Drink

The wonders of white Burgundy

They last longer than you’d think

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

I promised a return to Burgundy and the 2014 vintage, which becomes no less impressive when recollected in tranquillity. We started at Marc Morey, where Sabine Mollard presented her Bourgogne Blanc. How did it compare with Pierre Bourée’s similar wine, often praised in this column? (We had sampled his ’15 the previous evening.) There is a simple answer: I would prefer the one I had tasted most recently. We are dealing with village wines, along the foothills of greatness. But in their delightful harmonies of butter, lemon, hay and spring flowers, there are hints of the grandeurs of Montrachet.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Not quite, but a charming spring day, certainly. If you drink no lesser wine in the course of this summer, you will have spent a delightful season. The Marc Morey wine was already drinkable, though another year or even two would do no harm. The Frogs will be guzzling the stuff already, but they are a hasty race, except when it comes to defending their country.

We moved on to Fontaine-Gagnard, a great producer. Richard Fontaine, our host, is a former test pilot, with the scars to prove it. No one would insult his military brio. There was a hint of the long-haired boys in silk scarves who flew Spitfires in the Battle of Britain. Though I would hate to accuse him of being a Bordelais, he had a Gascon swagger. Any husband would find him enchanting company, but might wish to ensure that the wife was under lock and key.


In most Burgundian domaines there are now spittoons. There, we still used the gravel underneath the barrels. ‘Cracher’ is so much more expressive than ‘spit’: a hint of onomatopoeia.

Richard’s village Chassagne-Montrachet tasted like a Premier Cru; his Premier Crus like Grand Crus. Anything with the Fontaine Gagnard imprint will be excellent in its class. None of it will be cheap. That, alas, is especially true of his Batard-Montrachet. If the Premier Crus were falcons, this was a mighty eagle. It had presence, power and panache. In Burgundy, and among those who love white Burgundy, there is a terror: oxidisation. As a result, a lot of outstanding wine is being drunk too early. No one can bear the thought of bottles that cost at least £100 turning to vinegar. Throughout our trip, we found no hint of this modern Black Death. But every-one would be relieved if someone worked out what had gone wrong.

We finished our visit to Richard with a Chassagne Caillerets 1990. Although it was a good year, that is a long time for white Burgundy to last. Discussing it, we wondered whether it was time to reassess conventional wisdom. This was a delicious wine, and there seemed to be no hurry to drink it up. It made some of us nostalgic for the ’96s. That was supposed to be one of the finest vintages or recent decades. Those who had filled their cellars with the stuff were convivially complacent — until they tried the first bottle. Oxidisation was rampant. Treasured — and expensive — bottles had turned to vinegar. That has scarred a generation of Burgundy lovers. Even so, it is clear that non-oxidised white Burgundy can last a lot longer than has often been supposed.

Further proof of this was to come. Edmond Delagrange, a Burgundian patriarch, had also made a Chassagne Caillerets. After a delightful visit to their related domaine, his daughter proposed that we finish with something special. Her grandson, Marc-Antonin Blain, was dispatched to the cellar. He returned — with a 1980 Caillerets (not a special year). He opened it and poured. It was alarmingly yellow. Oh Lord, what were we to say if it had gone over the hill? There was no reason to fear. It was superb: against much competition, the wine of the trip. We toasted the generations, the vines, the esprit of eternal Burgundy. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

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