A cold night in January found two of the world’s greatest winemaking families convened under one roof: Jean-François and Raphaël Coche-Dury representing France, and Klaus-Peter and Julia Keller representing Germany. The location was Beaune’s elegantly discreet 1243 Club, and entering its candlelit cloisters, I imagine I wasn’t the only guest to feel a distinct thrill of anticipation at the wines we were to drink: fully 11 vintages of Coche’s Corton-Charlemagne, one of Burgundy’s greatest white wines, and six of Keller’s famed Riesling G-Max. The occasion was the 65th birthday of Claude Bicheler, a Luxembourg collector and politician who wanted to celebrate by generously sharing great bottles from his cellar with an eclectic gathering friends and fellow wine lovers, and at the same time introduce the Coche and Keller families. Dinner was cooked by Miki and Satchi of Bissoh, Beaune’s superb Japanese restaurant—which added a third element to the evening’s meeting of cultures.
I’ve already published my formal notes on the wines from Coche-Dury in Issue 236. As I observed there, 1986 was the first vintage of the domaine’s Corton-Charlemagne, when Jean-François Coche was able to lease a 0.33 hectare parcel from a member of an old Burgundian family. This 0.33 hectare plot was planted with Chardonnay in the 1950s, so the vines were already fully mature. In 2012, the Domaine Coche-Dury finally purchased this parcel, as well acquiring another from the same source, bringing their holdings in Corton-Charlemagne up to fully 0.88 ha. This new parcel was partially planted to Pinot Noir—and the domaine produced a one-off red Corton here in 2013 before the vines were torn up and replanted to Chardonnay.
We began the evening by spending an hour with the eleven vintages of Corton-Charlemagne, discussing them with Jean-François and Raphaël. Comparing an extensive but manageable range of vintages was a fascinating exercise. 2003 and 2006 stood out as warmer vintages, with more textural fat and lower acidity, with 2006 marked by the exotic overtones of botrytis. Jean-François mentioned that he’d lost a large percentage of his crop on the sorting table that year, removing botrytized grapes, adding that the influence of botrytis makes the wines more precious and makes them show their alcohol content more obviously. And indeed, while the 2009 Corton-Charlemagne was analytically the highest in alcohol, the 2006 was clearly the most overtly alcoholic. Later in the evening, what really fascinated me was how well both of these richer dishes paired with the umami-rich miso sauce that accompanied the goatfish, lobster and eggplant dish. In the 19th century—when richer cuisine was the order of the day—ripe white Burgundy (which often contained residual sugar) and rich white Rhônes were celebrated; in the wake of nouvelle cuisine’s war on cream, they’ve fallen out of favor. This matching suggested a means to rehabilitate those voluptuously textural wines with a different, dairy-free culinary idiom. Anyone who wants to recreate the experience shouldn’t hesitate to visit Bissoh when in Beaune (I like to go for lunch when the restaurant is less crowded).
2004 and 2007 formed another obvious stylistic duo: both bright and tensile, without the fat of the warmer vintages in the decade. A cool growing season marked by intense disease pressure, 2004 white Burgundies often started out life very reductive (from liberal sulfur applications in the vineyard throughout the growing season) but today they can drink very well, and that’s certainly true of the deep, concentrated and racy 2004 Corton-Charlemagne. Our bottle of 2007 wasn’t a perfect example, but it’s a leaner, even racier wine, with purer more floral aromatics. Both have time on their side, as they’re developing more breadth and generosity are as they age but their acidity keeps them lively and delineated. Of the two, I had a preference for the deeper and more complete 2004.
Two great classics and the highlights of the tasting were the 1999 and 2008, both stunning wines and about as good as white Burgundy gets. Jean-François Coche observed that they were both classic in the best sense, with bright acids underpinning considerable power, amplitude and dimension. Both took some time to come around, Coche added, and were underestimated in their youth; and both should be very long-lived. The 1999 has just entered its plateau of maturity whereas the 2008 is still a few years away from it; but thanks to its grand cru volume and texture, it’s actually somewhat more approachable than Coche’s lower appellations in this vintage.
Raphaël and Jean-François Coche both observed that 2003 marked the divide between two eras, with subsequent vintages being marked by a warmer climate—2008, they added, represented a throwback to the vintages of yesteryear. And it’s true that though the 2000 and 2001 were quite different in character, thanks to the botrytis influence and great amplitude of the 2001, they both shared a fruit-acid structure that set them apart from the post-2003 vintages. While they were overshadowed by the 1999 and 2008, the 2000 and 2001 are both super examples of mature white Burgundy which would dominate many tastings.
Two wines which ought to have shown wonderfully were comparative disappointments, above all the 2005—which at its best can flirt with perfection. I suspect it’s simply going through an awkward phase between youth and maturity, as Coche’s 2005s have always been the small handful of great white wines produced in this vintage. The 2002 never really came alive, and it was the last glass I finished.
The 2009 showed very well indeed, though Coche did comment that he felt he might have picked the Corton-Charlemagne a little late that year, as it was the highest in alcohol of any of the wines in this tasting. The product of a warm vintage with large yields of clean fruit, the vines were never stressed thanks to the rainy winter that preceded the growing season. The 2009 has an easy, sun-kissed generosity that makes it very appealing, but which leaves it in the shadow of the 2008. Making the same comparison with Coche’s Meursault villages in those two vintages a month or so later, I felt the same way.
After enjoying the 11 vintages of Corton-Charlemagne with food, we moved on to six vintages of Weingut Keller’s legendary G-Max, a dry Riesling that hails from a parcel of old vines in one of the family’s vineyards in the Hügelland, its exact location undisclosed. It’s named after named in honor of Klaus-Peter Keller’s great-grandfather, Georg, and his youngest son Max. For me, Keller’s dry Reislings are truly among the world’s greatest wines, and this rare special cuvée is typically the pinnacle of the range—though it also demands the most bottle age to reveal all its potential.
We began with the 2015, a large-scaled, powerful vintage of G-Max which has amazing potential for the long haul. Tasted alongside cooler vintages, it’s more overtly fruity and sun-kissed at this early stage, and—in this context—it was showing more obvious puppy fat than when I last tasted it in September 2016, but it’s beautifully balanced and hugely concentrated. Forget it in the cellar for a decade.
While it’s only a few years older, the 2013 G-Max is much more accessible, and it’s clear that this racy, incipiently complex vintage was underestimated on release. It isn’t as massive and textural as the 2015 but it’s built around a beautiful line of acidity and it’s wonderfully pure and precise. I wish I had some in my cellar. The 2010 G-Max is more reserved; seemingly somewhat larger-scaled than the 2013, but also more tight-knit and acid driven: it will age for a very long time thanks to its acids and concentration, and I can imagine it evolving along similar lines to the 2004. The 2009, by contrast, was more dramatic and accessible—as wines from this vintage tend to be all over Europe—though still bright, pure and very texturally refined. One senses the sunshine but the wine remains beautifully focused.
It was with the 2007 and 2004 G-Max that we really began to get a sense of this cuvée’s potential when it reaches early maturity. The 2007 is tensile, bright and stony, with beautiful aromas of citrus pith, grapefruit and honeycomb; striking long and intense. The 2004 is a little more evolved—even if it’s far from fully mature—with notes of stone fruit and petrol complementing its notions of honeyed citrus and wet stones. It’s searingly intense and stony on the palate, with a wonderful sense of completeness. My euphoric tasting note compares it to Vincent Dauvissat’s Chablis Grand Cru Les Preuses in its expression of minerality, but in reality, it’s stonier and more transparent than any Chardonnay it’s possible to imagine.
We concluded the evening with a trio of nobly sweet wines. Egon Müller’s lovely 1994 Scharzhofberger Riesling Spätlese is fully mature, offering up a complex bouquet of honeyed apricots and pine resin. It’s rich and concentrated but balanced by tangy acidity. It was followed by two superb 1993 Auslesen from von Schubert, a testimony to what a great era this was for this estate. The Herrenberg Riesling Auslese Nr. 183 was extraordinarily complex and at age 25 it’s barely more than off-dry, built around a beautiful line of acidity. Fragrant and ethereal, the Abtsberg Riesling Auslese Nr. 83 was even more multifaceted and concentrated, but just as elegant and refined. A great way to conclude the evening.
One of the great pleasures of the evening was the chance to eavesdrop on the exchanges between the Coche and Keller families, as they shared experiences confronting climate change and discussed white winegrowing and making. Klaus-Peter Keller first visited the Domaine Coche-Dury some 15 years ago, and he has long admired their wines. And the Coche family have a bit of Riesling from the likes of Keller and Egon Müller in their personal cellar too, so the admiration would seem to be mutual. This dinner in Beaune can only have amplified their mutual esteem. My sincere thanks to Claude Bicheler for including me in so memorable an occasion.