Specialist Noah May explores the complexity and delicate nuances of old Burgundy
Within collecting circles, old Burgundy is often seen as the zenith of the wine universe. I’d argue that there are few seasoned oenophiles who, if faced with fast-approaching mortality, wouldn’t choose a magnum of, say, La Tâche ’47 or Musigny ’59, over almost anything on this earth to see them through their final hours.
For rigour, look elsewhere. If you want the noble depths and fortitude of a wine to see out centuries, then I’d suggest you head to Bordeaux and hunt down the finest wines of Pauillac or St. Julien, to delight in their staunch, immovable charms. These wines — which have variously been described as redolent of English country houses, thoroughbred stables and steadfast conservatism — are magnificent, but one could argue that they have their limits.
Perhaps you’re looking for something softer and more generous. Then there are the singular Merlot-led wines from the other side of the Gironde in Pomerol, or a little farther down the road in St. Emilion. These wines are ample and sensual, marked by balance, approachability and winsome, richly-scented appeal. You’ll never find me turning down a bottle of Cheval Blanc — that goes without saying — but my belief is that for the ever-elusive perfect wine, that one radiant bottle that changes everything, the safe bet is on red Burgundy, and more specifically, old red Burgundy.
In youth, red Burgundy can be many glorious things, but the one thing it cannot be is as nuanced, complex and indescribably fine as old red Burgundy. Pinot Noir is a delicate grape. It is thin-skinned, with lighter tannins and a slight structure, when compared to Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. Red Burgundy pours light ruby in the glass, its pale presence often belying the magnificent depths that lie therein because, as this delicate wine ages, a kind of alchemy begins.
In the greatest wines — those with the potential for long, storied lives — attractive floral notes and the fresh berry fruits that characterise young Pinot Noir change over years of good cellaring. First, at 10-20 years, towards something vegetal, of sous bois, which can mark the beginning of a slow, gradual journey towards magnificence. By the end of the journey the flavour profile of the wine becomes harder to define. I’ve heard great Burgundy described in terms that I hesitate to put to paper. In the finest examples, there is still a graceful florality and a luminous quality that lifts wine and drinker, but something animal plays a part too, something that is dark and mercurial; alive with all the heady essences of a life well-lived.
‘Red Burgundy pours light ruby in the glass, its pale presence belying the magnificent depths that lie therein because, as this delicate wine ages, a kind of alchemy begins’
When discussing great Burgundy with a collector recently, he commented that, when considering the greatest wines of the Côte de Nuits, it really is all about fleeting moments. He recalled opening an old bottle of La Tâche from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and planning to take the bottle through to some waiting guests. On catching its aroma as the cork left the bottle, he was forced to step outside and sit awhile, alone with the first glass of the wine, so lost was he in its appeal. He said that this was the best bottle he’d ever had, and that he’d been waiting for another experience like it for 20 years. The memory stands clear and vivid, long after the wine has gone.
One of the great joys (and potential tragedies) of the appreciation of any old wine is that storage and condition is everything. Never more so than with old Burgundy. Because of its delicate structure, it is generally more susceptible to atmospheric stresses than heavier alternatives. If stored well, Burgundy can offer beautiful drinking even in lighter, less-championed vintages, as the goal is a different form of balance to that which one might look for in Bordeaux. Sometimes there is nuance and specificity in these 'connoisseur’s vintages' that cannot be found in those blockbuster years.
I’m inclined to agree with my client: in our experiences with great wines, we’re lucky enough to have access to near-perfect moments. I suggest searching for that one, hauntingly beautiful bottle of Burgundy, and savouring it.