Learning on the hill


Jefford on Monday

Few regions have had worse luck with the weather over the past four vintages than Burgundy: a 30 per cent shortfall in 2010; 25 per cent down in 2011; only half a crop in 2012 and 2013. That makes one-and-a-half missing harvests in four years. Or, if you prefer, about 1.5 billion potential euros swirling off down storm drains, or quietly collapsing in a fluff of mould.

Image: Montrachet with Chevalier-Montrachet above © Andrew Jefford

Which was why, the week before last, as hail flayed unlucky Cognac and the Northern Médoc, it was encouraging to see so many Burgundian smiles. “It was all over,” said Bernard Hervet of Faiveley, “in four to five days. It was the best flowering I have ever seen.” Frédéric Lafarge confirmed that his flowers had entirely set in a week of hot, sunny weather -- to his relief; this fine Volnay domain lost 80 per cent of its crop in 2012 and 65 per cent in 2013. A mere three months of tension now lie ahead. As I tasted at Domaine de Suremain in Mercurey a day later, late afternoon thunder-clouds cracked and growled. “That,” smiled Yves de Suremain, “is what we’re afraid of, all summer long.”

Amid a week of outstanding tastings (quality in 2012 is impressive, despite the reduced quantities, with Chablis in particularly mouthwatering form), two stood out for interest and sheer unrepeatability.

The first was at Faiveley itself, whose already desirable domain holdings have recently been swelled by the acquisition of the 20-ha Domaine Dupont-Tisserandot. Up until the sale, this domain practised the techniques advocated by the once-influential consulting oenologist Guy Accad: the use of high doses of sulphur dioxide (up to 30 g/L) on the harvested grapes (usually destemmed and crushed). The sulphur both prevents fermentation and breaks down grape tissues, liberating not just fruit aromas and flavours but phenolic matter, too. The result is more deeply coloured, extractive red wines.

In general, this macération sulfitique has now been replaced in the region by a straight cold soak, which gives depth of fruit -- but without extra colour and extraction. The interest lay in comparing the Dupont-Tisserandot 2012 Les Cazetiers wine made in that way with Faiveley’s own 2012 Cazetiers, classically vinfied by cellarmaster Jean-Michel Mongin. (Faiveley never adopted Accad methods, but the formerly dense, chunky wines favoured by François Faiveley have given way to a house style of greater finesse since his son Erwan took the tiller in December 2004.)

Image: Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet on the wall of Montrachet © Andrew Jefford

The contest wasn’t a walkover by any means, and I enjoyed the structure, exuberance and inner fire of the Dupont-Tisserandot wine. It was aromatically less focused, though; Faiveley’s paler Cazetiers seemed to combine cherry fruit with cherry blossom, and was creamy, supple and soft, though bright and long, on the palate. Mongin said what he noted in wines made with a macération sulfitique was a slightly drying finish. As fewer and fewer Burgundy domains practice macération sulfitique, this comparison will soon be rare.

And the second tasting? I know of no one in Burgundy who speaks with more passion, articulacy, exuberance, irreverence and sometimes wild poetry about different vineyard sites than Mounir Sawma. Mounir runs the micro-négociant and wine finisher Lucien Le Moine with his wife Rotem Brakin. When it was time to organize a vineyard walk from Puligny up to Montrachet itself with a group of visiting American wine students, I figured Mounir would provide insights which no one else could.

Image: Mounir Sawma © Andrew Jefford

After memorably psycho-analysing this gently sloping walled vineyard and its family, shared between Puligny and Chassagne, he began pouring wine from six half-bottles of as-yet-unfinished 2012 Lucien Le Moine whites. The first wine we tried was a mystery bottle (quince and pear scents; vivid, sappy flavours).

Then came samples of Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet (iodine and cream), Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet (pungent, stony – and peaty, according to Mounir), Bâtard-Montrachet itself (lush yet sinewy, “a red wine with a white flavour”) … and, amazingly, two samples of Montrachet from each side of the village divide. One was festive: deep, enchanting, nourishing and peacock-like. The other was much stonier, more attacking: a searchlight, scouring the night hillside – and it had some of those faint pear and quince fruits. Which was which?

Most of us felt (by reputation rather than experience, alas) that the peacock must be Puligny and the searchlight Chassagne. So it proved; but what, then, was the mystery sample? Mounir’s trump card: a Murgers des Dents de Chien, St Aubin Premier Cru – grown on the fingers of the hill, as it happens, which reach down and very nearly caress Montrachet itself on the Chassagne side. Point made: we could smell the kinship, and we eagerly hunted down this affordable PC on the wine list of that evening’s restaurant. It’s not Montrachet, of course, but what the wine custodian in baseball cap and Hard Rock Café sweatshirt had shown us was Burgundy’s most inspiring and enduring lesson: that even the tiniest nuances of site can find, in wine, a sensual being.

Columnist Introduction

Andrew Jefford is a columnist for both Decanter magazine and www.decanter.com, Jefford has been writing and broadcasting about wine (as well as food, whisky, travel and perfume) since the 1980s, winning many awards – the latest for his work as a columnist. After 15 months as a senior research fellow at Adelaide University between 2009 and 2010, Andrew is currently writing a book on Australia's wine landscape and terroirs. He lives in the Languedoc, on the frontier between the Grès de Montpellier and Pic St Loup zones.

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