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The Ladybird Book of Burgundy: A 2004 Retrospective

by Guy Ruston (Managing Director Asia Pacific)

In the complex world of Burgundy we often seek convenience in summing up a vintage in a single word: 2009; ‘ripe’, 2003; ‘hot’, 2005; ‘amazing’. Never entirely accurate and often skewed by judging the vintage solely from the prism of Pinot Noir, it’s an easy way for us to compartmentalize Burgundy’s exhaustive myriad of growers, vineyards, crus and styles in the recesses of our minds. So what word do we attach to arguably the most maligned vintage of the 2000s? Rightly or wrongly, the word most commonly associated with Burgundy’s 2004 vintage is ‘green.’ It’s important to make clear that this description is almost exclusively in reference to the reds. The whites, broadly speaking, have been attractive from the off and can be classified as a success.

A challenging growing season, July was cool and cloudy, leading to an oidium problem for some growers. Then followed thunderstones and some hail, almost every day for the latter half of July, including two damaging storms on July 19th and August 23rd. Fortunately some sun and drier conditions in late August and early September gave vignerons some respite and, much like 2002, as Jasper Morris notes; “a period of cool, dry weather saved a crop that had been in doubt at the end of August.” Much of the rotten fruit was triaged by growers and it looked like the potential was there for some welcomingly fresh, balanced wines after the heatwave vintage of 2003.

During en primeur tastings, the only time the word ‘green’ was used - and it was used very sparingly - was in reference to some of the wines lacking ripeness or coming across as a little under-nourished. Which, giving the growing season, was to be expected. However between the en primeur tastings and the wines being revisited in bottle, something changed. The word ‘green’ began to be used more and more when describing the reds, specifically referring to a ‘taint’ within them. Shortly after bottling, more and more people began noticing a rather unpleasant herbaceous aroma to the wines.  Bill Nanson described it as a similar smell to ‘Wright’s Coal Tar Soap’ and estimated that as many as 30% of the wines had this taint. He was the first wine writer to really delve into this and offer a theory as to who, what, how and why; “ It was only by chance that I mentioned my experience of grape-baskets often with dozens of ladybirds (ladybugs or coccinella depending on your location) at harvest-time, but quick as a flash, Don Cornwell found a potential link – pyrazines.” His theory is based on the fact that ladybirds use methoxy-pyrazines as an attractant to potential mates. They were rife in Burgundy during the 2004 growing season and it is both plausible and provable that these little bugs, or rather their pyrazines, are the source of the ‘taint’ in the wines. Jasper Morris has always felt that it is more likely that “the addition of Sulphur at bottling, combined with the high Sulphur levels used during the growing season” is the cause of this taint. In any case, this green taint is demonstrably there; as to how much and how widely depends on one’s sensitivity to it.

As ever, the proof is in the drinking and so a magnificent seven of us assembled to assess this ugly duckling of a vintage. Has the taint started to fade, as some have suggested, turning this vintage into a beautiful swan or will 2004 be permanently filed under ‘green’ in the Burgundy annals of history?

After whetting our whistle with some deliciously rich and elegant Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2004, we kicked off proceedings with a brace of whites from the very top drawer.

Coche Dury Meursault Perrieresis beautifully golden in colour. Zesty on the palate but gains some serious weight as the evening goes on, developing some enticing buttery, baked apple notes. The Ramonet Bienvenues Batard Montrachet in contrast feels much lighter on its feet. The nose is super clean and crisp, with a palate leaning more towards freshly sliced Granny Smiths and pear drops. Just beautiful.

As well as assessing the vintage in these tastings (you may recall the 2003, 2001 and 1999 horizontals) our host likes to take us along a geographic journey through Burgundy too. We begin our tour of the reds in Morey St.Denis. First up Clos de Tart with just a hint of bell pepper greeness on the nose, though this translates on the palate as quite an interesting savoury note. A little lean and leathery but by no means a poor effort, we’re off to a positive start. Its sidekick, Ponsot’s Clos de la Roche however, most definitely has a taint on the nose. Initially perhaps some VA, as the evening goes on it feels more like those pesky ladybirds have been aggressively flirting with one another on the sorting table. In contrast however the palate is quite lovely - richly spiced, with some nice gamey notes and a very long finish. I can’t quite work this one out.

We travel from Morey over to Gevrey and its A-List vineyard, beginning with THE domaine in this neck of the woods. Rousseau Clos de Beze is a little shy and reserved at first and quite firm on the palate but sure enough after an hour or so, those classic Rousseau red fruit notes come to the fore. A very mild touch of greenness but more of a welcome seasoning to the recipe than something unpleasant. I think if you own this wine you can be happy. Especially at today’s price tag! Groffier’s Clos de Beze however is flamboyance personified. A little bretty but zero hint of greenness, at least for me. It’s all juicy, wild strawberries with a little barnyard funk. Delicious.

DW called 2004 as “an RSV vintage” at the beginning of the night and he is not wrong. Moving up a significant notch, Arnoux’s Romanee St.Vivant is singing. So polished and pure. Just the faintest metallic tint in an otherwise palate-saturating jubilee of spicy red fruits. Wow! Domaine Romanee Conti’s RSV is up a further notch. Serious depth here and a serious wine. So complete on the palate. Richness, roundness. No hint of greenness whatsoever and an irresistibly sweet, red fruit finish. Outstanding stuff.

An almost aggressively herbaceous Anne Gros Richebourg however, brings us crashing back down to earth. Anne of Green Gables indeed (thank you Chris.)  Though significantly better, Grivot’s Richebourg also looks to have suffered from some overly amorous ladybirds, flaunting their pyrazines again. The hussies! The texture is there, the weight is there, the finish is there but that damned green, bell pepper aroma just spoils the party.

If anything can help us get over the disappointment of two tarnished Richebourgs, then a brace of Musignys can. First up, Mugnier Musigny. A hint of greenness on the nose but very rich and generous on the palate with a sweet, spicy finish. Not in the same league as other vintages of this storied wine but definitely not a complete victim to the ladybirds. Drouhin Musigny however is spectacular. Much cleaner on the nose, with greater clarity on the palate too. Lovely richness and depth to this one. Significantly and surprisingly better than the Mugnier. It just feels more Musigny-like, walking that tightrope of understated power and ethereal beauty, like Philippe Petit between the Twin Towers.

Our final pair of the evening are two of Burgundy’s icons. Roumier Bonnes Mares 2004 of course pales in comparison to the likes of its 1999 incarnation but there is still plenty of evidence on show here of a terroir and winemaking-genius in unison. If money was no object, then Roumier is the producer I would sink most of my funds into. Despite a faint pang of greenness on the nose, the weight and texture on this ’04, that perfect spherical feel that Christophe Roumier achieves with his wines, is on display enough for me to maintain my conviction. Domaine Romanee Conti’s La Tache sadly is corked. Sad face. However Robin is immediately over to the sub’s bench and on comes Liger-Belair’s Vosne Romanee les Chaumes as a late replacement. A similar story to the Ponsot on this one. A funky taint on the nose, but actually rather fine drinking on the palate, we are able to finish on a high note.

What can we conclude then? Clearly there are some bloomin’ delicious whites in this vintage. The reds however most definitely have an issue. To what degree and what extent is much harder to fathom and is certainly subjective. The two RSVs showed little-to-no taint. The two Clos de Beze were both excellent too. Every other red however had a degree of greenness (at best) or Wright’s Coal Tar Soap at worst. Why are the wines like this? I don’t buy the Sulphur theory. Though we consumed a Churchillian amount of wine, I know a Sulphur-related hangover when I have one and this one isn’t. Will this taint fade away on some of the wines with age? We’ll have to see but I don’t feel that these are wines that you would want to cellar for eons to find out. Even with some taint, if served with food they are perfectly acceptable drinking companions.

My thanks to Mr.O for his extraordinary generosity once again and to our magnificent seven for some great banter and terrific insights.

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