With a worrying number of bottles of young white Burgundy ageing well before their time, Clive Coates MW assesses a worrying trend
Some four or five years ago white Burgundy wine collectors, both amateur and professional, began to swap stories of problems with their 1996s. Then their 1997s. And then their 1998s. Worryingly, some wines seemed to have aged prematurely.
On hearing this, the first thing I did was to go down and pick out a few bottles of these vintages from my own cellar. Thankfully they were fine, though I hadn’t bought a great deal, having stocked up on the splendid 1995s. I then looked into my notes, but I didn’t have much that was comprehensive and recent. I’d tasted a lot, in bottle, in 2000, but then largely put the vintages aside. They had needed time, I felt.
But as time went on, I too began to notice oxidised bottles. I had to reject five bottles of Etienne Sauzet’s Puligny-Montrachet, Les Combettes 1996, before I could discover four good ones for a wine dinner. Taking a group around Burgundy we called at Ramonet, where I had organised a decade’s vertical of its Chassagne-Montrachet, les Ruchottes. When we arrived at the 1998, the first bottle was as brown as fino. Noël Ramonet and I held up various other examples to the light. Other bottles were also suspiciously deep in colour. Only a few months ago, at the restaurant Lameloise, we had to reject two different 1998s from Colin-Deléger for the same reason.
I started making enquiries. Several things became clear. Yes, there was a problem. But there seemed to be no pattern. Good growers as well as bad were affected. It did not seem to matter whether they had bottled at 12 months or – as is now becoming more and more commonplace at top levels – 18 months. The affliction was apparent not only with the 1996s, but with the 1997s and 1998s as well. Within the same cellar, some wines were bad, others okay. Within the same bin of wine, there were bottles with problems and bottles which were fine. While there were some domaines which seemed to be immune, a great many of the good and the great – Lafon, Bonneau du Martray, Roulot, Jean-Noel Gagnard, as well as those mentioned earlier – were culpable.
The producers’ response
What was the local reaction when this problem emerged? Thankfully there was no denial. The growers were just as puzzled as we were and, being concerned, only too happy to share experiences. As Dominique Lafon said at the time, we too want to understand what has happened, so that we can make sure it doesn’t happen again. The BIVB, the local professional association, set up an investigation. It hasn’t reported yet, but off-the-record conversations I have had hint that it is going to arrive at the same conclusions that I have.
I started to do some research. Why did we have this problem, I wanted to know. I found myself in some sort of Agatha Christie whodunnit. There were lots of suspects. But unlike the neat and tidy conclusions of crime novels, there turned out to be several guilty parties. There was one main explanation: one distinctly obvious culprit, but there were other contributing factors as well.
Suspect number one was the difference in the way white Burgundy wine is made today, compared with yesterday. At the top levels the vineyards are ploughed; herbicides have been dispensed with. Treatments are reactive. The vineyards are sprayed, not according to rote, but when the weather forecast or the local research station signals that there is a danger of an attack of mildew, oidium or whatever. The harvest has been reduced. In the Côte d’Or the PLC (plafond limite de classement, in which the maximum permitted yield would change depending on the vintage) has been abolished. Today there is far more attention to triage, sorting through the fruit to eliminate anything substandard, and everyone has a pneumatic press, thus producing a cleaner must, enabling the wine to be held on its lees for longer, so it can enrich itself thereon to the full. These days most winemakers stir up the lees – known as bâtonnage – to further fatten up the wine and to release more flavour.
All this makes for cleaner wine, so one can sulphur it less, particularly if one takes care not to let all the carbon dioxide produced by the malolactic fermentation escape. And the vines themselves are more healthy. But, I ask, is the wine too clean? Have we reduced sulphur levels too far? Sulphur protects both against oxidation and bacterial contamination.
The paradox is that customers want squeaky-clean, sulphur-free wine when they taste it at the outset. But if you want your wine to age, you have to bottle with rather more, rendering the bottles unacceptably sulphury in their infancy. Back in the mid-1980s, and in Pouilly-Fumé, Didier Daguenau was swayed by the press clamour for unsulphury wine, and bottled two successive vintages with the barest minimum, suitable for a Muscadet. He has regretted this ever since. The wines were dead after five years.
So, if under-sulphuring and too fragile wines make up one suspect, what about the other modern-day approaches to winemaking I have outlined above? Another possible key to the problem is excessive bâtonnage. Bâtonnage (I put this unscientifically) releases flavours. But the flavours are there anyway. They won’t go away if you don’t stir up the lees, they will just emerge later. Is this not better if you are making a vin de garde? Surely stirring up the lees oxidises the wine? Ask a top Bordeaux blanc château such as Laville-Haut-Brion what they think of bâtonnage, and you’ll get a very curt, dismissive answer. There are plenty of very good Burgundian estates – François Jobard is one – who abhor the technique.
Was there something about the vintages in question which in itself produced wines more susceptible to premature oxidation, as has been alleged in some wine chatrooms online? 1996 was a large vintage with a rather austere ripeness and high levels of acidity. You would have thought these high acidities would help preserve the wines. But one problem was the late malolactic. As a winemaker you have to refrain from sulphuring your wine until after the malo is finished (if not, you will inhibit this fermentation from taking place). So many of the 1996s were not sulphured until late summer or even later. Those bottled in the autumn may not have absorbed all the sulphur they should have, thus rendering them under-protected.
The two following vintages were difficult, neither of them very prolific. No one pronounced them as wines for laying down. They would peak early, and should be consumed soon, the critics correctly predicted. Frankly, anyone who is still hanging on to their 1997s and 1998s is a fool. I’m not surprised many of them are now showing age.
Before I reveal the real guilty party, I need to address something that I consider has much muddied the waters in this debate: adolescence. Everyone accepts that red vins de garde go through a period when they are somewhat unexciting; the elements are there but they don’t coalesce; the wine doesn’t sing. The greater, the more long-living the wine, it seems, the deeper and longer this adolescent period is. We sometimes forget that white wines made for the long term go through a similar phase. As well as the sulphur sitting at the top, protecting the wine, other chemical changes are taking place within the bottle, and not all of them are producing sexy flavours. It happens with white Bordeaux at the top level; it occurs with white Hermitage; and you’ll find it in Meursault, Puligny and Chassagne. I am sure bottles have been unnecessarily accused of being prematurely oxidised when they have just been gawky teenagers.
But the major culprits in this mystery are the corks. The quality of corks has declined. The level of corked bottles is four or five times higher than it was 40 years ago when I first joined the wine trade. The trees are stripped more regularly. Too much sub-standard cork bark is admitted. So the pores are larger, letting the sulphur out and the air in. Moreover, cork treatments have changed. Traditionally corks were produced using chlorine-based bleaches, and coated with paraffin to facilitate their ingress and extraction from the bottle. Fears of TCA contamination led to these two being replaced with peroxide, itself a powerful oxidant, and silicone, which some argue allows more oxygen back in through the cork than hitherto. It is noteworthy that one of the few domaines no one has had any problems with is Raveneau in Chablis, which traditionally coats its corks and the neck of the bottle with sealing wax.
It’s not all bad news…
So how widespread is the problem? Are other vintages affected? Are other white wines showing the same problems? Alan Meadows, who writes the email journal Burghound out of Los Angeles, says he has had difficulties with 1995 and 1999, and adds that he never contributes to a tasting or a dinner without a back-up bottle. Though some others have experienced bad 1999s (Lafon is one of the domaines cited), few accuse the 1995s. Vintages since then seem to be clean. Berry Bros’ Jasper Morris MW agrees with me about adolescence. And this seems supported by many in Burgundy in the sense that most state that while there were problems two or three years ago, there seem to be fewer today. Jean-Marc Roulot of Domaine Guy Roulot confesses to having had some faulty 1996s and 1997s but ‘not having come across a bad bottle for some time’. This is echoed by Caroline Lestime of Domaine Jean-Noël Gagnard.
Prematurely oxidised bottles are reported elsewhere, in the Loire and in Bordeaux (though not at the very top levels) and in Australia and California. Luckily most of what is produced in these areas is wine for earlier drinking, so the problems, if any, have been less apparent. Has it affected prices? No, it would seem not, neither at auction (although very little white Burgundy wine sees the auction showroom) nor en primeur.
So who can you trust, and who should you avoid? As I have said, this is a problem now apparently no longer with us, but affecting almost everyone, albeit most only tangentially, during the 1996 to 1999 period. Perhaps it would be wise to avoid these vintages altogether.Those who have not been accused, by any of the dozens of collectors, merchants, writers and growers I have spoken to include: Patrick Javillier, François Jobard, Pierre Morey and Matrot, all of Meursault, Louis Carillon in Puligny-Montrachet, and Louis Jadot in Beaune.
To end on a positive note, in June 2006 I made two comprehensive white Burgundy wine samplings. The first was my annual 10-year-on tasting – yes, 1996 – with wines supplied by the growers themselves. This is mainly of red wines, but we had some 20 whites. No doubt some investigation had taken place before a particular wine was selected, but we did not have a single off bottle. The second took place just before this. Over four days I sampled around 140 premier and grand cru 2002s. After I had disposed of a dozen or so to friends and neighbours, and drank the rest up over the next month, if not six weeks. There was hardly a tired bottle, absolutely no hint of premature oxidation at all.
So relax. You can still buy top white Burgundy wine with confidence.
Clive Coates MW is a world leading authority on Burgundy, including white Burgundy wine, and is the author of The Great Wines of France (£30, Mitchell Beazley). His Wines of Burgundy will be published in autumn 2007.