Is Global Warming Changing the Hierarchy of Premier and Grand Crus?

With premox and other problems shortening the longevity of white Burgundy, I have been drinking up my last 2005s, a bit earlier than I would have done previously, and in the past year I have noticed a surprising change in the relationship between premier and grand crus in Chablis.

Take the example of Louis Michel’s grand cru Les Clos and premier cru Montée de Tonnerre. As Louis Michel is the benchmark for Chablis matured in stainless steel, the difference is a pure view of the effect of terroir on fruits, with no complications from different regimes of oak exposure.

Les Clos is always magnificent. For every producer it is the most reserved, steely, and mineral of any of his premier and grand crus. Just beyond Les Clos, separated from the band of grand crus by a small hollow, comes Montée de Tonnerre, always the best of the premier crus, and for some producers often pretty much up to grand cru standard.

I started drinking Louis Michel’s 2005s in 2009. Les Clos showed the house’s typical deeply textured structure, reflecting long maturation on the lees. Reflecting the warm vintage, it was a little richer than usual from the start, with stone fruits mingling with citrus.

Montée de Tonnerre was also a little richer than usual, but with the balance more in the direction of citrus, nicely textured under the fruits, with layers of flavor. Absolutely top notch for premier cru, but less depth than the grand cru.

Today things are different. Les Clos has become quite phenolic in the past year, and the sense of minerality has declined; it’s beginning to seem a little tired, and in a blind tasting I might place it farther south than Chablis. By contrast, Montée de Tonnerre is the absolute quintessence of Chablis: one sniff, and that cool, steely minerality shows that you are in Chablis. Fruits remain in the citrus spectrum, and there’s still some reserve on the finish. In a blind tasting I would place this as grand cru Chablis, and its steeliness might even make me think about Les Clos.

While the relationship between Les Clos and Montée de Tonnerre may have reversed, another grand cru, Vaudésir, has stayed truer to type. The textbook spiciness is overlaid by Louis Michel’s granular texture, stony rather than mineral, but with age the fruit spectrum is turning towards peaches and cream; phenolic hints intensify in the glass, following the path of Les Clos more slowly.

When the Crus were defined, the main distinction between them was reliability of ripening. But this was in a much cooler era: what ripened best in the 1930s may go over the top sooner in warm vintages in the new millenium. I suppose it all depends on what you mean by Chablis. If you want a rich white Burgundy, grand crus from warm vintages may fit the bill. If you want the historic saline minerality, premier crus may show more typicity.

The hierarchy of crus has always been defined, I think, in terms of wines tasted shortly after the vintage; it happens that the best age longer. That also may be changing with warmer vintages, with some of the grand crus richer and more delicious at first, but more likely to decline into blowsiness before the premier crus. How will the market react to this change, and will it be necessary to revise the classification of premier and grand crus?

LouisMichelThe best cru of 2005?

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What’s the problem with 1996 Red Burgundy?

The Burgundians are not so prone as the Bordelais to call any good year the vintage of the century, but 1996 was widely acclaimed at the time as a great vintage in Burgundy for both red and white. Twenty years later, it is abundantly clear that it is anything but a great vintage. My particular peeve is that I was so pleased at the time to acquire a really good selection of Crus and producers for reds, in fact this was the first time I had been able to get grand crus from the likes of Rousseau and so on. Now this seems more like hubris.

Coincidentally or not, this was also the first year in which premox really took hold for white Burgundy. (Some people date it from 1995, but 1996 was the first year I saw the effect in any quantity of wines). This is a bit odd because my experience since then has been that premox is magnified in the richer years – which 1996 now is turning out not to be. Because of premox, I have finished up my 1996 white Burgundies, but I am still mulling over how the reds could have been so deceptive as I continue to explore them.

This is scarcely the first vintage in which everything seemed fair set at the time of harvest and a problem emerged later. 1983 comes to mind as the most striking precedent: the wines seemed lovely on release, but two or three years later, many showed unmistakable signs of grape rot, and to all intents and purposes rapidly became undrinkable.

I would love to have a proper scientific explanation of the problem with 1996. On the palate the wines universally show a medicinal acidity, sometimes verging on bitter. It’s not just that the wines have too much acidity – we have seen that in plenty of older vintages from Burgundy – but it’s the character of the acidity, more than a bit medicinal, sometimes even a touch metallic. What is responsible for this universal character?

It’s most noticeable at village level, but remains prominent at premier cru; grand crus have a better weight of fruit and richness to balance it, but it’s a rare grand cru that does not show it in the background. It is not entirely predictable: it’s less obvious in Jadot’s Ruchottes Chambertin than in Le Chambertin, for example.

It wasn’t evident at the time of vintage. My tastings of barrel samples identified strong tannins and good acidity, but these did not seem out of kilter, and over the first few years, the wines seemed to have a promising richness. For almost the first ten years after the vintage, acidity seemed high but reasonably in character. By 2006 it began to seem doubtful if and when the wines would come around, and by 2009 or 2010 the acidity seemed to be pushing the tannins on the finish. Tannins aren’t obviously punishing today, but must be contributing to the character that has become so evident over the past five years; virtually all my tasting notes since 2010 include the word “medicinal”.

While the vintage now lacks generosity, I’d be hard put to describe it as mean, since the underlying fruits often show a sweet ripeness – but they can’t get out from under that medicinal character. The puzzle for me is how this developed so uniformly several years after the vintage. Could it have been there all along but has been revealed only as the fruits lightened up? At all events, I don’t accept the school of thought that the wines need more time to come around: they are what they are, and this won’t change.

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?

So the Cork Is Crucial in Premature Oxidation of White Burgundy

Because of the problem of premature oxidation, I no longer cellar white Burgundy for the long term, and I am drinking all my older vintages. At the moment I’m going through 2005, with generally disappointing results: most wines show some oxidation, with about half being at the point where the wine is drinkable but has lost much of its true character, a quarter being past the point where you really want to drink them, and a quarter still showing reasonably on form. (Curiously, the few 2002s that I also have left sometimes show better than the 2005s). This is specifically a problem of the Cote d’Or: with Chablis, my 2002s seem to be coming to end of their natural life span, but the 2005s are still lively.

It is fair to say that until this week, I have hardly had any 2005 white Cote d’Or in the past year that has been absolutely on form. But then I had an interesting experience with the Bonneau du Martray Corton Charlemagne. At first I thought we were not going to be able to drink the bottle, because I could not get the cork out. It seemed to be wedged in so tightly, it required more than the strength I could apply to extract it, but finally it came out. And then a revelation! The wine was a classically pale color. Not a trace of oxidation in appearance, or on nose or palate. The steely, mineral character was like turning back the clock two decades: I thought this style had disappeared from old white Burgundy. I would say it was at its peak, except that since there is no sign of it tiring, it might well go for another decade in classical fashion. If the cork is tight, that is.

I have had this wine three times previously, twice from my own cellar, once at the domain with Jean-Charles le Bault de Morinière. All of the previous bottles showed a more oxidative style, mostly as a more nutty texture. I did not open the bottle tasted at the domain, of course, but the other two showed normal extraction of the cork. One opened only a week earlier had a faint touch of perceptible oxidation in the background. I’m not sure whether you could call this premox ten years after the vintage. As Dominique Lafon said when I discussed this issue with him, “They open an old bottle and say it’s oxidized, but if you open a 1996, it’s not premature oxidation, it’s the aging process.”

Up to a point, there’ll always be bottle variation with older wines, but my experience with white Burgundy is that it’s far greater than it used to be: one bottle can be too oxidized to drink, while another from the case has just a trace of oxidation. The correlation between a cork that was too tight to extract and the total absence of oxidation suggests that corks may still be part of the problem. Actually, I don’t think corks are worse than they used to be, in fact they are better, but the wine is more on the edge (as the result low use of sulfur and other changes in winemaking), so that any lapse in the cork is absolutely revealing.

It’s a sign of the conservatism of Burgundy that although the premox problem strikes at the very heart of what white Burgundy is all about, there’s been almost no move to screwcaps. If ten or fifteen years ago, when it was clear the problem was not transitory, producers had at least experimented with screwcaps, by now there would be a definitive answer as to whether they would be an acceptable solution or would bring other problems. Given my recent experience, however, I cannot understand why tighter-fitting corks weren’t tried at least for a partial solution.

Burgundy Diary part 1: A Perfect Storm of Premature Oxidation – A Conversation with Dominique Lafon

Until the 1996 vintage, you could count on enjoying premier cru white Burgundy from around 6 or so years after the vintage to well over a decade, and you might start grand crus after 7 or 8 years and enjoy for another decade. Then everything changed abruptly, and wines began to show levels of oxidation after only three or four years: the color would darken, the aromas would resemble Sherry, and the palate would seem to dry out.

No one knows why premox started so suddenly. The first wines I experienced it with were from the 1996 vintage. It was random, with some bottles just fine while others from the same case were affected, and some producers seemed to have less problems than others, but I’ve subsequently had examples even from the producers who seemed immune. It’s been a disaster for anyone who prizes old white Burgundy, with the window for enjoying the wine really foreshortened.

What was most puzzling was that it seemed to affect everyone in a random way. As the problem has continued over the years, it’s become apparent that there isn’t any single, simple explanation. It seems to have been a perfect storm with many different factors contributing. Dominique Lafon has been a leader in looking for solutions. While there are still some producers who deny the severity of the problem, Dominique feels it should be addressed head on, although he points out that people often confuse natural aging with premature oxidation. “They open an old bottle and say it’s oxidized, but if you open a 1996, it’s not premature oxidation, it’s the aging process.” He sees the problem as resulting from the accumulation of many factors and has been taking a very scientific approach to pinning them down one by one. “It’s no use changing everything at once,” he says “because then you don’t know what the critical factors are.”

A morning at Comte Lafon ended with a wonderful tasting of his range of premier crus from 2012 and I’ll discuss the changing style of Meursault in a later post, but now I’ll report just on the conversation in which I asked Dominique about the factors that have been associated with premox.

How much of a problem have you had with premox? “The first vintage I really saw problems with was 1999; what puzzled us was that it was very random. The first thing we thought was that we had cork failures – I think we did – but it was showing the fragility of the wine. We started by working on the corks, we asked them to stop the peroxide treatment. (Peroxide, which is a strong oxidizing agent, was introduced to clean corks to avoid treating them with chlorine, which was causing the increased levels of TCA responsible for corked wines.) We went back from silicon coating to paraffin (which makes a better seal).”

“Then I worked on the reduction level, we’ve experimented with the amount of lees we trap – a wine that is more reduced will withstand a small cork failure. We worked to get the right amount of lees that would give just that nice level of reduction. In 1999 we had a huge crop, I was looking for space, and so we had used less lees.”

Is battonage a factor? “My father did a lot but I’ve never done much.” What about racking? “We do at least 18-20 months in barrel, but in the summer we move from young to older barrels, we used to do it with air, and we used to get rid of some of the lees, but I don’t use air now and I keep all the lees. We want to have more carbon dioxide in the wine, which is very protective. And of course raising the sulfur level is easy. The future work will be to get the sulfur level lower.”

Has the problem been fixed? “We are close now. All those things were done by 2007-2008, and in 2009 I met with Denis Dubourdieu and we did experiments here and at Roulot on the pressing. We worked to get more glutathione (an indication of reduction) and less sotolon (an indication of oxidation). By splitting the pressing and leaving 20% at the end we do better, and then we oxidize the last part fully. And we start fermentation in stainless steel tanks, which makes it more precise.”

“At assemblage tanks are flushed with nitrogen before filling. We bought a machine to generate nitrogen, because you have to flush the tank four times, and the bottles of nitrogen aren’t enough and are expensive.”

“We follow the dissolved oxygen all the way through. We know 1 mgm dissolved oxygen will absorb 5 mgm free sulfur. At the lab, people are satisfied when they get 2 mgm dissolved oxygen in the wine, but we are at the point where we have 0.5 mgm before bottling and it might go up to 0.8 mgm after bottling.

“We use special bottles that allow dissolved oxygen to be checked at bottling. Since 2009 we’ve brought the wine back to the lab after 8 months to check the sulfur levels and carbon dioxide and to taste. We bottle with free sulfur around 35, when we check after 8 months it’s always 28-33, we think 20 would be enough.” We walked around to look at the bottling machine. It has some sophisticated additions to vacuum the air out of the bottle and to inject nitrogen.

What about using other closures? “I’m pretty sure that with time everyone will use technical corks. Diam (a cork that’s been treated to eliminate problems with TCA) is more consistent. I’m amazed, it’s always slightly more reduced when you compare in tastings. In terms of seal, Diam will do the work, but we don’t know whether it will get into the wine long term.”

Even in the premox era I’ve had some fantastic old white Burgundies – well, to be honest, it wasn’t intentional, they were in my cellar and I forgot about them, and by the time I found them some were shot, but the best from the late nineties were as brilliant as ever. (I have not done so well with the 2005 vintage whichseems to be aging more rapidly than usual.) I’ve tasted many wonderful wines in Meursault and in Puligny Montrachet this week – reports coming up in later Diaries – and I just hope that the problem has been resolved as these wines all strike me as awfully young, and I’d like to look forward to enjoying them at the peak, maybe a decade or more from now.