Monday, March 18, 2013

The Ability to Withstand Magnification

The other night a friend came over for dinner and he brought with him a bottle of white Burgundy, a wine that reminded me why it is that I love white Burgundy. Not that I needed a reminder - some of the finest wines I've ever drunk have been white Burgundies. I'm not put off by the bottles that don't live up to expectations, even though these can be costly disappointments. Wine in all categories can be disappointing, and I don't buy the cliché about Burgundy being "hit or miss." All wine is hit or miss when you get right down to it. Storage, bottle variation, and many other factors can reduce the experience of any given wine. And when white Burgundy is on, it is as thrilling as wine can be, to my taste.

The funny thing is, on paper this wine didn't have to be so good. 1994 is not considered to be a good vintage, for one. And this wine comes from Puligny, but the producer is better known for white wines from Meursault. That said, the 1994 Robert Ampeau & Fils Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Combettes was a very good wine. Not the greatest of white Burgundies that I've had, even recently, but very good, particularly considering the difficult vintage. And the wine made me think quite a bit.

We opened it and tasted, maybe a half hour or so before we would begin drinking it. My friend who brought the wine was not terribly impressed, and I understood why - it seemed dilute, without much concentration. But we had graduated college in 1994, and we also were probably not terribly concentrated in 1994, needing time to gain complexity and become more serious. We have since done that, and with a little air, the wine did too. It never fully lost that dilute feeling, but it did blossom aromatically and although not a wine with much sap or richness of body, it absolutely and clearly articulated itself and showed a very lovely delicacy to its aromas and flavors. That's not a cop out way of explaining away a mute wine. It is a truthful description of the wine's character.

Not every wine will be powerful, rich, and with concentrated flavors. You already know that, but I'm just saying. Mature white Burgundy can be great and can do so in the character of something light in body, delicate, almost fragile. I've not had other vintages of this wine so I don't know, maybe this is always the character of Ampeau's Combottes. Somehow, I doubt it. 1994 was not an easy year, with lots of rain and other problems. Many people wrote off the vintage, and today's prices for '94s are lower than any other vintage in the '90s. But I've had several examples of 1994 Burgundy in the past months and have really enjoyed them.

So, what about this particular wine: I loved the clean and pure articulation of aroma, incense and stone and spring water. And I loved the delicate way those aromas tranlslated on the palate, finishing with some pungency, leaving a lingering incense and mineral essence that didn't so much stain the palate, but left an impression nonetheless.

In his classic book Making Sense of Burgundy, Matt Kramer writes about Puligny-Montrachet:
The goût de terroir of Puligny seems somehow more sharply etched than elsewhere. The fruit is defined and powerful yet restrained, like the musculature of a martial artist. Its perfect composition is revealed by its ability to withstand magnification. As you increase resolution, from commune level Puligny to premier cru and then zoom to Batard-, Chevlalier- and Le Montrachet, you find no blemishes, no distortions in taste or balance.
I hadn't read this section of the book in a while and the day after drinking this wine, went back for a look. This paragraph struck me in its description of Puligny's restrained character, something that I am learning to see in the wines, especially in relation to the brawnier wines of Meursault, Puligny's neighbor to the north. Combettes is a vineyard that borders on the Meursault appellation, and probably has more flesh than some Puligny wines (which may have something to do with why Ampeau's Combettes in 1994 is as successful as it is). And still, the character of this Combettes, to me anyway, was unmistakably Puligny.

Kramer also talked about the ability to withstand magnification, and I like thinking about this. Maybe the idea can be extended to vintage. In a riper vintage like 2003 for example, the essential restraint should still be evident. And in 1994, for example, a lesser vintage, there is no distortion in taste or balance.

Maybe this sounds like a simplistic thing to say, but maybe it would be easier for those of us who love Burgundy if we stop hoping that every bottle will be a great thing, if we let go of our ideas of the heights a bottle should ascend to. I'm not saying that we should dumb it down or stop expecting the wines to be great. But that it's also nice to allow a 1994 to be a 1994, and to appreciate it for whatever its charms may be.


Anonymous said...

This is undoubtedly true, BG, that we should appreciate wine on its stated, rather than on absolute, terms. Further, there is a very large part of modern wine collection and appreciation that is biographical. Rather than the old school buying multiple cases, vintage in and vintage out, of first growths and cru Champagne, most of us buy particular wines at a certain time (and for a certain taste and then-affordable price). Yes, we might buy the occasional $16k DRC from Chambers, but generally our cellars are a reflection of our developing taste at the moment--sort of like a large clothes closet, and we discover in the back some bell bottom pants or a Cali Cab, and grin in embarrassment. My rambling point is that a village Burgundy was probably bought because it then thought a good value and may have represented a fit with more expensive purchases or different wines. The reason for the specific purchase may now be lost in memory, but we should embrace it as part of who we were and are, and enjoy it on those terms (though maybe not wear the bell bottoms publicly except on Halloween or at a 60s party).

Cold Bacon said...

>Yes, we might buy the occasional $16k DRC from Chambers

who is we?

Anyway agree 100% about white burgundy. Combettes is my favorite 1er cru vinyard from there right now. There is a Combettes right on the market right now, which is so good it's ridiculous. You'll have to get it from the west coast probably (east coast has pretty much run out, but not west). I will tell you about it. After I get a couple more.

Mike said...

Any chance you might illuminate some reputable places for sourcing older vintages? Working in a wine store I'm constantly tasting the newest releases of wines, but lately I've been more and more intrigued by older wines.

Brooklynguy said...

Mike - I don't have a lot of advice here. I no longer trust the auction sites as the wines are often damaged in some way. I look at good wine stores, as they sometimes buy old cellars, or library releases from the winery. This 1994 Puligny came from Astor Place in NYC.

Cold Bacon said...

I generally agree with Brooklynguy on this issue. Best thing is to age it yourself. Which I realize is daunting, but that is the best thing. I have had some success buying wines of the last 10 years. Anything older than that who knows. I would say go ahead and buy wines under 10 yrs old or less than say $150 from reputable auction sites. But I would not risk more than that. It's definitely safe to buy from a retailer I think than auction. But as I say I've been pretty satisfied with auction on a very limited basis. Retailers sell bad wine too of course. I bought some 1990 Hermitage from a retailer recently that was somewhat underwhelming so it was hard to say if storage or just the wine itself was to blame. I go back to what I said initially, which is you really just need to think long term. Make the effort to store and age things yourself. And have patience? If you absolutely have to have 82 Bordeaux and so on, then probably the best thing is to find some other people who are older and drink theirs? :)