Sunday, May 13, 2012

The mysteries of vintage

Wine geeks with money obsess about vintage. The wines that echo through the decades have a year appended to them, like the 1947 Cheval Blanc and the 1961 Latour that were famous enough to win a shout-out in the movie Ratatouille. Sometimes the year itself takes top billing, as with the 1982s from Bordeaux. These are legendary wines with prices to match. As someone who frequents far more modest precincts of the wine universe, MFWC has often wondered why vintage matters. Intellectually, I understand that weather varies from year to year, especially in Europe, and that differences in temperature and rainfall can have dramatic effects on the wine. The '47 Cheval Blanc is itself the product of an intensely hot summer in Bordeaux. But how does this manifest itself in everyday wines?

I got my first inkling a few months ago at Gramercy Tavern when I split a bottle of Michel Gahier's 2009 La Vigne de Louis, a wine made from the Trousseau grape. Trousseau is grown only in the Jura, in northeastern France, and it generally produces a light wine. This one had a fuller nose and was much more robust than I had expected - more alcohol, bigger flavors, and much less obvious acidity. The same thing happened when I drank the Gahier Grand Vergers that I picked up at Union Square Wines during one of their sales. It turns out that 2009 was a hot year throughout Europe. The hotter the climate, the more sugar the grapes produce, and the more alcohol the wine made from them has. The French have a term for this, coups de soleil, or sunburn, to which Pinot Noir is especially susceptible because it ripens earlier than other grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon is more impervious to heat, which makes it a better grape for California. (The you, Oxford Wine Dictionary.)  

If sunburn tastes like the 2009 Volnay Premier Cru "Carelle Sous la Chapelle" from Domaine Rossignal-Fevrier, I can live without it. Wines from Volnay, in Burgundy, are famous for their delicacy, the OWD tells us, but this one had all the subtlety of a 240-pound fullback rumbling for three yards and a first down before meeting a linebacker head-on. The wine's heat - its alcohol - was too much for me when I tasted it last week at a gathering of lawyers in New York. In fairness, the person next to be very much enjoyed it, but she and her husband prefer bigger wines.

But vintage shouldn't lead to overly sweeping judgments, as the other wine served at the dinner showed. Aloxe-Corton is about seven miles northeast of Volnay, with the small town of Beaune right in the middle. (Puligny-Montrachet, whence the bargain-bin 2009 Olivier Leflaive I had this winter, is five miles south of Volnay; Arbois in the Jura is 60 miles east as the crow flies.) The '09 Dubreil Fontaine Premier Cru from Corton-Charlemagne near Aloxe-Corton was delicious. Served a little too cold at the cocktail hour that preceded the dinner, its acidity was forward, but once it warmed up, its nose was entrancing, beautiful, delicate, soft. I didn't take notes, since I was ostensibly at the dinner in a professional capacity, but the wine seemed better integrated and more polished than the Puligny-Montrachet. Delicacy prevents me from discussing the crass question of value in this case, but it's safe to say that I won't write off the 2009 whites from Burgundy.        

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