2008 Louis Latour Beaune Blanc
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Domaine Louis Latour "Petit Charlemagne"

It's one of the best-kept secrets of the Côte de Beaune. Apart from a handful of Michelin-star sommeliers in Chagny and Paris — each looking to treat diners to a small taste of Charlemagne at a small fraction of that Grand Cru price — few have ever tasted one of the most stunning bargains in Burgundy. The label reads simply "Beaune." But Bernard Retornaz, as we'd learn on that humbling September afternoon, calls it "Petit Charlemagne."

Retornaz, the Latour exec whose knowledge of the Côte de Beaune borders on the encyclopedic, invited us to a Grand Cru retrospective of the phenomenal 2008 vintage. For almost 25 years, we've been visiting winemaker friends on the Côte de Beaune, tasting in cellars from Meursault to Corton. Typically, we don't toot our horns at the tasting table, but when it comes to white Burgundy, we pride ourselves on the acuity of our palates. On September 25th, our noses and taste buds never had a chance.

If you've never attended such a taste-off, let us set the table. In front of each of us was a paper placemat on which five numbered circles had been drawn, each circle sized to the base of Riedel Burgundy stemware. Beneath each circle — except the last — were the names of the Grand Crus on display: Bâtard-Montrachet, Chevalier Montrachet, Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet, Corton-Charlemagne. The fifth slot, it seemed, was our mystery wine.

For those well-acquainted with Côte de Beaune geography, you know that Corton-Charlemagne is the northernmost Grand Cru. Set on the highest tranches above the hamlets of Corton and Pernand-Vergelesses, Le Charlemagne is known for turning out the most wound-up, age-worthy Chardonnays in Burgundy. A stone's throw to the south, situated above and just to the west of Beaune, are the stunning 1er Crus Les Teurons, Aux Cras and Le Clos-des-Mouches. These Chardonnays tend to be slightly more supple, with softer mineral refinement, much like the finest Meursault.

Another few kilometers to the south, on the center cut of the slopes above Chassagne and Puligny-Montrachet, you'll find the priceless (well over $1,000,000/acre!) Grand Crus of Bâtard, Criots-Bâtard, and Chevalier-Montrachet. A few golden ounces of each from the 2008 vintage were poured into stems #1, #2 and #3.

Bernard began: "The first decade of the new millennium gave birth to four of the greatest white wine vintages in 20 years on the Côte de Beaune. 2002 was ripe and classical. 2005 was rich and muscular. 2010 was beautifully mineral. But for me, none of these hold a candle to 2008. It was a small harvest. Berries were tiny. Skins were thick. In my opinion, these are the most age-worthy vintages since 1990."

For the next 45 minutes, we swirled, smelled and sipped the five wines. Not surprisingly, the Bâtard-Montrachet was the fattest of the bunch, and perhaps the most mature. The Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet was rich, but more restrained and elegant. The Chevalier-Montrachet stood somewhere in between. The Corton-Charlemagne was truly masterful. Paler in color, more back on its heels, the northernmost Grand Cru was slow to peel away its wound-up, mineral layers, arguing as always for a decade or two of cellar slumber.

As to our mystery wine, it seemed to be cut of Le Charlemagne cloth, if less powerfully concentrated and sinewed. Pale, bright yellow to the rim, with nutty aromas of citrus zest and apricot. Beautifully balanced on the attack with a fine mineral mix of sweetness and acidity, showing excellent restraint and persistence.

First, we guessed Meursault Premier Cru. Nope. Then Meursault Villages. No dice. Beaune Clos-des-Mouches? "Very close, but as you say, no cigar." Bernard smiled broadly, then laughed. "I love this game. I always WIN!"

Drawn from the Premier Cru Les Greves and Aux Cras parcels nearly adjacent to Le Clos-des-Mouches (we weren't THAT far off!), with a splash of higher-toned Chardonnay from the Montagne Saint-Désiré, after an hour in the glass, Wine #5 was standing tall in the Grand Cru lineup, and it was just beginning to come on!

Tasting Notes

2008 Louis Latour Beaune Blanc
"(Drawn from Premier Crus Les Greves and Aux Cras, and Montagne Saint-Désiré) Pale, bright yellow to the rim, with nutty aromas of citrus zest and apricot. Beautifully balanced on the attack with a fine mineral mix of sweetness and acidity, showing excellent restraint and persistence, this is a superb white Burgundy from the great 2008 vintage. As good as Côte de Beaune whites get at under $35/bottle. Drink now or lay down for up to a decade in a cool cellar."
-- WineAccess Travel Log


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