I recently spent a day in Burgundy at some of the world’s greatest wineries. The Cote d’Or is, of course, a holy grail for any wine lover and visiting the region an essential step for any serious appreciation.
The towns of Burgundy are generally quite banal and often ugly. This is not a picturesque wine region especially compared, for example, to a region such as Alsace. It’s strange to juxtapose this general uninspired scenery with the astonishing greatness of the vineyards and producers. The lesson of Burgundy is to look beyond the surface and seek nuance.
My experience with some of the world’s top wineries and best winemakers was friendly and humble. Everyone saw their job as an honour and responsibility as well as a joy. The wines at the three producers I visited are not made for the sake of prestige, but out of belief.
A Historical Understanding of Farming
While history is essential to understanding Burgundy in general, it is particularly important for Bonneau du Martray, which is one of the most historic estates in Burgundy and the most important winery in Corton (though the winery is located in Pernand-Vergelesses).
The hill of Corton was an important vineyard for Charlemagne (Charles the First), who eventually donated a large portion of his holdings to the Collegiale of Saulieu in 775CE. This large holding corresponds to Bonneau du Martray’s current vineyards.
The estate itself is about 200 years old and so has seen its fair share of conflict, including world war 2, which saw Burgundy reduced to minimal production. After the war, food was so scarce that all the farmers were ordered to focus on quantity rather than quality. The introduction of industrial chemical agricultural fertilizers and pesticides at this time coincided with heavy use of these products in the vineyards. Yields from 50 years ago were more than 20% greater than today in many vineyards.
Current owner Jean-Charles Le Bault de la Moriniere took over the estate from his father in 1994. Jean-Charles, with whom I tasted during my visit, is an architect by trade and applies his rigorous methodology to the domaine. In many ways I feel Bonneau du Martray’s wines are architectural wines – pure in form, rigorously considered and tested, while also aesthetically stunning.
For instance, Jean-Charles started converting to biodynamics in 2004 because he believes organic is not sufficient as it does not necessarily require good farming. Biodynamics, instead, focuses on farming and relies on hundreds of years of trial and error of more traditional farmers. Jean-Charles puts stock in both this history of trial and error while also methodically testing and observing the results of his own conversion to biodynamics. As he told me “biodynamics is not radical as it is based on farmers observing nature and farming with the rhythms of nature”. He views biodynamics as enhancing efficiency in the vineyard as its practices are based on making the right decisions at the right time. He is very happy with the results and will continue.
Researching Beauty: Premox, Light Quality, and Drinking Old Wines
Jean-Charles is an intellectual man. He is also very open with his opinions. As inevitable when tasting at a white wine producer in Burgundy, our conversation veered towards the premox problem. Jean-Charles believes it has much to do with the enclosure. While there are many alternative theories out there, Jean-Charles applies his rigorous thinking to the problem and has developed trials testing the effects of different closures, including screw cap. He is extremely rigorous with sourcing his cork and does not generally like the Portuguese cork industry as he thinks they have significant quality control issues.
Jean-Charles puts his money where his mouth is. The Domaine often releases old wines directly from their cellar. For each release Jean-Charles meticulously tests the wines and the enclosures to ensure he is not shipping premoxed wine. This means that you can buy older bottles of Bonneau du Martray that have been released this way with a good degree of certainty you will not be dismayed by the contents. I can attest that I have never had a prematurely oxidized bottle of Bonneau du Martray out of the half dozen pre-2000 vintages I’ve tasted.
This marriage of research, rigour and devotion to creating a beautiful experience also manifested in Jean-Charles’ theories about what makes the world’s great wines great. In particular, he believes that light plays a hugely important role in making the greatest wines. And he is not just talking about the quantity of light – i.e. the number of sunshine hours to which vines are exposed. Jean-Charles also believes that the quality of light has a significant effect on the vines. When I asked him to explain further, Jean-Charles told me that by quality he means “clarity of light.” “Without light the vines would not work. Photosynthesis is the reason why we pay extreme attention to the canopy. The purpose of managing it is to control how the plant captures light. I believe that there is a special light related to the best wines. For example, the Rhone, Bordeaux and Ribera del Duero all have a special light.” Bonneau du Martray’s vineyards on the hill of Corton are particularly special because of their western exposure. “In the high season the vines are exposed to light from 7am to 9pm,” said Jean-Charles. “There is light without the pressure of heat.”
I have never heard a “light quality” theory before and find it intriguing. Jean-Charles told me he was willing to pay for research on this idea. I would be very curious to see the results.
Beyond light, Bonneau du Martray’s holdings are special because, unlike any other producer with vineyards in Corton and Corton-Charlemagne, Martray’s holdings span across a large swathe of the best positions in the hill. Most other producers own only small pieces and so do not have access to the variety of top quality fruit as does Bonneau du Martray. In fact, the winery owns 16 distinct blocks and blends them together to make its single Grand Cru Corton-Charlemagne. Each block is vinified separately and then assembled. Each block has its own characteristics with variations in vineyard facings, vine age, sun exposure and warmth. In many ways I view Bonneau du Martray’s wines as akin to such greats as JL Chave’s Hermitage or Auguste Clape’s Cornas. All are fundamentally terroir wines, but the terroir arises through blending. Martray’s Corton-Charlemagne is the benchmark for the hill’s terroir. There is nothing like it in the world.
The domain also produces a small amount of red wine from some very old vines, but in my view it is the white that marks the Domain as one of the world’s greatest.
So, if you are lucky enough to get your hands on a bottle of white, when do you drink it? The wines age very well, most for at least 20 years. However, Jean-Charles decries the idea of cellaring a wine for 20 years before drinking it, with no intervening experiences. He told me that “there are many possibilities to drink. One must drink a wine throughout its evolution and depending on context.” It is not possible to fully understand a Bonneau du Martray if you just cellar it and wait. I can attest to this. These wines are stunning in youth, with exuberant aromatics and fruit, combined with an almost Chablisean salt and minerality, though with more potency. Their middle years lose the exuberance but the fruit remains distinctive and pure. As the wines age more, you get more mushroom and more caramel. But, the thread throughout remains a potency of minerality that is simply not replicable.
I told Jean-Charles that I found only his wines and the very best wines of Chablis to be true terroir-driven Chardonnay that I could identify blind. For whatever reason (perhaps light quality and all of the factors discussed above), Chardonnay from Corton-Charlemagne when made by Bonneau du Martray is one of those wine experiences that is truly singular and profound.
In my view Jean-Charles has met his goal, best encapsulated in the famous Mies van der Rohe quote he was taught in architecture school: “God is in the details”.
2013 Corton-Charlemagne: Explosively expressive. Chalky minerality. Long and spiky acid. Very good mid palate weight. Lots of dry extract, very long finish. Very fresh and balanced. Stunning. Excellent+
2011 Corton-Charlemagne: The nose is tighter but more honeyed and rich than the 2013. The palate is also richer with real sap. A bit shorter on finish than the 2013 right now, but this is a totally different expression of Corton-Charlemagne than 2013. Excellent.
2010 Corton-Charlemagne: This is a wine about power and intensity. It is rich and caramelly with an underlying mineral potency. Excellent.
2009 Corton-Charlemagne: This sees closed down aromatics compared to the younger vintages – it is starting to go to sleep during its middle-years. The wine is certainly gaining richness and impact but losing aromatics and expression. Jean-Charles told me these wines shut down after 5 years for about 5 years and then come back to life. That said, every stage of development is enjoyable the aromatics just change and become more secondary and tertiary. I would hold this for 5 years at this point. Excellent.
2008 Corton-Charlemagne: Despite the tendency for the wines to ‘shut down’ in after 5 years for 5 years, this 2008 is exceptionally great right now. It is still very fresh but I note the beginnings of secondary aromas. There is lots of lime pith on the palate with a hint of mushroom. Very bright and acidic. Extremely delicious. Excellent+
2007 Corton-Charlemagne: I taste orange on the palate of the 2007. It is not as vibrant as the 2008, likely due to the vintage. Enjoyable but hold. Excellent.
1998 Corton-Charlemagne: Jean-Chalres poured this wine so we could discuss the idea of secondary aromas. I loved the honey and incense on the nose, and was amazed at the amount of fruit still showing in this wine. Incredible quality here with extreme length. This is as close to ideal Chardonnay as you can get. Excellent+.
2013 Corton Rouge: Impressive fruit and much more weight than this wine used to be in the early 2000’s and before. Highly aromatic, silky mid-palate and excellent acid. Excellent.
Marquis Wine Cellars carries the Corton-Charlemagne for about $180-$190 after tax. This may seem like a lot, but it is actually a bargain for the quality of wine you are getting from one of the world’s best estates.