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.

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The Best Terroir is the Best Terroir

How far can you take terroir? It seems blindingly obvious that some sites produce better wine than others: it is not rocket science to suppose that a sunny spot in the middle of a well drained slope will produce better wine than a cool, shady, damp spot at the bottom.  And I am prepared to buy the fact that slight differences in terroir can reliably produce different nuances in the wine: I was quite convinced of this by several series of pairwise comparisons in Burgundy when I was researching my book on Pinot Noir. Other convincing examples come from comparing, for example, Ernie Loosen’s Rieslings from different vineyards in the Mosel. You can’t mistake the fact that these wines are consistently different, although all made in the same way. But the unresolved question that sticks in my mind is whether different terroirs match different grape varieties or whether the best terroirs are simply the best terroirs. (The middle of that slope would probably produce better plums, apricots, or apples than the bottom.)

I was much struck by this issue when visiting Pinot Noir producers in Germany. All of them, of course, also produce Riesling; in fact, for most of them the Pinot Noir is little more than a sideline. Everywhere in Germany, Riesling is planted in the best terroirs. Those terroirs that aren’t quite good enough for Riesling are planted with other varieties. But where is Pinot Noir planted? Are there spots that are really suitable for Pinot Noir but where Riesling would not succeed? This does not seem to be the case. Pinot Noir is a demanding grape, and it is usually planted in spots that would also have made good Riesling. The best terroirs are the best terroirs, and it’s a matter of choice whether Riesling or Pinot Noir is planted there. And as for the effect of terroir on the nature of the wine, I saw similar effects on both Pinot Noir and Riesling: more minerality, more sense of tension in the wines from the volcanic soils in the north, to rounder, fatter wines from the limestone soils in the south, and softer, lighter wines from sandstone soils in the east.

Is it a general rule that every wine region has a top variety (or varieties) that take the best terroirs? Even on the left bank of Bordeaux, where you hear a lot about the perfect match between Cabernet Sauvignon and the gravel-based soils, it’s really more the case that the gravel-based soils are the best terroirs – so Cabernet Sauvignon is planted there. Merlot is planted in the spots that couldn’t ripen Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ve yet to hear a proprietor extol a vineyard for the perfection of the match of its terroir to Merlot – I suspect the match is more faute de mieux.

Are there regions that grow multiple top varieties where we could test the argument that there are terroirs that are equally good but suited for different varieties. Burgundy seems the obvious case, where the contrast is increased by the fact that Pinot Noir is black but Chardonnay is white. Isn’t it the case that the terroirs of Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet, and Meursault, are uniquely suited to Chardonnay whereas those of (say) Nuits St. Georges, Clos Vougeot, and Gevrey Chambertin are uniquely suited to Pinot Noir?

Not exactly. The focus of the appellations to the south of Beaune on white wine is quite recent. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, Puligny Montrachet was mostly planted with Gamay, Chassagne Montrachet was almost exclusively red, and Meursault was divided between red and white wine. The area that is now Corton Charlemagne mostly produced red wine until the twentieth century.  And in the eighteenth century, Clos Vougeot’s white wine was almost as highly regarded as Le Montrachet, as indeed was a white Chambertin. Could we at least argue that the change is due to better understanding of what grape varieties are suited to each terroir. No:  it’s the economy, stupid.

When fashion has swung to and fro on red wine versus white, plantings have followed. Here’s a modern case in point. Beaune’s Clos des Mouches is one of the few vineyards that have both black and white grapes. But there isn’t any pattern to the plantings that follows details of terroirs: in fact, rows of black and white grapevines are more or less interspersed, according to what was needed when replanting last occurred. And as Chardonnay has proved more profitable than Pinot Noir, there’s been a trend towards replanting with Chardonnay.

If the best terroirs are the best terroirs, what determines the best variety for each location? Well, climate is no doubt the most important factor: heat accumulation and hours of sunshine are basically going to determine whether and when the grapes reach ripeness.  Are the best terroirs simply those where historically the grapes have ripened most reliably? On the hill of Corton, where the plantings of Chardonnay for Charlemagne stretch round to the western end of the hill, where Pinot has trouble in ripening, you might argue that the best terroirs are planted with Pinot and second best with Chardonnay, although I have to admit that they make wonderful white Burgundy.

So here is the challenge. Are there examples where two terroirs in the same vicinity give different results with two grape varieties of the same quality (and color if we want this to be a rigorous test)? If one terroir gives better results with one variety and the other terroir gives better results with the other variety, then I will withdraw my conclusion that the best terroir is the best terroir and matching grape varieties is down to climate.