Talking wine with...

Talking wine with...

William Kelley, Burgundy and Champagne reviewer of Robert Parker's Wine Advocate

In our interview series Talking Wine with..., we are talking with interesting people from the international world of wine about their love of wine.

This time we have the honor to talk wine with William Kelley (1989). William is an Oxford graduated wine journalist, working for Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and Noble Rot Magazine. Moreover, William recently moved to Burgundy to be closer to 'where the magic happens' and to make his own Burgundy wines.

We talk to William about the years he served as president of the Oxford University Wine Circle, the beauty and future of Burgundy wines, his love for decent home cooking and his most memorable wine moment of all time...

Spoiler: a bottle of La Tâche 1959 was involved, but that wasn't it!



FAVORITE PRODUCER: Domaine Guffens-Heynen


BEST MUSIC TO DRINK WINE TO:Beethoven string quartets


Château Rayas 2010
Domaine Leroy Clos Vougeot 2000
Weingut Keller Pettenthal Riesling GG 2014

William, during your time at Oxford University, you served for four years as the president of the Oxford University Wine Circle, the world’s oldest tasting group of its kind. What is the best memory or anecdote you have from those days?

"I’d be remiss not to begin by mentioning meeting my wife, who attended one of the first tastings I organised as president! But I have many good memories. Showing winemakers such as Olivier Collin and Yves Gangloff around the historic city of Oxford before our events, and then hosting them for dinner at home afterwards, was a privilege. It was a great opportunity to be exposed to a lot of the world’s most celebrated wines: all of the Bordeaux first growths, cult producers from California, the "grandes marques" from Champagne as well as small growers, tiny domaines from Burgundy, the Rhône and Italy - we tasted everything!"

You are also a wine maker yourself, making wines in both California and Burgundy. Do you think these experiences make you a better wine writer and critic?

"I certainly hope so. For me, making wine has been the best school for critical tasting. Obviously, one learns a lot by simply tasting a lot, but iteration only becomes experience when there’s a corrective mechanism that results in improved performance: making wine supplies that mechanism, because decisions taken based on taste have consequences. I regard making wine—as well as buying wine, which exposes me to the consequences of my mistakes—as intensely complementary to my day job at The Wine Advocate."

You and your wife recently moved from the UK to Beaune, in the centre of Burgundy. What was the main reason for you to choose Burgundy as your new home?

"It has been a long-standing ambition to live in Burgundy full time. My workload is so immense that I wanted to spread out all of my tastings over the whole year, rather than condensing them into a few months. And as you observed, I make a bit of wine of my own. It's a very small-scale project, scarcely sufficient to satisfy my own consumption to say nothing of anyone else's, but it's quite ambitious. I work with a couple of wonderful parcels, planted with old massale selection Pinot Noir (and, picking tomorrow for the first time, 100-year-old Aligoté vines). The wine making is very classical, even old-fashioned, and artisanal, with long macerations, manual basket pressing and long élevage (more than two years). The idea is to produce serious wines of enduring value over time and so far I'm quite pleased with the results. We'll see what the future holds for this endeavor!"

I assume that when you moved you had your whole wine collection shipped to your new home? A logistic challenge?

"I'd actually been buying wine in France for several years before the move, storing it with friends. And since then, I've driven over a few car loads of wine from my cellar in the UK. But since most of my wine in the UK is a bit young to drink, I'm not in any particular hurry. Brexit has certainly complicated matters, but I don't have too much to complain about."

wILLIAM kELLEY: "My cellar is certainly a labor of love"

Let's talk about Burgundy! In an interview Louis-Michel Liger-Belair once said that a grand cru like La Romanée is “ninety per cent of dream and ten per cent of wine”, albeit wine at the highest level. Do you agree?

"I think that’s absolutely true of the grands crus of the Côte d’Or. For most consumers and I venture for most journalists, it isn’t really possible to taste these wines dispassionately, such is their cultural significance. While I don’t seek to deny anyone the pleasures of the imagination, I do take a rather more critical view of the appellation hierarchy, which I tend to think is as much reinforced as it is revealed. In the Côte d’Or, at least, the best wines do predominantly come from the best sites, but I think many regional and communal bottlings could be a lot better than they are if they were lavished with the same care as the grands crus, from the vineyard to the bottle. And I think it’s incumbent upon someone in my position not to dream too much, even if that’s very human, but rather to taste critically and rigorously interrogate any and all received wisdom."

A while ago, Noble Rot wrote ‘It’s never been a better time for Burgundy’. What are in your opinion the rising Burgundian stars?

"There are certainly some young wine makers, my age or even younger, who are making waves: I’d point to fellow ‘89er, Charles Lachaux, as the foremost among them. He has the grandest appellations, yes, but he’s also taking the biggest risks. But I think it makes just as much sense to look at the generation born between, say, 1970-1985 or so, which is where you find a lot of producers at the top of their game, with a track record and notable experience, but still plenty of vintages ahead of them. I’m thinking of Jean-Marc Vincent in Santenay, Oliver Lamy in Saint-Aubin, Thomas Bouley in Volnay, Thierry Pillot in Chassagne-Montrachet, Loïc Dugat-Py in Gevrey-Chambertin. These are producers who are really hitting their stride and making some of the most important wines in Burgundy today."

After a couple of exceptionally warm vintages, 2021 is going to be quite a contrast-year. What are your predictions for the 2021 Burgundy vintage from what you have seen and tasted from the fermentation vessels so far?

"2021 is indeed going to represent something of a throwback to a style of Burgundy that we haven’t seen for a little while now. We’re talking about harvest in late September, running on into October (mainly for whites); with generally quite low yields after hard spring frosts, a poor flowering, and intense disease pressure during the growing season; and really rather high levels of malic acidity in the fruit. In terms of the style, for the red wines I think we’ll be in the register of years such as 2013, 2008, 2001 and 1996, and there will be a big gap between the best and the rest. The best, however, will be well worth seeking out, especially for anyone nostalgic for the Burgundy we used to know."

As the climate in Burgundy is obviously changing, how do you see the long-term future for Burgundian wine making? Will we grow Syrah or Mourvèdre in Beaune in 50 years, should vignerons look for more high-altitude sites or do you think all will be ok?

"I think we have far from exhausted the possibilities when it comes to making viticultural adaptations to warmer, drier years. Indeed, we are only just beginning to see what is possible. It’s important not to conflate climate and weather, and 2021 reminds us that cooler, later harvests haven’t necessarily been consigned to history just yet. Given that Syrah ripens a full month after Gamay when it’s planted in the Beaujolais, I don’t expect to see any planted in the Côte d’Or, at least as a serious proposition, in my lifetime."

Any insider’s tips for the best place to eat and drink around Beaune (and to meet world-famous winemakers in real life)?

"To name just a few, I like La Goutte d’Or and Au Fil du Clos in Meursault; La Superb, Caves Madeleine and Bissoh in Beaune; the Ferme de la Ruchotte in the hills above Beaune; Beau Rivage in Allery-sur-Saône—and plenty of others!"

 ON THE Best of wines BLOG: more restaurant recommendations in Burgundy

"on my 30th birthday, I served my friends a 1919 CLOS DES LAMBRAYS after a sublime 1959 La Tâche. 
it was so richly multidimensional and virile, even at age 100, that it blew the La Tâche away. it was great to watch my friends realizing that aged wines don’t have to seem old."

We have been told that you are quite a skilled amateur cook. What are your favorite dishes to cook at home and which wines do you like to pair with them?

"I love cooking old fashioned French and Italian dishes. The other night, for example, we had vol-au-vents of sweetbreads and wild mushrooms paired with a 1983 Pouilly-Fuissé from Domaine Ferret; and tonight, we’re having pappardelle all’annatra with an old Valpolicella from Quintarelli. For me, these classical dishes are the ultimate comfort food and one doesn’t find them in restaurants so easily these days."

Please take us to a virtual tour through your own personal wine cellar. Any odd ones out that we wouldn’t expect to find there?

"My personal cellar is about 40% Burgundy, 20% Bordeaux, 15% Rhône, 10% Champagne and the rest a very diverse mix of Italy, Spain, California, provincial France, Germany, and beyond. I suspect I have one of the best collections of older California wine in Burgundy. Some of the more rare or eclectic bottles would include magnums of 1981 Château Musar from Lebanon, the second vintage produced of Rousseau’s Clos Saint-Jacques, the 1975 Poulsard from Overnoy (Emmanuel Houillon’s birth vintage), Château Pibarnon in Bandol back to the 1960s, 1989 Coche-Dury Rougeots in magnum, and all manner of other things. My cellar is certainly a labor of love."

And what do you consider the most special bottle in your personal collection?

"That isn’t an easy question to answer, and there are a lot of contenders, but I think my single bottle of the 1962 La Tâche ought to take the title, if it lives up to everything that wine can be..."

We are always asking our interviewees to tell us about their latest wine “discoveries”. Can you share some with our readers?

"I am getting back into Mosel Riesling, which was a passion as a student, an in particular old Kabinett. I drank a stunning 1993 Prüm Wehlener Sonnenhur Kabinett over the summer that precipitated this renewed enthusiasm: closing in on age thirty, it has become an essentially dry wine, with only eight per cent alcohol, but what complexity and intensity of flavor! So I’ve been buying a lot of Willi Schaëfer and other proudcers who make ageworthy Kabinett in a style that’s likely to deliver results like that down the line. The other “discovery” of late has been quite how well some of the 2002 Bordeaux have developed in bottle. We drank Haut Brion and Lynch Bages recently, and it was something of a revelation: these wines were tannic and a bit lean young, and they only received modest ratings, so they can make for a terrific bargain in the market today."

On the job, you have visited so many wine makers all over the world. Which are the visits you have the fondest memories of?

"I think the most special visits have been when I encounter great producers in “lesser” appellations, sometimes producers who have never been visited by the Anglophone press, and certainly never understood. When you see people who have been doing great work for decades realize that they are finally getting recognized, despite the glass ceilings of the appellation hierarchy, it can be very moving."

Finally, could you tell us about your most memorable wine moment of all time?

"That’s another difficult choice! I think drinking the 1919 Clos des Lambrays, to celebrate my 30th birthday, must be a leading contender though. I am very passionate about old (but not decrepit wines), and I served this bottle to some friends after a sublime 1959 La Tâche. They scoffed, thinking it would be senile; but in fact, it was so richly multidimensional and virile, even at age 100, that it blew the La Tâche away. Its quality didn’t entirely take me by surprise, but it was great to watch my friends realizing that aged wines don’t have to seem old!"

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