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The Magic of Old Burgundies

Drinking aged Pinot is a completely different experience than imbibing recent vintages. The primary fruit aromas give way to the smells that fine wine acquires over time, known as the bouquet (or to the chemist, ’reductive bouquet’). After many years in the bottle, old wines develop smells of truffles, fungi and mushroom. There are often other olfactory charms as well, including loamy earth, sweaty leather, old library book, garbage, mahogany, smoked bacon, rust and iron, musk, tobacco smoke and so forth. Not everyone finds charm in an older wine’s bouquet, but zealous fans find it magical.

The flavors of Pinot Noirs that have aged take on secondary characteristics. Notable among these are beef bouillon, anise, pencil shavings, Chinese five spice, mushrooms on a grill, beef stew, molasses, fig, Worcestershire, sherry, vitamin tension, smoke, and even foxy and fecal highlights. The development of secondary flavors tends to obscure the features of the wine which delineate its origin or terroir, although experienced tasters can still make pronouncements that are relevant to the sense of place of the wine.

When it comes to older Burgundies, there is no definitive rating or judgment. The wines simply represent snapshots frozen in time and memories that follow. There is considerable bottle variation, so part of the charm of drinking old wines is the anticipation upon popping the cork. You just never know what you are going to get. Knowing provenance of the wine is of course preferred, but this is often shrouded in the many years that have transpired. In older Burgundies there is always the scepter of poor wine transport and storage. The use of temperature-controlled containers to ship French wine to the United States wasn’t popularized by California wine importer Kermit Lynch and others until the mid-1970s.

A small crew gathered recently at Napa Rose Restaurant in Anaheim, California to drink some old Burgundies. There was some discussion prior to the event on how the wines should be drunk and whether decanting was appropriate. One attendee was told (incorrectly I believe) that the corks should be popped several hours before drinking, allowing “micro-oxygenation” of the wine therein and bringing out the full charm of the wine. According to Emile Peynaud writing in his classic treatise on wine tasting, The Taste of Wine, he strongly recommends tasting very old bottles immediately after the cork has been drawn. “It is definitely incorrect to decant old wines (wherever they come from) several hours before they are drunk because, following even a light aeration, their bouquet, fruit of the reduction process slowly achieved in the absence of air, weakens with varying rapidity, depending on the wine.” We chose to following this path and opened each wine in succession, from oldest to youngest, drinking each wine immediately after it was opened.

1990 Pousse d’Or Volnay 1er Les Caillerts Clos Des 60 Ouvres Monopole

This wine really starred. It had the most body, structure and appeal of all of the wines. With air, the bouquet featured herbs, spearmint, and mushrooms. The texture was mouth coating and silky. Tannins were moderate and the finish was fruity and alive, still with bright strawberry and cherry flavors.

1983 Haegelen-Jayer Clos de Vougeot

Quite a nice drink from a poorly-regarded vintage in Burgundy. The color was light but still violet. The nose had attractive cherry and spice but faded quickly. There were tart cherry and cranberry fruits evident along with cured meat notes. The wine had crisp acidity and paired nicely with food. A surprise. Alfred Haegelen is married to Madeleine, a niece of the great Henri Jayer.

1978 Camille Giroud Gevrey-Chambertain 1er Les Cazetiers

This was a decent wine but no one was ga-ga over it. It was simple and balanced but not exciting. The best feature was a sweet spicy finish. It still had fine tannins and probably could last awhile, but there would be no point to aging it further.

1947 Justerini & Brooks Clos de Vougeot

Maderized and undrinkable. The term maderized refers to wines that have turned deep yellow or brown in color and are dried out on the palate. Only one in the group was brave enough to taste the wine, but he could discover no redeeming qualities in it.

1946 Domaine des Lambrays Clos des Lambray Grand Cru Classe

Now this was old Burgundy. The nose was all feral, fecal and fungal and quite nice. The fruit had completely dissipated and the finish was notably metallic. The food (oxtail ravioli) seemed to perk it up. Nothing extraordinary, but fun to drink nonetheless. An historical note: this vineyard did not officially became a Grand Cru until 1981.

1945 Leon Violland Beaune 1er La Montée Rouge

This wine was surprisingly fresh and dark-colored. It was clear to every taster that this wine benefited from the old Burgundy practice of adding Grenache or other similar hardy red varietal from the Rhone or Algeria to Pinot Noir to provide body and color to the wine. This wine looked and smelled Rhone and had none of the secondary charms of an aged Pinot Noir. The cork was black and appeared authentic, and if the wine was really over 60 years, it had remarkable grip and persistence.

Purchasing older Burgundies at auction or retail is a bit of a crap shoot because of provenance. Prices also have gone stratospheric, particularly for bottlings from stellar vintages and wines made prior to 1978. The best strategy is to avoid the designer names such as Jayer, Roumier, and Leroy, and concentrate on reliable producers with less cache such as Mortet, La Farge, Montille, Barthod, Trapet and so on. Remember that vintage is all important and look to recent vintages like 1978, 1985, 1988, 1990, 1993, 1995, and 1996. Off vintages can surprise from good producers as the 1983 wine showed above. When it comes to old Burgundies, “It’s not the Pinot in my life, it’s the life in my Pinot.”

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