Capitain-Gagnerot Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 2016
The soil in the heart of Corton-Charlemagne give a unique minerality to one of the great white wines of the world. Smoky and honeyed at the same time with notes of honysuckle and lemongrass, Charlemagne has the structure and balance for aging. We assisted at a tasting some years ago, put on by the Grands Jours de Bourgogne, that featured every single producer of Corton-Charlemagne. That's right. How they organized that, we can't say. But it was, as you might imagine, memorable. And there amidst all the big names was the Capitain Corton-Charlemagne. They don't go in for hype and publicity much at Capitain-Gagnerot. But there in a hall with all of their peers, you could feel their pride and the confidence in their wine.
Anybody who has followed us since our start in early 1996 knows the Maison Capitain-Gagnerot in Ladoix-Serrigny. We have seen three generation now. Roger Capitain was our first mentor in Burgundy, and we learned our craft leaning against a wine barrel, soaking up his wisdom and discussing his inimitable wines. His sons Patrice and Michel, and now Patrice's son Pierre Francois (the whole family, really), carry on a tradition that is most easily described as a style. There is no mistaking a Capitain wine. Once you know it, you can pick one out just in the bouquet. It's a purity. And it's our benchmark in Burgundy.
BURGUNDY 2016 VINTAGE
If that first taste of the 2016 Burgundy vintage really grabs your attention, count yourself lucky. Lucky in the same way that wine makers in Burgundy consider themselves lucky.
The excellent 2016 vintage was a nightmare for them, running a gamut of emotions from depression to despair, then out the other side towards hope and something resembling jubilation. It’s no exaggeration to say that 2016 took its toll on the collective psyche of the region.
After a very mild winter, April was frigid, with early hail in Macon and (yet again) Chablis. Then, on the night of the 26th, a freak frost descended on much of the Cotes de Nuits and almost all of the Cote de Beaune. I say ‘freak’ because it was a winter frost, not an April frost; meaning that it hit higher up the slopes than a spring frost would, touching vineyards that almost never freeze, notably Musigny and Montrachet.
It got worse. May was cool and depressingly wet, with storms when it wasn’t drizzling. It’s then that the first corridors of mildew appeared. It hailed again in Chablis. The mood was like the weather: chilly and grey. And it continued like this until the solstice, by which time the estimates were for an overall 50% crop loss across the region. It was hard to coax a smile from even the most seasoned winemakers.
Flowering took place in mid-June and was a bit protracted. It forecast a late September harvest, 100 days away. And given what had come before, the small crop looked incredibly vulnerable.
But with the solstice came summer. A magnificent July and August, with heat enough to curb the mildew, brought exceptional conditions for grapes. Talk in the cellars turned from tales of woe to the benefits of low-yield vintages.
As always in Burgundy, September makes the wine. In 2016, the perfect amount of rain fell on September 14th, at the perfect time to counter the heat stress that the vines were starting to show. And the fruit then ripened quickly in impeccable dry and sunny conditions.
What in mid-June seemed like a doomed crop was suddenly being touted as the equivalent of 2015, and maybe even better! Low yield years give intensity and concentration. Cool vintages give good acidity and balance. 2016 was both. Not a lot of fruit; but from serious ‘vignerons’, what there was was beautiful.
The wines, both red and white, are fresh, chiseled, with balanced acidity and concentration. The whites are definitely better than the 2015s, which lacked a touch of acidity. They are cool and energetic. Maybe not to the level of the fabulous 14s, but there are many similarities.
As to the comparisons between 2015 and 2016, many commentators cite 1990 and 1991. Both 1990 and 2015 are considered among the finest red vintages in living memory. And the vintages that followed them were both low-yield vintages that suffered early frost damage. Both 1990 and 2015 were hot years; both 1991 and 2016 were relatively cool. Both 1990 and 2015 were media darlings, and still are. 1991 got lost in the blare; maybe 2016 as well. But both 1991 and 2016 are arguably much more typically Burgundian than their world-stage predecessors. Classy and classic, ‘typical’ (in the best sense of the word), the greatest fault of the 2016 vintage could be its irregularity.
Remember, this was a tough one for Burgundy. For some producers, it was the fourth consecutive year that their vineyards were damaged and their yields were low. There had not been a ‘normal’ crop since 2009, so their cellars were empty. And when we talk of 50% crop loss, that’s an average across the region. Some areas had zero crop.
So when we get excited about the quality of the 2016s, we need a little restraint as well. Not everyone did the meticulous vineyard work that was necessary to get through the horrible start. As always, if you want to find the best wines, you need to know the best producers. Another important consideration in a low-yield vintage is the shortage of grapes, which means that the big negociant houses can have trouble sourcing fruit. Be careful with negociant wines in 2016. Buy from tried-and-true producers.
COTE DE BEAUNE
Situated almost on the border between the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune, and at altitudes between 280 and 330 meters, much of the Corton-Charlemagne appellation, quite unusually, faces south-west. The round-top Corton mountain, has vineyards on three sides corresponding to the three villages of Aloxe-Corton (Le Charlemagne), Pernand-Vergelesses (En Charlemagne) and Ladoix-Serrigny (Pougets, Corton, Languettes). These vineyards were a gift of the Emperor Charlemagne to the religious community of Saint-Andoche at Saulieu in the year 775. They remained in their possession for a thousand years, and today still celebrate the name of their illustrious benefactor.
The production area of the appellation Corton-Charlemagne includes the appellation Charlemagne, which is not currently in use. Appellation Corton-Charlemagne is produced in the communes of Aloxe-Corton, Ladoix-Serrigny and Pernand-Vergelesses. Appellation Charlemagne would be produced in the communes of Aloxe-Corton and Pernand-Vergelesses. Certain parcels, depending on whether they are planted with Pinot Noir or Chardonnay grapes, may, at the grower's discretion, claim the appellation Corton for red wines or Corton-Charlemagne for whites.
Young Corton-Charlemagne is pale gold with green highlights. As it ages, the color shifts towards yellow or amber. The bouquet can be extremely delicate, apply and citric with a unique minerality in youth, with spiciness coming with a few years in the bottle. Honey notes are part of aging, with older vintages showing leather and truffle. Corton-Charlemagne should be a demonstration of what the Chardonnay grape is capable of: richness, power, concentration, finesse and balance.
Appellation Corton-Charlemagne occupies the highest plantable portion of the Corton mountain, and here the slopes are steep (20-23%). The hill itself is a superb geological cross section through the younger Jurassic strata which lie between Ladoix-Serrigny and Meursault. The color of the clay-rich marly soils varies from yellow through ochre to brown. Limestone alternates with marls beneath a thin cover of rendzinas. At mid-slope the mainly red wines of the appellation Corton grow on soils very much different in character.
White wines only - Chardonnay.
Production surface area
1 hectare (ha) = 2.4 acres
Whites: 52.44 ha
A great Corton-Charlemagne is the perfect balance between acidity and opulence. Such a noble wine demands refined and delicate dishes that still possess aromatic prowess. The natural matches would be foie gras, which would be supported by the wine's minerality, as well as quality crustaceans (lobster, crawfish or crab) whose firm but elegant textures work well here. Poultry or veal in sauce would also do the wine justice, as would blue cheeses.
On the label, the words ‘Grand Cru’ must appear immediately below the name of the appellation.