Burgundy: What’s the Story on 2012?

Hail damage was just one of the 2012 vintage's woes

Hail damage was just one of the 2012 vintage’s woes

Burgundy’s roller coaster 2012 vintage has delivered small quantities of often impressive and delicious white wines. The best have the luscious ripe flavors of a warm vintage like 2009 with fine acidity and remarkably low alcohol levels (usually 12.8-13.4 or so). This creates a wonderful yin-yang of rich-seeming textures and fruit flavors without any heaviness or lack of zing.

While few will reward more than 10 years aging, most will be delicious as soon as they arrive in the USA or with, at most, two or three years of cellar time. They’re wines to take home and enjoy now while waiting for the 2008s, 2010s, and 2011s to develop a bit more. But with yields off 20-40 percent or more, soaring global demand, and a less inspiring 2013 vintage coming behind, prices are up and the little bit of wine to reach us will go very, very quickly. What happened?

Weather Problems and Woes
As more than one wag has said, the 2012 vintage was in great shape … until January 2. Celine Fontaine gave a very accurate summary of the vintage’s woes:

“It was a tough growing season that was at times depressing. There was a springtime frost on the 17th of May and all of the plowed vineyards in the lower section of Chassagne were badly damaged because the plowing released the humidity. We were one of those domaines that had plowed and in hindsight that wasn’t exactly a great start to the season. Yields were then further reduced by a very poor flowering in June. Following that were severe attacks of mildew and oidium that necessitated a very high level of vigilance. We then had a heat wave at the end of July that sunburned any exposed fruit. In Volnay and Pommard we were hit by the hail storm on the 30th of June and then again in Chassagne and Puligny on the 1st of August. I suppose that you could say that we suffered about every ill imaginable in 2012 except for botrytis. All in all, it was difficult as yields were tiny but at least the wines are good!”

Great Wine, Great Demand
Decent weather in September saved the harvest, but all the grapes lost due to poor flowering, hail and rot (plus a plague of wild boars on the upper slopes of Chassagne) and the thick skins and low juice levels of the grapes that survived meant that not much wine got made. I remember visiting Burgundy in January 2013, and being shocked at how empty most cellars seemed. Following short harvests in 2010 and 2011, the lack of wine to sell from 2012 left many Domaines worrying about their fiscal viability.

With a small 2013 harvest and soaring demand for white Burgundy in Asia, all producers have had no choice but to raise prices on the little bit of 2012 they have to sell. As Burghound (Allen Meadows) said, “The key challenges for us as consumers will be twofold: the first is simply to find the wines and the second will be paying for them as they will not, indeed cannot, be inexpensive.”

We had all of this in mind when John and Dominique Otterbeck of McLean-based JAO Imports offered to show us the 2012 Chassagne-Montrachet wines of Domaine Fontaine-Gagnard. We’ve always liked these wines (and carried their Grand Cru Criots-Batard-Montrachet over the years), but have never been able to get the price, quality, and quantity of wines all lined up to justify offering the full line. So we were thrilled to discover that not only were the 2012s the best wines we’ve ever tasted from Fontaine-Gagnard, but that John and Dominique were offering us a pre-arrival purchase opportunity and quite generous (for 2012) allocations. We jumped on the opportunity – come taste the wines, and you’ll quickly see why.

Among Chassagne’s Best
Domaine Fontaine-Gagnard’s history begins in 1982 when air force mechanic Richard Fontaine married Laurence Gagnard, a member of the tight-knit Chassagne-Montrachet Gagnard family that included her father, Jacques, of Gagnard-Delagrange. As so often happens, Burgundy worked its magic on Richard, who quit the air force, studied winemaking, and launched Fontaine-Gagnard in 1985. Having received a portion of the Gagnard family’s holdings over the years, Richard and his daughter Celine now farm about 20 hectares of vines in Chassagne, Volnay and Pommd, including the largest piece of Grand Cru Criots-Batard-Montrachet, a small piece of Batard-Montrachet, and a sliver of Le Montrachet itself.

The wines here have been very good from the beginning, but they really hit their stride in the great 2002 harvest and are now considered among Chassagne-Montrechet’s very best. The house style emphasizes minerality and precision over pure ripeness, a fine approach when working with Chassagne vineyards that tend towards chunkier, denser wines than you’ll find in neighboring Puligny.

Winemaking is fairly traditional, with all wines receiving a light pressing and going into barrel for fermentation and aging. While not afraid of new oak, Richard and Celine have settled on using about one-third new oak for their 1er Crus and a bit more for the Grand Crus. Wines always spend less than a year in barrel to avoid oaky flavors and protect fruit and freshness. As Wine Advocate’s Neal Martin said, “I am not one to pull my punches from overuse of new oak, but here at Fontaine-Gagnard, they have always had the knack of assimilating it into the wine so that it is barely noticeable.”

We are offering three of Fontaine-Gagnard’s 2012 Chassagne-Montrachet plus a very limited amount of their distinctive and delicious Grand Cru Criots-Batard-Montrachet. And – while not listed below – we also have access the ultra-rare Fontaine-Gagnard Le Montrachet. Two bottles of 2011 and 1 of 2012 are available at $600 per bottle (no further discount). The family has not presented either vintage to critics, but previous vintages have always scored 95 points or so. Well priced as these things go.

You’ll find all of the Chassagne-Montrachets delicious right now, although the 1er Cru Caillerets is still a bit restrained and will be better in 2016 or so. Just a few cases of each (and six bottles of the Grand Cru). Go for it.

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Oregon 2012 – A (Limited) Vintage of a Lifetime

Evesham Wood vineyard

Evesham Wood in Willamette Valley

No major US wine growing region sees more variable vintage conditions than Oregon’s Willamette Valley. We think almost every Oregon vintage has its own unique charms, even if some, like 2007, are slow to reveal them. But fans of lush vintages like 2006 or 2009 are often surprised by the light, supple, elegant wines from years like 2010 or 2004.

The 2012 harvest joins 2008 as the rare vintage that will satisfy fans of almost every style of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Problems with flowering kept the crop small, but the weather remained wonderfully moderate throughout the growing season. Dry, sunny, days and cool, crisp nights in September and October let ripening complete while retaining vibrant acids and allowed winegrowers to harvest at whatever point and rate they preferred.

Weighing in on 2012. So – how good is the vintage? I’ve now heard a dozen or so winemakers echo Willamette Valley legend Ken Wright’s take on the harvest:

“After thirty-five years of winemaking experience in Oregon and California, I can count the truly great years on three fingers. 1979 in California’s Monterey County, 1990 in the Willamette Valley and, yes, 2012 in the Willamette Valley as well. … [T]here are years when we simply sit in awe as Mother Nature hands us remarkable fruit that only requires that we respect the gift we have received. 2012 is such a year. The intensity of color, aroma and flavor is inspiring…I may be dragged out of the winery by my Red Wing boots at eighty without seeing another year like this.”

Notably absent from Ken’s recitation of “truly great years” is the benchmark 2008 harvest. The farther we get from 2008, the more it’s clear that this year’s greatness is taking its own sweet time to emerge. More than a few critics have joined David Schildknecht in his Wine Advocate assessment:

“The obvious point of comparison for growers has been 2008. But having tasted many of the young [2008s] in barrel, I’m not entirely surprised that they have – thus far, at least – remained rather simply fruity; whereas the young 2012s – while lusciously ripe – display more energy, vivacity and interest than the 2008s did at a comparable juncture. The sole drawback looks likely to be 2012’s relatively small crop, conditioned not only by reticent flowering but by the vine’s natural reaction to the abundant set of 2011.”

When I first started encountering 2012 Pinots from Oregon, I was a bit on the fence. The nervy, high-acid 2011s really sung for me and the early-release 2012s seemed a bit too ripe and even heavy next to the tangy 2011s. But the more ‘12s I taste, the more impressed I get. And, the more impressed I get, the more frustrated I become.

Lower Yields, Higher Prices. With yields down 20-40 percent in 2012, there was always going to be a bit of competition for the top wines. But, strong demand for 2012s, lagging sell-through of 2011s, and a challenging set of 2013s waiting in the wings have all led wineries to both limit access to the 2012s and drive price a bit. In virtually every case, “front line” prices are up 5-15 percent over 2010/2011. And the multi-case deals that help us bring you big value bargains by buying in quantity are few and far between.

So, it’s a great vintage that every Oregon Pinot Noir lover is going to want to own and drink, but one that will require you to move quickly and be prepared to spend a bit more than in the past. We’re working hard to find you more opportunities like Evesham Wood Pinot Noir La Grive Bleue 2012, and we’re optimistic that at least a few fine deals will emerge this fall. When you see them, don’t delay!

If you’re a collector or fan who wants to be sure you don’t miss your favorites, just ask to be added to our Oregon 2012 Collectors List. You’ll learn about the best 2012 Pinots as they arrive – and before they’re all gone! To join, call 703.356.6500, email us at wineteam@chainbridgecellars.com, or stop by the store.

‘Cuvee Maison’ – How a ‘House Burgundy’ Came to Be

Cuvee de la MaisonBack in April 2011, when we asked your suggestions for a new name for the store, the most frequent suggestion was some variation on “House Wine” – a play on Doug’s last name. We went another direction in naming the store, but even then we knew that we’d have a “House wine” for you to try soon.

Here’s the story of how Bzikot Puligny Montrachet Cuvee de la Maison came to be, as told by Doug …

The “New Oak” Puzzle
Cuvee Maison Wine BarrelThe story starts when I first began working with Olivier Daubresse and learning about Burgundy. Over the years, I’d frequently hear Olivier comment that a wine would have been better if it had been raised with more new oak. I’d smile and nod, but not really understand. I’d been losing my taste for oaky reds for years and have never liked super-oaky whites. So his “more new oak” refrain puzzled me.

I remember clearly the moment I finally understood what Olivier was talking about. It was late on a bright and chilly January afternoon in 2010 in the small cellar at Domaine Bzikot. We’d been doing our annual barrel tasting with Sylvain – a marathon that often covers 30 to 40 different barrels – and were finally starting to taste his premier crus from the powerful, ripe, and muscular 2009 vintage.

Sylvain is one of the best “under the radar” winemakers in all of Puligny Montrachet, in large part because of his passion for letting every wine speak clearly to its site and vintage. He values purity and minerality highly, and abhors the thought of letting oak flavors dominate his wines. So he’s always made his two 1er cru wines – from Perrieres and Folatieres – in about half new oak and half second use barrels plus a little in tank.

Sharp Focus and Definition
When we tasted the 2009 Perrieres from the small tank and used barrels, I was struck by the size, ripeness, and power of the young wine. Not surprisingly for a young wine beginning its maturation, the flavors were a touch indistinct and texture a bit “fuzzy,” but I know from experience that this is something that improves with time in Sylvain’s wines.

Then we tasted Perrieres from the new oak barrel – and the difference was profound. Yes, there was a touch more oaky character, but more importantly the new oak barrel wine was brighter, more defined, more mineral, and much, much, more elegant. It was as if this bulky young wine had been battling the new oak barrel to achieve balance, and in doing so had developed the “cut” or “ripped” physique of a body builder. Far from overwhelming the wine, the new oak barrel had allowed it to sharpen its own focus and definition. And for the first time, I understood why Olivier had been nudging Sylvain to use only new oak for this cuvee for years.

Getting This Experience to You
Over the next few months, I tried to figure out how we could get a 100% new oak cuvee from Sylvain for you. I tried to buy the new oak barrel of Perrieres, but Sylvain needed it to keep his entire cuvee in balance. I even explored the option of having Sylvain buy us a new barrel of wine at the annual Hospices de Beaune auction, but that proved too complicated to achieve. So there things sat for a year. When I returned to Sylvain’s cellars in January of 2011, both Olivier and Sylvain gleefully promised something special for me when we got to the cellar. There I discovered that Sylvain had acquired the rights to the portion of the Puligny Montrachet lieu-dit Les Petites Nosroyes that had formerly been held by Dujac. Sylvain had made nine barrels of wine here in 2010. “Would you like to taste and see if you’d like to select a cuvee?” Olivier asked.

We tasted all nine barrels on Tuesday night and then returned on Wednesday morning to make a selection. The young wine had been in barrel for four months or so and had not even started its secondary malolactic fermentation yet, so it took some concentration and effort to imagine how it would develop over the next 18 months before release.

The First All New Oak Wine for Sylvain
I quickly narrowed my choice down to three barrels – the three wines that were resting in new French oak – and then went back and forth between them with Sylvain and Olivier. Each had something special to say, but none completely captivated me. It was when Sylvain suggested that we try blending the barrel samples that things got interesting. We tried every combination imaginable, but I knew the right one as soon as I tasted it – a blend of one normal size barrique and one slightly larger 350 liter cask. When I told Olivier and Sylvain my choice, they laughed – it was the same cuvee they’d preferred as well.

Sylvain allowed our wine to remain in barrel until August 2011, when he moved it into a small tank for six months. I tasted it again with Sylvain after the move to bottling tank, and was very pleased by how the new oak flavors were integrating into the wine. When I tasted it again in January 2012, I was delighted to see the oak levels continuing to drop and the flavors and precision intensify. And when we finally presented the wine to you in October of 2012, the oak had mellowed still more and the fresh, vibrant fruit was starting to shine.

Now, some 40 months after I selected our wine, it keeps getting better and better. It’s an outstanding 2010 Puligny-Montrachet that still has 10 to 15 years life in front of it, matches top 1er Cru whites for quality, and is well-priced even compared to other village wines. Only 17 cases remain. If  you’d like to try some, stop by the store this weekend (Friday, 3-7, Saturday, 12-4) for a sip.