Occasionally we read in the more high-toned wine publications articles that pose the ancient, imponderable and futile question, “Is Great Bordeaux a Greater Wine Than Great Burgundy?” or the reverse. And occasionally you see the comment, usually from an old school writer about wine or from the notes of a famous old connoisseur that Bordeaux is a young man’s drink while Burgundy is for middle age; understand that we’re referring to red wines.
Well, fie, what does all that folderol mean anyway? Great Bordeaux wines and great Burgundy wines are, you know, great. It’s like comparing kumquats and toothbrushes (especially electric toothbrushes). The geography is different, the climates are different, the philosophies and systems are different, not to mention, of course, the grapes. (Have you ever noticed that when people say, “not to mention,” they go ahead and mention whatever it is they pretend that they’re not going to mention in the first place?) Bordeaux wines are almost always blended; Burgundies are 100 percent varietal, that is, pinot noir for the red wines. Before the Revolution, most of the famous vineyards of Burgundy were owned and farmed by religious orders; Bordeaux, on the other hand, was the home of the well-known rationalist and skeptic, Montaigne, who served as mayor of the city from 1581 to 1585. See? You can’t compare these places.
Here’s a story:
In December 1999, actually on my birthday, I stood in the chilly cellar of Domaine G. Roumier in the village of Chambolle-Musigny, in Burgundy, as winemaker Christophe Roumier, grandson of the domain’s founder, piped a dribble of dark purple Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1998 from the barrel into my glass. I sipped. I trembled. I succumbed. I thought, “Holy shit, that’s the best wine I have ever tasted in my life.”
Three days later, I stood, still chilly, in the surprisingly modest old stone building that connoisseurs around the world recognize as the seat of Chateau Petrus in Pomerol, an hour’s drive northeast of the city of Bordeaux, maker of the best merlot-based wine in the cosmos. I take a sip of a barrel sample of Petrus 1998, so dark that it’s almost black, and feel as if a thunderclap has gone off in my head. “Holy, shit,” says the thought-cloud above my cranium, “this is the best wine I have ever tasted in my life.”
And yet … about the greatest pinot noir wines, whether of Burgundy or certain very specific spots in California or certain very specific spots in Oregon’s Willamette Valley (I’m not sold on New Zealand), in addition to their profundity, their gravity, their nobility (qualities they often share with Bordeaux wines), there wafts the elusive ineffable, what Christophe Roumier described that day, in connection with his Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1998, as “the power of delicacy.” It diminishes the mystery to call it “roses and slate” or “violets and wet bark” or “satin and loam.” It’s that almost indescribable marriage of opposite forces that leads pinot noir lovers ever onward in search of the grail.
All this serves as prelude to reviews of four groups of three pinot noir wines, one from a great estate in Burgundy, Mongeard-Mugneret, the rest from California.
Yes, three more mystery wines, wrapped in black tissue, and all I knew was that they represented pinot noir of three vintages from the same producer in California.
Here are my notes, transcribed from my little blue notebook:
>Mystery Pinot Noir #1: “Medium ruby-purple color; red currant — blackberry — cranberry & cola; pretty classic; dried cloves w/ a hint of allspice astringency; v. dry — slightly herbal; succulent but demanding too & w/ a shyly austere finish… lots of tone & grip, a little brambly, foresty and earthy, good acidity.”
In other words, “pretty classic” indeed, with keen acidity cutting a swath on the palate and making, along with the wine’s gentle but persistent tannins and subtle oak influence, a structure both purposeful and suave. A compelling young pinot noir of a recent or most recent year. Excellent.
>Mystery Pinot Noir #2: “Color a touch lighter than the previous example; a little earthier, a little funkier — fruit ripe and more macerated, black and red fruit but adds a note of rhubarb and hint of sassafras — very well-knit, smooth and polished; the spicy element unfolds slowly — intriguing touches of old saddle-leather, moss and beetroot to compose the earthy quality.”
So, an older year, a slightly more mature pinot noir, recognizably in the same style, that is, smooth, satiny, supple and subtle and with fruit opening and softening. Absolutely delicious. Excellent again.
>Mystery Pinot Noir #3: “Just lovely … tobacco — lavender — roses — slate; macerated and roasted blue and red fruit; very dry, austere, briers and brambles, hints of sassafras and wheatmeal… years to go.”
A fairly paradoxical pinot noir, opening with tremendous sensual appeal and then, once you get into it, closing down and turning a blank, almost truculent visage to the drinker. Try in two or three years. Excellent but more in potential than present enjoyment.
It turned out that these wines were from Cuvaison, an all-estate producer specializing in chardonnay and pinot noir. The pinots I tasted — in this order, according to the way they were wrapped and numbered, 2007, 2005, 2006 — are from the winery’s Carneros estate in the Napa Valley. The winery was founded in 1969, near Calistoga, in the northern part of Napa. Cuvaison has been owned since 1979 by the Schmidheiny family of Switzerland. The wines have been marketed and nationally distributed since 1996 by Terlato Wines International (formerly Paterno). Winemaker is Steven Rogstad.
I was happy to discover that these beautifully balanced and proportioned pinots came from Cuvaison, because I blow distinctly hot and cold on the winery’s chardonnays, some of which I find unbearably overwrought. It’s interesting, or strange, that a producer is capable of making chardonnay in a manner so flamboyant and strident that my palate finds them undrinkable, and yet fashion pinots in a finely knit, elegant and spare style. Some mysteries are just unfathomable, I suppose.
So, again, here are the wines in the order of tasting: Cuvaison Point Noir 2007, 2005 and 2006, all Napa Valley, Carneros, all rate Excellent. The 2005 and ’06 are about $30; the 2007 is about $33.
The Mongeard family has been making wine in Vosne-Romanée since the middle of the 18th Century. The domaine owns about 65 acres of village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards in Côte de Nuits, the northern part of Burgundy proper. These pinot noir wines tend to embody old-fashioned virtues like reticence, intensity and concentration, representing a sense of decorum and elegance, yet not neglecting sensible, even rigorous structure. The wines will be released at the end of 2009. They are imported by Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.
The first words in my notes about the Mongeard-Mugneret Savigny-lès-Beaune Narbantons Premier Cru 2007 are “Lovely, sleek.” The bouquet teems with lilac and rose petals, smoke, black cherries and currants. This pinot noir is quite dry and earthy, packed with juicy black and red fruit flavors cloaked in soft grainy tannins and polished oak for an effect that’s high-toned and elegant. The domaine owns 1.39 hectares (3.57 acres) of the 9.49-hectare (24.38 acres) Narbantons vineyard. The vines average 53 years old. The wine sees about 35 percent new oak. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Very Good+. About $43.
The Mongeard-Mugneret Echézeaux Grand Cru 2007 did not allow many ways in; it frankly rebuffed ingress by its formidably sizable and tannic character. What one perceives — or is allowed to perceive — is a sense of dark, immutable vibrancy and resonance coupled to a depth of rich spicy fruit that feels both inchoate and unfathomable. This needs years, say from 2013 or ’14 through 2019 to 2024. Echézeaux, at 96.8 acres, is by far the largest vineyard in the great and glorious commune of Vosnes-Romanée; Mongeard-Mugneret owns a hair over 7 acres. Excellent potential for the patient and well-heeled. About $98.
This is the bouquet that you write love letters to, though they may be returned unopened, the bouquet that turns you into a stalker, a hopeless romantic and victim of obsessive love, finally flung into a sordid gutter, a dried-out, pathetic husk of your former self. Of course, you reveled in every moment of your seduction and degradation. And then comes the water-boarding of the tannins, the thwack of 100 percent new oak against your tongue, the impenetrable blackness of fruit, the unerring aim of drone acidity and yet — AND YET! — the wine’s structure is not only monolithic but balletic, elevated, ineffable, a model of pinpoint balance and poise. The wine is the Mongeard-Mugneret Grands-Echézeaux Grand Cru 2007, from a 23.5-acre vineyard of which Mongeard-Mugneret owns 3.7 acres. The vines are 40 to 68 years old. Enormous potential, but don’t touch until 2013 or ’15 and then consume until 2020 to ’25. About $163 (a bottle).