Chardonnay Monday

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Jay McInerney reported on a problem that has been discussed and analyzed and worried-over around the world: The premature oxidation of white Burgundy. Speaking specifically about Meursault, but addressing a phenomenon that could really apply to whites from all over the region, he writes that “there is increasing agreement that something changed for the worse starting with the 1995 vintage. Many of the wines of that vintage and subsequent ones evolved far more quickly than they were supposed to, suffering from premature oxidation, aka premox, which gave them an unwanted resemblance, in taste and color, to Sherry.”
This would be a big problem anywhere in the world, but here, in the ancestral homeland of chardonnay, it has a special resonance. After all, this is the place that most winemakers look to for inspiration, in one way or another, when crafting their chardonnay. Its history goes back centuries, and the prices commanded by the best white Burgundies are often as demanding of the buyer’s finances as the wines are of his or her palate.
So what’s the cause of this problem?
“One theory,” McInerney notes, “is that the problem coincided with the trend toward ‘natural’ winemaking and a decreasing use of sulfur, which acts as a preservative. Faulty corks have also been blamed. One school of thought claims that around 1995 many cork manufacturers started bleaching corks with hydrogen peroxide, which interacts with—and oxidizes—the wine in the bottle.”
There are other theories, too, notes Decanter’s Stephen Brook (as reported in a post on Decanter.com by Adam Lechmere). “Meursault producer Patrick Javillier,” Lechmere reports, “suggests modern pneumatic presses, which allowed less exposure to oxygen than old-style horizontal presses, might be a cause of later oxidation. [The theory...] was that basket presses ‘gave the must early exposure to oxygen which…protected the wine from subsequent oxidation,’ just as a child is inoculated by early exposure to a disease.”
Whatever the cause, producers "have done all they can to reduce risks," Lechmere writes, although “it’s impossible to give a blanket assurance that all is now well,” he continues, quoting Brook. For myself, I’ll choose to follow McInerney’s strategy:
“Personally,” he writes, “I'm trying to keep the faith for the present, despite recent disappointments. Reason would seem to dictate caution with regard to white Burgundy, but love and the lower appetites have nothing to do with rationality. Drinking a great, mature Meursault is one of life's more intricately nuanced pleasures and even a young Meursault has a unique and thoroughly beguiling flavor profile...Once you taste a really good bottle of Meursault”--or any great white Burgundy, for that matter--”you may find that you're willing to risk the occasional stinker in order to relive the experience.”
Wine of the Day
Last week, at the monthly gathering of the Dead Guys Wine Society--source of so many of the top wines I’ve tasted in the past few years--I was handed a bottle of Stony Hill Chardonnay 1973 by the host and de facto president of the society, Scot “Zippy” Ziskind, owner of ZipCo Environmental Services, Inc., and My Cellar, one of the region’s top wine storage facilities. He asked if I thought the bottle was still sound, and judging by the high fill and clarity of the juice--not to mention the provenance: It had been stored in Zippy’s professional wine-storage facility at perfectly constant temperature and humidity--I told him I though it had a good chance of still being drinkable.
I was wrong: It was more than drinkable; it was, in fact, miraculous, a rich gold color, a subtle nose boasting the unmistakable aromas of toast, mint, and green tea that led to exceptionally complex flavors of cream, toffee, nuts, and crunchy apple that made the mouth water, even after nearly 40 years of evolution. There was also the gentlest hint of white blossomed flowers--not enough to call the wine floral by any stretch, but just a perfect touch that provided lift and perfume to an otherwise perfectly mature--and seriously exciting--bottle of chardonnay. Thanks, once again, to Zippy for sharing yet another treasure from his endlessly deep and infinitely fascinating collection.
On a related note, click here for an article on Stony Hill that ran in The New York Times back in 2003. It includes a history of the estate and a tasting of the wines...including the remarkable 1973.