Burgundy and the Burghound: A Weekend With Allen Meadows. Part II – The Wines of Burgundy
Allen Meadows is a very deliberate man, and one who seems never to make a statement that isn’t backed by balanced and considered reasoning. This logical, nearly rationalist approach to Burgundy helps to demystify the region; but Meadows’ deep respect for philosophical and even spiritual considerations also places mystery where mystery is due rather than using it to obfuscate.
In this manner, Allen challenged terroir nay-sayers to explain why a wine such as La Tache (perhaps Burgundy’s most famous vineyard) tastes like no other wine in the world, and not for lack of trying. Why can the thousands of renditions of pinot noir throughout burgundy carry distinct signatures that can consistently be linked to particular villages and even the best vineyards?
For Allen, the hundreds of years the predecessors to the modern Burgundians spent studying, noting and documenting the different tastes that came from different sites means that, in Burgundy at least, the idea of terroir is backed up by a tremendous amount of experiment and trial and error. While the development of terroir in Burgundy may not have been identical to the modern scientific method, it was certainly as rigorous.
My experience tasting through a couple dozen wines from Burgundy last weekend certainly backed up the notion that terroir is objective. It is at least worth considering that the wines of Burgundy manage to draw together the mystical and the objective so effectively that some of the best wine writers, sommeliers and tasters in the world – i.e. those with the most jaded palates – can’t ever seem to get enough of these wines.
Some Technical Aspects to the Wines
One gentleman at the seminar wondered whether terroir truly existed or if clonal selection was as if not more important than site. Allen answered by noting that Pinot Noir is one of the most ancient vines on the earth, and may, of currently extant vines, be the most closely related to the original vine from which all the vinifera varieties stemmed.
He also noted that Pinot Noir is notoriously genetically unstable and mutates so quickly it is difficult to control clonal selection. This genetic instability meant that while clonal selection mattered young, as they age and mutate, the signature of terroir takes over and becomes the most distinguishing element of the wines made from those grapes.
Another important concern with the white wines of Burgundy is known as premature oxidation, which is a little understood phenomenon that sees white wines aging more quickly than they should. This means that wines that are meant to age for 10-15 years are oxidizing at a much faster rate and reaching ‘maturity’ sooner, meaning the wines are less complex when they have started to oxidize.
In an attempt to battle this issue, many of Burgundy’s top winemakers have actually increased the use of sulpher in the wines, meaning that many very expensive white wines will be quite reductive (smelling of rubber) when young. This is why Allen warns against seeing the reduction as a flaw and recommends decanting all whites for some time before consuming. In the face of little scientific proof, many producers are playing it safe and using the sulpher to preserve their very expensive wines aging curve.
Built to Last
The aging curve is what Burgundy is, ultimately, all about. The wines, while often very good and even approachable in youth, do not show their greatness without the proper bottle age. It is impossible to tell why a wine is worth so much unless you experience during the phase where it moves from good to great, Allen argues.
And so does he also contrast a wine that merely endures from one that transforms. A wine that endures merely stays the same or dissipates only a little with bottle age. A wine that transforms, on the other hand, completely changes with bottle age and becomes something initially hidden. In particular, the natural grape tannins that can be chewy and even bitter initially actually chemically transform to release aromatic esters over time, which means that as a wine matures the tannins actually add flavour and aromatic complexity to a wine.
Proper balance in the wine is thus fundamental for ageability, and should be a necessary criterion for any wine chosen to cellar. Tannins should not be too forward, but they should also not be eviscerated with modern winemaking techniques that use alcohol and overt fruit to cover over the tannic structure of a wine.
Acid is another important element of balance, and the wines of Burgundy, grown as they are in a cool climate, generally have better acid balance than pinot noirs grown in warmer climates. Acid, however, is also a crucial component to the terroir of Burgundy, with certain villages or regions (Chablis, for example) bringing much more acid to the table than others.
The other great component to the makeup of a Burgundian wine is, of course, the vintage.
At the media event Allen led us through the vintages from 2004 to 2007 as follows:
2004: A problematic vintage for various reasons, including a ladybug infestation. Ladybugs carry a pheromone that leaves a bitter and off aroma. This likely made it into some of the wines. Additionally, sulpher treatments in the vineyard got stuck in the grape clusters at some wineries and accordingly made it into the final wines.
2005: One of the great Burgundy vintages of this century for Pinot Noir. Warm days and cool nights. The wines are riper and denser than usual and possess tremendous balance and ageability.
The whites weren’t quite as good and some lack elegance. They make up for this with big forward fruit and richness, with lots of dry extract that gives the wines a sense of body and density in the mouth.
2006: A polarizing vintage for white Burgundy. The date of the harvest was crucial as there was an attack of botrytis around harvest time. Those who picked beforehand made classic wines, but those who didn’t have some richer botrytis character in the wines that made them more exotic than usual and lacking a little finesse.
For the reds, much of the fruit did not reach phenollic ripeness and so one must choose very carefully. The best producers, however, did make very good wines.
2007: The whites are classic and austere but outstanding. The upper level wines need some time and drinkers will see some reduction on a pop and pour.
The reds are a mixed bag. They are not as ripe as 2005 and so wineries that tried to make wines as if it were 2005 did not make very good wines. Those who treated 2007 like the vintage it was made lighter but very focused wines.
In the end Allen said that great burgundy is all about proportion, and compared a great wine to a beautiful person – everything is symmetrical and in harmony. These are the wines that everyone seeks but few can truly produce.
Below are tasting notes for all the wines Allen led us through over the various events I attended.
Domaine Leflaive Macon-Verze 2007 (white)
Initially some strange eggy aromas on the nose, but later lemon and mineral. This is aromatically very tight right now.
The palate was extremely bright and fresh, but needs time to unwind. There is tremendous focus here and the wine shows what is possible in the Maconnais.
Very Good+ to Excellent
$60 at Marquis
Domaine Drouhin Beaune Blanc “Clos des Mouches” 2006 (white)
Drouhin’s top white, this had serious reduction on the nose to begin with. Afterwards there was brioche and fresh lemon.
The palate was much softer and fatter than the Leflaive. It was also quite broad on the palate and possessed a length finish.
$275 / 1.5L at Marquis
Domaine Comte-Senard Corton Blanc 2006 (white)
Planted on land that if it were used to make red wine, would be Grand Cru, the nose did not give up a lot right now.
The palate, however, was incredibly length and silky and suggested how great this wine will become in time. A very well proportioned wine.
$120 at Marquis
Domaine Tollot-Beaut Bourgogne Rouge 2007 (red)
Entry level Burgundy for a good price. This had raspberry and cherry on the nose was was very fresh and clean.
The palate is bright, fresh and clean and somewhat on the tart side. This is a palate-smacking food friendly wine at a good price.
$36 at Marquis
Dominique Laurent Chambolle-Musigny “Les Charmes” 1er Cru 2006 (red)
Laurent makes this wine in a controversial modern style that some say obliterates the Chambolle-Musigny terroir. The elevage is much longer than usual and leaves very noticeable oak character in the wine. The wine is, accordingly, much more immediate and easy to understand, but it lacks the nuance and ethereal beauty of the best Burgundies at this price.
The nose is large, dense and possesses tremendous depth. This is delicious long and deep with raspberry, cherry, chocolate, earth and minerals. Again, it is modern and so lacks terroir, but it is tasty.
$95 at Marquis
Domaine d’Eugenie Clos de Vougeot 2007 (red)
This too had noticeable oak signature on the wine, but Allen suggested it would integrate with age. The palate is long and deep but perhaps a bit over rich for the vintage.
$280 at Marquis
Domaine de la Croix Senaillet Saint-Veran 2008 (white)
A wine from the Macon and attempting to find and express its terroir. The palate offered grapefruit, lemon and stone. A very fruity and forward wine.
The palate had lots of citrus and acid, but is much shorter and has far less purity than the next level of white Burgundy. Still, this is a good quaffer and a great example of the quality you can expect from the best producers in the Macon today – one of Burgundy’s few value regions.
$28 at Marquis
Domaine des Malandes Chablis 2008 (white)
Classic Chablis – meaning lemon, chalk and a ton of minerality on the finish. This is well balanced if not lacking a little excitement.
Chablis is particularly interesting because chardonnay grown and vinified here tastes like nothing else in the world. Chablis used to be an ancient sea bed and so you can found thousands upon thousands of ancient shell fish fossils in the limestone soils. This is what infuses the wines of Chablis with their distinct character and bracing acidity.
If you like acid-driven white wine, Chablis is for you. Also, a great way to reintroduce someone to Chardonnay.
$30 at Marquis
Domaine Bruno Colin Chassagne-Montrachet “En Remilly” 1er Cru 2006 (white)
Chassagne-Montrachet, along with its neighbour Puligny-Montrachet voted to append the “Montrachet” name to the original name of the village because of the world renowned reputation of the white Burgundies of the Grand Cru vineyard Montrachet, which is merely a small parcel half in Chassagne and half in Puligny.
Of course, the wines of Montrachet regularly carry a $500-$600 price tag in Canada, whereas the village wines are accessible for about 1/5 to 1/6th the price.
The En Remilly vineyard is on a hill without a lot of top soil, and it is hard for the grapes to reach maturity because of the winds rushing across the hill. Wines from En Remilly thus don’t get the ‘saline’ quality that you see in Chablis. This wine is also from the 2006 vintage and saw some botrytis infestation on the grapes which has added exoticness – a characteristic of the vintage and not the site.
The nose offered nuts, lemon and was deeply expressive and pure. The palate had more toasty richness but was also extremely long and structure and pure. Personally, I thought the wine had impeccable balance despite the Botrytis.
$80 at Marquis
Domaine Patrick Javillier Corton-Charlemagne 2006 (white)
A Grand Cru wine from the south facing vineyards of Aloxe-Corton – meaning more heat and more richness. Javillier is an ex-engineer who turned his passion for Burgundy into a business. He also studied oenology and started by taking over his father’s Mersault estate – an important detail since it is impossible to buy land in Burgundy.
The nose was a little reduce here as well, but also offered sweet grapefruit and a few other broader more exotic sweet fruits – again likely pointing to Botrytis.
The palate had great structure and was very deep and long. Right now, however, the wine is muted. This needs 10-25 years of aging.
Excellent to Excellent+
$200 at Marquis
Domaine Ghislaine-Barthod Chambolle-Musigny 2007
An entry level village wine from a domaine established in the 1920s. The popular image of Chambolle-Musigny is for wines of elegance and understatement. However, Allen pointed out that the wines from here can also be rustic despite the popular image.
This offered an attractive nose of fresh raspberry and cherry fruit with a hint of earth. The palate was tight and had a firm tannic structure that gave backbone to the very clean and pure fruit. This is very well made and immediately enjoyable, although it will not likely turn into something truly outstanding.
$65 at Marquis
Domaine d’Eugenie Vosne-Romanee 2007 (red)
Vosne-Romanee is known for spice. All the wines from this region tend to exhibit deep spicy notes, which is perhaps why so many people are drawn to Vosne over any other region within Burgundy. Vosne is also, of course, the home of Domaine de la Romanee Conti – Burgundy’s most famous producer.
The wine had quite a bit of minerals and earth on the plate with dark cherry fruits and rich baking spices. The palate suggested some iron and dark muddy earth, but also fragrant savory spices held up by a dense structure. Needs time but quite delicious for those who like dark and brooding Pinot Noir.
$80 at Marquis
Domaine Nicolas-Rossignol Volnay “Cailleret” 1er Cru 2006 (red)
Volnay happens to be home to some of my favourite expressions of Pinot in Burgundy, and this wine is a tremendous example of the signature of the region and the quality of wines possible. Rossignol is a young wine maker and an example of the new generation of winemaking in Burgundy.
The nose is extremely pretty with dark cherries and flowers. This extends into the outstanding palate: twigs and dark cherry on top of a very dense structure and tremendous length. Rossignol uses some stems in the vinification.
Excellent to Excellent+
$100 at Marquis
Domaine Jean-Tardy Nuits-St. Goerges “Les Boudots” 1er Cru 2006 (red)
Nuits-St. Georges is known for some of the darkest and densest expressions of Pinot Noir. The “Les Boudots” vineyard is actually half in Nuits-St. Georges and half in Beaune, so it is somewhat of a hybrid vineyard.
The wine possesses a hard to explain nose of mint, flowers along with brown sugar and oak character. The palate again is floral and minty/herbaceous along with blackberry and boysenberry and is quite tight. The tannins, however, are ripe and very fine on the finish of this extremely masculine and structured pinot.
$110 at Marquis
Domaine Anne Parent Pommard “Les Epenots” 1er Cru 2006 (red)
The “Les Epenots” vineyard is a Grand Cru wannabe, and has applied for elevation to Grand Cru status. In Burgundy this can take decades, but from all reports Les Epenots is getting very close. Pommard is known to make supple wines with a discrete power to them.
The nose offered raspberry and bright cherry and was also floral and pretty. Overall, this is an extremely expressive wine. The palate is superb, clean and pure fruit with a light dusting of cinnamon. The length and structure here are outstanding and speak to Anne Parent’s particular ability to bring out delineation in her wines. Everything is in proportion, with a near perfect balance between tannin, ripeness, acid and phenolics.
$120 at Marquis
Domaine Taupenot-Merme Charmes-Chambertin 2006 (red)
Taupenot-Merme is a highly respected producer and is extremely meticulous in its practices – hand harvesting, using biodynamic treatments, and organic viticulture.
The nose is spicy with strawberry Rhubarb and is exceptionally ripe and clean. The palate brought home more Rhubarb and a little cinnamon spice. What made this a truly outstanding wine, however, was the very ripe tannin and absolutely seamless structure. For a very youthful Grand Cru, this was also ridiculously easy to drink and possessed the most supple tannins of the entire lineup of wines I tasted.
The only downside is that this is lacking in length right now, but I suspect this will change with the proper aging.
$170 at Marquis
Champagne Paul Bara Brut Reserve N/V
My lunch with Allen began with a nice little grower champagne at a great value. The apple and soft yeasty aromas worked well with this very fresh wine, which was also very balanced and possessed a long finish for its price. I don’t have much to say here other than great value for good quality grower bubbles.
Very Good+ to Excellent
$55 at Marquis
Domaine Guillemot-Michel Macon-Village 2008 (white)
I wrote about the Macon above. This wine had a rich, lemon driven nose with hints of minerals. The palate was actually quite chalky and possessed nice length for the price point.
$33 at Marquis
Domaine Patrick Javillier Puligny-Montrachet “Les Levrons” 2006 (white)
Another outstanding wine from Javillier. This is not light, but it managed to pull off a floral and delicate nose. The palate had lemon, stone and outstanding delicacy for the vintage and given the body and richness of the underlying fruit.
$85 at Marquis
Domaine Arnaud Ente Mersault “Les Gouttes d’Or” 1er Cru 2006 (white)
I have yet to write about Mersault, which is one of my personal favourite regions for white Burgundy. Mersault is known for wines of richness and density. However, unlike many over the top new world Chardonnays, a great Mersault will also always possess sufficient acid to balance out the richness. This wine is an outstanding example of that counterpoint.
Ente himself has started to build a tremendous reputation and is known for utter obsession and a darkly serious nature. He is also considered by many to have the ability to become Burgundy’s greatest producer of white wine.
The nose was quite subtle with almonds and hazlenuts underlying its fundamentally citrus character. This is supple and opulent on the nose without drowning you in litres of buttery richness.
The palate is like lemon stone custard and combines incredible richness and elegance with incredible length. A true standout and the best white I tasted.
$180 at Marquis
Domaine Tollot-Beaut Chorey-les-Beaune 2007 (red)
Chorey-les-Beaune is on the “wrong side of the road” – with its vineyards across the highway from all the famous Burgundy vineyards in the Beaune. Allen called this a good value honest wine. I agree. It possesses intense rich baking spices on the nose and black raspberry (all after the reduction blew off). The tannins are firm and yet not overly austere. As with anything, a good producer can make a lesser region do good things.
$43 at Marquis
Domaine Jean-Tardy Vosne-Romanee “Les Chaumes” 1er Cru 2006 (red)
The hallmark spice was back along with black cherries and a tad too much oak right now. This will integrate and the supple rich fruit and immediate deliciousness of this wine will please many.
$100 at Marquis
Domaine Patrice Rion Gevrey-Chambertin “Lavaux St. Jacques” 1er Cru 2006 (red)
At the bottom of a slip and thus exposed to cool air. This is very soft compare to the Vosne with light raspberry and rhubarb fruit and a hint of earth. A tremendously detailed wine, this is hallmark for Patrice Rion, another star producer in the Nuits-St.Georges. Be aware, however, that Rion also makes a number of Negocient wines, which while of good quality, aren’t made from his own fruit.
The palate had supple tannins and sweet strawberry and raspberry fruit. I’d call this a modern style, but certainly non-interventionist and terroir driven. A superb wine.
$100 at Marquis
Domaine Comte Senard Corton “Les Paulands” 2006 (red)
Corton is increasingly becoming one of my go to villages in Burgundy. This wine is floral and pretty with very deep and pure light raspberry fruit. What was most noticeable here was the incredible purity of fruit and easy to enjoy mouthfeel. And by all means a very well priced Grand Cru. One of my picks of the weekend.
$90 at Marquis
Domaine des Lambrays Clos des Lambrays 2007 (red)
This wine is made from a monopole, meaning monopoly vineyard owned by a single producer. This monopole also happens to be a Grand Cru. The wine is made from three distinct parcels within the monopole, which are vinified separately and then blended. The blend is produced with the aim to be true to the terroir of the Clos des Lambrays, and it seems to have succeeded here, although supposedly their cellar practices aren’t the cleanest around and so you should expect some bottle variation.
The nose is floral but also adds interesting notes of stone and pepper. The palate brings maximal balance to the table with a 60+s finish and dark cherry, blackberry and spice. A nice wine when I tried it, it still wouldn’t be something I would take a risk on for cellaring.
$160 at Marquis
The wines of Burgundy are some of the most hallowed in the world of wine, but also some of the most ancient. They are also wines that have managed to retain a sense of purity and authenticity despite countless critics, huge changes in the wine world and globalization. Somehow Burgundy has kept connected to its past and the ideas of the pagans and the monks that followed still form the crux of what Burgundy is all about. Of course there is plenty of flak to go around, but my conclusion from this weekend of tasting wine with one of the most respected critics in the English language is that out of all of the world’s wine regions, Burgundy has tapped into a sense of self that should be the envy of the rest of the world. A complex and coherent philosophy that derives from a long time thinking about wine and its meaning in society and the world is not something particularly common in the world of wine. If only the wines were more accessible to mere mortals. Then, maybe, would some come to realize that wine isn’t just a beverage, but it is also a manifestation of beauty, society, and belief, and one that can actually make you think twice about the importance of your own ego.