2002 and 2001 Red Burgundies

Just because the 2002 red Burgundies are outrageously expensive doesn't mean they're not also utterly delicious.As most Burgundy lovers are already painfully aware, the weak U.S. dollar, the small size of the 2003 crop, and a building worldwide thirst for the 2002s have all conspired to drive prices for these wines to record levels in America's wine shops.Whereas just a few months ago it looked as if the 2002s would be 5% to 20% more expensive than the 2001s, today the difference is more frequently 10% to 40%, depending on how successfully importers have hedged themselves against the falling dollar.Do these wines merit such a price premium?

Well, yes and no.Clearly, vintage 2002 has enabled Burgundy's better producers along the length Well, yes and no. Clearly, vintage 2002 has enabled Burgundy's better producers along the length of the Côte d'Or to make silky, succulent wines with glorious pinot fruit. These wines should give enormous pleasure early and provide at least medium-term aging potential. The vintage has as much early sex appeal as any crop of Burgundies in recent memory. Those who can afford the better 2002s will not be disappointed. However, the vintage does not generally appear to have the sheer structure and grip to be a classic long-term ager. Moreover, the wines do not as a rule showcase their individual site character, or terroir, as clearly as the 2001s (or '98s) do. But they are more consistently ripe and fleshy.

The 2002 growing season and harvest. Following a cold winter and rainy spring, the flowering was draw out, especially on the Côte de Nuits, by a period of cool weather in early June. The summer of 2002 was distinctly unexciting in the Burgundy region. June and July were on the cool side, with sporadic rainstorms that were generally constructive for the vines. In this topsy-turvy summer, Scandinavia enjoyed unusually warm weather and sunshine, while storms streamed across Spain, Southern France and Northern Italy through much of July, August and early September. Burgundy was consistently just to the north of the worst excesses of weather. A brief period of heat in early August threatened to retard the ripening process but showers came along at the right time. Still, humid weather and some rain in late August raised the specter of rot. And without any sustained periods of warm, sunny weather, the ripening was still behind schedule in late August, and growers were mostly pessimistic. Early September was also changeable, and significant rain fell on September 9, although nothing like the deluge that swamped the Southern Rhône Valley.

But then a near-miracle occurred, as a drying wind from the northeast arrived in the days prior to the harvest and for the most part continued to blow through the end of September. The north wind and bright sunshine dried the grapes—stopping rot in its tracks, raising sugar levels (through sunshine and photosynthesis more than through heat), reducing the amount of juice in the grapes and thereby cutting the size of the crop and preserving acidity levels. The harvest began on September 16th in the Côte de Beaune and on the 18th in the Côte de Nuits. Weather conditions remained favorable though the harvest, which was essentially finished in two weeks—with the exception of a highly localized storm on the evening of the 19th that hit Marsannay hard, causing some hail damage, but brought less rain to Gevrey, and virtually no meaningful precipitation as far south as Nuits-Saint-Georges. (Some growers south of Gevrey told me that this precipitation actually helped their vines achieve better ripeness.) Grape sugars in 2002 were fairly high, and many estates did little or no chaptalization, unless they simply added a bit of sugar to prolong their fermentations. Due to the dehydrating effect of the wind, ultimate yields were moderate and in some cases quite low by recent Burgundy standards. Rot was not generally a factor, and most estates made relatively little use of their sorting tables.

The 2002 wines. As the moderate daytime temperatures and cool nights during September preserved malic acidity, the young wines were often difficult to taste in the early going. The malos frequently finished very late, and the wines were often radically transformed during their secondary fermentations (much more so than in 2003, for example, when there was virtually no malic acidity to be converted to the softer lactic acidity). In many cellars, the wines were still working through the baking summer of 2003, which means that they were protected to some degree against warmer ambient conditions by the fact that the lees were still in suspension.

The young 2002s were downright seductive when I carried out my extensive tastings in Burgundy in November. (As always, I'd like to make clear that when I describe the qualities of a vintage I am essentially talking about the work done by the top 20% of the region's producers; mediocre producers can make disappointing wines even in the best years.) With time in barrel, the wines' flesh and sweetness have become manifest. The 2002s lead with their fruit and varietal character, but they have no shortage of extract and many wines pack formidable hidden power. The fruit is ripe and succulent, seldom green and rarely cooked. Textures are rich and often downright silky. The wines show an attractive balance of sugars, acids and tannins, as the tannins are solid and ripe and acidity levels are generally sound. Thanks to the moderate yields and strong material, few winemakers were tempted to concentrate their musts or overextract during fermentation. In a nutshell, the 2002s taste like wines made from healthy, concentrated fruit. As the wines' phenolic components are ripe and gentle, it is hard to imagine that the 2002s will ever withdraw and turn sullen for an extended period.

Despite the concentration of material and generally sound balance of the wines, most growers indicated to me in November that they planned to bottle at their normal times, or earlier, to capture the glorious fruit of the vintage. For one thing, they were concerned that warmer-than-normal cellar conditions during the brutally hot summer of 2003 had the effect of speeding up the normal evolution of their wines in barrel. (My greatest concern about the vintage is that if growers did use small extra doses of sulfur during the summer or early fall, the normal amounts of sulfur they add at bottling time may be absorbed quickly, leaving the wines vulnerable to rapid evolution.) At the same time, 2002 does not generally appear to be a vintage with the inherent spine and grip for long-term aging. Most wines will be mid-term agers by the standards of Burgundy. Even if many wines will be unusually tasty almost upon their release, the better village wines should be at their finest five to eight years after the vintage, premier crus 6 to 12 years afterwards, and grand crus 8 to 16 or so. In my tasting notes in this issue, I have noted where certain wines are likely to peak faster or require longer aging.

The vintage is consistent geographically. For the Côte de Beaune, 2002 was a desperately needed high-quality crop following two difficult and short years. Still, in my November barrel tastings I came across very few 2002s from south of Beaune that can compare in sheer mineral character and structure to the exceptional '99s. On the Côte de Nuits, it's hard to generalize about favored villages. Obviously, many Marsannay vineyards were hurt by hail on the 19th, but I tasted excellent wines from all of the other major villages. If I could make one generalization, it's that sites that normally produce wines that are dominated by their structure in their youth have yielded more civilized wines than usual, as the tannins are generally more refined: Clos Vougeot especially, but also Bonnes-Mares and some of the traditionally tougher premier crus in Chambolle-Musigny and Gevrey-Chambertin.

The 2001s revisited. This is a classic vintage on the Côte de Nuits, though clearly less successful in parts of Pommard and most of Volnay, due to the effects of an early August hailstorm and more summer rain. The maturation of the grapes occurred more slowly than in 2002, when so much sugar was gained in the two weeks or so leading up to the harvest. The wines are less fleshy and consistently ripe than the 2002s, which invariably means that there's more of a difference between village wines and the best premier cru and grand cru sites. (As a rule, it's much easier to find satisfying village wines in 2002 than in 2001.) The young 2001s are frequently a bit stern, with many wines showing a distinctly austere character. Wines that were overextracted can show a dry edge. The best 2001s need, and will repay, cellaring. It's a vintage that is widely felt to showcase terroir character more clearly than 2002—or does the latter vintage simply possess more babyfat, which can mask underlying soil character? For Burgundy purists, many 2001s will be must purchases. The stars of the vintage may be every bit as good as the best 2002s in the long run. And as the market has thus far largely overlooked the 2001s, prices can be extremely favorable.

Following are brief producer profiles and notes on the 2002s and 2001s, based on my visit to Burgundy in November and subsequent tastings in New York. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines that were not yet bottled at the time of my tastings.