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Bouchard Bounces Back

(April 2, 2000) For quite a stretch of time, Maison Bouchard Père et Fils embodied everything I didn't like about Burgundy.

     Bouchard is the largest landowner in Burgundy's most coveted stretch of real estate, the Côte D'Or. But for too long, they were also among Burgundy's biggest under-performers -- charging beaucoups bucks for wimpy wines. People accused them of coasting on their reputation, overcropping their wines and worse.

     When Bouchard was acquired in 1995 by Joseph Henriot, many hoped the new management would turn things around. Now it seems they're off to an excellent start.

     While in Paris several days ago, I had the pleasure of tasting a bunch of Bouchard's reds and whites in the company of Bouchard's General Manager, Bernard Hervé, and the Maître de Chais (winemaker) Phillipe Prost. The setting couldn't have been more congenial -- an ancient vaulted stone cellar in the heart of the Latin Quarter. So I have to admit I was in a mood to be pleased.

     I don't want to get too giddy here -- the wines still cost a lot and the winemaking style is a trifle austere for my pedal-to-the-metal tastes. But the reds were consistently delicious, the whites in particular moved me quite a bit, and more than a couple had me oohing and ahhing.

     On to the notes.

General comments from the winemaker

     Folks who detest oaky wines will like winemaker Phillipe Prost's philosophy. After a short time of aging in new oak, he switches his wines to older oak barrels -- and even the Grand Cru Corton Charlemagne receives a maximum of six months in new oak. However, he admits that new oak can reduce the need to filter, as it "naturally clarifies" the wine.

     As far as filtering goes, he says that he doesn't like to and usually manages to avoid it. "The smaller the crop, the less likely we are to filter," he comments. Larger production wines may need some polishing filtration, he concedes, but even in those cases, he uses only a very coarse filter. Fining is also a rarity, and when he does fine, he uses egg whites.

     He likes a certain sharpness and acidity to his wines, but doesn't agree with people who say that high acidity is necessary for a wine to age well.

     And he's very happy with the quality of the 1999 vintage. He feels that it's at least the best since 1990 -- and even has a shot of being the outright best of the decade.


     We tasted a vertical of Bouchard's 1er Cru Volnay Cailleret "Anncienne Cuvée Carnot." The vineyard was acquired Bouchard back in 1791, doubtless at a bargain price made possible by the revolution. Winemaker Phillipe Prost emphasizes that he strives for balance. He doesn't like to harvest the grapes too ripe, as he feels this can obscure the flavors of the terroir. "This is a vineyard where the terroir will always win over the vintage," he comments. I can't say I agree with him -- the wines I tasted today were textbook examples of each vintage -- but he certainly has done his best to underplay the oak. All the wines made under his regime display a certain restraint and a striving for elegance.

*+1997. Medium ruby, with a pronounced nose of red cherry that characterizes all the wines in this vertical. Quite tasty, with lively acidity. Some tannin on the finish, but not much at all for such a young wine. Opens up fairly rapidly with airing. In general, this is a forward wine that might benefit from one to two years cellaring, but could be very enjoyable tonight. I rank it last in the vertical, but it's also the weakest vintage. Nice job with the materials nature provided, though personally I might have preferred a riper style.

**+1996. Darker, more tannic and possessed of a much longer finish than the 1997. Clearly the strongest of the 95-96-97 triad. Also seems to me the least acidic. Don't touch this wine now. It's outstanding juice, but needs 6-10 years of cellaring. My third favorite of the entire flight.

*++1995. About the same color as the 1996. The nose is not quite as alluring, but still very nice. The tannins are a lot more forgiving. More supple and seductive right now than the 1996, and a more complete wine than the 1997. You could enjoy this wine tonight, but I'm guessing it will taste best from 2001 to 2007.

***+1990. Wow, is this wine dark and juicy! Aromas of cherries and earth. Thick, silky texture. Mouthwatering! Penetrating flavors with a long, long cherry finish! Drinking very well now, but seems to have many years yet to go. Shows that the even the "old" Bouchard was capable of great things when the vintage cooperated. WINE OF THE FLIGHT.

**1989. Also very dark, but not as dense as the 1990. The aromas emphasize earth over cherries. More forward than the 1990. I like it a lot, but it lacks the astonishing fruit, texture and body of the 1990 -- and I expect the 1996 will eventually outclass it.

***1962. A treat from the glory years of Bouchard. Deep garnet. Seductive aromas of cherries, strawberries, earth and stones. Positively unctuous on the palate. The silky texture reminds me of the 1990. Excellent finish, though not quite as long as the 1990. A trace of lingering tannin. Notes of decay creep in after about 10 minutes of airing, but the wine doesn't fade. My second favorite of the flight. Great example of what old Burgundy can be like when it's been impeccably stored.

The Whites

     I have to guess that Prost and Hervé are even more pleased with their progress in Meursault, because here they switched format and presented a horizontal tasting of the 1997 vintage. They made their point. I'm impressed. Prost's elegant winemaking style seems especially well matched to Meursault, bringing out lots of subtle mineral flavors. Even at this young age, the wines show very little oak -- and while I won't say I prefer it to Coche-Dury, I do enjoy the contrast. Happily too, the wines showed strength all across the line. In fact, one of the best (the unclassified "Les Clous") was among the least expensive.

**-1997 Meursault "Les Clous". I believe this is the most affordable Meursault presented today. I'm expecting something modest, but as the finish lingers on, I have to look up and smile. This is serious stuff! Very pale gold, with aromas of wet stones, lemons and a touch of vanilla. The acid is crisp without annoying you and there are plenty of mineral flavors to explore, even at this young age. I wouldn't call it a heavy-hitter, but it's a pleasingly pure expression of Meursault. Drinking well now and promises to age well over the next 5-7 years.

*1997 Meursault Clos des "Corvées de Cîteaux". Slightly darker. Strong aromas of apples and pears. Take a sip and the pear flavors dominate. I'm pleased until the wine opens a bit more -- then I start tasting an odd, herbal flavor, almost like vermouth. Hmm. Don't like that. Not a bad wine, but last in the flight.

*+1997 Meursault Blagny 1er Cru. Same color as the unclassified wines. More perfume, floral notes and vanilla when you swirl and sniff. Penetrating mineral flavors. Big structure. You can taste the tannins here. I'm happy as a clam for about 4 seconds, but then -- hey, where's the finish? Really comes up short. Weakest of the classified whites.

**1997 Meursault Charmes 1er Cru. Charming as heck! Aromas and flavors of crême brulée join the expected gang of minerals and citrus. More forward than the Blagny and finishes a lot better too. Super juice for now or later.

**+1997 Meursault Genevrières 1er Cru. Even creamier and thicker than the Charmes, with a finish that's even longer. But wow, is it showing a lot of structure. Like you're drinking a young red. Really tough to read. Give this wine at least 5 years in the cellar before touching it. As it ages, my score here may prove too conservative.

***1997 Meursault Goutte D'Or 1er Cru. Much fruitier aromas than any of the above, but the minerals are here as well. Sweet pears and cream when you sip it -- with a long, flinty finish. This wine has the most of everything! A brilliantly complete Meursault. WINE OF THE FLIGHT.

***- 1997 Meursault Perrières 1er Cru. Strong mineral aromas. Wonderfully thick, even oily on the palate. The flavors are all minerals and steel. Big wine, and if focused minerals are your thing, you may prefer it to the Goutte D'Or. But I think Bernard Hervé nails it when he calls this "the Puligny of Meursault...the Meursault to drink if you don't like Meursault." Personally, I like Meursault, so this finishes a close second.

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