Burgundy Vintages -- Les Blancs

The wine media are as a rule useless at providing an assessment of Burgundy vintages for the following reasons: 1) They try to score vintages; 2) The rush into an assessment before the wines are bottled and even before the grapes are picked; 3) They think ripe and sunny vintages are the best; 4) They assume that if red Bordeaux is good then all wines in Europe must be good; 5) They work on a 3 year rolling cycle so if 2000 is great then 2001 can't be better and 2002 is a warm up for 2003; 6) Most wine journalists don't understand each wine region well enough to make intelligent comments; 7) Most wine journalists don't have a big enough personal cellar and length of experience to judge how wines will evolve over 10 or 15 years. Yes, I could go on. One example will suffice.

The Guide Hachette, which is generally one of the least biased, best researched and most comprehensive guides to French wines rates white Burgundy 2003 as 18/20 and 2004 as 15/20, 2006 is rated 16/20 and 2007 at 13/20. The 2011 Guide which was published in October 2010 rates 2009 as 16/20. QED on points 1, 2 and 3 above. Alternatively try Robert Parker's vintage assessment which varies between 90/100 and 91/100 for the years 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 and 2004. So if your hand is wavering between 5 different vintages when ordering from a wine list remember there is +/- 1% quality difference. At least they mark 2003 as 84/100 which means "above average to excellent".

2003 -- an incredibly hot and dry vintage. Many white producers started and finished their vendanges in August (starting in August is not so rare). The hot weather and lack of rain resulted in low yields. The grapes had high sugar levels and low acidity. These wines -- even the premiers crus from top producers -- are now over the hill due to the low acidity and poor balance. An 18/20 vintage? Anyone who is still hanging onto these bottles should consume them now! Today.

2004 -- a vintage with a wide range of temperatures and vendanges in the second half of September. Warm June followed by a rainy and sometimes stormy July and early August. Followed by a sunny and windy September. The 2004 vintage is superbly complex, balanced and mineral. Village wines are now at the peak of maturity but premiers crus from Chassagne, Puligny and Meursault have another 3-4 years of evolution. When they were young the minerality could have been too intensive but many have filled our gloriously with bottle age. Scored at 15/20 in the Guide Hachette.

2005 -- like 2004, the 2005 vintage experienced the usual ups and downs of the Burgundy climate. After heavy snow in early March the vines budded in late March. May was inconsistent with heavy rain, hot periods and then abnormally cold periods. June was very hot and then August was very dry which stressed the chardonnay vines. By September 12th the vendanges started. The result? Powerful, structured wines with more of a savoury style than the mineral style of the 2004s. Not very accessible to the conothingscenti. A great backdrop for a discussion like whether DSK will be the next French president. Not an easy-glugging vintage. Guide Hachette score: 18/20.

2006 -- a vintage characterised by a very hot July, a cloudy and slightly damp August followed by a very warm September with the chardonnay harvest starting 5 days before the "ban des vendanges" which required a special exception from the INAO. Anyone who has tasted 2006s knows that they are round, fruity, charming, immediately open, many verge on aromas more similar to the Maconnais or even Condrieu (apricots, peaches). Like 2003, not a vintage to keep, but to drink young. Unlikely to develop much complexity due to the lower acidity and ripe fruits. Very enjoyable but do not wait beyond 2013. Guide Hachette score: 16/20.

2007 -- this vintage started with a very warm spring, through March, April and May. In theory the vendanges could have started in mid-August at a date earlier even than 2003. But then a cool summer arrived which pushed back the harvest to early September with most picking finished by mid-September. There were concerns about ripeness in grapes picked slightly too early (2 or 3 days make all the difference in sugar levels). 2007s from good producers have increasingly complex aromas and excellent freshness on the palate. Perfect for sea food like a carpaccio of scallops or sea bream. Medium-bodied and fresh making 2007 a great digestive wine. Guide Hachette score: 13/20.

2008 -- one of the most tricky vintages in the last 10 years for chardonnay because cool weather, rain and hail storms constantly threatened the sugar levels and health of the grapes. According to the date of flowering, the vendanges could have started in mid-September but this was pushed back by 10 days by the better domaines to ensure ripeness was achieved. A warm and dry first 2 weeks of September massively improved the vintage. These 2008s are complex, very fresh and have really good concentration (for the domaines that picked later and sacrificed around 20-30% of the potential crop as rain-engorged grapes dried out). More balanced than the 2007s, fresher than the 2006s and 2009s, this will be a star vintage. Guide Hachette score: 15/20.

2009 -- TBI.

What does this mean? In Burgundy first buy the wine-maker, then buy the terroir and then buy the vintage. The top domaines do everything they can to achieve quality and avoid tricky vintage characteristics resulting in unappealing wines. The distinction between Meursault-Charmes from two different producers is more significant than the distinction between one producer's Meursault-Charmes and her Puligny Combettes -- after all the vineyards are right next to each other. Vintages impact all producers -- there is no running away from the weather. And as many Burgundy producers like to say, who can predict what your children will be good at when they grow up?


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