Best of 2019: William Kelley

Covering Champagne & Burgundy
For me, the year 2019 set a frenetic pace: after 25,000 kilometers spent traversing the French road network, tasting some 6,000 wines and visiting hundreds of wineries, a little family time to recuperate over Christmas was more than welcome. Taking over our coverage of Champagne this year has been the source of immense professional and personal satisfaction. I’ve been visiting this region since my days as a graduate student—I still remember my very first day in Champagne, when I tasted with Vincent Laval and Maison Krug, an interesting contrast—and have always followed the wines closely, so the region was familiar territory. But it’s also a vast and increasingly dynamic region, with significant distances between producers, so it took over a month of visits to cover Champagne the way I wanted to. My article Making Sense of Champagne offers an overview of the region today, set in historical context, and also gives readers some idea of the themes they can expect to read about in these pages over the coming years. Of course, there’s much more work to do—and many more producers to visit—in 2020.

In Burgundy, which I have made my second home after purchasing a property in the heart of Beaune, I continued two initiatives that I began in 2018. The first was to taste more bottled Burgundies for The Wine Advocate. In my most recent vintage report, I explain some of the potential limitations of barrel tasting, so I won’t duplicate those remarks here. Some of the region’s most important estates have already moved away from the en primeur system, preferring to present finished wines for assessment and for sale, and while that isn’t within all producers’ means, it’s a move I endorse and encourage. But in any case, I have been re-tasting wines from bottle much more systematically, and I am ever more convinced of its importance. Given the prices commanded by Burgundy’s rarest wines, this is the sort of coverage our readers require and indeed deserve.

The second theme of 2019’s Burgundy coverage was to broaden our reporting on what I called Burgundy’s Secret Garden: that’s to say, the Côte Chalonnaise and the lesser-visited villages of the Côte d’Or. In July 2018, in Mercurey Rising, I analyzed the vicious circle afflicting the Côte Chalonnaise, where the appellations’ modest reputation encouraged producers to push for quantity over quality, planting high-yielding clones, harvesting by machine and working in the winery to bring their product to market as quickly and cheaply as possible. It is clear that many of the Côte d’Or’s lesser-visited villages—such as Maranges, Santenay, Auxey-Duresses and Ladoix—are the victims of exactly the same vicious circle. And it’s just as clear that in all these places, producers are trying to break that cycle—with ever more genuinely inspiring results. In my report this year, I therefore reviewed these regions together, aspiring to shine a spotlight on their leading talents, and this program will continue and even expand in scope in 2020. And as for new projects, this year will see more in-depth profiles of interesting producers and perhaps of some of the Côte d’Or’s less-understood communes. But more of that soon.

Buying and Drinking Wine in 2019
I have argued elsewhere that actually buying and drinking wine is essential in this profession: for a wine critic to retain a consumer perspective, I believe they must be exposed to the consequences of their own mistakes. That said, while I purchased a lot of wine in 2019, I am happy to say that I didn’t make very many mistakes. 2017 is my daughter’s birth year, so I bought a lot of 2017 white Burgundy, and plenty of red, too, and I’m very happy with my choices. But for me, reviewing so many young wines functions as a form of aversion therapy, so I buy more and more older wine—especially as I have access, through brokers, to private cellars with great provenance in France, where perfect conservation means bottles taste decades younger than the same wines that have travelled the global auction circuit. 

As prices soar for current releases, mature wines increasingly look like great value, too. Wines with 30 years bottle age from top vintages are often cheaper than the latest offerings from the same producers. That’s especially true in Bordeaux, but even the wines of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from the 1950s and 1960s aren’t much more expensive than their 2015- and 2016-vintage equivalents. Probably the purchase of my lifetime was a bottle of 1947 Meursault from Domaine Coche-Vincent—today, Coche-Dury—that had never left Burgundy, and which cost a fraction of the price commanded by a current release from the same estate. More on that later.

While I have plenty of opportunities to attend big tastings with collectors, I prefer to drink bottles such as these at home with my family and my friends—many of whom have great cellars, too. That way, there are no concerns about provenance or authenticity, and each wine can get the time and attention it deserves. I’m inclined to think that this is how wine is meant to be enjoyed. While working through a series of twenty consecutive vintages can be fascinating, it is not what I would consider a recreational activity—I would prefer to drink the five most interesting vintages with a few friends! In a forthcoming installment of ‘Up From The Cellar,’ I’ll publish notes on over a hundred mature Burgundies and Champagnes enjoyed almost without exception like that.

But if I had to limit my selection to the best bottles of the year? It’s was a challenge to whittle down the short-list, but the greatest red of the year was the 1919 Clos des Lambrays, a wine I drank on two separate occasions: the first with a friend over a relaxed lunch in Gevrey-Chambertin, the second as part of a belated 30th birthday celebrate in Beaune. Fully 100 years old, it’s a deep, full-bodied and muscular Clos des Lambrays that’s immensely concentrated and complete, its sweet fruit complemented by captivating spicy and carnal nuances: the 1919 is more powerful than a quintessentially elegant vintage such as 1923; rather, it has more in common with vintages such as 1934, and 1937 and 1947

Two other stunning old red Burgundies worthy of special mention would be a perfectly conserved bottle of 1959 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche—a sensuous and textural wine that exemplified the charm, generosity and irresistible seductiveness of this vintage at the domaine—and another of the 1947 Comte de Vogüé Musigny Vieilles Vignes, a perfumed and exquisitely refined wine that prompted one of Burgundy’s greatest vignerons, in whose honor I had opened the bottle, to inquire, “if this isn’t 100/100, what is?” And I should also single out one younger wine, a magnum of Henri Jayer’s 1990 Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Cros Parantoux, which carried all the singular signatures of one of twentieth-century Burgundy’s defining personalities. 

On the white side of the ledger, the greatest wine of the year was a bottle of Jean-François Coche’s 1990 Corton-Charlemagne. Everything about it was captivating, and like many great bottles, it reconciled paradoxes: enveloping and textural yet unerringly incisive; hugely concentrated but effortlessly weightless; intellectually thrilling in all its complexity, but also irresistibly drinkable. And it was made all the more special by the company in which it was enjoyed.

It would be remiss to mention the 1990 Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne without comment on the 1947 Coche-Vincent Meursault that followed it. This, too, was a moving wine, produced by Jean-François Coche’s grandfather from a parcel in the lieu-dit Vireuils. The domaine was established in the 1920s, when Léon Coche returned from the War and used his military pension to acquire vines in Meursault, and the 1947 was made in a very different era. Yet its aromatic similarities with the 1990 Corton-Charlemagne that preceded it were striking as it evolved without any hint of oxidation over two hours in the glass. But more than anything, it was a tribute to the excellence attained for so long by this most serious and admirable of winemaking families. 

To conclude this heavily abridged list, I’d single out an unforgettable bottle of Krug Private Cuvée from the late 1940s. From a cellar in Mesnil-sur-Oger where I had the good fortune to buy an interesting parcel of old Krug in bottles and magnums, this bottle was still remarkably youthful, with incredible texture and vinosity, as well as a more-than-vestigial mousse: quite remarkable for a Champagne of this age. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a contemporary Champagne that could match its concentration or intensity. This was the best old Champagne that I’ve drunk for years, and I cannot wait to open the last remaining bottle. But more on that when I publish a piece later this year on Krug’s Private and Grande Cuvée from the 1940s to the present, with notes derived from bottles from this cellar.

This selection of particular high-points gives a rather narrow impression of a vinous diet that is in fact quite diverse. But if Burgundy and Champagne dominated the very best bottles of 2019, I did enjoy some spectacular wines from other regions. From the Rhône, 1978 Château Rayas towers above the rest, while from Provence I had magical examples of the 1978 Pibarnon Bandol and the 1989 Trévallon. In the Loire, special mention goes to Huet’s 1969 Vouvray Pétillant and Joguet’s 1982 Clos de la Dioterie. In Bordeaux, the 1955 Bel Air Marquis d’Aligre was exquisite, surpassing Château Margaux itself in the same vintage, and by only bottle of 1949 La Côte Haut-Brion (from an estate that no longer exists, located but in the end I bought more claret than I consumed in 2019). From the Jura, I’d have to single out a magnum of Ganevat’s 2003 Vignes de Mon Père—as I exclaimed, after an intemperate number of glasses, “Jura Montrachet!” And from California, I especially enjoyed Philip Togni’s 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon—a brilliant wine that reminds me quite a bit of the 1990 Château Latour, only better.  

Making Wine
It may be a sign of a monomaniacal personality, but when I am not tasting wine or writing about it, one of the recreations I enjoy the most is making it. In 2017, before I joined The Wine Advocate, I produced my first vintage of Chenin Blanc from Clarksburg, California, and we began to sell it in early 2019. I continue to learn a lot from the experience, both about the challenges of starting a small wine label, and about how wines evolve in barrel and bottle over time. It’s amazing, for example, how awkward a wine can taste at certain moments of its élevage, and how a wine can shut down after bottling—to the extent that you wonder if you made some terrible mistake, only for all the qualities you were looking for to reappear 12 to 18 months down the line. If buying a lot of wine for my own cellar ensures I remain firmly anchored to the consumer’s point of view, following my own wine from pressing to bottling and beyond certainly helps me understand how stressful it must sometimes be for producers who have to present their wine to critics. 

I derived so many insights from making a bit of wine in California that, in 2018, I decided it would be fascinating to do the same in Burgundy, and I was lucky enough to be able to buy enough grapes to make two barrels of Chambolle-Musigny in 2018 and again in 2019. I have found this exercise of incomparable value in understanding the vintage, and I believe my just published report on the Côte d’Or’s 2018 vintage is by far the better for it. Of course, I’m obliged to be in Burgundy at harvest time, when I can see the quantity and quality of the fruit along the Côte just before it’s picked. But you also learn a lot during vinification: in 2018, we picked on September 5, and already we had very close to 14% alcohol; during the fermentation, the wine became immensely saturated in hue almost straight away, and structure came just as rapidly, too. There was so much structure and color that I chose to press a little earlier than I initially intended, and the press wine itself was firm and richly tannic, so I didn’t use too much.

Just after pressing, my wine was very supple and enveloping; so, in the spring, I was shocked when it firmed up considerably; but by early fall, it had become much more velvety and more generous once again. So, I saw just how easy it was to extract without really trying in 2018; and I know from first-hand experience that even the most ostensibly charming 2018s have hidden reserves of tannin. Almost all 2018 red Burgundies are inherently quite tannic, and the extent to which that was perceptible during my barrel tastings seemed to be closely linked to where the wines were at in their élevage. Tasting my own wine regularly, as well as visiting a number of producers multiple times, helped me understand that. Most obviously, after the first cold spell of winter, wines along the Côte firmed up and became much more introverted—quite different to how they tasted just after harvest in late September. 

The 2019 vintage has been just as fascinating. It was a later harvest, and we picked on the morning of September 19, the day after the first cold night of the year—so the fruit was beautifully fresh. After a hot, dry summer I had expected high sugars, high pHs and low nitrogen levels: but while sugar levels were as high as in 2018, in 2019, acidities were notably higher, and nitrogen levels were very healthy. So, fermentations along the Côte, mine included, tended to go fast and attain peak temperature unusually rapidly. Given the drought conditions, I had also expected that blocked phenolic maturity would result in coarse tannins, yet I found the tannins in my 2019 Chambolle to be remarkably refined, and I macerated a lot longer and used a lot more press wine. My intuition is that the result will be even better than 2018, but it will be fascinating to see. 

Wine writers often irritate producers by pronouncing on technical subjects that they sometimes know very little about at a practical level—such as whole cluster vinification, or percentages of new oak. This is a pitfall I try to avoid; but inevitably, tasting so many wines and visiting so many producers, one ends up having certain ideas about what might constitute an interesting approach. Making my own wine gives me the opportunity to put some of my ideas into practice, without lecturing producers about them—which I’m sure vignerons along the Côte are thankful for. And of course, it makes for much more interesting discussions around the technicalities of winemaking during my visits. There are evidently a number of different ways to produce great wine in Burgundy, but I tend to think that what all the best producers share is that they have arrived at a coherent system: in other words, every decision at every different step is directed by the pursuit of a certain overall aesthetic. To put it another way, if making wine is a bit like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, the best producers tend to be those who have seen the picture on the box. Covering a region as diverse as Burgundy, it’s fascinating to study the different aesthetic choices made by different producers who all have different visions of what they are trying to achieve, and it’s one of the most intellectually stimulating aspects of my job.

Best Wine Books of 2019
I wanted to take this occasion to single our two important books that merit our readers’ attention, and which I have very much enjoyed this year.

The first is Burgundy Vintages: A History from 1845 by Allen Meadows and Doug Barzelay, a work of considerable thoroughness and erudition that chronicles every Burgundy vintage back to 1845. Of course, there’s a litany of tasting notes, but for me, it’s the historical introductions that accompany each chapter, decade by decade, that make Burgundy Vintages so special. Too often, books on this great region begin with a cursory account of its past, before passing on to an interminable enumeration of villages and domaines. By contrast, Meadows and Barzeley succeed in explaining how the social and economic history of Burgundy shaped—and continue to shape—the wines Burgundy has produced over time. And this contextualization is realized with sophistication and nuance. In short, Burgundy Vintages is an admirable work of enduring value that I consider the most important book on Burgundy published in 20 years.

The other book that I found especially stimulating was Robert Walter’s Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne, which was in fact published back in 2016. Entertainingly written, not only is this a wonderful contribution to the travel literature of wine—as Walters invites the reader on a tour of his favorite Champagne growers—but, like Burgundy Vintages, it is also a book that situates wine in its historical context. Walters chronicles the economic forces that created Champagne as a sparkling wine in the nineteenth century, and though he avowedly a partisan of growers over Grande Marques, his account is essential reading. As its title rightly implies, this is an irreverent book, and Walters makes short work of what might be called Big Champagne’s marketing machine. But to my palate at least, he remains stimulatingly provocative without descending into polemic. In short, this is the freshest account of Champagne since Andrew Jefford’s The New France (2003)—and it is surely no accident that it is Jefford who supplies the book’s forward. 

Other Enthusiasms of 2019
For anyone who loves cooking, one of the great pleasures of living for a large part of the year in France is the great products you can buy. In and around Beaune we have some fine suppliers—squab pigeons from Patrick Sanchez in Aloxe-Corton, for example, as well as great vegetables from local market gardeners such as Les Loups’Bio by the railway arches. That’s to say nothing of the great cheeses, wild mushrooms, asparagus and so on. Working with ingredients like that really stacks the deck in your favor. So, I have been trying to devote more time to cook seriously—as well as developing an interest in sourdough baking.

Another of my projects in 2019 was an exploration of the Armagnacs of the Laberdolive family. These are a staple of the best French restaurants, and it isn’t always easy to find them, but I amassed an interesting selection of bottles this year from a variety of sources. It is sometimes said that Armagnac is the most vinous of spirits, a contention from which I wouldn’t dissent, and if The Wine Advocate were ever to venture into the world of spirits, Armagnac would certainly be the region I would be lobbying to cover. 

To conclude, many of the most pleasurable moments I enjoyed in 2019 were to do with sharing wine—both with great friends, and also with producers. It sometimes happens that I manage to buy old vintages that the domaines themselves no longer have in their cellars, and on a couple of occasions in 2019, I was able to open wines from the 1940s and 1950s with the descendants of the people who made them. It’s always an immensely enjoyable experience. 

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