Burgundy is the Holy Grail of the wine world. Most of the time it is an unobtainable ideal of vinous perfection for wine makers and drinkers alike; occasionally it provides the most exciting drinking experience of all.
So, for busy restaurateurs wishing to avoid expensive mistakes, it really pays to go to specialist merchants who are prepared to spend a good chunk of their working year poking around the cellars of the Côte d’Or in the search for the greatest bottles.
The best Burgundy specialists in Britain are obsessive perfectionists and can be counted on the fingers of two hands, but one little firm – Haynes, Hanson & Clark (HHC, tel: 071-376 2737) – has a better track record than most in delivering the goods. Its annual September Burgundy tasting, now in its ninth year, is a foolproof way of gauging the quality and style of the latest releases.
The skills of HHC’s buyers, Anthony Hanson and Philip Rogers-Coltman, have been put to the test in 1994. Following a run of exceptional vintages in 1988, 1989, and 1990, since 1991 Burgundy has returned to its treacherous climate with rain at harvest time in each of the past three years.
But buying Burgundy has always been more a matter of following the best wine makers rather than relying on the reputation of great vintages or appellations.
This month’s tasting provided the first chance to sample the 1993s and retaste the 1992s and 1991s.
My first impression of 1993 white Burgundy is that it is not a vintage to get too excited about – in the main they are high in hard malic acid causing them to taste raw and green and thus not ideal restaurant wines.
There are, of course, some splendid exceptions, especially from the firm of Olivier Leflaive which, in certain instances, has succeeded in making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear thanks to the exceptional wine-making talents of Franck Grux.
The 1993 Bourgogne Chardonnay Olivier Leflaive is a fine bottle at a gentle price (£74 per case) with grown-up winey flavours beyond initial primary fruit, and both the Auxey-Duresses and the St Aubin 1er Cru en Remilly are classic affordable white Burgundies with a true taste of their terroir. For their eventual landed price of under £100 a case, including VAT, you would be hard-pressed to find better white Burgundies from any other source.
The 1993 Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles, again from Olivier Leflaive, is a masterpiece of concentrated yet subtly poised flavours. Obviously expensive at £178 per case, but worth every penny.
These splendours aside, 1992 is probably a better bet for white Burgundies. They may not be quite as great as some critics have suggested but, if carefully chosen, they will provide ripe, pleasurable drinking as soon as the cork is drawn – which is all that most restaurateurs would ask of them.
The 1992 Mâcon-Clessé Quintaine, Domaine Guillemot-Michel (around £7.50 per bottle) is a little gem with superb purity of fruit in balance with fine acidity, thanks to lower than average yields and immaculate wine making from a young couple destined for stardom.
I also liked a 1992 St Aubin Blanc from the old house of Champy (£12 per bottle) with its unctuously ripe fruit, ideal with lots of different dishes from charcuterie to monkfish.
As for the reds, 1993 looks set to be an exciting vintage with striking, vibrant fruit flavours. In Beaujolais, it’s almost as good as 1991. From the always reliable Eventail du Beaujolais group of growers, HHC has shipped the excellent, meaty and minerally 1993 Morgon Domain Le Terrain Rouge of Louis Genillon (under £6 per bottle), which is lovely with any sort of offal or cheese.
André Large’s Brouilly, fractionally more expensive, is right back on its pure flavoured form, epitomising the charm of young Beaujolais cru.
Turning to the big guns from the Côte D’Or, a trio of wines from Domaine Rossignol-Trapet are worth dying for; its Morey St Denis Rue de Vergy (£140 a case) has wonderfully vivid Pinot fruit, the Beaune 1er Cru Les Teurons will provide a sensuous scented bottle come 1997/8 and the Chapelle-Chambertin has the lithe power and liquorice flavour of a true Gevrey Grand Cru for optimum drinking in the year 2000.
To date I have not been a fan of 1992 red Burgundies, finding many of them diluted and lacking in flavour. But I must now eat humble pie, for HHC has unearthed some really delicious wines.
A new addition is the 1992 Santenay 1er Cru Clos de Tavannes, Domaine Lucien Muzard (£128 a case) which is an impressively silken and elegant wine with plenty of flavour.
The mayor of Volnay, Michel Lafage, confirms his reputation as one of the greatest wine makers on the Côte withfive memorable 1992s. His Bourgogne rouge (£98) is made from young declassified Volnay vines, his straight Volnay Vendages Selectionnées (£209) has the concentration of other growers’ premiers crus, his Volnay Clos des Duc has the muscle of something one associates more with the Côte de Nuits, yet the palmas always goes to his Clos des Chànes (£332) whose flavours defy adequate description.
Let’s just say that this is the Holy Grail that Burgundy buffs seek and rarelyfind.