Assessing risk and reward in white Burgundy

It’s not every evening I get to taste ten white Burgundies with a decade or so of age. For one, they’re often expensive. But they’re also a category that has not been aging well in the bottle, thanks primarily to the issue of “premox,” or premature oxidation, the cause of which is little known despite plaguing bottles since the 1996 vintage. So I delighted to have the chance to taste through several bottles at a collector’s house recently to assess the risk and reward of white Burgundy. From this admittedly small sample of premier and grand cru wines from good vintages, I’d say the risks outweigh the rewards. One factor is that the wines are quite expensive, almost calling out for cellaring; bright, fresh acidity can be found much less money with Bourgogne blanc (or Chablis), for example. So it is frustrating when wines that appear fresh in the first lap of five years or so after vintage, appear to grow tired too fast.

What’s your assessment of the risk and reward of white Burgundy?

The whole lineup—complete with a surprise!—follows after the jump.

Francois et Antoine Jobard, Meursault, “En la Barre,” 2002: only slightly oxidized, but still too tired at this young an age.
Ballot-Millot, Meursault Perrieres, 2002: oxidized.
Bernard Morey et Fils, Chassagne-Montrachet, “Les Embrazées,” 2003: from the hot vintage, the wine was flabby and a little tired.
Marc Colin et Fils, Chassagne-Montrachet, “Les Chenevottes,” 2003: fresher than the Morey, not oxidized, but I just couldn’t get into it.
Arnaud Ente, Puligny-Montrachet, “Les Referts,” 2004: the oak hadn’t fully integrated yet, but the wine had good freshness and still seemed to have the potential for more rewards in the future.
Vincent Girardin, Puligny-Montrachet, “Les Referts,” 2002: a honeyed note on the aroma and an oily texture on the palate made this seem more like a white Rhone.
Bernard Moreau et Fils, Chassagne-Montrachet, “La Maltroie,” 2004: good acidity and noticeable oak, this wine is built on a chassis of acidity that seems to bode well for future aging.
Colin-Déléger Chassagne-Montrachet, “En Remilly” 2004: really funky nose that was offputting; the palate was

BLIND: our host poured these two wines to us blind, calling them both grands crus.
Domaine Jacques Prieur, Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, 2005. Another wine that seemed oddly Rhone-like and advanced. I didn’t have a specific guess on this one but when the bottle was unveiled, I was surprised and disappointed that an 05 grand cru showed this poorly.
Kistler, Sonoma Valley, Durrell Vineyard, 2004. Really golden in the glass. Alcohol jutting out a bit. The oak was still pronounced. I said it seemed as if it were worked harder in the cellar than in the vineyard. I guessed Marcassin.

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10 Responses to “Assessing risk and reward in white Burgundy”

  1. My notes will be up on this week, but this was a great tasting.

    And, for those that care, Dr Vino calling the second blind wine as a wine that had been worked too hard in the winery and then saying it was Marcassin, was most impressive, especially after tasting 9 white Burgundies!

    I have a new found respect for the good doctor!

  2. It has always seemed that when anyone ever spoke about the ability of White wine to age, the first white mentioned was always white Burgundy. There are inexpensive whites from Friuli that have aged better than these outrageously expensive bottles… Has someone shown us the emperor has no clothes?

  3. […] Vino joins the chorus – White Burgundy is in trouble. His assesment — “the risks outweigh the rewards” — is damning. (0) […]

  4. I brought up this topic on a couple of occasions while at the Hospices de Beaune this year. My experience with white Burgundies through the years had been that the tops wines aged very well. Fifteen to 20 years was never a problem. But now premature oxidation makes it problematic to age white Burgundies. Some of them, anyway. The most interesting explanation I heard in Beaune was that so many winemakers are concerned with pristine juice and the most advanced sorting tables that they’ve removed much of the plant debris such as leaves, stems, seeds and whatnot. That plant material possessed antioxidants that some now believe were essential to the aging process for white Burgundies. I’m not a scientist so I can’t say whether this is a viable or plausible explanation, but it is a theory that seems to have some traction in the Burgundy community.

  5. I’ve been serious about wine for 25 years. I have a really nice cellar with proper temperature, humidity, etc. My wife and I usually have wine with our evening meal and entertain family and/or friends most weekends. We go through a fair amount of wine. Out of the many, many of bottles that have passed through our cellar, the only ones to go bad are white Burgundies.
    In the early years, I avoided Burgundy for price and availability reasons. Then, in the late 90’s, I decided to take the plunge. I purchased about 15 bottles of high end white Burgundy from the 1996 & 1997 vintages. The producers were Leflaive, Latour and Sauzet. The vineyard sites were Montrachet, Chevalier Montrachet and Batard Montrachet. Shortly after purchase, we drank two or three and they were excellant. In 2001, one of the bottles was darker in color and seemed a bit “off”. I decided it was going through a stage and a little more time might help. In 2002, we tried another and it was obviously oxidized. Over a week or so, we opened the remaining bottles and they were all oxidized. It was heartbreaking to pour out all of this expensive wine. These are different vintages from different producers (all top shelf) and the same result. I stayed away from white Burgundy for several years, but decided to take the plunge again in 2007. I purchased 12 bottles of 2005 Brocard Chablis(certainly not the same reputation as those above) from two vineyard sites. During the next three years, we enjoyed three of those. They were excellant. By early 2010, I noticed we had not opened a bottle for about a year. Upon opening a bottle, the color was darker than I remembered. Sure enough, it was oxidized. So, down the drain and open another bottle. Same thing. Disappointing! The wine was less than five years old, probably bottled less than four years ago and stored in perfect conditions. In all the years and thousands of bottles of wine that have went through my cellar, these are the only bottles that went over the hill.

    By the way, I disagree with the Marcassin comments. They are made with ripe grapes, but they are balanced, and that is the key. But… they say….. one person’s ceiling is another’s floor!

  6. Sorry for the delayed response on this Doc, I fully agree with everything you said here, having tasted many of these same wines from different vintages. My sommelier friends geek out over them, but if I want oxidation, I’ll drink Sherry! Plus a quick side note, I really love how you avoid specific (and IMHO often highly subjective) fruit descriptors. I’m the same way when tasting and/or teaching. It allows tasters to make up their own minds. Keep up the great work!

  7. Just had a grand cru Chablis 08 yesterday and it did show some signs of oxidation. DIdn’t know it was someting common of white burgundies, some thanks for the great article.

  8. I can only say the corks may be a contributing factor for premature aging such that better seals could be the savior for the whites of Burgundy. Either that or drink them young in their wonderful prime rather than storing them ad infinitum.

  9. In addition to previous comment if the following rules are adhered by winery to premature oxidation would significantly reduced.
    1) sparge wine prior to bottling with nitrogen or even better but more expensive argon to levels of <0.8mgL dissolved oxygen
    2) ensure minimal oxygen pick up during bottling, this is a critical point and must be measured.
    3) use responsible levels of free sulphur between 28 and 30 mgL.
    4) use a modern cork that reduces gas exchange, reducing oxygen ingress

    There is a poular trend to use less sulphur and this is the only preventative against oxidation. Note Ascorbic acid without sulphur leads to chemical oxidation. The above rates recommended are not high.

  10. […] Can white wines be aged?  I already know that some white wines age well – Riesling and White Burgundies come immediately to mind.  Most of my whites are “budget” to mid-priced, and frankly, […]


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