2004 White Burgundies

The challenges posed by the 2004 growing season in Burgundy have been widely documented, including in the pages of this journal. Two thousand four was indeed a demanding year for Burgundy's grape-growers and winemakers. Several factors threatened wine quality: An early and widespread outbreak of oidium (powdery mildew) triggered by cool spring weather. A quick and uniform flowering that set the stage for a potentially huge crop, which was in some instances increased by swelling of the berries from August rain. A so-so summer, with the month of August especially cool, humid and overcast. And finally, hail storms, including a serious event that was far more damaging to pinot noir from Volnay northward than to chardonnay.

But although growers were pessimistic at the end of August, September turned mostly sunny and dry, 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. Most of the harvest took place in late September and early October under favorable conditions. In the end grape sugars were generally above average and little chaptalization was needed. But the wines were tough to taste early on owing to their high levels of malic acidity.

And yet, after tasting hundreds of finished wines in Burgundy on my annual late-spring tour, and having followed up with many more samples since then, I can report that the best '04s rank with my favorite white Burgundy vintages of the last 20 years. I have never found myself swallowing so much wine after my tastings. This is a superb vintage for lovers of classic minerally white Burgundy that accurately reflects its site. Perhaps star winemaker Henri Boillot summed it up best: "Everyone can appreciate the quality of the '05 whites. But 2004 is for the real connoisseur: it's a great expression of Burgundy, a type of wine that can't be made anywhere else."

The better 2004 whites are highly aromatic and precise, offering an enticing blend of fresh fruit (citrus and stone fruits predominate), floral and mineral elements. Relatively few wines go tropical or even apricotty. Drinkers whose ideal white wine begins with a nose full of white flowers and crushed stone and ends with a mouthful of rocks will find these wines thrillingly refreshing and endlessly satisfying. Obviously the '04s are not for everyone: Those who prefer gobs of fruit, and a thickness of texture approaching merlot, will probably be underwhelmed by wines in which mineral character has the upper hand. Fans of fatter, riper, fruit-driven New World chardonnays who are not confirmed Burgundy lovers should probably not be spending their money on the 2004 whites. You know who you are!

Of the trio of vintages now—or soon to be—available in the U.S. (2003, 2004 and 2005), it's 2004 that offers the purity of mineral expression and transparency to soil for which white Burgundy has always been most prized. As rich as the best 2003s are, their aromas are frequently extreme. And as promising as the best 2005s appear to be, their mineral character and acidity, at least in the early going, are often masked or muddied by their high alcohol and very ripe aromas. If you believe that global warming is here to stay, then vintages like 2004 are going to be increasingly rare.

I want to make it clear that my great enthusiasm for the 2004 white Burgundies is a comment on the wines from the region's better producers: those who control yields and eliminate less-than-ideal fruit and who know how best to handle the fruit they ultimately keep. Many lesser 2004s can lack purity, concentration or ripeness; some are lean and tart, even shrill, as they lack the fruit or flesh to support their acids; others show too much oakiness for their underlying material. This is a vintage of widely varying quality across the region. But, happily, no one is forcing you to buy the less successful examples.

I mentioned a year ago that due to high levels of malic acidity in the grapes, the wines were very difficult to taste early on, and many of their makers did not particularly like them. With the secondary fermentations, however, the wines were dramatically softened by the transformation of more tart malic acidity into softer lactic acidity. Ultimate acid levels in the wines are generally in the healthy average range, and yet the wines remain wonderfully refreshing, thanks to their balance, fresh fruit and floral character, and, above all, their piquant minerality. The best wines, it turns out, were underestimated at the beginning, and seemed to get better and better during élevage and now in bottle. In sum, they are brilliantly food-friendly wines with superb terroir specificity; if they lack anything, it's most likely to be fat and butteriness.

Not surprisingly, the vintage generally favored the later pickers, who were able to achieve more thorough ripeness of fruit without significant loss of acidity (at least until rains arrived on October 11). Few growers were able to make outstanding wine from grapes picked before about the 26th of September. Those who harvested on the late side often made wines that are better balanced than the '96s, thanks to somewhat softer acidity, although opinions on this subject are divided. Jean Pillot told me that the '96s had less flesh and more hardness, for example, while Jean-Marc Roulot maintained that 1996 had high acidity but also greater ripeness than 2004. Still, Roulot added, 2004 is his best vintage following '96 and '02. Some late pickers in 2004 report having gotten even higher alcohol levels than in 2005!

Another basic winemaking decision in 2004 involved the use of the lees, and here, too, I heard a range of opinions from winemakers. There are actually two variables here: the length of the débourbage, or settling of the must (a longer "decanting" eliminated a higher percentage of the lees, which some growers prefer to do when they are not happy with the health of the grape skins), and then the amount and timing of batonnage (lees-stirring) during élevage. A majority of winemakers took advantage of long lees contact to keep their wines fresh, and many used frequent batonnage in an attempt to enrich their wines. But some winemakers are a bit more cautious about lees-stirring these days, as they have come to believe that this technique may be a contributing factor in premature oxidation of some white Burgundies. Among other things, lees stirring can dissipate carbon dioxide in the wines, leaving the wines vulnerable to oxidation if they are not protected by adequate sulfur levels.

It's a vintage with a firm spine but not a huge structure. Most wines will be fine to drink within the next two or three years, and only the exceptional ones will really require six or eight years of cellaring. But while I would recommend that most 2004s be enjoyed between now and 2016, the better wines may surprise us with their longevity, owing to their sound acids and good balance. One potential fly in the ointment is the risk that the oidium problem will express itself with time. In the early going, one of the most miraculous characteristics of this vintage has been the purity of the better wines—in spite of the attack of oidium, which can bring off aromas in addition to retarding the ripening of the grapes. My gut feeling, though, is that the overwhelming majority of wines that seem pristine now will be fine.

Some growers have said that the best '04s may be similar to the best '95s. Others have compared the wines to the 1982s or 1979s, both of which also featured very large crop levels. The latter vintage, incidentally, yielded very fresh wines, the best of which surprised most experts with their longevity. Some growers I visited have described the '04s as a somewhat less rich version of '92, many of whose wines were rounded out by a bit of noble rot.

Here are some brief comments by normally discerning producers I visited in late May and early June. Jacques Carillon told me that "2004 is more minerally, more Burgundian, austere in its youth," while Jean-Philippe Fichet describes these wines as "minerally but agreeable and open." Jean-François Coche advises waiting five years to start drinking the 2004s. "Drink them over the next 10 to 15 years, and save your '02s," he added. Says Dominique Lafon: "I like 2004 better than 2005, maybe even more than 2002. It's not a particularly high- or low-acid vintage." (Lafon picked on the early side "but with good ripeness"). And then there's the leesmeister Patrick Javillier: "The 2004s needed a long time on the lees to take on enough material to balance their high acidity." According to Mounir Saouma of Lucien Le Moine: "The 2004s are my biggest white wines yet, even bigger than 02." Added his wife and business partner Rotem Brakir: "If you want to learn about the typicity of an appellation, taste the '04s."

The following 2004s were tasted between the end of May and the end of August. One final note: because the 2004 white Burgundy vintage is not an obvious choice for mainstream wine drinkers, and because much of the market is already obsessing about the young 2005s, the 2004s are fairly widely available in the marketplace today, and at almost reasonable prices by Burgundy standards. It is quite possible that some of these wines may eventually be dumped to make way for the 2005s, which will almost certainly be more expensive. But I'd want to buy a selection of the best 2004s now, rather than allowing them to molder for another 6 to 12 months on retailers' shelves.