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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The Oakiness of It All

We’ve come a long way since oak was merely a storage and maturation medium for wine. Judging from an all day seminar that Taransaud organized in London for the Institute of Masters of Wine, its role today is second only to the grapes themselves. The seminar was divided into two parts: a morning that considered individually many of the parameters that determine the effects of oak; and an afternoon looking at innovations to respond to changes in modern winemaking. Here’s a report on the morning; the afternoon will follow.

The background according to Henri de Pracomtal, Chairman of Taransaud, is that use of new oak is declining, down to 85% instead of a mandatory 100% when the vintage isn’t up to it in Bordeaux, although typically staying more or less around a third new, a third one year, and a third two year in Burgundy. The use of 200% oak (successive use of new barrels) is “dead.” There’s been significant backing off from new oak in the New World. The focus here was all on oak barrels,  although Taransaud also own Canton in Kentucky, where other formats are used. When they bought Canton, Henri was horrified to see oak chips, and wanted to stop their production, but “look at the profit margin” they told him. “Oak chips are for short term aromatics rather than long term élevage,” he says. The seminar was entirely about the effects of different barrel regimes on wine quality and style.

A long list of aroma and flavor compounds that are extracted from oak made it clear in a talk from Taransaud’s oenologist, Nicolas Tiquet-Lavandier, that the effects are profound. Considering how long oak has been used, it seems surprising that new compounds are still being discovered. I was also surprised that the role of oxygen loomed so large, with discussion about the porosity of the oak, entry between the staves, and through the bung. I thought it had now been established that basically all oxygen enters through the bung (which should mean there’s much less since the change to the new silicon bungs).

The heart of the seminar was a series of comparative tastings with wines that had been specially vinified under different conditions. The results of comparing French, Hungarian and American oak were fairly predictable, with a strong contrast between the toasty vanillin of Château Puygueraud (Côtes de Francs) 2011 in French oak and the stronger aromas of coconut from American oak. Since French and American oak are different species of trees this was not surprising, but the difference between French and Hungarian, which are the same species, was pronounced: the French oak gave a refined impression to the wine, the Hungarian was somewhat coarse. This emphasizes the effect of growth conditions on the oak: it’s colder in the Hungarian forests and the trees tend to be smaller. This links in to a change in the way tonneliers in France handle their sources – there is much less emphasis on individual forests, and more on the grain of the individual wood. “Within a forest is not a unique location. This is why we at Taransaud have gone our of the forest, we blend forests, the grain is very important, the tighter the grain, the more slowly the wine matures,” says Henri.

I was quite fooled by the blind tasting to test the effects of duration of seasoning. The wood at Taransaud is air dried by exposing staves in the open. A critical element is the need for rain and humidity in the first six months, which is becoming a concern in view of reduced rainfall in some years. The seasoning at first extracts compounds from the oak – this is crucial for reducing bitterness – and then adds other compounds as fungal infections occur; Henri likened this to maturation of cheese. I placed the three samples of Château Phélan Ségur 2010 in order on the assumption that more seasoning gives more subtle results, but this turned out to be too simple. Certainly the sample from 12 month seasoned French oak seemed a bit harsh compared to the others, but the 30 month seasoning seemed to produce a better balanced and more subtle wine than the 55 month seasoning, which had stronger wood spices. A similar test of American oak with the Swanson Vineyards 2010 from Napa Valley gave an overwhelming impression of coconut and dill on the 24 month seasoned sample, still pretty powerful and pungent with 36 months, but finally damped down a little with 48 months. Here longer is better. I was reminded that Paul Draper at Ridge, who uses American oak for the Montebello Cabernet, told me that American oak has a bad reputation not because of its intrinsic properties but because it’s not treated in the same way as French oak (it’s usually sawn instead of split and not air dried).

Blind tasting to test the effects of time spent in barrels also fooled me, as I was working on the assumption that impression of oakiness would be in direct proportion to time in oak (especially allowing for the fact that shorter time in oak would be followed by time in bottle). But Phélan Ségur 2010 showed the most vanillin, and even a touch of coconut, after 8 months in oak, still a touch of vanillin after 16 months in oak, but the cleanest and purest expression of fruits after an intermediate 12 months. However, the 16  months showed overall the most classic and best balance. Clearly this is not a simple matter of absorption into the wine with time, but of more complex interactions. For example, ellagitannins increase with up to 250 days in barrels and then decline.

The percentage of new oak at least was predictable: new oak was quite evident on the nose and palate of a Château Branaire-Ducru example from 2010, with an example that had been matured in second year oak showing more direct and purer fruits; but the blend had more weight, and was softer, rounder, and more complex. An interesting demonstration of classic balance obtained by not going to extremes.

Along the way, a panel of four winemakers commented on their impressions. With a range of different backgrounds (Sandrine Garbay from Yquem, Edouard Labruyère from Jacques Prieur, Peter Sisseck from Dominio de Pingus, and Stephan von Neipperg from Château Canon-la-Gaffelière), it was not surprising that their opinions differed. In a demonstration of how individual palates can agree or disagree, I was interested to see that there was one winemaker with whom I agreed on everything, one with whom I disagreed on everything, and two who were in between. I know whose wine I’m buying in the future.