Every now and again I have the opportunity to attend some seriously heady wine tastings courtesy of my good friends at The Cellar Door. Truth be told, these things can be a bit intimidating—I’m usually the youngest person at a table full of attendees that are have traveled all over Europe collecting wines for years (if they’re not wine industry themselves). But they’re also the best opportunities to learn about wine that I’ve encountered, with each tasting serving as a master class in a body of work from a person or place. So I relish the opportunity to participate in this stuff and hope I can share some useful takeaways.
If you don’t know much about wine, start here: Europeans name their wines after the regions that they come from, while Americans name ours after the grape they’re made from. Thus, a wine that we would call ‘Pinot Noir’ when it is made in Oregon is simply called ‘Burgundy’ (or, somewhat redundantly, ‘Red Burgundy,’ to distinguish it from the region’s whites) when it hails from that region of France, though both are made entirely from the pinot noir grape. As it turns out, this is revealing: American wines typically showcase the flavors and qualities of the fruit, but for the Europeans, the grape is merely the vehicle through which the terroir—the flavor and essence of the place—is delivered.
And so the allure with Burgundy is in its dirt. For the most part, that dirt consists primarily of two elements: limestone and clay. They’re basically the yin and yang of Burgundies. The elegant, nuanced, and oft-understated limestone provides a structure for the wines, while the unrefined, bombastic, and usually downright stinky clay dirt gives the wine its personality.
This balance and interaction between the limestone-driven and clay-driven aspects of the wines—between the structure and the stink—was a concept that was hammered home repeatedly as I tasted through the 2014 offerings from Fernand and Laurent Pillot, a small producer headquartered near the village of Chassagne-Montrachet. The hosts, Cellar Door proprietor Bryan Shuttleworth and wine importer Chad “Animaux du Vin” Zimmerman, set the table by declaring 2014 a “set-up vintage” for Burgundies: 2015 is expected to be a stunner, and these tend to be preceded by good-but-not-great editions that foreshadow some of the qualities of the coming Big Year. There can be a little bit of a hit-or-miss aspect sometimes, but that means there are some terrific values to be found if you search around for the winners.
While listening to Les Frères Vin discuss some of this context, I sipped on a Premier Cru offering from the Morgeot vineyard in Chassagne-Montrachet. (Premier Crus are basically the second-best classification of Burgundy, behind the coveted Grand Cru. Grand Crus are the top ~1% of all Burgundies, Premier Crus are the next ~10%, and village-level wines are the next ~25%). It’s an immediate attention-grabber on the nose, with strawberry, a dash of cinnamon, and some nice funk. It’s less complex on the palate than in the nose, and the finish has a harshness to it; I took these as signs that the wine is still a little too young, which isn’t too surprising for these big wines a mere two years from vintage date. The wine opens up a good bit with some swirling, leading to brighter and more pronounced fruit tones to balance out that funk.
After enjoying the Morgeot as a sort-of palate-trainer, three flights of three wines each were served. The first featured two village-level wines—Volnay and Pommard Tavannes—as well as another Premier Cru, Beaune Boucherottes. The two quality levels and the geographic diversity represented by the flight made for an interesting side-by-side comparison of the wines. The Beaune Boucherottes showed as the lightest and most delicate of the bunch by far, with classical limestone notes and unexpected fruit aromas mingling with talcum powder that hit high in the nostrils. It’s subtle, simple, and mostly forgettable, particularly compared to the other two. The Pommard Tavannes is in many ways a polar opposite expression of Burgundy, big and boisterous on the tongue with a long, pronounced finish.
The Volnay, however, was easily my favorite wine of the flight. It’s made with grapes from several different parcels that might each be of Premier Cru quality on their own, but because each parcel is too small to do much with on its own, the more prestigious designation is sacrificed in exchange for the freedom of mixing the disparate grapes. The result is a wonderfully nuanced, complex juice that outperforms its $40 price point. On the nose, I caught some aromas of warm dark fruit, chocolate, and that stink that you get in best Burgundies. It’s hard to describe, because most ways that you might try to articulate it make it sound awful (“dirty diapers” is a common comparison), but in reality it’s utterly fantastic. Anyway, the Volnay has that stink. It is noteworthy that though there were hailstorms in much of the region in 2014, Volnay was spared; perhaps this is why it outshines its more acclaimed peers in this vintage.
The second round was a vertical flight of the 2011, 2012, and 2014 vintages from Clos de Vergers, a Premier Cru vineyard in the Pommard appellation. At $53, the 2014 Clos de Vergers is a step up in price from the previous flight (older vintages were not for sale). It has some of the same pronounced stink as the Volnay, but more subtle, and better integrated with the fruit flavors. Whereas the stink of the Volnay jumps out of the glass to kick you in the junk, this wine is more seductive: It invites you to swirl, get closer, swirl again, get even closer, and when at last you’re as deep into the glass as you can get, you close your eyes and inhale, and BANG! It kicks you right in the junk.
The older vintages inform where this might be going, with the junk-kicking aspects mellowing into a nice blend of leather, tobacco, and mushroom, that is almost more characteristic of a Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine than a Burgundy. Both older vintages are significantly softer on the palate than the current release, with the 2011 in particular delivering a lively, flavorful finish that leaves you wanting more. The 2011 vintage is supposedly not well-loved among Burgundy aficionados, but Les Frères Vin argue that it gets a bad rap; “It captures everything that Burgundy is,” according to Chad.
The last flight of the night featured the 2014 vintages of wine from the Charmots and Rugiens vineyards. Like Clos de Vergers, both are Premier Cru vineyards in Pommard. But these are a step up in prestige—indeed, Rugiens is so esteemed that it is likely to soon be promoted to Grand Cru—and accordingly in price, at $65 and $75 respectively. To demonstrate where these young wines might be heading, a bottle of 2008 Rugiens rounded out the flight.
Each of the 2014’s has some tantalizing elements. The Charmots showed as the most delicate wine of the night on the palate, revealing some wonderful notes of red fruit and limestone that are buried in the background with the other Burgundies. The Rugiens is a bit more pronounced, with complex floral aromas balanced by a terrific fruit profile that reminds me of cherry-flavored Jolly Ranchers. On balance, though, the wines are fairly inaccessible at this point. It takes a lot of swirling to coax out that complexity, and the powerful tannins overwhelm the light bodies of these wines at present, producing an astringent, off-putting finish.
The 2008 Rugiens was further along in terms of accessibility, but still not quite there yet. The nose is more complex than anything of the night, with candy apple and licorice jumping out of a backdrop of dark, almost coffee-tinged soil. It is not nearly so well-integrated on the palate yet, however; the persistence of the tannins continues to overpower the nuanced tones. It’s easier to see how special this wine will be when everything comes together, but it remains too tightly wound at age eight to fully shine.
All said, my picks from the lineup were the 2014 Volnay and 2014 Clos de Vergers. Both are fascinating and complex beasts that over-deliver for their price points, and each appears to have terrific aging potential, though both are accessible young, particularly with food. A succulent pork chop, prepared simply, is the obvious food pairing for these youthful wines. A few months hence, I look forward to warming up a winter night with a bottle of young Volnay alongside a sous vide chop sprinkled with just a touch of provincial herbs. I hope my junk is prepared for the kick.