Two mega Grand Crus of Burgundy, Corton-Charlemagne and Clos Vougeot: Is quality unequivocal?

The Wine Samarie

Words: Samarie Smith, WSETDip

December 20, 2021

If you have a love affair with Burgundy, the opportunity to meander through two of its most sought-after Grand Crus in a tasting of the 2014 vintage is not one to pass by.

Cape Winemakers Guild member and Burgundy devotee, Kevin Grant from Ataraxia conducted a CWG technical tasting earlier this year featuring two mega grand crus of Burgundy – Corton-Charlemagne and Clos Vougeot. Apart from his well-researched overview of 43 619 hectares and their classifications, he produced weather data, production statistics, and topography to contextualise the tasting. And most fascinating, highlighting the three lateral soil bands straddling the slopes of the Corton Hillside. The tasting was a shining example of the calibre of technical tastings the CWG hosts for their members, staying abreast of international developments, benchmarking themselves against the best in the world and asking critical questions that will finetune their pursuit of excellence.

Grant captivated his audience with storytelling – starting with the first vineyards on the Corton hill recorded in 696 AD before dissecting the intrinsic value of classic Burgundies and discussing the relevance of the current classifications. And, of course, taking the time to talk about the people behind the brands.

Do we follow producers who are consistent in quality, or do we follow a place?” Grant asked in conclusion, but first, herewith the experience.

Premier Cru and Grand Cru Appellations produce among the most expensive wines in France, earmarked by consistent quality. However, it is no secret that vineyards have become a minefield of human intervention to stay on-trend. The line is crossed between being soil farmers, winemakers, and marketers, especially with younger generations joining the ranks of traditional Burgundians who have been custodians of the land for centuries. Global warming is weaving its pattern into the mix, threatening the ethereal qualities that make a Burgundy. As 2020 was one of the earliest vintages in history, it opened talks about introducing later ripening varietals.

Is it time to revisit the classifications? Suppose a region like Burgundy with a century-old classification system was brave enough to reclassify. In that case, their reputation might suffer, and there is no doubt that Burgundy’s most outstanding wines are built on reputation, increasingly yearned for by new luxury consumers lapping up what is quickly becoming a rarity. Unfortunately, the same trajectory has led to inflated pricing. Protecting its authenticity and maintaining its quintessence without resolving to alchemy and modernity is what should remain at the centre of Burgundy’s future.

Grant shared how he was exposed to everything authentic and noble about Burgundy, experiencing wines so sublime in their elegance it was hard to wrench himself away from it.

“I can say that a defining moment exists before and after visiting this place. It remains the spiritual home of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and retains some individuality thereof all over the world. What anchors my respect for Burgundy is that it has very little of that panache of Bordeaux with a quiet sense of confidence. It finds its expression not in grandeur but in the way of living. Producers find their self-worth in the soil, and they have remained these wonderful, bohemian aristocrats.”

Lead by lunar logistics

The Cape Winemakers Guild technical tasting took place at Hartenberg Estate and Grant, who went to great lengths in organising this Grand Cru affair, took the floor, explaining why it was vital to move the original date of this anticipated tasting.

“I believe in the discipline of the biodynamic calendar, and although not scientifically proven, I bear witness to defining tasting moments when it was clear that wines varied in expression at different times. Therefore, we moved the date from a root day to a fruit day.”

Kevin shared a story of an “excruciating tasting” where the wine was hardly recognisable, questioning what went wrong in transit as it was dull and lifeless. Lunch was equally unbearable.

“But when we tasted the wine after lunch, I nearly fell off my seat. Suddenly the wine was singing! When someone pulled out the lunar tasting calendar, it all made sense as it was clear as day that the first part of the day was a root day, and after lunch, it progressed into a fruit day.”

Johan Reyneke, a stalwart in the biodynamic school of thought and guest at the tasting, humbly backed him up and addressed a somewhat sceptic crowd.

“The exciting thing is that the calendar is seen as biodynamic, but it is not a prerequisite for an organic qualification or biodynamic methodology. For example, one can look at Maria Tun, an authority on biodynamics, who observed small yet significant changes in her garden. The cauliflowers she harvested varied from having solid to lose heads, purely depending on the times they were planted or harvested. And not only are the elements within the earth’s atmosphere influenced, but the sun also affects the moon.”

When wine buyers started to buy into the possibility of wine being affected by the moon phases, wine writer Dr. Jamie Goode researched the topic and published his book, Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking. The book concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove it and that a more significant theoretical basis was needed to test the theory. Yet, he found indisputable proof that the entire cosmos benefited from a mindful and sustainable approach to farming.

“It is therefore not a dogma or a place of science that moves me but an additional discipline to make things better and to apply these time-specific principles to sites and seasons,” Reyneke concluded.

To be reclassified or not, that is the question.

After breaking the lunar ice, Grant brought the attention back to the collection of stellar 2014 Burgundies at hand for an in-depth tasting that evoked various perceptions on two of the region’s grand crus.

The greatest challenge of this tasting was to source wines from the same vintage and used them to unravel some mysteries, illustrating that quality is not a given across all grand crus and premier cru appellations.

“I learned so much more in the process, and it deepened my respect for Burgundy.”

Burgundy’s authenticity is weaved through 65 x 2 km with vast differences shaping the landscape from Chablis in the north and moving south through the Côte de Or, Côte Chalonnais, Mâconnaise and Beaujolais. According to Grant, one of the glaring things about Burgundy is its emphasis on terroir and for wine enthusiasts to tap into the smallest units of terroir expression. With evident changes across 10 ha of vineyards, one comes across literature suggesting strong cases reclassifying these stretches of land. However, the big elephant in the room remains the questionable wines produced at some of these massive grand crus, adding to the ambivalence of whether one should follow a producer or place.

While we must celebrate progress, the art lies in how we implement it. “With a younger generation of Burgundians taking over, this parochial sense of place is now exposed to technocrats trained at top wine and science institutes that could threaten the expressions of site. One can only hope that the younger generations are mindful of their heritage.”

Of course, technology and accumulative knowledge can help us minimise faults, yet Grant believes we still need to embrace quirky wines. “These are wines that can romance you without always being technically correct but able to engage you and create a deeper conversation.

Wines from Corton Charlemagne that stood out projected a clear understanding of the site and clever winemaking, making the wine dance on your palate. It also translated in gravitas, structure, definition, and complexity. It is essential to understand is that as you go up the hill, the soils change from deeper alluvial to stones and quarts, aiding dramatic expressions. The closer to the top one should find excellent examples from the highly regarded Puligny-Montrachet but not necessarily a guarantee of quality. The point Grant tried to make is that quality should be unequivocal.

The backbone of the conversation is that a unique set of conditions can determine how a specific site is interpreted.

“There is a reason why people have followed Burgundian traditions and techniques, adamant to preserving everything there is. Burgundy’s concept of the earth is primal in expressing a specific site. Another factor is the quality of light, where a softer and more gentle light contributes to the ultimate quality of the wine.”

Understanding the soil and the combination of factors, one can see and taste that it is never precisely the same. However, without regurgitating terroir, the sub-narratives complete the picture and understanding its true essence stood the test of time.

List of wines tasted

Wine 1: R2695

Corton Charlemagne Bouchard Piere Fils 

The wine is tense and firm, with a structural minerality and vibrant acidity. Rich and decadent aromas of nectarine, kumquat, and grapefruit. A cool thyme note persists on the palate, adding a savoury edge. Impeccable balance of fruit and acidity with a chalky finish.

Wine 2: R4 950

Corton Charlemagne Domaine Pierre Yves Colin-Morey R4950

The wine has a medium intensity but a particular brightness and elegant bouquet of nartjie and orange blossom. This seeming dainty quality is juxtaposed with a sense of power as it unfolds on the palate – intense and commanding with persistent length. A salty, almost seashell character persists with hints of elderflower and nectarine.

Wine 3: R2800

Corton Charlemagne Méo-Camuzet

Intensely aromatic for a Chardonnay, the wine is rather intriguing. Riper in style with fleshy nectarine, white peach, and tropical aromas. A reductive note adds a smoky tone of charcuterie and gunflint. Beautifully balanced, an orange pith quality builds more texture into the wine, adding length and shape.

Wine 4: R2750

Corton Charlemagne Domaine de Montille

Elegantly poised and confident, its citrus and stone fruit medley trimmed with a warm cinnamon note. A salty trail follows through on the palate with vivid white florals, crushed hazelnut, and bay leaf, adding a savoury gloss. Persistent with a lean and pure finish.

Wine 5: R3 300

Corton Charlemagne Domaine Bonneau de Matray

This wine is the epitome of Corton Charlemagne with unwavering persistence. Reductive at first, this savoury pod unfolds with layered aromas of quince and Mineola, hemmed by forest floor nuances and a sweet lily perfume. The wine is complex, and its creaminess is balanced with a flinty, briny aftertaste and vivid lemongrass notes.

Wine 6: R8995

Chevallier-Montrachet ‘La Cabotte” Bouchard Pere & Fils

Initial aromas of slightly overripe character are gently tamed with a phenolic texture, adding freshness and shape. Rich aromas of kumquat, spice, ripe yellow plum, and a tangy fruit sweetness persists. The freshness of the wine sculpts the fruit, and it finishes with a vibrant, linear quality.

Wine 7: R 3076

Clos de Vougeot Domaine Jean Grivot

The wine shares the dark and spicy side of Pinot Noir. Very aromatic, delicate perfume of violet, rose, red liquorice, mulberry and raspberry persist. The wine is elegant and classic with lovely dimensions, contributing to its intensity and texture. Trailed with a welcoming saltiness and porcelain-like tannin, it maintains that lovely Burgundy austerity.


Wine 8: R3 056

Clos de Vougeot Domaine de Montille

More reserved with medium intensity, a floral-herbal note of tealeaf, thyme, and violets adds intense blueberry and black currant fruit. The tannin is gravelly and rustic, and the freshness adds to the medium-plus finish.


Wine 9: R3 300

Clos de Vougeot Domaine Jean-Marc Millot

An unexpectedly whimsical character with aromatics of ripe strawberry, Goji berry and cranberry. Quite a lovely wine with a medium-plus intensity and medium-plus length.


Wine 10: R2 995

Clos de Vougeot Bouchard Pere et Fils

Somewhat reserved at first, the wine warms up to share an intense display of violets, dark and red berry fruit. Its underlying minerality adds a linear quality with more savoury nuances of fresh earth and dried mixed herbs. Exceptionally smooth in nature, a tad short of freshness to add extra finesse and length.


Wine 11: R3300

Clos De Vougeot Meo-Camuzet

Rich with juicy plum and blueberry aromas, balanced with a salty, mineral grip. A bit on the drier side with a stalky, floral note on the aftertaste. Edgy and refreshing.


Wine 12: R3500

Chambolle-Musigny 1er cru Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue

Upfront aromas of pipe fruit pastilles, raspberry, and blueberry add authority to this wine with great concentration, texture, and persistence.

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