Before wine appreciation became more about what was different, unique, or bizarre (orange wine?), most wine aficionados would get all agog when they spoke about white Burgundy. And I was one of them. For me, a great white Burgundy was the pinnacle of the wine world, and the best of those wines would often promote an emotional reaction (often verbal), that would cause casual observers to be more than a tad uncomfortable.
With the addition of some bottle age, however, white Burgundies would pass from merely emotional to ethereal as the wine would lose a touch of its fruity exuberance, replaced by a refined elegance that would often result in chills down one’s spine. While my “gateway drug” to this crazy world of wine was actually a red Burgundy, it was the whites from the region that cemented the change in my world view.
As such, back when I was leading bike trips in the region, I would frequently load up my bike with 6-18 bottles of the slightly golden elixir, with the intent of storing them in my cellar for a decade or more. I had a simple rule: the wines I bought had to be at least Premier Cru. Why? First, they tend to age better and second, in Burgundy, there is a decided hierarchy of wine quality (from bottom to top):
- Regional Appellations, which make up roughly half of the production in Burgundy (e.g., “Bourgogne Blanc”).
- Village Appellations, which constitute a shade over a third (37%) of production (e.g., “Chassagne-Montrachet”).
- Premier Cru, 10% of production across 640 different climate or vineyards (e.g., Meursault 1er Cru “Charmes”).
- Grand Cru, less than 2% of Burgundy wines across 33 Grand Cru climate (e.g., Cotton-Charlemagne, Montrachet).
My theory: why go through all the hassle of bringing back wine that is, by definition, of lesser quality? Sure, I understand the argument that there are some Village wines that are better than some 1er Crus, but generally speaking, the higher you go up the ladder, the better the wine.
It was with this approach that, at some point in 2007 (or maybe 2008), I bought a couple of cases of wine from the 2004 vintage, since, with the much heralded 2005 vintage about to hit the market, there were some good deals to be had on the 2004s (which was no slouch when it came to vintages).
Starting in 2012, or so, I started “harvesting” some of those 2004 white Burgundies and, much to my dismay, most have them have been oxidized. I have since realized that this is a problem that has plagued the region since the late 1990s—wines that in the past could easily age gracefully for a couple of decades (or more), were virtually undrinkable just a handful of years past bottling. Many people had experienced the same calamity, apparently, to the point that it had a name: premature oxidation, or ”premox.”
After at least a dozen of such bottles, I removed white Burgundy from the pinnacle upon which I had placed it as there were far to many other wines to enjoy; many others that could take up the limited space in my cellar. Wines that would not bring me to the point of tears—that would not pour into the glass a deep golden color, revealing their ruin even before I had the chance to sniff.
Yes, white Burgundy was dead to me.
Then this past summer happened.
The family and I made our semi-annual pilgrimage to France and my wife intimated that she would like to visit a new (to her) region. After going through the litany of possibilities, she mentioned that she had never been to Burgundy, and I acquiesced. Even though the white wines from the region had burned me far too many times, the region itself is magical and well worth another visit (during my tour guide years, I had visited the region close to two dozen times).
After a wonderful few days, on our last night in Dijon, for whatever reason we ventured out to dinner rather late, past nine o’clock. Normally, that would not present much of a challenge, but it was the middle of August, a time when most of the country is on vacation. After striking out at a number of my familiar restaurants, we happened upon a place that I had not been to in years: La Dame d’Aquitaine.
The restaurant is in a 13th Century vaulted crypt, and has a rather different pricing structure: it is essentially 29€ just to sit down, upon which entrées and main courses are added at prices ranging from a 5-25 Euros.
After negotiating the boys’ rate down (they were not that hungry after a rather large lunch), my wife and I ordered meals that really screamed for…a white Burgundy. Since I was both tired and in a relatively safe space (any wine with even the slightest hint of premox would be sent back even before the server finished pouring the glass), I relented. One of the wines immediately jumped off the page. I knew the producer, having many of their wines in the past, but they had all been red, and the wine was from Vougeot—a region synonymous with Pinot Noir. In fact, this was the first time I had ever seen a white from the town.
And it had a bit of age on it.
I had to try it.
What followed was simply magical. Not only did it rekindle my love affair with white Burgundy, but it caused us to add another day to the trip so that we could do a bit of wine tasting, a bit of searching for some good deals, for some wines that we could age a bit.
But, as my wife pointed out, only a bit.
2011 Domaine de la Vougeraie Vougeot 1er Cru Le Clos Blanc de Vougeot Monopole: Retail $85. 100% Chardonnay. The nose? Simply majestic: lemon curd tightly wound with oak and vanilla. Whoa. On the palate near perfect harmony as the fruit, acidity, and depth perform a near flawless ménage à trois. The midpalate is difficult as you wish to speak, to emote, to gush about the wine, but that would require swallowing to soon. No, this needs to last, to endure. Eventually, you do swallow in anticipation of the finish, which does not disappoint. Whoa. It lasts for minutes, confirming the reasons I fell in love with the region’s white wines so many years ago. I still can’t afford the best that Burgundy has to offer, and even this wine is too steep, but this one time it was well worth the climb. Outstanding Plus. 94-96 Points.