To Berry Brothers and Rudd’s tasting of 2017 Burgundy wines at the Institute of Civil Engineers (I.C.E.), One Great George Street, London. Obviously not the purpose of the visit but I would be at fault if I didn’t mention the surroundings, which must be one of London’s little known gems. Designed by James Miller of Glasgow (who, as well as work at the Gleneagles and Turnberry Hotels, also designed interiors for the ill-fated Cunard liner Lusitania) in 1910 in monumental neo-classical style it is by no means overshadowed architecturally by the governmental buildings around it. Highlights include the Imperial staircase with glazed domes above and the huge Great Hall with giant ionic pilasters and a war-memorial painted ceiling of 1920 by Charles Sims. It features Victory draped in a Union Jack, a First World War bi-plane and, a laurel wreath. Very much of its time. While the building is still the HQ of the I.C.E. it is also available to hire, so if you are looking for a venue in central London to host a reception for 400 this could be the place.
It was the Great Hall that was the venue for Berry’s tasting. Without going into another lengthy historical digression, for those who don’t know, Berry Bros. were founded in 1698 and have supplied the Royal family since the reign of George II. Their premises at 3 St. James’s Street, London are worth a visit if you are showing visitors around old London, though their main retail outlet is now around the corner at 63 Pall Mall. Perhaps surprisingly, despite having bought some wine from them for about 8 years, your man hasn’t been to one of their tastings before. Previously he has bought much of his en primeur* needs from a company which was owned by two of his former colleagues, but is no longer, so he now feels at liberty to taste elsewhere.
He was very keen to taste the 2017 Burgundy vintage which has been much praised, particularly for its white wines. These tastings of young burgundies (in many cases not yet bottled) take place in what has become known as Burgundy Week at venues all over London, with the growers in attendance. It always amuses me that these producers often play the role of the French peasant farmer, wearing knitted woollen sweaters and jeans. These are the owners of some of the most expensive land on earth. A hectare of Grand Cru land costs between 2.75 and 14 million Euros. Their net worth must be far in excess of most of the people tasting and buying their wares, even at a Berry Brothers’ tasting. Mind you much of their land cannot easily be sold. We won’t go into the intricacies of French inheritance law.
To the wines. 177 wines were available from over 50 producers. Not for the faint hearted and spitting is de rigeur if one is to avoid an upset stomach from unfiltered cask samples, or inebriation – especially unwise if wanting to make good purchasing decisions. Among the whites Chablis, in the north of the region, was particularly impressive. There is a tendency to make this wine very lean and austere, eschewing any oak maturation in favour of stainless steel. Some growers, to my view take this too far. I enjoyed and purchased a wine from a grower new to me, Le Domaine d’Henri - until I found it was owned and run by Michel Laroche. Michel has stepped down from Maison Michel Laroche to found a smaller family domaine. It was from a part of the premier cru Fourchaume vineyard, always one of the richer crus, called L’Homme Mort. Not a cheerful name but a promising wine. Further south in the Cote D’Or the whites disappointed me a little overall –particularly when comparing them to the stunning minerality of the 2014s at the same stage. The 2017s I liked best included the Meursaults of Patrick Javillier, St.Aubins from Hubert Lamy, and Meursault producer Michel Bouzereau’s excellent value Bourgogne Cote D’Or blanc. Bourgogne Cote D’Or is a new appellation allowing producers to show that their “ordinary” Burgundies come entirely from grapes from the classic Cote D’Or and not from vineyards further south in, say, Macon.
With the red wines, on the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, they are on the lighter side and not for the longest maturation but that is no bad thing. Following the dense concentrated wines of 2015 and the very limited crop in 2016 here is a plentiful vintage of wines with lots of fruit, and true Burgundy character which reflect the very individual style of the wines of each appellation. Among the growers I particularly enjoyed wines from were three of the great Domaines: Jacques-Frederic Mugnier, Sylvain Cathiard and Jean Grivot. Forced to choose between the village Vosne Romanees of the latter two I plumped for Grivot’s lovely wine.
Back to the whites, further south there is much enjoyable and less expensive wine. One that impressed was a Pouilly Fuisse, Clos des Quarts, a joint venture by Dominique Lafon and Olivier Merlin from a 2.23 hectare walled vineyard in Chaintre with many old vines. My notes simply say “stunningly good”. Much to look forward to here.
*en primeur – the purchase of young wines still maturing in their producers’ cellars. The buyer pays for the wine up front and then for the duty and VAT when they take delivery. The wines are usually shipped to Britain two or three years after the vintage, but are often then stored in (hopefully) perfect conditions in a bonded warehouse until the buyer considers they are ready to drink. The hope is that the wines will work out cheaper this way than if bought later when mature. With some rarer wines this is the only way to acquire them at all.
(Please note I have left out the accents from all French names. This is to avoid a lot of work, rather than to insult our French friends.)