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18. Don’t save white burgundy!

A p.ox upon us all…

If you prefer a simple summary of the text that follows, then so be it:
Given that at least a dozen vintages of white burgundy have been produced with a propensity to self-destruct anywhere between 4 and 10 years from vintage – whilst in their bottles, whilst in their cases, whilst in the best of cellars – I have to regard all white burgundy from all producers as potentially unable to reach maturity. Therefore I do not recommend that anybody buys white burgundy with the intention of storing it to drink in 15-30 years time, not unless they are fully aware that much of their wine will not complete the journey and they are prepared to accept the associated cost of such a diminished ‘return’.

Maybe 30% oxidised at 25 years old is acceptable(?) but at 5 years old???

Maybe 30% oxidised at 25 years old is acceptable(?) but at 5 years old???

As welcoming, interesting and satisfying as burgundy can be, we are also aware of how fickle it can be. It is one thing to have an occasional bottle from a case that just doesn’t meet your expectations – this has long been the ‘reality’ for red burgundy, though that can be minimised by correctly timing your attack with the corkscrew – but what if half of the bottles in your case are compromised, or more? This is the cancer at the heart of white burgundy production today.

There are supposed to be two distinct styles of white burgundy; young and mature. Great young wines ripple with acidity and crackle with an energy so intense that they are hard to keep in your mouth, they blend fruit and creamy oak flavours that wash over you in waves – frankly thrilling. The mature wines are about richness of texture and a completely different range of white chocolate, truffle, lanolin, floral and more savoury aromas and flavours that may, or may not exhibit a hint of oxidative character, a character that, for instance, might give an impression of hazelnuts. They are often hauntingly long – and don’t be put off straight away by the orange colour of a 30+ year-old wine, it is no indicator of overt flavours or aromas of oxidation.

For years we were told that white burgundy needed to be aged to be enjoyed – depending on the label, say 5-20 years – but it seems that the market must now evolve to survive – why? Well unfortunately today there is a third style, and it is rapidly relegating the concept of mature bottles to history. That third style is brought about by the oxidation potential of today’s wines, many of which are destined to be poured away.

Random, premature – or both?

Is that the right colour?

It started with cases of wine where random bottles were completely oxidised, though the bottles all around it were sound. But the longer you waited, the higher the number of bottles that were affected. Many producers were blind to the problem, still failing to link the unsound bottles pulled from their own cellar with market ‘hearsay’. The market’s whisper grew louder, eventually all the producers would know of the problem, though plenty still opined that ‘it wasn’t ‘their’ problem’.

That the early incidence seemed random, ensured that the corks quickly came to be labeled as ‘the problem’; waxed or paraffin treated? perhaps peroxide washed? Clearly there was no escaping the fact that ‘random’ required something ‘variable’ and that the corks were the only ‘variable’ in a neat wine-production process. The producers, for a couple more vintages were able to wash their hands of the problem – a couple more vintages where poeple didn’t start the search for a solution. That everyone still wanted to buy their wine indicated that there was nothing to worry about – but clearly the problem was more fundamental. Move forward to 2010 and even good wines are hard to sell!

False Positive?

That’s positive in a negative sense! There is also the problem of false attribution / diagnosis. The fact that wines in their youth are about energy, and mature wines are not, clearly indicates some continuum between the two as the wines age. I’m absolutely convinced that many wines described as being on the road to being prematurely oxidised (p.ox), due to a lack of energy, with more honeyed than citrus aromas, are in-fact nothing more than wines displaying a ‘traditional’ aging curve. For me, unless there is some clear oxidative character, a wine has simply been opened at the wrong time – neither young nor mature.

Looking for faults or always expecting the worst has taken much joy out of drinking white burgundy, yet the joy of a perfect bottle is now ‘in excelsis’ when achieved!

The chance of a solution?

Currently quite low.

A majority of producers now accept that the problem is fundamental to the base wine – it is more sensitive to oxidation than it was before – and that the variability of corks was nothing more than some bottles decaying at 4 years of age, others at 10 years depending on how much better was the cork, but most would be ‘dead’ by 15 years of age.

Many producers have almost as many beliefs (suggestions would be closer to the mark) as to the base issue, and here is the crux – bespite the individual efforts of many (for example) there is no concerted, (joined-up) search for a cause, or causes. One producer just adds more sulfur, another presses the grapes harder and third does both – in the end, it is nothing more than tinkering!

Clearly some producers are more affected than others, but given that XXXX-Montrachet from many producers will oxidise, will you still, without thought, pay €2,000 for a case from someone with a ‘better’ record? Like me, you are more likely to buy 2 or 3 bottles instead, drinking one young and praying for the others – it’s not a great choice is it?

14 responses to “18. Don’t save white burgundy!”

  1. pablo

    Hi Bill
    when we was in burgundy last octobre we invited Thomas Morey
    witn his wife to have the diner in the Montrachet with us.
    He brought a bottle CH-M Caillerets 1996.
    It was a great win-win situation.
    It was just a beautiful wine. Better can a white not be.
    I never had some proxi with the wine of his father.
    Have a nice weekend
    Pablo

  2. Mark Gough

    Very sensible balanced piece Bill, thanks.

    Particularly liked the False Positive para – I’ve read some awfully hysterical, exaggerated, tripe on certain forum etc about the incidence of so called p.ox ed white burgundy which absolutely does not accord with my experience.

    Am not saying of course there is no problem – there is – but I just don’t believe from my own drinking (and I love white burgundy more than anything else) the ratio of bad to good bottles is as many would claim.

    I’m also more and more believing decanting older white burgundy has great benefits and doesn’t need to apply to exotic wines. I bought a case of 96 Pierre Morey Bourgogne Blanc last year at auction and , sure, the variation has been extremely marked from bottle to bottle but a bottle that can seem ‘shot’ on initial opening can be transformed into just a nice old white burg in a decanted hour or two. Am sure such bottles will be tipped down the sink with outraged cries by many who don’t know what ‘proper’ older white burgs are all about.

    ‘Tis curious how some growers seem more affected than others though. Two who’s bottles have never given me a problem are J-M Gaunoux ( a case of 96 Meursault Perrieres am about half way thro has been faultless & indeed hardly showing much age – also young vines I recall) and Fichet.

    I had a lengthy conversation with Gerard Boudot Jan 2009 in London at a 2007 vintage release tasting. He was critically examining corks from M Bouzereau bottles on the next table & comparing to his corks. He was impressed by Bouzereau’s which were a little longer & seemed to have a smoother ‘skin’ and described them as quality cork. He was adamant to me that premox was cork related.

    Ho hum ! All part of burgundy’s ‘rich pattern’ ?

    1. Steve

      Mark,

      Can you elaborate on what ‘proper’ older white burgs are all about? I’m afraid I’m a sink tipper when I’m expecting something light yellow in color and it comes out gold. Case in point my case of 2001 Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets has produced so far 3 bottles of golden slightly oxidized smelling wine. I drank them with mixed results, more so out of curiosity than anything. They weren’t horrible but not close to reviews I had read either. With no real benchmark to compare these to, I’m at a loss to determine if this is really how they should be drinking.

  3. antonin guyon 2000 corton-charlemagne

    [...] loved both this vintage and the 2002 from Guyon, but here’s another example why you shouldn’t save white burgundy too [...]

  4. Sue Boxell

    Last year I tasted a 1987 Le Montrachet from DRC and although
    I did like it, it was not really representative of a white Burgundy any more (my favourite, at the moment, being Corton Charlemagne). I do like wines with a few years on them but I will drink the white grand & premier cru bottles that I have at 5 or 6 years, no more.

  5. Jaybird

    This discussion is fascinating. I never have anyone around who cellars or even drinks White Burgundies, much less mature ones. I’m always having to explain why they’re so good, albeit different from what others expect. The latest was a ’94 Corton-Charlemagne from Jadot that had been in suspect but consistent storage since released. Beautiful deep golden-yellow, no amber yet – and the taste was, as my new-to-wine girlfriend so aptly put it, “like a party in your mouth”, i.e., fantastic. I even lay down Bourgonge Blancs from every so often, having enjoyed some as old as 10 yrs. In fact, I have 2 L. Latour ’96 Pulignys to get to some time soon, I suppose, hoping that they are ‘good ones’ (the color still seems young). The suggestion that they might need to air out is interesting, as Mark pointed out. I’ll give that a go on the first one I try. The main issue seems to be the inconsistency of which ones go and which ones last. Would there be a cutoff in time, a range of vintages where the practices began to change, to indicate a safe time that the wines would be old style vs. the new ‘drink it when it’s released and forget about cellaring’ style?

  6. Craig Paddock

    I agree.
    This is a great topic and a many interesting arguments are brought up throughout this article.

    I think that ‘figuring out how well wines will age’ is a classic dilemma that every serious wine drinker starts to explore at some point in his or her wine journey.

    I had a dumbfounding moment not too long ago at Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa, FL. I drank a half bottle of 1990 Chablis Vaillons (forgive me, i can’t remember the producer, but it wasn’t raveneau) This Chablis got better and better over the course of 50 minutes… I was so pumped up going home to drink white burgundy with my Burg-loving peers. When I got home to New Orleans, I quickly sought something impressive to pop. We drank an 04′ francois mikulski meursault genevrieres that had been stored properly; and behold, it tasted completely oxidized. (and i like mikulski’s wines) This was disturbing for me. I still don’t understand it…and maybe no one has a quick answer…to this riddle; but perhaps our best place to start is in the cellars asking the producers of these wines what their “intention” was when they made these wines…? My gut tells me that there is something hidden in the cellars along with the winemakers thoughts…..

    Were they made with the purpose of aging ?
    Or, were they made in haste ?……..with something brewing on the mind…near by, distracting the assistant to nature (winemaker) from his or her most important purpose -to let the terroir speak for itself.

    Now, in my experience, very old terroir takes it’s time every year while preparing it’s speech to the masses. The terroir allows a wine to be produced that will properly represent the history of place. I will permit the argument however that as times change, so does the terroir and it’s desire to communicate. But I suppose this is another can of worms of an argument for another time…
    Nonetheless, My beliefs are romantic and I believe there is a bottle of Le Montrachet 1990 out there that i must have…and when I pop that cork; I will write of it’s beauty….

    1. Max

      Nice piece. I very much support the notion of false positives. It does not surprise me that drinkers seeking a diagnostic paradigm for pox should uncover the scourge in all the offerings from all the most fastidious producers.

      My own experience has been more positive. I have never opened a <5 year old bottle and found it amber and maderized. And while I acknowledge there may be a problem, I have not seen data that supports a clear trend, i.e. I am not so sure this has not always been a problem of aging white burgundy. When I have an old oxidized bottle, I chalk it up to age, storage, etc. I never think that it went downhill 5-10 years after the vintage, but how do I know?

      Moreover, since this is ultimately based on a mass of subjective data, it is hard to deconvolute the issue from the growth in information sharing. How did this problem manifest in the not so distant past, before wikis and social networking?

      Lastly, I have not seen a reliable comparison to other wines, whether from the same grape or another varietal.

      Initial progress would be a uniform scale that captures the relevant dimensions and allows people to plot the state of their bottles. This, at least, would take a small step toward standardizing the mass of subjective data being put up on the web. I would not do this personally, because I drink wine to have fun, but if this is your joy…

  7. Jeff Pinhey

    I was in Beaune this summer, and it seems that there is a growing agreement that this premox problem (and it does exist) is related to the introduction of “gentler” presses. These modern bladder presses that gently squeeze out only fine juice, with little “impurities” from stems, torn skins, etc. It is these components in the older wines, and those from the lesser, poorer producers who can’t afford the latest technology now, that may be contributing an ageability to the whites.

    I think this theory was initially advanced by one of the more famous wine writers/critics?

  8. Werner Liepolt

    Too bad. I just opened a long anticipated magnum of Latour Coton-Charlemagne 1978 and it was superb. Had it with baked hard-shell Maine lobsters. The wine tasted oxidized when first opened then gradually unfolded and displayed a regal aromatic mantel.

  9. Matt Thomson

    This is a good article and contains many valid points. To me the issue actually fairly simple though. There has been a fashion for some time in Burgundy to use lower levels of SO2. This combined with the random oxygen ingression that corks have, leads to more bottles being oxidised in a shorter time. I frequently find bottles on the edge and with clearly low levels of free SO2.

    If people use techniques that extract more phenolics from the skins during pressing, then yes the wine will be a little more resistant to oxidation, but then the wine will look darker in colour and be more dried out in the end. There are very few white wine styles that look better with higher phenolic levels. There are even preparations you can get now that contain tannins to add to white wines to help in their resistance to oxidation. In my experience they make the wine hard and rustic.

    A combination of appropriate SO2 levels at bottling, and closures that offer more consistent and low levels of oxygen ingression is the way forward for white burgundy.

  10. Mark in Pernand

    Am pretty sure you have a point re SO2 Matt, as merely one aspect, but on the closure front I had an interesting conversation earlier this week, and an equally interesting if totally different one last month not necessarily re closures.

    The most recent, last Tuesday, was with Adam Brett-Smith of UK wine merchants, Corney & Barrow (‘C&B’). For the non UK readers C&B, an historic firm, holders of the Royal warrant, are perhaps best known as UK agents for DRC. They are also agents for Bonneau du Martray of Pernand (of course). Before Xmas, as I recorded on the Forum here, I pulled from storage, a 6 pack of BdM’s 1997 Corton-Charlemagne. That had been in storage since EP purchase. The first bottle just pre Xmas was classically premoxed although was just about drinkable through gritted teeth and with food. The second however drunk 2/3 weeks ago was most excellent, a lovely drink – ‘chalk and cheese’, well not exactly (!) to the first bottle. I mentioned all this to Adam B-S, a most likeable, knowledgeable, great chap, always good fun at a wine lunch, over our pre lunch glasses of Laurent-Perrier Brut 2000. He was quite candid with me, more so than I expected, but said BdM owner, Jean-Charles le Bault de la Moriniere had openly acknowledged the Domaine had closure problems in the second half of the 90′s / early 2000′s. Moreover, when I said I had more BdM Corton-Charlie in other years, yet to be tried (e.g 1996, 2000, 2002), Adam suggested to me that if I let him know in due course how I got on then he would take that up with the domaine whom I gather are prepared to provide recompense via new bottles for spoilt older one’s. We’ll see but it was encouraging to think I might have recourse c.o.n. The fact that BdM have acknowledged a closure issue is what prompts me to post here.

    Somewhat more concerning perhaps is the earlier conversation in January I had with another lovely man, Thierry Brouin, of Clos des Lambrays. At the same time as taking the BdM Corton-C from storage I’d also withdrawn 6 bottles of a 12 case of Lambrays 2001 Puligny 1er cru ‘Clos du Cailleret’. Again, a first bottle pre Xmas was horrible, premoxed in terms of sherrified, orange colour etc etc. But a second bottle a few weeks ago was totally brilliant, very pale, looking very young, but a super mineral drink, lovely acidity, as a white burg just showing signs of moving to a vegetal secondary aged phase. One of the best white burgs I’ve had in ages. As it happens I opened a 3rd bottle last night, dregs to finish today from the fridge, which was somewhere between bottles one and two – drinkable but not good. When I saw Thierry I mentioned the first bottle to him and my concerns for the rest and another case of the 2002. He was extremely sympathetic and not a little upset but encouragingly again told me to keep a record and go to my supplying merchant (a well known London Burgundy specialist who hasn’t wanted to know at all re white burg problems othe than to say “Oh, bad luck Goughie” – hum !!!) for the merchant to approach him at the domaine i.e – the otherwise further unspoken intimation being the domaine would ‘see me right’ in some way. However, as to the problems, what did take me aback was Thierry openly saying to me that, even now, he has no idea what the cause is ! I had no reason to disbelieve him at all – I’ve met and talked to him many times over recent years. That Lambrays are still making these wines but don’t apparently know what lies behind premox issues left me all but gobsmacked. He didn’t mention closures, SO2, pressing or all the usual. Quite bizarre.

    So, there you go. Two differing instances / responses re high end white burgundies. Guess one has to make of it what one can but, for me, I’ll see how I go re my historic bottles but do seem to have a degree of reassurance on a recompense front from two domaines.

    MG

  11. Mark in Pernand

    Steve,

    Almost missed your post as for some reason, on my viewing it appears first, on top of all the historic posts.

    For me ‘proper old white burgs’ are about the aroma and flavour and after this I’m sorry, but I’m going to struggle as being very poor on descriptors. But, older white burgs for me commonly have vegetal, composty, nutty, sometimes slightly honeyed, floral, blossom related aromas & palate – adding mineral to the palate – all quite ‘old’ and way removed from younger white burg citric, fruit driven, steely, sometimes austere, very stony or sometimes riche (depending on style) aromas/palate.

    I’ve learnt over time that nothing should go down the sink initially as sometimes with time, can take 24/48 or more hours, the most ‘desperate’ apparently premoxed white burg can stage an amazing recovery. This has happened to me so many times now, especially with wines from more acidic vintages e.g. 1996, 2001 that I’m firm believer in the Jasper Morris camp that these wines can/will recover. The more ‘grim’ wines I just drink with food ! I’m no chemist but, and I need to do more reseach here, I find that an apparently ‘wrong’ wine will hugely benefit with exposure to both air (oxygen-weird for me but seems true) and cold (air at that). I have had a couple of Ramonet Chassagne 1er crus c1996/98 that have been awful & orange, horrible tasting, sink material but after opening, initial pour, and fridging have come around after two, and sometimes, three days to be ok just drinks and seemingly to still be improving after the bottle’s emptied – weird but true. I’ve currently got open a Clos du Lambrays 2001 Puligny 1er Clos du Cailleret. I accidentally left this outside our sunroom door overnight at temperatures around 3/4 degrees C in very wet weather. When I first opened it circa 4 hours ago it was deep gold/pale orange coloured and smelt slightly sherrified – to me on the edge of premox but not too far gone. This is one of 6 bottles I pulled from professional storage last year where they have been after buying EP. Now, this is light/medium gold, with pretty dumb nose, but on the palate is a lovely drink, quite mineral, bit austere on the front palate, just a cough sweet hint of honey, quite chewy, very dry and very long, almost tannic which I guess must be dry extract. Almost a ‘mongrel’ to me older Chassagne/Puligny, but overall quite complex and ultimately, to my taste (maybe not all) very drinkable. Without (lots of) patience though and, I’m convinced, lengthy cold/fridging treatment (cold temp decanting could have same effect and has worked for me on other older white burgs), for many folk this could have been a pre-judged ‘horror’ down the sink job. For me the watchwords are patience and experimentation with cold temps and air plus time to avoid initial rejection. Should all this be necessary ? No, of course not, but to avoid c£40/£50 bottles of crap then for me its worth it – hopefully pending an ultimate wine making solution. The benchmarks for me for older, age worthy, no premoxed white burgs are those of Domaine Robert Ampeau et Fils if you can have the opportunity to try one ? Also, I don’t know why but I’ve never had a problem with older white burgs (back to 1996) from Domaines M Gaunoux or M Bouzereau.

    HTH

    MG

    The other aspect of this latest Lambrays Puligny worth mentioning is the cork. Extracting the cork here was a major effort the likes of which I’ve not had for a while on any red or white burg. It was fast with my usual corkscrew such that I had to resort to my big Screwpull affair which shifted it with effort. Post extraction the Lambrays cork bottom half expanded almost akin to a Champagne cork, reflecting how tight it was so, very impressive, no complaints there. I would mention here the corks on a number of Ramonets I’ve opened in recent months have looked real smooth faced quality but they’ve been notable for a blue/green tinged colour to the smooth cork surface I’ve not noted on other white burg domaine corks. Go figure ?

Agree? Disagree? Anything you'd like to add?