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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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.

 

 

 

 

A Lament for White Burgundy

When I started drinking white Burgundy, I used to think of communal wines as reaching their peaks after four or five years, premier crus around eight to ten, and grand crus for ten years and up. Today those ranges seem hopelessly optimistic. Even aside from the problem with premature oxidation that has plagued white Burgundy since the 1996 vintage, with rare exceptions, the wines no longer seem to have that staying power. I wonder whether my memories of drinking old but glorious white Burgundy are simply nostalgic.

There is a curious parallel between the problems with California Chardonnay of which I complained recently (A Sonoma Chardonnay that Failed the Reality Check) and my experiences with De Montille’s Les Caillerets from Puligny Montrachet. When De Montille started making this wine I was delighted to find that it followed the tradition of winemakers such as Leflaive for expressing the steely minerality that characterizes Puligny.

It seemed to me that the early vintages – the first I tasted was 1999 – showed something of a mark of a red winemaker adjusting to white winemaking, as they all had just a little too much obvious oak. But with 2002 I thought De Montille hit his stride as a white winemaker; my initial tasting note, in 2005, found steely tones and precise fruit flavors, a worthy counterpart to the crystalline red Volnays which for which I had previously known De Montille.

The wine developed beautifully for the next few years. Early in 2010 it even seemed close to Grand Cru in standard, fruits becoming fuller, but still showing those steely underpinning. But during the year the steely minerality was replaced by increasingly developed fruits until the overall flavor spectrum seemed almost stewed. The last bottle, last week, actually started out well, rich but restrained, but in the glass turned to stewed and exotic fruits with a sensation of over-ripeness, and then the acidity became pressing rather than refreshing.

Other vintages have not lasted even as long. The 1999 appeared to have reached the end of its life by 2006, although that was more a problem with premature oxidation than over development of the fruits. The 2004 vintage was showing intense tropical fruits when I tasted it in  2007. The 2005 vintage was becoming a bit over phenolic by 2009, by last year it was showing signs of beginning to descend into a blowsy old age. When I tasted the 2009 a few weeks ago, it showed precisely delineated fruits, but with a floral, perfumed impression that reminded me more of Grand Cru Alsace than top Burgundy.

It seems to me that there is a trend for vintages to peak earlier and earlier, making transition from a steely citrus flavor spectrum to over ripe stone fruits. What alarms me most about this is that you can’t see it coming: the transition occurs quite abruptly. The only conclusion I can form is that I shall have to stop buying white Burgundy for the cellar and switch to purchasing only small amounts for current consumption. This does not make me happy.

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.