Thursday, 28 August, 2014

Published January 17, 2014
Imbibing the culture of Burgundy
Fine Burgundian wines almost always display a refined quality with nuances that showcase the region's character, writes NK YONG
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Gems from the vine: Pommard village (above) in France's prestigious Burgundy vineyards region. Clos Vougeot Grand Cru 1993, Domaine Meo-Camuzet; Musigny Grand Cru 1990, Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue; and Domaine Leflaive's Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2002 embody the characteristics of the region. - PHOTOS: AFP, NK YONG

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I HAD three great Burgundies last night at dinner - my hostess was a very dear friend who shares my love of wine, hence the wines. While absorbed in the study and enjoyment of the complexities and beauty of those wines, the words of Roger Scruton, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, came to mind: "Burgundy is not a drink, it is a culture."

All three wines invoked images and memories of Burgundy - the people, proprietors and winemakers, wine-tasting in the cellars from cask, dinner in their homes and restaurants. But similar memories are also associated with wines from Bordeaux, Spain, Italy and such, and I am constrained to amend Roger Scruton's words and say instead that "Fine wine is not a drink but a culture."

Clos Vougeot Grand Cru 1993, Domaine Meo-Camuzet

Medium-dark brownish red, giving forth a sweet aroma of very ripe pinot grapes. On the palate a somewhat thick dense flavour of very sweet ripe fruit, with touches of strawberry flavours. Rather thick texture, and a little lacking in freshness acidity and slightly short on the finish. A good solid Pinot drink, enjoyable but does not enchant. Would it get better with more age? Already 20 years old, perhaps, and certainly worth the experiment if there is another unopened bottle.

Musigny Grand Cru 1990, Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue

A dark brownish-red, with a beautiful bouquet of perfectly ripe pinot fruit, delicate, refined, the aroma of a wine very much at its peak of development but a youthful maturity. Very rich with great freshness, still surprisingly youthful with no signs of age. A very long lingering finish.

This Domaine has long been regarded as THE Domaine of Chambolle-Musigny, occupying the position that the Domaine Armand Rousseau does in Gevrey-Chambertin.

Its wines evoke the anticipation of Chambolle-Musigny wines at their finest. To say that this position is today being challenged by Domaines Christophe Roumier and JF Mugnier is not to be taken that de Vogue has slipped, but it is rather that the other two, who have always enjoyed good reputations, have today raised the bar.

The three of them today stand virtually shoulder-to-shoulder and it would be invidious to confer one the crown and not any of the others. The reality is that all three occupy a plateau rather than a pinnacle, and individual judgment of "the best" is influenced by personal taste and the vintage.

I am reminded of one sunny spring morning in 2005 sitting down breathlessly in a cafe in Chambolle-Musigny, quite overwhelmed after visiting in turn, one after the other, de Vogue, Mugnier and finally Roumier, barrel-tasting all their wines, and at each winery ending with the Musigny. Georgia Tsouti from Domaine Michel Gros who was with me that morning was just as speechless. Such an experience was a privilege, we were very fortunate.

1990 was one of Burgundy's greatest vintages, and a 1990 Musigny from de Vogue immensely heightens expectations. The great surprise was the youthfulness of this bottle, indicating that the wine on current showing would need a good five or more years to reach its peak.

Domaine Leflaive's Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2002

The third wine last night was Domaine Leflaive's Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2002. The pre-eminence of this Domaine in Puligny-Montrachet, indeed in the world of white Burgundy, is undisputed. Anne-Claude, whose father Vincent had taken the Domaine to the top of its class, has certainly done her father proud in taking the Domaine to even greater heights.

Brilliant yellow-gold, gleaming in the light, a youthful aroma of sweet orange peel and mixed nuts, and on the palate a rich intense flavour of fresh ripe orange, blended with nutty flavours, very dense and concentrated, and incredibly complex.

Underneath all that there was the sense of great energy and vigour, like a coiled spring poised for release. An elegant wine, bursting with energy and raring to go.

A great wine, at 11 years still so young. Will need another five years to peak. The hallmarks of this wine? Almost perfect exposition of white Burgundy, its underlying energy and near-perfect balance.

All these three wines bring back memories - of the people, the winery, and the story behind each of them. Jean-Luc Pepin, sales director, and Francois Millet, winemaker, of Comte Georges de Vogue, unfailingly welcomed us and enjoyed taking us through the cellar barrel-tasting; Vincent Leflaive, gruff and stern of demeanour but with a big and warm heart towards the Chinese because they had befriended him when he was in Vietnam during the war; Anne-Claude his daughter proudly showing us two samples of the same wine, one from non-biodynamic and the other from biodynamically grown vines; Frederic Mugnier, ex-pilot, a man of few words, searching for the beauty and truth in his wines.

But it is not only in Burgundy that one experiences such scenes and impressions. I will always remember a midnight some years ago in a small village in the Ribera del Duero, Spain, going through Peter Sisseck's cellar barrel-tasting casks of the previous year's vintage, wines that would go into his Pingus.

His cellar then was a converted garage but no matter. The barrels were there, maturing and developing, waiting to be selected and blended into the young Pingus. Peter's enthusiasm, his perfectionism driving him to produce the finest wine he could make, you could not but get caught up and infected by this enthusiasm. Peter is Danish, a Dane making wine in Spain.

Eben Sadie is another wine-maker in Spain who is not Spanish. He is from South Africa, making wine in Swaartland as well as in Priorato in Spain.

He is almost a clone of Peter Sisseck, and in fact it was at Peter Sisseck's Pingus winery in the Ribera that I met Eben. He makes wine in Swaartland in South Africa under the family label The Sadie Family, and within a short space of time became known as one of the best of the younger South African winemakers.

From South Australia there is Dave Torbreck, who gave up lumberjacking in Scotland to go back to Adelaide to start his own winery, TORBRECK, making wines to challenge the dominance of Grange and the like. Fine Wine is a culture, not a drink. Which leads to the question "What is the culture?"

And thereby hangs another tale.