Burgundy Diary part 6: Sea Change in Meursault – Visits to Comtes Lafon, Guy Roulot, Michel Bouzereau, and Pierre Morey

My recent visit to Meursault showed a real change in style from the old view that Meursault is soft, nutty, and buttery (compared with Chassagne Montrachet that has a more citrus edge, and Puligny Montrachet which is taut, precise, and mineral). As Jean-Baptiste Bouzereau explains, “There has been an evolution in Meursault over 20 years, the wines are less rich and opulent than before. People are looking for a finer style.” This applies especially to the premier crus, as “the exposure naturally makes the village wines a little heavier.”

Dominique Lafon has made a similar transition since he took over in 1987 at Comtes Lafon. “During this period (the late eighties and early nineties), winemaking was close to what my father had been doing; he was a classical winemaker, so there was long aging, two years in barrel, with lots of new oak. The premier crus were 100% new oak. That’s what people wanted at the time: big round toasty white Burgundy became very successful, especially in the U.S.A. All the work we’ve done since then has been focused on a move towards elegance. We use just enough new oak for each vineyard but I don’t want to taste it in the wine. Now aging depends on the cru and some spend longer than others.” Is this change typical for Meursault, I asked. “I think it’s typical for the good producers,” is Dominique’s view.

What is the typicity of Meursault, I asked Anne-Marie Morey at Domaine Pierre Morey. “What sort of style should Meursault be: buttery or mineral? Meursault is more butter, Puligny is more mineral, but Meursault is the largest appellation and has terroirs that express both styles. We have the chance to have terroirs that express minerality,” she says. But when asked what changes she has made since taking over, she says, “I think we are not great revolutionaries in Burgundy.”

So you might ask: if there’s something of a consensus to move to a lighter, more mineral style, away from oak and vanillin, what’s the real typicity of Meursault, and what price terroir? If the distinction between Meursault and Puligny is less clear than it used to be, the distinctions between different terroirs within Meursault seem clearer now that the cover of oak and vanillin and butter has been removed. Take the lieu-dits at Domaine Guy Roulot, where Jean-Marc Roulot says, “The style was defined in the sixties by the decisions my father made to separate the cuvees. If you see the difference in the glass it’s justified, but if you don’t there is no point. Excess is the enemy of terroir – too much alcohol or too much oak… Our wine is lightly colored for three reasons: early harvest dates, not too much oak, and not too much battonage.”

“The first difference between the lieu-dits is the exposition, then elevation on the slope, finally the clay-limestone proportions. There’s about a week’s difference in harvest between Luchets and Narvaux.” Going through the 2013s with Jean-Marc, you move from the restraint of Meix Chavaux or Tillets to the rounder impression of Luchets, the gritty texture of Narvaux, and the more powerful Tessons. Each is distinct.

Comtes Lafon may have the widest range of premier crus in Meursault. I tasted all six from 2012 with Dominique Lafon. Bouchères is vibrant and lively, pointing towards citrus, then Poruzots is more stone fruits, Genevrières is rounder with a silky sheen, Charmes, always more backwards, has a smoky restraint, and Perrières is the most powerful. Once again, all are distinct, yet showing that commonality of Lafon’s elegant style.

I didn’t mention Coche Dury because I didn’t visit on this trip, but his wines are really the epitome of minerality in Meursault. Some feel that Arnaud Ente is a very close second in this style. No doubt there are still Meursaults in the old style, fat and oaky, but I have to say that I didn’t encounter any on this trip. Previously I’ve always been a devotée of Puligny for expressing terroir in that ineffably steely, mineral style, but Meursault is now running it a close second. Here are four examples to make the point.

Domaine Pierre Morey, Meursault Tessons, 2009: “This is a mineral terroir: the rock is about 30 cms down and the roots tend to run along the surface. This was a precocious vintage but the wine was slow to develop and elegant,” says Anne-Marie Morey. A slight sense of reduction brings a really savory impression to the citrus fruits – this one won’t succumb to premox. Fruits are elegant, citrusy, and emerging slowly. 89.

Domaine Guy Roulot, Meursault Charmes, 2012: Faintly smoky, mineral nose with citrus fruits. More subtle than Bouchères, more texture, less obvious gloss on surface, but deeper flavors with good extraction and depth. Very fine indeed. 92.

Domaine Comtes Lafon , Meursault Charmes, 2012: Restrained smoky nose. Most overt sense of structure among the premier crus, more granular on palate with strong impression that the structured citrus and stone fruits will last a long time. Tension and texture would be a fair summary. 93.

Domaine Michel Bouzereau, Meursault Genevrières, 2013: Similar to Charmes with citrus hiding some nuts, but more intensity. Lots of extract here, great concentration of fruits marked by citrus and apples, long finish. Deep and concentrated, this might be what Meursault would be like if it had a Grand Cru. 91.

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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.