What’s the problem with 1996 Red Burgundy?

The Burgundians are not so prone as the Bordelais to call any good year the vintage of the century, but 1996 was widely acclaimed at the time as a great vintage in Burgundy for both red and white. Twenty years later, it is abundantly clear that it is anything but a great vintage. My particular peeve is that I was so pleased at the time to acquire a really good selection of Crus and producers for reds, in fact this was the first time I had been able to get grand crus from the likes of Rousseau and so on. Now this seems more like hubris.

Coincidentally or not, this was also the first year in which premox really took hold for white Burgundy. (Some people date it from 1995, but 1996 was the first year I saw the effect in any quantity of wines). This is a bit odd because my experience since then has been that premox is magnified in the richer years – which 1996 now is turning out not to be. Because of premox, I have finished up my 1996 white Burgundies, but I am still mulling over how the reds could have been so deceptive as I continue to explore them.

This is scarcely the first vintage in which everything seemed fair set at the time of harvest and a problem emerged later. 1983 comes to mind as the most striking precedent: the wines seemed lovely on release, but two or three years later, many showed unmistakable signs of grape rot, and to all intents and purposes rapidly became undrinkable.

I would love to have a proper scientific explanation of the problem with 1996. On the palate the wines universally show a medicinal acidity, sometimes verging on bitter. It’s not just that the wines have too much acidity – we have seen that in plenty of older vintages from Burgundy – but it’s the character of the acidity, more than a bit medicinal, sometimes even a touch metallic. What is responsible for this universal character?

It’s most noticeable at village level, but remains prominent at premier cru; grand crus have a better weight of fruit and richness to balance it, but it’s a rare grand cru that does not show it in the background. It is not entirely predictable: it’s less obvious in Jadot’s Ruchottes Chambertin than in Le Chambertin, for example.

It wasn’t evident at the time of vintage. My tastings of barrel samples identified strong tannins and good acidity, but these did not seem out of kilter, and over the first few years, the wines seemed to have a promising richness. For almost the first ten years after the vintage, acidity seemed high but reasonably in character. By 2006 it began to seem doubtful if and when the wines would come around, and by 2009 or 2010 the acidity seemed to be pushing the tannins on the finish. Tannins aren’t obviously punishing today, but must be contributing to the character that has become so evident over the past five years; virtually all my tasting notes since 2010 include the word “medicinal”.

While the vintage now lacks generosity, I’d be hard put to describe it as mean, since the underlying fruits often show a sweet ripeness – but they can’t get out from under that medicinal character. The puzzle for me is how this developed so uniformly several years after the vintage. Could it have been there all along but has been revealed only as the fruits lightened up? At all events, I don’t accept the school of thought that the wines need more time to come around: they are what they are, and this won’t change.

Burgundy Diary part 5: A Peak of Natural Wine? – a Visit with Lucien Lemoine in Beaune

A Bach cantata was playing when I arrived for a meeting at Lucien Lemoine in Beaune. From outside the premises look like a run down property in a street just outside the town center, but workmen were coming and going, and the interior had been handsomely renovated, practical rather than flashy, but with a certain contemporary flair. LeMoineTW1Lucien Lemoine is the creation of Mounir and Rotem Saouma, who have been making wine here since 1998. It’s perhaps Burgundy’s top micro-negociant. The name reflects Mounir’s past experience working with monks. Mounir is a complicated person – “I listen to Dylan every day and read Nietzsche” – and conversation with him is thought-provoking, running in every direction like quicksilver. For every question I asked, the answer provoked more lines of investigation. He has a very definite view of winemaking. “I saw the need for a place where we would make wine in the old tradition – not the young tradition, which is the last 30-40 years. There was a window for a policy of ‘I don’t do.’ Many people were saying ‘I do so and so.’ The objective was to be as classic as possible.”

Before coming to Burgundy, Mounir was a winemaker in many places with many varieties, including Pinot Noir in hot climates. “It was hard to make good Pinot Noir so I came to the birthplace to see. I wanted people to see many examples of terroir and to see the difference.”

“Hundreds of years ago there was polyculture, there was a simple way of making wine: if it’s red, put it in a tank, push down the cap, press, wait, bottle. I tried experiments in 1997 in making wine very simply putting it in tank and leaving it. In 1998 we decided how to proceed. We are two people and we wanted to do 100 barrels of wine in premier and grand crus. We reached this size in 2006 and we are still at that size today. I have seen many negociants start small and become large. We do it all ourselves,” Mounir says, waving his hand to show a bandage where he hurt himself moving barrels yesterday.

There is just one village wine to show the potential of lower appellations. In the first year, there were 33 barrels representing 19 premier crus and 15 grand crus. In 2012, there were 112 barrels representing 75 premier and grand crus. 55% is red and 45% is white. “We could have done 10 barrels from each village, but we are making many more wines, in smaller amounts. Why do we have so many wines? Because I find the variety interesting.” 85% of the wines are the same every year. “Most of the growers from 1999 are still our growers today.”

The approach to winemaking is direct: let the wine have a slow and very long fermentation, and keep it on full lees for élevage. “We have very cold cellars so we never complete fermentation before ten months after harvest. Today (July 2014) we are at the end of the alcoholic fermentation and the malo is now starting for 2013.Mounir emphasizes. “We put all the lees in the barrel, we use the heavy lees, I hate ‘fine lies,’ it means nothing.” There is no filtering or fining., and minimal use of sulfur. “I have a very curious friendship with sulfur…If I were the big boss of Burgundy, I would forbid the use of sulfur at two times: now in the spring, and at bottling. When you sulfur young wines very early, you keep them virgin and very shy. So when the wine finally sees oxygen it will be destroyed. Great Burgundy must be approachable when it is young. The problem with the sulfur is that it kills the wine. You can put makeup on, but it’s dead… We do not do wines without sulfur, but we age wines for 18 months without sulfur; this is a religion but it’s a risk thing. And then the sulfur is 15 ppm where Burgundy is usually 50 ppm. The key is that with slow alcoholic fermentation, late malo, and no racking, my wines are bottled with three times the average carbon dioxide for Burgundy.” The back label of every bottle carries a warning that the wine needs to be decanted before drinking in order to shake off the gas.

I don’t know whether aficionados of natural wine would apply the term “natural” to Mounir’s wines, but when I raise the question he says “I don’t like titles, natural means others are not, I do wine like people did in the old days, before the new tradition , I don’t know how you call it , we don’t add and don’t take out.” One of the charms of Lucien Lemoine as a producer is that it’s hard to peg by conventional descriptions. Take the question of new oak.”The policy in oak is not to talk about oak…  I am happy you did not mention the presence (in the wines we tasted) of what I hate the most – oak flavor. New oak is expensive, it’s very complicated to use , but the moderate oxygen is very important for agibility of the wines. If a wine come from new oak without the (sense of) oak, it’s a sign of purity of terroir.”

“Unfortunately a lot of wines are more the man than the terroir, and they are boring. They do not change in the glass. And they are dead, they do not age. At the end of the day you open the bottle, you carafe it – any bottle we produce must be carafed – and it should last a week. The wine should change every day. It’s an obligation to respect the terroir and to keep the life in the wine. The definition of great wine in Burgundy for me rests on three points: the first is the place, the wine should smell and taste of the place; second is that it must have a life, it must change in the glass; third is that it must be able to age.

Do you control the vineyards? “We do the opposite of the others: I consider the best growers in the world are here, with a relationship between man and terroir. Who is going to stand in the vineyards and tell the growers what to do?” Basically, Mounir has confidence in his growers. “We try to find the person who makes the best interpretation in a cru. All arrangements with growers are on handshakes. We buy every year, we pay the price, we never say to a grower you must do something. In 2003 some growers said to me, you’ve made wine in hot countries, what do we do, but I wouldn’t intervene. I have no control, I learn from the growers, The growers have thirty vintages and then you have someone who arrives here and says, I’ll buy your grapes, and I’ll make wine. A lot of people ‘make’ Burgundy but you don’t have to ‘make’ Burgundy.”

For me, these wines are as natural as they need to be, with a wonderful purity of fruit allowing terroir to show itself at every level of the range. They are expensive and hard to find, but an eye opener as to the potential for minimal manipulation.

 

Will people please stop trying to prove terroir exists. It’s more useful to look for gold at the end of the rainbow

Grow one plot of grapevines on the top of a hill in a really sunny, exposed, windy spot. Grow another plot at the bottom of the hill in a shady waterlogged spot. It is really not rocket science to understand that the grapes are likely to be quite different, as will wine made from them. That’s terroir, stupid.

Pushing the argument to these extremes doesn’t really resolve the issue of whether terroir effects exist that produce wines with subtle but consistent differences from adjacent vineyards where there is a little perceptible difference in growing conditions. Burgundians will argue, for example, that the adjacent vineyards of Cazetiers and Combes aux Moines in Gevrey Chambertin produce different wines. Faiveley have adjacent vineyards with vines of the same age, tended the same way. “The tractor doesn’t stop,” says Jérôme Flous of Maison Faiveley. But as I describe in my book, In Search of Pinot Noir, the wines are consistently different.

Well, yes, but maybe in such cases, producers, consciously or unconsciously, are treating the wines just a little bit differently to produce results that conform with their expectations for each vineyard. You might almost call it the Holy Grail of Terroir to demonstrate that the wines from different vineyards are intrinsically different. A group of scientists have just reported an attempt to prove this.

They took Pinot Noir berries from two vineyards managed by the same producer in Burgundy, one in Flagey-Echézeaux and one in Vosne Romanée. They don’t give exact locations, but the vineyards appear to be within a mile of one another. They report that soils types are similar in each vineyard: they don’t comment on the age of the vines or planting density, but let’s give the benefit of the doubt and assume that all extraneous parameters are the same.

They took two samples of 100 berries from each vineyard in 2010, 2011, 2012 and compared the berries and wine made from them by microvinification. Well, here’s the first problem. ONE HUNDRED BERRIES! How many berries do you suppose there are in a vineyard? Let’s try to estimate this. Suppose the vineyard is 1 ha and has 8,000 vines, each with 6 bunches, and each bunch has 50 grapes. I make that 2.5 million berries. I do not think you need to be an expert in statistics to see that 100 berries is not going to be representative of the vineyard. (For the more geekishly minded, you’d need a few hundred to achieve a 5% statistical significance level.)

I won’t go into the details of the analysis, which uses formidably complicated equipment, but comes down to the ability to measure small amounts of phenolic compounds. The authors conclude that  differences between vintages are more significant than differences between vineyards. This is not a surprise. But they go on to say they can find  differences between the vineyards, for both grapes and wine. This I do not believe. It’s definitely fair to say that when you compare the samples in one vintage, all four are different. But I’m not at all convinced that the two samples from each vineyard identify any distinct character. The results look  higgledy-piggledy, and the two samples from each vineyard seem just as different from one another as from the other vineyard. Misquoting Monty Python, Every berry is sacred, every berry is great.

I believe in terroir, but I don’t believe this study proves any more than that each sample of one hundred berries is a different from every other sample of one hundred berries. (Gives a whole new meaning to micro-cuvées.) Anyway, do we want to see a scientific basis established for terroir, wouldn’t that spoil the fun?

On the Uncertainty of Being White Burgundy

I am more and more perplexed by the failure to identify the cause of premature oxidation in white Burgundy. A relatively rare problem when it first appeared in 1996, it appears even now still be gathering strength, with producers for whom I had not previously encountered it showing signs for the first time. I’ve been accustomed to think of Domaine Leflaive’s wines as among the longest lived in Puligny Montrachet – not very long ago I finished up some 1989s, which were still splendid. I have not had problems with premature oxidation of Leflaive wines until this week, when a 2005 Puligny Montrachet showed the unmistakable first signs. You might say that after seven years it’s not unreasonable to finish drinking up a communal Puligny, but I’ve had 12-15 years out of Leflaive’s premier crus, and ten out of the communal wine, without difficulty in the past. The disconcerting thing is that there was no sign of this coming: a year ago the wine was at its peak. Granted, I did not expect more than medium term aging (another four years perhaps), but now it seems that I have only a few months at most to finish my supply. White Burgundy as it ages has been one of the glories of France, but sic transit gloria mundi.

Tasting notes

March 2012    This wine has begun to slip in the past year, well before you might expect it to, with the first signs of premature oxidation. It’s still a delicious wine with that lovely, steely, character of Puligny as typified by Leflaive – always at the head of the commune – but there are distinct notes of madeirization appearing on nose and finish. While these are still (just) at the stage of adding complexity, it cannot be long before the wine becomes problematic. Before this problem I would have expected another 4 years.

January 2011    An absolutely top result for a village wine, and better than most growers’ premier crus. The characteristic smoke, steel, and gunflint is cut in this vintage by the underlying richness of the year. There isn’t the complexity of a premier cru, but the wine is in lovely balance, with the palate of peaches and cream cut by citrus. Minerality dominates the finish, but the richness suggests only medium term longevity.

When Should You Send Wine Back at a Restaurant?

I hate sending wine back at a restaurant. Of course I will do this when a bottle is flawed, but there’s always the potential for some disagreement or unpleasantness. My working rule is that this is appropriate only when the wine is clearly flawed, not merely because I don’t like it. Usually this is because the bottle is corked, and in the vast majority of cases the sommelier accepts immediately that the bottle is defective, but occasionally there is a sommelier who doesn’t recognize the taint and is awkward about it. But I was brought to a new question this week by a wine that was so poor – although technically it was not flawed by being corked or oxidized or having any other single identifiable defect – that I wondered whether being completely atypical should count as a reason for rejection.

Increasing problems with premature oxidation of white Burgundy have made this, my staple when I want a white wine in a restaurant, more of a risky venture when the wine is more than a year or so old. Once again, most sommeliers will recognize madeirization as a flaw, but from time to time I’ve had difficulties with this, especially in France. “These are the typical aromas of the vintage,” a sommelier explained patronizingly to me at a grand restaurant in Provence when a white Burgundy was madeirized. As politely as I could, I said that I had a cellar full of that vintage and none had this problem. With very bad grace, he agreed to take the bottle back, but warned me to order a different vintage, because all his wines of that vintage had the same problem. The storage conditions must have been terrible. These days I have taken whenever ordering a white Burgundy to asking at the outset whether it has any problem with oxidation. Often enough a sommelier will say there have been problems, and advises me to choose something else. But having asked the question, at least I then feel free to send the bottle back if there is any taint by oxidation.

Given the erratic nature of cork taint, there would not be much point in asking whether a wine is likely to be corked, but even with this most easily recognizable flaw, there can be doubt. When a bottle is well and truly tainted, it’s a fairly easy decision to reject, but this can be more difficult when there’s a subthreshhold level of taint, enough to suppress the fruits but not enough to show any clear evidence of TCA on the nose. Actually, I think this is a killer for the producer: if you don’t know this particular producer, you can easily conclude that he’s no good rather than that the wine is flawed. In such cases I have usually felt obliged to stay with the bottle. When you have a clear expectation for the wine, you may be able to say fairly that it is flawed. But given people’s widely varying sensitivities to cork taint, there can be problems in marginal cases. My most amusing incident was at the restaurant Les Bacchanales in Vence, where a bottle of a recent vintage white Burgundy was suspiciously lacking in fruits. When I expressed concern, the waiter took it over to the diner at the next table, who was a local dignitary on the wine and food scene. We could hear him saying, “no, I do not see any problem here,” which the waiter duly came back to report. As the taint was slowly becoming more evident, I stood my ground, and indeed a substitute bottle was vastly better, A few minutes later the chef came out. “I do apologize,” he said, that bottle is terribly tainted. “I would not even cook with it.” So here we had a living demonstration of variation in sensitivity, increasing from the food writer to the chef, where I was uncomfortably the piggy in the middle. That’s why it can be so difficult.

This week I am visiting producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley as part of the research for my next book, Claret & Cabs. My usual habit is to try to perform a reality check at dinner by having a wine that we have tasted at a producer, to see whether experiencing a whole bottle with food gives me the same impression as a tasting. However, having dinner at the Auberge du Soleil, I was so offended by the markups on the Napa Cabernets that I decided to try something else. My usual experience in wine regions is that restaurants showcase the local producers, and while it would be naive to expect to find bargains on the wine list, often there is some wine, perhaps an older vintage that hasn’t been terribly marked up, that offers an interesting experience without completely breaking the bank. Slowly I have become adjusted to markups moving from two fold to more than three fold, but at over four times retail prices, I draw the line. One example makes the point. The Spottswoode Napa Cabernet 2000 is $360 on the list at Auberge – but the restaurant at Domaine Chandon has it at $160. Now I’m prepared to believe that expenses are higher at Auberge, but not that they justify a price of more than double compared to another good local restaurant. The wine averages around $80 at retail, so the markup at Auberge is well over my line.

So I did something I have not done before and ordered a wine from another region altogether, in fact from Burgundy, as  I thought a lighter style anyway would fit better with our particular meal. This was the Nuits St. Georges 2005 from Confuron-Cotetidot. I think it’s a reasonable expectation that in 2005 any decent producer should have been able to make an acceptable wine at communal level. But this was a throwback to the old days of Nuits St. Georges, and I do not mean that as a compliment. It had no nose at all and no fruit could be detected on the palate. If this had been a Bourgogne AOC, I would have shrugged and said that I expected a better result in this vintage. But this tasted (if the word taste can be used at all in conjunction with this wine) as though it had been overcropped to hell. I hesitated, but decided that as it had no detectable flaw, it would be unfair to send it back. However, when the wine deteriorated in the glass to the point that all you could taste was a medicinal acidity, I called over the sommelier and asked her to taste it. “Ah it has racy acidity, a bit surprising for 2005,” she said. I explained that my problem was more with the lack of fruit, and she wondered whether decanting would help. I did not feel that decanting could bring out nonexistent fruit, however. She offered to bring another wine, but I did not feel like starting another bottle at this point (and I had somewhat lost confidence in the selection of Burgundy), but we ended up with a couple of glasses of the Beaux Frères Willamette Pinot Noir from 2008 (surprisingly taut for this producer and vintage), but definitely wine as opposed to the previous mix of acid and water.

I still hold to the position that you can’t send a wine back just because you don’t quite like it, and  I cringe at the thought of imagining flaws because a wine fails to come up to expectation. But in retrospect, I think perhaps I should have rejected this wine at the outset, without crossing the line, on the grounds that it was so far from the typicity of Nuits St. Georges that it was unreasonable for it to be presented on the wine list. Here is the tasting note

J.Confuron-Cotetidot, Nuits St. Georges, 2005

No nose at all. Rather characterless and lacking fruit on the palate, seems dilute and overcropped. No obvious flaws, but only a thin somewhat medicinal, slightly acid, quality to the palate. Only fruit character is an amorphous somewhat flat medicinal note. Would not be a credit to the Bourgogne AOC. 75 points.

Minerality and Oxidation in Puligny Montrachet

I was caused to think about minerality and its causes once again by the conjunction of two events: I was impressed by the classic minerality of an old Burgundy; and I saw an interesting explanation of the phenomenon in pages from Filip Verheyden’s forthcoming book, WINE.

What is minerality anyway? A bit like pornography, you know it when you see it, but it is hard to describe where to draw the line. Personally I view it as a sort of flinty, smoky, precision, sometimes associated with a clear touch of gunflint, always with good acidity. It’s a classic feature of traditional Chablis and some other white Burgundies; perhaps it is clearer in Chardonnay than other white varieties because it stands out against the full body and opulence.

The wine that prompted me to think again about the issue was Domaine Leflaive’s premier cru from Puligny Montrachet, Les Clavoillons, when I just drank my last bottle of the 1996 vintage. It showed Leflaive’s hallmark style of a steely backbone, a whiff of gunflint (there’s that minerality), and a great sense of precision to the fruits on the palate. While there are some other Puligny’s in this style, Leflaive for me is its epitome. While the wine has all the richness you expect from a Puligny premier cru, it conveys to my mind a definite sense of minerality. I have drunk my way through a case of it, starting a couple of years after the vintage, and it has matured steadily from an initial sense of opulence to showing more clearly its steely structure as the baby fat of the young fruits slowly resolved. For me it’s shown a full blown mineral style roughly since 2004.

Surprisingly little is known about the causes of minerality. The one thing we can be sure of is that it does not come from taking up minerals from the soil. Minerals are present in trace amounts in grapes, and therefore in wine, of course, but far below the threshold at which they could influence taste: in fact, if minerals accumulated to the point at which you could sense them directly, it would probably be illegal to sell the wine. The only compound that’s ever been associated with minerality is a thiol (sulfur-containing compound), benzenemethanethiol, which might be a component of smokiness. This leads to the thought that minerality might basically be a consequence of the presence of reduced sulfur compounds in wine. But why should this be a feature of wines from specific places?

In his new book, an introduction to wine that succeeds in presenting major issues without pandering to simplification or the purple prose so beloved of some wine writers, and which is beautifully illustrated (and I recommend the book for mavens as well as novices for its prose and insights), Filip suggests that minerality develops in wines coming from grapes that are grown on poor, stony soil. The critical feature is not so much the presence of the stones as the fact that stony soil is poor in nutrients. The lack of nitrogen forces the yeast to utilize sulfur-containing amino acids as an energy source during fermentation, and in so doing, they generate volatile thiols that give the wine its impression of minerality.

This idea gives a practical explanation for a suspicion I’ve had for years about the connection between thiols and minerality, but I still find several aspects confusing about the connection. If minerality is related to the presence of thiols, it should be less evident in wines that have had more oxidative treatment, because oxygen destroys thiols. You might think this would mean that Chablis matured in stainless steel would be more prone to minerality than Chablis matured in oak (because there is more oxidative exposure in oak barrels), but I’ve never quite been able to convince myself that there’s a correlation. And if the connection is true, shouldn’t minerality decline as a wine gets older and has more exposure to oxygen; but the impression of minerality in my Clavoillons definitely increased after the first few years.

And that brings me to the problem that plagues white Burgundy today: premature oxidation. For more than the past decade, white Burgundy has erratically taken a sudden dive into oxidation. Premier or grand crus that used to last ten or fifteen years – indeed that might not even peak until after a decade – suddenly begin to decline after four or five years, showing notes of madeirization. No one knows the cause: some suggestions have been quite hilarious, such as changes in mowing between the rows, others have a ring of plausibility, such as increased battonage (stirring the lees when the wine is in the barrel, which tends to increase oxidative exposure), use of lower sulfur levels at bottling (sulfur protects against oxidation), and so on. The most obvious explanation lies with the corks: Philippe Drouhin told me that it is typical to find a case in which some bottles may be oxidized while others are perfect. “What could be the difference between them, except the cork,” he asks. (I wondered for a while whether the problem reflected changes made when corks stops being washed with chlorine, but if the solution was that simple, it would have been found by now.) The puzzle for me is why premature oxidation should affect white Burgundy so widely. Whether it’s practices in viticulture or vinification, or a deficiency in the corks, why should it seemingly affect all producers; they don’t all have identical practices or the same suppliers of corks.

So that brings me back to minerality. Reduction and oxidation are yin and yang. If minerality is indeed due to thiols, it requires (relatively) reduced conditions; having more reduction, should mineral wines be less prone to premature oxidation? Actually, it is my general impression that white Burgundy in lusher styles is more prone to premox (as it is abbreviated in the trade), but I can’t really support that assertion systematically. Could a difference along these lines explain why Chablis seems to suffer from it less than the Côte d’Or? On the other hand, the only time I have had a prematurely oxidized Chablis, it was from a producer famous for his use of stainless steel rather than oak. Every time I think I’ve found a correlation that might reflect a basic cause, I’m confounded by a counter example. It’s very confusing. In the meantime, I’m forced to drink my white Burgundies up to a decade earlier than I used to, which is very annoying.

The most amazing thing of all is that in spite of great advances in placing viticulture and vinification on a more scientific basis, we still don’t really understand in detail the effects of oxygen. That it has a dramatic effect is clear: anyone who has tasted the same wine bottled under both corks and screwcaps knows that after even a few months, you have two different wines. This has to be due to differences in oxygen exposure. There isn’t any agreement on whether oxygen is needed for the aging of red wines (by breathing through the cork), and the pros and cons of corks and screwcaps continue to be debated partly because of this lack of understanding. But that’s a topic for another day.

Tasting note

Domaine Leflaive, Puligny Montrachet Les Clavoillons, 1996

I hate to say it, but they just don’t make Burgundy like this any more. The nose is pure gun smoke and flint, very Puligny, very Leflaive. Complex palate mingles peaches and cream with citrus, the latter showing especially on a long textured finish, with a lovely balance. The palate has broadened out with age and has reached the heights of elegance and is sheer perfection after fifteen years. A grand cru might have a little more weight, but it could not have a better balance and flavor spectrum.