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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