It’s a damp February day in Meursault and I’m sitting at a large kitchen table with François Mikulski and his family, plus Jean-Marc Roulot and Dominique Lafon—a troika of Meursault producers. They’ve invited me to lunch on my day visiting each of their cellars, and as we eat they take turns trading the local gossip. Then Mikulski heads down to his cellar and returns with a small glass ampule in a box, filled with light-yellow liquid, like something out of a Homeland episode. The three men pass around Mikulski’s vial, each inspecting it.
“You do this for all your cuvées?” Roulot asks. Actually, a lot of cellars in Meursault, and along the Côte de Beaune, have a stash of these ampules today. They’re intended to provide a completely inert control sample of each year’s wine for one simple reason: When a faulty bottle shows up, there’s now a benchmark for how the wine was meant to taste.
In a way, these little vials say everything about the current state of white Burgundy (as, perhaps, do the unsure glances when I take out my notebook during our informal lunch—I quickly put it away). It’s no secret that the wines have become some of the most desired in the world. Collectors have looked past red Burgundy to white, boosting prices to unprecedented levels. Also, the wines have been cast into a wider global market, thanks to a surge of interest in Asia. In places like Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet, the stakes have grown very high.
At the same time, white Burgundy, in particular, is being scrutinized as never before—after many legendary producers’ wines showed signs of oxidation in the bottle when they were still relatively young. Around the turn of the century, loyal customers began to notice that some of the world’s finest white wines were dying an early death, for a variety of reasons that would take at least a decade to sort out. What had become rather expensive wines were often failing, tasting over-the-hill at seven years of age, or even younger. The outrage was understandable.
“The problem, globally, is that everyone wants the wines to be drinkable in a restaurant six months after bottling, and they want the wines to be beautiful at 15 years old. Technically, it’s not possible.” —Alex Moreau, Domaine Bernard Moreau
Premature oxidation—“premox,” as it’s often called—presented a serious challenge to the region’s reputation. The silver lining from this crisis of faith? It forced Burgundy’s winemakers to reconsider every aspect of their work, and make significant changes. On the whole the wines today are, I would argue, better than ever.
Much has changed in the past two decades. Vineyard work has been radically transformed since the end of the 1980s, when just a handful of pioneers like Anne-Claude Leflaive were beginning to turn away from the chemically driven farming of that era toward organicsand biodynamics, which are the norm today in many of the best vineyards. (There are 1,396 hectares of vines already in organic farming or undergoing conversion today in the Côte d’Or department, up from 339 in 2005.) Most good producers also have reduced yields and made a practice of cutting away subpar fruit, a turn away from the 1980s mode of maximizing harvest. And increasingly, the goal is to pick with an eye toward acidity rather than ripeness. “We’d rather pick the grapes a bit fresher,” says Catherine Tessier of Domaine Tessier in Meursault. “Ripe to be sure, but more for a great aromatic expression than something too ripe.”
Also, in prominent appellations like Meursault, small farmers are taking back the grapes they once sold to négociants, all while prominent négociants like Faiveley and Joseph Drouhin are now increasingly reliant on their own vineyards—which today are some of the most impeccably farmed plots in the region. More farmers have spurned the Dijon clone selections of vines, so widely touted in the New World, opting instead for massale selections, preserving a genetic lineage. At Bonneau du Martray, for instance, Jean Charles le Beault de la Morinière spent a decade replanting part of his Corton-Charlemagne to old, pre-clonal selections because he wanted to preserve “part of our patrimoine.”
The result, winemakers insist, is evident. “When I think about the evolution of agriculture, I sense it in the length of the wines,” says Lafon, who farms biodynamically at his Domaine des Comtes Lafon. “You get more clarity and length.”
“We’d rather pick the grapes a bit fresher. Ripe to be sure, but more for a great aromatic expression than something too ripe.” —Catherine Tessier, Domaine Tessier
But the greater revolution has come in the cellar, where techniques have radically changed. By the early 1990s, the Burgundians had begun to see stylistic changes elsewhere in the world, and they too wanted to make wines that were riper, fuller and more enjoyable when young, pleasing to drinkers who didn’t have patience to wait ten years. Winemaking in villages like Puligny- and Chassagne-Montrachet, and especially Meursault, gravitated toward the richer, early-drinking style gaining favor elsewhere, especially California.
“My sense is that in Meursault, the vignerons were the keenest to sell their wines more broadly,” says Alex Bachelet of Domaine Bachelet-Monnot, which holds land in all three villages, “and during the 1990s, when the U.S. wanted that bigger, richer style, they were the first to follow it.”
Because white winemaking was considered a less complex task than red, it was often viewed as an afterthought, at least by winemaking schools and by many vintners prior to the technical advancements of the 1980s. Clusters of chardonnay were pressed much like red grapes, and fermented in whichever vessels were available. In that era, the Burgundians had been questioned on the use of filtration—a practice counseled by advisors as routine and obvious, until importers and critics began assailing it—but suddenly they began to question all the aspects of crafting their white wines. Many gravitated to the pneumatic presses coming into fashion at the time, which promised to treat grapes more gently, and sought to minimize the contact between grape skins and juice. Some dramatically reduced the amount of the preservative sulfur dioxide in the wines, hoping to make them more approachable. And they often aggressively stirred the lees in barrels, a technique that could bolster the texture of what might otherwise have been anemic, acidic wines. The technique defined the buxom California style popular at the time, and it continued to be used in Burgundy even as more careful farming delivered riper, healthier, more concentrated fruit that did not necessarily need as much lees-inflected enrichment. Those choices, plus some unfortunate decisions about the quality of corks, rapidly made the wines more generous and pleasing—and, it now appears, contributed to the rise of premox.
“When I think about the evolution of agriculture, I sense it in the length of the wines. You get more clarity and length.” —Dominique Lafon, of Domaine des Comtes Lafon
Their customers began to grumble by the early 2000s. (To get a sense of the response of collectors, you can visit the “Oxidized Burgs” wiki hosted by Wikispaces.) But it took a while for the Burgundians to realize what was happening. Even today, there’s a downright skittishness in towns like Meursault when it comes to, say, visiting journalists—not only about the touchy topic of premox, but also because vintners are still adjusting to the Côte de Beaune’s recent shot to fame, after long dwelling in the shadow of its red-wine counterpart to the north. And even as their customers grew frustrated, some of the region’s greatest practitioners were loathe to discuss the possibility that something was amiss. At Domaine Leflaive, which had its reputation seriously dented by mid-2000s vintages, premox was a dirty word, recalls Brice de la Morandière, who was appointed to run the domaine after his aunt, Anne-Claude Leflaive, passed away in 2015. “If it were discussed we would get a slap in the face and not ask the question again,” he says.
Eventually, it was inevitable to face the music, and when the Burgundians did, they did so aggressively, realizing that the very goal of making the wines that were approachable young had, perhaps, been a mistake. Where once the goal was richness and opulence, the new plan was to prepare wines for a long and prosperous life—namely by making them as bulletproof as possible to oxidation.
Many people drastically reduced lees stirring (bâtonnage), which both exposes wine to air and removes some of the protective sulfur and carbon dioxide. It’s now typical in many cellars for wines to essentially be left untouched in barrel during their aging. Not everyone stopped; lees stirring continues, for instance, at Domaine Leflaive, although dela Morandière asked for tests on dissolved oxygen levels in the barrels; he even tested methods to stir lees by spinning barrels on rotating racks so they didn’t have to be opened.
Some people brought sulfur levels back up, modestly, and today they’ll often add it later during winemaking, after the wine has aged for a while. “It’s not that we raised the sulfur again,” Catherine Tessier says. “It’s more that in the ’90s and beginning of the 2000s, they lowered the amount of sulfur too far.”
Winemakers in the Côte de Beaune also tend to leave their chardonnays in barrel far longer than 10 or 15 years ago, often 15 months or more. And crucially, many winemakers have adopted a technique that Jean-Marc Roulot introduced with the 1993 vintage, when he left a troublesome Meursault Perrières in a steel tank for six months before bottling. He found the texture firmer and the acidity brighter, and so began what’s now effectively known as the Roulot technique.
But perhaps no change has been as crucial, if little discussed even among the Burgundians, as how grapes and juice are handled. The pneumatic presses that promised to keep the juice well protected are certainly still around, but today, pressing for white Burgundies is less delicate, the grapes sometimes lightly crushed first, to beat them up just a touch. Upright mechanical presses, which tend to expose the grapes to more air, are back. At Meursault’s Boisson-Vadot, Pierre Boisson uses both “to have that aromatic complexity.”
Meanwhile, the small amount of oxidation that can happen at pressing is often allowed to continue over the course of the following day; the juice remains exposed to air, often without any sulfur additions. So-called juice browning performs a crucial task: It exposes the most sensitive phenolic compounds in the soon-to-be wine, so that, as Alex Moreau of Domaine Bernard Moreau puts it, “whatever oxidizes in the must won’t oxidize in the wine.” Once bright-green juice now often goes into barrel quite brown, as it might have before refrigeration and modern presses appeared. Bruno Clair in Marsannay, for instance, recalls how his grandfather needed hours to truck chardonnay grapes from Santenay and “the juice he’d get out of the press was black.”
This leads to the near-magic of fermentation, which precipitates out most of those oxidized compounds. Murky juice becomes clear, bright wine. “I’m a big fan of oxidizing the must,” Pierre Yves Colin-Morey tells me one day, as we sit in his tasting room in Chassagne-Montrachet. He puts juice into barrels fully brown, but “you put in the pipette after fermentation and”—he holds up a piece of white paper towel—“it looks like this.”
Perhaps no single winemaker epitomizes these collective shifts more than Alex Moreau in Chassagne-Montrachet. While Domaine Bernard Moreau never seemed to fall prey to systemic premox, he returned to his family’s domaine at just the right moment, and adopted nearly all of the practices that make today’s style of white Burgundy so appetizing.
“My father wanted to make the wines richer and more charming,” Moreau tells me, as we stand in his impeccably clean cuverie to taste his 2015 wines. “The fashion in Burgundy in the 1990s, when I started, was very flattering wines: plenty ripe, in lots of oak, lots of bâtonnage, perhaps less sulfur at bottling, and very charming.”
“If [premox] were discussed we would get a slap in the face and not ask the question again.” —Brice de la Morandière, Domaine Leflaive
After he took over from his father Bernard in 1999, Moreau slowly began making changes in the winemaking, incorporating techniques not only from neighbors but from his apprenticeships in the Southern Hemisphere, right before the moment when Burgundy would begin to realize it had a problem. That included longer, Roulot-style élevage for the wine, another six months in barrel, plus up to six more in steel. He stopped stirring the lees, and now leaves the white wines essentially untouched for more than a year. Like many of his contemporaries, he realized that premox was less about making one change than rethinking the entire mode of Burgundian winemaking.
At the same time, Moreau acknowledges that there’s an inherent choice in this new style: The wines are less flattering when they’re young, and they need time. But it’s a tradeoff that he’s ready to make.
“The problem, globally, is that everyone wants the wines to be drinkable in a restaurant six months after bottling, and they want the wines to be beautiful at fifteen years old. Technically, it’s not possible,” he tells me. “You can either have a forward, flattering wine or you can have a structured wine. You can’t play both sides.”
This article first appeared in W&S April 2017.