Helen’s blog

Thoughts and tastings from Helen Savage, wine writer.

Burgundy – better than ever?

Burgundy has a uniquely attractive way of showing its wares: Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne, held every two years, is a week-long series of tastings, held in a series of key locations throughout the region. Each offers the opportunity to meet up to sixty or seventy growers who show wines specific to a theme, which may range, for example, from an overview of a regional appellation such as the Côte Chalonnaise to a  more narrow focus like ‘Terroirs de Corton.’ It offers a wonderful opportunity to understand Burgundy better, speak with key players in the industry and taste a very broad range of wines from the latest vintages.

I have managed the full week only once. This year I targeted the Côte de Beaune and Côte Chalonnaise. I managed to taste a generous selection of 2009 Grands Crus from the whole of Burgundy as an extended aperitif to a dinner at the Clos de Vougeot hosted by the big merchant houses, and I also popped into Jean-Claude Boisset’s portfolio tasting. My heart lies with small independent producers, but I’m impressed by the progress Boisset have made under chief winemaker Grégory Patriat and their wines are fairly widely available in the UK.

There has been a marked fall in UK imports of Burgundy wine over the last couple of years, which may have been exacerbated by the demise of Oddbins and Threshers. The USA has overtaken us as Burgundy’s most important export market by value, though we still hold onto the top spot in terms of volume. Newer markets in the Far East continue to excite the locals, who were encouraged by the considerable number of Chinese, Japanese and Korean visitors to Les Grands Jours.

My overall impression from Les Grand Jours is that the standard of winemaking in Burgundy has never been better, and that even with the still relatively strong Euro, there are some attractively-priced wines that more than stand comparison with the voguish premium Pinot Noirs of New Zealand or Chile. There is also still a substantial enthusiasm for Burgundy wines in the UK. My unrepresentative, anecdotal evidence from the three consumer tastings that I’ve hosted over the last six weeks, for example, convinces me that the subtle, savoury, balanced, food-friendly style of Burgundy appeals strongly to those British wine lovers who are prepared to splash out now and again on something a bit special.

One of my main reasons for heading off to Les Grands Jours was that I wanted to get to grips with the highly praised 2009 vintage. My conclusion is that the red wines are mostly as impressive as the hype that has surrounded them, but the whites are far less attractive than those made in less ‘successful’ vintages around them: 2008, and especially 2010 and 2011.

If there is a problem with the 2009s it is low acidity. The consequences of this were spelled out in the course of conversation with Christophe Bouchard of Bouchard Père et Fils. I asked him about the biggest changes that he’s seen during his career in the wine business. Without hesitation he answered, “Climate change and its effects.” Not only has this meant much earlier harvest dates, though there have also been some wild fluctuations, but also the decline in the once default practice in Burgundy of chaptalisation. Instead, in years like 2003, 2005 and 2009 growers resorted to acidifying their musts. He regards this as a huge mistake and insists that his company will not be tempted to follow suit. His objection is that while chaptalisation was undetectable and enhanced the quality of the finished wine, acidification cannot so easily be hidden and that it changes the character of the wine far more than just the addition of acidity. Jasper Morris agrees, pointing out in his magisterial study, ‘Inside Burgundy’, that it may give red wine a ‘hard finish’. This makes sense of a few of the red 2009s I tasted, especially from some of the big houses, which showed surprisingly chunky, angular tannins.

Other 2009 Pinot Noirs are almost a parody of fine Burgundy, with voluptuous fruit and an astonishingly silky texture. Many of them are fully ready and I cannot imagine that they will improve significantly. Even a wine like Louis Latour’s, 2009 Romanée Saint Vivant wears its not inconsiderable heart on its sleeve with multi-layers of rich, savoury, almost herby fruit and soft acidity. Some super-charged Grand Cru reds made me smile so much that I found it hard to suppress a giggle. Other tasters must have thought I was deranged – or drunk.

The most attractive 2009 whites do not come from the ripest sites, but from cooler vineyards, where the fruit retained more acidity. There are bargains to be found in Auxey-Duresses and Saint-Romain. One example and a happy rediscovery struck me in the impressive wines of Christophe Diconne now imported by Robert Anthony Wines. His 2009 Auxeys have much more freshness than his 2009 Meursaults, though all his 2010s have far more life and freshness, and as the locals say, ‘tension.’ What the best 2009 do show, almost irrespective of appellation, is unusually strong, salty, minerality, which helps to some extent to compensate for the low acidity.

Perhaps the least impressive feature of the 2009s is that they do not reveal the specific character of their terroirs nearly as well as the 2010s and 2011s, which, in contrast, are both described by the locals, with some justification, as being more essentially ‘Burgundian’

2010 was a very small harvest, 2011 is much more generous. Neither was easy, both demand careful selection in the vineyard and on the sorting table, but they both show a lovely purity of fruit, combined with balanced acidity and surprisingly ripe tannins. The white wines have much more capacity to develop in the bottle than the 2009s and some of the reds will age well too.

2008, another tricky vintage, is already beginning to show well. As in the two most recent vintages, the Chardonnays seem to have much better integration of fruit and oak than in 2009. One or two wines were curious in that a rich, quite evolved nose led into a much tighter palate A striking example is Albert Sounit’s Rully Premier Cru, La Pucelle, but in general, there are some terrific 2008 whites from the Côte Chalonnaise; for example from the Vignerons de Buxy’s Montagny Premier Cru, which has lovely, nervy, lemony fruit, to Sounit’s Montagny Premier Cru, which is richer, but balanced by mouth-wateringly delicious acidity (Sounit’s wines are imported by Enotria). The best red 2008s can be just as good.

Because they are in short supply, the UK trade may have already lost out on some of the 2010s, but the generally excellent 2011s offer plenty of choice.  My advice would be to make a beeline for some of the younger growers who are trying to make a name for themselves. One easy way to do this during the Grands Jours is a tasting featuring ‘Young Talent’ gathered from every corner of Burgundy. And there are always some surprises. Christine Desertaux, for example, of Domaine Desertaux-Ferrand, based in Corgoloin, came up with a 2011 Bourgogne Blanc, fermented in oak, which is a blend of 80% Pinot Blanc and 20% Chardonnay – an extraordinarily, fine, fresh wine, with delicious melony fruit. I showed it to fifty people at a charity tasting in Paris a few days later and it went down a storm. Another discovery was David Renaud from Irancy, who produces 50,000 bottles from 8 hectares of vines. The malo happened quickly in 2011, he said, to produce red wines that are already seductively fruity. They have terrific colour, complex flavours of bitter and black cherry and real depth.



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