Tasting the myth – Burgundy Grand Cru, 22/8/2015

We might as well start this blog with one of the tasting highlights of my short wine career. On a blazing hot summer day, Kris van de Sompel invited me and a dozen other fortunate wine lovers to a fabulous tasting of grand crus from Burgundy (all of them from the 2012 vintage). As you may have read, the Burgundian “climats” (a system of individual vineyard parcels where terroir characteristics may vary wildly within a few hundred meters’ distance) have recently been awarded UNESCO world heritage status, and at this occasion we were lucky enough to experience a “once in a lifetime” tasting, as Kris put it.

Note that, whereas in some wine appellations (e.g. Saint-Émilion), the term “grand cru” is part of the appellation system and does not involve in itself a hierarchy, the Burgundian “grand crus” (corresponding to geographically strictly delimited parcels) are so few in number and so limited in surface that they command stellar prices these days. Whether these are justified are not remains to be seen.

The wine list sends anyone who is even slightly familiar with Burgundy off into dreams:

Chablis GC Vaudésir, Louis Moreau

Chablis GC Les Clos, Domaine des Malandes

Chablis GC Bougros, Domaine Laroche

Corton GC, Comte Senard

Corton-Charlemagne, Albert Bichot

Corton-Charlemagne, Domaine Chevalier

Chevalier-Montrachet GC, Bouchard Père & Fils

Corton-Renardes GC, Henri de Villamont

Corton-Bressandes GC, Edmond Cornu & Fils

Chambertin GC, Albert Bichot

Chapelle-Chambertin GC, Bouchard Père & Fils

Chambertin Clos de Bèze GC, Bouchard Père & Fils

Clos de Vougeot GC,, Dubois & Fils

Grands-Echézeaux GC, Henri de Villamont

Echézeaux GC, Domaine des Perdrix

First the whites and then the reds, as common wine sense would dictate. Not an obvious choice in this case though, as the first conclusion of the tasting was that the whites clearly outperformed the reds in terms of power, complexity and balance. To the credit of the reds, one can say that the wines are still extremely young, and will only show their full complexity in a few years (aged pinot of this level can indeed be a pure delight). Some, like the Clos de Vougeot, even still had fierce tannins and are best left in the cellar for a few more years.

Second conclusion: the fine-grained “climats” of Burgundy indeed show their distinctive character, even though it is always difficult to tease out “terroir” from winemaking practices, and with the caveat that we were not tasting entirely blindly – we kind of knew what to expect in advance, which may have clouded our judgement somewhat. Nevertheless, the Corton-Charlemagnes, for example, stood out from the Corton: more refinement, more freshness, less heavy-handed. Likewise, the Chevalier-Montrachet (more about that one further on) was indeed less opulent and buttery than the Cortons. And, in the reds, the Corton-Renardes, from a slightly higher vineyard, showed more freshness than the Corton-Bressandes.

Third conclusion: to the question, “do these wines offer good value for money”, the answer is a definite “no”, at least if by “value” you mean the intrinsic quality of the wine. When you buy wines of this status, you buy the myth along with the wine. Are the soil and the climate a bit further south of these legendary vineyards (Côte chalonnaise and Macônnais), intrinsically inferior? Of course not. There too wines of exceptional quality can be made, at far lower prices. Still, to taste these grands crus is to taste centuries of  history, and it is clear that these are some of the world’s greatest wines.

To me, the absolute highlight was the Chevalier-Montrachet from Bouchard Père et Fils. At 240 euros a bottle, one is entitled to expect nothing less than an exceptional product, but this one indeed blows you off your feet. The richness and ampleness of oaked Chardonnay, yet with profound minerality and an impressive backbone of acidity, perfectly integrated oak, incredible complexity, and dito length. A wine where nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous. A masterpiece of restrained power and elegance. The three wines coming from Bouchard Père et Fils were all magnificent, by the way – although my personal favorites as far as the reds were concerned were the Échezeaux and the Grands-Échezeaux.

Many thanks to Kris for this memorable tasting!

Some of the most extraordinary bottles:

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