Burgundy's Overwhelming Complexity

From the title of this article you may think this is a piece about the amazing depth of flavor present in many of Burgundy's finest wines.  It is not.  This post is the result of my feelings after another week in which I drank one absolutely stunning bottle of pinot noir from the Marsannay, only to follow it up with massive disappointment from a premier cru Beaune.  Regarding the second wine, however, the blame is entirely on me.  I simply don't know enough about what I am opening and it's this complex level of knowledge needed to understand great Burgundy that I am referencing in the above title.  Because both the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune are broken up into a vast landscape of tiny vineyard sites, each with its own microclimate and terroir, truly knowing the wines of Burgundy requires years of tasting, experience, and patience.  Unlike Bordeaux, where one can memorize the various chateaux and their particular house style (much like single malt distilleries), Burgundy can be single vineyard, single commune, or a blend of many different wines (much like independent bottles of single malt).

With so many different owners and producers making wine in Burgundy, there has always been work for those with specialized knowledge of the terrain. One also needs to be familiar with the winemaking practices of each producer.  Two wines may come from the same vintage, region, and vineyard site, however, one may ferment with stems and create a tannic, earthy wine, while another chooses to destem and make a more light-bodied style.  Unlike California, where a winery like Ridge owns the entirety of the famed Monte Bello vineyard, Burgundy vineyards are usually divided up into parcels with as many as 85 different owners presiding over different rows of vines! How do you know who owns which plots and which plots make the best wines?!

For this reason, up until the 1980s, Burgundy was primarily run by brokers and négociants rather than domaine-bottled estates. To put it into whisky terms, think more indy bottlings and blended brands, rather than actual distillery bottlings.  After the French Revolution, the formerly church-owned vineyards were seized and divided up, only to be further fragmented by inheritance laws.  The négociants would buy the grapes or even the wines from many of these small owners and bottle them under their own name.  If they bought lots from a single vineyard, the wine could be bottled as such, must like A.D. Rattray can bottle a single barrel of Highland Park, or blend it with other whiskies to create a blend.  Therefore, the names of Nicolas Potel, Louis Jadot and Drouhin adorne many of the bottles you'll see in the Burgundy section, rather than the names of actual wineries like you'd see in the California department.

What has changed in Burgundy, however, is that many of these small owners are now deciding to bottle their own wine rather than sell it off to the négociants.  Faced with a shortage of available wine to purchase, the négociants needed to purchase their own vineyards to ensure supply.  The exact same phenomenon is happening right now in Scotland, with Signatory buying Edradour, Gordon & MacPhail buying Benromach, and Chieftain's buying Glengoyne. WhenI look at a wine from Burgundian négociant now, I'm not sure if they made the wine or if they bought it from someone else.  Whose winemaking style am I purchasing?  It’s like buying a bottle of Mortlach and not knowing if it’s been sherry-aged or not.  On top of all this information, one still needs to be aware of vintage, weather, and the nuance of each particular locale.  It's enough to make your head explode, which is why many people are intimidated by Burgundy to begin with.

Last night I opened a bottle of 2005 Nicolas Potel Beaune 1er Cru Les Bressandes.  Here's what I knew going in: Potel is a reputable négociant with a penchant for quality Bourgogne, 2005 was perhaps the best vintage of the decade for Burgundy, this bottle had about six years of bottle age, and all the fruit was from a premier cru vineyard.  I didn't know much about the Les Bressandes vineyard itself, but the Beaune appellation usually produces lighter, cherry-filled pinot noirs that I typcially enjoy.  That led me to believe that this would be a fantastic pairing for my salmon fillet.  We decanted the bottle for over an hour and enjoyed a cocktail before we finally sat down to dine.  I took a sip of the wine – it was just not there.  The palate was too earthy, the fruit was buried under the acidity, and, more importantly, it was definitely not the wine for this meal.  My real frustration, however, besides the fact that I no longer had any wine to drink, was that I wasn’t sure if I had opened the bottle too soon, not decanted it long enough, or if this was actually how the wine was supposed to taste.

The amount of work required to enjoy good Burgundy can be infinite, but it’s exactly that challenge that excites me and many other wine enthusiasts.  I've long heard of Burgundy chasers, the guys who had that one great bottle and spend the rest of their lives trying to find that same high again, and I can empathize to a certain extent.  Great bottles of Burgundy are enough to make one revel in splendor.  To me, it’s worth wading through the sea of disappointments, especially if the experience gained through drinking them helps to avoid future let-downs.  Even with the experience I accrue working in a fantastic wine store, I still don't know enough about these wines to dodge the occasional bullet.  There's simply an overwhelming amount of information to absorb and I wish I had more time to take it all in.  There's a reason why people earn their livelihood in the Burgundy trade - it's a specialized skill that most people don't have the time to master and therefore are willing to pay for.

-David Driscoll


Murray's Back

Remember these guys?  The brain child of Bruichladdich's Jim McEwan, these lovely, wine cask-enhanced single malts are back for the new year.  I just retasted these yesterday and got some fantastic new pricing on a couple of new selections as well.  The following bottles should be available by later this afternoon.

1999 Bowmore 11 Year Old Yquem Cask Single Malt Whisky $59.99 - Bowmore always seems to marry well with whatever Jim McEwan uses for a cask (maybe because he was the distiller there for decades and he understands these whiskies better). Chewy raisins with smoke, then peaches with marzipan, tasty sweet wood on the finish but it never gets too sweet. Very well made and quite different than the last Yquem aged version.

2002 Bowmore 8 Year Old Latour Cask Single Malt Whisky $49.99 - This is quite an oddball in the line up of 2011 releases from Murray McDavid. The whisky has quite a spicy entry and is very dry, almost like sandlewood, all the way across the tongue. Some bitter fruits lead into a big smoky finish with bright red cherries lingering at the end. Amazingly different from the way it begins - a monsterously intense entry leads into a juice box finish! If you ever felt like single malts were getting too boring, this is the type of malt you need to be drinking.

1999 Laphroaig 11 Year Old Lafite Cask Single Malt Whisky $69.99 - Getting something new and interesting from Laphroaig is always exciting, but this Bordeaux-enhanced expression is actually quite restrained.  The lively peat and smoke the distillery is known for is more than present, but it's tempered by the wine.  The fruit and the earth from the wine come into play on the mid-palate and the finish turns savory and chewy.  A truly wonderful whisky and a great addition to the Laphroaig canon. 

1997 Bunnahabhain 13 Year Old Port Finish Single Malt Whisky $65.99 - A lovely burst of phenolic goodness on the entry leads into a surprisingly balanced palate of red fruit and maritime flavors. This Bunnahabhain never really strays too far to the Islay side, nor does it really get rich from the port. The balance stays right in the middle at all times as the finish displays stewed cherries and an oily, resiny hint of earth. Complex and difficult to pin down if you're trying to take tasting notes!

-David Driscoll


Back to Everyday Tasting

Remember when we used to be spirits buyers?  Back before the holiday rush began?  We used to taste new exciting products with vendors and write about them here on this blog.  Well, now that we're finally over the holiday hump, we can go back to doing what we do best - taste booze, sell booze.  Yesterday I met up with my man Todd Smith from Pacific Edge and here are some of the exciting new products I have on order for delivery next week.  First, as you can see in the above picture, our friends at A.D. Rattray have listened to consumers and decided to bottle some of their private casks in half bottles (375ml).  Not everyone wants a whole bottle of cask strength single malt, especially when they're experimenting.  There's a Highland Park 16 which has loads of smoke and drips with oily fruits, an 11 year old Cooley that has the white wine flavors of the Slieve Foy 8, but at cask strength, and a few other choices that come in at the $50-ish and under range.

Over in Colorado, the Leopolds are at it again - this time with a fantastic new Fernet Amaro.  This thing is loaded with spearmint and packs a lovely bitter finish.  I'm excited to see what the Bay Area thinks of this, seeing that we drink more Fernet Branca here than practically the whole of Italy.

 Laird's distillery finally has their older expressions for sale in California!  That means, on top of the Bottled in Bond applejack, we've also got the 7 year and the 12 year!  These are fantastic deals for the price.  Cocktail fans should be rejoicing.

 Eric Seed at Haus Alpenz (Dolin Vermouth, Batavia Arrack, Smith & Cross, etc) has finally finished this wonderfully bizarre concoction.  Rum based, but with a smattering of cocoa, leather, and fruit.  Very unique and maybe something to be enjoyed on the rocks? 

These new Bittermens liqueurs REALLY have me excited.  They should all come in around $25 for a half bottle and bring the Amaro category to new heights.  Imagine five new Camparis, all with different flavors!  That's what we've got here.  Bitter grapefruit, gentian root with chamomile, and even a cordial to be added with soda water that turns it into tonic!  I can't wait to get these home and start mixing. 

Look for all of this around Thursday of next week.

-David Driscoll


Brora & Clynelish Casks On The Water

Happy New Year!

What an incredible year we’ve had together!  Truly a whirlwind year here at K&L (the biggest ever for K&L’s Spirits Department) and we have all of you to thank for our making it so special.  While we count 2011 as a major success, we’re committed to making 2012 even better.  To get the year started right, David and I have been working non-stop to bring you something totally unique and incredibly special.  We’ve been talking about our BIG announcement for quite a while and so here it is.  Our good nature and irresistible charm have leant us an opportunity that would have, perhaps, never arose had we not been to Scotland in the Spring of 2011.  This opportunity has now become your good fortune as you’ll be the first (and perhaps only) people to acquire our single barrel version of one of the world’s rarest and most sought-after single malts.  From 1969 until 1983, the Old Clynelish Distillery (briefly called Clynelish "B" before the name was changed to Brora) produced some of the finest peated whisky to ever come out of Scotland.  In 1967, Distillers Company Limited (the entity that would eventually be called Diageo) decided to build a second and much more modern distillery on the site of the Old Clynelish distillery to capitalize on the good name of one of its most popular Single Malts. 

During the summer of ’68 in the far flung town of Brora, one legendary distillery closed and a modern more efficient distillery opened with little consequence or fanfare.  Luckily for us, an unprecedented drought on Islay forced DCL to consider producing a heavily peated malt on the mainland to keep up with the incredible demand for Johnnie Walker.  The newly mothballed Clynelish distillery was reopened and over the next 15 years produced whisky of incredible quality and varying peat levels.  We are now the beneficiaries of this unseasonable dryness.  That’s right, 30 year old Brora, from a single Sherry Butt, bottled at Cask Strength.  I’ve seen the Diageo bottling running upwards of $400, so right now this is a total steal.  For good measure we’ve also purchased a fabulous and mature Clynelish bottled again at Strength from a Sherry Butt as well.  Clynelish is located just below the Brora distillery and also has a track record of producing extremely high quality Single Malt.  The stills were meticulously replicated from the original Clynelish distillery and while production is in full swing, only one official version is available in the US. This is a zero peat version of the “Classic Malt” distillery that complements its older brother perfectly.  No specific ETA on these, but they should be landing in mid March.

Brora 30 Year Old Chieftain's K&L Selection Single Sherry Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky ($249.99) Pre-Order

Your eyes do not deceive you!  Brora stocks have dwindled down to near extinction.  Considered one of the best overall single malts by almost every reputable expert in the business, the waxy, oily, sometimes peaty character of the whisky has become the most difficult style to reproduce effectively.  The newer Clynelish malts have come close, but nothing has the ethereal complexity of Brora.  Our 30 year old selection was aged in sherry barrel for a softer, richer palate that brims with saline flavors, resin, supple viscosity, and an earthy sweetness, with a finish that lingers for minutes.  Even more exciting is the rumor that Diageo will not release another Brora until 2020, when their stocks hit 40 years old.  This may be the last chance to get any Brora for a reasonable price, let alone a fantastic cask like this one.  These will sell out on pre-order so make sure you secure one quickly!

Clynelish 21 Year Old Chieftain's K&L Selection Single Sherry Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky ($114.99) Pre-Order

While many single malts are blends of different types of barrels, some are known to be more sherried than others. Macallan for example is widely enjoyed for its Oloroso sherry character, while something like Ardbeg is decidedly less rich. That being said, it's not that Ardbeg doesn't use sherry-aged whisky in its single malt, it's just that there are far fewer barrels in their recipe. Clynelish, perhaps the most respected single malt in the world by whisky insiders, is a whisky renowned for its light, fruity, Highland character. However, what would happen if one of the few sherry-aged Clynelish barrels were isolated from the recipe and bottled as a single cask selection? The answer is here at K&L. An absolutely stellar, 21 year old sherry cask of Clynelish was sitting right next to our Brora cask at the Chieftain's warehouse so we pulled the trigger. The heather now mingles with raisined fruit, the citrus fruit now turns candied, the wax turns into dripping oil. The complexity of this whisky is simply astounding and collectors everywhere should rejoice at the price. Clynelish is easily on my top five distillery short list and this is one of the best and most unique I've tasted. A single cask of this quality from Clynelish at full proof should easily retail for $150 or more. Grab this one while it lasts.

-David Othenin-Girard


California Craft Spirits on NPR

This morning on NPR's The California Report with Rachel Myrow there was a short little segment about California produced spirits and the possibility of drinking only locally produced booze.  I get a little clip in there as does my buddy Thad Vogler over at Bar Agricole.  Rachel and I talked for about twenty minutes and I had fun playing both sides of the argument - the pro-craft movement side and the price-comes-first point of view.  Apparently, they wanted to capitalize on that Devil's advocate POV because I sound a little aprehensive!  In any case, she did a little blog post about it as well.  See what you think.

-David Driscoll