A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See the accompanying tasting article with tasting notes on all these wines.
Assessments of maturing red bordeaux vintages are, if not ten a penny, then reasonably common – helped by the fact that, with a few exceptions, the vineyards of most Bordeaux châteaux are pretty extensive.
The same can hardly be said of Burgundy. While the typical Bordeaux cellar has to have room to mature hundreds of barrels of the same wine, Burgundy producers can count the number of barrels of many of the wines they make on the fingers of one hand.
This is one major reason why serious comparative tastings of mature and maturing red burgundy are relatively rare – and of white burgundy rarer still. So chapeau to my fellow Master of Wine Sarah Marsh, who has been writing about burgundy since inheriting the mailing list of Clive Coates MW in 2005.
She has decided to instigate annual burgundy vintage assessments eight (or nine) years on, gathering bottles from the growers she regularly visits and opening them all at a single tasting for interested parties. This first one, devoted to 2008 whites, took place earlier this month at the smart new London offices of wine merchant Goedhuis. Our co-host was David Roberts MW, who now buys burgundy for Goedhuis, having first done so for Berry Bros & Rudd in 1993.
Like all of us burgundy enthusiasts, Marsh and Roberts are all too aware that most white burgundy is drunk relatively young, probably too young. There has long been the idea – misguided in my view – that white wines are somehow less serious than reds, and since the spectre of premature oxidation has proved all too real in recent years, buyers of white burgundy have been particularly reluctant to give this style of wine much bottle age.
Indeed the only significant annual white burgundy vintage assessment I know of is that held in southern California by American lawyer and scourge of wine counterfeiters Don Cornwell, whose principal aim seems to be to identify the premox sinners among the most expensive wines for his website https://oxidised-burgs.wikispaces.com.
Marsh’s approach is a little less adversarial. Her invitation to the tasting spelt out her aim: ‘to illustrate the development of white burgundy. Many growers would like to see their whites enjoyed with the complexity of some age. When is the right moment?’
For many of us the development of 2008 white burgundies has been a bit of a conundrum. For different reasons the 2007s and 2009s have been relatively easy to read but 2008 in Burgundy was marked by a pretty awful cool, wet summer followed by fine weather from 13 September that just about ripened the grapes. But they were shrivelled by cool north-east winds at the end of the growing season, making them high in both sugar and acid – a bit like the 1996 vintage in Champagne. The 1996 champagnes have not all grown old gracefully. How have the 2008 white burgundies fared?
We tasted 24 examples – from a Caroline Lestimé screwcapped Hautes-Côtes de Beaune to Champy’s grand cru Corton-Charlemagne with (for Burgundy) an unusually informative back label, but mainly premiers crus. And since these bottles had each been chosen by their producer, we were presumably monitoring 2008s of which they were proud.
Thus it was not surprising that this was not a premox fest. We had one bottle with a bit of cork taint, a failure rate that is not, alas, surprising for wines bottled at the end of the last decade.
Very few of the wines seemed past their best – again perhaps not surprising because they had been hand-picked. They certainly had masses of acidity and even in some cases evidence of alcohol, the result of fermenting that concentrated sugar, on the finish. Most of these wines said 13.5% on the label, although the Lamy-Pillot Chassagne premier cru Grand-Montagne boasted 14% and seemed none the fresher for it.
What I missed in the wines I least enjoyed was flavour, something to chew on in the middle. Yes they were crisp – but where was the beef, the interest? And was this because the grapes hadn’t actually done much ripening – just dehydrating? A bit like 2003 reds in Bordeaux.
There is not much point in tying up cellar space and capital to keep a wine for years in bottle if it doesn’t develop real complexity. It could be that the most hollow examples of 2008 white burgundies are simply too young and will somehow magically exhibit secondary and tertiary characteristics, but I’d have thought a nine-year-old premier cru should be at least hinting that there is someone home.
That said, all of the wines listed below were excellent: very refreshing with some but not too much rewarding evolution evident. Lamy’s was probably the most advanced example, and from an appellation, St-Aubin, that in 2008 was yet to be recognised as the equal of its neighbour Chassagne-Montrachet, the commune with the most stars in this particular line-up. My favourite wine overall was Philippe Colin’s.
The Meursaults generally shone a little less brightly, although Patrick Javillier is to be congratulated on fielding, not for the first time, a village wine with an admirably long life. Of the Pulignys, the Carillon domaine (not yet split asunder) deserves special mention for its village wine that was just about as good as the Perrières premier cru.
As to the original question, when to drink serious 2008 white burgundy, I’d say generally over the next few years. Whenever I write a tasting note I (slightly reluctantly) give it a score out of 20 to focus the mind, and then add a suggested ideal drinking period based on what’s in the glass. I thought it worth waiting longer to broach only two of these 24 wines. One was Boyer-Martinot’s Meursault En Ormeau, in which the sweet start and tart finish may just marry sufficiently to produce something interesting in the middle. The other was Ballot-Millot’s Meursault Charmes poured from a magnum, which may have explained its backward, though pretty impressive, nature.
In general I found myself wondering how some of the finest Chardonnays made outside Burgundy would have shown in this line-up. Admittedly in 2008 the flight to light was in its infancy in the US but Au Bon Climat, Eyrie and Ramey could have fielded some candidates. In Australia the likes of Bindi, Cullen, Curly Flat, Giaconda, Leeuwin, Pierro and Tapanappa were already making extremely refined examples – as were Bell Hill, Felton Road and Kumeu River in New Zealand.
If we had taken value into account, the best New World Chardonnays might have won hands down.
SUPERIOR 2008 WHITE BURGUNDIES
Domaine Jean-Claude Bachelet, La Boudriotte Premier Cru
Domaine Blain-Gagnard, Clos St-Jean Premier Cru
Domaine Philippe Colin, Chenevottes Premier Cru
Domaine Jean-Noel Gagnard, Caillerets Premier Cru
Domaine Bernard Moreau, Morgeot Premier Cru
Domaine Jean-Marc Pillot, Vergers Premier Cru
Domaine Seguin Manuel, Vergers Premier Cru
Domaine Patrick Javillier, Clousots
Domaine Remi Jobard, Genevrières Premier Cru
Domaine Hubert Lamy, En Remilly Premier Cru
Tasting notes for all these wines can be found in 2008 white burgundies – ready or not? (Rare) stockists are shown on wine-searcher.com.