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.
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.