Wine lovers with the patience, cellar and confidence to age white Burgundy can afford to wait while the fruity exuberance of youth morphs into savoury, mature complexity. Top-end white Burgundy is expensive, after all, and it’s a shame not to see it fulfil its potential. But how long should you wait? How are recent vintages faring? And should you be deterred by fears of that white Burgundian spectre, premature oxidation?
For this tasting, we focused on premier cru wines from Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. Ordinarily, in a decent to good vintage, I would suggest waiting for six to eight years to broach these wines, with an optimum drinking window of 10–15 years to savour the complexities of a mature wine. That said, the best premiers crus in a fabulous vintage could evolve beneficially over two decades; I’ve tasted glorious bottles from the best vintages of the 1970s, 80s and 90s (though whether they actually improve after the first 20 years is debatable).
So, white Burgundy can be aged longer than recent adverse publicity might suggest – but not always as long as you might expect. When I am fortunate to taste verticals of premiers crus stretching back for 20 vintages or so, I frequently have my expectations challenged. This is because wine is a reflection not only of vintage and terroir but also of the winemaker. Some of the wines tasted here were clearly produced for easy accessibility and early drinking, while others, from the same vintage, were made to be vins de gardes.
When you are tasting back through a sweep of history, fashion comes into play. There is a trend now to make whites more phenolic, using skin contact. This creates the potential, but also the necessity, to age them. Sadly, with this comes the thorny issue of premature oxidation. From my experience of tasting older wines, premox is not as widespread as the negative press and fears it generated. Maybe this is because premox affects wines from the great Burgundy domaines – but it is not exclusive to them or, indeed, to Burgundy. And moreover, some premox wines have gone on to make Lazarus-like recoveries.
Premox became a problem from the mid-1990s, due in part to the fashion for fruity, forward whites that required more reductive techniques and softer pressing. The issue continued into the noughties, but more recent vintages have seen winemakers carefully employing techniques to ensure their wines are more stable to oxygen. When I made my first vintage of Meursault in 2017, I followed a protocol used by Dominique Lafon and Domaine Leflaive, in which you separate and oxidise the end of the press, thereby eliminating the elements most vulnerable to oxygen after the wine is bottled, and making the wine more resilient as it ages. Many producers also now prefer to use large, 600-litre barrels of older oak rather than traditional 228-litre barriques, allowing the wine to stay fresher in volume; older wood is less porous to oxygen than new.
Much has also improved on the closure front in terms of oxygen ingress, together with more accurate use of the sulphur (an antioxidant) necessary to combat oxygen at bottling, which is now carried out with better bottling machines. I could go on, but in short, over the past decade it has been possible to lay down your white Burgundy without fretting too much about premox.
That’s not to say that maturing the wine is without surprises. Often white Burgundy goes through a bad patch after around five years as it moves from a youthful to secondary stage. (The 2016 vintage is surly at present; let’s hope that’s why.) And wine, like children and pets, does not always perform to order. If you open a bottle from a case and it is muted or unpleasant, wait a year or two and try again. And do decant your white Burgundy; many of these wines develop significantly given time. (I came back to some two or three days later, even.) It’s more important for white than red.
Not every vintage is a contender for a space in your cellar. Burgundy has enjoyed a run of decent to great vintages over the past decade, but some are better appreciated earlier than later. And don’t expect easy access to older vintages if you didn’t get in at the beginning. Top white Burgundy is sold en primeur. Merchants with strong Burgundy lists will still have a fair selection of 2018 and 2017, but vintages prior to this are becoming as scarce as hens’ teeth. This is your inside track on what’s available and how the vintages are evolving.
A rich, compact, savoury vintage, 2018 has long-term ageing potential. I’m envisaging a drinking window of 2024–40, with an optimum window of 10–16 years.
2017 is fruity, harmonious and well balanced – an equitable vintage. It doesn’t feel as if it will go through a rough patch at five years. Many 2017s are very enjoyable now – youthful while showing a touch of bottle age – but there’s no hurry. Not a vintage for the long term but delightful for mid-term ageing (2023–32).
When 2016 was blighted by frost, the most affected areas produced sturdy, somewhat green wines. Meursault and Puligny premier cru escaped the worst, but few wines are tasting perfect at present: adolescent, closed down, gawky and lactic. Give them time, and hopefully they will improve. I would suggest mid-term ageing (2023–28), but it depends how they come through this stage.
Sumptuous and concentrated, the best 2015s have sufficient balancing acidity. They require further ageing to shed solar richness and gain in grace and elegance. Most will drink well at 10–15 years, but the best should mature nicely over 20 years and may plateau for much longer.
The 2014s are pure, balanced, slim and delightful, but I am not convinced they will benefit from long ageing. I have more faith in the more concentrated 2015s and 2018s; the crystalline quality and slim texture of 2014 is more fragile. As a broad drinking window, I’d start broaching them from eight years.
2013 yielded light wines from a late vintage that were always destined for the short term and are now mature. They have morphed to secondary characters, yet have freshness and energy. Drink over the next three to five years, but do decant them to appreciate their full aromatic potential.