Terrior or Turds?

It happened near the end of the Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir Celebration in February. One of the visiting overseas winemakers was Etienne de Montille, of Domaine de Montille (tastings), in Volnay, Burgundy. In the previous session, we had tasted a shockingly bad 2004 Faiveley Latricieres-Chambertin (tasting). This wine (cheap for a grand cru at $150) was hammered by various tasters, especially Tasmanian Julian Alcorso, and others, and most of the criticism centred on Brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast. My colleague Tim White leapt to his feet and suggested this wine would best be served with a horse-and-faeces pie (a reference to the horsey smell often used to describe Brettanomyces).

To my palate, this dreadful wine was suffering from more than one malady. It was such a poor wine that it was difficult to identify its problems precisely. However, the affliction common to many 2004 red Burgundies was instantly recognisable: a vegetal, possibly methoxy-pyrazine character which may be due to unripe grapes, or to an invasion of ladybugs (coccinelle), as many have speculated. These insects apparently exude a pyrazine when squashed. And millions were crushed along with the pinot noir grapes in 2004. There was a plague of them. I have seen very few decent ’04s and regard that red Burgundy vintage as a disgrace that in most cases should never have been sold, let alone at the customary high prices. The taint is highly disagreeable, and accompanied by a thin, harsh, fruitless palate. The wines should have been junked, or at least declassified, although it’s difficult to know how much of the blame should be apportioned to the producers, as the precise moment the full scale of the problem became understood is uncertain.

Surprise followed surprise. In the next session, Etienne de Montille took it on himself to defend the Faiveley wine. He had the floor, as he was about to host a de Montille tasting – which turned out to be a splendid climax to the event.

De Montille took on the Faiveley’s critics, asserting that they had been excessive in their attack and immoderate in their language. “Everyone can make a bad wine,” he said, “and 2004 was probably the worst vintage in recent memory.”

But he was defending the indefensible.

A 2004 red Burgundy should probably never have been served in the first place. Why waste an opportunity to pour a great Burgundy – even if the other five wines being tasted were ’04s? No one would have quibbled if the organisers had opted for an ’03 or ’05.

For me, de Montille’s attempt to defend the wine was disappointment piled on disappointment. Etienne is a very engaging man and I enjoyed a chat with him the previous evening. But I broached the subject of screwcaps and alternative closures after an earlier Burgundy tasting had resulted in 12 out of 70 bottles being rejected for suspected cork taint. That’s a failure rate of more than one in six: unforgiveable, especially in expensive red Burgundy.

But de Montille claimed wine does not age under screwcap. I offered to show him some wines that might cause him to revise his thinking. He said it was because screwcaps don’t allow air into the bottle, and oxygen is necessary for wine to mature. I suggested this was outdated thinking, and that he should read some recent scientific papers on the topic.

I came away from the conference irritated. We seemed to have been told not to rock the boat. That the status quo should be respected and not questioned. That Burgundy had the right to continue selling as much over-priced and faulty wine to the world as it liked. And we had no right to complain.

The finest gem of truth for the entire conference came from the mouth of Nat White, of Main Ridge Estate (tastings), elder statesman of Mornington pinot-makers. His ’04 Half Acre pinot (tastings) was, incidentally, the finest of the mature wines offered in the seminar devoted to the topic of pinot noir ageing.

Among several wise statements he made to an audience hungry for terroir revelations was the following: “If you are going to try to describe your terroir, the first step is to have a fault-free wine.”

Cork-taint, Brett, ladybugs… Just some of the many distractions from not only quality, but the quest to define terroir.

Further reading on coccinelle: http://burgundy-report.com/wp/?page_id=2584

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine, April – May 2011.

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