Friday, May 18, 2007

On Vintage 2005: "Perfection ... doesn't have much character"

Reading through Fiona Morrison's profile of Chambolle-Musigny, I was struck by the comments of leading producer Frédéric Mugnier on the 2005 Burgundy vintage: "There is something perfect about it but also something bothersome -- perfection almost doesn't have much character -- it needs aging to give it more character."

As Morrison reports in her October 2006 article for Wine & Spirits (a must-read; PDF file here), for Mugnier, "2004 is more intriguing; he finds the essence of Chambolle in the best wines." In contrast to the forgivingly perfect weather conditions in 2005, "2004 did not allow for errors, as it was riddled with traps such as risk of rot, disease and the temptation of excessively high yields."

It is not surprising that a producer of Mugnier's skill would find 2004 more interesting. 2004 was a winemaker's vintage, rewarding those with the most rigorous methods and highest standards of vinification while punishing lesser producers with under-ripe, austere wines. Reading through numerous producers' notes for 2005, I almost found a sense of boredom as they recited the same litany of vintage characteristics -- optimum weather, ample time for harvest, perfectly ripe, clean fruit with little, if any, sorting needed. Bruno Clair confessed that during the growing season, he had "nothing to do."

Yet it is interesting to juxtapose Mugnier's near disdain of "perfection," and his embrace of the challenges of a difficult vintage, with his professed non-interventionist approach to winemaking. "I'm wary of enology," Mugnier tells Morrison, and on his website states that "processes that traumatise the wine – over extraction, for example, or excessive woodiness – are limited to a minimum."

It becomes clear, then, that for Mugnier, the vigernon's work rests more in the vineyard than in the cellar. Tending the vines as a farmer -- with treatments against rot or pruning to reduce yields -- is the paramount work. Once the grapes are harvested and sorted, the "goal is to preserve the inherent quality of the grapes and not fiddle with them too much," as Morrison puts it. That is, to bring out the distinctive character of the vintage and the vineyard rather than achieve a certain generic standard of ripeness or concentration through interventionist techniques.

It also becomes clear what Mugnier means by perfection being "bothersome" and lacking "character." Young wines made from perfectly ripe fruit tend to lack transparency -- that is, they don't yield the distinctive characteristics of a particular vineyard, which are initially overwhelmed by blanket fruitiness. The "essence of Chambolle" is muted. Yet it is this quality of transparency -- "the ability to transmit clearly the underlying terroir," as Allen Meadows puts it -- that traditional Burgundy lovers prize most in their favorite wines.

Now Meadows is optimistic that the underlying terroir will shine through in these wines with age, but it may take twelve, fifteen, or twenty years for the very best '05s to reveal their distinctiveness and their greatness. People coming into Burgundy for the first time with the '05 vintage ought to know they have a long wait ahead of them. I shudder to think at the inevitable acts of infanticide that will be committed by those weaned on California pinot. Perhaps point chasers, if it is instant gratification that they desire, ought to follow Freddy Mugnier's advice and seek out wines from those many imperfect vintages.

No comments: