Sunday, January 19, 2014

Puligny and puzzlement

2007 Louis Latour Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatières (Appellation Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Contrôlée).

Very pale tea-rose gold (very clear) -- cornsilk color (the correct descriptor is "straw" but who ever sees straw?)

Aroma: faint paint thinner (minerality?) -- but wine is surely sound -- faint smoke and toasted/burnt marshmallow -- a CA chard would = gourmet caramel candy


teeth-melting acidity

cerebral, intellectually interesting -- yes you want more --

Yes, you want more, but. That teeth-melting acidity becomes throat-scorching, and then it becomes impossible to deal with. You might almost mistake the heat of it for intensely high alcohol levels, and double check the pertinent number on the label. If you do so, you discover it's 13.5%, not excessive, at least by California standards. Are we tasting, in this French fieriness, the results of Burgundy's iffy climate, and of the naturally high acidity that betrays the chardonnay grape's struggle to ripen? -- not forgetting that one of the reasons chardonnay is also the grape of Champagne is precisely because the happy accident of a sparkling wine's secondary fermentation in the bottle provides a saving grace for, and a reason to drink, another unpalatably tart example of "Queen Chardonnay" when she is grown even further north than Burgundy.

We dare to associate a queenly Puligny-Montrachet with the word "unpalatable." Perhaps we should instead simply follow the example of professional tasters in magazines, who briefly discuss a wine and then add the italicized advice "Drink" or "Hold," depending on how long they think it might be cellared and brought to its full goodness. Acid being a preservative and so one of the components that eventually falls away from wine, leaving untroubled goodness behind, my instinct here is to advise "Hold -- for ten years." In that time I can only hope not only that this wine will improve, but that lovers of Puligny Montrachet will not have caught up with me while wielding sharp sticks.

I fear sharp sticks because a Puligny-Montrachet (Louis Latour is only one producer of them -- many winemakers own bits of the same small bits of Burgundy) is, of course, among the very greatest of wines, a classic, a standard bearer. One vineyard, Le Montrachet -- grand cru -- has long given the world bottles of such glory that its village, Puligny, named itself after it, as do even other adjacent vineyards (Bâtard-Montrachet, Bienvenues Bâtard-Montrachet, both grands crus); still other, slightly less magnificent vineyards inside the village, like Les Folatières (premier cru), also get to trumpet their proximity to heaven as we see by the lovely and serious script on the labels. Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatières, all in one reverent breath.

This bottle was going to be the treat we reserved for the three-year anniversary of the blog. Since we have so much enjoyed California chardonnays like Fogdog and Karia, which like to boast that they are made in the "lighter" style of true French Burgundies, we expected a Puligny-Montrachet to be a Fogdog or a Karia, only incandescently better. Perhaps we should have paid more attention to Karen MacNeil's warning, in The Wine Bible, that no Burgundy is as "bosomy" (wonderful word) as even the sparest and most "elegant" California chard. By way of metaphors you might say, there are entrancing French actresses, and then there is Marilyn Monroe. She's just different. It's the climate. 

It so happens that only a few days ago Mr. Alder Yarrow at Vinography, probably the most prestigious English-language wine blog in the world (I should guess Dr.Vino and Fermentation round out the top three), wrote of visiting Burgundy last fall and of tasting through fourteen barrel samples of another producer's Puligny-Montrachet while he was there -- Domaine Jean Chartron. Now in all of his notes on these wines, two assessments repeat most: "lemon" and "wet stones." (Might his "wet stones" equal my minerality or even, heaven help us, paint thinner?) In almost all his notes, he raves. Delicate, delicious, wow, powerful. Incredible, fantastic, delicious.

I'm puzzled. Why does Mr. Yarrow swoon over his Puligny Montrachets, while I judge mine to be savagely unapproachable for at least ten years? I can think of more than a few answers, which I will lay out as they occur to me.

  • Mr. Yarrow is much more experienced than me in tasting very fine wines, and is exponentially better able to appreciate the stupendous qualities of anything bearing the name Montrachet. 
  • Mr. Yarrow was, last fall, lucky enough to taste the wines of a truly great maker. My Louis Latour is, in contrast, a sort of Gallo of France; consult wine books about "recommended producers" for this as for practically any above average wine, and you will rarely find him or anybody else familiar at the top of the list. You will likely rather learn that few of the makers whom a Karen MacNeil or a Jancis Robinson relish are available to anyone traveling in ordinary circles, even though these writers may cast their nets wide and relish ten or twelve "favorites." This may sound like a whine and perhaps is one. If so, it's a whine I picked up from no less an authority than Oz Clarke. Somewhere in one of his books, possibly his New Encyclopedia of French Wines (1982), he admits that to recommend fine producers is just to tease, since the best of the best go instantly into the vaults of the super wealthy and there's an end. Willie Gluckstern in The Wine Avenger agreed, going so far as to finger, among the super wealthy, a lot of orthodontists.
  • My bottle was flawed. (Unlikely. A Honda may be flawed. A Rolls Royce is not.)
  • The 2007 vintage in Burgundy was difficult, while the '08 and '09 were good. Lucky Mr. Yarrow.
  • My glass was too small. Karen MacNeil says that tasting a great Burgundy in an ungenerous-sized glass is a crime.
  • Or, the word and the taste "lemon," repeated so often in Mr. Yarrow's notes, means acidic. So do words like green apple, crackling, laser, sharp, seared, electric, puckering, "saliva bursts from the mouth," zingy, lemon, mouthwatering, lemon, "tart unripe apples," lemon, lemon zest, lemon. Descriptors of cream and softness showed up more frequently in the 2009 tasting notes than in the '08, so perhaps the former was a sunnier, warmer vintage than the latter? In short: Mr. Yarrow found these Puligny-Montrachets just as throat scorching and impossible as I found mine, but he doesn't want to say so for fear of looking like a philistine. Else, how can wines so lemony be so delicious now, especially when the sublimest Burgundies are long since agreed upon to need at least five to ten years' aging "to show what all the fuss is about" (Oz Clarke, again)? 
  • Domaine Jean Chartron has changed its cellar work to transform its Puligny-Montrachets into the bosomy wines American chardonnay drinkers want. But then, what of all the lemon-ness? 

Puzzlement. It must be necessary to do more homework on fine Burgundy. Problem: cost. Louis Latour's example above, distinctly not ready to drink, retails for about $55. Le yipe.

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