After a week in Burgundy tasting over 500 wines and spending time with numerous vignerons (wine growers), I have a good picture of the 2010 vintage and a blurry snapshot of the 2011 vintage. Both the reds and the whites from 2010 have such clarity of flavour definition that it was hard for me to imagine that this vintage was a question mark in many people’s minds. When I asked numerous vignerons about the 2010 vintage, the replies were always cautious. “It was a difficult vintage and we are surprised by how good the wines are,” Sylvain Pitiot of Clos de Tart said to me. At Domaine Leflaive where Anne Claude Leflaive crafts some of the most sought-after white wines, the answer was similar. “2010 was a difficult year,” she said. “But we like difficult vintages. We get to utilise our skills and our wines are consistent because we are biodynamic.”
At Domaine d’Eugenie, a small high quality domaine run by the meticulous Frederick Engerer of Chateau Latour, the wines had great tension as well as depth. I prefer the 2010 vintage as well as the 2008 of their wines over the much heralded 2009 vintage. Winemaker of Domaine d’Eugenie, Michel Mallard, called 2010 a “vigneron’s vintage” that demanded intervention. From the beginning, the weather posed challenges – warm early spring followed by poor flowering and a cool and wet summer. Finally in September, the weather turned warm and sunny enough for the Pinot Noir and the Chardonnay to reach ripeness. Decisions from how mould and disease issues were handled to the date of harvest and handling of the grapes were critical points in how the final wine would turn out.
Unlike Bordeaux where great vintages are sometimes announced from the time of harvest, in Burgundy, the mood is always cautious. Even in vintages like 2005, a fantastic vintage, the vignerons were cautiously enthusiastic. Any positive statement about the vintage is always qualified with “Please taste and try for yourself, it is only my opinion.”
Perhaps it is the precarious conditions in which Pinot Noir grows in this marginal climate where ripening has been a challenge for centuries that creates the cautious attitude among growers. The vignerons are always cautious because they know that the weather can easily turn on them – a hail can wipe out an entire vineyard, freezing temperatures can kill the vines and variable wet weather conditions can cause havoc and disease in the vineyard virtually overnight. Pinot Noir grows well in this difficult climate and many would say, thrives here, more than in any other place in the world.
Or maybe it is the transparency of the variety that adds to the cautious attitude. Pinot Noir, more than any other red grape variety, reveals the care taken in the vineyard, the decisions made throughout the year by the vigneron and the maturation process. If you over oak or sloppily filter a fine red Burgundy, it shows immediately in the wine. One can more easily make mistakes with tougher, burly varieties where the tannins, fuller body and concentrated flavours can mask a few sloppy winemaking decisions. But with Pinot Noir, even the smallest mistake can alter its fragile perfume or its flavour profile.
At this year’s Hospice de Beaune annual charity auction, I was seated near many owners and heads of the largest negociants and domaines. Pierre Henry Gagey, President of Louis Jadot, seated behind me remarked, “We really need the wine prices [for the 2011 wines being offered at the auction] to come down this year. It is sensible because 2010 was a better year so 2011 vintage should be less.” This year’s auction, which sets the mood and benchmark for Burgundy prices for the current vintage, started out with prices above the 2010 vintage for the first several lots. Next to me Veronique Drouhin of Domaine Drouhin commented, “This is not good. We need prices to come down.” As more expensive lots such as the Batard-Montrachet which was sold for 63,000 Euros sold this year for 53,000 Euros, Veronique smiled and said, “This is more sensible.”
The Burgundians, unlike their counterparts in other parts of France, actually want the prices of their wines to be sensibly priced according to the quality of the vintage. When I asked growers about the 2011 vintage still fermenting in barrel or tank, their comments were, “It’s too early to tell.” There are no snap judgments or opinions given and I was requested to come back when the wines are more settled and finished a year from now to assess them.
I did taste about 30 different samples of the 2011 vintage, mostly those that were going to be sold at the Hospice de Beaune auction. Some were still fermenting and these were very difficult to assess but in general the 2011 reds seem promising. Like the 2010s, this was another small crop, and that may have contributed to good flavour and phenolic ripeness in the reds. From those I tasted, the Village and Premier Cru level reds had good depth of fruit and were not thin or hollow.
Leaving Burgundy with my gums and tongue sore from the onslaught of searing acidity, I am smitten with the 2010 vintage. For wine students, this is the textbook classic Burgundy vintage to discover. Find out what is the flavour differences between a Chambolle Musigny versus a Gevrey Chambertin or a Nuits Saint Georges. Even within more specific areas, this vintage clearly details the differences between a Batard-Montrachet and a Chevalier-Montrachet or the between a Bonne Mares and a Musigny. These wines speak to you in a clear voice, revealing their strong personalities and core strength backed by firm acidity. These wines are certainly destined for my cellar.
Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post