Thursday, December 30, 2010

Blind leading the blind....

Before moving on to the 2009 red Burgundies, a brief interval to highlight a “humble” wine punching well above its weight.

Every month or two Sarah and Davide of the very excellent Sage Restaurant ( hold a food and wine evening – the last few came under the heading “Autumn Feasts” – plenty of good food, good wine, good fun – and a good fixed price. We rummage through the cellar for the wines and between us all, we try and come up with a different theme for each get-together. They are normally sold out in advance, so there’s a good fun, slightly wild atmosphere on the night!

A few weeks back we had a special Christmas evening. Sarah and Davide had just been informed of a very prestigious award – which they can’t say anything about until January – so we all decided to make a pretty special evening of it. Davide rustled up a menu of four amazing courses and we decided to try a rather unusual twist on the red wines. We selected 24 different red wines that would range in price from €20 to €85 on a restaurant list and then ran out and bought as much tin foil as possible – big demand just before Christmas for tin foil – and wrapped each of the bottles to hide their identity. Each pair of guests then chose a number from 1 – 24 and this corresponded to their “mystery” wine that was then put on the table for them to enjoy. Of course, if the next table’s wine seemed to be nicer, then the challenge for the guests was to try and convince them to swap. If a guest really objected to the wine they had received, then they could request a random replacement bottle – but again unaware as to what it might be.

During the meal, we wandered around (and of course ate and drank!) and asked guests to guess three general things about the wine they had: country, age and price they would be happy to pay in a restaurant.

As the various dishes were served, bottles were passed over heads and opinions exchanged. Semi-controlled mayhem (if there is such a thing!) ensued. Mature Aussies, Chateauneufs, Bordeaux and Burgundies all did the rounds. Two bottles from the initial bunch were rejected by their original recipients – only to find love from different diners! At the end of the evening, the “results” of the blind bottles were announced – to a raucous reception. In general, most wines were pegged around their potential list prices. A couple of the more expensive wines didn't fare so well, with one diner describing an €85 Beaune 1er Cru as “dogs pee” - he’s a vet, so he should know!

The star of the night turned out to be a wine of more humble origin – a very popular “House” red we import from Palo Masi in Tuscany that normally lists for around €20 in restaurants - Poggerissi Rosso. One guest – who had rejected an earlier bottle and would happily describe themselves as a wine aficionado, confidently pegged the Poggerissi as a French red that they would happily pay €65 for! Another said they would pay €45, and a third (there were only 3 bottles of it included) said €30. Not bad!

Just shows that blind tasting can be very levelling – and fun!

Domaine Buisson-Charles 2009

Next it was off to meet with Patrick Essa at his father-in-law’s Domaine of Buisson-Charles. Patrick has been making the wines here since 1981 and has his own very clear ideas about the style he seeks to achieve. He eschews maceration, harvests relatively early (started on 12th September for the 2009’s), never seeks more than 13 per cent alcohol and uses 30% new oak. They are also very reasonably priced.

I had tasted here a few years previously and the wines had both interested and, to be honest, confused me slightly. The barrel samples tended to exhibit pretty firm acidity and were what I would describe as a “very traditional” style – and yet any older bottles opened displayed wonderful freshness and great complexity – almost (and I know, it does sound strange) with aged Chenin Blanc-like complexity.

And so it was also this time. I was back in translation mode, so balancing a notebook, glass and dividing the brain between olfactory and translatory senses. Easy! As we tasted the barrel samples, the ripeness of the 2009 vintage was quite evident, although backed by pretty firm acidity. There was some “heat” in a couple of them – but the challenge (based on previous experiences) was trying to determine how they might evolve. The Meursault “Tessons” and the 1er Cru “le Cras” were both impressive and my favourites of the various samples tasted.

Patrick also produces some very tasty reds – a lovely rich and yet floral Pommard villages and then a 1er Cru “Santenots” from Volnay. My preference was for the Pommard.

To finish off, Patrick offered to open an older “mystery” bottle of Meursault Villages for us to guess the vintage. Unfortunately the first bottle he tried had a soft cork which disappeared back into the bottle, but undeterred he headed off into the dark cellar to return with one more. I guessed around the 2001 mark – about 10 years old. To all of our surprise it turned out to be a 1981 – almost 30 years old. It had amazing freshness and was very impressive. Patrick was on a roll at this stage, so next up was a 2005 Meursault 1er Cru Charmes – except that it had already been open for 10 days! Again, very impressive.

And therein lies the challenge with wines like these. The tasting re-confirmed my original opinion that these wines can be challenging in their youth – I hesitate to use the phrase “old fashioned” as I don’t think Patrick’s approach is in any way outdated. But he makes wines for the long haul – and again I use the example of an aged Chenin-blanc – that can take a few years to shed their austerity – but undoubtedly blossom into beautiful examples of wonderful Meursaults.

Pierre-Yves Colin Morey 2009

This must be the most drawn-out Burgundy report ever. Since the last report on Didier and Genevieve’s wines about four weeks ago, we’ve had the IMF bail-out, a Budget, the country skidding to a halt, and X-Factor winner and now the country running out of water….not bad for four weeks!

But back in the recent mists of time, Miro, Samo, Sinead and I were trundling towards Chassagne Montrachet. Prior to departing Ireland I had contacted a couple of new producers about visits to taste with a view to working with them. Unfortunately DRC said no (in fairness, Aubert de Villaine was away), but Pierre-Yves and I had exchanged emails and an appointment had been set. I had come across his name a number of times and the feedback was always universally positive. It was shaping up to be a good tasting.

The first thing to remember is that there are lots of Colins around Chassagne and nearby St. Aubin. Pierre-Yves is the son of the well known Marc Colin and his wife, Caroline, is the daughter of the local Chassagne Producer, Jean-Marc Morey. Pierre-Yves worked with his father from 2001 to 2005 – having previously done stints with other producers including Chalk Hill (California), Wolf Blass (Australia), Vacheron (Sancerre) & Ferraton in the Rhone Valley. However in 2005 he wanted more flexibility to start implementing his own ideas about viticulture and vinification and his father split the Domaine into four equal parts. Pierre-Yves acquired 4 hectares of various vineyards and 2006 was his first truly independent vintage under the Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey label.

Since then his star has risen rapidly. Although friendships don’t necessarily guarantee good wines, being able to call on Jean-Francois Coche Dury certainly isn’t a hindrance and Roulot is a pretty good role model to follow! Today he produces between 60,000 and 70,000 bottles annually and supplements his own vineyard holdings by buying in about 30% of his annual production in grapes – paying top prices for top quality material. He doesn’t differentiate between the two in terms of labelling – all are given the same careful elevage – and many of the different cuvees are only made in tiny quantities – for example only around 60 cases of Meursault Perrieres each year. The range is extensive – from a delicious St. Aubin “le Blanc” all the way to Corton-Charlemagne and both Batard and Chevalier-Montrachet. A nice cellar to spend a bit of time in!

Of course, we started by calling to the wrong address – it was a Colin, but not the right one! With the sleepy hamlet of Chassagne watching us four stragglers wandering around in the rain, we made our way to the correct address where Pierre-Yves welcomed us. The first bit of good news is that he has excellent English – so I could take a break from my translation duties and I could give full attention to the wines. And they certainly deserved attention.

From the very first taste of the 2009 St. Aubin les Creaux it was clear that this was going to be a great tasting. The common theme among all the wines was that of freshness combined with a wonderful precision. And the acidity? Well, for the first time this trip, the acidities seemed in perfect balance with the fruit. This set off an interesting discussion about the differences between “ripe” acidity and “unripe” acidity. Interestingly, Pierre-Yves tends to harvest a little earlier than others – and according to him, some others would say that this leads to an elevated sense of acidity in his wines. Certainly not to us – and that was the paradox – a slightly earlier harvest for purer, fresher fruit with good sugars produced a much more elegant wine than one with later harvested grapes at higher sugars that had then possibly been compromised by a different producer having to acidify. The St. Aubin les Combes was a little more precise and defined than the Creaux with nice minerality. It is on the Chassagne side of St. Aubin and certainly exhibits similar characteristics. Making our way through the St. Aubin 1er Crus of Chattenieres (very flinty, smoky and richer on the palate) and Remilly (on Puligny side and quite closed and reserved) we came across the St. Aubin 1er Cru of Champlots. Also on the Puligny side, this had amazing minerality intertwined with ripe, intense citrus fruits and that holy grail of natural “ripe” acidity.

In fact, all of the wines were outstanding examples of balanced and harmonious wines. It’s easy to make a “flashy” wine, but these were the opposite and therefore tended to catch us unawares with their elegant intensity and pure fruits. In the vineyards there is no stripping away of excess foliage during the growing season and no green harvest. It’s all down to the work put in at pruning in early Spring – only 4-5 buds per speron giving low (but not too low) yields that the vine can mature and ripen effectively without undue stress. All the St. Aubins are bottled after one year to maximise freshness, and the Premier and Grand Crus after 18 months. In recent years, Pierre-Yves has become a convert to the larger 350 litre barrels – the larger capacity reduces the overall wine-to-oak ratio and only 25% of them are new. Again, this subtlety is fully reflected in the purity of the wines. He does no battonage (stirring the juice whilst on its lees) – another “technique” that manifests itself in very precise wines.

We enjoyed a stunning (and relatively speaking “lowly”) Village Chassagne-Montrachet from the lieu-dit “Ancienierres” – lots of ripe lime fruits from 85 year old vines, and wonderfully balanced acidity on the finish. The Chassagne “Caillerets” was richer and more creamy – and will need more time to evolve. The Meursault 1er Cru Perrieres continued the theme with slightly denser fruit structure typical of Meursault and amazing length. Finally the Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru provided all sorts of wonderful contradictions as often a Grand Cru does – reserved on the nose, but searing intensity and rich complexity on the palate rounded (and quite literally “rounded”) out with the, by now familiar, ripe acids!

All in all, a hugely impressive range of barrel samples and a very reassuring tasting in the context of concerns about the general ripeness of the 2009 vintage for the whites. We have been lucky enough to secure an allocation of the 2009’s and will be offering them in our Burgundy 2009 Pre-Arrival offer next February.