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Wine: Great white hopes

Picking the new burgundies
Made by peasants, drunk by millionaires? Affordable it isn't and, because it's pricey, fine burgundy all too often leads to disappointment and dashed expectations. Yet when vintage and producer gell, pain turns to glorious pleasure. Great meursault or chassagne-montrachet takes chardonnay into mouthwatering realms of gratification and complexity most of us can only dream of. And only rarely is the seductive fragrance and thrill produced by red burgundy's pinot noir grape matched outside the confines of Burgundy's famous Cote d'Or.

The latest burgundy vintage to arrive in the marketplace is 1995 and both demand and expectations are high. Illogically, burgundy has a habit of apeing bordeaux, and the frenzy over bordeaux 1995 is only just subsiding. But comparisons are odious and burgundy vintages in fact, like their producers, have a mind and a life of their own. Unlike bordeaux, the anticipation over a new burgundy vintage oscillates between whites and reds, one of which usually outperforms the other. In1995, the whites have it.

"The most exciting we have tasted for many years," trumpets Justerini & Brooks from its posh St James's address. "A cracking vintage", agrees Jasper Morris, a leading burgundy specialist, "possibly the best since I came into the business [in 1979]". Overall, the chardonnay grapes were harvested with an excellent balance of natural fruit sugar and fresh acidity thanks to the concentrating effects of relatively low yields. The resulting white burgundies have an exceptional richness, and the ability to develop complexity as they mature. If there's a case for stashing away a few bottles of top-notch white burgundy, from Chablis via the Cote d'Or all the way down to Macon,1995 argues it forcefully.

Cold weather at flowering time resulted in significantly reduced volumes in 1995. After a scorcher of a July, harvest rainfall brought rot to pinot noir grapes picked in deteriorating weather conditions. With small grapes and uneven bunches, meticulous winemaking was required. The reds are good, but less uniform than the whites. According to Becky Wasserman, an experienced American broker living in Burgundy, "Everyone is very jazzed-up about it. Scarcity is such that people are saying, I must have some, but there's no single thread you can pull in 1995. It's one of the more curious vintages I've known in 30 years, ranging from just OK to super-brilliant."

The better reds have greater concentration than 1994, an average vintage, and ripe tannins. Whether however they're "all that great pinot should be", as Justerini & Brooks enthuses, remains open to question. First impressions from cask samples at J&B and Bibendum in London (a handful of which were inexcusably tired) suggest that reds are too variable to generalise at the pre-bottling stage. Nevertheless, the most elegant - wines with delightful perfumes and ripe berry fruits in the raspberry, mulberry, loganberry and strawberry spectrum of flavours -are medium-term charmers.

"Conditions appear to be ripe for a major price hike," warns Jasper Morris. Sure enough, top domaines such as Meo-Camuzet and Sauzet are asking a duchess's ransom. Elsewhere, taking into account the fact that the 1996 vintage is already looking both good and plentiful, most prices, at between10 and 20 per cent up on the previous vintage, are high but not immodest for the quality of the vintage. The incentive for buying before bottling and delivery (en primeur) is - or should be - a significant saving over the eventual shelf price. Burgundy may not be a wine you need, but sometimes you just have to have it.

1995 Burgundies under pounds 100 per case:

1995 Domaine Talmard, Macon-Uchizy, pounds 54, J&B, Fresh, flavoursome, a macon- villages banker.

1995 Macon Grevilly, Les Genievrieres, Guillot-Broux Cruzille, pounds 75, Bibendum. Ripe apple fruit, crisp acidity and lots of character.

1995 Saint Aubin Blanc, Premier Cru Les Perrieres, pounds 99, Gerard Prudhon, Bibendum. Aromatic, subtly oaked Cote d'Or chardonnay with flavour and richness in abundance.

1995 Chablis, Laurent Tribut, pounds 78, J&B. Classic minerally chablis, ripe chardonnay beautifully balanced by refreshing acidity.

1995 Chorey-Les-Beaune, Tollot-Beaut, pounds 90, Bibendum. From a grower with a reputation for value, a good rustic red with spicy oak and ripe cherryish fruitiness.

1995 Burgundies over pounds 100 per case:

1995 Hautes Cotes de Nuits, Jayer-Gilles, pounds 156, J&B. Modern, richly oaked, intensely flavoured Nuits chardonnay.

1995 Chablis Valmur Grand Cru, Droin, pounds 200, Bibendum. Intense, grand cru chablis with citrusy, steely backbone.

1995 Chassagne-Montrachet, Les Chenevottes, Premier Cru, Jean-Noel Gagnard, pounds 222, J&B. Super-scented, exotically nutty, classic premier cru white.

1995 Corton-Charlemagne, Bonneau du Martray, pounds 498, J&B. Megabucks for this cracker, but sex in a bottle never came cheap.

1995 Savigny-Les-Beaune Premier Cru Les Peuillets, Domaine Girard-Vollot, pounds 115, Morris & Verdin. Deeply hued with seductive vanilla and oak spice aromas and pristine raspberry fruit flavours.

1995 Savigny-Les-Beaune, Les Liards, Camus Bruchon, pounds 110, Bibendum. Sweetly perfumed with smoky notes, a voluptuous pinot noir with fine concentration and firm backbone.

1995 Savigny La Dominode Premier Cru, Domaine Bruno Clair, pounds 186, J&B. Rich, black cherry-like, old-vine pinot noir which outperforms even Clair's Gevrey-Chambertin.

1995 Nuits Saint-Georges Les Cailles, Premier Cru, Robert Chevillon, pounds 231, J&B. Sumptuously ripe, fragrant raspberry fruit flavours layered with spicy oak and intense pinot noir richness (juicy Nuits Saint Georges and lovely premier cru Aux Chaignots too).

1995 Nuits Saint-Georges Les Damodes, Premier Cru, Jean Chauvenet and Christophe Drag, pounds 225, Bibendum. Classy premier cru with spice, elegance and seductively lush, loganberry fruit (excellent Nuits Saint-Georges village red and premier cru Rue de Chaux, too).

Bibendum, 113 Regents Park Road, London NW1 8UR (0171-916 7706). Justerini & Brooks, 61 St James's Street, London SW1A 1LZ (0171-493 8721). Prices

are in bond, ie, duty, currently pounds 12.64, and VAT to be paid on delivery. Morris & Verdin, 10 The Leathermarket, London SE1 3ER (0171-357 8866). The Savigny

apart, I missed M&V's tasting, but commend the offer (prices are duty paid) on reputation, along with that of Goedhuis & Co, 6 Rudolf Place, Miles St, London SW8 1RP (0171-793 7170).