Back to Burgfest: 2017 Whites – Blind
BY NEAL MARTIN | AUGUST 10, 2021
Bourgogne Blanc finds itself at a crossroads. On one hand, many uphold it as the apotheosis of Chardonnay. Every young Chardonnay grows up dreaming of becoming a Montrachet, even the knights and bastards close by. On the other hand, many regions now produce their own outstanding Chardonnays. Competition has never been more fierce, and never have there been so many alternatives. There are some appellations where white Burgundy remains a good value, but the ineluctable fact is that many wines are now out of reach for the majority of consumers. White Burgundy has always repaid cellaring and yet premature oxidation has sometimes led even its most fervent admirers to offload their collections and vow never to touch the wines again. Some winemakers tackle this by controlled oxidation of free-run juice, while others strive to keep it green ’n’ clean. Some growers, including top names, have introduced Diam closures, but others remain loyal to cork. White Burgundy has had to contend with global warming, predicating wines with low acidities bereft of terroir expression, yet paradoxically, warm summers seem to have concentrated acidities so that the wines remain balanced and fresh. Some growers have responded by harvesting early, to the point where the earliest pickers gain some kind of bragging rights, whilst others argue this “race” has gone too far, resulting in anemic white Burgundy without phenolics or substance.
The furcation of approaches and techniques among white Burgundy winemakers is no bad thing (producers should not act like a shoal of fish darting off in one direction, as is the tendency in Bordeaux, where you have to queue up in your local supermarket for a must-have clay amphora). It does mean that a comprehensive tasting of over 200 white Premier and Grand Crus white Burgundy comes at an intriguing juncture. This year, the 2017 vintage was up for assessment, postponed from last year due to the pandemic. The whites were well received from barrel, one of the best vintages in recent years and the last where above-average temperatures bore some semblance to previous growing seasons, prior to global warming changing meteorological presets to establish the “new normal.” So how are they shaping up?
Tasting at Le Hameau de Barboron. Numbers were depleted this year due to travel restrictions.
The Growing Season
For a detailed summary of the 2017 growing season in Burgundy, I refer readers to my original report on Vinous, 2017 Burgundy: A Modern Classic. To adumbrate, it was actually a relief for growers to enjoy a season that was not a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. After the trauma of the frost-afflicted 2016 vintage, the vines’ survival instincts kicked in and they produced good quantities of fruit in the following year. After a cool and dry winter, February and March were slightly warmer. At the end of March, temperatures increased rapidly, thus expediting the growth cycle and fostering anxiety about another frost episode. Temperatures fell on April 18 and 19, affecting Chablis but not the Côte d’Or, a factor when it comes to comparing the performances in those two regions. Temperatures plummeted again toward the end of that month, but the damage was not as severe as in 2016. Flowering passed evenly with little coulure or millerandage. Clement weather settled in from the end of June. With potentially high yields, some growers opted to green harvest, while others decided to prune back hard earlier in the season. There were no heat spikes in August, but some younger vines suffered hydric stress, the showers in mid-August quenching parched throats. Much of the Chardonnay was picked from the end of August under ideal sanitary conditions.
Burgfest is a unique tasting that I have been privileged to attend for almost a decade. To taste over 200 Premier and Grand Crus blind, grouped by climat, affords an unparalleled insight into a vintage. It is an exercise that demands total concentration because, as much as I like to think that I’m the one assessing the wines, in fact the wines are assessing me. Tasting with a small group of seasoned merchants and writers, half of them MWs, and listening to their observations and comparing them with my own, is an invaluable means of improving my own palate and thinking outside the box.
The wines were tasted from Monday to Friday at the secluded Le Hameau de Barboron in the hinterland behind Savigny-lès-Beaune. Each wine was served in random order, single blind, so I was aware of the appellation and climat, but not the identity of the producer. Where there were insufficient numbers of wines, climats were combined according to proximity. Our trusty assistant was responsible for arranging orders and decanting bottles so that there was no way to identify them. After each flight, we relayed our scores, then discussed overall performance. We commenced with the Chablis and broached each appellation in turn, finishing with the Grand Crus, eight Chevalier-Montrachets and five Montrachets.
Blind tasting is not for the faint-hearted, nor for those who are convinced of their tasting prowess. You can guarantee there will be wines that trip you up, contradict previous assessments and seem illogical. Blind tasting is a pertinent reminder of one’s infallibility and the subjectiveness of appraising wine as mercurial as Burgundy, with its trenchant ability to surprise and dumbfound. On the other hand, there were plenty of wines that united views. To be honest, despite the number of wines, I feel the sample size was too small to draw conclusions about the success of one appellation vis-à-vis another. Instead, it highlighted how producers performed, their wines dispersed across different flights.
Readers should note that all my tasting notes were composed blind and practically verbatim. The only edits are where I referred to unidentified wines before the producer name was revealed, plus comments where some explanation is necessary – for example, when a wine was not consistent with previous reviews. Also, when tasting blind, we tend to be a little more conservative with scores and perhaps more critical of the wines, their shortcomings illuminated in this setting. Where I felt it necessary, I gave some the benefit of doubt, such as when they were occluded by sulfur or oak that I think will be assimilated with bottle age. This clairvoyance is based on gut feelings and experience, judging whether there is sufficient substance to consume them with time.
As you will have read from my introductory paragraph, Burgundy always has issues that can be exposed by a blind tasting. For example, there is the question of whether wine should translate the terroir or the imprimatur of the winemaker, or both. Gathering wines from the same climat is a good way to see how that can differ. For example, when is the use of new oak excessive; when does it come across strong but you feel it will be assimilated with time; and when do you think a bit more oak would have filled it out? Probably the biggest issue is the use of sulfur, something that I have broached in previous Burgfest reports. This is always more relevant tasting the wines in bottle than out of barrel, since many growers now use less SO2, at least until first racking. Certainly, throughout this tasting, I was constantly checking where I felt wines might suffer fixed reduction and where, with bottle age and/or decanting, any volatile sulfur compounds will be remedied by oxygen.
This is partly related to the gradual shift toward alternative closures, Diam being preferred in Burgundy. Here is an interesting statistic. Of the 211 submitted wines for white Burgfest, 51 were sealed under Diam, around one quarter. Of the five Montrachet wines, only one was under cork. Given that we are examining just Premier and Grand Crus, plus what you might call “serious producers,” this is a high percentage, one that will increase as stigma against Diam and other alternatives wears off. Resistance seems to come mainly from France and Germany, especially from sommeliers at top-end restaurants who insist that customers need to hear the pop of a cork. In terms of TCA, there were only two or three examples where taint was suspected, far less than there were a decade ago. In several instances it was felt that the bottle was in the foothills of premature oxidation. Despite the efforts of winemakers that specter has not gone away.
I will broach this in the order that we tasted the wines, commencing on Monday with the Chablis. I felt that these 2017s have a lot to offer, although they do not reach the highs that can be found in the Côte d’Or. Why? Well, one reason could be that the frosts earlier in the season disadvantaged them, sapping their energy after the traumatic 2016 vintage. The subsequent benevolent growing season allowed them to produce very good wines, but maybe they were just a step off the pace compared to Puligny-Montrachet or Meursault.
This year there were no contributions from either Domaine Raveneau or Vincent Dauvissat. The star was Benoît Droin, whose wines performed very strongly in whatever flight they appeared in: tense, vibrant, full of nervous energy. Droin changed the style of wines when he succeeded his father, who tended to use more new oak, but with such an array of holdings he continues to machine-harvest without detriment to quality. His tenets are different from those of many younger vignerons who adopted less interventionist techniques, yet the results speak for themselves in the glass. His Vaillons, Vaudésir, Valmur and Les Clos are tremendous, so dominant in their flights that they almost provoked groans when the winning wine was revealed.
Other growers that performed well were Samuel Billaud, Domaine Jean Collet and Jean-Claude Bessin, in particular the latter’s La Fôret and Valmur. There were some perplexing showings; for example, Duplessis’ wines are either entering a dumb phase or not delivering on the promise they showed from barrel, while as a fan of Didier Picq’s steely and Zen-like Chablis, I was not the only one who expected better from his Vosgros and Vaucoupin. Also, the 2017s from Long-Dépaquit did not show particularly well, apart from a very decent Moutonne. In 2017, I did find a general improvement in the Grand Crus over the Premiers, though not by a huge margin. Grand Crus are always tricky to compare because they tend to be raised in more oak barrels, so there is a different flavour profile. Overall, I was actually more smitten by these 2017 Chablis than others in the group, though my feeling is that they do not quite possess the consistency or the nervosité of the 2014s. That said, I prefer them to the 2018s, which lack the same drive, mineralité and terroir expression.
Tuesday was all about Meursault. Since there are usually good numbers from this appellation, most of these are divided into flights per Premier Cru, instead of being combined. We basically worked our way geographically southward, commencing with climats just south of the titular village and moving down toward the border with Puligny-Montrachet.
The first series focused on Bouchères, Porusots and Goutte d’Or. These immediately felt as if they had more consistency than the Chablis. A gorgeous Clos des Bouchères from Jean-Marc Roulot just pipped Dominique Lafon’s Bouchères. Some, like Fabien Coche’s Goutte d’Or, had a pleasant steeliness that was redolent of Puligny-Montrachet. There was also a strong showing by the Meursault-Blagny Sous Le Dos d’Ane from Olivier Leflaive. This was a taste of things to come, because this producer has a tendency to triumph at Burgfest, almost to the point of inevitability.
For me, the tasting kicked up a gear with the arrival of the Meursault Genevrières, a Premier Cru with a higher mineral content and similar orientation to Les Perrières. This flight included strong showings from Michel Bouzereau, Comtes-Lafon, Antoine Jobard and Ballot-Millot, whose wines substantiated the reputation of the 2017 whites where it matters: in the glass. They exuded intensity, complexity, tension and persistence. These just shaded the next flight of Meursault Charmes, which were perhaps just a little more vins de soleil, slightly more honeyed on the nose and fatter on the palate. Nevertheless, I adored the Charmes from Fabien Coche and, once again, Ballot-Millot. Finally, the Meursault Les Perrières provided some stellar wines thanks to its ideal southeast exposure and white marl soils, in particular apropos of Vincent Girardin and Comtes-Lafon. “If Dominique Lafon’s Perrières was this good,” I thought to myself, “I cannot wait to taste his Montrachet on Friday.”
Saint-Aubin and Chassagne-Montrachet
Wednesday saw the Saint-Aubin and Chassagne-Montrachets. There were two flights of the former, but these were a bit of a comedown from the Meursaults despite the pedigree of producers like Olivier Lamy and Benoît and Jean-Baptiste Bachelet (Domaine Jean-Claude Bachelet). Of course, it is only in recent years that Saint-Aubin has started to receive due respect, though only a few examples, such as de Montille and Lamy’s En Remilly, really got the pulse racing.
The Chassagne-Montrachets were approached by essentially working our way up the incline from flatter, clayey soils at the bottom to shallower, more detritus-strewn soils on the upper contours. I was actually impressed by the first flight thanks to a clutch of excellent wines from Philippe Colin, particularly his Chaumées Clos St-Abdon. The second flight focused on Maltroie, Vide-Bourses and Blanchot. Here, two of my favorite growers showed what they can do: a lovely Blanchot-Dessus from Domaine Jean-Claude Bachelet and a Vide-Bourses from Domaine Marc Colin surpassed my uncharacteristically tepid review from barrel. The flight of several Morgeots was consistent and crowned by Domaine Bernard Moreau, which displayed impressive mineralité, in contrast with Jean-Claude Bachelet’s richer, more oaky style. Moving up the slope, a brilliant Grandes-Ruchottes from Domaine Paul Pillot set the pace, the La Romanée supplying further evidence of Thierry Pillot’s winemaking chops. The final flight of Les Caillerets was bejeweled with gems from Domaine Marc Colin and, once again, Paul Pillot, whose offering was both concentrated and intense, with countervailing precision and tension. This will surely mature wonderfully in bottle.
The Puligny-Montrachet Premier Crus were next up for inspection. We began around Champgain (or Champ Gain) and La Truffière. François Carillon excelled in the former climat, while Domaine Jean-Claude Bachelet’s Sous Les Puits was a masterclass in making what you might call “exotic” white Burgundy without denuding it of Burgundy DNA. I was less enamored of the La Truffière from J.M. Boillot, though Domaine de la Vougeraie’s Champ Gain performed well in what was otherwise a rather inconsistent showing of their wines. The next flight, exclusively from Les Folatières, revealed a couple of absolute gems. Again, Olivier Leflaive produced a wonderful example that just needs time to eat the new oak, though it was Alexandre and Marc Bachelet at Bachelet-Monnot who took top honours. Indeed, nearly all the Bachelets’ wines testified to the brothers’ skill as winemakers; they are currently producing some of the Côte de Beaune’s finest whites at their winery in Dezizes-lès-Maranges. Shimmying over to Les Referts and Les Perrières for the next flight, again, Bachelet-Monnot provided a sophisticated and precise Les Referts that topped the group, closely followed by Benoît Riffault’s Les Referts at Etienne Sauzet. Domaine Henri Boillot always performs well with their whites and I adored the peach-tinged Clos de la Bouchère.
Approaching the Champ Canet and Les Combettes flights, Riffault produced another wonderful 2017 from Les Combettes, not to mention a lovely Champ Canet from Château de Meursault, the best of four tasted. Out in the lead, however, was a fabulous Les Combettes from Domaine Leflaive, this being the first vintage where winemaker Pierre Vincent made the wines, coming from Domaine de la Vougeraie in June that year. The flight of Les Pucelles was felt to be one of the strongest within the appellation and was awarded the group’s highest average scores. Unfortunately, the Clos de la Pucelles Cuvée Centenaire from Jean-Michel Chartron intimated the first stages of premature oxidation, though the regular cuvée was nervy, saline and quite superb. Again, Pierre Vincent’s magic touch elevated Domaine Leflaive’s Les Pucelles, which was backward, slightly reduced but precise, with Olivier Leflaive’s nipping at its heels. Top of the pile was a sensational Les Pucelles from Domaine Henri Boillot, so pretty that I dare anyone to resist opening a bottle in the next few years. The next flight of Caillerets was not quite the calibre of the Pucelles. This was “won” by Jean-Michel Chartron’s Clos du Caillerets Sélection Centenaire 1er Cru, a special cuvée to celebrate a century of ownership, which clearly had more intensity and depth than the regular cuvée, followed by a commendable performance from Domaine de Montille.
The Grand Crus
The final Friday was devoted to Grand Crus. We commenced with 15 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Crus split into two flights – always a fascinating exercise, since it encompasses a heterogenous array of exposures, altitudes and soil types. Thus, it can be an inconsistent flight, although the selection of growers meant I found more uniformity than when tasting a broader range during my barrel tastings. One could argue that the scores fail to reinforce the notional superiority over the Premier Crus, with only Camille Giroud emphatically asserting its Grand Cru status; Carel Voorhuis is doing a really excellent job at this address. Others were very fine, perhaps only the Corton-Charlemagne from Domaine de Montille falling just below expectations. The second flight saw Domaine Rémi Rollin’s Corton-Charlemagne take top honours. This flight included the Bonneau du Martray, which won the highest average score, although it divided the audience; yet its average score was below every one of the Puligny-Montrachets that won their flights.
The next short flight from Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet immediately put that into context with stronger, more convincing performances. Benoît and Jean-Baptiste Bachelet have always produced a wonderful Bienvenue, and their 2017 is glorious, just surpassing François Carillon’s. Again, the contribution from Domaine de la Vougeraie seemed to show fixed SO2. I wonder whether the departure of Pierre Vincent led to some misjudgments in the bottling; it is always a difficult time when a winemaker leaves, though that’s not to say that you can’t come back stronger. I also thoroughly enjoyed the Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet from Blain-Gagnard, a Chassagne producer I must return to soon. A sextet of Bâtard-Montrachets followed. Olivier Leflaive triumphed again with a stunning, ambitious wine loaded with salinity and tension. Bachelet-Monnot’s was not far off in quality, while there were commendable contributions from Fontaine-Gagnard and, yes, a good Bâtard-Montrachet from Domaine de la Vougeraie. The best of these wines displayed scintillating tension and precision befitting a lauded white Burgundy vintage.
No fewer than eight Chevalier-Montrachets were next in line. For me, the pick was the group’s runner-up, a heavenly Domaine Leflaive that just pipped Oliver Leflaive’s. Both are extremely strong wines. Others from Bouchard Père, Jean Charton and Louis Jadot all performed well, though I was a little perplexed by Philippe Colin’s, which may well be entering a dumb phase. Domaine de la Vougeraie’s Chevalier began to redeem itself with another strong showing following their Bâtard-Montrachet.
At the end of the week, we arrived at our final destination: a quintet of Montrachets. I presaged my view of the wines by reminding everyone that I approached these as five Chardonnays instead of five Montrachets. Like any wine, they start with zero points and can work their way up to a potential 100. I also remarked that Montrachet is a wine that often shows its true potential only after 10 years in bottle, something to bear in mind when assessing these youngsters and indeed many of the wines in this tasting.
As a group they showed well, in particular the final two wines, which affirmed Montrachet's position as one of the greatest white wines in the world. They had a sense of audacity and grandeur, making a deep impression that you would not forget in a hurry. Comparatively, the first two wines in the series were excellent but not profound.
Wine number three? Was this Montrachet or milquetoast? This was a straggler trying to keep up, a rider trying to catch the peloton. It was not a bad white Burgundy; it was good-natured, trying to do its best. However, the other four exposed its simplicity and sniggered behind its back. I was duty-bound to crucify it as politely as possible, and nobody in the room disagreed. Number three was the weakest card in the pack.
When the producers were revealed, there was silence, except for the sound of jaws hitting the floor. The final two exceptional wines were from Bouchard Père & Fils and my own pick of the bunch, a spellbinding Montrachet from Domaine Drouhin. The first two Montrachets were from Olivier Leflaive, whose contributions incidentally received the highest average score for the entire week, and Domaine Marc Colin, from whom I was expecting more given how it showed from barrel; the wine may be closing up shop for a period.
So, what was number three? Surely it couldn’t be… Yes, it was. Arguably the most prestigious Montrachet, number three was Domaine des Comtes-Lafon, whose Meursaults had shone in previous flights. I scratched my head. I went back and re-tasted it. No difference. No discernible fault. What could explain its decidedly average performance? The praise that I lavished after tasting it in bottle last October came back to ridicule me. Yet, my palate was in functioning order, and working my way back through the five wines a third time, there is no doubt that this bottle was like an extremely gifted England footballer missing a penalty. As I said, there are no punches pulled and I am sure that Dominique Lafon would not want it any other way. But you know what? I bet if I taste it again, I’ll probably end up giving it a perfect score.
Blind tasting is always a tough environment where flaws are exposed, but many of these 2017 white Burgundies lived up to expectations. Perhaps I was hoping for a little more from the Chablis flights, though these excluded two superstars. Certainly, the Côte de Beaune is home to a bevy of great wines. It is difficult to pick out any one appellation, though I found much to admire in Puligny-Montrachet, closely followed by Meursault. The growing season allowed those Pulignys to demonstrate their nerve and steeliness and their mineralité, particularly in climats such as Les Combettes and Les Pucelles and then among the Grand Crus, which were generally superior in quality, though there is always an intersection where Premier Crus surpass Grand Crus, especially in the less consistent Corton-Charlemagne. This tasting did not provide evidence that the 2017 vintage matches the brilliant 2014 whites, which stand as the benchmark of recent years, and with global warming, one can speculate whether we will ever see their kind again. The 2017s do, however, have plenty of aging potential, as many possess the necessary energy and concentration, and the best will reach their peak between 10 and 25 years of age.
The tasting was over. I must confess that having been denied Burgfest last year, I treasured this occasion even more. When I entered France at the beginning of June, I still did not know for sure whether it would go ahead. In the end, it turned out to be one of my favorite Burgfests and provided a useful reading that will be expanded over the coming years. The 2017 reds are lined up for the beginning of September 2021 (as they have been for many months). You cannot predict the future these days, but God and travel restrictions willing, I will be back at Le Hameau de Barboron to see whether the vintage that I called a “modern classic” matches its white counterpart.
© 2021, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
You Might Also Enjoy
Value Through Time: Burgundy 1932-2016, Neal Martin, August 2021
2017 Burgundy: A Modern Classic, Neal Martin, January 2019
Through the Other Side: Burgundy 2016 in Bottle, Neal Martin, October 2019
Blind Vision: 2015 Burgundy Red & White, November 2018