If you are sufficiently interested, there is a significant body of blah, blah that you could read in order to augment your knowledge of the region and perhaps oil the process of buying of Burgundy. In the end, however, it all comes down to you, your glass and a bottle – perhaps two – of each!
That said, maybe I could offer you the benefit of my thoughts on those subjects where it’s much harder to find reliable information…
Vintages & Vintage Charts
Faced with overwhelming choice; perhaps in a supermarket, a restaurant or the email from your friendly wine merchant, vintage charts are often used as crutch in the decision-making process – I personally think that they are poor tools. There are very few vintages that we should always run from – perhaps none in the last 15 years. Great wines are produced in most vintages, it is only when you compare the relative number of such wines in particular vintages that you can say one year was, on average, better than another.
People still place a lot of emphasis on vintage generalisations. Versus 20 years ago the ‘usefulness’ of vintage charts is on a lower order because the average quality has significantly increased. Twenty years ago there were perhaps only 20 domaines that, year-in, year-out, could be relied on to produce something good. That number could now be well over 100.
Don’t let me paint an overly rosy picture, there is still a lot of sub-good wine to be found – particularly when it comes to names on labels that you’ve never previously encountered – here is the only real application for vintage charts. Rather like looking at the odds before a horse race, vintage charts are indeed an indication of form and, hence, helpful, but favourites can fall and outsiders can win.
The above does also assume that you have a reasonable vintage chart that differentiates between good or bad, and importantly one that covers both the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits as one can excel where the other fails. Frankly I’ve never seen one that I fully agree with, though if you stick to that top echelon of producers, you barely need one anyway.
Still desperate for a vintage chart? Then try here.
Getting the wine into your glass…
The opening ceremony: By the way I’m assuming that you have chosen your dusty bottle from that perfect cellar below your dining room…
For whites it’s important not to drink them too cold – fresh but not chilled – that said I’d still go for a couple of hours in the refridgerator before opening, just don’t put the bottle back in in the fridge – unless your room is very warm. The wine will gradually warm both in the bottle and your glass so you will miss nothing, unless that is, you’re incredibly thirsty – in this case I recommend water! 12-14°C are perfect for most, but typically the grandest wines are drunk at a higher temerature – 15-17°C being ideal – the lower temperatures are for the wines that need them ie the ones that don’t taste nice warm!
Conversely for red wines, you shouldn’t drink them too warm – I will regularly keep a bottle in the refridgerator when summer temperatures hover around 30°C – the wine anyway warms in your glass. Ideally you want to be drinking your reds between about 15-20°C, higher and the experience becomes diffuse and you miss much of what you’ve paid for! For years, the younger wines I opened, e.g. less than 5 years of age, usually went straight from the cellar to the corkscrew, older wines should ideally be stood upright for a couple of hours before opening, for those bottles heavy with fine sediment, I’d suggest 2 days upright in the cellar.
To decant or not to decant… Fashion was that Burgundy was never decanted. Wines were supposed to develop over a period of time in your glass. Of-course, fashions change. Many red wine producers bottle with more carbon dioxide and even recommend opening a couple of hours before drinking – or splashing into a decanter – I’ve started to do this with a lot of young wines without detriment (I even hope to my advantage!), and not just with reds either! I’m actually quite agnostic – I’d have no qualms about dunking a young wine into a decanter, but for older reds I would avoid the decanter and treat them more gently – as age deserves…
Colour: Young red Burgundy is rarely the impenetrable black/purple of other regions, though in vintages like 1993, 1995, 1999 and 2003 there are deeper shades to be found. For Burgundy, a deep colour means one that you would have difficulty seeing a menu through with your glass tipped. Pale wines are really only a slightly darker shade than you might find in a rosé wine – but beware – don’t always assume that colour is equivalent to intensity; it can be, but the wines of Domaine Dujac are classic examples, as are those of Domaine de l’Arlot, both retain some of the stems when vinifying which reduces the intensity of colour but definitely not the intensity of the wine. When young, the ‘red’ wines show bright cherry-red hues, maybe even purple for the more deeply extracted wines. As the wines age, the core of colour (in your glass) will start to take on a more ruby-red colour. Further time in the cellar will provide a garnet shade before full maturity beckons with amber starting to become the dominant hue. A 30+ year-old wine can be very brown, but if you are lucky without any oxidative smell or taste. Wines should be clear, any haze in your glass could be down to over-zealous pouring and mixing fine sediment. If it is sediment, then this will slightly dull the impact of the wine, cloudy for any other reason would be a fault – the wine is not necessarily ‘off’ but it is unlikely to show it’s best.
White Burgundy in it’s youth can be very pale – almost water-white – but usually with a slightly lemon-yellow shade. This deepens with time, until ~5-8 years when the colour transitions from yellow to gold. A fully mature wine (8+ years-old) will typically be a golden colour. Don’t worry too much if your 1 year-old is already a golden yellow, it shows that your grower was very liberal with his oak! Beware a shade of brown – typically this means an oxidised wine – avoid, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Orange colouration could be one of two things – oxidation or a perfectly stored 40+ year-old wine – if you can see the colour that means you’ve already removed the cork, so your nose will very easily tell if you have one or the other!
Did I mention a glass? Geekily referred to as ‘stemware’, some people still consider this to be akin to Voodoo, but I am absolutely convinced that your glass makes a massive difference to how you perceive the aromas of your wine – I never cease to be amazed how many very serious domaines only use a narrow-aperture ISO glass for appraising wine, don’t they want to show their wines at their best?
Very occasionally you can find glasses that are too big for wines – the wine actually smells more interesting in a smaller glass – but this is rare.
My rule of thumb for reds and also the great whites is, the bigger the better, though to avoid ridicule, I find it’s best not to go too far! Not the cheapest in town, though equally they are inexpensive vs many others, are the Riedel Vinum series; I (almost) exclusively use the Burgundy glass for my reds and the ‘Univere’ for my whites, though the Syrah glass works wonders with a white Grand Cru!
The ages of wine in your glass
Subtitled: The Difficult Concept of Drinking Windows
Both red and white burgundy show distinctly changing characters as they age; your first opportunity to meet a real wine is in barrel/tank once the malolactic fermentation is completed.
- Before bottling: Red or white, you probably need at least a couple of months after the malo (sometimes referred to as the secondary fermentation) before you can get value from a tasting, and that’s because a by-product of the malo is carbon dioxide – CO2 – this gas, like a junior cola, provides some spritz and obscures your chance to assess the texture of a wine. Give the gas chance to dissipate and you enter a world of aromas, fruit and sensuous texture – due to the vagaries of bottling, transport, storage and opening at ‘the wrong time’, many wines will never get the chance to taste better in their life!
- En-Primeur: In some markets – particularly the UK – there is the trend for large, January, tastings to bring together ‘bottles’ of wine which will only be bottled later in the year. These samples are whisked from the domaine and (usually, in the case of London) driven to the tastings. I expect some approximation is made at the domaine in terms of what will characterise the final ‘assembly’ – remember it’s a mix of new and older barrels at the domaine – and perhaps a hint of sulfur will be added. This adds a high degree of variability to what you are are tasting, and not a little uncertainty. That’s the reason I hold in contempt scores given (by anybody) to a particular wine, because time-after-time the same (supposedly) wine will show a completely different face at each tasting venue. En-primeur tastings do have value though; not only do they offer a useful, broad brush, approach to getting a feeling about the character of a vintage for those that don’t have the opportunity to taste in the region, it is also still possible to sniff out a gem, provided you embrace the following: what you end up with may not be what you think you tasted!
- Straight after bottling: Reds suffer more than whites, but the occasional fining or filtration, the addition of sulfur to preserve the bottles and the imprisonment of the wine into the bottle all provide significant opportunity to taste a wine that is ‘out of sorts’. Many famous producers delay introduction of their wines onto the market to avoid people’s early disappointment.
- The first flush of youth: Let us say from (a minimum of) 2 months to 2 years after bottling, here the wines come out to play. White wines can be enjoyed from the top to bottom of the classification – the difference as you go higher (more expensive) is in the intensity and the length of the finish – complexity tends to develop with age. Given the relative lack of complexity at this age, I personally find it more of a waste to drink a young white grand cru than young red grand cru. Young reds, likewise, can be enjoyed from top to bottom during this period as pinot noir delivers a lot of ‘puppy fat’ around the wine’s structure (it’s acid and tannin), hence, the higher you go in the classification, it’s not just about intensity, it’s about texture. If you prefer your wines young like this – and many people do – you are probably in-line to suffer the least number of disappointing bottles. Occasionally the vintage characteristics will intervene, like 1998 when many young reds had horribly astringent tannin – if you had the wines, it was better to wait for them to mellow!
- Those difficult middle years: Burgundy has often been likened to a ‘minefield’ – as much as poor producers are to be blamed, I would rate with equal relevance the opening of a bottle at the ‘wrong time’. Anthony Hanson’s book ‘Burgundy’ offers the concept of ‘the window of undrinkability’ – reds are often described as ‘closed’ – it is a concept not to be ignored! More bottles are wasted to this than for any other reason. That those difficult years could be anywhere between two and twenty doesn’t help our cause any…
The concept of ‘waste’ changes colour for me during these years; although more expensive whites may become a little ‘strict’ they tend to remain drinkable and grow in complexity – you can at least start to see what you are paying for, reds, however, often become sullen and offer next to nothing (save some acidity) in terms of an experience – closed indeed.
The reds slowly start to lose their puppy fat from about 18 months – by three years it is largely gone and this is when you see the acidity and tannin in its naked glory – no padding – the more expensive reds now need to soften their structure and grow in complexity – there’s no magic snake-oil to speed this process. I actually think that the early drinking window is narrower now that it has ever been – just look how quickly some of the best producer’s wines ‘closed’ from the 2005/2006 vintages – I really do wonder if the movement towards ‘reductive’ winemaking is a driver for this.
So how to avoid stepping on a mine? I would suggest having enough bottles that you can experiment would be one solution, but cost often precludes that! You could ask the merchant or even the domaine – though that would assume your storage conditions are similar. A more modern possibility would be to join something like Cellar Tracker where the notes for hundreds of bottles are shared every day – your wine could be among them!
- Approaching Nirvana: Although the great wines of the Côte d’Or are made with maturity, rather than youth in-mind, a vast majority will be consumed long before their potential zenith. How long then to wait? The wines can be glorious during their ‘first flush of youth’ period and this has been abetted by producers who, long renowned for youthful wines that were strict and structured, have been slowly taking the sharp edge from their progeny – Faiveley and Charles Thomas (Thomas-Moillard) spring easily to mind – so who is to say that those early-drunk bottles have been wasted(?).
Frankly, it’s a rare grand cru of any colour that can be considered mature at 10 years old, rather, from a half decent vintage (let’s say just about everything in the last 20 years!) closer to 20 years is needed for a red, and perhaps 15+ for white.
Surpised? Well clearly you will be if you were brought-up on drinking windows offered by the likes of the Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator; their ‘windows’ span the ‘first flush of youth’ and some way into the ‘difficult middle years’ – many, but not all wines will be enjoyed, but none will be drunk mature. I’m not saying it reflects the drinking ‘preferences’ of the proprietors of those publications, but drinking young wine will certainly minimise the ‘risk’ associated with under-performance.
Clearly if you have to wait 15-20+ years there are a couple of pre-requisites: be sure that you like ‘mature’ wine, and be even more sure that you have the possibility to properly store your bottles.
So, my rule of thumb (above), in practical terms, means that;
- I drink about 25% of what I buy in ‘the first flush of youth’, probably with an enjoyment rate of over 80% – that hit rate would be much higher if I wasn’t prone to experimenting with bottles from producers I’ve never heard of.
- I drink about 20% of bottles in the ‘difficult middle years’, probably with only half of those truly enjoyed, but it’s the only way to judge development. Note that 20% is a lot, but it is perhaps spread over 10-15 years versus the 2 or 3 years of ‘the first flush of youth’.
- The rest of my bottles I hope to be approaching or even achieving Nirvana – I would guesstimate that my success rate is back up to 80% or so again for uncompromised bottles.
So what do the maturing wines actually taste like?
Let me preface this ‘summary area’ by approaching the concept of hierarchy:
‘clearly (you say) bourgognes will mature before villages wines, and villages before 1er crus and grand crus – how to factor that in?’
I have to say that I don’t really agree with that. I work on the principle that pinot noir and chardonnay are inherently pinot noir and chardonnay, so in terms of absolute rates of maturation a bourgogne shouldn’t necessarily mature faster than a grand cru.
Clearly there are differences; I expect a grand cru to be more concentrated and more structured, hence, delivering more at any age versus the bourgogne. Self-evidently if there is less concentration and structure to sustain a regional wine, it cannot be as long lived as a grand cru. The only question for me is, ‘will there be enough ‘left’ to offer interest when a bourgogne is 20 years old?’. My answer is – typically not! Bourgognes almost always provide their best and tastiest drinking in their first 3 years, but I find it’s always nice to leave a small percentage of bottles resting for such a test.
[A page that is slowly growing…]