Fine Wine, Fine Vintages in Beaujolais

chateau-thivin-domaine-mont-brouillyThere’s going to be quite an argument about which of the past three vintages is the “greatest ever” in Beaujolais.

Vintage 2014 delivered classic, vibrant, elegant wines that capture the essence of Gamay’s juicy joy. Harvest 2015 added much deeper, riper, fruit and more density than usual, but with no loss of energy or minerality. And the 2016 harvest – while seriously reduced by hail and frost – may turn out to marry the best characteristics of 2015 and 2014 combined.

What will broach no argument is that Chateau Thivin made utterly brilliant wines in all three years, continuing to cement their place among the very best in all of Beaujolais – arguably, among the best in Burgundy as a whole.

Ancient Volcano, Modern Winery
Ch Thivin la_famille_geoffray The estate founded in 1383 and purchased by the Geoffray family in 1877. The chateau (yes, there really is one), winery and the estate’s best vineyards perch on the sides of an extinct volcano called Mont Brouilly.

The volcano’s very steep slope – around 40 degrees in the heart of the vineyard – provides excellent drainage, fantastic exposure to the sun, and the platform for the Geoffray family’s modern gravity-flow winery.

When others in Beaujolais chased quick and easy cash in the Beaujolais Nouveau boom of the 1970s and 1980s, the Geoffray family just kept on making fine wine. Vineyards are plowed to create healthier soils, no insecticides are used, and grapes are harvested and sorted by hands.

Whole bunches of ripe, juicy Gamay grapes roll by gravity into tanks were fermentation starts naturally with no additions of yeast or enzymes or anything else. After a day, rosé tanks are pressed gently and finish fermentation in stainless steel. Reds soak for a week or so before pressing and racking into large, old, wood casks and bottling six months later. And for these wines, that’s it.

Ch Thivin was long well-known as one of Beaujolais’s great estates within France, but pretty much unheard of in the US until the 1970s. That’s when importer Kermit Lynch first visited the Domaine and made it one his earliest imports to the USA. And I think his description of Ch Thivin today is still the best summing up we can offer. Thivin’s wines, he says, are “a country squire who is not afraid to get his boots muddy. Handsome, virile, earthy, and an aristocrat.”

2014 Burgundy: For Drinkers and Collectors!

After years of crazy weather, short harvests, and very good quality, 2014 is a HUGE relief – if not especially easy for winegrowers. Yields returned to something closer to “normal” levels with no loss of quality, although the weather remained unpredictable.

The growing season started very early, with a warm spring getting the vines going about three weeks earlier than normal. The early growing season seemed promising, relaxed and abundant, at least until late June when a series of hail storms swept up and down the Cote d’Or, costing growers 10-30% of their fruit. Then, the weather turned cool and stayed that way through all of July and August.

The warm, dry spring followed by cool, wet summer, meant that the growing season lasted a bit longer than usual – instead of the typical 100 days from flowering to harvest, most growers ended up hanging their fruit for an extra week or event two. The fruit that came in during late September was ripe in terms of skins and seeds, but had a bit less juice and a touch less sugar than might have been expected.

Thick skins, ripe flesh, skins and seeds, plus moderate sugars came together in fermentation vats to create some of the most delicious, immediately tempting wines we’ve seen from the Cote d’Or since 2009.

As Allen Meadows (“Burghound”) said:

“I am avidly enthusiastic about the 2014 vintage in the Cote de Nuits…While it is true that the 2014 vintage is user-friendly in that in many cases the wines will be accessible young, I believe that it is also true that they are going to age extremely well. There is a beguiling freshness coupled with first-rate drinkability that makes the 2014s extremely pleasurable… Two of the aspects that I like best about the 2014s is their transparency to the underlying terrior coupled with their sheer drinkability. This transparency is enhanced by terrific vibrancy because the wines really do taste alive in the mouth…They’re ripe yet they are what the French call digest, or refreshing, where the first sip invites the next which is in fact what makes them so drinkable.”

Jean-Michel GuillonJean-Michel Guillon agrees with Burghound’s assessment, saying of his 2014s, “They’re generous and fleshy and easy-to-like though with good freshness and transparency. They’re the kind of burgundies that almost everyone likes because there’s really nothing not to like.”

One thing we especially “like” about Jean-Michel’s wines are the prices – unchanged from 2013! In a world where first-rate Cote de Nuit’s producers’ “regular” Bourgognes can often top $40, it’s refreshing to be able to enjoy the work of a true Burgundy master for comfortable prices like these.

Thibault Liger-Belair: Resurrecting a Great Name

Thibault Liger-Belair

Meet and Taste with Burgundy’s Thibault Liger-Belair on Saturday, April 18, 12-4 pm.

Thibault Liger-Belair’s ancestors tended vineyards and made wine in Burgundy’s Nuits Saint Georges from 1720 on, but in the early 20th century, the best vineyards were leased out to other winemakers.

Thibault studied winemaking before starting his career at a Parisian communications firm and then trying his hand at a dot-com start-up. In 2001 – at the age of 26 – he realized that he needed to return to Burgundy and resurrect the family Domaine.

From his first vintage in 2002, Thibault’s work attracted notice. Over the years, he’s gradually expanded the Domaine by taking back family vineyards as leases ended, purchasing additional vineyards, and adding a small negotiant business as well.

No Rules, Just Great Wine
As he explained during our visit in February 2014, his goal is to make wines that represent and reflect their vintage and terroir while avoiding harsh tannins and delivering pleasure to the drinker. He has converted the Domaine vineyards to biodynamics to build vine health and achieve ripeness, and is willing to take yields as low as he has to in order to get ripe fruit. In most of his vineyards, Thibault is allowed to harvest 30-40 hectoliters of juice per hectare of land. In practice, he rarely keeps 30HL, often drops fruit down to 20, and – as with the 2012 Nuits Saint Georges Charmot – can go as low as 10 hectoliters per hectare. Whatever it takes to get ripe, healthy fruit.

Once in the winery, his recipe is…no recipe! In general, Thibault prefers to avoid the flavor of oak in his wines, and most see 20-30% new oak (50% is his maximum). His oak barrels are custom-made for each vineyard, always using staves dried at least 36 months but mixing wood from forests grown on sand, clay, and stone – often in the same barrel! – to take advantage of each type’s different characteristics.

Fruit is always sorted twice – in the vineyard and on a sorting table at the winery – and given a pre-fermentation cold soak to begin gentle extraction. Whole clusters are usually mixed with destemmed fruit, although the exact ratio varies by vineyard and vintage. Gentle pumpovers during fermentation are supplemented by more vigorous punchdowns – sometimes only 2 or 3 in total, other times daily. Then, the wines go into their designated barrels and stay there until he feels they are ready to bottle.

The 2012s are an outstanding set of Burgundies, and a fine introduction to the work of what has become a Nuits Saint George benchmark. Thibault described them as “like 2010 but with more flesh,” and all are showing their fine quality and outstanding potential right now.

JJ Confuron’s 2012 Burgundies

jj confuron

Wines on tasting Saturday, Jan. 17, 12-4 pm

We’ve purchased JJ Confuron wines for the store in the past (the 2006s, especially, were lovely), but a tasting with the local importer, JAO Imports, last summer convinced us to go as big as we could with this fantastic set of 2012 reds.

As you’d expect from a small, very in-demand estate like this, we were only able to get limited supplies of what we thought were the best wines – and we were delighted to get a few bottles of the ultra-rare and utterly profound Grand Cru Romanee St. Vivant!

Extraordinary Vineyard Sites. The vineyard sites themselves are the story here. The Domaine’s 8.5 hectares of vines were part of the legendary Charles Noellat estate. Over the course of the 20th Century, the Noellat properties were divided in three – part going with Charles’s granddaughter to Hudelot-Noellat, part purchased by Lalou Bize-Leroy in 1988, and the remainder to Confuron through his wife, Andee Noellat. Today, these three famous Domaines farm their vines side-by-side – including in one of the best slices of the Grand Cru Romanee Saint Vivant – one using conventional farming (Hudelot-Noellat), one biodynamic (Leroy) and one organic (Confuron).

All of Confuron’s 2012s were hand harvested on a block-by-block basis as winemaker Alain Meunier (Confuron’s son-in-law and, with wife Sophie, the current owner of the estate) decided the fruit was ripe and ready. Grapes came into the winery at natural alcohol levels of 12-13%, which is exactly what Meunier strives for.

Fruit for the village wines was 100% destemmed while 20% whole clusters were used in the 1er and Grand Crus. Meunier believes that using a good proportion of top-quality barrels help his wines shed excess fat without masking the pure fruit or adding unattractive wood tannins. The village wines receive 30% new oak, the 1er Crus 40-50% and the Grand Crus about 60% new wood each year. The resulting wines are, as Clive Coates says, “classy, poised, and very fine.”

A Note about the Critics’ Notes … We tasted and selected our favorite wines from Confuron’s 2012s before we looked at any reviews, although for the most part, the critics’ opinions are similar to ours. We’ve included Burghound’s ratings here because of Allen Meadows’ long involvement with the region and estate. But take some of his critique about reduction with a grain of salt. Meadows tastes wines like these very early in their elevage (too early, I think). Because Meunier does minimal racking of the wines before assembling his final cuvee for bottling, the wines often show funky reductive notes when Meadows tastes them.

Neal Martin (Wine Advocate) and Steve Tanzer both taste later in the year, often after the racking to bottling tank. I usually find their assessments more useful. Last, the local folks at International Wine Review (i-Wine) tasted the wines the same day I did – theirs are the only reviews based on the finished, bottled wines.

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.

Burgundy’s 2012 Roller Coaster

roller coasterMuch has already been written about Burgundy’s wild and difficult 2012 growing season and much more is still to come. In a nutshell, three main factors shaped the harvest in the Cotes du Nuits:

1) Poor fruit set – Winter and early spring warmth got the vines going early, late frost damaged some, and then rain during June flowering beat up the fragile bunches and led to fewer grapes being formed, and many of those that did set were smaller and thicker skinned, delivering less juice than usual.

2) Summer heat and rain – Cloudy weather and lots of rain created rot and mildew pressure and then – just as many growers finished pulling leaves to get their grapes whatever dry air and sunshine might be found – a heat spike sunburned many grapes. Once these grapes were removed, the crop got smaller still.

3) A Saving September – Good weather at last prevented gray rot from setting in and allowed those grapes that had survived the season – as few and small as they were – to ripen skins, seeds and stems perfectly at relatively low sugar levels and with vibrant acids.

In the end, perfect grapes … but not many
As the grapes came into the wineries in mid- to late-September, the hardworking vigneron found themselves at once depressed and elated. Depressed because their cellars had 30-40% less wine in them than normal. Elated because the grapes they did harvest were in perfect conditions and the young wines showed fantastic promise and classic style.

Tasting young 2012 reds at Domaine Guillon in January 2013 left me excited at the promise of the vintage. And, as various Burgundy experts have weighed in, that optimism seems well justified. Here are few comments from Allen Meadows (aka Burghound) about the best 2012 Cotes du Nuits reds:

The 2012s are concentrated wines with ripe and moderately firm supporting tannins, good freshness and enough acidity to maintain the proper balance. One of the more endearing characteristics of the vintage is that it produced very high phenolic maturities yet the sugars were only average. This is important because often when a vintage has high phenolic maturities the accompanying alcohols are above 13% and often even 14%. In 2012 the average range is between 12% and 13% which contributes to the heightened senses of freshness and drinkability.

2012 produced many really lovely wines that should provide for delicious drinking early on yet be capable of amply rewarding mid-term cellaring… Moreover there is fine transparency to the wines such that the underlying terroir is very much on display.   

All-in-all, an excellent vintage, writes Meadows, but with one big problem: Price. 

[T]here really isn’t much not to like about the vintage other than the tiny yields and what will almost inevitably be the high prices that accompany small quantities. … The key challenges for us as consumers will be twofold: the first is simply to find them and the second will be paying for them as they will not, indeed cannot, be inexpensive.

In a vintage where many consumers and retailers face skyrocketing prices and slashed allocations, we (and you!) benefit from a long-term relationship with Burgundy’s Jean-Michel Guillon through his hardworking US importer, Olivier Daubresse. Our allocation of Jean-Michel’s top wines (arriving this fall) was outstanding, and both Jean-Michel and Olivier held price increases down to the minimum level possible – even though Jean-Michel has orders for at least twice as much wine as he has to sell.

You’ll taste all the glorious results of Jean-Michel Guillon’s 2012 Bourgogne Rouge from his ‘Les Gravier’ vineyard –  at much less than you’d expect from other winemakers.

Peas, Mint, and the Importance of Sniffing Your Glass

Some groups of coworkers discuss their fantasy football teams, the latest episode of Dance Moms, the weather, or each other.  We tend to talk almost exclusively about food – what restaurant we went to or plan on going to, what we served to our friends on Saturday night and what we drank with it, what we drank with nachos while watching the new Arrested Development episodes – it’s all fair game.

Before he left Saturday afternoon, Randy said that he was in the mood for Chablis.  Though rose is often our default wine this time of year, Dom Louis Michel’s delicious, unoaked Chablis sounded perfect for the warm summer evening we were about to have.

Farmers-Market-Snap-Peas

He chose an unexpected, but very seasonally appropriate accompaniment: farmers’ market peas with mint and spring onions in a cream sauce.  The peas and spring onions were braised until just tender, with heavy cream, mint and lemon zest added at the last minute.  It’s a combination that hits all the wine pairing high notes.  The rich cream sauce is cut by the tart, flinty wine – a wonderful contrast of textures and flavors.  At the same time, the bright, clean flavors of all that fresh produce are complemented by the bracing citrus flavors in the wine.  Chablis can also have a wonderful mossy, almost vegetal aroma and flavor on the finish, so pairing it with green vegetables makes perfect sense.

One thing you’ll often notice wine geeks doing is sniffing their empty glass after tasting.  The scent left behind by a wine can give you yet another dimension of its aromas.  In great Burgundy, that ghost of an aroma often smells like the soft herbs we love so much in summer: tarragon or mint.  The mint in this dish did a great job of pulling out that quality in the Chablis.  Though Dom Louis Michel’s 2011 village Chablis was a great pairing with this dish, Dom Vincent Dampt’s slightly rounder style would be great with a farmers’ market meal like this as well.

So, how about you?  What are you pairing with summers’ bounty?