Most wines don't age well - they just decline, especially white. White Burgundy, on the other hand, particularly 1er and Grand Cru actually needs a few years to hit its stride. Meursault, one of the great Chardonnay villages in the world, one whose grandeur and style was the target of the legendary pioneers of California wine industry in the 1970's, such as Mike Grgich and Chateau Montelena, gives greater pleasure as it gains in maturity. But how long should you wait? And how long is too long?
From the mailer by Ross Bott, the organizer:
Meursault is in the geographic center of the Cotes du Beaune region of Burgundy, with Pommard two kilometers to the north and Puligny Montrachet two kilometers to the south. It totals just under a thousand acres of planted vines, almost all Chardonnay. About 200,000 cases of wines are produced each year, of which 98% are white.
The vineyards of Meursault itself surround the town, with the premier cru vineyards just to the southwest and the rest of Meursault vineyards (which go into village wines) nearer to the center. There are 13 premier cru vineyards in all, with Les Perrieres, Les Charmes, Les Genevrieres, Les Poruzots, La Gotte d'Or and Les Boucheres the most highly regarded and generally producing the best wines. Among these, Les Charmes, Les Genevrieres, and Les Perrieres have a separate elevated status, and might informally be considered the Grand Crus of Meursault.
Most would consider Meursaults, along with the Grand Cru regions of Montrachet and Chablis to be among the best Chardonnays in the world. In contrast to the wines of Chablis, Meursaults are given some barrel aging time, imparting a buttery, toasty character which is often associated with Meursault. However, they share with the best Chardonnays from the region an acid edge and angular structure which makes them so stern when young, but provides the foundation to allow the wines to age gracefully for many years. Over that time, the youthful angularity is replaced by layers of wonderful minerally, buttery, vanilla-tinged complexity.
Tonight we'll try eight Meursaults spanning 1982 through 1986, including four from Les Charmes and one each from Genevrieres and Perrieres. Seven of the eight are from three domaines -- Michelot-Buisson, Francois Jobard, and Ballot-Millot and, each has it's signature style: Michelot-Buisson's Meursaults are tight and firm when young, but expand with age into a broad flavor range of ripe lemons, minerals, and sweet pea. Ballot-Millot produces classically styled Meursaults with lemony fruit underpinned with lees and a bit of oak vanillin. Jobard veers towards the racy, acidy end of the Meursault spectrum -- almost more Chablis-like than Meursaults.
Prior to this tasting, the oldest Meursault I'd had was a 12-year old - 1997 (in 2009) by Patrick Javillier. The wine was elegant, delicious, with secondary flavors, just as expected from a mature Meursault at its peak. But now I was facing a line-up more than twice that age.
1982 Meursault-Genevrieres, Michelot-Buisson
1982 Meursault-Charmes, Michelot-Buisson
1983 Meursault-Charmes, Michelot-Buisson
1985 Meursault-Blagny, Francois Jobard
1985 Meursault-Charmes, Francois Jobard
1985 Meursault Perrieres, Dancer-Lochardet
1986 Meursault "Les Millots" Ballot-Millot
1986 Meursault-Charmes, Ballot-Millot
To my palate, none of the wines tasted good, 2 partially oxidized, 1 slightly corked, 2 medicinal and eggy, and 3 curious - all devoid of fruit, some with bitter citrus peel and astringency, some with decent bouquets, but closer to sherry on the tongue, the better ones reminding of olive oil and marinated olives. To me, all of the wines seemed years past their peak, on the far end of their decline, one step away from the grave. While I wouldn't drink any of them, some of the tasters did like one or two wines, but the feeling in the room was that this indeed was a problematic bunch of Chards, more interesting than pleasurable. I asked Ross what he thought. He said he has done several tastings with these wines over the years, and these are the last bottles he has. He enjoyed the wines because in the their old age they were interesting. "Old wines are interesting like old people" - he said.
Certain hypothesis about ageability of Meursault formed in my mind. But before generalizing, I set off to do a bit of research. I talked to 3 wine experts, browsed wine forums, and read as much as I could find on Google. My findings confirm that the peak of drinking pleasure for a Meursault from a good site and a good producer in a good vintage is somewhere between 8 and 12 years, plus/minus 3. Houses of Lafon and Coche-Dury are in a league (and price) above others. At the age of around 20 years, they change into different animals, nutty, almondy, quite dry, complicated, interesting, special. I've tasted Rieslings that were over 30 years old. Those were amazing. Sugars had subsided, but fruit was still there, and all kinds of savory flavors had emerged. For Meursault, 20 years appears to be that time, with the best of the best stretching to 25. Records have been known where some wines lasted longer - into their 4th decade - but those are extreme exceptions. At the age of 25, it's really a toss-up that I would not want to take with my precious stash.
The nearby villages of Puligny and Chassagne likely have similar ageability curve for their 1er crus. They, however, boast a number of grand cru sites - the Montrachet family of vineyards, which are legendary for longer lifespan.
Whether I like the wines or not, a Ross Bott tasting like this provides a unique opportunity to learn. One time I face the good, another time - the ugly. Through knowing both, I learn to cherish wine all the more. And that, my friends, is perhaps the greatest wine gift one can get.