A Warning on White Burgundies

Sep 4, 2007

I am a huge fan of old white Burgundy, but nowadays I am afraid of buying or cellaring these wines from the vintages of the 1990s.

Over the last year or so, I have discovered that a large number of bottles of white Burgundies from the '90s suffer from a phenomenon known as premature oxidation. Simply put, these wines show various stages of advanced oxidation, and this state is not what would normally be expected given their relatively young age.

I had a first-hand experience at Restaurant Tan Dinh in Paris in July. I ordered a Lafon Meursault Genevrières 1996. I have had this wine many times and it is fresh and vibrant. Not this time. The wine was oxidized, even though the owner of the restaurant said he had picked the best bottle from his cellar.

This has happened to me many times. It is very frustrating to have a bottle that is 10 years old taste older than the same wine that is even older. If you compare Ramonet Bâtard-Montrachets from 1986 and 1996, the truth will be revealed. The 1986 is fresher and more vibrant than the younger wine. So what happened to white Burgundies in the 1990s?

Typical signs of oxidation include a darker color than expected, as well as distinct oxidation aromas or flavors (sometimes to the point of making the wine undrinkable). In the early stages, the problem wines show a color somewhat darker than their vintage counterparts and aromas and/or flavors of honey, cereal grains, toast or sometimes Cognac. In the more advanced stages, the wine is usually a very full-blown gold or orange-gold color, or even sometimes quite brown, and it exhibits heavy toast or Sherry-like aromas and flavors.

The premature oxidation problem apparently began with the 1995 and 1996 vintages, but was not really recognized as a systemic problem until around 2002. The initial reaction of most Burgundy producers was complete denial that their wines were affected. But the problem clearly affects every white Burgundy vintage between 1995 and 2002. 1995 is the biggest problem: Almost every bottle I have tasted is oxidized or close to it.

What caused this problem? Some people blame the sulfur dioxide levels as the main culprit (SO2 is a preservative). But if that were the case, then all the bottles of the same wine should be oxidized. In fact, this is a sporadic problem, affecting some bottles but not others. How is it possible to have a great bottle after an oxidized one?

After asking several producers and doing some experimentation, I have come to the conclusion that several factors are at work in producing premature oxidation. Soft pressing (as a result of pneumatic presses, used widely in the 1990s) may have removed too much of the lees, which protect the juice from oxidation. Also, excessive bâtonnage (lees stirring) can be oxidative. Finally, a trend toward lower sulfuring during winemaking may have exacerbated the oxidative tendencies of these new techniques.

But in my opinion, the problem lies primarily with the corks, particularly the change from using paraffin to silicone to coat them. The use of silicone coating on the corks can cause hazards, since silicone absorbs sulfur, leaving the wine without any protection against oxidation.

There are producers whose wines show very little premature oxidation as a percentage of bottles opened, and indeed seem to have no higher incidence of premature oxidation since 1994 than they did before. Among these I include Coche-Dury, DRC, Hubert Lamy, Domaine Leflaive, Leroy/D'Auvenay, Bernard Morey, Pierre Morey and Raveneau.

But many of Burgundy’s top domaines suffer from this problem during these vintages. I include among them Guy Amiot, Colin-Deleger, Sauzet, Niellon, Carillon, Pernot, Jadot, Roulot, Lafon, Verget and Ramonet (particularly heavy in the ’95 and ’96 vintages).

Whatever the causes, and whoever is responsible for the problem, the situation for these white Burgundies is dire. I only hope these problems don’t show up in red wines as well.

Closures White Wines France Burgundy Chardonnay

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