Any day you taste a wine older than you are is a good day.
As Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of Burgundy, I sniff and sip about 1,500 red and white Burgundies each year. Some of these are nascent wines tasted from barrel in the region; others are new releases from bottle that have just been shipped to the United States.
Thus, it's always a great pleasure and education when I get to taste mature Burgundies. I found myself in that situation recently at a Christie's Masterclass at the St. Regis Hotel featuring the wines of Maison and Domaine Leroy. The legendary Lalou Bize-Leroy traveled to New York to present the wines.
There were 3 flights, tasted non-blind. Two flights included wines from the vintage in which Bize-Leroy joined her father in the business--1955. We had the opportunity to compare mature reds, the 1955, 1959 and 1961 Corton and Chambertin, with their modern-day counterparts from Domaine Leroy: 1993, 1999 and 2003 Corton Renardes and Chambertin. The third flight consisted of five vintages of Domaine Leroy Romanée-St.-Vivant: 1992, 1993, 1996, 1999 and 2003.
During the 1950s and '60s, Bize-Leroy purchased wines in barrel, matured and bottled them. The Chambertin, however, came from vines owned by her family. When general quality began declining in Burgundy in the 1970s due to the chemical treatments used in the vineyards, Bize-Leroy realized it was necessary to purchase her own vineyards.
In 1988, she bought the Charles Noellat estate in Vosne-Romanée. This gave her full control over the viticulture and farming of 55 acres of prime sites, which Bize-Leroy almost immediately converted to the biodynamic principles she still practices today.
I was curious, particularly with the older wines, if the distinctiveness of the individual terroirs would manifest itself. Would there be a genetic imprint for the Corton? For the Chambertin?
Bize-Leroy urged us to listen to the wines as you would listen to the music at a concert. "It's not just an expression of the fruit--strawberry, cherry and bilberry--but the essence of the wine though the mineral of the soil and the vegetal character of the vine itself," she said.
We listened. The wines didn't speak, they shouted. The 1955 Chambertin was simply one of the best Burgundies I have tasted. I gave it a perfect 100 points in this non-blind tasting. It has a superb bouquet of rich earth and forest floor followed by a sweet mélange of berry, licorice, spice and mineral flavors. With fantastic energy and resonance on the palate, length and harmony, it just kept coming at you. "C'est mon vin," conceded Bize-Leroy. "This was my model, my prototype."
The '61 was very close in quality (99 points), as were the 1993 and 2003 (both 99 points). The '61 was more perfumed and elegant than the '55. The 1993 was very pure and focused, with a combination of fruit, floral and mineral notes set against licorice and spice. It also had a lovely quality to the tannins and is just now beginning to lose its initial flush of primary fruit. The 2003, from the summer of the heat wave, showed a hint of vegetal aromas, but this is a baby and its length, intensity and especially freshness on the finish indicated great promise for the future.
The Cortons weren't quite in the same league as the Chambertins, but were lovely wines nonetheless. The older vintages did not come from Leroy vineyards, therefore there was less control over the farming than in the case of the Chambertin. My favorite was the 1993 (98 points), with sappy raspberry and cassis flavors highlighted by leather and sandalwood. The 1955 (97) exhibited spice and autumn leaves, dried fruit and flowers; it was a powerful red with an iron streak on the finish.
The Romanée-St.-Vivant is one of Bize-Leroy's favorite wines. She described the character of RSV like "... a fairy running through the vineyards." It is a wine of elegance and refinement, very different from her more powerful, fleshy Richebourg, although only a road separates the two sites.
Again the 1993 (98) and the 2003 (97) were stunning Pinot Noirs. The former boasted fragrant aromas of rose and violet, with dense fruit and spice flavors, yet showed plenty of finesse. The '03 offered candied cherry and black currant notes and exhibited more elegance than power. It was fresh and full-bodied with ripe tannins. Bize-Leroy was particularly proud of the '93 because it was a year in which mildew attacked the vines. After a strict sorting of the grapes, she produced a mere 43 cases per acre of vines.
For me, the tasting demonstrated more than how Burgundies from great vintages age. The Chambertins proved their pedigree. They were the most complete wines, with a combination of power and finesse. There was an energy present that took them to another level, along with richness and a mineral component.
The RSVs were more fleeting, more ethereal, with more floral and vegetal nuances. The mature Cortons showed a more animal side, with flavors of smoke and decaying leaves. There was a sappy fruit quality and the mineral character was more iron than stone. Of the three, they were the most rustic.
After 50 years in the bottle, the 1955s are delivering now. But can I wait for the future promise of the younger wines? At this rate, I'll be nearly 100 years old when the 2003s are ready.