Designer Oak Labels

It used to be so simple. Wine would complete its alcoholic fermentation and be transferred into barrels, more or less new according to the strength of the year. The source of the oak would most likely be the nearest forest; you might worry a little bit about how much the oak had been toasted.

Today the degree of toast is tightly controlled, sometimes using infrared rather than mere simple fire, and is reproducible. “We at Taransaud know what medium toast is, we measure it by time and temperature, but some people still use color, which is very variable,” says Jean-Pierre Giraud. Toast was the elephant in the room at the afternoon session of Taransaud’s seminar for the Institute of Masters of Wine: it was rarely mentioned directly, but I suspect that it was the main determinative factor in barrels that had been designed for very specific purposes.

I was fascinated by the concept that a barrel could be designed directly to handle higher alcohol wines. I’ve had the view for some time that the problem with high alcohol wines is not just the higher alcohol, but a generally higher level of extraction, which makes them fatiguing to drink (although sometimes apparently performing better at tastings). I hadn’t followed through to ask the corollary question: when and where does the higher extraction take place and could it be changed?

Alcohol is a solvent, and perhaps its most obvious effect is on maceration: different tannins are extracted by pre-fermentation maceration (when there is no alcohol) from post-fermentation maceration (when alcohol is present). But the question implicit in Taransaud’s design of a barrel for higher alcohol wines is whether there will be differences in extraction during élevage of a 15% alcohol wine from a 13% alcohol wine, and whether the barrel can be adjusted to equalize the effects.

The starting point is that alcohol affects the perception of other components in the wine, reports Dominique de Beauregard of Taransaud. It masks some components, especially fruit aromas, and exacerbates others, in particular herbaceous elements. Higher alcohol extracts more toast aromas, making the wine seem heavier and more tannic. (From this I would guess that some of the adjustment to higher alcohol involves reducing the toast.) So Taransaud have developed a barrel – the working name is the A+ – which is intended to enhance fruit to compensate for the effect of higher alcohol.

I thought the blind tasting of Izquierdo 2010 from Ribera del Duero, matured in either a regular barrel or an A+ barrel, was inconclusive. In the regular barrel, the wine was tinged with savage, even animal, notes, and the finish seemed harsh and bitter. These problems were ameliorated by an impression of more fruit and a softer palate with the A+ barrel, but the wine was still pretty biting with a burning finish. I am sorry, but once you have reached 15.5% alcohol, I’m not convinced that any change in the élevage is going to bring the wine back to a reasonable balance.

The next special effect was a barrel intended to “reveal Chardonnay’s typicity and quality.” I think an issue’s going begging here, however. What is the typicity of Chardonnay? I think of it as the chameleon grape, capable of flinty minerality in Chablis, nutty overtones in Meursault, steeliness in Puligny, butter and vanillin in Napa, tropical fruits in South America. If ever there was a grape that responds to the winemaker, this is it!

Be that as it may, it seems that Taransaud, firmly centered in France, sees minerality and tension as the objective for Chardonnay. (So do I.) They wouldn’t say what is special or different about the PFC barrel that is their prototype for Chardonnay, except that the wood was carefully selected for grain, seasoning, and toasting. (This is somewhat along the lines of a phrase often found in scientific papers to which I take strong exception. “We performed the experiment carefully.” Well, yes, how else would you perform it?) Anyway, I certainly see the merit of the notion that perhaps oak should be different for Chardonnay from Pinot Noir or from Cabernet Sauvignon. However, I wasn’t persuaded by the results of this particular experiment. A Domaine François Lumpp 2011 Givry in a traditional barrel had a nose and palate showing a nice combination of citrus fruits and oak overtones, smooth and well integrated. The PFC barrel seemed to give a more muted impression and I thought I got a fugitive touch of high toned aromatics on the nose, with the acidity standing out to make the palate seem a bit disjointed. This is clearly a work in progress.

Egg-shaped fermenters are all the rage at biodynamic producers, who feel that the shape encourages a natural fluid movement that reduces the need for intervention. This is something that could presumably be measured, although I haven’t yet seen any attempt at objective judgment. Egg-shaped fermenters come in cement and now Taransaud have introduced one in wood, called the Ovum. The blind tasting was a comparison of Domaine de Chevalier 2011, 100% Sauvignon Blanc, given six months in conventional 225 liter barrels, 400 liter barrels, or a 2000 liter Ovum.

Now the problem here from my point of view is that we are not comparing like with like. The main effect is surely going to be the different ratio of surface area to volume, which is greatest in the 225 liter barrel, about 20% less in the 400 liter barrel, and only about half in the 2000 liter container. (And a further complication is that in barrels the inside is usually toasted but the heads are not.) For this to be a significant test of shape, we would need to compare a barrel or a cylinder of 2000 liters with the Ovum.

Anyway, the blind tasting to my mind validated the idea that they have learned something in the past couple of hundred years about the best containers for maturing white wine. The traditional barrel gave a classic impression, with a typical citrus fruit spectrum tinged with oak, becoming soft and ripe in the glass. The 400 liter barrel gave a much less oaky impression, with the citrus fruits coming to the fore. The Ovum gave a grassier wine with more zest, fresher and purer, but less interesting. When the audience was asked to vote for their preference, the choice was interestingly for the 400 liter, but I think that did not make sufficient allowance for the fact that the wine is very young and normally would have many more months to mature before tasting. Allowing for that, my preference was for the traditional barrique.

The final tasting was a test of Taransaud’s T5 barrel. All we could learn about this was that the wood is seasoned for five years, it comes from French oak with a very tight grain, and there is a special toasting procedure on an open fire at low intensity. Oh, and a barrel costs about €1200 compared to the usual €700. It’s intended to bring refinement to the wine. The test tasting was of Château Beauregard (Pomerol) 2009 matured in either a standard barrel or a T5 barrel. There was definitely a difference. The classic barrel produced a wine that was rich and fruity with oak that was relatively subdued on the nose but more evident on the palate, in fact it was quite dominant. Slowly emerging fruit gave a youthful impression of needing quite a bit more time. The T5 sample was more subdued, almost closed on the nose, with the fruits initially seeming sweeter and riper, and better integrated, on the palate. It gave the impression that it will be ready to drink a year or two sooner than the wine from the classic barrique. All of the winemakers – some of whom are using T5 barrels – said they preferred it. But this tasting was not done blind. I hate to spoil the party, but I wonder whether this is like malolactic fermentation in barrel: the question is whether it is a short-term effect or will persist? Will the two wines be any different in five or ten years’ time?

I really admire the efforts to go behind simply turning out high quality barrels into examining all the factors that influence the effects of wood on the wine, and asking how and which changes should be made for different situations. Just as Riedel has created a perception that we should no longer use the same glasses to taste all wines, it makes me wonder whether in years to come, we will look back and wonder at the primitive nature of the idea that oak barrels might be generic for all wines.

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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.

What’s Happening with 2005 White Burgundy?

I was brought up completely short this week by tasting several of Etienne Sauzet’s Pulignys from the 2005 vintage. I was expecting the wines to have developed nicely by now, filling in the lushness on the palate with some complexity. What I found was completely unexpected.

Personally I’ve never been quite certain about Sauzet, because I have usually found the wines to display their oak a touch too obviously, most often showing some overt vanillin when young (although new oak is usually less than a third in the premier crus). But when the 2005 vintage was released, I decided this would be a good moment to get a mixed case and see how the various wines age, because Etienne Sauzet is often considered one of Burgundy’s top domains. Most of its holdings are in Puligny Montrachet, and there are several premier crus, as well as tiny amounts of two grand crus. The wines I tasted this week were the village Puligny Montrachet, and two of the better known premier crus, Les Perrières and Les Folatières.

The first surprise was that the village Puligny and the Perrières were barely distinguishable: I had expected a significant step up in quality. The reason was that both are losing their fruits fast, and a strong phenolic emphasis overpowered the palate. The Folatières was similar, giving the impression that it’s just a few months behind on the same path of development.

I would not have been surprised if these wines had showed this sort of development after say ten or so years, but even allowing for the fact that white Burgundy needs to be drunk much earlier than used to be the case (but mostly because of premature oxidation), I was startled to find the wines apparently over the hill after only six years. I don’t think condition is a problem, because the wines were all bought on release from a reputable merchant (Zachys in New York, imported via Briacliff Manor according to the back label).

I am not certain, but I don’t think this is the phenomenon the Germans call atypical aging, (untypischen Alterungsnote in the original German), although that also is marked by the accumulation of phenolic aromas. (Atypical aging is caused by accumulation of naphthalene-like aromas caused by 2-aminoacetophenone, a compound related to methyl anthranilate which causes the foxy aroma in grapes of non-vinifera varieties. These Sauzet wines simply tasted as though they’d had too much skin contact, or otherwise picked up phenolic compounds.) Anyway, if it is atypical aging, which usually more affects aromatic varieties (and the cause of which, so far as I know, is still unknown) this should become obvious with further development over the next few months.

Certainly there was at least no sign of premature oxidation. First noticed with the 1996 vintage, this has become the major problem with white Burgundy. Its cause is also unknown, and it seems to strike completely unpredictably. It doesn’t usually show as soon as the current vintage, but earlier this year at a dinner at Le Bernardin, Aldo, the sommelier showed me two examples of a Puligny and a premier cru of the 2006 vintage that had just arrived, straight from a famous domain, and which were already completely shot with strong madeirized aromas and flavors.

What with one thing and another, white Burgundy seems to be becoming a chancy proposition, so to check that my palate hasn’t simply gone out of whack I tried another premier cru from another producer from the 2005 vintage. This was Ramonet’s Boudriotte from Chassagne Montrachet. As Ramonet is considered one of the very best producers in Chassagne Montrachet (many would say the best), this seemed a fair comparison.

Ramonet’s wine was up to his usual standard, and I enjoyed the Boudriotte, but it left me not completely convinced that the phenolic problem was confined to Sauzet. Ramonet’s wine had to my mind a better balance of fruit to phenolics, but it seemed to be going in the same direction as Sauzet, with those phenolic overtones just a bit too present for comfort. At the time of the 2005 and 2006 vintages, some critics felt that the 2005s were too opulent, too lacking in acidity, and that the fresher 2006s would last better. This may be correct, but I don’t think lower acidity as such is responsible for this rather rapid aging of Sauzet and (perhaps) of Ramonet. As the Ramonet left me undecided as to whether this is a general problem with the vintage, I turned to another wine, what they might call a “banker” on the M.W. tasting exam, meaning that it is absolutely reliable. This was the (white) Clos des Mouches, the best premier cru in Beaune, from Drouhin.

Ah ha: here I felt I was tasting a mature Burgundy at its peak. Yes, that’s a small cause for concern, since a decade or so ago, I might have felt that a top premier cru should not peak until a decade of age, but here was lovely wine without any problems. I do feel that it somewhat makes the case for the advantages of 2006 over 2005, since it shows more opulence and less potential longevity than usual. It’s more peaches and cream than citrus, you can still see some signs of its maturation in oak, but the phenolics are pushed well into the background by the richness of the fruits.

So where do I stand on 2005 white Burgundy? Very cautious. The best premier crus probably should be drunk in the next three or four years: perhaps the grand crus will last longer. But I am afraid that some wines are aging so rapidly that already they are past their peak. Caught between rapid aging and premature oxidation, it seems increasingly risky to cellar white Burgundy. Perhaps the 2006 vintage will fare better than 2005. Watch this space.

Tasting Notes

Puligny Montrachet, Domaine Etienne Sauzet, 2005

Already the fruit is drying out and the wine is going over the hill. The lightening of the fruits is leaving slightly herbaceous aromas and flavors to dominate nose and palate. The original vanillin is turning vegetal. The wine becomes somewhat phenolic on the finish.  Overall impression is that the wine is just too tired and old, very disappointing. 86 Drink now.

Les Perrières, Puligny Montrachet, Domaine Etienne Sauzet, 2005

Only a very faint whiff of Sauzet’s usual vanillin, more of a faintly herbaceous touch on the nose. There’s a touch of vanillin on the palate, which tends to citrus fruits including grapefruit, and quite an acid finish. The acidity pushes the sensation of herbaceousness, which strengthens in the glass. The general impression is that already the fruit is drying out. This is a most disappointing result for what should be a top vintage.  86 Drink now.

Les Folatières, Puligny Montrachet, Domaine Etienne Sauzet, 2005

A slightly citric nose has hints of phenolics. On the palate the citrus fruits are tinged with stone fruits, with a slightly acrid touch of phenolic grapefruit and some remnants of the original vanillin. Overall quite a decent balance, but the general spectrum of aromas and flavors seems to be following the village Puligny and the Perrières down the same route to strengthening phenolics at the expense of fruit. I think this will last a few months longer, but I’m afraid that a year from now it will have the same problems. 87 Drink soon.

La Boudriotte, Chassagne Montrachet, Domaine Ramonet, 2005

Citrus nose initially shows some faint phenolic overtones, which then give over to a nutty impression. The citrus fruits on the palate are supported by good acidity, with a touch of heat on the finish, and those phenolic notes coming back. Nicely integrated flavors right across the palate, but I’m worried that the phenolic notes will intensify as the fruits lighten up, and this will limit longevity. Drink in next year or so. 88 Drink-2013.

Clos des Mouches, Beaune, Joseph Drouhin, 2005

Nice golden hue shows a little age. Interesting nose has some herbal notes of anise, with the underlying fruits more peaches than citrus, A faintly exotic note of stewed peaches or apricots comes through on the palate, where the ripeness of the fruits is evident, and supporting acidity is adequate. There’s a lovely finish of peaches and cream, but just a touch of phenolics coming through the back palate, but this is subdued by the bursting ripeness of the fruits. With time in the glass, the phenolics disappear to leave a lingering impression of peaches and cream on the palate, in the opulent style of the vintage. This has reached a lovely stage of maturity and now may well be at its peak, but it should hold and develop well for a few years yet. 91 Drink-2015.

The Chameleon Grape: A Tale of Two Chardonnays

I call Chardonnay the Chameleon grape because its character is so much more dependent on winemaking than place. Vinify Chardonnay at low temperature and you get tropical fruits; go to higher temperatures for a more classic repertoire. Mature in new oak for smoky overtones or a full-fledged rush of vanillin; use stainless steel for a crisper finish. Push malolactic fermentation for those buttery notes of popcorn; avoid it for sharp, citrus flavors. (Yes, I know that Chardonnay shows wonderful nuances of place in Burgundy, most notably in Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet, and Meursault, but that does not counter my argument, since there is a commonality to winemaking in Burgundy.)

Dependence on winemaking becomes even more evident at lower price levels, where yields are higher, and vineyard origins rarely feature as determinants of style. The significant impact of the hand of the winemaker was brought forcefully home to me by two mid-priced Chardonnay’s consumed on successive days. The first was the L’Ecole No. 41 Chardonnay from Washington State, enjoyed (if that is the right word) on American Airlines between New York and London (The High Life: Wine at 37,000 feet). The second was Domaine Mont d’Hortes from the Languedoc, enjoyed with dinner at Galvins Bistro in London (Review of Galvin Bistrot de Luxe), the day after. American Airlines did not think vintage was important enough to state, but the Mont d’Hortes was the recent 2010 vintage. The American wine retails around $17 per bottle; the Languedoc Chardonnay is about half that price.

The L’Ecole No. 41 comes from Washington’s Columbia Valley. According to the producer, it comes from two vineyards, Schmitt Vineyard in Yakima Valley, “which provides tropical fruit,” and Evergreen Vineyard, “which contributes crisp acidity and minerality.” I buy the producer’s claim that these are cooler vineyards, because I could taste slightly herbaceous flavors in the wine, which I took to represent unripe grapes, although the harvest Brix of almost 26 (producing more than 14% alcohol) might rather suggest over ripe grapes. I can’t say that I could see the wine as “finely balanced between richness and minerality,” because for me it seems more to have a phenolic brutality to the finish, which did not exactly complement the food.

The Mont d’Hortes Chardonnay comes from the Vin de Pays des Côtes de Thongue, a minor Vin de Pays in the Languedoc, not far north of the Pyrenees. This is a somewhat warmer region, but the nose shows a tang of citrus, quite fresh with just a touch of phenolics on the finish. The palate is quite full, with a fairly rich impression. There is not a huge amount of flavor interest, and once again I found the phenolics to be a little too evident, but a decent balance allowed the wine to complement the food quite well. As evident from the price, this wine sees no oak aging, in contrast with the l’Ecole No. 41 which apparently was matured in two- and three-year old barriques.

I suspect the oak is the culprit! For a wine to carry any significant exposure to oak, the fruit has to have a certain concentration and intensity; otherwise the oak just sits on the surface in a disjointed way. Given the coast of oak barriques, it is awfully hard to justify their use on wines around the $15 level (the cost of a new barrique would amount to around 20% of the retail price, which is to say close to half of cost). I suspect my problem with the L’Ecole #41 was just too much strength coming from the oak relative to the fruit. My issue with the Mont d’Hortes was a bit different: there just didn’t seem to be any character to it that said “Chardonnay.” It is a perfectly reasonable quaffing wine, well made for the price, but I had the feeling the same wine could have been produced from any number of grape varieties with very little difference in the results. Southern heat did not show directly in high alcohol (which was stated as a moderate 13%), but it might be fair to say that it muddied the flavor spectrum. I am not sure that in the case of either wine I really see the point of growing Chardonnay just so you can stick the varietal name on the label, although the wine bears little relationship to those that made the variety famous. Has Chardonnay become a brand or even a commodity rather than a variety?

The Best Terroir is the Best Terroir

How far can you take terroir? It seems blindingly obvious that some sites produce better wine than others: it is not rocket science to suppose that a sunny spot in the middle of a well drained slope will produce better wine than a cool, shady, damp spot at the bottom.  And I am prepared to buy the fact that slight differences in terroir can reliably produce different nuances in the wine: I was quite convinced of this by several series of pairwise comparisons in Burgundy when I was researching my book on Pinot Noir. Other convincing examples come from comparing, for example, Ernie Loosen’s Rieslings from different vineyards in the Mosel. You can’t mistake the fact that these wines are consistently different, although all made in the same way. But the unresolved question that sticks in my mind is whether different terroirs match different grape varieties or whether the best terroirs are simply the best terroirs. (The middle of that slope would probably produce better plums, apricots, or apples than the bottom.)

I was much struck by this issue when visiting Pinot Noir producers in Germany. All of them, of course, also produce Riesling; in fact, for most of them the Pinot Noir is little more than a sideline. Everywhere in Germany, Riesling is planted in the best terroirs. Those terroirs that aren’t quite good enough for Riesling are planted with other varieties. But where is Pinot Noir planted? Are there spots that are really suitable for Pinot Noir but where Riesling would not succeed? This does not seem to be the case. Pinot Noir is a demanding grape, and it is usually planted in spots that would also have made good Riesling. The best terroirs are the best terroirs, and it’s a matter of choice whether Riesling or Pinot Noir is planted there. And as for the effect of terroir on the nature of the wine, I saw similar effects on both Pinot Noir and Riesling: more minerality, more sense of tension in the wines from the volcanic soils in the north, to rounder, fatter wines from the limestone soils in the south, and softer, lighter wines from sandstone soils in the east.

Is it a general rule that every wine region has a top variety (or varieties) that take the best terroirs? Even on the left bank of Bordeaux, where you hear a lot about the perfect match between Cabernet Sauvignon and the gravel-based soils, it’s really more the case that the gravel-based soils are the best terroirs – so Cabernet Sauvignon is planted there. Merlot is planted in the spots that couldn’t ripen Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ve yet to hear a proprietor extol a vineyard for the perfection of the match of its terroir to Merlot – I suspect the match is more faute de mieux.

Are there regions that grow multiple top varieties where we could test the argument that there are terroirs that are equally good but suited for different varieties. Burgundy seems the obvious case, where the contrast is increased by the fact that Pinot Noir is black but Chardonnay is white. Isn’t it the case that the terroirs of Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet, and Meursault, are uniquely suited to Chardonnay whereas those of (say) Nuits St. Georges, Clos Vougeot, and Gevrey Chambertin are uniquely suited to Pinot Noir?

Not exactly. The focus of the appellations to the south of Beaune on white wine is quite recent. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, Puligny Montrachet was mostly planted with Gamay, Chassagne Montrachet was almost exclusively red, and Meursault was divided between red and white wine. The area that is now Corton Charlemagne mostly produced red wine until the twentieth century.  And in the eighteenth century, Clos Vougeot’s white wine was almost as highly regarded as Le Montrachet, as indeed was a white Chambertin. Could we at least argue that the change is due to better understanding of what grape varieties are suited to each terroir. No:  it’s the economy, stupid.

When fashion has swung to and fro on red wine versus white, plantings have followed. Here’s a modern case in point. Beaune’s Clos des Mouches is one of the few vineyards that have both black and white grapes. But there isn’t any pattern to the plantings that follows details of terroirs: in fact, rows of black and white grapevines are more or less interspersed, according to what was needed when replanting last occurred. And as Chardonnay has proved more profitable than Pinot Noir, there’s been a trend towards replanting with Chardonnay.

If the best terroirs are the best terroirs, what determines the best variety for each location? Well, climate is no doubt the most important factor: heat accumulation and hours of sunshine are basically going to determine whether and when the grapes reach ripeness.  Are the best terroirs simply those where historically the grapes have ripened most reliably? On the hill of Corton, where the plantings of Chardonnay for Charlemagne stretch round to the western end of the hill, where Pinot has trouble in ripening, you might argue that the best terroirs are planted with Pinot and second best with Chardonnay, although I have to admit that they make wonderful white Burgundy.

So here is the challenge. Are there examples where two terroirs in the same vicinity give different results with two grape varieties of the same quality (and color if we want this to be a rigorous test)? If one terroir gives better results with one variety and the other terroir gives better results with the other variety, then I will withdraw my conclusion that the best terroir is the best terroir and matching grape varieties is down to climate.

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.