2005 White Burgundies

The hoopla over France's 2005 growing season, which featured a sunny, dry, warm summer and a temperate harvest, has certainly extended to Burgundy, even if it's Bordeaux that has dominated the headlines in recent months. So it was with great anticipation that I visited Burgundy during the last few days of May and early June to get my first look at the young 2005 whites. My early tastings made it clear that this is indeed a very ripe and often remarkably rich group of wines, from yields that were mostly average to below average by recent standards. The better wines are loaded with fruit; more important, they generally avoid the extreme aromas shown by so many white Burgundies from the heat-wave vintage of 2003. The 2005s will give pleasure to virtually all lovers of chardonnay, and the best of them have the stuffing and balance for at least mid-term aging and perhaps more. That's the good news.

The wines are also generally high in alcohol, with glyceral character in some instances blurring the wines' early complexity and delineation of aromas and flavors. Flavors tend toward ripe stone fruits (peach, nectarine, even apricot), spices and flowers, but, at least in the early going, there's generally less of the minerality I look for in white Burgundies—and that I find in the 2004s from the most serious producers. Acidity levels are normally average and adequate. As a gross generalization, 2005 produced a lot of wonderful chardonnay, while 2004 produced more classic soil-driven Burgundy. Vintage 2005 will be an easy vintage for the average consumer to buy (assuming, of course, that the average consumer has big bucks to throw around on wine), while 2004 will be trickier, but perhaps more rewarding to the true connoisseur of Burgundy. To be sure, there are some weak wines in 2005. Wines made from high yields often lack concentration and acidity. Those from grapes harvested too late frequently come off as exotic, even heavy. But at the level of the better addresses, these wines are in the minority.

The 2005 growing season and harvest. The flowering took place mostly under favorable conditions but in some spots was prolonged by a week of cool, breezy weather in early June. Some growers in Meursault reported that ultimate crop levels were reduced by coulure [when the flowers do not pollinate or when the tiny berries quickly fall off the vine] and millerandage [uneven development of the berries]. The summer was then thoroughly agreeable for tourists, locals and grape vines alike, with reasonably cool nights enabling the grapes to maintain healthy levels of acidity. A storm on July 17 produced damaging hail from the middle of Chassagne-Montrachet through much of Santenay. Vine yields here were cut by as much as 40% in some sites, and several growers told me that they eventually harvested these parcels later than their other holdings, as the hail had the effect of delaying the ripening process by destroying a percentage of the leaves, the primary site of photosynthesis in the grape vine. A few other growers noted that some hillside sites, especially in Meursault, were stressed by the dry conditions of the summer, producing grapes that can show less than their normal range of aromatic interest, and less minerality.

The official start to the harvest was early, on September 12. Although very few of the best growers felt that their chardonnay was ready to pick by then, most began within the next seven days. Those who waited too long may have lost more in falling acidity than they gained in increased phenolic maturity.

The development of the 2005 whites. Levels of malic acidity were average to below average, and many growers reported that their wines did not change dramatically during the malolactic fermentations (in 2004, in contrast, the wines were radically transformed during the secondary fermentation, as the high levels of malic acidity were converted to softer lactic acidity). Still, the 2005 malos went slowly in a number of cellars, and even at the beginning of June some wines had not finished (the pinot noirs were even slower to complete their malos). Due in part to the sheer richness of the grapes, the alcoholic fermentations also had a tendency to go slowly, in some instances dragging on for months. I tasted more wines that still were still finishing their sugar fermentations in early June than I had in several years. While protracted sugar fermentations can result in volatile acidity, and while late malos can throw some growers out of their usual racking, sulfiting and bottling routines, they generally are not feared by intelligent and flexible growers, and can even result in better wines.

Many growers I visited in late spring made reference to the golden color of the very ripe grapes in 2005 (as opposed to the paler or greener colors of grapes in cooler years), but thanks to the dry summer and beneficent harvest conditions, the grape skins were healthy. In theory, then, winemakers could make more use of the lees, without the risk of introducing off aromas into their wines. But in practice, many producers I visited told me that they did less batonnage, or stirring of the lees, than they had in recent years. Yes, careful batonnage could enable them to keep their wines fresh and to extract every last degree of minerality out of their raw material. But with musts that were often fat and rich to begin with, lees stirring could result in heavy wines, and the introduction of air or the loss of carbonic gas during the stirring could actually rob the wines of some of their freshness.

Some growers described the young 2005s as richer or more powerful versions of 2002. Others mentioned 1999 or 1992, or previous hot years like 1990 and 1989. Still others compared the 2005s to the 1985s, and this latter comparison makes the most sense to me. The '85s, too, were rich wines whose aromas and flavors were a bit blurred early on by their slightly elevated alcohol levels. But the best of these wines eventually came into focus and have enjoyed a long and leisurely evolution in bottle. With many 2005s today, one feels the underlying minerality and gingery grip of the wines only on the finish, as their middle palates are dominated by alcohol and sheer concentration of material. If the more promising wines retain their freshness and grip as they shed some of their baby fat, it's entirely possible that they will merit ratings at the high end of my projected ranges, which would rank 2005 as one of the top four or five white Burgundy vintages of the past generation.

Editor's Note: On the following pages are brief producer profiles and tasting notes on the 2005s I tasted from barrel in Burgundy in late May and early June. Due to an ill-timed headcold (my first in 18 months, so I can't complain), I was not able to make my normal rounds in Chablis in June; I will try to report on the highly promising 2005s this fall. It was the lowest depths of misery to be standing in the village of Chablis on a crystal-clear 70-degree day, with a dozen top producers eager to show off their new vintage over the next couple of days, and to have to tell them that I was in no condition to taste. So I switched switch to Plan B for this issue: the 2005s from the Côte de Beaune. As I will be tasting many more finished 2004s in New York in the coming weeks, I will offer coverage of this vintage in the next issue. You will see notes in Issue 128 on the 2004s of numerous producers who are not included in my 2005 coverage, either because I never taste their wines at this early stage (Jadot, François Jobard)) or because the malolactic fermentations this year were especially late (Coche-Dury, Rémi Jobard).