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A Date with a Bottle of Great Burgundy

By |  March 2 2008

Lovely, lively, darting, and fruitscented cask samples seem, so often, to emerge as rather glum, baleful wines. Neat and tidy enough, compos mentis, roughly the same height, and with the same waist measurement as their prebottling selves, yet somehow their spirit and charm have gone. They have, I’m sure, been sensitively bottled, without bruising or crass interventions. They just hate the glass prison; they resent the motorway journey; they don’t like the way my kitchen looks. Or yours. Or anyone’s. They want to be back, slopping about in the maternal cask, at home in Vosne. The best Bordeaux may be drunk in London or New York or San Francisco, but the best Burgundy is almost certainly drunk in Burgundy.

So: a fiasco. I was so disappointed with the serene and uniform failure of my ’99s to live up to their promises that I’ve skipped every vintage since, though the 2002s were tempting, and the best 2005s almost irresistible. (A little 2005 has come my way since, bartered for a job of work.) And 2003…? Well, more of that in a minute.

I should emphasize that this is not a vintage verdict on 1999. I’m sure there are some magnificent bottles of 1999 Burgundy, and in general the vintage still strikes me as a good one there. This is simply the personal account of a wine enthusiast of relatively modest means who bought a few village wines and a few premiers crus and didn’t luck out. There will be plenty of us. Indeed, it’s almost banal to say this of Burgundy. We know that it has the word "disappointment" tattooed across its bottom. We know it’s the one wine region in the world where, in addition to paying a handsome entrance fee, you actually need to luck out. Bordeaux is a bordello; Burgundy is a casino.

In fairness, too, it should be said that, even when disappointing, there is still no other wine of equivalent weight, poise, and refreshment value. Flat, disappointing red Bordeaux could be quite happily substituted by dozens of wines from around France, Europe, or the southern hemisphere; flat, disappointing red Burgundy, perhaps given a punitive chill, still performs a mealtime task that, even in today’s big wine world, few other rivals accomplish.

Now another apology. I may have dragged you this far into the column under false pretenses. I haven’t actually drunk a bottle of Clos de Tart 2003 yet. But I have tasted it — from bottle. And it sings. Indeed, it sung so loudly and authoritatively that I bought three bottles soon after tasting it a month or so ago, despite the awesome price tag (£107.80 per bottle). Whatever happens, I will drink one of them. This is the closest I have ever got to the assurance, the perfect assurance, that one day I have a date with a bottle of great red Burgundy. It’s a midlife achievement of which I am irrationally proud, like finally learning how to swim freestyle and manage tumble turns.

There are still issues, such as avoiding death first. Robert Louis Stevenson’s last act was to bring up a bottle of old Burgundy from his Samoan cellar. He put his hands to his head, said, "What’s that?" and a little later, "Do I look strange?" then lost consciousness; two hours later he was dead, from a cerebral hemorrhage, at just 44.1 What if that "old Burgundy" had been RLS’s sole bottle of 1865 Clos de Tart? Death is a consideration, since the really successful 2003 red Burgundies (of which this seems to me to be one) are likely to endure magnificently. If any red Burgundy from the past two decades can chug on as well as the best 1959s are doing, then successful 2003s must be prominent among them. When I tasted the 2003 Clos de Tart a month ago, I felt it had 40 years ahead of it. Will I live to 91? I’m not going to bet on it. Even if I am still alive then, my taste buds, and the brain to which they are wired, might not be. I might not know Clos de Tart from a cupcake.

So I’m not going to risk it: That bottle will be drunk before the decade is out. Just now, it’s a saturated black-red in color. The scents are exotic: rumba, spice, redblack fruits, the Caribbean, the Malabar coast. More time is needed to allow them to settle, focus, and form, but the aromatic power is impressive. On the palate, the wine is flavor-saturated, weighty, and dense, packed with dancing blackberry and blackcurrant and freshened by a little raspberry. It’s just a gorgeous thing in the mouth: How else can one put this? Tasting it is like finally stepping out, hand in hand, with the girl or the boy you’ve courted for ten years. The triumph of it made me smile and chuckle (quietly; gales of laughter breaking the silence of the tasters can be misconstrued). The tannins are graceful, the fruit engine is poised and perfumed; it has a sleek, concentrated core. Nothing is overdone or freaky here at all, though that lingering spice is certainly exotic. It’s a wine of total authority as well as singularity. And, yes, it is still Burgundy. Even when Dijon felt like Riyadh, during that fearsome August, the shape of the grape and the genes of the land held true.

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