Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Burgundy 2013 Vintage Report

By Matthew Hemming MW

If you’re reading this you presumably have some interest in the wines of Burgundy and, in this case, you’re probably at least obliquely aware that life has not been kind to Burgundian vignerons in recent years. Whilst we haven’t had a vintage of poor quality in at least a decade, 2009 was the last abundant harvest and since then most estates have lost the equivalent of at least a year’s production in terms of crop loss. In particular, severe storms and hail have taken a massive toll on the vineyards of Burgundy, literally destroying berries on the vine, encouraging rot and shredding leaves, so plants can no longer perform photosynthesis and ripen what fruit remains.

With all this in mind, and given some smaller domaines are on the brink of financial ruin given the lack of wine to sell, it’s amazing that we returned from our recent tasting week in Burgundy with a real sense of optimism. The positivity is twofold: the 2013 vintage, against the odds, has delivered some really exciting, high quality wines; the 2014s, which were bubbling away in barrels during our visit, are also very promising in quality but – crucially – Mother Nature has finally delivered a bigger crop. Volumes of ’14 are broadly back to 2010 levels, which wasn’t a big vintage but was larger than anything since, allowing everyone to breathe something of a sigh of relief.

One of the most considered and insightful summaries of the 2013 season came from Gregory Gouges, at his family’s famous domaine in Nuits St Georges. Gregory explained that the weather in 2012 did not make it easy for the vines but in 2013 the weather made life hard for both the vines and the vignerons. Rain and humidity would threaten the onset of fungal disease but then the weather would not let up enough to allow workers to spray treatments on the vines – spray in the wet, and everything’s just washed away! He also described how the poor weather during flowering led to problems at fruit set and high levels of millerandage – shot berries that remain very small and do not develop. This was a particular issue in the 1er Cru Vaucrains vineyard, resulting in a tiny yield of just 18 hectolitres per hectare, when around 30hl/ha would normally be a low yield. But all is not bad news: these tiny grapes may not produce much juice, but the higher ratio of juice to solids gives greater intensity, concentration and structure. Gregory’s Vaucrains is probably the best wine in his cellar in ’13.

A final technical point that might be of interest, before all this gets too dry...in Vosne Romanee
Etienne Grivot - who lost 5 barrels of his production to a vinegar fly that was particularly prevalent this year due to the mild autumn and which introduces volatile acidity to the wine – said how his grapes seemed to contain very few pips in 2013. Etienne also attributes this to the difficult conditions during flowering, but it’s had an interesting consequence. Growers often judge the ripeness of their crop by the ripeness of the pips, waiting for them to turn from green – think unripe tannins – to brown, in a process called lignification. With fewer pips to lignify this process didn’t take as long as in other years, so grapes hit full physiological ripeness at a lower level of sugar ripeness, meaning fresher wines with moderate levels of alcohol could be made in 2013. For Burgundy drinkers alarmed at the trend towards plusher and more alcoholic wines in riper vintages – reds that taste more of Pinot Noir and less of Burgundy – ’13 should hold lots of interest.

5th generation family winemaker,
Jean-Michel Chartron
The 2013 reds are not of consistent quality. There are some poorly chaptalised wines that are at the same time both weirdly sweet and thin and weedy. It’s very simple: we won’t be buying them. The wines we like, and will be buying, have fairly deep, vibrant colours; detail and brightness in their red fruit aromatics; great succulence and juiciness on the palate, giving a wonderful sense of energy; and a fine balance. This is not a powerful or rich vintage like 2009 or 2012 but represents something somewhere between 2008 and 2010. The wines don’t have quite the elevated acidity, and sometimes austerity, of ’08 and are not as pure and scented as the best of ’10 but at its best there is lots to enjoy in 2013. In some cases, where growers were particularly badly hit by hail, some wines benefit from 1er Cru fruit being declassified into lesser cuvees. Marc-Olivier Buffet, for instance, had insufficient grapes to produce some of his Pommard 1er Crus, so the village wine contains about 20% 1er Cru fruit and tastes superb.

As Jean-Pierre Charlot, at Domaine Joseph Voillot in Volnay, remarked, this is ‘une millesime classique.’ Winemakers with a lightness of touch have found real success in the vintage and fans of proper red Burgundy should pay close attention.

I found four distinct styles of white wine in 2013.

- Soft styles of Chardonnay that are too broad and lack any backbone. These often have honeyed and even caramel flavours. They will fall over almost before we would ship them, so we’ll be leaving them in France.

- Plump, peachy whites that will be for early drinking but which have sufficient acidity to give them some shape and structure. These will make for flattering, early drinking in a creamy and easy-going style. Some of J-J Girard’s whites are like this and, as long as they’re not too expensive, there’s lots of fun to be had with these.

- Outstanding wines of tension, minerality and poise. These have the potential to become some of the finest white Burgundies of recent years. More about these to follow...

- Whites that walked the tightrope of acidity and ripeness and fell off. Often from the coolest, most marginal vineyard sites, these have ended up with tooth-cracking acidity and brittle textures that lack balance and are simply unripe.

Eva Reh Siddle,
Head of Domaine Bertagna since 1988
Now, more about those good whites. Marc Bachelet, who is now into his 10th vintage at Domaine Bachelet-Monnot, compares 2013 to 2010, which is my favourite white wine vintage of the 2000s to date. This is echoed by Dominique Lafon, in Meursault, who believes that the best of ’13 stands toe-to-toe with ’10. The style of these wines balances ripe orchard fruit against razor sharp acidity – pulling off the trick of staying on the tightrope. There’s not an ounce of excess flesh on these wines, and the freshness gives them great clarity and zip. Many are shot through with a seam of minerality and the wines are clearly stamped with their vineyard origins. Domaines Bachelet-Monnot, Chartron and Antoine Jobard have made some tremendous 2013s.

Wines of the vintage? Domaine Charton’s Chevalier Montrachet and Grivot’s Richebourg. If you’re not a gazillionaire - and are looking for something you’ve a hope of finding in stock – then either Chartron’s St Aubin or Dubreuil-Fontaine’s Pernand Vergelesses Clos Berthet, and the Vosne 1er Cru Beaux Monts from either Hudelot-Noellat or Domaine Bertagna should scratch your itch admirably.

Matthew Hemming MW

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