random ruminations

Not too many things have grabbed my attention in the last weeks, but here’s a selection of those that did…

The 2009 vintage seems to have polarised red-wine-drinking opinion in quite an interesting way. There is no denying the stunning quality that many domaines have brought to their wines, but it is the style of those wines rather than their substance which has split opinion. There has been some hyping of the vintage (just for a change!) but that hype seems mainly to fall at the door of merchants and some domaines desperate to make sales after a poor sales environment for both 2007s and 2008s.

In both red and white you have to choose carefully in 2009 if you want acidity and minerality – the latter is particularly hard to find in reds. So 09 isn’t really a ‘classic‘ vintage, but it has texture, concentration and often delivers many layers of high-quality fruit – there is nothing roasted or particularly dark-shaded about the fruit, it just has a ripeness that when coupled with lower than average acidity has people questioning their regional benchmarks – indeed if you drink only 09s there is some element of youthful monotony. Strong words of displeasure can be seen on many forums – even here – yet, for me, the essential triptych of place, person and vintage are sufficiently in place to justify me buying for the future – admittedly place is often a little fuzzy right now, but then that just strengthens the hand of vintage 😉

Would my purchases today favour 2008 and 2010 over 2009? – undoubtedly; yet to compare and contrast all three vintages, twenty years further down the road will be a great pleasure. For what it’s worth, outside of a hand-full of addresses, I doubt whether minerality will ever be a hallmark of the 2009s – just like 1985 – but the general quality, and probably longevity of 2009 frankly trounces that decent-enough vintage.

The dynamic of value versus absolute quality
There is no absolute scale at play here, but there is certainly a ‘dynamic’ between these poles – the reasons that bookend why most bottles are purchased – yet it is a dynamic that largely seems to be confused.

It is interesting that at the same time €200-plus bottles of grand crus are becoming common-place, probably the overwhelming number of burgundy buyers will have value as their primary purchasing requirement. So how do you define the relevance of a domaine like Camus of Gevrey? They hold no interest for the buyers of those expensive bottles, but should probably be considered by many other buyers – you can (eventually) follow that particular discussion here.

A good example of the ‘confusion’ that ensues when people conflate value with absolute quality (AQ) is the Domaine Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc. For a Bourgogne Blanc this is clearly a benchmark wine; it tastes very good and, should you wish, it has a history of aging well in the cellar (or used to anyway). This is clearly an exceptional wine from the perspective of AQ (for a bourgogne) but I’m always surprised when people conflate that with ‘value’, using the excuse that it has the quality of a villages wine. Why surprised? Well it costs as much as most villages Puligny-Montrachet, and come to think of it I even know a few cheaper 1er crus too! Whilst I buy a few bottles of that Bourgogne (from an AQ perspective) I overwhelmingly buy the often better villages wines at the same price-point or indeed sometimes lower – they are simply better wines.

I buy (too!) many wines, and probably 90% of those wines are bought from the perspective of what I consider value and perhaps 10% from the perspective of AQ – that’s in terms of the number of bottles, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the actual costs were in the ratio of 70:30 (value:AQ) though. I wonder how many other people rationalise their buying reasons in this way, or prefer to conflate 😉

Whatever happened to TANNIN?
We all know that red burgundy, a.k.a. pinot noir, is the low tannin grape/wine, but there was a time when tasting young wines that you would be fully aware of their tannin. Tannin would be a point of comparison between those wines; fine, silky, a little grainy, velvet, giving a little like a fine Carnaroli or more like sand – with or without some astringency – tannin was an essential part of the ‘mouth-feel’ i.e. the wine’s texture.

Modern wines – let’s say ‘post-2003’ – have managed to deliver plenty of cushioned texture but with very little apparent contribution from their tannins; you can often still find them in Pommard, Nuits, Clos de Vougeot etcetera, but in a kind of emasculated form versus vintages gone by. Am I alone in thinking that this is not always for the good?

Today, fermentation and elevage are all about the most mindful of extractions, just the right amount of oxygenation and very careful management of the barrel regimes. The result of that is that you generally need to search out the tannins in a modern young wine – so carefully are they hidden. Let me nail my colours to the mast – tannin in a young wine is not a fault; it can certainly be a differentiator but more importantly it is part of a wine’s character. So for all their technical brilliance, am I alone in thinking that we have lost a little character? It goes without saying (but if I don’t, somebody will chime in…) I’m not missing the unripe or great astringency, just a little character…

The auction market
Okay – you knew that I wouldn’t be able to resist this one didn’t you 😉
In the current wine auction ‘climate’ it was obvious once the ridiculous prices waned for Bordeaux, that Burgundy would be next in the firing line. I don’t have time for litigation so won’t use their names, but the ‘intermediaries’ – particularly in Hong-Kong – who are now focusing their ‘hype’ on Burgundy are clearly snakes in the grass, or better still leaches (nobody likes invertebrates do they…) who turn from one market to the next in a slash and burn approach to generating cash. It doesn’t actually matter what they are selling so long as they can build hype, and as soon as the hype softens they pick their next target – it will be the Rhone next and then who knows… The leaches are the only winners as traditional markets and customers are hit by (potentially) fatal disruption. It is what it is.

Oh-well, I don’t suppose, Beaune, Nuits, Pommard, Auxey, Pernand and Ladoiy will ever be on their lists…

5 responses to “random ruminations”

  1. Simon

    Have to say I’m generally thinking along the same lines of everything you say above Bill.

  2. Vinholic

    Hi Bill,

    In all asian mentality, there is only one engine that speculates the market, ‘Exclusivity’. That alone can generate enough hype and send the prices thru the roof, nevermind understanding the origin and people who make the wines. Thats why fake wines is such a problem in asian. Not very bright people arent they? I am asian, i am allowed to say that.


  3. Michael Warner

    Bill – great material again – so thank you for all the effort you put into this site.

    I like your reflections on value vs absolute quality. I’m 100% on the value side nowadays, but I sometimes worry that I’m somehow missing out on something by not following the (growing) list of super-stars that everyone seems to be chasing.

    It was interesting to read Nicolas Taleb’s “The Black Swan” paper which was mentioned on wine-pages infamous dead cat thread (in a very different context) and relate that back to Burgundy producers and how a tiny sub set command the huge majority of attention. I suspect that wine consumption is – like other “arts” – something where there is a lot of insecurity felt by consumers, who don’t want to be seen liking the “wrong” thing. This probably explains why there is so much focus on the few domaines that get critical recognition and since everyone talks about those they become a snowballing effect in attention. It probably also explains why people like to criticise more than praise in blind tastings !

    Anyway – it’s great to see you following some of the lesser known names !

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