For House of Townend, the first week in November is always one of the first to be diarised at the beginning of every year. It is also one that we look forward to the most. It is our annual buying trip to Burgundy! Below, John Townend, details the 2019 trip to Burgundy along with his views on the 2018 vintage which is due to be released in January 2020.
On Sunday 3rd November, I left home before sunrise to start the long trek down to Beaune. As I crossed the Humber Bridge, an eerie mist enveloped the impressive structure and the temperature was low – winter had arrived. After meeting up with my colleague, Neil Goldie, we took the Channel Tunnel crossing. Our annual trip to the Côte d’Or was underway and we were looking forward to forming our own opinions of the 2018 vintage.
In recent years we have experienced many a glum face as we moved from one cellar to another on our annual Burgundy buying trip to taste the new vintage. We tasted some magnificent wines, some of the finest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that can ever pass your lips, but the weather Gods were playing havoc, resulting in a succession of small vintages. The situation became so desperate in 2016 that a number of small growers were facing financial ruin.
Thankfully the 2017 vintage was plentiful and 2018 even better still. The smiles have returned, although Etienne Grivot (Vosne-Romanée) was quick to point out that the 2019 vintage sees a return to paltry yields – but that is a problem for next year.
There is a more in depth analysis of the vintage further on in this report, with tasting notes for all the wines that we tasted, along with grower and vineyard information. In essence though, 2018 is very much a vintage where the expression of fruit came to the fore. It shows a beautiful expression of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also allows the individual appellation to show its true character, which is often not the case in hot vintages. Those domaines that enjoy a greater share of old vines have performed particularly well, the deep roots finding nourishment and water during the long hot summer.
Demand for Burgundy seems to be insatiable. It is unlike any other wine producing region. Each domaine may own small holdings in a number of villages, but often they only produce a few barrels of each wine. It is for this reason that it is so difficult to find bottles from the top growers when the wines are ready for drinking. Buying En Primeur is arguably far more important with Burgundy than Bordeaux, where quantities produced are so much higher.
I look forward to seeing you at our Burgundy En Primeur tasting on Monday 10th February in the Cellar Door at our HQ in Melton. It is a great opportunity to taste barrel samples of the wines we have bought, before they are bottled, when they will go into a slumber as they develop over the years to come.
2018 – THE GROWING SEASON
For the second vintage in succession the Burgundians have been able to enjoy a bountiful vintage. It is a massive relief, especially for growers in the villages of Savigny and Volnay who have suffered terribly in recent years. If it wasn’t frost, it was hail, and if it wasn’t hail it was even more hail! The five vintages previous to 2017 were very difficult, even though the small yields produced some spectacular wines.
The winter months in the Burgundy region were very wet, enabling the soil to soak in the water and replenish the water table after the previous hot summer. 500mm of rain fell between October and March, the highest in 25 years. There was also an 8-10 day period of sub zero temperatures which cleansed the vineyards. It was a good winter.
The rains continued into March but the temperatures were now warm which stimulated early vine development and it wasn’t long before they were advanced in the vegetative cycle. The warm weather continued into April but a cold snap at the end of the month slowed down the vine growth.
The flowering started at the end of May in the Côte de Beaune and early June in the Côte de Nuits, aided by the brisk winds which maintained good sanitary conditions. After the 15th June it continued to be hot and dry through the summer months. Unlike previous years there were no hailstorms to damage the abundance of grapes on the vines. Indeed, the top growers carried out a strict green harvest to ensure that volumes were kept under control.
The last summer rains were on August 7th. A blessing of the summer of 2018 were the cool evenings, especially in late August and early September, which helped to preserve the acidities in the grapes. This was also the case in 2017.
Another important feature was the lack of hydric stress in the vineyards, largely due to the abundant rainfall of the previous winter. More and more growers have also changed their canopy management in recent years to protect the grapes from the burning sun.
Crucial to the 2018 growing season was the incredible level of light produced over the summer months. Some 30% higher than usual. Remember it is light not heat that ripens the grapes. The Pinot Noir absorbs the light at a rate of five times more than the Chardonnay grape, hence the incredible maturity and richness of the red wines this vintage. Olivier Lamy commented, “I could taste the light in the grapes this vintage”
Key to the quality of wines produced was when the growers decided to pick. There was no uniformity here, so we needed to select very carefully, probing each grower and assessing every appellation.
Once the harvest started it was a race against time. The picking in the Côte de Beaune usually starts one week later than in the Côte de Nuits, and by the 25th August many Beaune producers were under way. The potential alcohols were rising incredibly fast, at a rate of 1-1.5 degrees in a week. It was important to pick as soon as the phenolic ripeness had been achieved and as fast as possible. One or two days made the difference.
The quality of grapes entering the winery was excellent, in perfect sanitary condition. Fabrice Amiot (Chassagne-Montrachet) said the grapes were “super clean” and only a very mild sorting was required.
A plentiful harvest of ripe and clean grapes. The harvest was barely in the winery and the Bourguignons of the Côte d’Or were clicking their heels!
After a week in the Côte d’Or, where we visited over twenty domaines, we returned to the UK via Chablis to see how our long established growers in the northernmost region of Burgundy had fared.
Here we found a similar story. Following a very wet winter, the soils were moist and well prepared for the growing season ahead. Summer was very dry with very little rain and the sugars were high when the grapes entered the wineries.
In this respect the 2018 vintage was more difficult compared to a more classical Chablis vintage, as it was harder to complete the fermentation. Acidities are lower than usual and so there is no need to wait for the usual screeching acidity to settle down. This is a great time to buy Chablis En Primeur as you can make a great saving and you don’t have to wait long before you can start drinking them.
It is vintages such as 2018 when the 1er Cru vineyards on the left bank come into their own. They face less exposure to the sun and the acidities are better preserved. A little tip – Chablis 1er Cru Côte de Léchet, Domaine Daniel Dampt!
2018 – THE WINES
So, how do we assess the 2018 vintage? As well as making our own judgements, it is interesting and indeed important to listen to the views of those who lovingly tend their vines, producing the very best fruit they can, regardless of what Mother Nature throws at them.
Fabrice Amiot (Chassagne-Montrachet) was clear in his own mind when he said “the people will go wild for the 2018 vintage. It is so beautiful and immediate. It is just orgasmic!”
Nathalie Tollot (Chorey-Les-Beaune) looked a little perplexed as she observed “I am surprised that the acidity is so good. It is difficult to know how we kept the freshness...” as she likened it to the 1947 vintage. (A little before my time!)
Frédéric Lafarge (Volnay) commented that it was an excellent vintage for biodynamic producers such as himself. “It was an easy vintage, a vintage of great richness, freshness and equilibrium.”
From our tastings, it is evident that 2018 is very much a vintage that expresses the characteristics of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, as opposed to terroir. Given it was such a hot vintage you may expect the wines to be rather homogenous. That said, the characteristics of the individual appellation do show through well, particularly at the top domaines. It was a vintage where those who are fortunate to have a large proportion of ‘vieilles vignes’ in their vineyards performed particularly well. The wines are moreish and succulent, offering an immediate pleasure. They are so beautifully balanced, maybe they will never close down in bottle. You will be able to enjoy the white wines with almost immediate effect.
We’ve never had a vintage like this before so we don’t know how they will develop. They have a similar profile to 2005 and more particularly 2009 and 2015 – rich, ripe and opulent, with lower tannin structures to 2017. It is fair to say that there is a touch of the ‘New World’ about the 2018 vintage.
The white wines are rich and exotic, fleshy with soft acidities. Olivier Lamy (Saint-Aubin) has produced sensational wines with a beautiful salinity – they will be highly sought after as usual.
The red wines are deeply coloured, dense with complex aromas of ripe blackberries. Bold, rich and opulent, they are voluptuous with delicious velvety textures and super soft tannins. There is also a surprising freshness and tension which provides great balance.
If it were a popularity contest – step forward 2018!
Stand out appellations? In such a lovely ripe vintage there are some absolutely delicious Bourgogne Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs that will offer super drinking from day one! Further up the scale we were also very impressed with Saint-Aubin, Volnay, Aloxe-Corton and Vosne-Romanée.
We will be releasing our Burgundy 2018 wines in January 2020. For more information, please contact our sales team on 01482 638888.
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