Premox Meets New Oak: a New Experience

As I finish off my 2005 white Burgundies, I am continually having surprises. I had a new experience with the last bottle of a half case of Jadot’s Clos de la Garenne from Puligny Montrachet (the Duc de Magenta cuvée). Previous bottles have been wildly erratic: the previous one showed clear notes of oxidation, while the one before still showed new oak. That makes for a pretty narrow window for drinking between the oak resolving and the oxidation taking over.

Well this bottle showed both influences: oxidation in the form of Sherry-like notes at the end of the palate, but wood spices in the form of cinnamon at the forefront. That narrows the window for drinking to zero. It was actually quite interesting until after a while the oxidation took over and all remaining evidence of youthful fruits disappeared.

Beyond the fact that I’ve been unable to enjoy a single bottle in perfect condition, my concern is the sheer unpredictability. None of my white Burgundies have followed a clear path of development so that you might try at least to seize a moment to drink them, even if it’s only a brief opening. The path has been more of a zigzag, with one bottle showing oxidative problems, the next one much better, then a step backward and so on. I remember a conversation with the chef at a restaurant in France. When I asked about the reasons for his success, he said one was the “regularité.” We could certainly do with more of that in Burgundy.

One major surprise has been that just when I was about to give up on the vintage altogether, I had a series of bottles that were much better than the earlier ones. I am sure this is a coincidence, but I am reminded of a conversation with a producer in Burgundy last summer. He had been visited just previously by his English importer, who wanted to try some older bottles. “I’m afraid they are all oxidized,” the producer said. The importer want to try them anyway, and voila! they appeared to have returned to form.

This brings to mind a warning from Mercedes in the manual for one of its cars. “Even Mercedes cannot repeal the laws of physics,” it said. Well you can’t repeal the laws of oxidation either: it’s a one way process once oxidative products have been formed in wine. So I am not going to hold on to my bottles to see if a miracle of chemistry occurs, but I’m not going to assume they are all undrinkable either.


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?

Chablis Diary part 4: Terroir versus Oak

“In the eighties there were two big schools, cuve and oak; my father was always stainless steel; he used to say, I’m not in the timber business. But he has changed his mind,” says Fabien Moreau at Christian Moreau. “William Fèvre always used some new oak, but that stopped as soon as Henriot took over in 1998. We didn’t want to boisé the vin, to the contrary we wanted to keep freshness,” says Didier Seguier, who came to Fèvre from Bouchard at the time. Here you see the convergence in Chablis: protagonists for stainless steel have taken up oak, while protagonists for oak have backed off.

The two extremes remain Raveneau and Dauvissat on one hand, where everything is matured in barrique, and Louis Michel at the other, where everything is matured in stainless steel, but at most producers Petit Chablis and Chablis are matured in cuve, and varying proportions of oak are used for premier and grand crus. The approach is Burgundian in the sense that the oak exposure is graduated with the cuvée. On the Côte d’Or, of course, all the wines are matured in oak, and the tendency is to increase the proportion of new oak going from communal wine to premier cru to grand cru. In Chablis, all the oak is old and it’s the proportion of oak to stainless steel that changes.

Almost every producer was at pains to say that there is little or no new oak. The duration is usually quite limited: one common approach is to put a proportion into oak, but after around six months to perform assemblage with the wine matured in cuve. After assemblage, the wine is matured further, but exclusively in cuve. So why do I often find obvious oak on Grand Cru Chablis, and sometimes on premier cru also? In fact, it’s often necessary to wait a few years to let the oak integrate.

As a lighter wine than the Côte d’Or, even at Grand Cru level Chablis doesn’t have the same capacity to support oak or more extraction. Indeed, although maturation on the lees is common, typically for around 12 months for Premier Cru and around 18 months for Grand Cru, battonage is unusual in Chablis. “We don’t have the same body and strength as the Cote de Beaune, if we go too far with battonage the wine will be good at first but will tire quickly,” says Sandrine Audegond at Domaine Laroche. I wonder whether the difference is battonage is a contributing factor to the occurrence of premature oxidation on the Côte d’Or and its absence in Chablis

Each producer has his own view on how best to express terroir differences in Chablis.Is this done by vinifying all wines in the same way, so that the only significant difference is the terroir. This is the view of both Dauvissat and Raveneau (with only oak) and Louis Michel (with only steel), and Jean-Claude Bessin (all premier and grand crus with 60% oak). Or should vinification be adjusted to the Cru, as it is at William Fèvre, Droin, Laroche, Long-Depaquit, and Christian Moreau, with a general policy of increasing oak proportion going up a hierarchy of premier and grand crus. Somewhere in between are Pinson and the Chablisienne cooperative, where all premier crus get the same treatment, but grand cru gets more oak.GrandCruChablisTW1Grand Cru Chablis extends all the way from the bottom to the top of the slope

After years of drinking Chablis, I have a pretty clear view of the characters of the premier and grand crus. Montmains and Vaillons are the best premier crus on the left bank, with similar exposures on parallel hillsides in adjacent valleys. Close to the grand crus on the right bank, Fourchaume, Mont de Milieu, and Montée de Tonnerre have more structure and richness, and among the grand crus Preuses is always the most delicate and feminine, while Les Clos is always the most reserved, even austere, and needs longer.

But the grand crus extend all the way from the road just on the edge of the town to the woods at the top of the hill. With the much slighter slope along the Côte de Nuits, for example, everything depends on position on the slope: so especially for Les Clos, the largest grand cru in Chablis, how come it is always the most powerful wine made by any producer, irrespective of whether the plot is in a protected position under the trees at the top or exposed in the middle or at the bottom? Even within the smaller crus, there can be significant differences in soil types, so is any fixed view of their character more imagination than reality?

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.