Clos Vougeot from Top to Bottom: Is it Really a Grand Cru?

Clos Vougeot is perhaps the most variable of all the grand crus of the Cote de Nuits, and the one whose status is most often questioned (Echézeaux being the other). It’s only the accident of the area being literally enclosed by a surrounding wall that led to the uniform classification, as it extends right from the top of the slope (more or less in line with the premier crus) through the middle (in line with the grand crus) to the bottom (usually mere communal territory). In fact, it’s worse than that, because the fault line that mostly runs along the N74, dividing the great communes from the mere Bourgogne on the other side, actually diverts to run through the bottom edge of Clos Vougeot. (I discuss this in detail in my book In Search of Pinot Noir, from which the figure below is taken). Classified by geology, Clos Vougeot would include everything from ordinary Bourgogne to Grand Cru. Now if you taste your way across, for example, Gevrey Chambertin, from say the N74 to Le Chambertin, the difference between communal appellation, premier cru, and grand cru is usually fairly obvious. An unusual opportunity to see if there are obvious differences with location for Clos Vougeot came from a tasting of the 2011 vintage organized by Fine and Rare Wines in London, with examples from 38 producers. ClosVougeotCross

A cross-section of Clos Vougeot shows the strong variations in terroir.

Clos Vougeot has been divided between many producers since the French Revolution, but its division into climats hasn’t changed much since the sixteenth century. The monks knew all about this, and supposedly used the wine from the bottom for communal use, the wine from the top for visiting bishops, and reserved the wine from the middle for princes and the pope. Most of the wines at the tasting represented one of these three areas, but some were blended from multiple plots. However, the striking feature was a lack of any clear correlation between location and style.

VougeotMapClos Vougeot is divied into many plots with around 80 proprietors.

For me the wines of character fell into two general groups, which roughly might be defined as those I would (mistakenly) have placed in the Cote de Beaune in a blind tasting, because flashy red fruits showed more than structure, and those that I would unhesitatingly have placed in the Cote de Nuits (sometimes farther north than Clos Vougeot). Perhaps there is a tendency for the wines from the bottom to show more overt fruits and those from the very top to show more obvious structure, but I’d be hard put to support that in a blind tasting.

Clos Vougeot may offer the most fleshy character of the Cote de Nuits, certainly more opulent than delicate Chambolle Musigny or stern Gevrey Chambertin. I was really surprised by how sweet and ripe many of the wines were, although that’s not the reputation of the 2011 vintage. I was frankly disappointed by about half the wines, which seemed to lack grand cru quality (meaning that fruits were relatively simple and I could not see where future complexity would come from), but these showed no correlation with position, and came from plots all over the Clos. (It’s true that none of my preferred wines came exclusively from the bottom, but I don’t think that’s statistically significant.)

Wines in my category of delicious but rather Beaune-ish, with red fruits dominating, include Chanson, Chateau de la Tour, Louis Max, Denis Mortet, Mugneret-Gibourg, Jacques Prieur, Drouhin, Roche de Bellene, Domaine de la Vougeraie, Chauvenet-Chopin. Nice wines, but shouldn’t we expect more from a grand cru than simply a delicious crowd-pleasing quality?

Wines that melded the fleshiness of Clos Vougeot with a sense of structure of the Cote de Nuits, with black fruits more prominent, include Jean-Jacques Confuron, Louis Latour, Marchand-Tawse, Domaine d’Eugénie, Anne Gros, and the Vieilles Vignes from Chateau de la Tour (quite different from the regular cuvée). This is my concept of Clos Vougeot, anyway.

Some top wines came from old-line producers. Méo-Camuzet, including a large prime plot close to the chateau, really showed as a classic grand cru from Cote de Nuits, Arnoux-Lachaux (from plot in the upper third) a nice mix of fleshiness and structure in the modern style of the house, and Louis Jadot (from a plot extending from bottom through the middle) showed their characteristic sense of balance.

It is a sign of the times that I thought two of the best wines came from micro-negociants who do not even own any land in the Clos. Olivier Bernstein showed his usual opulent style, but with enough underlying structure to support longevity for years. The wine lives up to the reputation of the plot, which has very old vines (more than 80 years) in the middle of Clos Vougeot towards the south. The wine I found the most interesting of all came from Lucien Le Moine, and is not identified with any single plot. “Our Clos Vougeot has a particularity, it’s a blend from all three parts,” winemaker Mounir Saouma told me on a recent visit. The monks would have been very pleased with this: it captures the fleshiness of Clos Vougeot in the context of the structure of the Cote de Nuits and Mounir’s trademark elegance.

The take-home message for me was that producer triumphs over terroir in Clos Vougeot. Should it be a grand cru? I’d say about a third of the wines met my standard for grand cru. I’ll have to do a similar tasting for Chambertin or Musigny to see if the ratio goes up.

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Red Burgundy 2009: Reports of Impending Death Are Much Exaggerated

A tasting of a dozen premier and grand cru red Burgundies from 2009 suggested that the impending death of this vintage has been much exaggerated. When it was released, it was acclaimed (in Burgundy anyway) as a great vintage, close to the greatest in living memory…When 2010 came along, the reassessment was that 2010 had the stuffing to last, and that 2009, while attractively ripe and fleshy in the short term, wouldn’t be for the long haul, so better load up on 2010s…

The 2009s at this tasting more or less divided into those that are attractive now, and which for the most part would fit the general description of this as a (relatively) short lived vintage, although there was nothing that needs to be consumed in the next (say) five years. The other half are not yet ready, have pretty good acidity and tight structure, and won’t be ready for another five years; after which they should hold for a decade. That is not particularly short lived in my view. (And if you remember the Burgundy vintages that are presented as vins de garde, good for decades, well, just try a 1996: most will never come round.) All the wines have (relatively) high alcohol for Burgundy, but none was out of balance, and none show anything like the cooked fruits of 2003. In fact, my overall impression was that this is a more mainstream vintage than it’s now usually represented to be. In the context of that overall impression, there were lots of surprises with interesting reversals of expected character, and many individual wines show changes in producer styles from the past.

Wines that are ready to drink include Lafon’s Volnay Santenots (not as silky as usual, but a making a very fine impression appropriate for Volnay), Chevillon’s Nuits St. Georges Vaucrains (showing a touch more development than most wines), Chateau de la Tour’s Clos Vougeot (unusually delicate and one of the wines that does need to be consumed soon), and Pousse d’Or’s Clos de la Bousse d’Or (unusually earthy and less refined than in the old days). Ponsot’s Clos de la Roche was a shocker: so light and elegant, almost delicate, that many tasters thought it must be a top Volnay. Another shocker, in the opposite direction, was Faiveley’s Clos des Cortons, living up to the ripe reputation of the vintage to the point of becoming almost rustic. This is a big change in style from a decade ago. Dujac’s Bonnes Mares is a puzzler, earthier than usual, but not really developed enough to tell.

Geantet-Pansiot’s Charmes Chambertin looks to be one of the most reserved wines of the vintage, with a tight acidic structure and a touch of the hardness of Gevrey. Another wine in a backward style is Vogüe’s Musigny, tight and textured, but not yet releasing much flavor, but here the potential for aging is evident. Freddie Mugnier’s Chambolle Musigny Les Fuées is also somewhat backward, more structured and less elegant than usual, but showing more aromatic complexity than most 2009s at this time.

One of my favorites had completely unexpected origins. Generally restrained, but with a taut yet powerful underlying structure, d’Angerville’s Volnay Caillerets seemed more like a Grand Cru from the Côte de Nuits: terrific wine, but powerful rather than delicate. Another major change in style from the past. The Caillerets split my affection with Drouhin’s Clos de Beze, still clearly very youthful, just beginning to develop aromatic complexity, but oh so obviously a grand cru in its potential.

This is a more interesting vintage than it might appear superficially, with something for evertyone: some ripe, round wines require to be enjoyed now, but there are enough that are nowhere near ready yet and will last at least a decade or more. Mustn’t grumble.

What’s Happening with 2005 White Burgundy?

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.

Tasting Notes

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.