Back IN REVIEW: Burghound Symposium Richebourg Dinner, with Allen Meadows
Published on 17 April, 2015
Allen Meadows took the subject of Richebourg as an opportunity to reflect more widely on what makes Burgundy so great. While it is true that top sites have been known for a long time, he argued, it is the refinements over many centuries that has extracted the level of greatness we see today. This he described as the ‘human response’ component of terroir: the moving of stones from here to there, the building of walls to provide shelter and heat sinks, the selection of the best plants over many generations, fine-tuning the relationship between vine and soil. Pinot Noir can be planted on virgin soil of great potential in other parts of the world, but it takes time to gain these refinements. Through the generations of growers there is an “accumulation of wisdom”.
To really understand an individual terroir – like Richebourg – he argued, one must look at multiple growers and multiple vintages. Allen gave a musical analogy. The vineyard is like a musical composition – the notes are written, but they are then played. They are interpreted by the hand of the conductor or musician. “Take those four famous notes in Beethoven’s 5th. Even there there is debate about how to play them.” Richebourg, by analogy therefore, can smell and taste different depending on the domaine, as each has their own interpretation.
But there is sufficient consistency in Richebourg to talk about a personality overall… or perhaps two personalities. Allen spent some time discussing the political element in the creation in 1936 of the Richebourg “AOC” (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée). The Richebourg grand cru AOC combines two ‘lieu dits’: ‘Les Richebourgs’ (the main, square portion to the south, with La Romanée, and La Romanée-Conti to its south; Les Petits Monts and Cros Parantoux to its west, and Romanée-St-Vivant to its east), and ‘Les Veroilles ou Richebourgs’, to the north of Les Richebourgs (with Les Barreux to its west, Aux Brûlées to its north, and Les Suchots to its east). Before 1936 this lieu dit was called Les Veroilles sous Richebourgs (Les Veroilles under Richebourgs), but, in what Allen called “the use of an eraser on two letters”, Etienne Camuzet, administrator and owner, had this changed to Les Veroilles ou Richebourgs (literally Les Veroilles or Richebourgs), subtley increasing the status of the Veroilles portion to equal that of Richebourg ‘proper’.
Does that matter at all? The key difference with Veroilles, Allen explained, is that it sits on a combe, or vale, that funnels in cool air. This can affect ripening – Veroilles often trailing in ripening development 4, 5, even 10 days later than Les Richebourgs. In practice this can mean a wine of less richness and greater acidity. It might also mean higher risk of a weather event forcing harvest too soon, or actual damage. In practice of course that depends on the vintage – in certain years this might be an advantage to Veroilles. Secondly, Veroilles has more thin soil, being higher up overall, while Les Richebourgs has more thick soil, being further down, which might imply more richness again to Les Richebourgs.
How does that play out in terms of owners? DRC, the largest owner, has parcels in both terroir, but the other owners have their parcels mostly, or wholly, in one or the other. The owners in Veroilles are (west to east), Albert Bichot, Méo-Camuzet (with a tiny piece in Les Richebourgs), Gros Frères et Soeur, A.-F. Gros, Anne Gros, Leroy (though Leroy also has a small sliver in Les Richebourg). The growers in Les Richebourg are (south to north), Thibault Liger-Belair, Hudelot-Noellat, Jean Grivot, and Mongeard-Mugneret.
All this to say that the difference between the two pieces might help to explain something of the style of the various domaines, and Allen suggested we bear that in mind. It is, at least, something to understand about Richebourg.
That stated, my impression, at this dinner at least, was that the signature stamp of the various domaines, and the characteristics of each vintage, had more impact on the actual wine in the glass, than anything I was able to distinguish from a domaine’s plot location within Richebourg. But it is something I have now tucked away in my mind to consider, and it seemed worth repeating here.
Allen’s next point was that Richebourg needs long ageing. It is vintage-dependent (2011 and 2007 being recent examples that will show much earlier than usual, and vintages like 2005 and 1999 much later), but around 20-25 years is desirable and 15 is the minimum to really see the full quality of Richebourg in Allen’s opinion. Too much is drunk too soon, and therefore not so well understood. Based on potential realized – that is to say, drinking it when it is really ready – Allen rates Richebourg one of the very top appellations of Burgundy – even amongst the grands crus.
The final introductory point had to do with the relationship between quality, ownership, and the effect this can have on the reputation of a vineyard in a practical way. By way of illustration, he pointed to the Gevrey grand cru Griotte-Chambertin. Everyone who makes wine in that appellation makes very high quality wine. This wasn’t always true, but as a consequence, the reputation of Griotte has risen in recent years. All of the owners of Richebourg, Allen suggested, make very good wine. The second quality point, is that all the holders (with the exception of Albert Bichot) have sufficiently large holdings – at least four barrels worth in a normal year – to even out the fermentations and élévage (tending to and ‘raising’ barrels in the winery).
And the wines?
We covered a good range of growers (some of which were made by the previous generation – and therefore domaine name – to the current one) and vintages, spanning several decades. Mostly, here were very very good wines, with one or two that were truly exceptional. There’s no doubt that Richebourg can hit the heights. At the same time, only one wine here nudged into that category where the wine becomes something sort of ‘transcendental’. Perhaps my expectations are just too high. 16 wines is too small a sample of course, and I have had, in the past, Richebourg that had me in raptures (’42 DRC for example). Tonight wasn’t that night, even if it did show the solid base above which the appellation sits.
The wine that has remained on my mind most is the 1980 from Hudelot-Noellat – truly ethereal and fine. After that, perhaps the 1995 from Méo-Camuzet, for the way it exceeded my expectations. ’95 is not a vintage I’m fond of, but there was one of the my favourite wines of the dinner. The ’93 from Anne Gros was also compelling for its power and scent – its best years still in front of it. Two further wines deserve special mention – the 1979 from Drouhin. This was a difficult year in Vosne, with haul-reduced yields, but this wine showed true grace and elegance in a way that Drouhin do best. And secondly, the 1986 from Méo, made, according to Allen, by Henri Jayer, it showed how a great terroir and a great vigneron can combine to produce something very good in a very average to poor year.
One final point before getting on to the wines – it has always been my feeling that wine dinners at Amuse Bouche combine all that is important for dinners like these – great food, great service, and highly professional wine handling. Tonight was no exception. This is the place to take your best bottles, or order from their very reasonable and well selected wine list. Just saying.
The first flight was from 2007, a precocious vintage. I often look out for this Burgundy vintage across the board when ordering off restaurant lists. It might be ‘inferior’ to vintages like 2005, 2009 and 2010, but it will give you more pleasure today.
Forward, fragrant, bright and very aromatic, raspberry fruit; elegant, refined red fruit Richebourg, bright, lively, lovely texture, great underlying minerality, light fine tannin. Approachable and delicious. Will age well as a delicate refined Richebourg.
Bright light ruby; low key aromatics compared to Thibault’s, lovely florals, touch of spice – oak more to the fore now; fine on the palate, slightly darker fruit, real depth of fruit, a sense of fantail aromatics emerging on the finish. Needs more time than Thibault’s to show its potential.
1999 Richebourg, Domaine Anne Gros (LW 93+)
Fine appearance, some depth of colour still; dark fruit – lovely nose, cherry scent; intensed, focused and concentrated fruit, tannin, extract, but it remains the right side of transparent, fine, flowing dark fruit. This is promising, but has ‘99’s typical reserve. Needs several more years.
1993 Richebourg, Domaine Anne et François Gros (Anne Gros) (LW 95)
Clear, deep colour; complex aromas that take a little coaxing to come out – earthy, rich, spicy, floral notes – quite nuanced and enthralling – a great nose; gorgeous on the palate, very scented, floral – roses, plenty of density and extract here – the thick-skinned ’93 character is clear to see here, but this is also very fine and beautifully composed. Exceptional. Starting to drink very well, at the early end of its drinking window.
It is probably worth noting, without putting a full tread mark on the minefield of fully understanding the Gros family, that Domaine Anne et François Gros, created in 1988, was a father and daughter team that became Domaine Anne Gros from 1995. It is not to be confused (though often is) with Anne-Françoise Gros’ (note the “e”) estate, which is labeled Domaine A.F. Gros. That’s her cousin’s estate. It all got complicated in the 1950s, with a prodigious output of Gros family offspring. Blame Napoléon. I do. Have a look at this – it is very useful when confronted with a Gros family label - http://www.anne-gros.com/en/genealogy.html
1991 Richebourg, Domaine Jean Gros(LW 94)
Dark fruit here – plum, cherry, spice and a touch of earth; this is delicious, great dimension, fruit, and sous bois complexity. Sweet and savoury elements so well balanced, it is morish. Drinking well, no rush.
1988 Richebourg, Domaine Jean Grivot (LW 88)
Bright fresh appearance; candied fruit on the nose, a touch simple and sweet; candied cherry, clear, charming, but frankly, what a disappointment for ‘Richebourg’. I would be content at village level – just. Aromas and flavours are too simple and too sweet. Lacks length.
P.S. I gave 88 points, but relative to the appellation and vintage, a let down.
1991 Richebourg, Domaine Leroy (LW 93)
Fine colour; spicy, oaky nose, a touch high-toned; delicious, unctuous, concentrated, bright fruit, melting and layered texture with very fine grippy tannin, a little oolong tea and earth in the tannins on the finish. Great flavor and length. Once ‘acclimatised’ within the wine, it is delicious and very interesting, but tasting it side by side with others, the oak is clearly a bit over the top. There is no denying the immense quality of the fruit however.
1988 Richebourg, Domaine Leroy (LW 94)
Bright, fine-hued and clear; quite earthy, spicy nose; lovely brightness and freshness, very pure-fruited, refined, with a silky texture, a somewhat obtrusive oak buffer on the finish brings it all back down to the terrestrial world, bright red fruit / morello cherry at the end. Delicious.
1996 Richebourg, DRC (LW 93)
Mid depth of colour, quite transparent; lovely aroma, very forthcoming, open and fragrant, spicy, sweet and quite distinctly stemmy; fine on the palate, fresh acidity, really sous bois and stems on the palate – an inner mouth fragrance of wet bark. There is supple sweet fruit here too, bright and lively expression, the stems seeming to cut the finish a little too dry on the finish, but the beguiling fragrance comes back in the aftertaste. Very lovely, if not fully authoritive DRC Richebourg. Drinking well now.
1990 Richebourg, DRC (LW 94)
Fine, very clear, bricked tone, glinting appearance; rich and spicy nose, quite savoury, ripe and sous bois, with a hint of potpourri coming through; very intense - ‘small berry’ intensity, lovely combination of concentration and flow on the palate, perfumed, very scented mid-palate, sweet, unctuous texture, effortless, ample texture and ripe flavor. A little oolong tea in the finish. Delicious, and widely popular amongst the guests at this dinner. .
1995 Richebourg, Domaine Méo-Camuzet (LW 95)
Slightly muddy appearance, but sound colour; fine, spicy, low key nose initially, with a touch of leather; concentrated on the palate, spicy, sous bois, candied fruit, quite floral, very refined, silky, layered, with a long finish. The more I tasted and went back to this wine the more I preferred it. Understated, but very complex and fine. Superb. (I liked this a bit more than the consensus view).
1986 Richebourg, Domaine Méo-Camuzet (LW 90)
Mature clear garnet appearance; mature, sweet, attractive nose, touch of almond, earth, sous bois and red fruit; bright juicy red fruit on the palate, crystalline in expression, then quite earthy on the finish. Some complexity, but modest overall. Very well made. A touch of oxidation creeping into the finish. Fairly remarkable for ’86.
1979 Richebourg, Joseph Drouhin (LW 93)
Mature garnet, bricked, with an amber rim – a healthy slightly weak appearance; fine nose, meaty, fragrant, tea notes, lovely, very red fruit with a touch of florals; so elegant and filigree-fine on the palate, a ‘small’ Richebourg that lacks slightly on the finish, fairly slender in style, no fat, but this is so refined, pure and elegant, and it is a complete delight.
Still some depth of colour, garnet, bricked rim, sweet, earthy, spicy, a touch of ‘mulch’ earth and candy; plush, sweet-fruited, bittersweet fruit on the finish, bright with a silky texture. Still very good fruit vivacity and energy. No rush. Attractive fruit but not entirely singular and pure in its expression. Good, but one might be entitled to expect more from Richebourg and 1978.
1980 Richebourg, Domaine Hudelot-Noellat (LW 96)
Brilliantly clear, pale, faded brick; fragrant, ‘toasty’ bottle age aromas, grilled nut, red fruit, sous bois – a combination and expression so attractive it immediately made my mouth water the instant it put my nose into the glass; silky, elegant, pure, refined, mature, with real freshness, a longjin tea note in the fine silky tannin. Superb. The kind of Burgundy we all go chasing but as often as not don’t find. The elusive super fine Richebourg drinking absolutely perfectly right now.
1966 Richebourg, Domaine Charles Noellat (LW 92)
This bottle was well stored, but wasn’t 100% settled at the restaurant despite a couple of days standing upright in their cellar – some super fine sediment in suspension. It slightly disturbed the nose and palate flavor and texture, but not enough to disguise a very fine, lovely old Richebourg. Sweet, earthy nose, a bit of ‘smelly sock’ of the sort you either accept and even like in old Burgundy (much like connoisseurship of gamey poultry, or runny cheeses – we homo sapiens can be a little weird), or the very same smell can put you off the whole thing. I like it. Lovely fruit sweetness still on the palate, enough plumpness to buffer the texture, citrus rind notes point to the age, candied raspberry and lots of socky sous bois decayed elements on the finish. Bright acidity pulls along the lovely lofty buoyant mouthfeel. Long finish. I imagine I would rate a fully settled bottle in the same condition higher. A pity, but still a real privilege to taste this, and very enjoyable nonetheless.
1955 Richebourg, Jacques Chartenay (LW 87)
We added this mystery magnum at the end, not knowing much about it. It was not part of the line up, but we threw it in to see what it was like. 1955 was actually a good vintage – not in the league of ’52, ’53 or ’59, but perhaps next in line.
Some density of colour, full garnet, bricked, with an amber edge; sweet, high-toned nose, a touch of almond/marzipan, sweet morello and plum fruit and ‘old wood’; sweet attack, real intensity of good fruit, candied notes, and very ample, bold style, with an unexpected level of alcohol and glycerin. Actually quite enjoyable as a wine, and reminded me of some very good bottles of Châteaneuf-du-Pape from the ‘50s. So… not exactly Richebourg, even if there may have been Richebourg in it. The pinot is there to see, but so too the Grenache, and whatever else found its way in. The cork was blackened and pasty and old, so whatever was concocted was likely done at the time, and the ‘sheeting’ style of stained sediment that coated all of the inside of the bottle is also consistent with very old powerful southern Rhône. A very decent wine in its own right, but not a true ‘Richebourg experience’. It is, however, not uncommon to find such concoctions – many were made and sold under such exalted appellation names in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
What to conclude? Well, you might feel, reading this, that I was a bit tough on the DRC and Leroy wines. These estates do, after all, have the leading reputations. They do, and they deserve them. In the long average they produce amongst the best wines in Burgundy – in two very different styles. So, I am not concerned that they were not my favourite wines this evening. I liked them well enough not to be concerned. Rather, my reflection on this event was just how much fun it is to search wide and long and keep an open mind. How else then might we discover how great wines like the ’80 from Hudelot-Noellat are? It was also a reminder of just what an amazing contribution the Gros family have made to the appellation over many generations. This dinner, like many before it, reinforced this view for me.