either: it’s a one way process once oxidative products have been formed in wine. So I am not going to hold on to my bottles to see if a miracle of chemistry occurs, but I’m not going to assume they are all undrinkable either.

Playing Russian Roulette with Puligny Montrachet

I have got fed up with the premox problem and am drinking all my 2002 and 2005 white Burgundies, whether they are Chablis premier or grand cru, or Côte d’Or premier cru (alas I do not have much in the way of grand crus, except for a couple of bottles of Le Montrachet).

This evening was Leflaive’s Clavoillon Puligny 2005, the last bottle of a half case. I did not have high expectations, because there’s been significant variation among previous bottles: some have showed obvious touches of oxidation, some have showed signs of fruits drying out, some have been overly phenolic. This one was perfect.

I was just amazed to have a bottle that showed the sheer perfection of what a top premier cru from Puligny should achieve at ten years of age. Here’s the tasting note:

Noticeably paler than previous bottles. Forceful citrus and stone fruits show with touches of grapefruit and apricots, slowly developing those steely mineral overtones that epitomize Puligny. The phenolic overtones that were overly evident in some previous bottles develop more slowly here and are integrated into the granular texture of the palate. Palate is complex, hard to disentangle flavor and texture – if only they were all like this.

I don’t know whether to lament the fact that the previous five bottles were all in some way at least slightly disappointing due to premox or associated problems, or whether to say Hallelujah! now we see what it’s all about. Given the cost of white Burgundy these days, I’m temperamentally inclined to sackcloth and ashes rather than celebration.

This seems an appropriate point to consider the premox problem, as the first vintage to show the premox problem was 1995, twenty years ago. Today’s wine is ten years old, so it marks the halfway point. The problem wasn’t solved then, and I’m not completely convinced it is now. Should they be considering screwcaps in Burgundy?

Chateau Musar: Simply Sui Generis

I have tasted Château Musar in depth only twice. Once in New York, in 2009 at a tasting with Serge Hochar, when we had white vintages from 1999 to 1959 and reds from 2000 to 1966, and last week in Miami at Wine by the Bay’s commemoration of Serge, with an excellent range of wines, including whites back to 1998 and reds back to 1989. At both tastings, the wines impressed me as brilliantly different from anything else.

Production at Château Musar has now extended to include the Jeune line (red, rosé, and white) from young vines, and the Hochar Père et Fils line (lighter wines for immediate drinking, in the modern fashion), but although all these are well-made examples of their genres, for me the real interest came with the Musar white and red.

The white is much less well known than the red, but every bit as distinctive. It comes from the indigenous varieties Obaideh and Merwah; they are said to be related to Chasselas, Chardonnay, and Sémillon, but if they are, terroir is clearly trumping variety. Fermentation is unusual as it lasts for nine months in barriques, then the wine is bottled conventionally enough after a year. It’s held until it is seven years old for release, so you never really get the chance to see what a young wine tastes like.

The long fermentation gives an oxidative character: for me the nearest resemblance to other wines might be to the whites of the Jura, with an intensely savory quality approaching a touch of fenugreek. My favorite of vintages from the 2000s at last week’s tasting was the 2000: light, subtle, and developed, but it paled besides the densely savory 1998. What I love about these wines is the way they start out herbal and become increasingly savory with age. Normal experience would suggest they should hold for a few years, but this is no doubt an under-estimate; at the tasting in 2009, the 1959 was developed but fresh; in fact Serge said at the time that the wine was showing the youth it did not have when it was younger.

Fermentation for the reds is also very slow: six months in cement, followed by a year to mature in barriques. Then the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Grenache are blended, and spend another year in cement cuve before bottling. The wine is not released until seven years after the vintage, but there is certainly no need to taste it sooner. The current release, the 2007, still has to come together, although the mix of blackberry fruits, high toned aromatics, and sweet tannins is promising.

The 1996 vintage puts Bordeaux or Burgundy to shame, with a lovely balance between delicate fruits and tertiary notes, with a drying touch of cinnamon at the end. It reminded me a bit of some of the old Daumas Gassac Cabernets from the eighties, with that Mediterranean twist on Cabernet. I was astonished by the sheer precision and depth of the flavor of the rather washed-out looking 1989. At the New York tasting in 2009, we started with the red 1981, as Serge said that this age—about twenty five years—is the average age at which his wines are ready to drink, but I would beg to differ and suggest you don’t have to wait quite that long, as the 1996 was perfection this month. But I am sure it will improve until it reaches the ethereal quality of the 1989.

Is Pontet Canet 2004 the Best Kosher Wine Out There?

I do not usually drink Kosher wine. My recollections from childhood of sickly sweet wines with the foxy taste of non-vinifera grapes form a mental block. But a friend recently was given the Kosher cuvée of Pontet Canet 2004, so we set up a side-by-side comparison with the regular cuvée from my cellar.

I find it difficult to see the point of Kosher wine. If it’s not necessary for orange juice to be certified Kosher, why should wine need to be certified? How do grapes differ from oranges or lemons or other fruits? I suppose it’s reasonable if the wine is to be used for sacramental purposes, but it seems to be confusing things to require certification for a wine to be drunk with dinner. Of course, winemaking involves more manipulation than producing fruit juice, and I can see that it may also be necessary to certify that non Kosher products have not been used—the most obvious being some fining agents—but basically any wine that has been made in the usual way without fining or filtration should not breach the rules of Kashrus.

Fining is not an issue at Pontet Canet as the wine is not fined anyway. The Kosher wine comes from specific parcels, so that it can be guaranteed to be kosher all the way from vineyard to bottle. “The wine cannot be exactly the same, but it has to get the soul of the place… It comes from some specific parcels with the three main varieties chosen to represent the best they could the average of the estate. There is no Petit Verdot… It has to be Kosher from the receiving of the grapes. Making a selection of some barrels would mean that all the barrels would have to be produced in a Kosher way,” winemaker Jean-Michel Comme explains. About 10,000 bottles of Kosher wine were produced from each of the 2002, 2003, and 2004 vintages, and the only difference in production from the regular cuvée was that it was made in vats with an automatic system of pumping over for the weekends (because the supervisors could not be there on Saturday).

The wines were surprisingly different. To my palate, the regular cuvee is more evidently Cabernet-based; not overtly herbaceous, but not directly fruit-driven, settling down to a very nice balance of acidity with developing fruits, not quite ready yet, smooth and elegant, very much in the classical tradition of Pauillac. The Kosher version seems softer (it feels as though it has more Merlot) with lower acidity. It is more approachable and seems ready now. The difference seems almost like a subtle change in seasoning, and I wonder if the main factor could be the absence of Petit Verdot (there is 2% in the 2004 regular cuvée). It would not be unreasonable to drink the Kosher cuvée now, but to hold the regular cuvée for another three or four years. The comparison is a fascinating demonstration of how every aspect of winemaking impacts the wine.

I Put A Red Wine in the Fridge by Mistake but Like the Result

For reasons that we had better not go into, I made an unfortunate mistake with a bottle of red Côtes du Rhône and put in the fridge to cool down for dinner (I had thought it was a white). Although my first reaction when I opened the bottle and it turned out to be red was that I had spoiled it for dinner, this turned out to be an interesting experience.

I had a glass to start off at fridge temperature while the rest of the bottle warmed up (in a container of warm water given the emergency conditions). Actually it didn’t show too badly – difficult to get the aromatics, of course, but the palate was quite smooth, evidently powerful, and seemed quite refined for Côtes du Rhône. It gave the impression it might have quite a good proportion of Syrah.

Once it came up to room temperature, it was a different story. Blackberry fruits on the nose showed a touch of asperity, and the palate was overwhelmingly powerful. With 60% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 20% Mourvèdre, coming from 40-year-old vines, fruits were intense, although not jammy. Too dense to see structure directly, but must be there underneath. High alcohol, at 15%, contributed to a mix of sweetness and bitterness on the finish. All traces of refinement disappeared and the wine showed the brutality of power. This was the 2011 vintage, so some of its strength is due to youth, but with 15% alcohol I find it hard to see how it’s going to calm down.

I actually enjoyed the wine more straight out of the fridge. Alcohol was evidently high but not oppressive, and the palate gave a much calmer, more refined impression: although it was harder to see fruit flavors, they weren’t tainted by sweetness and bitterness on the finish. So if you are going to drink a 15% red Côtes du Rhône, it may not be a bad idea to cool it down a bit first.

So the Cork Is Crucial in Premature Oxidation of White Burgundy

Because of the problem of premature oxidation, I no longer cellar white Burgundy for the long term, and I am drinking all my older vintages. At the moment I’m going through 2005, with generally disappointing results: most wines show some oxidation, with about half being at the point where the wine is drinkable but has lost much of its true character, a quarter being past the point where you really want to drink them, and a quarter still showing reasonably on form. (Curiously, the few 2002s that I also have left sometimes show better than the 2005s). This is specifically a problem of the Cote d’Or: with Chablis, my 2002s seem to be coming to end of their natural life span, but the 2005s are still lively.

It is fair to say that until this week, I have hardly had any 2005 white Cote d’Or in the past year that has been absolutely on form. But then I had an interesting experience with the Bonneau du Martray Corton Charlemagne. At first I thought we were not going to be able to drink the bottle, because I could not get the cork out. It seemed to be wedged in so tightly, it required more than the strength I could apply to extract it, but finally it came out. And then a revelation! The wine was a classically pale color. Not a trace of oxidation in appearance, or on nose or palate. The steely, mineral character was like turning back the clock two decades: I thought this style had disappeared from old white Burgundy. I would say it was at its peak, except that since there is no sign of it tiring, it might well go for another decade in classical fashion. If the cork is tight, that is.

I have had this wine three times previously, twice from my own cellar, once at the domain with Jean-Charles le Bault de Morinière. All of the previous bottles showed a more oxidative style, mostly as a more nutty texture. I did not open the bottle tasted at the domain, of course, but the other two showed normal extraction of the cork. One opened only a week earlier had a faint touch of perceptible oxidation in the background. I’m not sure whether you could call this premox ten years after the vintage. As Dominique Lafon said when I discussed this issue with him, “They open an old bottle and say it’s oxidized, but if you open a 1996, it’s not premature oxidation, it’s the aging process.”

Up to a point, there’ll always be bottle variation with older wines, but my experience with white Burgundy is that it’s far greater than it used to be: one bottle can be too oxidized to drink, while another from the case has just a trace of oxidation. The correlation between a cork that was too tight to extract and the total absence of oxidation suggests that corks may still be part of the problem. Actually, I don’t think corks are worse than they used to be, in fact they are better, but the wine is more on the edge (as the result low use of sulfur and other changes in winemaking), so that any lapse in the cork is absolutely revealing.

It’s a sign of the conservatism of Burgundy that although the premox problem strikes at the very heart of what white Burgundy is all about, there’s been almost no move to screwcaps. If ten or fifteen years ago, when it was clear the problem was not transitory, producers had at least experimented with screwcaps, by now there would be a definitive answer as to whether they would be an acceptable solution or would bring other problems. Given my recent experience, however, I cannot understand why tighter-fitting corks weren’t tried at least for a partial solution.

Can Rosé Be Interesting?

I admit that I have always had doubts about rosé, where the compromises you have to make to get the color right sometimes seem to be at the expense of flavor. I could understand the position of the sommelier at a Michelin-starred London restaurant, who when I said I was going to visit producers in Provence, commented “Rosé is not wine.” The tricky thing is that you make rosé more or less like a white wine, but from black grapes. Can you really make an interesting wine from black grapes if you’re constrained by needing to harvest earlier (to maintain freshness), so the grapes don’t reach the ripeness levels they would have for making red wine?

For my palate, rosé should avoid showing overt red berry notes and should be savory, perhaps even slightly saline. That is probably why in general I don’t much favor rosés made from Grenache, which basically accounts for most of French production, from Provence, Languedoc, and the Rhône. Nor do I like the slightly sickly quality of most rosé from the Loire, which is required to have 10 g/l residual sugar. (I am inclined to think it’s a bit of a waste to use Cabernet to make sweet rosé.) My preference in rosé tends to be for Sancerre, coming from Pinot Noir, and at its best showing an elegant minerality. (One of the best rosés I have had was declassified from the Clos des Lambrays in Burgundy.)

The movement towards producing “premium” rosés in Provence seems to be in the right direction as I find they usually tend to show less red berry fruits and more savory minerality. (I’m not convinced, however, by the move towards defining sub-appellations for the Côtes de Provence on the basis of terroir, as so far differences in the wines seem to relate more to vinification than to terroir. I will be very interested if anyone demonstrates terroir in rosé.)

Château d’Esclans is at the extreme end of the move towards premium rosé. I tasted all four of its cuvées this week. Whispering Angel, of course, has taken the world of rosé by storm, although actually it comes mostly from purchased grapes. Even though it’s the entry level, I think it has a very good balance of fruity to savory elements, giving it some flavor interest. Moving to the chateau wine, which goes further into the premium class, the balance shift a little more in the savory direction. With the two super-premium cuvées, Les Clans and Garrus, there’s a real sense of underlying structure. Tasting the 2011, Les Clans is now just right, but Garrus has a slightly phenolic or even tannic impression suggesting that it actually needs a little more time.

I asked owner Sasha Lichine what makes the difference between the cuvées: terroir? yields? grape varieties? vinification? “All the wines start out in the same way. Temperature is brought down to about 8 °C with dry ice, the wine goes into closed presses under nitrogen, and as soon as juice comes out it is tasted and assigned to one of the four cuvées. The wines come 90% from free run juice, with the rest from pressing, so there is essentially no maceration. The cold system is the key,” Sasha explains. “What used to happen in Provence was that people were picking too early and then macerating to get the color out. We manage to pick a bit later and riper.”

All the wines are dominated by Grenache, but there’s a small change in other varieties going up the ladder. There’s also a change in vinification: Whispering Angel spends a short period in cuve, Château d’Esclans spends six months in cuve and wood, and Les Clans and Garrus spend ten months maturing half in cuves and half in old demi-muids (600 liter casks) with frequent battonage. You can see the extra richness that comes from the battonage.

There are some differences in sources–Garrus tends to come from the oldest vines–but the basic difference between cuvées is selection. “For the first vintage of Garrus we just creamed off the best three barrels, and then for Les Clans we creamed off again,” Sasha recollects. What’s the intended difference in style? “As you go up the ladder, the wine fills your mouth more, you should not necessarily taste the wood, the wine should keep its freshness, and by Garrus you should get tiny tannins.” The change along the range is a striking demonstration that rosé is not necessarily just rosé, but that it can have distinctive character and (to some extent) ageworthiness. As this is unprecedented for rosé, it’s hard to judge how softening with time will play out against development of flavor, but at a rough guess I would be inclined to drink Whispering Angel and Château d’Esclans when they are released, Les Clans about three years after the vintage, and Garrus about five years after. The relative prices of the cuvées more or less indicate their relationship. When Sasha purchased Château d’Esclans in 2006, he was quoted as saying his aim was “to make the best rosé in the world.” Whether Garrus is the best rosé in the world is debatable, of course, but it is probably the most expensive.