1983 was a tough vintage in Burgundy. It was a bad year in the Lake District too; indeed it was, for 36 years ago today I was hatched into the world. As was foretold in the prophecies ‘For shall appear a man from the north; pale of skin and thirsty of tongue. Around the globe he shall imbibe leaving a trail of corks and social blunders. Wherever bad jokes are told he will be found. That or somewhere banging on about Argentina and that time he vomited on Sting.’ It’s all coming true…
Vintage is an interesting concept in wine. It’s a term everyone has heard of and one which is used with gay abandon by those trying to prove they have some wine knowledge. I’ve been asked in the past for ‘vintage wine.’ I’d point out that most wines were vintage, being they came from a single year. It would turn out the customer was after something old. I don’t judge that as once again it shows that perhaps the trade has not been the best at reaching out to the casual drinker. Either that, or they just don’t f***ing listen. Who needs experts after all?
I think broadly the narrative surrounding vintage could change a little. We get caught up in the ‘good or bad’ discussion when actually it’s not quite as simple as that. A good grower/maker can still produce good wine in a hard vintage and I’ve had plenty of poor wines from ‘good’ vintages. As we become more interested in wines being true to their ‘terroir’ perhaps this vintage variation grows more important and relevant. The wine after all is communicating its upbringing; maybe a bad vintage is akin to someone having a bad day. Adding together the good and bad days of an individual gives you a realistic whole. A vineyard can be truly understood in the same way, by adding up all the good and bad vintages. Anyway…I didn’t really want to get into that here walks away but leaves door open
Back to my opening line: 1983 was a tough vintage in Burgundy. Spring came late and brought lower than usual temperatures and heavy rains. There was serious, but localised, hail in May. Vosne-Romanee and Chambolle-Musigny lost 1/3rd of their cop. June was hot and dry which made for good flowering and the warm, sunny weather continued through July & August. Things were starting to shape up. At the end of August however it all went the shape of the pear. Heavy rains and little sunshine. This continued until mid September. The timing was nearly as good as my stand up. After these heavy rains it suddenly warmed up. Great you might think…sadly all this did was encourage the rot brought about by the rain and drop in temperatures. Beaune started picking on the 22nd September and all through harvest the weather was changeable. Not exactly a textbook vintage and one difficult to respond to as a grower due to the constant swings in sun, warmth and precipitation.
The whites of this vintage turned out reasonably well, however it was the reds that caused a stir. Expectations during picking were initially low. Much like those of people attending my live comedy. Producers started to become excited however as these wines spent some time in barrel (as long as the fruit was free from rot). There was talk of great depth of colour and concentration of fruit. Perhaps some growers had pulled a tough vintage out of the bag.
Once in the bottle many wines showed their inherent instability. The more I learn about this vintage the more I can see why I came from it. Anthocyanins were not stable enough due to the rain, damp and chill and started to precipitate out as sediment. Where colour did hold it was only achieved by over extraction of tannin and these proved to be hard and aggressive (finally something about this vintage that doesn’t reflect my character!) These shearing tannins may have held colour but they certainly didn’t retain any fruit. So, it is with some trepidation that I open my 1983 Chassagne-Montrachet rouge from Domaine Lamy-Pillot.
I love to drink old wines. I adore the complex characters that can only appear with bottle age; those savoury, mulchy, earthy characters that develop over the years. I also like to drink old wine because it really sums up my belief in how wine is just a series of moments. It will, for just a brief time, transport me back to 1983 and I will have contact with people I could never know. For a time, I am in touch with something far greater than all of us. Think of all the changes that have occurred in our world in these last 36 years and this wine has remained a constant; waiting to be opened and shared. That thrills me. On this very day 36 years ago UB40 were at number one with the Neil Diamond penned Red Red Wine. Is there a musical number one equivalent to nominative determinism?
Talking of history, the Lamy-Pillot domain was established in 1640 and is still family run. Today things are overseen by Rene and Therese Lamy-Pillot and their two daughters Florence and Karine. Depending on the vintage they produce somewhere between 80,000 and 120,000 bottles and have 20 hectares of vineyards around the Cote de Beaune; 2.8 of which lie within Chassagne-Montrachet.
Chassagne-Montrachet lies within the southern part of the Cote de Beaune. In terms of the ’83 vintage Beaune did ok but the Cote de Nuits fared a little better. Chassagne shares the famous Montrachet vineyard with the village of Puligny, which is to the north east. Chassagne Montrachet sits between 220 and 325 m.a.s.l. and covers 55 premier crus and 3 grand crus. It lies just at the end of the 45 km long limestone escarpment that begins in Dijon and stops at Santenay, which borders Chassagne to the south west. CM covers 300 hectares with many different soil types. There’s a north/south divide however (isn’t there always?) with vineyards in the north having higher limestone-marl content with red gravels. These are much more suited to Pinot Noir. The southern part displays a hard marlstone moving to a soft limestone and is perfectly suited to Chardonnay. The ratio between red and white is roughly 35 to 65.
So…how did it do? The cork broke upon removal, and for once not due to my own ineptitude. I grew fearful that this wine was going to be well past it. I lost a good inch to sediment, to be expected. It’s held its colour well but was most definitely moving towards a brown appearance, with just a hint of the garnet that used to be there (once WSET, always WSET) The nose was light yet somehow fragrant. Very mulchy with autumn leaves and damp earth. Underneath it all though was a core of sweet cherry fruit. There was a surprisingly lively acidity on the palate with faded and dusty tannins merely there for a little moral support. Bountiful notes of tobacco leaf, worn leather and polish. There was almost something sweet in the remaining fruit though; perhaps only made obvious by the dominant savoury characters brought on by bottle ageing. In this core of sweetness was something orangey, almost marmalade. Perhaps a little bit of botrytis snuck through? If this is the case it only elevated the wine.
Did I open this too late? Probably. Is it totally past it and awful? Absolutely not. The drinking window was short, maybe it pushed a couple of hours. But for that time I was taken back to the year of my hatching. What a privilege to drink something that has lasted so long. It’s fair to say it’s in better shape than me. Given the vintage this was not a bad wine at all. One I’ll remember that’s for sure.
Remember: it’s just grapes.