How Long Does White Burgundy Really Last?

A simple question. But I had no idea of the answer until 17th March 2009, when I spent an evening in the company of the Wine and Dine Society. This informal group specialises in pairing homemade foods with wines from private cellars, and it gave me an opportunity to sample a flight of aged white Burgundies back to 1952. We met in the Hesperia Hotel in Victoria accompanied by French bread with a delicious sardine pâté.

We started with the relatively youthful 1986 Meursault Liger Belair. The high proportion of limestone amongst the chalk in Meursault tends to produce wines with more nutty characteristics than Montrachet. This puppy was a deep yellow colour, with a concentrated but not expansive nose which hinted at walnuts and rubber. As you would expect with a wine of this age, the forward palate was quite dry sherry-like, very tight with bracing acidity. The finish was fresh, lively and long. The fruit was a little thin and faded, but this was a encouraging start. 89 points.

1986 Bienvenues Batard Montrachet Liger Belair was not so lucky. A deep yellow colour tinged with bronze, the nose was sherry-like and oxidised and whatever fruit the wine may have contained quickly dissipated in the glass. We’ll be charitable and call this a ‘flawed bottle’ (but I wouldn’t rush to buy a replacement).

1985 Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru ‘Les Commbettes’ Tete deCuvee thankfully got us back on track.  This was a little more green tainted but still dark yellow.  The ubiquitous dry sherry was there on the nose, but so were some enticing honeyed notes.  This was fresh and delicious " really well balanced between the still present fruit and racy acidity.  There was a little oak to the forward palate.  On the finish the fruit faded quickly but left a trial of minerally acidity which lingered well.  89 points.  

1983 Meursault 1er Cru ‘Poruzots’ Jean Germain was a bronzed yellow colour.  This had a lightly honeyed nose with alittle lime zest.  It was very dry but mouth filling too with more weight than the previous wines.  The nose was also more forceful andnutty.   This was not exactly complex, but it was very interesting and extremely enjoyable.  91 points.

We took a deep breath and jumped back another thirteen years to 1970 Batard Montrachet Geisweiler.  Deep yellow with a lime hue, this had a surprising ‘farmyard’ nose with some hints of rubber.  This was a concern. Sure enough, the fruit had fallen away quite a bit.  It was thin and out of balance.  I guessed that this one would have been a lot better 15 years ago.   87 points.

Next up we travelled another decade back in our fictional time machine to 1961 and Chevalier Montrachet Bouchard Pere 1961.  This was lighter in colour than most of the others.  It immediately seemed in better condition, with a doughy nose combining honeysuckle with a hint of dry sherry.  This one really held up.  It was fat, rich with lovely vibrant acidity.  It was nutty and smoky on the palate with some real complexity.  Quite masculine too.  A real delight.  93 points.

Lastly we took the leap all the way back to 1951, when Winston Churchill was Prime Minister and the Korean War was raging.  The bottle was brown and the wine had perhaps been bottled in Belgium.  For a next sixty year old wine this was amazing.  The fruit was clinging on for dear life but hadn’t quite given up " although it was clearly on its last legs.  The wine still filled the mouth and the finish built nicely.  This was a graceful old dowager slowly fading away but still with her finest jewels on.  90 points. 

We finished with a more recent wine that the organisers felt would have swamped the more delicate older offerings.  1992 Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru Lequin-Roussot is from the very top of the Côte de Beaune and had a more pronounced greenish tinge colour. It had a zesty nose coupled with honey.  This wine was much richer, fuller and mouth coating.  It was quite oaky and smoky at the finish.  This was a really delightful white Burgundy at the top of its game.  93 points.   

So had I answered my self-posed question about the longevity of white Burgundy?    

Around the table there was much extolling of the virtues of aged white wine, and based on the evidence of the evening I would certainly agree that to show its true potential ten to fifteen years is necessary for quality Chardonnay. 

But I also wondered if a kind of masochism had taken hold here.  A number of the wines would clearly have been a lot more integrated and coherent many years ago.  Surely no one would claim would than these wines would be better in another 50 years, or another 150?  If we accept, as we must, that wines have a finite lifetime, then cellaring them beyond this is surely perverse.    

The 1961 Chevalier Montrachet did present very well, but had it gained complexity or harmony over the previous ten or fifteen years?  And the wines from 1970 and 1952 were very clearly past their best.  The fruit and the acidic backbone had become disconnected from each other, destroying the integration and harmony of the wine.  So whilst it was an interesting exercise in historical curiosity,these wines weren’t allowed to show their true potential.

For me the 1992 Corton Charlemagne said it all:  17 years old and right at the peak of its drinking plateau.  Great white Burgundy should be proud, full, rich and fat.  As the newly fashionable John Maynard Keynes wrote ‘in the long run, you die’.  Unfortunately this is true for wine as well. Patience is a great virtue, but sometimes it pays to know when to live for today!