2019 Burgundy Verticals by Stephen Tanzer

The Format of My Tastings

All of the producers I visited in December presented their wines in the same way: from youngest to oldest, with the bottles uncorked shortly before the tasting and not decanted. Beginning with the youngest vintage and working backward has always been my preferred approach to vertical tastings, for the simple reason that this order allows me to understand how wines develop with bottle age. But I should also note that at the vertical tastings of California Cabernets that producers have staged for me in recent years, a sizable minority of makers have begun with the oldest vintage and finished with the youngest, under the assumption that starting with the youngest and most tannic wines would numb the palate and leave it less able to appreciate the subtleties of older, mellower vintages. 

The Burgundies were also served at ideal, properly cool temperature—no higher than 64 or 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and in a few cases a couple degrees cooler than that. The cool temperature of the wines, and the fact that they were not given an extended pre-tasting aeration, allowed tasters to experience the most vibrant initial aromas of even the oldest bottles and follow them as their bouquet developed in the glass, warming only slightly at December-in-Burgundy room temperature.

I must also note that as these wines were taken from the producers’ long-term storage, most had not yet had labels affixed (this normally happens in Burgundy when bottles are being prepared for sale), so that most of the bottles I tasted were simply identified with their vintage written in chalk. As a result, my snapshots of most of my vertical line-ups are distinctly un-photogenic.

For my red wine tastings, I asked each producer to present the following vintages: 2012, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2003, 2002, 1999, 1995, 1993, 1990, 1988 and 1985 (for whites, the list was slightly different). I also invited them to fill in a few more vintages, especially ones of which they were particularly proud, and perhaps a few older vintages as well. I was able to taste nearly all of the vintages I requested, although I missed a few that were no longer available. Back in New York, I filled in a few key missing wines from my own cellar (though none in the case of Château de la Tour), including some from what are generally viewed as lesser vintages. I will note “tasted in New York” for these wines.

The Good News

The most pleasant surprise from my first group of tastings was that despite the fact that my verticals went back at least to 1985, I tasted remarkably few wines that were not still eminently gulpable. While a number of the older bottles in my tastings were well into their plane of peak drinkability, even these wines are mostly evolving gracefully and in no danger of falling off a cliff anytime soon. Although I had to retaste a few bottles due to cork issues, I found virtually no evidence of what I would describe as premature oxidation in the reds I tasted—just normal evolution in bottle. Sure, the fully mature bottles displayed a range of tertiary aromas—animal and truffley underbrush qualities, dried tobacco, roasted nuts and the like, not to mention balsamic and smoky empyreumatic notes—but I rarely found myself writing down descriptors that could be read as evidence of maderization (named after the process of intentionally heating and oxidizing a wine in cask that’s used to make Madeira). In other words, the wines were developing via very slow and steady micro-oxygenation, exactly as they should be. Of course, the bottles I tasted with their makers have been kept in near-ideal storage and probably have not been moved more than once during their lives in bottle; obviously these bottles had never been shipped out of Burgundy, much less to distant markets like North America or the Far East. So your mileage may vary.

In addition to their silky textures and mostly harmonious tannins, the mature bottles were also remarkably easy on the head and stomach. That alone is sufficient reason for aging your Burgundies, assuming you can provide them with comfortable cellar conditions, as opposed to opening them in their simply fruity and sometimes-sullen youth, when they are likely to give pleasure more for their primary fruit sweetness, energy, structure and grip than for their mellowness or aromatic range. I lost count of the number of mature bottles I tasted in December that would have made perfect partners to a special dinner, but I was having far too much fun to regret tasting 15 or 20 wines at a sitting. 

Well-made wines cellared at a steady 55 degrees generally develop at a glacial pace, and their planes of peak drinkability can easily last for a decade or three, if not longer for some of the best red Burgundies. Actually, some of the 25+-year-old wines in my recent vertical tastings that struck me as being at their peaks may still go on for years in a consistently chilly cellar, deepening in pitch and gaining in nuance and texture without losing their vinosity.

The Bad News

In my first series of verticals in December, there really wasn’t any bad news, except for my sadness at not having more of these beauties in my cellar.

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