Wednesday, April 9, 2014

La Paulée de San Francisco 2014 --- “Tales of Terroir”

By Dan Rhodes

This year's La Paulée extravaganza took place in San Francisco (March 12-15th) and once again lived up to its impeccable and stellar reputation once described by The Financial Times as “…the greatest Bacchanalia on the face of the Earth.” Kudos and congratulations to Daniel Johnnes and his hard-working, über-talented staff for putting together and organizing another memorable and superb celebration of France’s Burgundy region and wines!

I was fortunate to attend three of the week-end’s top events; including the Verticals Tasting and the Chablis Seminar as well as the show-stopping Grand Tasting. All three events took place at San Francisco’s venerable Fairmount Hotel which provided an ambience eminently worthy of both the historical legacies and distinguished reputations of the sundry domaines and vignerons who participated. As per usual, Les Chanteurs de Bourgogne serenaded throughout providing all with a petit morceau of France, Burgundy and the La Paulée de Meursault.

The view from the Crown Room of the Fairmount Hotel. A lovely day to drink Burgundy and gaze over SF!

It was with great anticipation and excitement that I entered the Fairmount’s legendary Crown Room on Friday to behold a Burgundian “who’s who” in terms of wines and domaines represented. In conjunction with the captivating experience of the Crown Room’s panoramic views of San Francisco and the Bay Area, this was an event not soon to be forgotten. Anyone who doubts the reality or efficacy of terroir as a relevant and meaningful concept would surely be forced re-think their position after experiencing this tour de force exposition which included so many of the Côte d’Ôr’s most important and memorable vineyard sites.

So many highlights…so little space! The two overriding themes that The Verticals Tasting brought to bear were the dual notions of quality consistency and fidelity to terroir as the event reinforced the famous dictum that great producers make great wines. Many of the so-called “lesser vintages” represented showed quite well within the context of the above and reminded me once again that, as is usually the norm in the Burgundian universe, rushes to judgment are just that. Upon finishing, it was with great pleasure that I enjoyed a victory lap to re-visit some of my favorite tables of the day which, not coincidentally, also happen to be some of my favorite terroirs including:

Chassagne – Montrachet “Grandes Ruchottes” (Bernard Moreau)
I’ve long been a fan of Grandes Ruchottes. It’s one of my “go-to” choices in Chassagne and there are many fine examples out there. The vineyard, to my palate, brings to the imbiber the best of both worlds as it were in delivering the honeyed richness normally associated with Chassagne Montrachet along with sublime nuances of stone and soil that may have a bit more in common with Puligny. Alexandre Moreau chose to pour the 2010, 2008 and 2007 for the event and all were singing. The consistency of each flavor profile was amazing and spoke clearly to the notion of terroir in delivering balanced vectors of ripe stone fruits in conjunction with sublime nuances of hazelnut, walnut, praline and all-spice along with subtle underpinnings

of citrus. I’ve long been a fan of Domaine Bernard Moreau and this superb assemblage only increased my admiration for this stellar estate.

Meursault “Genevrieres” (Comtes Lafon)
Genevrieres is one of my favorite vineyards in Meursault. The other two would be Perrieres and Charmes. All three bring a unique take to the richness of Meursault with both Perrieres and Genevrieres adding typically a more discernible element of focused acidity, rock and terroir. One could easily make the case for elevation to Grand Cru status for any or all of them. But hopefully this won’t occur so as to spare us the inevitable price increase that such events invariably engender. As it is, Genevrieres delivers, for the most part, a Grand Cru experience at a 1er Cru price. And while wines from Comte Lafon are typically somewhat difficult to find in the market place, there are many other fine examples to be had as the vineyard delivers extraordinary consistency across a range of quality producers.

The domaine chose to pour the 2010, 2007 and 2002. All were show stoppers! Starting with the 2002, a crescendo was slowly built which climaxed for me with the other-worldly 2010. The wine captured every possible particle of the vintage and every neutron of terroir in conjunction with the legend himself --- Monsieur Dominique Lafon!

Corton – Charlemagne (Génot-Boulanger)
There is nothing like a profound Corton-Charlemagne! From an historical perspective alone, it’s fascinating to drink a wine from vineyards once owned by this historical medieval personage – Emperor Charlemagne -- who stands as the founding father of both France and Germany.  I tend to prefer more classically-styled interpretations of Corton Charlemagne that emphasize steely minerality and cut as opposed to the fruitier, more Chardonnay-driven versions that tend to be fashioned for the American market and what I tasted here did not disappoint. The domaine did a vertical comparison of 2008, 2009 and 2010. All were superbly crafted and captured uniquely and in a positive manner the salient characteristics of these three very different vintages. I’m not exceedingly familiar with this estate but will be on the look-out in the course of my future travels.

Volnay “Clos des Ducs” (Marquis d’Angerville)
Volnay is undoubtedly one my very favorite communes in Burgundy. Quality consistency in this village is paramount and rarely do the wines disappoint. Having said that, wine from Clos des Ducs stands in a league of its own. Guillame d’Angerville chose to showcase the 2006, 2007 and 2008 Clos des Ducs and all were outstanding. Each captured the stony red cherry/cherry pit fruit so characteristic of this renowned terroir along with the subtle personality differences that each harvest and growing season brought to bear. In that I seldom have the opportunity to enjoy d’Angerville’s Clos des Ducs; this was a rare treat for me which I will relish for quite a long time.

Pommard “Clos des Épenots” (Domaine de Courcel)
On the whole, I’m not a huge fan of Pommard. It’s not one of my “go-to” picks when it comes to Burgundy. I much prefer the regal femininity of Volnay to the muscular masculinity of Pommard. Having said that; if there is one Pommard I have consistently enjoyed throughout my sojourn on the planet, it is Clos des Épenots. For me, Clos des Épenots raises Pommard to a more refined and exquisite niveau of civility. Madame de Courcel herself was pouring the domaine’s 2007, 2009 and 2010 and all were lovely. C’est Pommard trés raffiné!

Chevalier Montrachet (Domaine Bouchard)
The Grand Cru trio of Chevalier, Bâtard and Bienvenues Bâtard Montrachet are always welcome at my table. Each delivers its own unique textural identity and flavor profile. I have always thought of Chevalier as the most noble of the three. Aristocratic enough to carry the name, sometimes perhaps, even to a fault, the strength of Chevalier has always been to my palate the nuance and intricacy that the terroir delivers; particularly with some bottle age. Like a medieval tapestry, the subtle threads of flavor that so characterize this wine are best enjoyed in contemplative fashion in a smaller, more intimate environment.

Bouchard chose to serve the “La Cabotte” from 2010, 2009 and 2006. All were superb! What struck me here was how, moving backwards from youngest to oldest, each successive wine showcased increasing evolution and nuance while retaining the basic core of flavor richness, complexity and cut that is undeniably regal and unmistakably Chevalier Montrachet. This was a most impressive flight!

Chambolle-Musigny “Amoureuses” (Maison Drouhin)
Chambolle Musigny is one of my most beloved appellations in Burgundy and Amoureuses cannot help but compete for a place in my heart as my favorite vineyard in this delightful village. Not that there aren’t many top-notch vineyard sites to look for in Chambolle --- because there are --- but Amoureuses has always held a special place for me. And why not --- the terroir basically delivers Grand Cru quality! Veronique Drouhin-Boss generously poured her 2009, 2002 and 1998 Amoureuses for a most receptive and appreciative audience which included yours truly. All three of the wines captured the glory of Amoureuses as well as the classic Drouhin style. Merci Veronique pour le bon travail!

Bonnes Mares (Hudelot-Baillet)
I must admit to being completely unfamiliar with this domaine. However, upon tasting here I definitely wanted to learn more! Bonnes Mares is a wine that invariably requires patience and judging from the quality of their 2007 which was offered in conjunction with the estate’s 2009 and 2010; this is a property to keep your eye on. Upon doing a bit of internet research, I discovered that the domaine was created in 1981 by Joël Hudelot and his wife Chantal Baillet.  Joël retired in 2004 and passed along the reins to his son-in-law Dominique Le Guen whom I was able to meet the following day at the Grand Tasting.
Interestingly enough, I also discovered that Monsieur Le Guen also works as Frederic Mugnier’s vineyard manager.  In that “Freddy” Mugnier has long held an elevated position in my personal Burgundy hierarchy, it became readily apparent to me the quality at play here likely utilized the same formula: judicious yields and painstaking work in the vineyards along with a minimalist approach in the cuverie. The wines all spoke to me as classically Bonnes Mares but with that extra bit of je ne sais quoi --- let’s call it for now the artistic touch of Monsieur Le Guen --- and a source no less than Christophe Roumier recently opined to describe Dominique Le Guen as “a vigneron to watch.” I’m on board with that!

Clos des Lambrays (Domaine des Lambrays)
To this palate, Clos des Lambrays stands as one of the crown jewels of the Côte d’Ôr. Winemaker Thierry Brouin has done a magnificent job in restoring this historical terroir to its rightful place in the celestial order of the Burgundian firmament. Many years ago I visited the property upon the outset of its current renaissance and can attest to the incremental improvement in the quality of wine emanating from the estate vintage after vintage. Today, Clos des Lambrays stands in the upper echelon of Burgundy’s Grand Cru hierarchy thanks to the tireless commitment to quality and painstaking work of Monsieur Brouin.

Thierry chose to pour the 2003, 2006 and 2010 Lambrays. All three brought to bear that impressive combination of exotic spice, silky red fruit and sophisticated terroir that verily defines both Morey St. Denis and Clos des Lambrays. This was one of the most impressive tables of the event!

Gevrey Chambertin “Mes Favorites” (Alain Burguet)
There is no specific vineyard with the name of Mes Favorites. But the wine, nonetheless, delivers a high quality translation of terroir. This blend combines vineyard parcel holdings from old vines in preferred plots and reflects Alain’s desire to create an excellent Gevrey Chambertin year-in and year-out. To me, Alain stands as one of Burgundy’s unheralded stars and with this wine he annually puts forth a production that is classically “Gevrey” in every sense of the word. The estate chose the stellar trio of 2008, 2009 and 2010 to uphold the superb reputation of Mes Favorites and succeeded once again in demonstrating the ongoing quality of one of Burgundy’s very special wines, places and winemakers.

Gevrey Chambertin “Cherbaudes” (Jean-Marie Fourrier)
A small coterie of devotées was crowded around the Fourrier table as I arrived enjoying a superb trio of wines from Burgundy’s newest superstar: Jean-Marie Fourrier. Domaine Fourrier chose to pour their 2007, 2009 and 2010 to represent one of Gevrey’s lesser known terroirs – Cherbaudes. All three wines captured a richness and complexity that went way beyond that which one normally associates with this vineyard which is located adjacent to the Grand Cru sites of Chapelle and Mazi. The quality at play speaks to Fourrier’s skill in getting the most out of his holdings as the wines combined both elegance and finesse while remaining true to their origins of soil as well as their specific vintage identities.

Clos de Beze (Domaine Faiveley)
As I am more of a Burgundian traditionalist, the Faiveley wines have always appealed to me and I have had the good fortune to know several collectors who buy Faiveley with regularity affording me the opportunity to taste and enjoy cellar-aged versions of many of this domaine’s top wines including Clos de Beze. To me Clos de Beze stands with Griottes, Ruchottes and Le Chambertin foursquare to comprise the ultimate Grand Slam “terroir – team” of Gevrey Chambertin. Not to say that I haven’t had superb wines from Charmes, Mazi and Mazoyeres over the years but the consistency of the above-mentioned puts them in a league of their own.

Beze to me is a broad, forthright Grand Cru and the more classical Faiveley philosophy suits the vineyard well. The Maison chose to pour the troika of 2009, 2010 and 2011 and this triumvirate of power delivered satisfactorily anything and everything one would look for or could desire from Clos de Beze. And while the new regime has softened and modernized the Faiveley style just a bit, these are still wines that stand, philosophically, on the traditional side of the fence and will continue to deliver long-term satisfaction for those so inclined.

Saturday AM, I attended The La Paulée Chablis Seminar led by Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle. Participants included Veronique Drouhin (Maison Drouhin) and Christian Moreau (Domaine Christian Moreau) along with Didier Seguier of Domaine Fevre and Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel of Domaine Louis Michel. These four names are virtually synonymous with high-quality Chablis and their wines did not disappoint. It was well-worth the early rise! The conversation was both lively and informative encompassing a superb juxtaposition of winemaking philosophy and viticultural/vinicultural insights as well as sundry tidbits of French and Burgundian history. Nothing better than Chablis and croissants for breakfast!

Chablis remains one of Burgundy’s top bargains. Given the quality at play, it’s one of my personal “go-to” faves and holds an ongoing steady place in my Burgundian circle of trust. The Burgundian notion of terroir reaches its apogee here in that no other wine region in the world produces Chardonnay in such a distinctive manner. Many try to imitate but few actually succeed. There is no replicating the unique Kimmeridgian soils and cool climate milieu of Chablis which produces what is arguably the wine world’s most transparent, translucent and transcendent white wine.

Upon finishing the Chablis Seminar, it was a quick hop, skip and a jump to the Fairmount’s Grand Ballroom for one of the overriding events of the week-end: The Grand Tasting. Life is good! This year’s tasting was focused on the 2011 vintage. There were literally hundreds of wines available for edification and the challenge to taste in comprehensive manner was offset nicely and magically enhanced with a superb array of appetizers and petits plats from several of the Bay Area’s finest chefs and restaurants including some of my SF faves --- Boulevard, Pearl and Ash, RN 74 and The Slanted Door.

It’s always hard to draw sweeping conclusions in Burgundy given the multiplicity of domaines and terroirs but from a generalized perspective, I feel 2011 is a somewhat underrated vintage. I would not go so far to characterize it as a “great” vintage (although some winemakers made great wines) but would more comfortably classify it as good/very good. The 2011 reds are a bit lighter than 2010. It’s more of a watercolor affair rather than the thick “oil-on-canvas” identity of 2010. But this should not be seen in a negative light. The fruit is clean and lively with above-average complexity and gorgeous bouquets. In terms of the whites, the vintage delivers a useful cadre of wines which can be readily consumed and successfully aged over the short/mid-term. In short, don’t ignore 2011 Burgundies. Overall, most everyone I spoke with at the Grand Tasting, including both producers and imbibers, were pleased with the quality at hand. I see 2011 as kind of an “insider’s vintage” that will reward with a bit of time in the cellar and patience for those so inclined. “Selectivity” is, for sure, the key word in formulating a purchase strategy for 2011 Burgundy but don’t be afraid to get in the water.

Part of the joy of attending the La Paulée Grand Tasting is the pleasure of running into and catching up with old colleagues and friends which necessarily takes some time away from the main task at hand; namely, tasting wine. Given the constraints of a 3-hour tasting window, focus becomes the key procedural directive. With such an incredible array of wines at hand, it was impossible to taste everything but what follows is a brief rundown of some productions that caught my attention. All are 2011.

Bernard Moreau
Chassagne Montrachet “Vergers” **
Chassagne Montrachet “Maltroie” *
Chassagne Montrachet “Grands Ruchottes” **

Comte Lafon
Volnay “Santenots” *
Meursault “Clos de la Barre” *
Meursault “Charmes” **

Puligny Montrachet “Combettes” *
Chevalier Montrachet **

Génot – Boulanger
Pommard “Clos Blanc” *
Meursault “Boucheres” *
Puligny Montrachet “Folatieres” **

Domaine de Courcel
Pommard “Vaumuriens” *
Pommard “Fremiers” *
Pommard “Grand Clos Epenots” **
Pommard “Rugiens” *

Marquis d’Angerville
Volnay “Fremiets” *
Volnay “Champans” **
Volnay “Taillepieds” **
Volnay “Clos des Ducs” **

Domaine Chanson
Beaune “Clos des Fèves” *
Beaune Clos des Mouches” *
Chassagne Montrachet “Chenevottes” *

Maison Drouhin
Beaune “Clos des Mouches” (Rouge) **
Chassagne Montrachet “Morgeot – Marquis de Laguiche” *
Corton Charlemagne**

Domaine Bouchard
Nuits St. Georges “Les Cailles” *
Beaune “Greves – “Vigne de l’Enfant Jesus” *
Meursault “Genevrieres” *
Corton Charlemagne **

Maison Louis Jadot
Corton Charlemagne *

Domaine Simon Bize
Savigny-les-Beaune “Fournaux” *
Savigny-les-Beaune “Aux Vergelesses” *

Domaine Hudellot-Noëllat
Clos Vougeot *
Romanée St. Vivant **

Domaine Hudelot-Baillet
Chambolle Musigny “VV” *
Chambolle Musigny “Charmes” **
Chambolle Musigny “Cras” **
Bonnes Mares **

Armand Rousseau
Clos de la Roche *
Chambertin **

Domaine Fourrier
Gevrey Chambertin *
Gevrey Chambertin “Cherbaudes” *
Gevrey Chambertin “Combe-aux-Moins” **
Gevrey Chambertin “Clos St. Jacques” **

Domaine des Lambrays
Puligny Montrachet “Folatieres” *
Puligny Montrachet “Clos du Cailleret” *
Clos des Lambrays **

One last thought on 2011 --- upon tasting through the wines I was struck by the following notion --- 25 years ago, 2011 probably would have been an utter failure. Given the vagaries and challenges of both weather and harvest which are reflected in the irregularity of many of the wines 2011 produced, this crop would have been harvested and vinified in such manner as to engender, for the most part, dismal wines of an unpleasant nature --- green, dilute, astringent and thin. That the wines are as successful as they are is a testament to the ongoing embrace of a renewed quality ethos and intellectual renaissance which started in the 1990s and is still taking place throughout the Côte d’Ôr in conjunction with the spirit of a new generation of young vignerons in Burgundy who are not afraid to utilize both tradition and innovation in crafting higher quality wines that reflect the unique grandeur of these hallowed vineyards.

The La Paulée week-end is a special time that creates enough pleasure, joy and memories to last a life time. Each one is singular in combining a unique vintage focus along with the ambience and hospitality of either San Francisco or New York. The La Paulée staff does an incredible job year-in and year-out to provide participants with new and interesting themes for dinners, seminars and tastings. And what would the event be without the vignerons themselves, as well as the many chefs and sommeliers, who donate so much time, energy and good-will to the event in conjunction with their passion for Burgundy and its wines --- all deserve a shout!

Anyone who has a serious interest in or passion for wine as either a collector or imbiber owes it to his or herself to attend this event at least once in their life time. Whether you are an amateur or aficionado, the rewards are abundant and the experience timeless. Next year’s event will be once again in New York. Hope to see you at La Paulée 2015!