Burgundy 2016 en primeur visits
I'm not sure there is a conclusion: after all c'est Bourgogne; c'est compliqué. But the 2016 growing season was torturous to those responsible for the vines. To begin with such losses, then to cope with wet and disease, then the drought and different generations of grapes maturing at different rates were all difficult. Then the picking date was crucial and for those cuvées which were much smaller than usual the decisions both commercial and vinification-related were new to most growers. Thinking ahead, decisions had to be made about purchasing barrels, not just for 2016 but for subsequent vintages. As a grower you had to work out what to do to get those vats fuller. One way is to use whole bunches, but if you normally destem everything you have to learn quickly, and anyway, are your stems ripe enough?
So inasmuch as it is possible to come to a conclusion at all, it seems to me that the 2016 vintage acts as an amplifier. There have been wines showing saline minerality which in previous vintages were simply stony. Vigneron styles have been amplified: from the tear inducing delicacy and elegance of Francois Bertheau to the weight of Meo-Camuzet. Terroir definition is a bit amplified with differences between plots more stark than often. It is certainly a vintage that I want in my cellar. The known known is availability: there simply isn't much wine in the region. The known unknown is price. The larger 2017 vintage is next on the tracks, but will the growers want to recoup some of their losses immediately? Whatever happens, January will certainly be interesting.
Friday 10th November
Last morning, so since no dinner last night (too busy writing Monday and Tuesday) and not looking good for lunch, the managing director unwittingly treats me to an egg for breakfast. He won’t mind. And he’ll never read this! Check out of the Belle Epoque, which has been our bolt hole for the week. It’s a good tip, the owner Hervé is amazingly helpful. Though apparently you should take your own hair dryer, the built-in one is weedy. For obvious reasons this is not my area of expertise.
First stop today is glamourous Chagny, unlikely home to Burgundy’s only 3* restaurant, and even unlikelier location for our newest find from the region. Housed in a scruffy and too small building behind the unprepossessing train station, I visit Nathalie Richez and her family. We first met in May this year when the IT manager and I were bowled over by her 2015s. Since she is a fairly new vigneronne, having had a long career as a marine engineer, I did wonder if it was a flash in the pan as her style is delicate and a suited perfectly a big, hot vintage like 15. But I needn’t have worried. The 16s were tremendous. Her 15s are now in the shop by the way, if you want to try a bottle.
After that I’m off to St-Aubin to see Jerome Fornerot. He’s a grower we’ve looked at before, but I was very impressed with his 2016s. For me he’s stronger in reds, which is just as well as he has very little white this year. We’ll get samples in January and make a final decision then.
Down to Givry next to Lumpp, where I meet Cecilia for the first time. She’s fully a part of the family operation working the vines as well as the new and expanded cellar, now in full use. 2016 was more of a concern for them from a disease point of view rather than frost. They had more problems with freezing in 2017. The 2016s were really quite full, in body and flavour though not overblown and had great intensity and length. They have great structure, yet should drink from release. Very good wines.
A bit of a break in Rully and a chance to fuel up the car and grab a sandwich. The final appointment is prompt at 2pm, which is necessary since the satnav says it takes just over an hour to get to Dijon and my train is at 4pm. Unusually for her Marie Jacqueson is a wee bit late and since they’ve bought some new vineyards there’s more wine to taste. They have bought vineyards they know well from an old family friend. They’ve been farmed the same way as the Jacquesons operate and even better they’ve employed the son to help with the farming, so all is sympa. The extra vineyards, apart from taking a wee bit more time than I had anticipated also give them extra terroirs to play with and exploit. I’m really pleased with the wine, bot red and white. Quantities are low, especially the Pucelles and Gresigny, long the Uncorked favourites. Marie assures me she’ll be prioritising professional customers, but I think we’ll just get in early and take everything we can.
It’s 3.45 when I leave with a bit of leeway. I’m aiming for Chalon and the autoroute. Clearly there are few waze users around Rully as none of the road closures seems to be flagged. The motorway is pretty clear though and I can see from the satnav that I’m pulling back a bit of time, minute by minute. I’ve not approached Dijon from this direction before and to start with it’s Friday afternoon traffic, but the town itself is fairly clear. The new entrance to the station multistorey is a boon and I drop the keys into the office with a brief ‘can’t stop’ and dash into the station. My watch is fast so I can’t see exactly how near I am but I compost my billet and leg it up the stairs onto the platform just as the train starts to move off.
It takes a bit of bureaucracy and a few of the managing director’s euros at Dijon and in Paris but I’m back in London only just over an hour later than scheduled. It has been a fine week, a lot of amazing wines to taste and some new insights to the region and its people.
Thursday 9th November
After yesterday morning we decided that it’s never too early to taste white Burgundy, so 8.15 sees us rocking up at Ballot-Millot, home to one enormous dog and one cross between a terrier and a large cat. One of Charles Ballot’s never-ending jobs seems to be collecting the production of these animals but nevertheless we managed to drive away with some in the car. Fortunately the wines are as far away from this aspect of the estate as possible. In fact Ballot-Millot managed to produce pretty much the best set of white wines of the week. Certainly the Bourgogne Blanc is in pole position at that level. Charles has vines in Puligny, which weren’t much affected by frost; and Meursault which was affected and he lost 50 barrels of the village wine (he made 12 instead of c60) and only has one barrel of Criots instead of the normal 20. The wines are pure and focussed as well as rich. He delayed picking for a couple of days to achieve optimum balance.
To Lafarge, where as it was his 89th birthday that day Michel was having a lie-in. Fred was just relieved to have some wine and all the wines showed extremely well. Fred said that there’s a joyful quality to the wines this year- they have charming fresh fruit: and he is right about that. He also said that it was a difficult vintage in having to do so much work for so few grapes, but they maintained their biodynamic status without difficulty. This year there wasn’t enough fruit for a Volnay Selectionée so it has all gone into the straight village. With regard to the upper levels even the Beaune Greves was amazing. I leave it to your imagination just how good they are.
After lunch in Nuits-St-Georges at La Cabotte – best menu du jour meal of the week – we trickled off to our final Chambolle-Musigny visits. First up was Domaine Sigaut, where despite the substantial crop losses Anne did a green harvest! Chapeau! Oh look, I have no fruit, let’s throw some of it away. Mme Sigaut is a force to be reckoned with anyway, now we have more respect. With these incredibly low yields she has made a flamboyant and hedonistic range with rather splendid flavours and big structure though very fine tannins and mineral acidity. Though I have to say the driver was more impressed than the Burgundy Buyer. They need age and they aren’t in the same camp as Meo or Mortet.
Then to Domaine Felettig where Gilbert took us through the wines. Check Instagram for our first sighting of an oak egg. And for a sense of scale I managed to get the Burgundy Buyer next to it in front of a camera, which is no mean feat. Anyway, the Felettig wines are the other end of the Chambolle scale to Sigaut. In fact we have four Chambolle producers, all with their own identity. Gilbert used whole bunches this year for the first time as quantities were so low and he wanted to fill the vats he could use. He was anxious about it during the ferment, but we can say that the wines turned out beautifully with no sense of stemminess; just perfectly ripe and delicate. The Burgundy Buyer and the driver agreed that this was a great set of wines at every level.
So ended the Burgundy Buyer’s stay. We dropped her at the station in Gevrey and off she went back to London. The driver hit the road back to Beaune with another half day’s adventure ahead.
Wednesday 8th November
It’s Wednesday, it’s 8.30 am and so we are first to arrive in Gamay, a small suburb of St-Aubin. The resurfacing works between Beaune and Meursault shall not delay us. We are visiting Domaine Marc Colin, where the 2016s are the last vintage with the family in this configuration. Colins are obviously serial splitters anyway since they are already innumerable, now there is to be another one as Joseph has taken his inheritance, leaving our old friend Damien and his sister Caroline at the original family premises. I don’t know who got the White Album, but Damien has the table and maps from the old tasting room so there is still familiarity. Between 60-70% of the 2016 crop was lost to frost and the range has been consolidated. For instance the Bourgogne Chardonnay has most of the Chassagne in it. The wines are gorgeously focussed and bright with considerable flavour and energy. Expect to be confused by some names in the future. One of the whites is to be called Margaux for instance. Well, why not, Bordeaux is a long way and is entirely irrelevant in this part of the world.
Onwards to Jean-Marc Boillot. Where on the day the wines aren’t showing quite as vivid as the preceding Colins, but they do have everything. There’s plenty of matter, freshness and oomph. Worst news here is that there is no Meix Cadot in 2016 or 17. First because of the frost, then in 2017 because the landowner put up the price of the fruit to unsustainable levels. Landlords, eh.
Back to the motorway and we’re up to Vosne-Romanée to see Meo-Camuzet where we are hosted by Christian Faurois, who has been the vineyard manager for years and knows the vineyards like the back of his proverbial hand. This Domaine demonstrates the ample side of 2016, these are Pinots of power as well as grace. Chambolles suffered most from frost and so there is a 1er cru containing Feusselotte and Les Cras. From Clos Vougeot upwards there is just astonishing quality.
After lunch at the Complexe de Gevrey again we head off to Chambolle and Ghislaine Barthod. Her wines are lacking greatly in quantity but nothing else. A different expression from what we found at Bertheau, and badly affected by the frost that ravaged Chambolle in particular. There’s no Chatelot, no Combottes, 70% down on Bourgogne rouge, only one barrel of Gruenchers and so on.
To Mortet with Arnaud and again, if you like a Pinot with a V8 under the hood, you’ll love these wines. But, to continue the slightly tortured analogy, they do handle the twisty bits well and are balanced with great underlying acidity and tannins of finesse. My faves for what it’s worth were Mes Cinq Terroirs and Bonnes Mares.
But if what you really love in Burgundy is a slightly skinnier elegance, then there is no better address than Vougeot and specifically Hudelot-Noellat where Charles van Canneyt continues to craft the most attractive and lightly muscled wines. Here most of the barrels only finished their malolactic ferments in October so were sulphured a couple of weeks ago, but despite this the wines were easy to taste.
Tuesday 7th November
You could walk to Pommard from Beaune so a first appointment in the village is always welcome as you have time for an extra half cup of coffee. When the visit is to Domaine Launay-Horiot you have no idea what to expect as this Domaine is that rare thing: a 'new' Burgundy estate. It is a long (ten years), complicated (many courtroom battles) and fraught (family disagreements) story. Xavier Horiot is the driven and driving force behind it, ably backed up by his irreverent wife Eleanor. He is an ex-fighter pilot and started from scratch only a few years back when he sold fruit, unable to afford the necessary kit to become a winemaker. Now he is geared up and makes the wine from his vineyards in Pommard and - somewhat fantastically - his two tiny plots of Gevrey Grands Crus. He has fought hard for everything he has, including the very high quality range of wines he showed us. One to seek out. We'll be looking for an allocation from this exciting newcomer.
Follow that and after another spin up the motorway we are in Morey-St-Denis with Stephane Magnien who is 4th generation grower and despite his youthful appearance has been in charge since 2008. Stephane uses around 10% whole bunch fruit, which he puts at the bottom of the tank where they aid drainage and circulation. He is one of the earlier pickers in the village, usually by a couple of days, but the wines are balanced and ripe with red fruit and very fine tannins.
To Chambolle-Musigny and François Bertheau. I don't want to incite murder, but you do, if you love the most delicate and finessed Burgundy, want to get your hands on any of his 2016s. They are exceptionally dreamy.
Now here is a lunch Recco for you. Gevrey-Chambertin has a large sports hall called the Complexe de Gevrey, not far from the train staion, where you can play badminton, squash, 5-a-side footie and all that sort of thing. They also have what they describe as a restaurant bistronomique and it's brilliant. Cheap, good food, though I think the wine trade had got there before us and pillaged the amazing value and range of the wine list. The place is packed, but very efficiently run and aimed at people who've been in the vines all day, or shifting stuff around in the factory, so you won't go hungry. Book and go. Huge fun.
After that what can you do but visit Grivot, one of the stars of Vosne-Romanée? We start our visit hosted by Mathilde. Apparently she and brother Hubert are doing more and more and Etienne less and less, though she and her brother clearly share dad's vision and have already dedicated their working lives to the Domaine. They started harvest on 27th September. We asked how Mathilde and Hubert coped with the challenges of 2016 and she made the point that since 2010 all the vintages had been difficult in their different ways. The wines kept their normal oak regime with between 20-40% new and with what they call a chauffe blanche, which is toasting the barrel for a long time but over a very small fire so that the interior is just honey-coloured. The Grivot wines definitely need more time in barrel, many malos were late, only finishing in October and further ageing will make them turn from surly teens to rounded adults ready for life in bottle.
A quick whizz across the road to Domaine Arlaud. Here we tasted both the Domaine and negoce wines and now that Cyprien has been farming the latter plots for c4 years the quality is up to Domaine standards. Being in Morey, frost losses were minor and the late Spring disease pressure didn't cause loss. We found them distinctive from one terroir to another, ripe and beautifully and gently extracted. Characterful and assured Burgundies.
Finally for the day the team split. The buyer went to Duroché in Gevrey-Chambertin, where she found the improvements from last year had been continued. There was great excitement and we will hopefully be able to get our hands on some of this. The driver headed up to Fixin and what is rapidly becoming one of the most fascinating visits of the week as Amelie Berthaut has the confidence to experiment with all sorts of growing and winemaking techniques. She certainly doesn't have a recipe yet for all her wines and combining her status as a seventh generation steward of the land with the intellectual freedom she exercises is fascinating. And the wines seem to be tracking upwards in interest.
Monday 6th November
Monday morning at 8.30 saw us at Domaine Bernard Moreau. Meeting Alex here is a great start to the week as he is a master of summing up the Côte de Beaune. So here is a precis of his summary. The defining event of the 2016 vintage was the spring frost. In fact the character of the frost is that it was more like a winter one. In late April, with vine growth we'll ahead because of a warm early spring, on 27th and 28th April there was a frost. Only dropping to -1C the frost itself did some damage, but the hot sun the following morning caused an amplification of that damage. Yields were cut in some areas, with losses from 10 to 96% according to your location.
The worst hit villages were Chassagne, St-Aubin, Savigny, Marsannay, Chambolle and Nuits-St-Georges, but plenty of other communes were also affected. Morey St-Denis had the biggest crop since 1989 according to many. After the frost there was a very damp spring, which led to a lot of disease pressure in the vineyards and also made it difficult to treat, since tractors couldn't always get into the vineyards as the ground was so wet. Much work in the vines at this stage had to be done by hand.
The good weather arrived at the end of June. After this even the 2nd generation of grapes that some vines managed to produce caught up somewhat in terms of fruit maturity and by 21st September, when Alex began picking the ripeness across the vineyards was fairly even. Everything was healthy and no sorting was necessary, things repeated across the week. The harvest was far from normal though. Pickers start at 8am and normally the first crates of fruit arrive at the cellar reception around 8. 45. In 2016 it took so long to find grapes to make a batch worth sending that it was 11. 45 before the first load arrived.
But they did have to leave some fruit in the vineyard because it wasn't properly ripe and doing multiple passes isn't practical or affordable. Wine making was fairly normal except that they had to wait longer for the juice to settle to get the best natural yeast. And there are ancillary issues to consider. Think about barrels. Many winemakers were faced with catastrophic losses in some of their smaller plots. Say your policy is to use 10 or 20% new oak, but you only made one or two barrels of a particular wine, what do you do? Bearing in mind that you use a lot of one year old barrels, where are they going to come from next year if you haven't bought them new this year?
So you can see there are a lot of decisions to make and much thinking for a vigneron to do. And the vintage is unique. Not even Michel Lafarge can remember one like it.
It pretty much goes without saying that the wines at Moreau are excellent. The quantities are the problem, with the Chassagne villages cut in half, even though it has all the Chenevottes and Champgain in it!
We followed that with a visit to the ever ebullient Thierry Pillot, who despite losing 70% overall of their production, remains cheerful and like everyone is delighted with the quality of the vintage, though not the quantity. His tasting began to confirm something noted at Moreau: the clear definition of terroir boundaries.
After that we skipped further north to Meursault and a visit to the Tessiers, who lost around half of their crop. Are they the hardest working couple in the area? When not in the vines and the cellar, Arnaud is busy expanding the wine making and storage facilities by himself. He is an accomplished stonemason, carpenter, concreter, demolisher, painter and finisher and works like a fiend and Catherine keeps up with him as a manager, a mother and vineyard and cellar worker she is totally involved. Their (literal) passion for their wines is extraordinary; they suffer, their whole selves go into the project and their joy is their daughter and some great wines.
We had a quick lunch in L'Estaminet in Puligny, then onto the motorway up to Gevrey-Chambertin for a tasting at Domaine Fourrier with François Orise, their incredibly knowledgeable assistant. They lost around 30% of their Gevrey production and around 50% of Chambolle. François said that the spring of 2016 was similar to 2013. They normally experience around 7-8 mildew attacks in a season, in 2016 there were 32. But apart from a touch of oidium, July, August and September were excellent. Like everyone the Fourrier experienced uneven flowering and a lot of millerandage, which gives tiny berries.
One thing they did report, which is new to me is the phenomenon of relarguage, or refermentation. In the vin de presse the tiniest berries hadn't been crushed and they fermented later adding some structure and a little more alcohol to the wines. Jean-Marie has never seen this before.
Next to Vosne-Romanée to see wunderkind Max at Georges Noellat. In quality terms 2016 has been a very good year for him.
Finally, we close the day with a visit to Domaine Gouges in Nuits-St-Georges. Across the board they lost around 45% of their fruit. They started their harvest on 3rd October and said that with Pinot Noir the small quantities of fruit left on the vines made for easy ripening. Some very perfumed wines here with lots of precision and terroir definition.
As many will know, at Uncorked there is a certain level of fascination with Burgundy. The region has mystery: how do you get such an amount of difference in styles and flavour with (essentially) just one grape variety for white wine and another for red? The region is tiny. Burgundy carries centuries of tradition, which has been hugely influential, especially in site selection. Then came the revolution, which changed the structure of the area from monastic to peasant*. Then Napoleon introduced the laws of inheritance: an inherently fair system, especially to women who now received inheritances from which they may have previously been excluded. While this was fine in bourgeois Bordeaux, where access to lawyers was normal, estates are huge and companies with multiple shareholders fairly easy to create, in Burgundy things were different. Impoverished peasant landholders didn't have the resources to do any of that. They had to divide land holdings and over the years that has meant some holdings are reduced to a couple of rows of vines. Oh and by the way, the word peasant isn't a pejorative. Burgundy isn't all tradition though, there is plenty of research and innovation, even though it sometimes leads back to older practices.
You'll find oak eggs for the early part of maturation, people hand destemming and carefully rolling individual grapes into vats for the ultimate in tannin management: rest assured: neither you or I can afford those wines and there's usually only one barrel anyway. We find the reintroduction of horses, the huge uplifts in quality in vineyards like Clos Vougeot and whole villages like Fixin.
Then there is vintage variation, which brings me to our visit this week. Word on the street was that quality is very fine and the Domaine Julien wines I tasted 10 days ago or so certainly suggested that. The Burgundy buyer and the driver left London on 5th November from St Pancras and arrived in Beaune late that afternoon.
*peasant not a pejorative