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Friday, July 11, 2008

Burgundy, From the Outside Looking In

I’ve always had somewhat of a protective buffer between myself and Burgundy. While its timid, relatively modest alcohol content and mild tannic spine may seem harmless, the Burgundy faithful have always struck me as the ‘Red Sox Nation’ of wine aficionados (for you non-baseball fans, this means fanatical, uncompromising, and of their own world). Granted, this is all from a bird’s eye view, as I have chosen not to get too close to ground zero, but I sense an overwhelming tunnel vision from the ‘terroir-ists’ that stake their most substantial claim on Burgundian ground. While my prejudicial bias is referencing the extreme, psychotic Burgophile, the view from my ‘clos’ hasn’t offered enough middle ground to jump in and play nice (much less their frightfully expensive pricetags).

Are Burgundy addicts a different breed of wine geek? Well, different from what, you may ask? How about different from every other wine geek? I trekked up to the placid grounds of Westchester, past the aptly named ‘Sleepy Hollow’ to Mark Golodetz’s lovely, front porch dressed colonial home to taste some Burgundies in the hopes of shedding some light on the question. The tasting consisted of a group of vintages from the Grand Cru vineyard Clos de Vougeot, famous for its massive size and variable quality. I chose to play an unfamiliar role last night, acting more like a voyeur than the ‘too verbose for his own good’ rogue that I am accustomed to acting as. I knew next to nothing about the majority of my tasting company, save for the fact that they were more into Burgundy than I, and had the sole intention of making observations, on the wines as well as the tasters. Would their reactions to Burgundy elucidate why this region hasn’t tugged at my heart to the same degree as say, the Rhone?

We began w/ a pair of ‘85s, a Mongeard Mugneret and a Daniel Rion. The Mugneret was a touch more advanced in age, though that was by no means a consensus, displaying a savory array of Indian spices that speckled the subtle notes of iron, olive paste and beefy blackberry flavors that seemed completely weightless in the mouth. While not short on character, the intensity was lacking, epitomized by the wine’s light, waning profile. The Rion, on the other hand, was packed w/ a beam of quiet focus, coiling its flavors of pipe tobacco, red currant and wild herbs into a taut, structured frame that crept up on you as if it were a group of whispers that slowly built into voices. While ’85 is a watershed year for Burgundy, the table seemed under-whelmed by the collective efforts, and the thought of their prices in today’s market made us all cringe a bit.

Onward and upward, the red sea between me and the table parted a bit w/ the ’95 Gros Frere ‘Musigni.’ The deeper, more vibrant colors revealed an exotic, almost Cote Rotie like nose of paprika, smoked Angus steak, lavender and a potpourri of black cherries that exhibited more power than the ‘85s, with a sinewy, yet elegant spine that made little apologies for what it was. Most loathed this wine, while I felt smitten almost immediately. Not enough terroir? The ’99 from Robert Arnoux was clean, vibrant and full of dark cherry liqueur, violet and cardamom spices that were backward and a touch hard in the mouth. Full on potential but a bit shallow on pleasure, the core of intensity may take several years to be fully realized. There was some dissension in the crowd regarding Arnoux as a producer that fashioned sound Pinot Noir, yet poor Burgundy. Perhaps I understood this to a degree, as this wine, in particular, smelled like a Pinot, yet my uninitiated palate didn’t frown upon this experience.

The Hudelot Noellat flight, for me, put some perspective on the previously tasted wines ‘place’ when I stuck my nose into the only real dazzling elixir of the evening, the 1990. The cloudy, cranberry infused color brought forth layers of beguiling notes of lilacs, fresh raspberry, damp earth, sandalwood, sawdust and a warm, mineral bath aroma that would make the finest spa goers froth at the mouth. Tidal waves of red berry flavors incrementally flowed over the palate, from the attack to finish, in a quiet explosion that reverberated for minutes on end after being swallowed. The only poetic waxing to come from me was catalyzed by this nectar, who’s ‘understated flamboyance’ was exactly the Pinot Noir nexus I was hoping to find in the tasting….or, should I say Burgundy nexus? It came as somewhat of a surprise to discover that several tasters found ‘90s, in general, to be objectionably ripe and borderline pruney. Well, suggesting Grenache based wines to that breed of palate is likely to fall as flat as a lead balloon, so I’ll save that introduction for a later day.

As we dipped into another ’99 from Hudelot, conversation arouse regarding whether or not this blessed year could develop into a similar grand gift that was bestowed upon us in the 1990. The ’99, not unlike the Arnoux (typicity aside), was front loaded w/ an acidic spine, that kept the spicy, peppery notes of game, raspberry sauce and leather (eh-hem, seemed like brett to me, but I certainly wasn’t complaining!) at bay. While compressed in the mouth, it was texturally intriguing, finishing w/ a bracing, tactile sensation similar to biting the surface of a cherry skin. While I imagined this vintage would unfold nicely in the cellar, I couldn’t imagine it striking a similarly opulent chord as the plumper, rounder ’90…but lord knows what that vintage showed like in its youth?

The cork casualties were not insignificant, as the Faiveley ’91, and Hudelot ’97 fell victim to TCA’s moldy kiss of death like an old edition of the New York Times. The ’96 and ’00 were two other Hudelot wines that were perceived very differently from the tasters. I found each to have a cackling, lithe acidity that pumped their bright fruit flavors along mineral-soaked spines that evoked the image of Burgundy’s hallmark limestone soils (terroir, right?). The bone of contention I had w/ the more Burgundy savvy palates was that I found the vintages a bit thin, clipped and lacking pleasure, limestone or no limestone. Different strokes, as they say.

The counterpoint to the glorious performance by the ’90 had to be the ’99 Vincent Girardin, an appallingly insipid, fleshless palate was as watered down and underwhelming as any 70 dollar wine of recent memory. Interesting aromatics, such as the ‘99’s bay leaf, bailed hay, damp meadow and parsley notes were completely forgotten when the lambic-like acidity washed away all its compelling natures into a vapid pit. Others were not nearly as harsh as I, but ‘where’s the beef’ will have to serve as the swan song from my perspective.

So if I had to evaluate the wines collectively, my conclusion would be quite trite, as ‘fleeting greatness’ has been a tune sung by many in relationship to Burgundy, though the Girardin was the only true landmine that I thought we hit in respect to Clos de Vougeot. I’m careful not to draw any conclusions from a wonderful group of people (especially considering that I barely know them or the scope of their Burgundy compulsion), but my observations lead me to believe that there was much more thinking than drinking. This could certainly be due to the fact that the wines, as a whole, were not striking their fancy (or long rides home prohibited them from over-indulgence). That being said, there was a much greater sense of introversion and second guessing on this particular evening than I am accustomed to w/ other wine regions. Is this a more philosophical wine? Are acidity and minerality Burgundy’s yin and yang? Has an evening of deep thought made my mind wander more aimlessly than it should?

I guess another question I put out to the wine geek faithful is whether or not one can ‘kinda like’ Burgundy. There seems to be a strong polarity in the region, but I’ve always been more of a fence sitter than a black or white representation of what this region tends to do to oenophiles. My appreciation of the cerebral certainly is an aspect of what drives me to wine, but I guess I just need a bit more pleasure w/ the provocative to ‘push me over the edge.’

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