Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Immutable Greatness of Richebourg

The other night, and for the first time in my life, I drank a bottle of Richebourg. I've tasted Richebourg before, but never opened a bottle and drank it, watched the story unfold in the glass. I have a rather entrepreneurial friend who is investigating the viability of buying and selling luxury wines. He decided that he wanted to drink one of his acquisitions, and I was fortunate enough to be in the room at the time. He walked over with this bottle, as if he was going to open it.

But even my friend is not that crazy, to open a 2005 La Tâche just like that, on a random Thursday night, and without a proper dinner. I didn't even want to hold this bottle in my hands. I mean, what if I sneezed and dropped it? That's $2,500, thank you very much.

But he did open a bottle of 2000 Domaine Gros Frère et Soeur Richebourg. I'm not going to lie to you - I was excited to the point of being jittery. Just in case you're not familiar with it, Richebourg is one of the most exalted of all of the Grand Crus in Vosne-Romanée and therefore in all Burgundy. These are wines that in recent vintages begin at something like $250, and more, depending on the producer. Richebourg is a wine that is mostly consumed by the wealthiest of wine collectors, and also by people in the wine trade who have access to bottles at prices that us retail shoppers will never see.

The crazy thing is, while drinking it, my friend and I agreed that it was not a great wine. And that in no way diminished the experience of drinking it. I savored every sniff and sip. It was fascinating to drink this wine and to talk about it, to try and understand what was happening there. In the end, I think it was a below average version of a great wine, and both of those things showed clearly - the problems with the wine were evident, and so was the greatness of Richebourg.

2000 was not as hot as 2003 but it was a very warm year. Apparently there also were problems with rot. Many 2000's are drinking well now, perhaps even the Grand Crus are drinking well earlier than they do in more typical vintages. This particular wine was essentially ready to drink, in my estimation. It took 10 minutes or so to get used to being on the outside, but it was quite accessible, the tannins were not at all fully resolved but they were mature. The wine didn't really evolve much in the glass over the next 90 minutes.

Regarding the producer, there are many different wines made by someone whose family name is Gros. My understanding is that Gros Frère et Soeur has a good reputation, but is not the best of the Gros family growers, nor are they the worst.

Problems first - the alcohol felt strong and it unbalanced the wine. We checked the label and it was in fact 14%. Probably due to the warmth of the vintage and the high degree of ripeness, but I also wouldn't be surprised if this wine was chaptalized. Sometimes the sweetness felt like it came from something other than fruit, but that also might simply be the oak treatment. The acidity was not strong enough to anchor the fruit and the overall effect was a bit heavy. And the finish fell off rather quickly, which is not what you might expect from a wine of this nobility.

Now, the good stuff - in spite of everything I just said, there were great things about this wine. There was a knot of power and grace in there that was clearly recognizable, and very intriguing. Spices and orange peel and clean soil aromas, assertive aromas that made themselves felt through the alcohol and other problems, and somehow managed to convey a sense of grace. Same thing on the palate - there was a immutable beauty, although finding it did sometimes require close attention. And I have no problem with that. I hope I never drink a wine like Richebourg without paying very close attention.

Perhaps there are some places that are so great, Richebourg among them, that in any reasonable hands, it is not possible to hide its greatness. Bad vintage, overly aggressive oak program, too much extraction, whatever the specific problems way be, perhaps there is no way to mute something like Richebourg. I don't know this personally, but I hope I get to drink another example one day.

7 comments:

Wayne Young said...

Having had a few disappointing experiences with supposedly "great" Burgundies, I'd be willing to bet that if this wine were tasted blind, or had a label that said "Finger Lakes" or "Stellenbosch" you would have trashed it.
Red Burgundy is the White Whale of the wine world. It's the unattainable perfection, the unreasonable expectation.
And then, dammit, you find that ONE BOTTLE of Burgundy that opens the sky and shows you the face of God...

Keith Levenberg said...

Gros Frere uses reverse osmosis concentrators - not quite your style!

Brooklynguy said...

Wayne - actually, i like to think that i taste wine based on what's in the bottle, and if a Finger Lakes wine is great then I would view it as such, and if a Richebourg is merely average, I would view it as such. I read labels and have preconceived notions like the next person, but I also think for myself. i wish you luck finding that one great bottle again.

hey Keith - didn't know that. last year i really liked a Sori Paitin wine that I understand was made using roto fermenters, so who knows what i like. i'm still figuring it out myself.

Timothy said...

I think what Wayne was saying was not that you would have deliberately pumped up a review of a bad wine because of the label, only that it's very difficult not to adjust ones expectations sub-consciously when it's something so highly anticipated; that said, a review like you wrote about a wine at that credibility level is tantamount to trashing it anyway, so well done!

The real question is, would you have been as even handed had you purchased the bottle...wink, wink?

Brooklynguy said...

hey Timothy - that makes sense, your take on Wayne's comment. and i don't know the answer to your question. i probably would have been a lot more annoyed about the way the wine showed if I had bought it myself, you're right.

Do Bianchi said...

The thought of you sneezing and dropping it brings to mind a cinematic moment involving another "luxury" substance...

Great, honest post, man...

Dale Cruse said...

Have you tasted DRC? I've had a '69 La Tache (my birth year - it was a gift) & it was past its prime & a bit over the hill but I took that to be symbolic!