Grand Cru Burgundy: A tasting tour

James Halliday by James Halliday

5 Jul, 2018

For many wine lovers and collectors, Grand Cru Burgundy – the French region’s very best pinot noir and chardonnay – is the Holy Grail. James Halliday was privileged to taste a selection of these wines from the 2014 vintage – follow his journey here.

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Earlier this year, I attended a Burgundy masterclass the likes of which I have never previously participated in.

Better late than never, I suppose, particularly given that I was gifted a last-minute opportunity by the event organiser, Melbourne’s Prince Wine Store, to attend after an unexpected withdrawal.

It brought together 17 attendees from all walks of life, bound by an all-consuming love of Burgundy, and the unique experience of the ultimate horizontal tasting of 37 Grand Crus, all from the 2014 vintage. It was an all-day affair, starting at 9.30am and finishing at 5pm after a break for lunch.

1. The White Album: Chablis, Corton and Puligny-Montrachet

The wines were arranged in flights determined not by any pre-set number, but simply grouping like with like. Given there are far fewer Grand Cru white Burgundies than their red counterparts, it made sense to include the one Chablis, two Cortons and six wines from Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet in the first and only white bracket.

At this point I should explain the tasting was blind. We knew the identities of the wines of a given flight, but not the order of service of those wines. Moreover, one of the Prince Wine Store’s senior members had arranged the wines in either a random order (giving him the benefit of the doubt) or a thoroughly deceptive one.

The 2014 vintage for white Burgundies was acclaimed from the outset as great. And while the cork gods can start to get restive with white Burgundies when five years old, all eight wines fulfilled their reputation. I had previously enjoyed two opportunities to taste representative cross-sections of Grand and Premier Crus, and knew first-hand how good the wines were.

The top-pointed wine rated by the group – also reflected on my own score sheet – was a slightly surprising Bouchard Chevalier-Montrachet, given the inclusion in the field of Montrachet, Batard-Montrachet and Criots-Batard-Montrachet; I described the wine as the richest, most complex and deep, with some buttery notes to the white peach fruit. It was slightly surprising because the wine was superb and hadn’t always shone as brightly as it did here.

2. Back to Corton

A mini-bracket of three red Cortons was a transition from white to red Burgundies, and the least fashionable commune at that. Little separated my points and the group’s; all the wines with lovely purity and red fruits, all light- to medium-bodied with fine tannins.

It was a segue to the ’14 vintage, but much more than that – to the very nature of red Burgundy. It is a wine that glows from within when the uncertain weather gods smile – exquisitely beautiful when young, but with decades of shimmering life ahead. When the tough-skinned cabernet sauvignon of Bordeaux fails the test and becomes overtly green at one extreme, and pulpy and drab at the other, you would surely think Burgundy has even less margin for error.

But 2014 showed, as with so many vintages in which Burgundy has struggled, it can produce wines of quiet, restrained beauty that take you on a voyage of discovery, killing you softly as it does. The 2015 wines, now well and truly available in Australia, are generous and rich, boisterous rather than restrained. But because of the high reputation of the producers of the ’14s we were to taste, preconceptions were as useless as they generally are in Burgundy. In retrospect, the tasting was of a year that celebrated terroir rather than rich fruit. Another recent example had been 2009 (rich fruit) and 2010 (elegance and terroir).

3. Gevrey-Chambertin

The first major bracket brought together nine wines from Gevrey-Chambertin, and the Olympic Torch of Burgundy was lit. My cryptic comments scrawled at the foot of the page were ‘elegance, perfume, length’ and ‘power, depth’ (I did write tasting notes for each wine and allocated points out of 100 throughout the day).

The most favoured wine was Domaine Armand Rousseau Chambertin. I wrote: “Light- to medium-bodied, but super-intense and long; red berries and spices set against savoury tannins. 96 points.” The average score was 96.18. The second wine was a stranger to me – Domaine Perrot-Minot Chapelle-Chambertin, the average score 95.42, mine 97. My note reads: “Intensely perfumed, the palate glorious finesse and presence.” Third place, with 95.06 points, went to another producer I hadn’t come across – Geantet-Pansiot. My note reads: “Notably deep but clear crimson-purple, a powerful wine with lots of well-handled extract; will be very long-lived.” I gave it 97 points.

4. Morey-St-Denis and Chambolle-Musigny

The next bracket was small, but packed with six high-quality wines from Morey-St-Denis and Chambolle-Musigny. I worked the 1983 vintage at Domaine Dujac in Morey-St-Denis, and it has always remained a favourite – for both sentimental and wine-quality reasons. Its whole-bunch inclusion, which led me to use 30 per cent whole bunches in all the Coldstream Hills pinot noirs from 1985 to 1996, stood out in the Dujac Clos Saint-Denis and Clos de la Roche, the former my choice (96 points) and that of the group (96.18 points).

5. Flagey-Echezeaux

Five wines from Flagey-Echezeaux followed, acting as a surrogate curtain-raiser for the big guns of the final and best group from Vosne-Romanee. It was tightly run, the top three wines separated by decimal points, 95 the base: 95.70, 95.29, 95.17. Domaine Meo-Camuzet took the honours with its Clos de Vougeot, Lucien le Moine Grands-Echezeaux second, and my top with its clarity 
and colour, and super-fragrant red fruits and spices.

6. Vosne-Romanee

Vosne-Romanee more than lived up to the lofty expectations held for it. I let fly with points in the sequence of the wines in the tasting thus: 98, 95, 98, 99, 98 and 99. As with all the brackets, there was no discussion until everyone had recorded and called out their points. It soon became clear the majority of tasters believed that wines number one and four were from Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, but some (including myself) felt that four was the better of the two.

For the record, the wines were poured in this order: Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Romanee-Conti, Domaine Sylvain Cathiard Romanee-St-Vivant, Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair La Romanee, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache, Domaine Leroy Richebourg, Domaine Francois Lamarche La Grande Rue.

The event will be staged next year with the 2015 vintage wines. It’s already fully subscribed, but there may be cancellations. Visit princewinestore.com.au for all details.