I have recently been asked if there is an “official French” answer to the “prem-ox” (premature oxidization) of old Burgundy whites that was at the centre of heated debates a couple of years ago. For those of you who are not familiar with this question, it was concerning certain consumers of old Burgundy whites that found the Chardonnays from the 1996, 97 & 98 vintages in particular where oxidized, when they should have been at their prime. Incidents have continued even in the vintages from 1999 to 2004.
This situation was deemed as unacceptable for those passionate about drinking old Burgundy whites. It is true that Burgundy wine makers such as Coche Dury, Lafon, Sauzet, Bonneau de Matray & Ramonet have made their reputations on their older as well as younger vintages. Yes Burgundy whites are supposed to be built to last…so what happened to these precious wines that surprised and angered many “connoisseurs”.
There are several reasons that have been forwarded. Batonnage of the whites has been commonplace and in particular during the years mentioned above. Batonnage is a technique where the lees of the Chardonnays are stirred in the barrel to “de-gas” the wine. Stirring stimulates the release of SO2 and CO2 and as such is considered an oxidative process. Certain wine makers practiced high Batonnage in the 1996 vintage which gave a high yield and clean fruit, with high acidity. Intensive Batonnage was done as a means of reducing both acidity and the levels of SO2 that would normally be used. This seems to be the main reason for premature oxidization as admitted by top wine makers such as Coche Dury and Boudot (Domaine Sauzet) who over-used Batonnage to avoid high use of SO2. These winemakers thought that the benefits from this technique would enrich the wines…time would prove the contrary. Even those who didn’t use this technique in 96 but in 1999 and 2002 (Ramonet and Bouchard) found themselves with the same oxidization problem.
This brings us to our next theory…corks! Yes, our Australian friends will no doubt be rubbing their hands and smiling. We do have a cork problem. Cork’s quality is inevitably deminishing. Because if high demand cork is often taken from younger trees too soon and often from the bottom of the tree. The quality of cork batches is difficult to control, the length of a cork has been reduced since the 1950’s and It’s true that you never get prem-ox from a screw-cap wine. More and more influential winemakers are turning to Diam or Guala corks for their entry wines. Some like Philippe Senard and Laurent Ponsot have gone one step further and are using them on their premium wines. So could this be a serious culprit for premox? More winemakers would admit to the under-use of SO2, which to me seems a more logical response. But apart from some technical mishaps, are we seeing a more permanent change in the style of white Burgundies? A natural evolution to consumer demands?
Let’s face it, only a knowledgable few, ardent collectors and passionate burgundy wine drinkers still relish the taste of a great 20 year-old white. New, emerging markets, notably from the BRIC countries and younger, newer consumers like the fresh, crisp & mineral taste of white wine. I’m not saying that these estates are now completely changing their wine-making process, but are gradually evolving to more early-drinking Chardonnays with a slighter shorter ageing potential. This doesn’t mean they don’t last, it’s just that they make peak at 12 years rather than 20.
Winemakers from Burgundy are human and learn from their mistakes like anyone, and the ones I mentioned above have iconic status in the winemaking world. If you are considered the best, the slightest error is paid in cash! But there is nothing earth-shattering in what has happened during that period and after all, the winemaker cannot predict how a wine will evolve after 15 years in a bottle. There were many more cases of premox in the USA which could be due to over exposure to adverse weather conditions when delivering the wine…again another factor to take into consideration. I have picked out several of these factors, which when combined give the results we witnessed above. No one factor is really to blame.
But that was then and we move on, so trust me, you still get the finest Chardonnays in the world from Burgundy…