Two posts in one go!!

As the May Theme Tasting at the ICC is on the May 1st (happy Maypoles and all that…) I thought I’d make these two posts together so one didn’t bury the other…

So here we are:

May Theme: White Burgundy

White Burgundy (with the exception of small amounts of Aligoté, and even smaller amounts of Pinot Blanc) is an elaboration of that ubiquitous grape: Chardonnay. Like many of my generation of wine enthusiasts, my own feelings about Chardonnay have been uneven. From early membership of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) group in the nineties in recoil at oaky, vanilla and pineapple Australian concoctions at the time, to OWB (Only White Burgundy) later, to a more eclectic and open minded attitude now. Nevertheless, about 90% of the Chardonnay I drink is Burgundy and I imagine 97 of the best 100 Chardonnays I’ve ever consumed come from there.

Chardonnay is widely planted – Jancis Robinson (“Wine Grapes” 2012) lists 35 countries from all over the world that grow it. There is more Chardonnay in the world than Syrah – it makes over 5% of the world’s wine.  It is the most planted white grape in USA, Chile and Australia and, together with France, these 4 countries make two-thirds of the Chardonnay in the World, although a significant proportion (maybe 20%) goes into sparkling wines.

Chardonnay lacks a striking flavour of its own, but rather responds to where it is grown and how it is vinified. Just under a quarter of the world’s Chardonnay is French, about 20% of that is used in sparkling wines, mostly in Champagne, and only a third is White Burgundy – making White Burgundy (only?) about 8% of the world’s still Chardonnay.

So what characteristics does Chardonnay have? It’s a medium weight white, usually more-or-less dry, which nearly always has an acidity that seems to be citrus-like. It often shows an oily quality which can progress to butter, caramel or hazel-nut. It usually has some fruit, which ranges from citric through melon, apple/pear to tropical, and it is susceptible to oak, producing vanilla notes. The soil: chalky, slatey, rocky, mineral; seems to come out in the wine when made carefully too.

In fact there are two extremes of style, one which emphasises the steely acidity, and the citrus and mineral qualities, another which emphasises the fruit and richness. Very good examples seem to offer – somehow, and captivatingly – both. The first style is the archetype Chablis, the second includes most new world styles – the transcendental synthesis is the great wine (and great prices) from Burgundy: Aloxe-Corton, Mersault or Montrachet….

Cutting right across this is the use of oak, or more specifically: new oak, to ferment or mature the wine. Many traditional growers age the wine in oak, but often with low proportions of new oak, from just replacing a few barrels a year up to renewing 20% or 33%. Barrel aging can add richness and progress the maturing of the wine, but new oak adds vanilla, which doesn’t seem a great flavour to combine with the buttery or caramel flavours (you get custard!) or with tropical fruit.

In fact white Burgundy covers a range of areas and styles, but the soil is mostly some form of chalk and this adds some restraint to a grape that can be “blowsy” on heavier soils.

The four main areas are Chablis; the Côte d’Or (for white this means, almost entirely, the Côte de Beaune); the Côte Chalonnais and the Côte Mâconnais. Chablis is 70 miles to the North, the other areas form a more-or-less continuous 50 miles sweep south from Beaune down to Pouilly and St. Veran, S-W of Mâcon, and the start of the Beaujolais.

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Chablis is cooler and the soil is kimmeridgean clay-limestone, which emphasises the “steely” mineral side, although caramel in the aged wine is common. Chablis is 38% of White Burgundy. As well as basic Chablis there are Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards.

The Côte d’Or is richer and one gets fatter, sometimes oily, wines tending to hazelnut and richer fruit. The Côte d’Or is only about 14% of White Burgundy. As well as the famous villages (Beaune, Mersault…) there are lesser ones, usually off to the west of the main line of the slopes: St Romain; St Aubin; Pernand-Vergelesses… Further west still, above the main slope, is the general Haut-Côtes de Beaune Appellation. The main villages also have Premier Cru and (a few, stunningly expensive) Grand Cru vineyards.

Chalonnais wines are tighter again, but without the austerity, or the class, of good Chablis. The Chalonnais is quite small – producing about 8% of Burgundy’s white wine.

The Mâconnais gives richer wines, more new-world-ish, without the complexity or prices of Côte d’Or. The Mâconnais is big, producing nearly 40% of white Burgundy including much just labelled “Bourgogne”.

Premier Cru means rather less in Chalonnais or Mâconnais wines. Nevertheless there are several levels of style and cost – before one takes into account the skill and/or reputation of the grower. Prices start around the £10 and spiral up to £30 quite quickly – before you even get to Grand Cru wines – some of which are in three figures. I hope this tasting will guide you through the lower slopes of this intriguing subject.

Notes and scores will be posted, probably, on Monday May 5th.

May Wine of The Month

Marcillac ‘Lo Sang del Pais’ (Domaine du Cros) 2012 – 12.5% – Wine Society £8.50

Marcillac is a small red AOC (ca. 1m bottles a year) about 60 miles east of Cahors in the Aveyron river valley. The main grape is Fer Servadou (locally called Mansois), although about 10% of grapes in the area are Cabernets: Sauvignon & Franc. Fer is a grandparent of Carménère.

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The nose is very pungent – even drain smells – at first, which clears to a slightly cedar-wood tinged fruit which grows and grows into a raspberry juice aroma.

Palate has quite a lot of secondary claret-ish flavours, echoing the cedar note. Herby, even slightly bay leaf / laurel or minty hints and a woody bitter chocolate finish. The fruit is dark raspberry (or loganberry?) fruit in a “young claret with a bitter twist” package.

The wine has an artificial cork closure and needs time to breathe: even a couple of hours open lifts the wine. 24 hours vacuumed and with food (pizza) and the bay leaf bitterness recedes further

The wine then acquires the character of Beaujolais, with similar darker fruit but showing a lighter weight than Gamay. Something between that and a light fruity Cabernet Franc gives you an idea – making one think it could be served slightly chilled with a barbeque!

The wine is young, and the artificial closure means a year in the cellar and an hour in a decanter would improve it a point or two.

Ratings: Quality: 13/20     Value: 15/20

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