Myth Over Matter: Mature Burgundy 1920-2019 


Let’s clear the elephant from the room…

Many wines herein are extraordinarily rare, more myth than matter. Some are so expensive that they could bankrupt a small equatorial country or solve the financial predicament of a Swiss bank. As I typed up the notes, I often found myself reminiscing about blackened saturated corks being surgically prized from ancient bottles encrusted by dust and time, nobody knowing what their contents would reveal, yet light-headed with anticipation and the thought that this would be their solitary encounter. By all means, grab a calculator and punch in their cumulative market value. That would be missing the point. Each and every bottle fulfilled its raison d’être: opened and poured, shared and savored. Not one ignominiously gathered dust, reduced to simply a vessel for accumulating resale value for an indifferent owner. Thankfully, not everyone is like that. Casually martyring a bottle of 2007 Romanée-Conti Grand Cru to gleeful disbelieving guests in Beaune, a friend was asked why he was pouring such a valuable bottle?

His rhetorical answer was straight and apposite…

“What else am I going to do with it?”

The idea that professional wine critics spend all their time in hermetically-sealed laboratories dissecting wines and never entertaining the thought of consuming wine for sheer pleasure is utter nonsense. It’s far from the truth. Every full-time wine writer enjoys wine outside work hours, their vocation an extension of their passion. Many bottles in this report are ones that illuminated private dinners accompanied by friends and like-minded oenophiles: wines of various maturity, some expensive and others…well…I am not going to write “cheap” because that word is no longer applicable, but let’s say, less expensive. No, not everyone is going to unleash three Clos Vougeots from Engel or a double magnum of 1953 Corton. But here’s the thing…sometimes they do. And sometimes Bacchus and Lady Luck smile upon you because you’re there when it happens.

I sympathize with what some might perceive as the immorality of drinking 750mls of fermented grape juice that might have funded your child through university. I bet there’s some kid stacking supermarket shelves bitterly ruing that his parents literally drank away their higher education. Though market values can enter realms of obscene, there are oenophiles whose passion for Burgundy predates its fetishization, including myself. Passions remain unchanged even if prices become unhinged. Some are coerced to sell, and who can begrudge that? We live in straitened times. Yet many view the price of a bottle as what they once paid, not what they could sell it for now. What you lose pulling that cork depends upon your interpretation of opportunity cost.

I bought this bottle myself in the UK as it came from a cellar with excellent provenance, which is always a crucial factor when buying this kind of wine.

This treasure trove accreted over several months, a depository for odd bottles that do not fit into vintage horizontals or the verticals that will follow. Across the world, circles of Burgundy lovers constantly exchange and share bottles, fomenting a communal, close-knit scene that traverses borders and time zones. Underlying it all is incomparable generosity. Though I cannot rustle up a La Tâche knocking about my Eurocave, I strive to proffer something a bit leftfield that might surprise, such as the 1962 Bourgogne Blanc from Domaine Mugneret-Gibourg. I probably gained more gratification serving it to co-proprietor Marie-Andrée Mugneret than the slightly fusty wine itself, but it proved that lowly bottles can defy time (just). Perusing the list, there are naturally clusters of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Roumier and Rousseau. Lucky me. Perhaps of equal or even more interest are the less well-known names, such as the 1985 Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes 1er Cru from François Bertheau or 1986 Puligny-Montrachet Les Demoiselles 1er Cru from Madame Francis Colin, to name but two. But which wines made the biggest impression? I am not talking about the biggest scores but the ones indelibly printed on my mind.

Certainly, the double-magnum 1953 Corton Grand Cru Cuvée Charlotte Dumay from the Hospices de Beaune. The handful of mature Hospices wines has never wowed me, yet the time-defying nectar entranced me, and it just oozed class. This was followed by a heavenly 1953 Gevrey-Chambertin Clos Saint-Jacques 1er Cru from Pierre Ponnelle. Old bottles from this négociant can be thrilling when they’re on form, and this ranks as one of the finest examples I have ever tasted from the renowned Premier Cru. I must also mention a 1969 Meursault-Blagny 1er Cru from Louis Latour, partly as a reminder that they crafted dazzling wines in those days and partly in memory of Fabrice Latour, who passed away last year. You will find plenty of Raveneau, the most memorable and time-bending 1975 Chablis Montée de Tonnerre 1er Cru, not a great vintage for the region and theoretically long past its best-before date. This bottle was having none of it – startlingly fresh and vivacious, every sip, bliss.

Haloed vintages are included, though the likes of 1978 or 1985 are becoming increasingly uncommon. Of course, at that time, the number of quality-driven producers was a fraction of nowadays, so unlike Bordeaux, you have to kiss a few frogs to find your prince or princess, some having weathered the passing years better than others even before accounting for provenance. Indeed, the 1978 Chassagne-Montrachet Grandes Ruchottes 1er Cru from Domaine J F Pillot was a surprise package that showed little evidence of its age, while Jean-Nicolas Méo poured an exquisite 1978 Corton Clos Rognet Grand Cru. This was not made by Henri Jayer, as some might presume, but rather by the unsung winemaker of that period, Christian Faurais. Apropos 1985, I adored the Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru from Domaine Bonneau du Martray and Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru from Domaine Leflaive, though I find that the vintage is becoming a bit more hit-and-miss as years roll past. You might have expected a thundering score for the 1985 La Tâche Grand Cru. On the contrary, several bottles over the years have confounded expectations, and the wines come up short. You can easily fall into the trap of willing a wine to perform at an ethereal level by dint of reputation and market value, thereby losing your objectivity. I hope it is patently clear that the arbiter of my reviews is how respective wines showed in the glass and nothing else.

Readers will find plenty of mature white Burgundy in this article. It is such a pity that premature oxidation has understandably frightened away many who appreciate the wines.

Indeed, despite the canonization of Burgundy, its wines remain fickle. Let me give you an example. A friend organized a blind tasting of seven 2009 Côte de Nuits in November at a private club: heavyweights that included Grands Crus from Leroy, DRC, Rousseau and Comte du Liger-Belair. The wines were eagerly anticipated, as you might expect. A dozen of us assembled, and the wines were served blind. After we put down our pencils, an uncomfortable silence ensued. A silence that was not provoked by our sense of awe but rather a silence as we waited for the first person to pipe up and comment upon how underwhelming they were. Even putting the oxidized Richebourg aside, only a couple of performances were commensurate with their reputations. The sommelier assured us that the wines would improve later, but in the end, even he admitted that they never budged. It was inexplicable. Were our palates kaput? Perchance a root day? I never subscribe to that bunkum. It was simply a pertinent reminder of the capriciousness of Burgundy reaches up to the pinnacle of the Côte d’Or irrespective of how much somebody is willing to pay.

Maybe the 2009s are not what they are cracked up to be?

Then again, comparing J-F Mugnier’s 2009 and 2010 Chambolle-Musigny blind, side-by-side, during a Burgfest lunch, I was foolishly confident of nailing the latter as the superior and much fresher wine. Yet it was the 2009 that trumped the 2010.

That’s Burgundy for you… constantly tripping you up.

Infanticide? It’s only infanticide if the wine is distastefully closed and young, where two bottles of this Montrachet have shown brilliantly, to the point where one almost questions whether to cellar longer.

Plenty of wines are less than ten years old, admittedly stretching the definition of “mature Burgundy”. Essentially, this is a catch-all collection of tasting notes that do not fit into my annual barrel or Burgfest reports. There’s no definitive answer to when a bottle has reached its prime. For many years, I have posited that time alone can manifest sensory nuances that elevate something as mundane as fermented grape juice into a beverage of unparalleled profundity. Paradoxically, I will not deny the pleasure of imbibing young Burgundy, reveling in its precocious fruit, youthful vivacity and purity. It depends on the producer. For example, I find that Christophe Roumier’s wines tend to give sensory pleasure both young and old, whereas, say, Sylvain Cathiard or Joseph Roty’s wines mandate bottle age. It depends on how they are built. Of course, if dining in Burgundy’s heart, the town of Beaune, then you have little choice since mature Burgundy is often defined as young as a 2017 or 2018! The list suggests that the Côte d’Or did not exist before those years. I am not being glib - I have often encountered a sommelier who described 2017 as a “mature vintage”. Everything is relative. It’s a shame because visitors to the region are denied the chance to experience its wines with appropriate age. Yet, anything older is habitually whisked from the list before the ink dries. Mea culpa.

I will leave it there. A friend is opening a series of 1999 Burgundy wines bought on release, including a Vosne-Romanée Les Brûlées 1er Cru. I suspect that the cumulative cost that he paid back then is a fraction of what that wine currently fetches on the market. How the world has changed. But I will spend the night just enjoying those wines with friends, not thinking about the cost, but thinking about the joys of mature Burgundy. 

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