2010 Red Burgundies

First, the very good news:  all things considered, 2010 is the finest vintage for red Burgundy I have tasted since I made my first tour of the region in 1988.  The vintage has virtually all the elements of Burgundy greatness:  vibrant aromas and flavors accurate to terroir; bright acidity; inner-mouth tension; intensity without weight; palpable minerality; ripe, fine-grained tannins; and the concentration, balance and backbone to support a long evolution in bottle.  The bad news is that the wines, especially from the best estates, are very expensive and, thanks to powerful worldwide demand, scarcer than ever in the U.S. market.

Recap of the 2010 growing season.  I provided a detailed description of the growing season in Issue 160.  Here's a brief recap of the salient points, taken largely from last year's report.  The key to the quality of the vintage was the very small size of the crop, which was generally down 20% to 50% from 2009 levels depending on the site.  The limited crop size was largely due to two weather events.  The first was a sharp and severe frost on the night of December 20, 2009, during which temperatures plunged as low as 10 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) on the northern Cote de Nuits.  The second cause of the small crop was a period of very cool, rainy weather during the flowering in mid-June, which resulted in considerable coulure (a.k.a. shatter: when the vine's flowers do not pollinate or tiny berries fall off the vine soon after they form) and millerandage (a range of berry size on the same clusters, including undersized, "shot" berries).

After a period of warm, dry weather from late June through mid-July, conditions turned variable, with stormy periods leaving the vines vulnerable to mildew and botrytis.  Some cooler spells in August delayed the ripening of the grapes and the veraison took place in the middle of the month, a couple weeks later than average.  But the cooler August weather also limited the spread of rot.  There was a significant rain event on September 8 (and a violent hailstorm centered on Santenay on September 10 that barely touched the Cote north of Beaune), then cool but mostly dry weather took over during the run-up to the harvest, which began for most estates between September 21 and 27.

Many growers brought in some of their best parcels before significant rain fell on the night of September 24, but others may have begun to harvest too early.  The next several days were chilly and mostly cloudy, more like early November than late September, with morning temperatures on the 28th and 29th dropping into the upper 30s.  Most growers insisted that their grapes did not swell in the days after the rains, especially where older vines have deeper root systems.  As the vines had not been stressed for water, they were not desperate for a drink.

It is unlikely that the total sunshine hours and average temperatures of the 2010 growing season could have ripened a normal crop load.  But the well-aerated clusters and the small size of the berries enabled the grapes generally to withstand rot pressures and to reach healthy levels of sugar and phenolic ripeness.  Producers who practiced a strict sorting at the time of harvest were as likely to have eliminated underripe berries as rotten ones.  But where vines were overcropped, grapes were picked too early, or selection was careless, some wines show a bit more acidity than their underlying flesh can handle.

As you can see, 2010 can hardly be described as an ideal growing season, and it's quite likely that 25 years ago the same set of conditions would have produced a set of wines of extremely variable quality.  So much for our ability to extrapolate from weather conditions to ultimate wine quality!

As is the case eight or nine years out of ten, the vintage favored the Cote de Nuits, but there were plenty of outstanding wines made on the Cote de Beaune.  While the harvest typically starts three to seven days earlier on the Cote de Beaune than on the Cote de Nuits--less  of a difference than a generation ago--that was not always the case in 2010.  At least one grower told me that the ripening cycle on the Cote de Beaune was more affected by precipitation in July, August and early September, and that it was necessary to let the fruit hang.  Vineyards and villages with a tendency to yield wines with tough tannic structures--e.g., Clos Vougeot, Bonnes-Mares, much of Nuits-Saint-Georges--often produced wines with atypically suave, noble tannins.

The 2010 wines in bottle, and their likely aging curve.  Quality generally tracks vineyard hierarchy in 2010.  As the year featured a cool late-season and excellent retention of acidity, the normally latest-picked sites did not generally suffer.  On the contrary, these wines can offer stunning complexity and depth without loss of perfume.  Put another way, 2010 was not a hot year in which village wines outperformed but crus in normally cooler sites tended to get overripe.  On the other hand, margins taken at every step of the distribution chain for the top cru bottlings are higher than ever for the 2010s, so the most successful village wines can offer outstanding relative value.

Due to their aromatic intensity and complexity, clarity of flavor, great finesse, overall balance and mostly fine-grained tannins, many 2010s are remarkably satisfying in the early going.  They're not generally outsized wines, and there are few signs of overripe or dehydrated grapes.  Their high quality is easy to appreciate even today.  It remains to be seen whether they will begin to shut down within the next year or three.  If you like your red Burgundies young, many 2010s will be fun to drink, even if they're not particularly fleshy or sweet.  If you place a premium on aromatic complexity, precision and mental stimulation, you'll find these wines downright exhilarating.  But if you're a mouth-taster and place a premium on fleshiness and softer acidity, you may consider them a bit austere.  

Last November, when I tasted the 2010s from barrel a year after they were vinified, I had the feeling that a goodly percentage of them would shut down in bottle at some point.  At that point, though, a number of winemakers appeared to disagree with this theory.  Some ventured the opinion that the wines would never go through an extended sullen stage.  But now that the wines are in bottle, and some of them are already showing increasing signs of reduction, many growers are changing their opinion on the likely future behavior of the 2010 reds.  With the exception of a few growers who describe 2010 as a very good year but not great, most producers believe that these wines have the structure, balance and concentration for a long life in bottle.  And they're more likely to believe that the wines will shut down in bottle in the not-too-distant future.

Some growers note that the single best predictor of a vintage that will shut down in bottle is generally slow, late malolactic fermentations (and obvious signs of reduction during elevage), which in turn often occur following growing seasons that featured a late, slow ripening season or cool summer.  These characteristics were true of 2010. Aubert de Villaine, co-owner and director of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, told me he believes that the 2010s "will be mostly appreciated by our grandchildren.  They have exceptional purity, concentration and transparency--in other words a minerality that makes them the best expression of their climats that we have seen in years."  He went on:  "This being said, it is very possible that they will go through a period of clumsiness.  But if they do, they will continue to show, even if in a subdued way, the qualities that I just mentioned.  One reason for this is the high maturity of the grapes and the 'sweetness' of the tannins."

Bernard Hervet, CEO/Advisor at Domaine Faiveley, believes that many 2010s, especially those that do not have perfect balance, are already shutting down and may remain closed for a long time.  "The winners were the domains that vinify with whole clusters, which gives less acidity, and domains that do long elevage," he noted.  "Their wines are quite balanced.  But there are also some wines that show a rough character and a high level of acidity."

Mounir Saouma, who makes the Lucien Le Moine wines, believes that "the great 2010s are going to completely shut down.  In fact, most 2010s will, except the ones that were aerated a lot during aging."  According to Jean-Nicolas Méo, predicting the way a Burgundy vintage will age is very difficult, to say the least:  "You might as well ask:  What is the meaning of life?  Is there a God?  Or, is there a recipe for understanding women?  But I have the intuition that the 2010s will shut down.  I do not find that the wines have relaxed much since their bottling; a hint of reduction has emerged in some of them.  That may be the reason why the vintage will close, because reduction was quite prevalent during elevage.  I must say that this does not worry me very much, because the vintage has what it takes to age very well, and we have other vintages to drink before the 2010s."

I tasted the 2010s in the cellars in November, and in recent weeks at my home in New York City.  If there are a bit fewer top bottlings included in this report than in recent years, that's because producers were less willing to open their scarcest and most expensive bottles or send samples, as these wines are essentially sold out.  And it's hard to fault them under the circumstances; in fact, I'm amazed that so many producers continue to be so generous in sharing their wines with me.