Spotlight on White Burgundy: Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru Vertical

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What makes a Grand Cru? Despite the hushed voices and reverence of hallowed ground, it is just a place. What’s amazing about Grand Crus – especially those in Burgundy – is just how prosaically ‘there’ they are. They are not stunning vistas atop awe-inspiring mountains. They are just fields, like fields all over the world, growing an agricultural product. That these small, visually uninspiring pockets produce the apex of humanity’s domestication of the plant kingdom and one of our greatest cultural achievements creates a sense of bathos as much as exaltation.

On Terroir

Most of the agriculture that dominates the planet today creates a drastic imprint with little history. Vast lands are cleared and prepared for agriculture on an industrial scale. Changes are sudden rather than subtle. While there are exceptions, much agricultural tradition has been lost. The same applies to vitis vinifera, which in the late 20th century has proliferated across the world at a remarkable rate. New regions and “terroirs” are discovered regularly these days, so the buzz goes.

But not so fast. Terroir is an illusory concept – it is not really the ‘taste of a place’ but, rather, the manifestation of a particular history of human culture. It is not an idealistic ‘nature’ from which humans stand apart, a false premise that leads to much of the meaningless talk of terroir. Rather, ‘terroir’ is an aesthetic whereby human mastery of nature is almost able to overcome itself. Burgundy shows the truth of this: its fame arises because of its long history of subtle human endeavor, which through centuries of gradations has lead to a level of human mastery that is near unparalleled in the world.

The great irony of the terroirists is that so many see themselves as operating on the opposite side of a dichotomy where human science and mastery manipulates and creates fermented grapes as a consumer product (Yellow Tail is the extreme example, but many other ‘spoofulated’ fine wines are now also placed in that category) on the one hand and farmers let nature speak for itself on the other. This is, in the truest Hegelian sense, a dialectic that only resolves when we realize that the ‘terroirists’ are, in fact, the most successful and most powerful manifestations of human mastery, far more so than the so-called ‘spoofulated’ wines. Terroir is human mastery.

Corton-Charlemagne

Of course, the story does not end with some great sublation. The question remains: why are some forms of human mastery able to express something deeper and more profound than others? What is it, precisely, that allows the sublation to happen?

Corton-Charlemagne: the very name of the vineyard houses its history, a vineyard given by Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne to the Abbey of Saulieu in 775. The land has been under cultivation ever since. While the story goes that its ‘greatness’ was not discovered until after the French Revolution, when the Pinot Blanc and Gamay vines were replaced with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, it is too simplistic to write off the first several hundred years of Corton-Charlemagne’s cultivation as insignificant to its status and recognition today. Rather, the imprint of those times forms part of its terroir, and we cannot say that Corton-Charlemagne can somehow be distinguished from this past.

As the post-revolutionary owners started to discover the potential for Chardonnay, the slow transition to one of the great white wine vineyards in the world took the key focus it needed to reach the final stages of its development.

It would be naive, and just plain wrong, to believe that a particular vineyard site in itself makes great wine regardless of the producer. In fact, the mark of the producer is the most obvious manifestation of terroir’s cultural element. In a region rife with disappointing and overpriced bottles of wine, it is not uncommon for the best producer’s entry-level Borgogne to be better than lesser producers Premier or Grand Cru wines.

Thus the story and terroir of Corton-Charlemagne would not be the same if it were not for the iconic Bonneau du Martray, which has come to embody this terroir more than any other producer.

Bonneau du Martray

This Domaine was born of the French Revolution – that key moment in Burgundy’s history which saw the divestment of the lands from the church and purchase by the new Bourgeois class. Much of Corton-Charlemagne was sold to the Bonneau-Verys family, and though many holdings were sold off over time, the key ones found themselves in the hands of Comtesse Jean le Bault de la Moriniere, whose husband took over in 1969. Jean was the first to domaine bottle rather than sell to negocients and that trend has been continued by his son Jean-Charles, a former architect who now heads the Domiane.

While they own 11 hectares of land, Bonneau du Martray’s key holdings are in the climats of En Charlemagne and Le Charlemagne, which are planted predominantly with Chardonnay. The vines average 45 years of age and are planted on a variety of soil types including marl, limestone and clay on the upper slopes and limestone with iron-rich topsoils on the lower slopes.

Importantly, vines are now replaced at the domaine using Massale Selection in order to maintain genetic diversity. Jean-Charles has also avoided the use of chemical treatments, which he believes only became necessary in Burgundy after overuse of tractors, which compacted the soil and rendered it unhealthy. As such, Bonneau du Martray avoids mechanization.

This Domaine is one of the very few in Burgundy that has never had a premature oxidation problem (along with the likes of Lafon, Coche-Dury and Leflaive). The precise reasons for this are not known, but many believe it is because Bonneau du Martray has been continuously using traditional methods, avoiding the increasing batonnage and other modernist techniques that took over Burgundy in the 90’s. Instead, the grapes here are picked less ripe, the wines see less batonnage and more sulphur is used. In other words, the wines see a far less oxidative style of treatment than what became the norm in the 1990’s.

The Wines

These Grand Crus are considered some of the most ageworthy whites in Burgundy. Jean-Charles thinks it takes 20 years before they are ready. Certainly, at least 10 years in the cellar is advisable, though the 2009 we tasted was showing phenomenally well.

After tasting through 5 vintages of this great wine, I am confident that it is an entirely idiosyncratic expression of Chardonnay with a level of grace and elegance that I’ve not experienced elsewhere. These wines are more austere than what many have come to expect from white Burgundy (and Chardonnay), revelling in that line between ripe and unripe fruit that would destroy most lesser producers. With Bonneau du Martray you get to see a side of Chardonnay that can only be found in Corton-Charlemagne.

This inimitable wine fully expresses vintage while maintaining its unique minerality, texture and sophistication year to year. Even the ‘lesser’ vintages had a lot to offer.

One of the more exciting things about Bonneau du Martray is that they are one of the few wineries in Burgundy that keeps old vintages. As such, it is not uncommon to find older vintages that have been shipped directly from the winery cellar (as were all the wines that I tasted). This sort of provenance is nearly unheard of for Grand Cru wines with 10+ years of age on them. The fact that Bonneau du Martray doesn’t charge much of a premium for these older direct releases makes them some of the greatest values in Burgundy. I tasted the following wines blind.

Bonneau du Martray 2009: Extreme density to the aromatics. This is explosive even though the oak level shows the wine’s youth. Apple and citrus. This wine is more about the density of aroma than secondary development right now. It shows both the power of the vintage and how expressive young Corton can be in its early years.

The palate repeats the crazy density and intensity of the nose. There is extreme length here. Superb, powerful wine, maybe lacking some finesse right now because the oak is not fully integrated.

Excellent to Excellent+

Bonneau du Martray 2004: A bit weightier but less vibrant and expressive than the 2009. The nose is subtle and a little vegetal. Some interesting minerality. Totally different tone than the ‘09: moodier and less peppy.

Subtler palate too. Older tasting, definite development. Root vegetable. Very long. Unique. Quite balanced though finish falls short, speaking of a vintage not necessarily built for the long haul. Lacking fruit for much more aging. Nonetheless quite delicious and restrained right now.

Excellent

Bonneau du Martray 2002: A rich honeyed nose, showing development from age. Maybe some botrytis, but definitely from a warmer vintage. The terroir seems a little covered over. This was less exciting than both the 09 and the 04 for my palate, feeling a bit wan and uninspiring right now, which is extremely surprising for the vintage. Perhaps it is in a weird place, though the finish dropped off sooner than expected.

Unfortunately, this vintage seemed a bit boring for a Grand Cru. I suspect there may be some bottle variation and also that this will taste very different in a few more years.

Very Good+ to Excellent

Bonneau du Martray 2000: A hard to read wine, it possesses an ethereal minerality and something compelling and slightly hidden like a chanteuse in a smoky bar.

The palate was very savory and there is plenty of extract here – soy, seaweed and umami predominante. Finishes clean and with great tension.

Excellent

Bonneau du Martray 1997: We are now entering entirely different territory. With 15 years of age, things are starting to entirely transform. Soy paper, flowers and minerality. Only aged Burgundy can smell and taste like this and the level of complexity at this point is phenomenal. A strong, expansive mid-palate fades a bit early, but it doesn’t really matter as the wine is fantastically complex and sexy, with soft acidity and a wonderful fleshy texture in the mouth.

Excellent to Excellent+

Conclusion

While less distinguished than the most famous Montrachets and its adjacent Grand Crus, Corton-Charlemagne from Bonneau du Martray is undeniably one of the great white wines of the world: unique, characterful, inspiring, and filled with terroir in all its meanings.

Several vintages are now available at Marquis Wine Cellars for about $175 per bottle, which is a fantastic price for the quality (compare to $500-$1200 for Montrachet).

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