Nicolas Potel: A Liquid History Lesson

Last week we were blessed with a visit to our offices in London from Burgundian legend Nicolas Potel. Listening to Nicolas recant tales of drinking vintages back to 1865, you realise the wealth of experience he has – from growing up in the footsteps of his father at one of Burgundy’s great wine estates, Pousse d’Or, before branching out into countless projects of his own, sourcing and making wines from practically every appellation in the Cote d’Or and beyond. His network of contacts; his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Burgundy wines; his experience of continuously tasting vintages going through the many eras of production – these all provide a profound insight into the history of the region. His understanding of how and why the wines have changed during different periods of time – post-war, pre-war, the era of high herbicide usage, the climatic shift in the region post ’88 (a time where there was significant climatic change in the region with the hotter ’89 vintage) – provides a fantastic overview on this mecca of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay production. Nicolas’ experience and continuous activity in the region make him one of the oracles of Burgundy and to taste wines with him going back to 1966 was a privilege and a true education in the ageing potential of both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; a history lesson in liquid form!

 

The Ageing Potential of Burgundy

A key point Nicolas talked about when we tasted a range of Corton “Renardes” Grand Cru Pinot Noir going back to 1985 and a range of village Meursault going back to 1966 was that both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay age fairly quickly initially (compared to Bordeaux varietals for instance). Taking on tertiary characters from about 10 years of age, once they have gone through this development however the wines tend to remain remarkably stable in the bottle. This is quite extraordinary when you are tasting village white wines that are over 50 years old and the freshness and acidity allied with tertiary developed nutty flavours, but also citrus fruit and praline flavours, is quite incredible.

Another fascinating aspect he mentioned when tasting the wines was that these wines change in the glass as they react with oxygen. These wines go on a journey in the bottle and as you drink them over a number of hours. This fits in with the slightly schizophrenic personality of Burgundy wines they can be nervy, austere, closed one day, yet completely open, expressive and full of finesse on another. Nicolas loves to open lots of different vintages with friends, pouring them all at the beginning of the evening. When you keep returning back to each wine throughout the evening he believes you see these wines have many faces. Compared to mature Bordeaux, which shares the same tremendous ageing potential, the flavour profile once open won’t really change over the evening. It is more consistent, which definitely has its advantages, but with aged Burgundies the wine will take you on a journey.

 

The Art of Élevage

Nicolas also expressed his thoughts about how these aged Burgundies manage to retain their structure, freshness and drinkability over such long periods. In short, these wines have seen a very long élevage process. The wine is aged in 100% oak barrels for 24 months before being racked to tank. They then spend another 6-9 months in tank before bottling – an élevage process that is almost 2 years longer than what is normal practice in Burgundy today. This long contact with the micro-porous oak barrel, as well as a high use of SO2 throughout the winemaking process, makes the wine incredibly resistant to oxidation and therefore stable when finally bottled. These days more modern Burgundy wines tend to spend 1 year in barrel and 1 year in tank which makes the wines both approachable in youth but with good ageing potential – although not to the same degree of these more traditional styles. Many producers no longer produce wines in this way for fear of losing customers who want to drink the wines in their youth, as they can be relatively austere in their first 10 years of life.

 

The Ambience du Cave

Barrel and tank are not the only factors when it comes to élevage. The “Ambience du Cave” plays another vital role in how a wine develops. As Nicolas says, if you took a barrel of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and aged it somewhere else, it would no longer be Romanee-Conti. The style and flavor profile of the wine relies on the effects of the cellar during élevage: the yeasts, the bacteria, the temperature, the atmospheric pressure – all of these things have a huge influence.

There is still a band of traditional winemakers producing wines built for the long haul. Comte Lafon, Roulot and Coche Drury are all using long élevage times to create wines with tremendous ageing potential. Nicolas has been sourcing the wines from the Bellenum Collection (which we were lucky enough to taste) from the same producer for the last 20 vintages in a row. He says the consistency of this producer is extraordinary. They have incredibly cool cellars, combined with an ultra-traditional élevage process, which makes for some of the longest lasting white Burgundies around. Tasting the 1966 village Meursault you have to pinch yourself that this is a basic village wine at 53 years of age. It is incredibly fresh, pure and pristine. Despite the rounded glycerol development and ancient lemon oil flavours, there is also hazelnut and primary yellow apple fruit flavours – it’s hard to believe!

These wines are of a time that cannot be replicated. Nicolas talks about how these wines were made before irreversible changes happened in and to the region. A time when the region was cooler; a time prior to the era of clonal selection – in which many producers started to graft clones that produced higher yields and more dilute fruit; prior to the introduction of high level use of herbicides. It was before the trend of acidification in the 80s, and it was a time where there was less pollution in the atmosphere. Together these elements combine to create a unique representation of a period in history. The fact that one can open up these bottles and taste wine made in another era is a truly insightful journey through the past.

 

Look out for an opportunity to taste these ancient wines for yourself in an offer to be released in the coming weeks…