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 A Complex Tale of Two Wines With a Window Into Premox

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Recently I had an opportunity to drink 2 older White Burgundies. The wines were: 1992 Joseph Drouhin Corton Charlemagne and 1999 Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet. They offered an interesting paradox into the current state of White Burgundy.

1992 Joseph Drouhin Corton Charlemagne
Oxidized and past its prime, this wine was nonetheless of some interest. With a deep gold color there was a perfume of toasted bread with some hints of toasted nuts and coconut. Rounded and lush, the fruit was barely noticeable under the robe of toasted bread and subtle toasted coconut flavors. Just a bit of crispness saved the wine, but clearly it was in an advanced stage of oxidation and on the verge of taking on a sherry component and a browning color. In short, it was tiring but still an interesting drink despite it not having much resemblance to White Burgundy. And, a half glass of the wine left overnight was actually a bit better the next day as was the other half of the wine left in the bottle. It was amazing as I would have expected the wine to deteriorate. So the wine was clearly advanced, but declining slowly.

1999 Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet
By contrast the Chevalier was a baby! The wine was decanted, but the sulphur traces never completely left the wine over the course of several hours. It was tight and crisp and the fruit and flavors were there, but the wine was backward and restrained and clearly not ready to drink. And, a small amount of wine left in the bottle had changed very little the next day.

What makes these two wines even more interesting is to consider the issue of premature aging of White Burgundies known as Premox (to read my most recent article on Premox click here [2]). In the case of the oxidized Corton Charlemagne, it was better than wines in an advanced stage of Premox in that it still had some complexity (albeit not at all what you would seek to find in a less oxidized bottle) and crispness. Premox wines are not only dark in color, but have virtually no perfume or even a tinge of sherry and are flat and devoid of flavor. In advanced Premox there is a sherry like quality and very little fruit and beyond that a wine that is brown with no redeeming quality. All of this happens in a much shorter time than the age of these wines – 22 years and 15 years, respectively. In the case of the very youthful Chevalier, even at 15 years of age it was still not ready to drink even with decanting. Yet some recent vintages from Domaine Leflaive at 5 years of age are suffering from advance Premox. The youngest Premox Leflaive I have had was the 2008 which had Premox problems as early as 2012, but friends tell me that they are finding Premox in even more recent Leflaive vintages.

Storage may have been the problem with the Corton Charlemagne. I don’t know since it was not from my cellar. But, I also do not own this wine so it is entirely possible that at 22 years of age it is the natural evolution of this wine. It may have nothing to do with Premox. But, what I am pointing out is the great difference in the evolution of these two wines. The 1999 Chevalier is the exact opposite of the tired 1992 Corton Charlemagne. At 15 years of age it is younger, but it probably still needs another 5-10 years. Time will tell. But, contrasted with more recent vintages from the same producer that are already dying or dead, it is certainly curious to say the least.

Such is the state of White Burgundy today. Maybe it is wines such as the Chevalier Montrachet that caused the change in making wines that are more accessible at an early age? That is one theory. But, the reasons behind the Premox plague are many and varied. It seems like no one really knows for sure – maybe yes, maybe no. I have no idea. I have asked questions directly to the producers. There are a lot of different responses. Some even deny that there is a problem (to read my article Is One Winedrinker’s Premox Another Winedrinker’s Botox? click here [3]). However, what I know and what every person involved with the buying, cellaring, and drinking of White Burgundy for the last 30 or more years knows, is that the wines are not aging in the same way as they have in the past. Routinely, we would wait 5-10 years to drink the wines and often keep them for 20 or more years. Over this time they developed a complexity and flavor that made them, for me, the greatest white wines in the world.

Today the 1982 White Burgundies continue to be some of the best I have in my cellar and there are also other vintages such as 1979, 1985, 1988, 1989, and 1990 that are over 20 years old and simply remarkable. Sadly, somewhere in the 1990s this all changed. But, what we do know today is that keeping White Burgundies for more than 5 years or even less can be a chancy proposition. Except for a relatively few legacy producers such as Coche-Dury, Raveneau, and Domaine Romanée-Conti and a few others, there is a huge risk in buying and cellaring the wines. Yet, it is very interesting and paradoxical to me that the price of new White Burgundies across the board are at all time highs despite the fact that recent history says that most will never age for an extended period. But, like everything, it is a matter of supply and demand. And, a lot of this is undoubtedly driven by new buyers. Some of the 100 point pundits, tasting the wines out of barrel, offer advice to keep the wines for 10, 20, or 30 years or more. Good Luck! Unless there is a change in the trend of the last 15+ years, most of the wines will never get to the historical point of full maturity. To me, there is no question that buying new White Burgundies to cellar has turned into a vinous game of Russian roulette. This has no appeal to me. Caveat Emptor!