2010 Burgundy First Peek: Futures, Drink Now & Tasting Notes

February 16 2012 - 12:12 PM

6a00d83451c86d69e20120a8f2b0cd970b-320wiWhen it comes to sampling wine, I relish the opportunity to sample fine Burgundy.  Elegant and complex, to me there is no place in the world that can produce Pinot Noir and Chardonnay–or shall we say no place can produce wine–like Burgundy–and no place ever comes remotely close no matter how hard they try.   Burgundian wine making is a combination of art and science – with winemakers deftly knowing how to handle what is thrown at them, and true to form, there is less of masking faults with toasted oak or extraction.  By picking earlier and accentuating the terroir of the individual sites, growers in Burgundy typically provide a wide range of soil types and styles to showcase, from fruit-forward to more nuanced and soil-driven.

For the uninitiated, Burgundy's complexity is primarily due to three reasons: first is its cool climate, leading to wines not being too big or rich.  For me, many California Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are too sweet and viscous, a reflection of the winemaker's style in many cases, but especially due to the warmer climate.  I like to say these are Pinot Noirs masquerading as Cabs. 

To expand on that statement, no other major wine region seems to be so sensitive to the weather, and this is especially important given the lower temperatures of the region.  Unpredictability of the weather leads to wide variations from vintage to vintage, with such factors as hail, heat waves, torrential rains, and mildew, a challenge for a grape as delicate as Pinot Noir.  Vintage ratings range from abysmal (1981 is commonly cited) to amazing (2009).   

Secondly, and very importantly, is the way in which the region is divided – no other region has so many distinct subdivisions.  Burgundian vineyards used to be owned primarily by Catholic religious orders, particularly the Benedictines and Cistercians, until they began to sell off their plots beginning in the seventeenth century. What was not already sold to the bourgeoisie was given up after the French Revolution.   Napoleonic inheritance laws resulted in the continual subdivision of land as it passed down from generation to generation, and in some cases landowners only had one row.    

The result of many landowners owning plots too small to actually sell wine, négociants were formed to buy grapes from various owners to make wine to sell to the public.  In the past fifty years, négociant houses became landowners, and small growers started producing their own Burgundy, leading to marked increases in quality.    The history of land subdivisions has resulted in a winemaker having sometimes as much as over more than ten different red wines, each of which from the same grape (Pinot Noir), and each of which are from different vineyards (exceptions are village wine or straight up Burgundy with no mention of origin, where wine from different parcels are combined, reflected in lower price points). Subdivisions are seen in other wine regions – primarily Alsace and Germany, but nowhere near to the extent you'll see in Burgundy.

The complexity of knowing areas within Burgundy contributes to the intellectual qualities of drinking Burgundy.   To know the one bottle you drank last night requires memorization:  of the producer, the village, the vineyard, and in many cases it is followed by a name that the producer has picked to distinguish the wine.  Marketing labels, used to help everyday consumers identify wines, are practically nonexistent, and using them would cheapen the product.  

Third and finally, the terroir is very unique and varied, making for another good reason behind the number of different types of wines, and the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay tend to reflect the soil quite well.  Much of Burgundy is limestone, and the terroir is clearly reflected in the wine.  Many parcels have clay, chalk, and red or white granite, allowing for a fascinating variety of wines, as well as the winemakers' styles used to adapt to the weather and soil.

Bottom line: Burgundy is confusing – it confuses me.  Bordeaux, by comparison, is much easier to learn about: the first-growth wines are from a handful of big houses, and their appellations are fairly easy to grasp.  Most people rely on experts to pick out their Burgundy – and few in the wine world can lay claim to being an expert.

2010 was a good year for Burgundy, and despite yields that according to Steven Tanzer's International Wine Cellar, were down 20 to 50 percent from 2009 it certainly produced a number of wines that showed very well.   Some say that 2010 may be a good year to buy, not just because of the weather, but also due to Asian demand that formerly was almost exclusively focused on Bordeaux now switching to Burgundy.  

I tried my first glass of Lafite in the mid-'90s by random chance (and before I appreciated wine as much as I did today), when it was roughly $100 a bottle retail.   A quick search on yielded a range between $1000 and $2500 per bottle for the 2008 vintage.  The rarest Burgundies go even higher, a result of low yields from small vineyard plots.  Asian demand could make Burgundy, already unaffordable for many wine drinkers, even further out of reach.

I started out in the Armand Rousseau table–maybe I should have had the Beaujolais or the Chablis first, but I don't find any problem in mixing it up. I started out with a humble Gevrey-Chambertin Villages, with nice chocolate and cherry notes  – a good entry-level wine.  Next, I moved up to the Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru, with good soil and cherry notes and a nice, long finish.    The Clos de la Rouge had a good expression of soil as well- very earthy.  My favorite was the crème de la crème, the Chambertin Grand cru, with a long, elegant finish–subtle, not too ripe, aged in 100 percent new wood but not ruined or overpowered by oak.  In a few years this would be drinking fantastic.  Exquisite and subtle, a real treat.

I next tried some of Domaine Faiveley's offerings, which, like several producers in Burgundy, includes wines from several parcels, from Côte de Nuits in the north, to Côte de Beaune in the middle and Côte Chalonnaise in the south.   Wanting to cleanse my palate, I went straight for their Premier Cru Meursault from the Blagny parcel, which turned out to be my favorite white of the afternoon.   Crisp and acidic, it had notes of gooseberries, lemon, and limestone with a focused finish.    Within the Côte Chalonnaise, their Mercurey La Framboisière was true to its name and exhibited tastes of raspberries, being a fruit forward wine that also managed to contain some nice acidity.  Their Mercurey 1er Cru Close de Myglands was smoky, with new oak, but in true Burgundian style, restrained.  

From the Beaune appellation, the 1er Cru Clos de l'Ecu was tight at the time of the tasting, not a bad thing; it just needs to lay down a few years prior to opening up but with good potential, and therfore tougher to pick out characteristics.  The La Combe aux Moines 1er Cru from Gevrey-Chambertin in the Côte de Nuits was a nice, drinkable wine.  

To finish out the Faiveley lineup I tried three Grand Crus.  First was the Clos de Corton, from the northern part of Beaune, a minerally, almost carbonated, riper wine to be sure.   Likewise with the Côte de Meze, from Chambertin in the Côte de Nuits, a riper, sweeter wine but an exceptionally long finish.  My favorite out of the three was the Mazis-Chambertin, with notes of smoke and bacon, definitely a result of new oak, but a nicely balanced wine containing with a bit more restraint and well-appreciated angles. 

Afterwards, I switched to some Beaujolais to shake things up.   I tried wines from Potel-Aviron, which had a well represented lineup of the subappellations in the area (Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon, Brouilly, Chénas, and Fleurie) and Domaine Labruyère, which featured a Moulin-à-Vent.   I didn't get into Potel-Avrion's Beaujolais-Villages, which would be hard after trying Grand Crus, but I enjoyed the Fleurie, with sand and white granite terroir and an interesting angular nose, almost chemical, and I appreciate the eccentricity of it.   I didn't quite make it through their portfolio unfortunately.   Domaine Labruyère's Moulin-à-Vent was okay.  It was somewhat fruit forward and jammy, with Concord grape notes.

Sadly, I have to admit it's really hard to spend much time on Beaujolais when fine Premier Cru and Grand Cru Burgundy is being displayed.   Nothing at all against Beaujolais – I resolve to try to drink more, because it's one of the few regions left in France where you can get excellent value. Age worthy Cru Beaujolais can still be found at $20-25 a bottle, and while price (and quality) continues to creep up you don't have to break the bank to enjoy some very high quality wine.

I sometimes like switching between reds and whites in order to give my palate a rest–I don't believe I have to start out on whites and move to reds, especially because Pinot Noir is not especially tannic.   Also I would not want my palate dulled prior to tasting some of Burgundy's finest.

On to the Domaine Jacques Prieur, a vineyard that owns vines within appellations throughout the Cote d'Or.   I started out with the 1er Cru Champs-Pimont white, which expressed chalkiness in its terroir.  This was followed by the Puligny-Montrachet "Les Combettes" 1er Cru, situated in limestone, with lemony, citrusy flavors – very bright. 

Their Volnay 1er Cru red "Santenots" was a more fruit-forward experssion of cherries and raspberries, wherre as the Corton "Bressandes"  had a backbone of earthiness, almost soil, with a good structure of acidity.   I may have favored it slightly over their Grand Cru "Clos de Vougeot", a bit fruitier but also an excellent wine.

Château-Fuissé, from the Pouilly-Fuissé region, south of the Cote d'Or in the Mâconnais, a region known exclusively for white wine from the Chardonnay grape.  We started out with their entry level  Tête de Cru, a moniker that sounds like the Tête de Cuveé, but is really more like a Réserve designation, not bad, with a hint of bitterness (a good quality overall), produced from various plots of limestone and clay soils.

Regrettably, I didn't get through Château-Fuissé's offerings, of which there were six, as the Mâconnais offers good value, but in the interest of excitement I dashed off to the Christian Moreau Père et Fils table, featuring wines from Chablis, another white wine region in the Burgundy area, albeit isolated.    Their 1er Vaillon had notes of limestone and clay, and its terroir was clearly evident in the wine, with notes of citrus.

Christian Moreau featured three Grand Crus, all of which are on plots on the right bank of the Serein river.  The Vaudésir Grand Cru was more fruity, with gooseberry and stone fruit notes and also some of the limestone earth.  Great minerality. The Valmur Grand Cru contrasted with this, having a long finish and fantastic acidity with citrus qualities. 

To finish I had the Les Clos, which had limes and was very citrusy.  There was a gravely undertone, reflective of rocky Kimmeridgien clay and limestone, an excellent wine.  After a few years this wine would really drink well.

In sum, 2010 may just be the year to buy.  With Asian demand starting to notice Burgundy, a thawing U.S. economy  and with early reviews signing the vintage's praise, not to mention a slightly cheaper Euro, it may be a chance to purchase Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines.    Arguably a consumer that is hardly wealthy but with some disposable income can still buy cases of the Premier Crus without having to refinance their homes.  

–Brian Ziegler

To shake things up, I went to the Beaujolais table next and tried some Potel-Aviron.  I didn't get into the Beaujolais-Villages, but I enjoyed the Fleurie, with sand and white granite terroir and an interesting angular nose, almost chemical, and I have to admit to appreciating the eccentricity of it.  In the interest of excitement I didn't quite make it through their portfolio, and I do somewhat regret this, believing that Beaujolais is excellent value for money.