Playing Russian Roulette with Puligny Montrachet

I have got fed up with the premox problem and am drinking all my 2002 and 2005 white Burgundies, whether they are Chablis premier or grand cru, or Côte d’Or premier cru (alas I do not have much in the way of grand crus, except for a couple of bottles of Le Montrachet).

This evening was Leflaive’s Clavoillon Puligny 2005, the last bottle of a half case. I did not have high expectations, because there’s been significant variation among previous bottles: some have showed obvious touches of oxidation, some have showed signs of fruits drying out, some have been overly phenolic. This one was perfect.

I was just amazed to have a bottle that showed the sheer perfection of what a top premier cru from Puligny should achieve at ten years of age. Here’s the tasting note:

Noticeably paler than previous bottles. Forceful citrus and stone fruits show with touches of grapefruit and apricots, slowly developing those steely mineral overtones that epitomize Puligny. The phenolic overtones that were overly evident in some previous bottles develop more slowly here and are integrated into the granular texture of the palate. Palate is complex, hard to disentangle flavor and texture – if only they were all like this.

I don’t know whether to lament the fact that the previous five bottles were all in some way at least slightly disappointing due to premox or associated problems, or whether to say Hallelujah! now we see what it’s all about. Given the cost of white Burgundy these days, I’m temperamentally inclined to sackcloth and ashes rather than celebration.

This seems an appropriate point to consider the premox problem, as the first vintage to show the premox problem was 1995, twenty years ago. Today’s wine is ten years old, so it marks the halfway point. The problem wasn’t solved then, and I’m not completely convinced it is now. Should they be considering screwcaps in Burgundy?

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Burgundy Diary part 2: Domaine Leflaive – the Quintessence of Puligny & the 2012 Vintage

Domaine Leflaive has become very grand. The first time I visited, twenty years ago, things were casual: I called the domain when I was in Beaune, and made an appointment to visit that afternoon. I met with Anne-Claude Leflaive, who had recently started the experiment with biodynamics, and we had a long tasting, punctuated by discussion about potassium levels in the soil (a sensitive issue in Burgundy at that time, as much of the soil had been poisoned over the previous decades). This time, an email to the contact address on the web site produced an automated response to say that there are no direct sales to new customers, no visits for consumers, and professionals should contact the local importer.

Once you arrive in Puligny, you have to know where to go, as there are no signs to the domain, and no nameplate at the entrance; perhaps to discourage casual visitors, there’s a line with domestic washing hanging up at the entrance to the rather grand courtyard where the domain is located in the Place des Marronniers. But just to complicate matters further, the Place des Marronniers no longer has any chestnut trees and has been renamed the Place du Pasquier de la Fontaine, perhaps to represent its gentrification with a fountain. This is a sad turn of events for an area proud of its history. But the wines of Domaine Leflaive are more splendid than ever.

LeflaiveTW3Domaine Leflaive was one of the first to take up biodynamics, is probably the most ardent biodynamic practitioner in Burgundy, and has been fully biodynamic for almost twenty years. From 1992 to 1997 there were experiments in which some vineyards were organic and some were biodynamic, and the wines were bottled separately. As a result of the trial, Anne-Claude decided in 1997 to go biodynamic. That was a difficult vintage when acidity generally dropped fast, says general manager Antoine Lepetit, but the biodynamic vineyards retained acidity better than others. Better acidity has continued to be one of the main benefits of biodynamics.

Winemaking is fairly traditional, with everything going into oak, a delay of about 6 days before indigenous yeast start fermentation, and then a delay of some months before malolactic fermentation happens. (Because Puligny has a high water table, cellars are above ground, so temperature responds to external conditions and it’s too cold for malolactic fermentation over the winter.) After a year in barrique, there is assemblage, and then the wine rests on full lees in small stainless steel tanks for most of another year. “We keep barrels for up to five years so we buy 20% of new oak each year. Bourgogne has 10% new oak, village has 15%, there’s 20-25% for premier crus, and 30% for grand cru (apart from Montrachet which is often one barrel). It’s been the same for the past twenty years. What’s important for us is to give the wine no more oak than it can take,” says Antoine.

We tasted all the premier crus from 2012, and the grand crus from 2011. “2012 is not the easiest vintage to taste now, it has high dry extract,” Antoine warns me. Indeed, the wines are pretty reserved at the moment. The Puligny has faintly smoky notes emphasizing a mineral impression, but hasn’t yet developed that steely backbone of minerality that is the hallmark of Domaine Leflaive. Clavoillons (for which Leflaive has almost a monopole as the domain owns almost all of the Cru) shows some steel but is relatively muted, Folatières is dumb on the nose but more rounded on the palate than Clavoillons, Combettes (where there is only a tiny plot) has a more forward impression of stone fruits, and Pucelles is the knockout of the vintage, showing a delicate nose, smoky palate, and silkiness on the finish. The vines of Bienvenues Bâtard are the oldest in the domain, and the wine shows lovely citrus with notes of oak showing at the end, Bâtard Montrachet has more depth on the palate, and Chevalier Montrachet takes the prize for the most subtle mélange of citrus versus stone fruits, smoke versus minerality, fruits versus steel. It would be vinicide to drink any of these wines now, but if forced to choose one for dinner, I would have the Pucelles.

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.

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.