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King of Chardonnay

Drink | WINE

November 10, 1999|JANCIS ROBINSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Is Jean-Francois Coche the greatest white-winemaker on the planet? Very possibly.

For me, his firm, Domaine J.F. Coche-Dury, is certainly the most reliable source of great white Burgundies. Even the bumptious parvenu Jean-Marie Guffens (begetter of the neo-negociant Verget) allows that Coche, along with Dominique Lafon of Domaine des Comtes Lafon--and himself, of course--is one of the three best white-winemakers in Burgundy (although he adds, with a wicked grin, "What's a shame is that the other two are so far behind me").

Coche-Dury wines, which are sold at relatively modest prices to his faithful long-term customers, rise giddily in price once they reach the marketplace and are almost impossible to get. One widely used price list has Coche-Dury's most basic 1996 Meursault village wine at $1,150 a case, as compared with $850 for Lafon's, $400 for Verget's and $250 for Louis Jadot's. At a Sotheby's auction in New York two years ago, Coche-Dury's 1989 Corton-Charlemagne went for $1,450 a bottle. We are not talking about bargain-shopping here.

Thanks to some French friends who have religiously followed the Domaine since the late 1970s, I have now been lucky enough to take part in extensive tastings of both his top wines, Meursault-Perrieres and Corton-Charlemagne, and have grabbed every opportunity to taste the rest of the range.

What characterizes the wines is consistency of quality (even if the precise character of each vintage varies as much as one expects of Burgundy). The remarkable rigor and savor is combined with a certain tendresse. He never uses more than 50% new oak. These--praise be--are wines to enjoy for their subtlety, rather than simply admire for their mass.

Our Perrieres vertical took place, like its successor, with much jollity and the great man himself in attendance, back in 1992. We tasted vintages from 1989 back to Jean-Francois' second, 1976, and there really were no duds--a most remarkable feat for a range of white Burgundies. (Why is it that the fairy godmother who seems to have waved her magic wand so successfully over Burgundy's red wines has failed to lift the quality of the whites?)

Coche (who married a Mademoiselle Dury) has long had a mixture of village and Premier Cru vineyards but was able to acquire the Grand Cru vineyard he was surely due only in 1986. So our recent tasting of the fruits of his third of a hectare (less than an acre, producing just over 400 cases in a normal year) of Corton-Charlemagne ran from 1996 back to 1986 (both great, great vintages, by the way, with a powerful attack, wonderful structure and masses of appetizing acidity; the monumental 1996 has decades ahead of it, the 1986 is still youthfully vibrant).

Even the 1987, a vintage now usually associated with pathetic senility in white Burgundies, was very charming, though it's a delicate, rather than a big wine, and needs drinking now. The 1991 and 1990 were the only other two vintages that had developed fast enough to be drunk this century. The 1991 was a real honeyed surprise, considering the somewhat flabby reputation of the vintage, while the 1990 is a big, broad crowd-pleaser.

The plump and adolescent 1995, embryonic and elegant 1993, excitingly rich 1992, not dissimilar but hail-shrunk 1989 and muscular 1988 should be cellared for many a year. Next on stream will be the vigorous but relatively light 1994.

How does Coche manage to combine such intensity of flavor with such pure (always natural) acidity? It must be painstaking work in the vineyard and the strict yields that he believes are so crucial. For the record, he resorted to chaptalization--the almost routine Burgundian practice of adding sugar before fermentation to make the wine stronger--only in 1994, 1993 and 1987. "A good 13% is better than a chaptalized 14%," he says.

The recent tasting was the first time Jean-Francois Coche had tasted more than two or three vintages of his precious Grand Cru together. Although he has a reputation for almost monastic devotion to winemaking duty, at this tasting his usual slightly lugubrious expression changed to almost boyish delight.

His fears about the 1987 proved to have been unwarranted; he was thrilled by the shape of the 1991, and he could hardly help grinning at the performance of the more obvious stars. (Nor could the rest of us.)

As we looked down our long tasting table together, where 17 tasters were comparing these 11 vintages, we agreed it was not often you saw 187 glasses of Corton-Charlemagne, let alone one of such exalted reputation. (The greatest producers of the world-famous Montrachet got together in Burgundy in 1996 to taste their 1992s blind, and threw in Coche-Dury's Corton-Charlemagne as a ringer. It came out on top.) We fell on the leftovers for what were surely the most self-indulgent aperitifs ever before lunch the next day.

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