Tastingworks Colloquium #1: ’96 White Burgundy

On 25th July 2011, 10 experienced tasters (all of whom either had completed the WSET Diploma or the Advanced Level of the Master Sommelier) participated in what was to be the first in an ongoing series of focused, rigorous, tastings on set themes.  The wines were poured blind so each of us could analyze the wines independently; we than discussed them as a group.

Our goal was to evaluate the current state of 1996 white Burgundy.  A good bit has already been written regarding the phenomenon of premature oxidation, which initially was attributed to cork closures. (An attempt to pass the buck.)  In time, however, a variety of potential causes have been identified, most of which relate to how the producers inadvertently and unknowingly left their wines vulnerable.  One argument is that the high acidities contributed to the delayed onset and slow progression of the malolactic fermentation; at a time when producers were looking to lower their use of sulphur dioxide, they ended up leaving their wines unprotected, in a warm environment, as they tried to coax the malos to begin.

Another argument, articulated by Denis Dubourdieu, is that a variety of processes may have contributed to the wines’ loss of a glutathione, a naturally-occurring reductive compound in grapes and lees, (and arguably the most important natural anti-oxidant in white grapes). Dubourdieu posits that several practices are necessary to prevent the loss of glutathione in grapes and must: having vines with sufficient vigor to provide adequate nutrient levels in the must; limiting the extraction of phenolics when the grapes are pressed (glutathione is preserved in the free run); encouraging a relatively quick and complete fermentation; preventing a long lag before the onset of the malolactic fermentation; and protecting the wines  via lees stirring, maintaining SO2 levels, and preventing oxygen exposure during élevage and bottling.   In the 1990s,  Dubourdieu maintains, many producers set their new bladder presses to achieve an extremely clear must – but one that had been stripped of its glutathione. With insufficient nutrients, such as nitrogen and glutathione, both the alcoholic and malolactic fermentations were sluggish, leaving the wines unprotected from within (no glutathione) and without (less SO2).

That said, we were pleasantly surprised by our showing.  While admittedly, the sample was small (to be rectified in future sessions), we only had one wine that was obviously a victim of premature oxidation.  The majority of our sampling were true to their origin and vintage, were drinking beautifully with defined personalities, and had the structure, fruit concentration and freshness sustain continued future development.

The wines, and my notes, follow:

Louis Michel Chablis Vaudésir: Medium caramel color.  Stony core to nose, with green, vegetal notes, but then immediately caramel; honey character emerges.  Intense mineral notes at core; flinty.  Full-bodied on the palate, with a stony core, again, with green/vegetal notes, firm and long, with full palate coverage.  Minerality dominates secondary characters of caramel and apple marmelade.  Crisp, with nervy acidity, and a long finish. Showing brilliantly.

Bernard Morey Chassagne-Montrachet Les Embrazées: This wine was a huge surprise.  More lemon that caramel to the color.  Immediately delightfully pretty and impressive, with a softness of fruit on the attack, yielding to a delicate minerality, with lots of citrus and floral (jasmine) notes.  High acidity but well balanced, with full palate coverage, and a three-dimensional show of soft fruit and filigreed minerality.  Still a lot of youth; in fine shape and a ways to go.  Very impressive.

Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet Champ-Gain: Amber color; deepest of all. Intense developed nose of caramel, honey, toffee, but not complex, with mineral character obscured by oxidation.  Full-bodied, with rancio notes on palate: crème brulée, cinnamon, buttered toast, and toffee, but with candied orange peel, candied lemon, and underlying mineral notes – palate far better than the nose promised.  But the wine lacked classic Puligny delicacy and finesse (it was more Meursault in weight and texture, perhaps not a surprise as it abuts M-Perrières) with the exception of an underlying anise note underneath (a marker for Puligny).  Broad and fat minerally texture; for some the alcohol was a little intrusive.  Sherry fans loved this wine.  Sauzet’s 96s are famously suffering from premox; this one no exception.  One taster, a very generous soul, thought it a good match for chicken curry.

Morey-Blanc Meursault-Bouchères: Many people put it in Chablis.  Medium lemon color, but very clear.  Bright, with a floral, mineral-focused nose; still fresh and youthful.  Initially angular, it opened to be crisp and persistent, with full palate coverage and lots of nerve, showing an electric nature to the acidity (some thought it was too acidic), but with a long length, quite mineral-driven and saline. The smallest lieu-dit in the appellation; not often available; too bad!

Pierre Morey Meursault-Perrières:  Stunning wine with a future.  Very complex nose with notes of butterscotch, hazelnut mineral and toffee.  Initially reduced and tight, it was very dynamic, dense, complex and textured on the palate, continually unfolding as we tasted the flight, expressing flavors as in the nose, but with the minerality rising off the floor of the palate to drive the wine into its long finish, with long, residual retronasal mineral notes echoing.

J.M. Boillot Corton-Charlemagne:  Medium yellow color with an odd, rose hue.  Huge, intense, ripe nose, almost fruit salad like – very odd, it was so ripe, tropical, spicy and forward, still apparently showing vitality and freshness.  On the attack, initially the wine was huge, intense, ripe, rich, and juicy, and seemingly very persistent, with full palate coverage, its depth and fruit concentration showing its class and cru; but after about 20 minutes it began to fall apart, the fruit dissolving into a puddle of lime jello, albeit with very high acidity, the opposite of synergy.

One can find an extended discussion of premature oxidation (without the benefit of Dubourdieu’s more recent research) at http://oxidised-burgs.wikispaces.com.

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