Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Exploring Burgundy: Viré-Clessé

My thanks go out to Neil, aka Brooklynguy, who’s serving as the generous host for this month’s edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday (WBW #39), which is focusing on what he’s called Silver Burgundy: the wines of the Mâconnais and Côte Chalonnaise. He’s also given me the perfect impetus to create a new installment in my continuing series on Exploring Burgundy. So, without further ado….

The villages of Viré and Clessé are situated at about the mid-point between Mâcon – the capital of the Mâconnais district of Burgundy – to the south and the town of Chardonnay to the north. Though wine villages such as Lugny do lie further north, Viré-Clessé is the northernmost of the top-level AOCs within the Mâconnais. Its soils are marly, with high limestone content and a granite-rich base.

Viré-Clessé is a relatively new appellation to Burgundy, created in November 1997 and applying to wines as of the 1998 vintage. This new AOC serves as both a combination and elevation of the Mâcon-Villages level AOCs of Mâcon-Viré and Mâcon-Clessé in recognition of the superior quality potential emanating from the zone.

As should be expected within the hierarchy of the French appellation system, the newly established requirements for Viré-Clessé are more stringent than for the previous zones and for the other “lesser” areas of the Mâcon. Yields are limited to a maximum of 55 hl/ha, whereas Mâcon-Villages guidelines allow up to 70 hl/ha. Residual sugar levels are capped at three grams per liter, thus eliminating the possibility of off-dry or late harvest versions of Chardonnay – the only vine allowed in this white wine-only appellation – being accorded AOC status.

Any short list of the best producers in Viré-Clessé must perforce include Domaine André Bonhomme. Though today considered an iconoclast (in the most positive sense), Monsieur Bonhomme was initially considered mad when, in 1957, he decided to step away from contract relationships with the négociants who dominated the Mâconnais wine scene to begin estate bottling his own wines. It was largely upon his work, which included low yields, intensively hands-on farming and fastidious wine making, that the guidelines for the AOC Viré-Clessé were based.

Today, as it was 50 years ago, André farms 10 hectares (about 25 acres) of vineyards and produces small quantities of some of the most elegant wines of the region. In most vintages he produces four wines, including a Mâcon-Villages plus three different cuvées of Viré-Clessé: a Viré-Clessé “normale,” Cuvée Spéciale, and Cuvée Vieilles Vignes.

I’ve been drinking Bonhomme’s wines without missing a year since the early 1990’s, back when they were still labeled as Mâcon-Viré. So, even though WBW often presents the opportunity to try something new, I thought I’d play to my strength for this episode. To keep things interesting, I also decided to tap my cellar rather than the current retail offerings, choosing two cuvées from the 2002 vintage.

Viré-Clessé, Domaine André Bonhomme 2002
The base Viré-Clessé of Domaine Bonhomme is vinified and aged primarily in steel, with about one-third of the wine seeing time in older barrel. At five years of age, the 2002 is eye-openingly good. It shows a bright, penetrating yellow in the glass and is still quite young in both appearance and aroma. Palate sensations are of peach skin, pear butter, clover honey, bitter orange marmalade and green figs. The wine overcomes some issues shown in other white Burgundies of the same vintage, exhibiting not the slightest hint of oxidation. The oak, barely discernible, is perfectly integrated, lending just a subtle tannic bite. Generous fruit and texture, along with vinous extract and gripping acidity, point to a long future.

On day two, the wine gives an immediate sensation of mint and beeswax. Golden apple tones have developed, persisting on the finish along with a hint of marzipan. It still shows brilliantly, with elegantly integrated acidity and good length. If I’d tasted this blind, I might have been fooled for a Chenin from Côteaux du Layon, albeit dry.

$18 on release. 13.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Viré-Clessé “Vieilles Vignes,” Domaine André Bonhomme 2002
Bonhomme’s cuvée VV comes from the oldest vines – 40 years plus – of the estate and is fully barrel aged, including a small percentage of new barriques. The only way for a shopper to differentiate the two bottlings, occasional gold medal aside, is via the "Vieilles Vignes" designation printed, along with the vintage, only on the neck label of the bottle. Tasting the wine non-blind and after the regular cuvée, it’s difficult not to think of it in relative terms. It displays a richer tone of gold in the glass, though still with the bright hues of youth. The aromas are less forthcoming yet darker and more brooding than with the normale. Peach driven fruit remains the letter of the day, yet there’s a darker core of apricot nectar here, along with a richer, rounder mouthfeel. Attractive vegetal hints play against a dark honeyed tone. The oak, though a touch less transparent, is just as well integrated as in the regular cuvée.

On day two, this morphed into a softer, rounder texture that might have fooled many a taster for a commune level Meursault. The vegetal tones dissipated, showing richer pear fruit and a silky, lightly buttery feel. Though also escaping any oxidative hints, this does seem to be more advanced than the regular Viré-Clessé, a surprise given the vine age but perhaps just a reflection of its less reductive, more barrel intensive wine making regime. I’d love to taste both wines again in five more years. But regrettably, this was my last bottle of the Vieilles Vignes. C’est tout! But it was a worthy cause.

$26 on release. 13.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Other "Silver Burgundy" posts:

6 comments:

TWG said...

I have a bottle of the 2001 VV from Bonhomme that I haven't opened. Any food natching recommendations? Should I save some for the next day?

RougeAndBlanc said...

David,
Thanks for your sharing of the Viré-Clessé “Vieilles Vignes,” Domaine André Bonhomme.
Question: Would you say this producer produces consistent wine in most vintages? Or the 2002 is exceptional.
I see the 2004 vintage available in NYC for $31. Is that a reasonable QPR value?
Andrew

Brooklynguy said...

thanks for participating David - as always, an informative and easy to read post - exactly what i want to be reading if I'm going to read about wine. and sounds like an amazing producer making wines at a good price point. I have to try these wines. thanks again for particiapting-neil

David McDuff said...

TWG,
Thanks for stopping by. The wine should be a treat so I'd keep the food simple. Roasting a chicken or filet of salmon would be a good choice. Use butter rather than olive oil and keep the sides savory but mild; think potatoes, string beans, etc. Finally, I'd season simply with salt, pepper and fresh herbs such as thyme and tarragon. Saving some wine for day two wouldn't be a bad idea as I always find it interesting to see how things change. It's still young enough that you shouldn't have to worry about it falling apart overnight.

R and B,
You're welcome. The only vintage in the last 10 years that I wouldn't wholeheartedly recommend was 2003. Bonhomme's wines are very consistent, both the regular cuvee and the VV. I do think the QPR is strong.

Neil,
It was a pleasure to participate, just as it was a pleasure to have a good reason to pop a couple of corks. Thanks again for hosting.

Eddie H. said...

David, it was wonderful to read a well-respected bloggers take on the same wine I tasted for WBW #39 (albeit a different vintage-- I tasted the 2004). I really enjoy your tasting notes because they explain everything I want to know about a wine very concisely. Great work!

David McDuff said...

Thanks for the kind words, Eddie. I was glad to see you enjoyed Bonhomme's Viré-Clessé as well.

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