I was brought up completely short this week by tasting several of Etienne Sauzet’s Pulignys from the 2005 vintage. I was expecting the wines to have developed nicely by now, filling in the lushness on the palate with some complexity. What I found was completely unexpected.
Personally I’ve never been quite certain about Sauzet, because I have usually found the wines to display their oak a touch too obviously, most often showing some overt vanillin when young (although new oak is usually less than a third in the premier crus). But when the 2005 vintage was released, I decided this would be a good moment to get a mixed case and see how the various wines age, because Etienne Sauzet is often considered one of Burgundy’s top domains. Most of its holdings are in Puligny Montrachet, and there are several premier crus, as well as tiny amounts of two grand crus. The wines I tasted this week were the village Puligny Montrachet, and two of the better known premier crus, Les Perrières and Les Folatières.
The first surprise was that the village Puligny and the Perrières were barely distinguishable: I had expected a significant step up in quality. The reason was that both are losing their fruits fast, and a strong phenolic emphasis overpowered the palate. The Folatières was similar, giving the impression that it’s just a few months behind on the same path of development.
I would not have been surprised if these wines had showed this sort of development after say ten or so years, but even allowing for the fact that white Burgundy needs to be drunk much earlier than used to be the case (but mostly because of premature oxidation), I was startled to find the wines apparently over the hill after only six years. I don’t think condition is a problem, because the wines were all bought on release from a reputable merchant (Zachys in New York, imported via Briacliff Manor according to the back label).
I am not certain, but I don’t think this is the phenomenon the Germans call atypical aging, (untypischen Alterungsnote in the original German), although that also is marked by the accumulation of phenolic aromas. (Atypical aging is caused by accumulation of naphthalene-like aromas caused by 2-aminoacetophenone, a compound related to methyl anthranilate which causes the foxy aroma in grapes of non-vinifera varieties. These Sauzet wines simply tasted as though they’d had too much skin contact, or otherwise picked up phenolic compounds.) Anyway, if it is atypical aging, which usually more affects aromatic varieties (and the cause of which, so far as I know, is still unknown) this should become obvious with further development over the next few months.
Certainly there was at least no sign of premature oxidation. First noticed with the 1996 vintage, this has become the major problem with white Burgundy. Its cause is also unknown, and it seems to strike completely unpredictably. It doesn’t usually show as soon as the current vintage, but earlier this year at a dinner at Le Bernardin, Aldo, the sommelier showed me two examples of a Puligny and a premier cru of the 2006 vintage that had just arrived, straight from a famous domain, and which were already completely shot with strong madeirized aromas and flavors.
What with one thing and another, white Burgundy seems to be becoming a chancy proposition, so to check that my palate hasn’t simply gone out of whack I tried another premier cru from another producer from the 2005 vintage. This was Ramonet’s Boudriotte from Chassagne Montrachet. As Ramonet is considered one of the very best producers in Chassagne Montrachet (many would say the best), this seemed a fair comparison.
Ramonet’s wine was up to his usual standard, and I enjoyed the Boudriotte, but it left me not completely convinced that the phenolic problem was confined to Sauzet. Ramonet’s wine had to my mind a better balance of fruit to phenolics, but it seemed to be going in the same direction as Sauzet, with those phenolic overtones just a bit too present for comfort. At the time of the 2005 and 2006 vintages, some critics felt that the 2005s were too opulent, too lacking in acidity, and that the fresher 2006s would last better. This may be correct, but I don’t think lower acidity as such is responsible for this rather rapid aging of Sauzet and (perhaps) of Ramonet. As the Ramonet left me undecided as to whether this is a general problem with the vintage, I turned to another wine, what they might call a “banker” on the M.W. tasting exam, meaning that it is absolutely reliable. This was the (white) Clos des Mouches, the best premier cru in Beaune, from Drouhin.
Ah ha: here I felt I was tasting a mature Burgundy at its peak. Yes, that’s a small cause for concern, since a decade or so ago, I might have felt that a top premier cru should not peak until a decade of age, but here was lovely wine without any problems. I do feel that it somewhat makes the case for the advantages of 2006 over 2005, since it shows more opulence and less potential longevity than usual. It’s more peaches and cream than citrus, you can still see some signs of its maturation in oak, but the phenolics are pushed well into the background by the richness of the fruits.
So where do I stand on 2005 white Burgundy? Very cautious. The best premier crus probably should be drunk in the next three or four years: perhaps the grand crus will last longer. But I am afraid that some wines are aging so rapidly that already they are past their peak. Caught between rapid aging and premature oxidation, it seems increasingly risky to cellar white Burgundy. Perhaps the 2006 vintage will fare better than 2005. Watch this space.
Puligny Montrachet, Domaine Etienne Sauzet, 2005
Already the fruit is drying out and the wine is going over the hill. The lightening of the fruits is leaving slightly herbaceous aromas and flavors to dominate nose and palate. The original vanillin is turning vegetal. The wine becomes somewhat phenolic on the finish. Overall impression is that the wine is just too tired and old, very disappointing. 86 Drink now.
Les Perrières, Puligny Montrachet, Domaine Etienne Sauzet, 2005
Only a very faint whiff of Sauzet’s usual vanillin, more of a faintly herbaceous touch on the nose. There’s a touch of vanillin on the palate, which tends to citrus fruits including grapefruit, and quite an acid finish. The acidity pushes the sensation of herbaceousness, which strengthens in the glass. The general impression is that already the fruit is drying out. This is a most disappointing result for what should be a top vintage. 86 Drink now.
Les Folatières, Puligny Montrachet, Domaine Etienne Sauzet, 2005
A slightly citric nose has hints of phenolics. On the palate the citrus fruits are tinged with stone fruits, with a slightly acrid touch of phenolic grapefruit and some remnants of the original vanillin. Overall quite a decent balance, but the general spectrum of aromas and flavors seems to be following the village Puligny and the Perrières down the same route to strengthening phenolics at the expense of fruit. I think this will last a few months longer, but I’m afraid that a year from now it will have the same problems. 87 Drink soon.
La Boudriotte, Chassagne Montrachet, Domaine Ramonet, 2005
Citrus nose initially shows some faint phenolic overtones, which then give over to a nutty impression. The citrus fruits on the palate are supported by good acidity, with a touch of heat on the finish, and those phenolic notes coming back. Nicely integrated flavors right across the palate, but I’m worried that the phenolic notes will intensify as the fruits lighten up, and this will limit longevity. Drink in next year or so. 88 Drink-2013.
Clos des Mouches, Beaune, Joseph Drouhin, 2005
Nice golden hue shows a little age. Interesting nose has some herbal notes of anise, with the underlying fruits more peaches than citrus, A faintly exotic note of stewed peaches or apricots comes through on the palate, where the ripeness of the fruits is evident, and supporting acidity is adequate. There’s a lovely finish of peaches and cream, but just a touch of phenolics coming through the back palate, but this is subdued by the bursting ripeness of the fruits. With time in the glass, the phenolics disappear to leave a lingering impression of peaches and cream on the palate, in the opulent style of the vintage. This has reached a lovely stage of maturity and now may well be at its peak, but it should hold and develop well for a few years yet. 91 Drink-2015.