2004 and 2003 White Burgundies

Just when the Burgundians were beginning to think that global warming was here to stay, the growing season of 2004 brought a return to more typical weather conditions, which is to say it was a year that challenged growers at every turn. From the bud-break in April it was clear that the crop in 2004 would be huge. The vines had strong energy reserves after not having had to work hard to ripen a very small load of fruit in 2003, a year in which the crop level was drastically reduced by spring frost and extreme summer heat. Other features of the 2004 growing season included: An early and severe outbreak of oidium (powdery mildew) triggered by cool spring weather—especially severe in the lower parts of Puligny-Montrachet and very difficult to treat once it was established. A quick mid-June flowering in windy weather in which a very high percentage of the buds bloomed. A so-so summer, with the month of August especially cool, humid and overcast. Hail storms, including a severe and widespread event that was far more damaging to pinot noir from Volnay north than to chardonnay.

The 2004 harvest. In short, the 2004 growing season brought a return to more classic Burgundy growing conditions and more typical Burgundy wines. As in many past successful years, September saved the harvest. Growers who were pessimistic at the end of August about being able to ripen their huge crop loads were blessed with a mostly dry and sunny September, but with no serious heat after the first few days of the month. Sugar levels gradually rose and flavors ripened, with cool nights allowing for retention of malic acidity—in direct contrast to 2003, when the heat wave burned off nearly all of the malic acidity. The harvest began on September 20, but many of the top growers waited until the following week to start bringing in their chardonnay. There was little meaningful rain until October 7, by which time most chardonnay was in. Grape sugars were eventually quite healthy, and most growers did only modest chaptalization, if any. Some reported that grape sugars were virtually as high as those of 2003, a year in which vine shutdown due to extreme heat often blocked the maturing process.

The development of the 2004 whites. The 2004s were hard to taste at the outset due to the high levels of malic acidity (and tartaric acidity as well). The malos were generally slow to occur, but my fears of finding a high percentage of wines in the middle of their secondary fermentations at the end of May went unfounded. Not surprisingly, the wines were radically transformed as the more tart malic acidity was transformed into softer lactic acidity. Post-malo acid levels in the wines are generally healthy, though not high. Many growers describe the wines as surprisingly round after the secondary fermentations. But even where acidity levels are only average, the wines are refreshing: as one grower put it, the wines retain the "memory of malic acidity." The 2004 whites are aromatic, with an enticing blend of fresh fruit (citrus and stone fruits predominate), floral and mineral elements.

Of course the vintage's Achilles heel is the huge crop level, which has resulted in many wines of only moderate flesh and flavor intensity. Many growers told me they took a variety of measures to limit their crop loads, beginning with severe spring pruning and often including multiple passes through their vines over the course of the season. Yet the vineyards still produced the maximum allowable yields, and sometimes even more, in part due to the swelling of the berries from August rain. As a result of the full crop levels, the young 2004s generally don't have the density, depth of flavor or power of the '02s; growers were more likely to compare them to the 2000s for their freshness and purity of flavor. Most 2004s do not appear to have the stuffing for long-term aging, and it's possible that many wines will show a green side after bottling, especially where the bottling itself removes too much of the wines' flesh. But I suspect that the best wines will be agreeable in their youth and will age reasonably well on their balance of alcohol and acidity, with premier crus at their best 3 to 10 years from now and grand crus 6 to 14. And at the level of the most talented producers, the 2004s will give considerable pleasure to lovers of classic, fresh, minerally white Burgundy.

Use of the lees was again critical in 2004, but of course the quality of the lees was a major variable. Growers who did not carefully eliminate underripe grapes and berries affected by oidium normally did a longer than usual débourbage, or decanting of the must prior to fermentation, leaving more of the lees behind. Their objective was to vinify the cleanest juice possible. Even those who kept a lot of lees were often loath to do much stirring for fear of introducing off tastes into their wines. Others, however, felt that the vintage required the fattening effect of batonnage—that the wines were lean and acid and needed the enrichment that contact with the lees can give.

The 2003s revisited. Although I am aware that positive comments about the 2003s may fall on deaf ears, I must say that these wines have turned out to be less extreme than they appeared to be a year ago. Because there was so little malolactic acidity in the grapes, most 2003s finished their malolactic fermentations much earlier than usual, and those that were racked off their lees quickly and bottled ahead of normal schedule are often surprisingly slight wines that seem best suited for drinking over the next year or three. But winemakers who kept wines on their lees following the malos and carried out a more normal élevage have widely benefited from this approach, especially where they acidified with restraint and did not significantly change the natural balance of these wines. In many cases, these wines appear to have lost some of their exotic aspect (their rather Southern notes of lichee, licorice and banana) and taken on a bit more of the inherent character of the vineyards. But they are hardly typical white Burgundies.

The best 2003s are massively rich and concentrated wines whose alcohol appears to be balanced by sheer phenolic material. Several growers reported to me that their 2003s resist oxidation for many days after being opened, and I have witnessed this for myself in recent weeks, when I pulled bottles from the fridge to retaste. In some instances, this may be due to larger-than-normal sulfur additions at bottling, but many of the best growers ignored advice by their enologists to use more SO2 due to their confidence in the strength and stability of their wines. While risk-averse consumers are probably better off enjoying most 2003s over the next four or five years for their considerable sweetness and textural appeal, the best 2003s may surprise you with their longevity. The minority of producers who have used 1947 in the same sentence as 2003 may have some justification for this comparison.

A word on Burgundy pricing. The very small size of the 2003 white Burgundy crop, in conjunction with the extreme weakness of the dollar through 2004, has made the 2003s very expensive for American wine lovers. With many collectors having filled their cellars with the superb 2002s and hesitant to purchase a vintage that is clearly outside the norm, few have shown the inclination to make much of an investment in the 2003s. Early indications are that prices for 2004s will be roughly flat in Euros, but it is unlikely that we will see price reductions here of more than 5% or 10% unless there is further strengthening of the U.S. dollar over the coming months. Bulk prices for grapes in the Côte d'Or declined from 2003 to 2004, but it remains to be seen if these savings will be reflected in prices from négociants. On the following pages are brief producer profiles and tasting notes on the 2004s and 2003s, based on my visit to Burgundy in late May and early June, and on some additional tastings done in New York since then. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines not yet bottled. Due to space constraints, I have omitted barrel notes on a number of village wines from the 2004 vintage.