Benjamin Leroux takes the Gamble of Burgundy

Burgundy is expensive wine. A grand cru will set you back at least $250 and a good premier cru around $150-plus; even drinking a village-appellation wine from a good maker costs around $100. So a faulty bottle is about as much fun as a punch in the nose. At least when you share bottles among a group of friends, the cost is diluted, as is the pain when you open a bad one. (On the plus side, the pleasure of a good bottle is not diluted!)

I recently attended a tasting where nine bottles of red Burgundy from the same producer (the highly regarded Michel Lafarge) were opened in an attempt to decipher differences in terroir. In my opinion, only three of the nine wines presented as they should have. The others suffered from various problems including oxidation, staleness and bad-wine characters, which made pinning down terroir variations impossible. They were all sealed with corks.

No such problems with the wonderful wines of Burgundy’s latest enfant terrible, Benjamin Leroux, who visited this country recently. Nearly all his wines were screwcapped. And what a relief it was to taste his wines, and to know what we were tasting was exactly what the winemaker had put into the bottle.

I tasted a selection of what he has on offer (through importer Bibendum) at the moment. Three 2008 whites were all very good in their stations, from a bright, creamy lees-influenced, balanced and well-made Bourgogne Blanc ($53; 89/100) to a much richer, layered and hazelnutty, lush and lively Meursault Les Vireuils ($105; 94) to a refined, soft, delicately linear and harmonious Puligny Montrachet ($105; 95), they were all pristine and precise. Many Burgundy-lovers have told me they have given up cellaring white Burgundy because of its unpredictability with age. The same people vow they’d start cellaring it again if only they could buy it screwcapped. Well, help is at hand.

Benjamin Leroux has been winemaker at Domaine Comte Armand (tastings) in Pommard for the past 12 years and has recently begun his own small negociant business, buying small parcels of top grapes and vinifying them for sale under his eponymous label. Apparently the American Burgundy expert Allen Meadows named Leroux as the natural heir to the late, great ‘‘guru’’ of Burgundy winemakers, Henri Jayer.

The four ’08 Leroux reds I tasted were also superb. The basic Bourgogne Rouge ($47; 90) is an absolute steal. Light-bodied, superbly fresh and fragrant with ripe spices and cherry to sniff, it would give a lot of Antipodean pinots a value-for-money shake, never mind about the normal premium you pay for Burgundy’s name and centuries of history. The Savigny-les-Beaune ($70; 92) was more earthy and spicy, deeper and more structured in the mouth with delicious fruit and enough tannin to help it age a few years. The Volnay ($87; 94) was sturdy, intense and youthfully sour-cherried, with good length and no sign of overt oak. Finally, the Bonnes Mares grand cru ($298; 96+) was very powerful, concentrated and full-bodied, tannic and the only wine overtly oak-marked – but it’s built to cellar and its 50% new oak will mellow out rapidly as it ages.

The last was the only cork-sealed wine, and Leroux almost apologetically explained that he would have screwcapped it if he could, but the small quantity (600 bottles) made it technically impossible. He shares a new bottling line, plus screw-capping machine, with five other producers: a relatively rare thing in traditional Burgundy.

The Lafarge tasting was a contrast. We had three recent vintages of Beaune Greves, then three Pommard Pezerolles, then three Volnay Clos des Chenes. The two ‘04s were ruined by the unpleasant green/vegetal character that mars most of the wines I’ve had from that vintage (put it down to unripe grapes or the plague of ladybugs, whichever explanation you prefer). The two ‘02s had unpleasant raisined/oxidised fruit characters. One of the two ‘01s was completely wrecked by oxidation; the other was just stale, tired and over-developed. The three ‘06s were all delicious: the only wines that tasted as they should have, with bright colours, masses of fruit and good freshness. But did they display terroir?

The Pommard was the most tannic and structured, as students of Burgundy might expect. Bright, spicy, brandied-cherry fruit too. The Beaune was a lighter wine but lovely, with clean violets and red-cherry fruit. And the Volnay was the best with some of the fruit character of the other two but with superior depth, drive and persistence. So yes: the ‘06s did show the key characteristics I’d expect of their communes, if not their vineyards.

A ’96 vintage of the Clos des Chenes served as an afterthought was also very good, appropriately mellow and developed, with the high-acid typical of the year – also lovely balance and grace.

It’s hard to say whether the corks played any part in the oxidised and prematurely aged wines. You need to open multiple bottles to get a better idea of that. I’d find it difficult to believe cork failure didn’t play a part.

A screwcap doesn’t guarantee good wine. Good wine is about good grapes grown by careful growers in good sites, vinified by someone who knows what he’s doing. But the closure has a lot to do with whether a fine wine reaches the end-consumer in good shape or not.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 7 September 2010.


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