Except for Beaujolais nouveau, Burgundy’s red wines have long been regarded as keepers, wines you buy in the most recent vintage then stick in your cellar until they mature, hoping you will live long enough to enjoy them at their peak.
A few years ago, when the head of the prestigious Domaine de la Romanee-Conti said of the new vintage, “These wines are ready to be drunk very soon,” I asked him how soon that might be. “Oh, in just 10 to 15 years.”
With recent vintages of Romanee-Conti selling for more than $10,000 a bottle, that seems an awfully long time to delay the pleasure of drinking one.
Fortunately, times are changing in Burgundy, where, on a visit last November, most of the vignerons and winemakers I spoke with scoffed at the idea that their wines should be held back for years and years.
While tasting the wines of Chateau de la Tour Clos-Vougeot, I was struck by how forward a vintage like 2007 was, an impression confirmed by sales manager Claire Naigeon, who said, “It is a delicate wine and not a year for keeping. In two more years the wine will be superb.”
Technology and innovation do not yet trump tradition in Burgundy. But outmoded techniques have been abandoned in favor of more analysis of terroir to grow healthier vines, and to produce wines with more balanced fruits and acids that don’t require decades of aging.
Blair Pethel, a rare American who owns a Burgundy vineyard, Domaine Dublere, began making wines in 2004 and believes that everything from using organic soil to the gravitational pull of the moon affect his wines.
“Once you achieve balance in a wine, it should stay balanced for a very long time,” he told me during a tasting at his small estate in La Montagne. I found Pethel’s wines like the 2011 Savigny Les Beaune bright, even sassy, indicative of a wine that will be delicious upon release next year.
“In the 1990s the style for Burgundy was power and extraction,” Thibault Marion, owner of Domaine Seguin-Manuel, said over dinner in Beaune. “But they did not always hold up. Now, we are aiming at more finesse and fruit. I hardly ever chaptalize my wines,” referring to the Burgundian practice of adding sugar to grape must to increase the wine’s alcohol level. “The wines are now better, fresher, with concentration of flavors that come together much sooner than they did with the old style.”
Laurent Drouhin, Mamaronek, New York-based export director for Joseph Drouhin, explained to me that the vinification of the Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines of Burgundy has not changed.
“We have never sought to make heavily extracted wines, so ours can be enjoyed a bit younger,” he said.
Recently Drouhin gave a tasting for a group of bankers who asked what Burgundies would be best for their clients to buy, store, then re-sell as an investment. “I jumped up and told them that is not why we produce wine,” he said.
“We want people to drink and enjoy them, not keep them to sell years from now. You can easily enjoy younger Burgundies from the village appellations. Even the Grand Crus from Chambolle Musigny can be enjoyed a bit younger, but you’re still going to have to wait for a Chambertin to mature fully.”
Reflecting the trend toward drinking younger red Burgundies, wine-centric restaurants carry a deep selection of recent vintages on their wine lists.
At Daniel Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne in New York, sommelier Caleb Ganzer has more than 50 dozen red Burgundies listed, overwhelmingly from the 2008, 2009, and 2010 vintages, including many Premier Crus, along with a handful of bottlings from the late 1980s and 1990s.
“Burgundies are all very allocated when you want to grab great wines in current release and try to hold onto them to see how they develop,” says Ganzer. “And the recent vintages deliver so much pleasure now right out of the bottle. People are also looking for more fruit and less earth, and producers are delivering that now.”
(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)