Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
May 13, 2011
“Producer, producer, producer” is the advice of many experts when it comes to buying Burgundy, on the theory that lesser vineyards in the hands of a top producer will perform better than Grand Cru vineyards in the hands of a producer less gifted. You can drink pretty well following this advice, but the Burgundians themselves would be the first to protest that it is contrary to the whole idea of Burgundy. Their mantra is not “producer” but “terroir,” reflecting the belief that the vineyard is paramount in determining the quality and personality of their wines.
And that’s of course how Burgundy has been sold for most of its history, with the vineyard’s name more prominent on the label than the producer’s. For quite some time it was a canard of wine writers to remark on the outrageousness of mediocre wines selling for exhorbitant prices due to the prestige of the vineyard name on the label, when the prized character the appellation was intended to connote had been denuded by indifferent winemaking or outright adulteration. Anthony Hanson’s remark in his 1982 tome Burgundy is a typical lament: “But not everything sold as Burgundy is Burgundy. . . . The good old, bad old days when any rosé can call itself Clos de Vougeot, Chambertin or Corton so long as it comes from the right soil and vines and fulfills a few conditions are still with us.” Matt Kramer similarly complained in 1990’s Making Sense of Burgundy that “any Burgundy sporting a famous name—Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Puligny-Montrachet, and so on—commands a high price regardless of quality.” Under such circumstances it makes sense to fixate on the most reputable producers.
Lately, however, it seems the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. The ascendancy of “producer, producer, producer” as a buying (and marketing) strategy has resulted in three-digit asking prices for all sorts of vineyards that are normally on the bargain beat solely on account of the grower’s prestige. Domaine Leroy’s $300-$700 (!) Savigny-lès-Beaune is surely the most obnoxious example. Then there are wines like Georges Roumier’s Chambolle-Musigny which used to deliver premier-cru quality at village-wine prices (I remember buying the 1998 and 1999 for $30), but now that it runs $80 in normal vintages and almost twice that in great years, “producer, producer, producer” doesn’t seem as much of a smart-money strategy.
So it behooves the savvy Burgundy buyer to experiment with other tactics for finding diamonds in the rough. One such tactic which has yielded impressive results for me over the years has probably occurred to anyone who has ever studied any maps of Burgundy, which reveal a number of affordable or even downright obscure vineyards nestled up against some of the most illustrious grand crus. Some of them clearly have some of the character of their neighbors and have even been shown to be continuations of the same geology. Others remind you why they built the wall between them in the first place. But to me the excitement of capturing the spark of an elite vineyard from a bargain-priced plot next door outweighs the periodic disappointments.
Whenever I am in Burgundy I find myself drawn to the village of Vosne-Romanée and feel a strange compulsion to walk the vineyards. I can’t explain why Vosne in particular should have this effect when there are other villages whose wines I find equally compelling, but there is something religious which seems to radiate from Romanée-Conti (and which has nothing to do with the stone cross marking its border). If one starts walking from the cross up the road past Romanée-Conti, La Romanée, and the premier cru vineyard Aux Reignots, the whole distance to the top of the slope can be traversed in just a few minutes. The road continues on the left above La Grande Rue and La Tâche, from which one can follow a tractor path downhill through Aux Malconsorts to Les Chaumes and back to the village. That short distance encompasses vineyards whose prices can differ from one another by several orders of magnitude.
Aux Reignots‘ proximity to La Romanée and Romanée-Conti just below on the slope is the most immediately striking thing. Unfortunately the single glass of Romanée-Conti I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy in my lifetime is a woefully insufficient basis to speculate on any family resemblance Reignots may share with it, but I have rather more experience with La Romanée and Richebourg (diagonally below Reignots, to the north of La Romanée) and certainly see a similarity there. The best examples of Reignots, which in my experience have originated from Domaine Robert Arnoux, Dominique Laurent, and Bouchard Père et Fils (before Bouchard’s rights reverted back to the Liger-Belair family—whose rendition in theory should also rank among the best but thus far has struck me as too primary to judge), have a powerful inner density to them in the fashion of Richebourg which I often find myself describing, for lack of any better word, as sheer torque. It is a muscular density, better described in terms of strength than in terms of concentration. But in other respects the physical presence of the two is different. Reignots cuts a more slender, streamlined figure with a veneer that seems to smooth out some of the underlying muscle. Aromatically, Reignots is dominated by the same Middle Eastern spice bazaar scents that characterize most of the vineyards in the vicinity. The best Reignots are certainly Grand Cru–quality. But Grand Cru status in Burgundy has at least as much to do with consistency as with the high watermark a vineyard can reach, and Reignots’ premier cru classification makes sense in that light. Even in the best producers’ hands, Reignots doesn’t reach that high watermark as often as one wishes.
Unlike Romanée-Conti and La Romanée, La Tâche covers a large enough land mass that it manages to abut several neighbors that have benefited from the hope there might be a poor man’s La Tâche, relatively speaking of course, among them. The most obvious candidate is the premier cru Les Gaudichots, or more accurately those portions of Les Gaudichots which still remain premier cru, as the majority of the vineyard was reclassified as La Tâche as the result of an epic court battle between the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and the Liger-Belair family which owned La Tâche proper at the time. The condensed version of the story, as related in greater detail in Allen Meadows’ book on Vosne-Romanée, The Pearl of the Côte, is that DRC won the right to sell its Gaudichots as La Tâche in 1932, which resulted in its holdings given the official appellation of La Tâche ou Les Gaudichots when the appellations were codified under the official Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée law of 1936. Meanwhile other parcels of Les Gaudichots remained Les Gaudichots and received a premier cru designation. When DRC acquired La Tâche proper, it elected to bottle a single cuvée of both vineyards.
Meadows, one of the few people on the planet in a position to opine on the differences between pure Gaudichots and pure La Tâche based on bottles pre-dating the DRC acquisition, postulated that Les Gaudichots “appeared to bring the power, richness, muscle and fantastic depth” while La Tâche was characterized by “dazzling aromatics, silken mouth feel and the classic satin and velvet finish.” That doesn’t exactly sound like the strongest endorsement for Les Gaudichots standing alone inasmuch as it’s the latter array of attributes more likely to whet the appetite of any Burgundy nut. Indeed, today’s premier cru Les Gaudichots are firmly structured wines and I can’t recall any examples—even a bottle this year from the weak 1992 vintage at age 19—that didn’t put up a barrier of burly tannin seeming to need more time to resolve. Yet when a Gaudichots does offer a peek at what’s underneath, the exotic spiciness for which La Tâche may be the Ground Zero is evident. It’s enough to inspire hope that a La Tâche–like experience may be in store given the requisite cellar time, which could easily amount to twenty-five or thirty years. Unfortunately one can’t do more than speculate, because none of the producers commercializing Gaudichots today, at least in the U.S. market, bottled any that far back. And prices have jumped to the point where many collectors will no longer find it an attractive bet.
One of the side effects of Domaine de Montille and Domaine Dujac’s acquisition of plots in Aux Malconsorts in 2005, however, may be to impose a de facto price ceiling on how expensive Les Gaudichots can get, because the Malconsorts from both domaines delivers exactly what Les Gaudichots is supposed to deliver, and so far does it better. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Dujac and, to a lesser extent, Montille are making the wines in a style reminiscent of DRC’s, with the grapes fermented in whole bunches. Most of the attention so far has focused on Montille’s special cuvée “Christiane” which comes from a parcel cradled by the original boundaries of La Tâche. The 2005, with its roomfilling spicecake aromatics, left me almost speechless except to blurt out, “We’re drinking Domaine de Montille La Tâche.” But none of the three vintages to follow came close to that level, leading me to suppose that the wine may succeed the most when the generosity of a naturally ripe vintage tempers the structured austerity towards which the Montille house style is traditionally inclined. Dujac, whose wines are always rich and expansive, has knocked the ball out of the park with its Malconsorts every year, and if it doesn’t taste like a hypothetical Dujac-made La Tâche, it at least manages to taste very much like a hypothetical DRC-made Malconsorts, which is pretty impressive indeed.
One last premier cru vineyard in the area which has never gotten nearly the attention nor the esteem of any of its neighbors is Les Chaumes, situated just below Aux Malconsorts and La Tâche on the slope. It’s true that Les Chaumes rarely performs at the level of the village’s elite premier crus, as a comparison of Arnoux’s Chaumes with its Reignots and Suchots can demonstrate. Carel Voorhuis, who makes a small quantity of Les Chaumes at Domaine d’Ardhuy, once told me that the vineyard requires more fussing with the vines to achieve even ripening than any of the other vineyards he works with, of which there are plenty, which may explain why many producers just can’t seem to get Les Chaumes right. But there is one producer that consistently manages to achieve Grand Cru–quality Les Chaumes: Domaine Méo-Camuzet. Many examples of Les Chaumes can be coarsely tannic, no doubt due to the ripening challenges, but Méo’s is always silky and finessed, with beautiful cinnamon-and-spice aromatics. A fully mature 1985 was a monumental Burgundy with a personality and level of sophistication that brought La Tâche to mind on every sip. That may have something to do with the legendary Henri Jayer’s rumored involvement making the Méo wines of that vintage, but I see many of the same ingredients in recent vintages as well.
Outside Vosne-Romanée, the vineyard that cries out the loudest for some affordable alternative is surely Musigny, to the point where its most famous neighbor, Les Amoureuses, has been nearly as expensive for as long as I can remember due to its reputation for “baby Musigny” character and quality. But ironically enough, Les Amoureuses is not the vineyard in that cluster around Musigny that strikes me as most similar in character to Musigny itself. That honor might rightfully belong to the somewhat more obscure premier cru La Combe d’Orveau and the vastly more obscure premier cru Les Borniques.
La Combe d’Orveau extends from the southern end of Musigny and its peculiar gerrymandered shape actually has it spooning a piece of Musigny. A parcel of La Combe d’Orveau owned by the Domaine Jacques Prieur was actually reclassified as Musigny while other plots remained premier cru. (Another portion with a village classification is not actually contiguous and should be thought of as a different vineyard altogether.) In his new book Inside Burgundy, Jasper Morris reports that “Bruno Clavelier, who has the lion’s share of the premier cru sector [of La Combe d’Orveau], feels that this vineyard could have been classified grand cru Musigny as the geology is the same as for Les Petits Musigny next door—but that his grandfather did not push for it when the decisions were being made because grand cru status would have entailed higher taxes.” My experiences with Bruno Clavelier’s La Combe d’Orveau bear that out. Although often sweet with primary fruit when young, a 1996 recently astonished me with knockout aromatics and a mouthfeel that was suave and streamlined while still oozing with sappy, savory flavors. I have also had impressive Combe d’Orveaus from Domaine Taupenot-Merme and Domaine Faiveley, the former fruity but energetic and the latter showing a textural finesse right out of the gate unusal for the domaine’s house style which I hope will not be compromised by the recent changes there aimed at making the wines less ornery in their youth. The Combe d’Orveau, at least, never needed any such “improvement.” Finally, and fortuitously, the most expensive Combe d’Orveau by far, from the Domaine Perrot-Minot, is also the only one not worth drinking. The only thing you can taste is the oak.
Les Borniques borders Musigny on the other end. I have only ever tasted the vineyard from Frédéric Magnien’s négociant label, a scarcity Morris attributes to the holdings’ being highly fragmented, so that it may not be worth the bother for most proprietors to bottle it on its own. That judgment ought to change as more people experience what Magnien accomplishes with the vineyard. Magnien has told critics that the soil is identical to the bordering plots of Musigny, and my tastings of the wine have given me no reason to doubt that claim. In its most successful years, it has a sumptuous richness as well as a lacey, finely knit texture to the tannins which I have always seen as one of the signatures of great vineyard sites: concentration can be manufactured in the winery, but tactile finesse can’t be. Sometimes Magnien’s own penchant for trying to manufacture some up-front charm in the winery results in the wine falling short in some years that should have offered the potential for greater things, but generally I have found the Borniques a purer expression than many of Magnien’s other wines—either because he understands this vineyard requires a lighter touch, or because its natural delicacy perserveres through processes that might smother a less characterful wine. Interestingly, a 2002 Borniques I drank this year was legitimately Musignyesque, while Magnien’s Amoureuses of the same vintage was an inexplicable disaster, sucked dry by aggressive oak.
It’s a traditional practice in Burgundy to serve the whites after the reds, so that’s what I’ll do in this column, too. On the hill of Montrachet, the Chassagne-Montrachet premier cru En Remilly juts out from Chevalier-Montrachet like a turtle peeking its head out of its shell, while Blanchot-Dessus sits lower on the slope in the catty corner between Montrachet and Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet. En Remilly was a longtime specialty of Domaine Colin-Deléger and is now split among the domaine’s heirs; a 2005 Remilly from Philippe Colin is the most Chevalier-like example I’ve ever tasted, with a precision and detail that always seemed blurred in the old Colin-Deléger renditions. The Blanchot-Dessus of the same year from Anglada-Deléger, another branch of the family, was not nearly as compelling and reminded me more of a California chardonnay. Unfortunately, the most reliable candidate for a Montrachet-like experience in the area is Puligny-Montrachet Les Caillerets, and it has long been priced accordingly. In his new book Grand Cru: The Great Wines of Burgundy Through the Perspective of Its Finest Vineyards, Remington Norman included Les Caillerets among the five premier crus he deemed honorary Grand Crus.
So is “terroir, terroir, terroir” a better philosophy than “producer, producer, producer”? I’ll offer one final anecdote. One of the most compelling Burgundies I’ve had the pleasure to drink recently was the basic 2008 Chambolle-Musigny village wine from Domaine Dujac, a producer whose wines have long enjoyed trophy status. I expected it to be a high-quality Chambolle but was not prepared for the breathtaking experience that followed after about an hour’s decanting time. It was packed with rich, succulent fruit that eventually became mellowed by a stony mineral base that made the wine feel like a mouthful of liquified limestone. Then this week I had the occasion to drink a dozen Grand Cru Musignys at a very special wine dinner and I am convinced that if I had slipped the Dujac Chambolle into the lineup it would have had no trouble being voted one of the top wines on the table. Here’s the interesting thing. According to David Schildknecht’s review of the wine, Dujac’s Chambolle-Musigny blends plots on the northern side of the village nearer Morey-St.-Denis with the Argillières vineyard, which is right next to Musigny, just above Les Borniques. So is it the terroir or the producer that makes the difference? I report, you decide.
For further reading:
Maps of the Cote d’Or villages at Bill Nanson’s Burgundy-Report site.
Matt Kramer’s Making Sense of Burgundy (out-of-print) on Amazon.com.
Allen Meadows’ The Pearl of the Côte at BurghoundBooks.com.
Jasper Morris’s Inside Burgundy at New York’s Sotheby’s Wine.