A Lament for White Burgundy

When I started drinking white Burgundy, I used to think of communal wines as reaching their peaks after four or five years, premier crus around eight to ten, and grand crus for ten years and up. Today those ranges seem hopelessly optimistic. Even aside from the problem with premature oxidation that has plagued white Burgundy since the 1996 vintage, with rare exceptions, the wines no longer seem to have that staying power. I wonder whether my memories of drinking old but glorious white Burgundy are simply nostalgic.

There is a curious parallel between the problems with California Chardonnay of which I complained recently (A Sonoma Chardonnay that Failed the Reality Check) and my experiences with De Montille’s Les Caillerets from Puligny Montrachet. When De Montille started making this wine I was delighted to find that it followed the tradition of winemakers such as Leflaive for expressing the steely minerality that characterizes Puligny.

It seemed to me that the early vintages – the first I tasted was 1999 – showed something of a mark of a red winemaker adjusting to white winemaking, as they all had just a little too much obvious oak. But with 2002 I thought De Montille hit his stride as a white winemaker; my initial tasting note, in 2005, found steely tones and precise fruit flavors, a worthy counterpart to the crystalline red Volnays which for which I had previously known De Montille.

The wine developed beautifully for the next few years. Early in 2010 it even seemed close to Grand Cru in standard, fruits becoming fuller, but still showing those steely underpinning. But during the year the steely minerality was replaced by increasingly developed fruits until the overall flavor spectrum seemed almost stewed. The last bottle, last week, actually started out well, rich but restrained, but in the glass turned to stewed and exotic fruits with a sensation of over-ripeness, and then the acidity became pressing rather than refreshing.

Other vintages have not lasted even as long. The 1999 appeared to have reached the end of its life by 2006, although that was more a problem with premature oxidation than over development of the fruits. The 2004 vintage was showing intense tropical fruits when I tasted it in  2007. The 2005 vintage was becoming a bit over phenolic by 2009, by last year it was showing signs of beginning to descend into a blowsy old age. When I tasted the 2009 a few weeks ago, it showed precisely delineated fruits, but with a floral, perfumed impression that reminded me more of Grand Cru Alsace than top Burgundy.

It seems to me that there is a trend for vintages to peak earlier and earlier, making transition from a steely citrus flavor spectrum to over ripe stone fruits. What alarms me most about this is that you can’t see it coming: the transition occurs quite abruptly. The only conclusion I can form is that I shall have to stop buying white Burgundy for the cellar and switch to purchasing only small amounts for current consumption. This does not make me happy.