The first decade of the 21st Century has produced some fabulous vintages and some quite memorable wines that will be enjoyed for many years. The decade closed with another excellent vintage.
The growing season started with a fairly mild early spring and the sunny weather induced an early flowering at the end of May. The first obstacle arrived very soon with hail causing significant damage in the Côte de Nuits with the appellations of Gevrey Chambertin, Morey St Denis and Chambolle Musigny all suffering notable damage, which initially suggested that the harvest in September could be smaller than normal.
The summer saw a perfect June, with sunny days but not too hot and little rain, however July brought with it a more unsettled period followed by a warm August with intermittent showers that relieved the vines.
The harvest started in early September (6th - 7th) and the grapes were in exceptionally good health – no rot and perfectly formed grapes. The raw materials were all there for the winemakers to produce something quite special. The only point of caution was concerning yields, which if left uncontrolled can lead to dilution in the wines. There are some instances of this occurring and therefore barrel selection was very important.
Vinification was very simple with the malolactic fermentations starting well ahead of normal. The tendency in recent years to reduce the stirring of the lees in barrel - “battonage” - had enhanced this vintage, ensuring that the wines didn’t become too rich and fat with the acidities just about delivering the required balance.
The reds also enjoyed a very easy vinification with growers in many cases choosing to reduce the amount of de-stemming in order to give more structure to their wines. The colour and natural ripeness was very evident and the richness of fruit quite spectacular. Careful use of oak was very important so as not to affect the natural fruit characters of the wines.
So the decade finished in great style! There were some delicious wines which will give some fantastic early drinking, especially the whites, whilst the red wines are packed with vibrant ripe fruits but with tannins and structure that will provide good ageing potential as well.
2010 “Une année climatique catastrophique”
2010 has to be one of the most fascinating Burgundy vintages in recent times. Etienne Grivot summed it up perfectly: “An incredible vintage.... because the summer was absolutely awful!”
The overriding factor is the size of the crop. Village wines were down 30%, 1er Cru 40% - 50% (in the Côte de Beaune) whilst Clos Vougeot experienced up to 70% reduction.
The small crop was due to two specific reasons. First we must go back to December 2009 when the region experienced a serious period of intense cold. On the 19th December temperatures plummeted to -19°C, low enough to kill vines in the Bourgogne and Puligny Montrachet appellations. This was compounded by a very poor flowering of the vine in June when temperatures were no more than 13° - 14° C. In many instances there was aborted flowering and the result was widespread “coulure” (where a grape cluster does not fully mature) and “millerendange” (where bunches contain berries of greatly different size and levels of maturity).
2010 continued to be wet and humid, a difficult vintage for organic producers, with temperatures hovering around 24°- 25°C in July and 19° - 28°C in August, which saw rainfall of 72mm compared to the normal 55mm.
How then had this turned out to be such an exceptional vintage? The long cool summer provided a much longer growing period with extended “hang time” for the grapes. This was the polar opposite to 2009 when the ripening period was much shorter. The small number of grape bunches obtained a super intensity and ripened perfectly with great phenolic ripeness (pips and skins). The lack of extreme heat also produced a beautiful freshness with delicious acidities.
Domaine Leflaive class 2010 as a “great vintage” that surpasses the memorable 2005 vintage. It was certainly one of the most memorable tastings that we have enjoyed at this domaine.
It will no doubt be classed as a “white wine” vintage. It is true that many great white wines have been produced in 2010 and selection was relatively straight forward. However that would be too simplistic. The poor flowering and resulting low crop really was a blessing in disguise, ensuring the Pinot Noir obtained excellent ripeness in the cool summer that followed, with a delicious freshness. Once again the Burgundy wine lover has been served up a real treat.
THE GROWING SEASON
It is nothing short of incredible that the Burgundians’ have produced wines of such quality in what was a very difficult growing season.
Whilst we endured one of the wettest and unfavourable summers in living memory, France also experienced a weather pattern that was both irregular and disruptive.
In many ways it was as if confusion had set in amongst the seasons. In essence, Spring and
Summer were the wrong way round! The year started with a cold December and January with plentiful rain and snow which built up excellent water reserves in the vineyard soils. February and
March delivered warm weather, which encouraged an early bud burst in late March. Temperatures continued to rise and April was very hot - with temperatures reaching 30°C. Springtime had been passed by and summer had arrived extremely early. The flowering arrived a full month ahead of schedule in mid April in perfect conditions. With the normal cycle between flowering and harvests being 100 days, this would mean that the 2011 harvest would be expected mid August, again one month in advance and one of the earliest on record.
Everything was moving so fast, vineyard management sprung into action to control the growth, the powerful mid-day sun was burning the vines and the lowest rainfall on record for the time of the year was causing concern ... and then the chaos!
In July the weather turned and became very erratic. Hot days were followed by rains as if Spring had decided it wanted its time after all. This unstable weather continued into August and the vignerons faced some of the most chaotic weather patterns ever known. The mixed weather brought dangers of rot, with mildew and Oidium a particular problem. This is where the vineyard management of the top domaines paid dividends. Careful “effeuillage” was carried out, the removing of leaves around the grapes, to increase aeration and dry the grapes. The risk of this of course was the danger of sunburn to the grapes. Great care was needed to ensure that the least exposed side of the vines was stripped. 2011 was “un millésime de viticulture”.
The next and most important decision was when to pick. The unstable weather had slowed down the vegetative process but still the grapes were well in advance. The Chardonnay, for instance, is a bit like a pear, in that when it approaches full ripeness it can over-ripen very quickly losing its freshness and finesse. Those who have eaten an over-ripe pear will know what I mean – Ugh! Timing is all important.
Those growers who picked early, thereby preserving the acidities had performed best. Lamy’s harvest started on the 26th April, Amiot on the 1st September and de l’Arlot the 2nd September, some 20 days earlier than in a normal year. At the end of the growing cycle, the fruit turned very quickly - those who harvested too late have produced heavy, over-ripe wines with low acidities. Those who were meticulous in the vineyard and showed good judgement when picking, were rewarded with some excellent fruit entering the cellar and have produced wines that can be described as “Classic Burgundy”
In terms of yield, the 2011 vintage was an average one, rather surprising, given the climatic instability of the summer period. Qualitatively, this is a “Classic Burgundy” vintage and one that wine merchants and wine lovers alike will enjoy enormously.
Whilst vintages such as 2009 give enormous pleasure and are rated as being the sort of vintage you would like in your collection/cellar, there is a certain homogeneity about them. In hotter years such as 2009, the appellations tend to merge somewhat in style - a generalisation but a fair observation I think. In cooler years the individuality of the appellations shows through, and that was one of the charming features of 2011.
Many vignerons had surprised even themselves with the quality of wine that they have produced, given the unsure nature of the growing season. When I was in Burgundy in December, Gérard
Boudot, proprietor of Domaine Sauzet commented that with the recent 2012 vintage that was settling down in the cellar, he can think of no other time in his memory when he has experienced a better run of vintages than 2009 - 2012. “Ils sont tous magnifiques”.
The white wines are fragrant, floral with attractive acidities and will certainly give real pleasure very soon but with a propensity for mid-term ageing. They are a great foil for the previous 2010 vintage, which will need more time to develop. Drink 2011 first and enjoy the purity and precision that they offer.
The reds are very much for the Burgundy lover. They resemble the 2007 vintage, which was also an early harvest, but differ in that 2011 enjoyed some very hot days amongst the turmoil, producing grapes with thicker skins and fleshy pulp. Back in 2007 temperatures tended to be lower without any real heat and the wines are of a much more elegant nature. 2011 reds possess an aromatic complexity that only Pinot Noir can give, they are lively and fresh and full of finesse. They become more classic the higher up the spectrum you go – hail the vigneron!
THE GROWING SEASON
We already knew from our visit the previous year that the growers had endured a torrid time during the 2012 growing season. Recent years had been difficult for the Burgundians. They had had to contend with everything that Mother Nature had thrown at them in this cool, northerly wine producing region.
It is here however, that the Pinot Noir is at its very best. Notorious for being difficult to cultivate, requiring very specific soil and climatic conditions, it can produce the most regal of red wines that rival those from any other producing region in the world. The 2012 is characterized by very low yields and it is worth examining the reasons behind this.
The winter following the 2011 vintage was relatively warm, so when the temperature dropped to -20°C in December, the saps were still high and many of the vines were damaged.
The early part of 2012 was mild and in March temperatures averaged 22°C. The months of April, May and June were cold and wet however, and it was clear that the vignerons were in for a challenging time. Flowering commenced on 9th June but it was a very long and protracted affair, drawn out over a month due to the unseasonable cold weather conditions.
Coulure was a major problem (the poor set or non-formation of berries, resulting in fewer grapes per bunch) as was mildew, due to the rains. No sooner had treatments been applied then they were washed away. The only surety at this stage was that it was going to be a very small crop.
The weather became friendlier towards the end of June, but even then a few days of heat wave burnt some of the berries, decreasing the yield even further. July saw the arrival of some fine weather which continued, apart from a devastating hailstorm on the 1st August which badly affected the villages of Puligny Montrachet and Volnay, up until harvest time.
Importantly it was just the kind of weather in which the Pinot Noir thrives. Dry and sunny without being too hot during the daytime, the temperatures then fell so that the evenings were cool, ensuring that the acidities were maintained. This long ripening period delivered the slow vegetative growth essential in the production of great Pinot Noir.
The weather held until harvest time, remaining cool enough to prevent the onset of Botrytis. Careful selection was required with table selection at the winery gates to eliminate burnt or unripe grapes.
The grapes were clean and healthy, set in very small bunches with very thick skins. A high percentage of grapes were affected by millerandage (small seedless grapes that are able to ripen around normal grapes). This always contributes to the concentration and quality of the wine.
It had been one of the most difficult growing seasons on record but crucially the vine photosynthesis was excellent.
The winemakers could now get to work in the winery.
Our tastings during the first week of November were some of the most exhilarating in recent years.
Given the difficult growing season our expectations were muted as we arrived in Beaune late Sunday evening on the 3rd November. By the time of our return we were clear in our view that 2012 is a memorable Burgundy vintage.
So how can this be so? The very poor flowering was it seems a blessing in disguise. The cold and wet weather ensured that the crop was always going to be very small. As I have already indicated, the vine photosynthesis was extremely good and we should be thankful that it was not a big “recolte”. A big crop with the weather pattern that ensued could have led to a large and dilute vintage.
Very little wine had been produced, though this came with an unsurprising increase in price. Some villages, most notably Volnay, experienced a catastrophic hailstorm on the 1st August and many growers suffered greatly. Domaine Lafarge experienced their smallest harvest of the last 50 years with 80% of the crop destroyed.
Those vignerons with a high proportion of “vieilles vignes” suffered as the difficult flowering affected the lower producing old vines, the resulting grapes holding very little juice. The younger vines are more growth prolific and so were not as badly affected.
The Côte de Beaune was most affected by the weather, particularly by the hail in early August and in many respects can be described as a “catastrophe” The Côte de Nuits fared better, although it was by no means a normal crop. The quality of fruit at harvest was excellent, with good sugars and acidities producing perfectly balanced wines.
The reds have good structure, deep colours and ripe tannins but are defined by an intense concentration of fresh fruits and profound richness. They have plenty of “matieres” which will give good ageing potential. Whilst they are very appealing when young, they are also “keepers”. It is a difficult vintage to place as it is unique. The reds have the attraction of the 2002 but the uniformity of the great 2005 vintage. There isn’t much of it and demand will be high.
The white wines were also of a very high quality, the low yields ensuring a concentration and intensity of fruit that is very appealing. The cool temperatures have maintained a superb fresh acidity and wines are perfectly balanced.
2012 – What a Vintage.
THE GROWING SEASON
Our annual trip to Burgundy took place at the beginning of November, when our buying team descended upon Beaune for a week of tastings that would prove to be exciting, fascinating and ultimately successful. Given that it was such a late vintage we were, in effect, tasting the wines a month earlier than we normally would.
The post 2012 harvest period did not create the perfect start for its successor. The months of December to February were mild, humid and rainy. A colder and harsher winter would have allowed the vines to enter their resting phase. Harsh frost results in large chunks of frozen earth exploding and breaking up to allow the soils to breathe, but unfortunately this did not happen in the 2012-2013 winter.
During April and May the weather was cold and wet, so wet in fact that Eric Remy of Domaine Leflaive commented that ducks were swimming in the vineyards! The cool and humid weather continued, resulting in a long and drawn out flowering of the vine. The normal three days were drawn out between 16th and 27th June, with the onset of coulure and millerandage making for a terribly difficult flowering.
By now the vignerons were all too aware that given such a late flowering it would be a late harvest – 100 days between flowering and harvest. Worse was to come!
The previous year we had already heard of the catastrophic hailstorm that had hit the region on the 23rd July. First to be hit were the vineyards of Pernand Vergelesses and Corton-Charlemagne before it devastated the vineyards of Savigny. It continued its path of destruction over Pommard and Volnay before its final destination of Meursault. Forty five minutes of violence that wreaked havoc for the second year running on some of the regions finest vineyards. Savigny lost 70% of its crop with some vineyards totally destroyed. Volnay suffered a 75% hit. Between 2012 and 2014 many domaines Bhave only managed to produce the equivalent of one complete vintage. The strains are beginning to show, quantities from some domaines are vastly reduced and there is an inevitable upward pressure on prices. The weakness of the Euro had however helped enormously and in many instances resulted in a reduction in price compared to 2012. However, hail not only damages the berries but also the leaves, which inhibits photosynthesis and the ripening process. The vignerons had a fight on their hands.
Fine weather did arrive during the summer. The growing season was long and drawn out but the long ‘hang time’ of the grapes ensured that the grapes were physiologically ripe by the time harvest arrived in late September/early October – the latest since 1980. Chaptalisation provided the required sugar levels and the winemaking could begin.
It is important to make the point that even though the 2013 vintage was very late the fruit arrived in the wineries in excellent condition, clean and ripe. Remember the great 1978 vintage was also very late with harvesting also in October.
Winemakers love vintages that are technical and complicated. Well they couldn’t get more challenging than this one! They have to be creative, react quickly and their efforts often show an individuality and brilliance that sets apart the great from the good.
Each appellation boasts its own characteristics and it is certainly a fine “terroir” vintage. Once the malolactic fermentations were complete the wines showed a beautiful equilibrium.
It is always difficult, even dangerous, to categorize a vintage, however it a question that we are always asked with comparisons to other vintages requested. It is safe to say that 2013 is a truly individual vintage that will fascinate the lover of Burgundy. It is a vintage that experienced an extraordinary late vegetative cycle and it is was a cool vintage. However the Pinot Noir is one of the most charismatic grape varieties that is in its element in cooler climes.
The red wines of the Cote de Nuits were looking exceptionally good, maybe not as rich as 2012 but perhaps with greater definition, whilst those from the Cote de Beaune possess a delightful charm. My hunch is that for red Burgundies we will need to give them time to develop but when the window opens we will be well rewarded.
In terms of the white wines Olivier Lamy saw a similar philosophy to the 2008 vintage – stylish, beautiful and full of floral aromas. Having tasted his St Aubin 1er Cru Clos du Meix 2008 over
Christmas we can think of ourselves very lucky! “Fill your boots” I say! They will drink quite early so we won’t have to wait too long to enjoy them.
2013 is truly a year of the appellation!
“The most difficult vintage to construct that was full of risks....the result is one of beautiful equilibrium” – Fabrice Amiot
“A stressful vintage, a true winegrowers vintage – those vignerons who worked hard have produced great wine” – Charles Lachaux
“A very individual vintage, a beautiful expression of Pinot Noir” – Natalie Tollot
THE GROWING SEASON
It had been a testing few years for the Bourguignon. The adverse weather conditions of the previous few years, in particular the devastating summer hailstorms, may have helped in producing vintages of low yields, high concentration and superb individual character. However it had become a financial nightmare for some growers. Between 2011 and 2014, yields were so meagre that in appellations such as Volnay they have lost the equivalent of a complete vintage. It had left some facing bankruptcy and unable to pay their bills.
The year started with very fine and warm weather. Winter failed to show its face and February, March and most of April were fine, sunny and mostly dry. This early start to the season led some to believe that it would be the earliest vintage since 2003 with an August harvest distinctly possible.
The flowering took place around the 22nd May. By now we were anticipating a normal growth cycle with harvest predicted around the 10th September in accordance with the 100 day cycle between the flowering of the vine and optimum ripening of the grape. The weather was so hot that some millerendage (small, seedless berries amid a few normal berries) and coulure (gaps where no berries have formed) occurred. This early start to the year was stopped in its tracks when the weather turned in late June, culminating in a devastating hailstorm in the early evening of 28th June. Hail the size of golf balls ravaged the vines to the sound of machine guns. The Côte de Beaune was seriously affected with the villages of Meursault, Volnay and Pommard very badly hit with losses of between 40 and 50%; thankfully the Côte de Nuits was relatively unscathed.
Whilst July wasn’t too bad, August was a poor excuse for summer, more like November – cool wet and humid, the only positive factor being the drying effect of the cool northern wind. An Indian summer was desperately needed to save the vintage but this was no time to panic as late August/early September is often the time that makes the vintage in Burgundy. The last three weeks before harvest are always crucial.
Between the 15th and 20th August the weather turned for the better with perfect warm and sunny days all the way through to harvest time – 5th/6th September in the Mâconnais and 12th September in the Côte d’Or. This beautiful three week period made the vintage, and although it wasn’t particularly hot the sun shone continuously. As Romain Taupenot of Domaine Taupenot Merme commented – “it is the light that ripens the grapes not heat.”
By harvest time the grapes possessed a very good phenolic ripeness with excellent sugar levels and high acidity with very little rot. The growing season was enough to test the nerves of the most placid vigneron but when the grapes arrived at the press house they were clean and in perfect condition.
After three very small vintages, Burgundy was in desperate need of a good crop.
Overall their prayers were answered.
The Côte de Beaune was worst hit by the hailstorm of the 28th June with reductions of up to 50% and more in certain vineyards. Whilst Meursault suffered badly, Puligny and Chassagne Montrachet were spared and have produced a ‘normal’ quantity of wine. The good news is that the white wines are outstanding. These are classic white Burgundies with high acidity, backbone and a rich creamy fruit. There is a seamless purity that defines the wines.
In Pommard and Volnay, the vignerons were still shell-shocked. In certain Pommard vineyards the crop was almost completely destroyed. Qualitatively the reds were very good displaying typical Pinot Noir characteristics, beautifully fragrant and elegant with succulent cherry flavours.
Further north in the Côte de Nuits we tasted delicious wines that were immediately approachable and far easier to understand than the wines of 2013. That is not to say that they are simple. There are some very, very good wines showing great complexity, very well balanced, rich in clean fresh cassis fruit. I would suggest that they will drink sooner than the 2013 vintage although they do have the structure and balance to age very well also.
After the tiny vintage last year in the Mâconnais, 2014 had produced a beautiful vintage. The wines will drink early but also have the potential to age.
In conclusion the 2014 vintage was outstanding, maybe great, for white wines. The hardy Chardonnay tends to cope better than the more delicate Pinot Noir in vintages with such turbulent weather. That said, the red wines are very well balanced and possess classic Pinot Noir characters.
What the vignerons said;
“The 2014 vintage allowed me to express in my wines the true terroir of each appellation” – Fabrice Amiot, Domaine Amiot, Chassagne-Montrachet
“A very beautiful vintage – the more I taste it the more I am impressed” – Gerard Boudot, Domaine Sauzet, Puligny-Montrachet
“2014 is a very glamorous vintage – a perfect balance between seductiveness and energy” – Etienne Grivot, Domaine Grivot, Vosne Romanée.
THE GROWING SEASON
Previous years had shown Burgundy at its very best – individual, inspirational and exhilarating. Each vintage produces wines of great individual character, showing the diversity and expression of the various appellations. The weather had been the dominant factor, causing havoc in some areas and leaving many Burgundians in difficult financial circumstances. Time for some respite and at last Mother Nature showed her kindness.
The winter of 2014-2015 would ideally have been colder to kill off the bugs but it was at least wet, providing much needed water reserves for the year ahead. This proved to be crucial given the high temperatures experienced during the summer growing season.
The bud break was a little earlier than usual in April, due to the mild weather conditions. May was uneventful but mainly dry. The flowering took place around the 25th May and was very successful, both even and swift, over a short ten day period.
In June the weather was fine with some well received rain refreshing the grapes before temperatures started to rise. The month of July was extremely hot with a three week heat wave so intense that the vines began to stress and growth stalled. By now the worry was that the high temperatures could block the ‘veraison’ (the onset of ripening when the grapes begin to change colour) so canopy management was all important with little leaf removal to avoid burning the grapes. By now it was the hottest summer since 2003.
Thankfully in August rains arrived giving much needed refreshment to the vines and allaying fears of a repeat of 2003. The grapes continued to ripen, the thick skins a notable result of the hot summer weather. Harvest started in late August for the Chardonnay, followed by the Pinot Noir in early September, the fruit perfectly ripe and in pristine condition. All was set for a great vintage, particularly for the Pinot Noir.
By the time the harvest was complete and the grapes were in the press house, the vignerons knew that they had achieved everything in the vineyard that is required to produce a great vintage. There was a palpable excitement and even astonishment at how perfect the grapes really were. Selection was not at all difficult, if needed at all. Michel Lafarge commented simply – “Magnifique”
As in previous vintages, yields were small in certain areas. Although the fruit was very healthy, the bunches were very tight and the grapes were very small with thick skins and hence less juice. In many instances, yields were reduced by up to 40% compared to a normal vintage. (although what is a normal vintage these days?) Charles Lachaux says he suffered reductions of up to 50% in some crus. The upside of course, is that such fruit concentration has produced some astounding wines.
The white wines were a little more challenging than the reds; however the vignerons seem to have learnt the lessons of previous hot vintages such as 2003, 2005 and 2009. The harvest for the Chardonnay took place in late August in order to capture the freshness and acidities. The grapes were ripe and high in sugar with a lower level of malic acid than normal. It has to be said that some left it a little too late and the resulting wines are somewhat overblown – these we left well alone. Domaines such as Michelot and Lamy have performed exceptionally well, although we now expect that of such top domaines, the latter particularly benefiting from the cooler, higher altitude vineyards preserving the freshness.
Further north in Chablis, a pre harvest storm in the early hours of the 1st September threatened an excellent vintage. As the threat of rot increased it became a race against time to complete the harvest, however by then the fruit was already ripe and a very strict selection process had ensured that some super wines were produced.
The Pinot Noir was harvested during the first week of September, just as the weather started to cool. The grapes were in glorious condition, thick skinned, concentrated with a perfect balance of sugar and acidity. The hot weather ensured the stems were also very ripe, an important factor for those vignerons who favour a degree of whole bunch ferment. It was also important not to force the winemaking process and avoid over extraction, so soft vinification was the order of the day.
The resulting wines are quite sensational, perfectly balanced with a stunning concentration. The general feeling is that they sit stylistically between 2009 and 2010 and similar to 2005 but with greater fruit concentration. Oh my goodness!
This is a very flattering vintage for the white wines, broad and rich in texture that will offer relatively early, flamboyant drinking. The red wines are destined for greatness showing a richness and concentration rarely seen, with beautiful, ripe and succulent tannins.
Recommending this vintage is a very simple thing to do. A great year for the reds and an excellent one for the whites!
“Make no mistake, 2015 Burgundy is a great vintage.” - Neal Martin, December 2016 www.RobertParker.com
“Producers are citing this as the finest Pinot Noir vintage since 2005 and 2010 – some are saying the best for 60 years.” – Decanter, February 2017
THE GROWING SEASON
The Vintage in Burgundy during 2016 was unique for many reasons, notwithstanding a period of less than one hour between 7.45am and 8.45 am on the 28th of April when a sharp drop in temperature caused ice to form on the fragile and delicate buds of the serried rows of both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the heartland of Burgundy. This frost, the worst experienced in the Côte d’Or since 1981, centered on the picturesque and romantic stone villages of Meursault, Volnay, Pommard, Santenay, Chorey in the Côte de Beaune, as far up as Nuits St Georges and Gevrey Chambertin in the Côte de Nuits.
Whilst of concern, the frost was not the sole reason for the massive destruction that ensued. It was the small fact that the sun came out at 7.45am and its damaging light was then magnified by the ice crystals on the buds, magnifying the sun’s intense rays and ‘burning’ the buds. Where a patch of cloud obscured the sun that morning, over Morey St Denis for instance, those vineyards lying in the shade escaped almost unscathed, but even this was sporadic and could not be explained; parts of some vineyards were untouched by the intense ‘’killer ray’ and frost, whilst others in the next row were completely ruined. It was a climatic lottery, and one that was unheard of in Burgundy by the modern generation.
Normally the frosts hit the lower vineyards, damaging the vines that produce Bourgogne Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as the Village Appellations. However in 2016, it was the mid slopes that were damaged with many Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards badly affected, leaving the lower lying vineyards inexplicably undamaged.
The weather after the devastating frosts was hardly ideal. Between May and June it was both warm and wet creating the perfect conditions for two fungal diseases common to Burgundy, downy mildew and powdery mildew. At times it was rampant. The flowering was difficult and those domaines that farm biodynamically had to shelve their principles in order to save what remained of their vintage. Could it get any worse?
Thankfully the weather during the summer of 2016 was not extreme. After June 15th the weather improved dramatically, with July and August particularly fine. Very dry, plenty of light but not extreme in temperature, it was ideal conditions for the slow maturation of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.
By the beginning of September the vines were beginning to stress due to the lack of water. The grapes that remained were very small and thick skinned, ironically in dire need of rain, which finally arrived on the 18th and 19th of September. A further ten days of maturation helped produce excellent grapes with perfect phenolic ripeness.
Whilst the quantities were minute, the quality was pristine. The 2016 growing season was one of the most complicated and unique on record.
Compared to the hot, trouble free summer of the year before when the vignerons had an easy ride and were presented with beautifully ripe and clean fruit at harvest time, this year they were ‘put through the wringer’.
They had endured a very troubled year, their heads were a little low and certainly there is variation of quality from domaine to domaine. Vineyard management is where the battle was won and those that worked diligently have been rewarded with great results, even if their cellars were looking a little bare. We have never seen such empty cellars. Domaines Tollot Beaut and Arnoux-Lachaux particularly spring to mind.
However, it is important to state here clearly that the negative reports in some of the press were wide of the mark. The 2015 vintage was already acclaimed as ‘great’ before the grapes were even in the press house, a beautiful and trouble free summer making early conclusions easy to make. There seems to be a view amongst some that in 2016 a difficult growing season + punch drunk vignerons = Poor vintage. Wrong.
We like this vintage very much. There is very little wine, (it was rather strange visiting cellar after cellar hearing about yields of 9-10hl/ha), but what there is will prove to offer excellent drinking, particularly from the highly sought after domaines, such as those that we have worked with for many years.
The white wines are classic, elegant with a stunning balance. The concentration of fruit is very impressive with tropical fruits and crushed apple notes, but what sets them apart is their purity and balance. In this respect they have a similarity to the super 2014 vintage.
As for the red wines, they are charming, elegant with great energy. This is a vintage that has produced classic Pinot Noir, so very different form the exotic 2015 vintage, with a superb expression of terroir. They will age very well, indeed it is a vintage that will repay well those who are patient.
In the years to come when we are enjoying a great glass of wine for the 2016 vintage, the difficulties and complications that the Burgundians faced in producing such magnificent wines may not be mused. However, it is not a vintage that they themselves will ever forget.
THE GROWING SEASON
Not since 2009 have the Burgundians been rewarded with such a bountiful vintage. A cocktail of spring frosts, summer hailstorms, heat waves and other random meteorological mischiefs had caused untold havoc in recent years with many small growers facing the real prospect of going out of business.
But thankfully, there is a God after all!
The beginning of the year was cold and dry followed by a wet and warm February. March proved to be mild and sunny and the vegetative cycle set into gear with an early start to the growing season. As Olivier Merlin mused when we visited him at his cellars in La Roche Vineuse, “spring makes the quantity….summer makes the quality!”
Twelve months previously, the Côte d’Or had been ravaged by one of the harshest frosts in history. The now infamous frost of the 29th April 2016 had been exacerbated by the high level of humidity in the soil. The ice on the grapes had acted as an amplifier for the early morning sun, burning the grapes. The result was complete disaster. Incredibly the vignerons were faced with exactly the same threat only twelve months later with heavy frosts hitting the region.
What followed was one of the most heartwarming, brotherly efforts by the many growers (apparently the architects were the growers of Savigny-Lès-Beaune) who collaborated in lighting a mass of fires at the top of the hillsides, dousing the flames with water to create a mass of smoke which slowly descended in the still morning air, over the vineyards, creating a protective fog against the early morning sun. It was a masterstroke that was hugely successful, although it was inevitable that despite saving the vintage and the local economy, there were a few moaning minnies who complained to the local authorities that their houses smelled of smoke for weeks after!
After April the weather turned cooler, slowing down the vegetative cycle. The flowering was successful in the early days of June and thereafter the summer was hot and dry, 35°C - 40°C, but the helping southerly winds meant the fruit was not burned. Thankfully there were no climatic problems to deal with.
A feature of the summer was that the evenings were fairly cool which helped keep the acidities refreshingly high, of particular importance in the production of the Chardonnay grape.
Frédéric Lafarge commented that “It was an easy vintage with perfectly ripe grapes – a vintage of great purity!”
In August the sugars moved quickly so the big question was when to pick. The lack of rain and prolonged dryness was about to stall the ripening process. Thankfully at the end of August and early September some much needed rain arrived, boosting the thick skinned grapes and providing much needed freshness and helped the grapes to reach their physiological/ phenolic ripeness.
Not every region of Burgundy had it so easy. In St Aubin there were damaging frosts which has substantially reduced volumes. One of our favourite producers, Domaine Lamy, saw much reduced yields! Further north in Chablis, the vineyards are always susceptible to frosts and spontaneous hailstorms, given that the vineyards are at the limit of the latitudinal viticultural boundary.
In 2017 they were once again hit badly, with 11 days of consecutive frost. Domaine Testut experienced losses of 60% - Ouch! In quality terms, however, the wines are exceptional and must not be missed. Bear in mind that Chablis does still offer outstanding value compared to the Côte d’Or.
Overall, 2017 was a relatively easy and simple vintage. After recent years one cannot begrudge the Burgundians a little fortune.
“My first easy vintage"! – Mathilde Grivot, who joined the family domaine in 2010.
After a week visiting over twenty growers, we returned home in good spirits. We had tasted some excellent wines and unearthed a few new discoveries.
Our fears of finding diluted wines due to the early September rains were unfounded.
Indeed these late rains helped to produce a wonderful vintage. After a hot and dry summer the grapes were struggling to attain their physiological ripeness. The welcome rain helped to fi ll the thick skinned grapes a little and aid the final days of ripening.
So what of the wines?
In the northern region of Chablis, the temperatures were neither too hot nor too cold, with rain at the right time helping the grapes to achieve an excellent maturity and concentration. The cool nights helped to protect the acidity levels, vital in the productionof great Chablis. 2017 had produced some exceptional wines in Chablis – fresh, steely and distinctive, full of energy and tension. I am often asked for vintage comparisons which is never easy, but it does seem to have the fruit of 2012 and the acidity of 2014, which is a lovely combination.
Further South in the Côte d’Or, there were plenty of smiles as 2017 was the first generous vintage since 2017, and boy did they need it!
The white wines are extremely good. The date of harvest was very important as the sugars moved quickly in late August and preserving the acidities was paramount. Once the fruit was in the press house it was a technically easy vintage to produce, such was the clean and healthy condition of the grapes. Marc Bachelet commented that he is delighted with his wines. “The fermentation was long, and after the wines were taken of the lees and racked, they showed a magnifi cent quality – very impressive”
Jean Louis Chavy also likens the vintage to 2009 with an impressive richness of fruit and super attack of acidity. Big in texture, ripe with plenty of energy that delivers an impressive balance to the wines.
I asked Benoît Riffault at Domaine Sauzet his personal view of the vintage. “I like it a lot because I think it is special. Top balance – top equilibrium. This is not usual.”
There is little dispute that both 2014 and 2016 have more ‘terroir’ characteristics, but the white wines of 2017 are filled with precision and energy, big in body and superbly balanced.
The reds are somewhat of a surprise as we were expecting to find wines that suffered from dilution. Actually we found wines that had a beautiful expression of fruit, filled with charm and elegance but also with a scrumptious rich fruit underbelly. Vineyard management was key in 2017 and the top growers were ruthless in limiting their yields.
There is a rich and voluptuous style to this vintage, sweeter and less austere than 2016. We found wines with great precision and tension that will be easy to understand. Sometimes it’s nice not to have to ask too many questions. We are not all intellectuals.
The 2017 red wines will drink well before the 2016’s but the tannins are ripe and silky smooth and they will have a propensity to age. There is a lovely generous and supple fruit content, typical of a warm vintage, whilst at the same time a freshness associated with a cooler vintage. Similar in many ways to 2009 and in certain ways 2012, there is also a similar freshness to the 2014 vintage. A really lovely vintage that is a true expression of Pinot Noir.
Maconnais experience a very hot summer. Global warming is certainly having an effect in this region. In this respect the yields were much lower. “One of the warmest vintages that I have ever worked” commented Patrick Luquet. Olivier Merlin told us that he has picked in August five times in the last eighteen years. Compare that to only three years in the whole of the last century at his domaine.
Here, the early September rains were a Godsend. Before they arrived the grapes were high in acidity and high in sugar, and the searing heat was blocking the ripening process. Again, picking dates were the deciding factor – getting it wrong was not an option. The results are very impressive and the Maconnais is a very good source of affordable Chardonnay and Pinot Noir this year. A quiet tip – Olivier Merlin’s Pinot Noir!
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