Mon 25 May 2009
It is an article of faith in Burgundy that the nuances of terroir that influence even vineyards lying next to each other — soil and subsoil, elevation, exposure, drainage — justify the Burgundian system of vineyard classification and the prices that these famous vineyards command. Remember that in Burgundy, while the domaine that made the wine is indeed an important factor, it’s the vineyards that are officially classified, not the domaines.
Quickly and a little simplistically, Burgundy’s vineyards are divided into three tiers: the village or commune level; the Premier Cru level; and, at the top, the Grands Crus. (Red wines are made from pinot noir grapes, white wines primarily from chardonnay.) A label that says Gevrey-Chambertin (I’ll use this commune as the model) is a village wine, the pinot noir grapes for which were drawn from vineyards designated for that purpose; such a wine should, ideally, convey a general sense of what the commune’s characteristics are.
A label that adds a Premier Cru vineyard to the statement — Gevrey-Chambertin Aux Combottes, for example — will adorn a bottle of wine made only from that vineyard, and the term “Premier Cru” is required; the wine should reflect the character of that particular vineyard. A Grand Cru wine dispenses with the name of the village or commune and, in august fashion, adorns the label with its sole presence, as in Chambertin or Clos de Beze, two of the Grand Cru vineyards of Gevrey-Chambertin.
The distinctions between and the fame of many of Burgundy’s Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards go back a thousand years; certainly these qualities were fixed 200 or 250 years ago. Chambertin was the favorite wine of Napoleon, whose troops, it is said, reversed arms in the vineyard’s honor when marching past it.
My purpose today, however, has not to do with Gevrey-Chambertin and its eight Grand Cru and 26 Premier Cru vineyards, but with Nuits-Saint-Georges (south of Gevrey-Chambertin in the Cote de Nuits section of Burgundy), which has no Grands Crus but 27 Premiers Crus, one of which, Les Saint-Georges, has recently been the subject of a petition to elevation to Grand Cru status. One of the petitioners is Domaine Henri Gouges, a venerable producer, now run by the third generation, which makes wine only from Nuits-Saint-Georges vineyards, including Les Saint-Georges.
Henri Gouges created the domaine in 1925 when he became one of the first growers in Burgundy to bottle and sell his wine under his own name. The typical practice was to sell grapes or wine to negociants, who finished, or “elevated” the wine and sold it under their labels. The domaine is now run by Henri Gouges’ grandsons, the cousins Christian and Pierre. The domaine owns 14.5 hectares of vineyards, just under 40 acres, in Nuits-Saint-Georges and produces a red and a white Bourgogne (the white from pinot blanc), a Nuits Villages and seven wines from Premier Cru vineyards, four of which I want to compare, Les Chenes Carteaux, Clos des Porrets St. Georges, Les Pruliers and Les Saint-Georges, all from 2007.
Domaine Henri Gouges makes old-fashioned, firmly structured wines. New oak is kept to a maximum of 20 percent, so the wines are not overly influenced by toasty oak or woodiness, but they tend to be quite tannic, a common quality of these four wines. Henri Gouges Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Chenes Carteaux Premier Cru 2007, for example, is characterized by significant yet attractive weight and heft; aromas of minerals and clean earth and tightly furled black fruit, slightly spicy and floral, feel both serious and inviting, In the mouth, the wine is expansive, intense and concentrated, a little meaty, very dry, minerally and, at the finish, austere with plush, grainy tannins. This needs three or four years to become a bit more yielding. Very Good+.
The Henri Gouges Nuits-Saint-Georges Clos des Porrets Saint-Georges Premier Cru 2007 retains the chewy tannins of its cousin but the structure here feels more muscular and sinewy, and the aromas are a little earthier, spicier, with a touch of roots and wheatmeal. Fruit tends more toward red, as in red currants and plums, but with a hint of black currants. Tannic, yes, but also supple and powered by brisk acidity. Best from 2011 to 2016 or ’18. Excellent.
You have to remember that all of these vineyards are located not more than a few hundred yards from each other. Though Ronciers (which Henri Gouges does not cultivate) lies between Clos des Porrets and Les Pruliers, a good place-kicker could kick a football from one to the other. As to the differences between these two wines, the Henri Gouges Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Pruliers Premier Cru 2007 is darker, substantial, more brooding and more subdued, a powerhouse of dry tannins etched with finely delineated acid. Try this after 2012 and expect good results through 2017 or ’19. Excellent potential.
Finally, we come to the Henri Gouges Les Saint-Georges Premier Cru 2007. The wine is immediately enticing, with aromas of spiced and macerated red fruit, touches of leather and potpourri and dried herbs; in the mouth, the wine feels huge, immensely earthy and mineral-like, permeated by dense tannins, though hinting at succulence and a satiny texture. Great presence, tone and character. Give this remarkable wine four to six years and enjoy through 2018 or 2020. Excellent potential.
These wines will be released in the United States toward the end of 2009. Approximate prices will be about $80 for Les Chenes Carteaux; about $82 for Clos des Porrets Saint-Georges; about $86 for Le Pruliers; and about $147 for Les Saint-Georges.
The importer is Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.