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Beyond dreams in Burgundy

By |  September 18 2015

The hunting horns were braying. The crowd was clapping; the choir of vignerons, clowning about on the stage. After the !rst two courses (etuvée de turbot de ligne aux petits coquillages, oeufs en meurette) and three wines (Crémant de Bourgogne, Corton Grand Cru Blanc 2008, Savignylès- Beaune 2009), no one in the vast cellar was strictly sober. I must have been wine-inspired, too, when the thought struck me: Why do so many professionals in the business try to strip wine of its fun, its folklore, its customs, its baggage of people and places, its beautiful hills and valleys? Aren’t all these things a large part of the point?

There is an obligation on critics to be as objective as they can. When advising readers on what to buy, you must be fair to all parties. Blind tasting is a fundamental step toward doing this, but all it can tell you about is the taste-and is that really the top priority in most customers’ minds?

How does a critic ("commentator" is the word I prefer) give fair weighting to all the other aspects of wine and its enjoyment? Years ago, Robert Drouhin said to me, "What we are really selling is dreams."

It is a sensitive subject to those who earn their living by making or selling !ne wines. Many of these enviable folk, after all, spend their time among their own kind. They share assumptions about life’s priorities… Their conversation, indeed, can be impenetrable to the laity who buy their products. Let us suppose, generously, that half the wine lovers who pay for a famous growth could recognize it beside other related wines. The odds lengthen embarrassingly, I fear, when we come to wines described as "iconic." The skeptic in me says not one in 50 people who buy Château La!te could spot it blind. How many of them, to be brutally realistic, even particularly like the taste?

This is not necessarily to question their enjoyment or the satisfaction it gives them to consume an icon. The sense of self-worth is important. Driving an Aston Martin clearly gives a glow beyond the mere !gure on the speedometer. In rare cases, it could be comparison with older vintages.

Tumbling head over heels

I tried to incorporate this element of reputational glow when, many years ago, I devised a star system for my Pocket Wine Book. Most of the entries in it refer to producers or properties rather than individual bottlings. The star system, therefore, had to be determined on the basis of track record and consequent reputation rather than what is nowadays called organoleptic assessment. A three-star entry, on this basis, will almost inevitably be more expensive than one with two stars, and an indication of price is useful, too. In cases where quality exceeds fame, I resorted (and still do) to printing the star(s) in a di"erent color-all, you understand, in the interests of brevity.

Whether all my readers have ever really cottoned on to my system I am doubtful. Some, I fear, mistake it for a much-depleted version of a 100-point scale. Some, as ever, choose wines that are reassuringly expensive. Others (and it’s often those who have least need to save money) think they’re smart to pay the minimum. Worse, they sometimes ask me to dinner.

But this is sounding more like a cri than a coup de coeur. You detected in line one that I am fresh back from Burgundy, my waistcoat still tight from its temptations. Did I not tumble head over heels for something that was poured?

Indeed, I did for several of the relatively young wines of the Hospices de Beaune, whose charitable purposes we were there to celebrate and promote. In the past, many of the Hospices wines, from plots given to the hospital over the course of 600 years, have been discussed with polite evasions. Conditions in the cellar, some have said, have not been ideal. 2013 was not perhaps the year to judge the ultimate quality of any cuvée: a crop savagely depleted by bad weather, a good summer, then a morose September. Only the most experienced hands can begin to judge the new wines on show the day before the auction. But having been warned not to expect too much, I was delighted by many of the samples, especially from Nuits northward.

A string of beauties

Among the 2011, 2010, and 2009 vintages, shown elsewhere, however, there was a string of beauties. Two wines from 2010 at the "light" lunch o"ered by the mayor before the auction, for a start: Meursault-Charmes Cuvée de Bahèzre de Lanlay and Nuits St Georges Premier Cru Les Didiers Cuvée Jacques Duret. (Do they make up these names to keep foreigners away?)

It is fashionable, these days, to sni" disdainfully at classic French cuisine. Italy makes better food, we are constantly told. Fusion and Far Eastern elements pop up everywhere. The absurdities of "molecular" cooking impose total confusion at o"ensive prices. The absolute theater of French gastronomy in full cry, though, has no rival anywhere. The traiteurs who feed 500 or 600 at a time with perfectly composed and impeccably timed feasts are the Olympic gold medalists of the kitchen. The mayor’s guests were served by a corps de ballet 30-strong from the Lycée Hotelier de Savoie; sommeliers who marched in step holding their bottles aloft so we could all see the labels, waiters who serve so discreetly that plates appear and disappear as if by magic.

And the food… Goose foie gras with a hare jelly; !ne slivers of hind with morels; gingerbread and white chocolate. The Meursault-Charmes had that scent of lime blossom that morphs to honeysuckle on your tongue, that tingling vitality that broadens into succulence. And the young Nuits positively danced with the venison.

Lunch was for 60; dinner for 650, in three di"erent rooms in the ancient hospital complex. Lobster bisque with scallops, a warm game pâté with cèpes, roast sandre-the sole of fresh water -with risotto and trompettes de la mort and a Parmesan lollipop, partridge stu"ed with woodcock, foie gas and morels, cheese, then a sort of rum baba with roast bananas and mango sauce, with coconut ice cream (it sounds better in French). The chef for this epic? Didier Denis of the Hostellerie Bourguignonne at Verdun-sur-le-Doubs, a country inn 20 miles (12km) away.

The Hospices has one exceptional vineyard outside the Côte d’Or: Pouilly Fuissé Cuvée Françoise Poisard, in the village of Chaintré. I spotted the 2013 as a winner at the pre-auction tasting. At dinner, the 2011 #owed silkily over and around the bisque d’homard. Then perhaps the greatest of the Hospices Meursaults, Les Genevrières Cuvée Philippe Le Bon 2011, with the game pâté. Great Meursault is graceful and agile in youth, as well as authoritative and penetrating. Each sip, even with seriously rich food, comes like a fresh breeze-in contrast to the positively burly 2011 Bâtard- Montrachet Cuvée Dames de Flandres that arrived with the sandre. Bâtard needs more time than this to justify its great name and price.

My coup de coeur came next: the Premier Cru Volnay-Santenots Cuvée Jehan de Massol 2009. This was the cuvée I fell for at the tasting and tried to buy at the auction. When I tasted the 2009 at dinner, I wished I had thrown caution to the winds. (It sold for 30 percent more than my self-imposed limit.) It was everything I want Volnay (and indeed burgundy) to be: fresh and sweet, air and earth, crunchy and melting, with such concealed potency of #avor that it put the super-rich stu"ed partridge in its pocket each time I took a sip. No doubt the wine that followed, the Grand Cru Mazis-Chambertin Cuvée Madeleine Collignon, also 2009, is a greater wine in size and renown-but context is all-important. The Mazis came with the cheese, a Burgundian imperative, and the match is not always to the wine’s bene!t.

Hospitable table

Of all the wines of a thoroughly indulgent visit, indeed, it was another Volnay that stands out as one of the !nest Burgundies of my experience. It was at the hospitable table of Joseph Henriot, one of the great entrepreneurs of French wine (also New Zealand: He discovered Cloudy Bay). Henriot owns his eponymous Champagne house; formerly owned Veuve Clicquot, then sold it to Moët & Chandon; and more importantly, owns Bouchard Père & Fils in Beaune. Also, for completeness, William Fèvre in Chablis.

I had met this marvelous Volnay before, on two occasions long ago. The parcel of Volnay Caillerets known as the Ancienne Cuvée Carnot was the !rst vineyard the Bouchard family acquired when they added wine to their trade as clothiers in the mid-18th century. A Bouchard married one of the famous Beaune family of Carnot. Year after year, the Ancienne Cuvée often outshines even the extraordinary Bouchard portfolio of grands crus. In 1962, it went into orbit. That year was more highly rated at the time for its white wines, then the reds of the Côte de Nuits emerged as exceptional. Many have written lyrically about the DRC wines in particular, and the ’62 La Tâche is the best Burgundy I have ever had in my cellar. Certainly something miraculous happened in the Carnot parcel of Volnay Santenots. No wine has a right to keep every one of its faculties at 51 years old. A robust constitution is all very well, but every aspect of this bottle had developed in harmony. A list of its nuances would exhaust you. From its sheer energy, one would guess it was half its age or less. From its still-dark color to its spicy interminable !nish, it was a thing of wonder. Wine can, just occasionally, do that: go far beyond anything we expect-or can even dream of.

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