- Wednesday 28 March 2007
Get to grips with the confusing layout of Corton-Charlemagne, and you’ll find one of Burgundy’s greatest whites, says Stephen Brook. At its heart lies one of the great Burgundy domaines – Bonneau du Martray
Corton-Charlemagne: a grand name for a grand wine. Legend has it that the great emperor himself noted how the snow melted early on the hill of Corton and deduced it would be an excellent spot for grape-growing. Would that it was so simple…
The hierarchical layering of vineyard sites in Burgundy (grand cru, premier cru, village) is a model of clarity, but can come unstuck. Corton is a model of confusion, and nobody seems clear about what can be grown where and under what name.
The grand cru appellation of Corton curls around the hill just north of Beaune, crossing communal boundaries as it does so. It departs from Ladoix-Serrigny, spans south-facing slopes in Aloxe-Corton, and retreats around the hill to face Pernand-Vergelesses.
Confusion arises from the fact that both red and white grapes are grown here. White Corton is entitled to the Corton-Charlemagne AC within the 34ha (hectare) vineyard of that name. Red Corton is either Le Corton or has a name linking it to a specific vineyard such as Corton Renardes. To complicate matters further, there is also Corton Blanc, which comes from white grapes in a Corton vineyard usually dedicated to red. Thus there are parcels of Chardonnay in Corton Bressandes. Are the resulting wines entitled to the Corton-Charlemagne AC or to the less specific Corton Blanc? When I asked the BIVB, the Burgundy producers’ association, the reply was that either is possible; but that only white vines in undefined ‘special sectors’ can be labelled Corton-Charlemagne. None of this need concern lovers of white Burgundy unduly, but it is unsettling that, contrary to usual Burgundian practice, the label doesn’t tell you exactly where the wine comes from.
There are major variations in elevation (200–340m) and exposition here. The higher sectors, beneath the woods that top the hill like a crewcut, are composed of light-coloured marl, whereas lower down the slope you find topsoil over a limestone bedrock. But I suspect microclimate matters more than soil.
Little Corton-Charlemagne emerges from Ladoix-Serrigny; these southeast-facing slopes get the morning sun and are fairly cool. The best exposed and warmest sector is in Aloxe-Corton. The Pernand side of the hill basks in the afternoon sun, making it warmer than the Ladoix side. Those parts of the Pernand slopes facing west are the coolest of all, ripening up to 15 days later than the Aloxe slopes. Some growers argue they should never have been given grand cru status in the first place, but INAO succumbed to pressure from Pernand-based growers.
Warmth, however, is not the most important factor. Yes, the Aloxe side of the hill gives the richest wines, but with white grapes a cooler microclimate helps preserve acidity and express the steeliness so characteristic of Corton-Charlemagne.
Because of the size of the grand cru, the wines are more varied in style and structure than those from the other, smaller white grands crus in Puligny and Chassagne. The size also allows some producers to own substantial parcels. Thus Louis Latour owns 10ha, Bonneau de Martray almost as much, Bouchard Père et Fils just over 3ha, and Jadot 2ha.
No estate is so closely associated with Corton-Charlemagne as Bonneau de Martray, if only because all its vineyards are grand cru. The estate’s holdings have apparently remained unaltered for 1,200 years; after 1,000 years of ecclesiastical ownership, it passed to the Bonneau de Martray family, and descended in 1886 to the related Le Bault de la Morinière family. The present incumbent is the laconic Comte Jean-Charles Le Bault de la Morinière (let’s presumptuously – and contrary to Decanter house style – call him Jean-Charles for short), an architect by training. Inquisitive and open-minded, he makes a point of dispatching his team each year to visit an estate he admires. Thus in 2005 they decamped for a few days to Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace.
The vineyards, which have an average age of 45 years, straddle the Aloxe-Pernand boundary. ‘They mostly face southwest and west,’ Jean-Charles explains, ‘and the quality of light is exceptional. The heat is never excessive here, so the grapes always retain acidity. The palate is enlarged by the fact that I have vines at all elevations, with a week’s difference in maturation.’
His father was a pioneer of temperature control, and aged the wine in one-third new oak. Little has changed since Jean-Charles took over in 1994. Today the wine is barrel-fermented and the lees are stirred. After 12 months in oak, the wine is moved into steel for six months before bottling.
Bonneau de Martray is the classic expression of Corton-Charlemagne: lightly citric on the nose, with hints of stone fruits in very ripe years, and a dash of oak that rarely obtrudes, as well as an underlying mineral tang that sometimes approaches chalkiness. The palate has the grip of a fine Corton, a blend of virility and opulence, and exceptional length. Recent vintages that over the years have stood out include 2004, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1996, 1995, 1994, 1992, 1991, 1985 and 1982.
No doubt the 1989 and 1990 are in the same league, but I have not tasted them.
The other major player here is Louis Latour. In my experience, the Latour Corton-Charlemagne does not show well when young. It is more supple than Bonneau de Martray, toastier and nuttier too, but can have a torpid quality that evaporates with time, developing a grandeur and minerality with age.
Most of the major négociants produce good Corton-Charlemagne – in the case of Bouchard Père et Fils, Jadot, Corton-André and Drouhin, from their own vines. Faiveley produces a splendid wine, but new oak dominates for some years.
Local growers, such as Follin-Arbelet, Rapet, Chevalier and Nudant, make good wines from their holdings, as do producers based elsewhere, such as Michel Juillot, Christophe Roumier and Bertrand Ambroise. In a class apart is Coche-Dury of Meursault: his Corton-Charlemagne is indisputably among the greatest, but prices are prohibitive.
Brook’s corking (white) Cortons from 2004
Bonneau de Martray HHHHH
Discreet nose, citric, with delicate oak. Terrific attack, and combines delicious fruit and fine acidity with ample volume, and weight. Exceptionally long, vibrant finish. 2010–20. £48.47–49.44; C&B, Sec
Domaine de la Vougeraie,
Le Charlemagne HHHHH
Closed on the nose, but powerful; lush but mineral, with bite and vigour and a long peppery finish. 2010–20. About £77; BBR
Powerful, nutty nose. A classic Corton, oaky, creamy and powerful, splendid fruit with a steely undertow and exceptional length. 2010–20. £65; DBy, Evy, ViW, WsB, Wmb
Bouchard Père et Fils HHHH
Muted and austere nose, but an enticing blend of ripe fruit, spice and pepper, and a nutty steeliness on the finish. Needs time. 2010–20. £490 in bond; Aly
Muted nose, lightly citric. Medium body, spicy, nutty, but austere. Needs time. 2010–15. £54.95; GWW
Closed nose, but rich, full bodied and juicy, with bite and a ripe grapefruity finish. Fine potential. 2008–16. £45.55; Jer, Lay
Lean nose, cut grass and delicate minerality. Medium-bodied, creamy texture, and lively and elegant. 2010–18. £406 IB; F&R
Closed nose, but delivers a terrific attack; dry to the point of austerity, but has grip, weight, spiciness and length. £475 IB; J&B
Firm, stony mineral aromas. Concentrated, spicy and vibrant, with a mineral aftertaste; good length. 2008–14. £39.50; Mnt
Louis Latour HHHH
Muted nose, but rich and rounded on the palate. Inexpressive now, needs time to unfurl. 2010–18. £47; N&P
Maison Champy HHHH
Spicy, oaky nose, quite perfumed; rich and voluptuous but mineral too, with a long sweet finish. 2008–15. About £52; HHC
Michel Juillot HHHH
Rich, spicy nose, and a weighty, succulent style, full bodied, yet with a long mineral finish. 2008–16. N/A UK; +33 3 85 98 99 89
Muted but nutty nose. Packs a punch, with richness and weight and an earthy mineral bite. Very long. 2010–18.
N/A UK; +33 3 80 26 40 48
For UK stockist codes see p124.