Have you ever wondered if ancient aliens, who some believe held the key to the mysteries of the universe, planted specific grapes in certain areas? No? Me neither but no doubt, Riesling marked its territory in the Mosel and if you ever forget this, its mesmerizing slate scented wines will remind you over and over again. Pomerol can convert the most virulent Merlot haters and, like so many of us who came from elsewhere, Zinfandel is pretty happy it had a one-way ticket to California.
Burgundy births arguably the most complex wines made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This is not to say that there aren’t versions made in California, Oregon and New Zealand that can reach great heights but even the cuvées that reign from Burgundy’s lesser appellations often have that little ‘somethin’ somethin’ that sets them apart from their compatriots elsewhere.
From appellation to appellation, and vineyard to vineyard, there are differences in Burgundy’s terroir. That is part of what makes the region so mystical. Yet as a rule, limestone and clay dominate the soil, contouring the textures and flavors of the grapes.
Last month, we tasted red wines from the Côtes de Beaune. That was spectacular and set a very high bar for this March’s “Old and The Restless” white Burgundy tasting. But, the blancs rose to the challenge.
In total, there were nine wines tasted blind in flights of three. Someone else numbered the bags so while I knew which wines were in the mix, I was not sure of the order. There were just eight of us this time, as three people had to cancel, and though nearly everyone was pretty knowledgeable, no one else at the tasting works in the wine industry.
Let’s get to it:
1) Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet, 1er Cru “Les Combettes,” 2001 ($99)
Founded in the early 20th century by Etienne Sauzet, this domain is now run by his son-in-law, Gérard Boudot and increasingly, Boudot’s daughter Emilie and her husband, Benoit Riffault, who is from a Loire Valley wine family. Today, the domaine has 23 acres under vine and has been run according to organic (2006) and biodynamic (2010) principles for several years.
Les Combettes is typically aged in 33% new wood but Sauzet’s wines rarely seem over-oaked, even when they are newbies. Now, at nearly 14 years old, this 1er cru is completely integrated and seamless with honey-covered almonds and buttered brioche interwoven with searing minerality. Some of the other tasters noticed crème brulee, quince and pear-like flavors. The first wine of the tasting is often one of the best but in this case I don’t think it was just because our palates were primed and ready to go.
Estimated Age: Early 2000’s
Estimated Price: $75 – 80
2) Domaine Ponsot Morey-St. Denis, 1er Cru Clos des Monts Luisants, 2001 ($60)
80% Aligoté, 20% Chardonnay
Most famous for its Grand Cru “Clos de la Roche,” Ponsot also does a great job with the two white wines made at the domaine. Composed of 80% Aligoté and 20% Chardonnay, it is one of the few Côtes de Nuits whites that can go head to head with the best from the Côtes de Beaune. The vineyard was planted in 1911, after phylloxera wiped out much of the land, and the Ponsot family was among the few who stayed loyal to Aligoté, which was considered far less noble than Chardonnay.
Fermented with native yeast in tank at first, it was finished in barrel and bottled without fining, filtration or additional sulfur. Although showing signs of maturity, it’s a keeper. If I had it blind I’d probably peg it for a young Jura Chardonnay instead as it has signs of minor signs of oxidation with hazelnut and a spiced apple sauce character yet it was balanced and had a long finish. Most in the group were not as into as I was (although one person totally dug it) and found it to be a little simple and lacking terroir which, per my Jura comparison, is true. Still, I found it enjoyable and appreciated its uniqueness.
Estimated Age: About 15 years old
Estimated Price: $50
3) Gagnard Delagrange Grand Cru Batard Montrachet, 1996 ($130)
Gagnard-Delagrange was born with the marriage in 1959 of Jacques Gagnard and Josephe Delagrange, two known Burgundy families. Burgundy is famous for going through “dumb” phases but at this point I would expect a grand cru from such a revered vintage and producer to have more going on. I don’t like dissing wines when I write but the sulfur was very noticeable in the nose and the oak is still pretty prominent. There is nice acidity giving me reason to think it might bloom one day and there is always bottle variation so I’d give it the benefit of the doubt and have another go round in a few years.
Estimated Age: Young, ten years.
Estimated Price: $55
4) François Jobard Meursault 1er Cru “Genevrières,” 2002 ($100)
Although his son, Antoine, now runs the domaine, Françoise still garners immense respect. One of the most gracious and humble winemakers I’ve met, he has become an elder statesman in the region and his Meursaults, which are distinct yet classic, have both power and grace. Genevrières is a tiny, 1.3-acre parcel and at the time these grapes were picked the vines were about 20 years old. Jobard has always fermented and aged in oak barrels and worked with native yeast.
Rich but with a firm chord of acidity, the ’02 Genevrières is showing very well now but I think it still has a way to go. With marzipan, brioche, hazelnuts, honey tinged stone fruit and hints of anise and sassafras, it is especially generous in the nose. One person said, “If I could propel the nose though my house I would gladly do it.” Genevrières scented candles might be pricy but probably worth it. Some in the group noticed tropical underpinnings and one person said it reminded him of the soft cough drops we were given as children. Honestly, I was not at all surprised when this one was unveiled.
Estimated Age: Eight – 14 years
Estimated Price: $75
5) Domaine Leroy Meursault, 1er Cru “Poruzots,” 1999 ($130)
Before the tasting began, I recalled trying the ’69 Leroy Meursault “Charmes” in 1999 that was amazingly youthful. Knowing it was someone in the batting order, I had high hopes for a repeat performance from Leroy and while they were not born out, it was nonetheless, very good.
Right off the bat it smelled like French toast, with spicy agave-like notes. Rich on the palate with vanilla, toasted hazelnuts and stewed apples, it had Meursault character but lacked the length and depth of the previous wine. The group had a similar impression. A few people commented that it seemed like it has a lot of good stuff going on – honeysuckle, apricot and apple cider – and that there was a rounded character to the fruit. It may very well need another decade or so but given a choice between spending $130 here or $100 on Jobard’s Genevrières, I’d go for the latter
Estimated Age: An older, hot year
Estimated Price: $80
6) Chandon de Briailles Grand Cru Corton Blanc, 2004 ($95)
For as far back as I can remember Chandon de Briailles has been one of the top estates in Corton and the Grand Cru Corton Blanc is one of the reasons why. It is sourced from three small Chardonnay plots with the bulk coming from Corton Bressandes, which is renowned for its grand cru reds.
The overall favorite wine of the tasting, nearly everyone guessed that this was one of the younger wines. It was a little tight at first but opened up after a few minutes and kept on giving. Someone said they found it to be linear, which I agreed with, but not as complex as the others. I think that is just a product of its relative youth. Floral and minerally with a flint like aroma, fresh pears and sizzling acidity, one person summed it up best, “It is a very nice wine with a ways to go.”
Estimated Age: Young, 2004
Estimated Price: $130
7) Bertagna Vougeot Blanc, 1er Cru “Les Cras,” 2003 ($45)
Vougeot is one of the last places where you would expect to find white wine but a handful of producers get down and dirty with Chardonnay in this Pinot Noir dominated appellation. It was founded by Claude Bertagna after WWII and sold to Günther Reh, a German winemaker, in 1982. His daughter, Eva Reh Siddle, is now at the helm.
“Les Cras” is a premier cru grown to both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It is now organically farmed and hand harvested but I can’t swear that was true in 2003.
This one lacked a little acidity and that could have a lot to do with the vintage. It was high on the butterscotch and caramel notes but had some mineral underpinnings with an array of fruit. We all agreed that it seemed a little tired but still came in third place, perhaps because of its exuberant charm.
Estimated Age: Turn of the century
Estimated Price: $75 – 130
8) Colin-Deleger Chassagne-Montrachet, 1er Cru “Les Chenevottes,” 2002 ($75)
Michel Colin started this now legendary winery with holdings from both sides of his family, the Colins and the Delegers. Both clans have deep roots in Chassagne-Montrachet, which often translates into great holdings and that is most definitely the case here. Les Chenevottes is very close to the grand cru “Le Montrachet” and is often considered one of the top premier crus. On the positive, this 12.5 year old has the acidity to continue evolving. It has a dominant trio of apple, butterscotch and minerals that might morph into something pretty special one day. However, it also has a noticeable amount of sulfur. I’m not super militant about SO2 additions however in this case, I felt it really distracted from an otherwise very sound wine.
Estimated Age: Late 90’s
Estimated Price: $60 – $70
9) Jean Noel Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet, 1er Cru “Les Caillerets,” 2003 ($75)
I never believed in love at first sight until I had a wine from Jean-Noel Gagnard. It was the 1990 Les Caillerets, consumed at the Flying Saucer, a trailblazing restaurant at the time and while it was not an obvious pairing, sometimes it really doesn’t matter.
Gagnard started the label in 1960 using land that had been in his family for three generations. In 1989, his daughter, Caroline Lestimé took over and she has been running it since. “Les Caillerets” is one of the original premier crus in Chassagne-Montrachet, anointed with the title in 1855. In spite of the challenges of 2003, the various wines I’ve had from Gagnard from the vintage have been at the top of the pack. One person got a big whiff of alcohol in the nose, plausible considering the heat yet it was not only balanced but also had noticeably good acidity. Mineral driven with citrus – as someone commented, grapefruit pith – and a little bit of caramel from the oak, it should be at its prime in another three – five years.
Estimated Age: Ten years
Estimated Price: $75 – $80
Group Wine Rankings
1st Place: Chandon de Briailles Grand Cru Corton Blanc, 2004
2nd Place: Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet, 1er Cru “Les Combettes,” 2001
3rd Place: Bertagna Vougeot Blanc, 1er Cru “Les Cras,” 2003
Honorable mention also goes to Gagnard’s “Les Caillerets,” which came in a close 4th.
My top three:
1st: Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet, 1er Cru “Les Combettes,” 2001
2nd: François Jobard Meursault 1er Cru “Genevrières,” 2002
3rd: Chandon de Briailles Grand Cru Corton Blanc, 2004
The holy trinity of “The Old and the Restless: Burgundy” concludes in early May with Côtes de Nuits reds. Next up on The Vinguard – Friulian and Slovenian orange wines.