Elegance and Power: The 2010 White Burgundies

by Antonio Galloni

The 2010 white Burgundies are some of the most riveting young wines I have ever tasted. In the finest examples readers will find superb richness, vibrant acidity and great transparency to site. These are marvelously complete wines that bring together the depth of fruit typically found in ripe years with the classicism, minerality and tension that are the signatures of cooler vintages. That all adds up to viscerally thrilling wines that at their best capture the essence of everything great Burgundy can be. All of the wines in this article were tasted in June and July 2012.

The 2010 Harvest

As I discussed in Issue 199, one of the key moments of the 2010 season was the severe cold weather that started in December 2009 and continued with record-breaking low temperatures through February. Things largely improved in the spring, with the return of more normal conditions. But by far the most critical and defining weather of the year arrived during an unusually wet and cold June which drew out the flowering a full two weeks longer than average. The poor flowering resulted in a high incidence of coulure, (shatter) a carbohydrate deficiency that causes a poor crop set, and millerandage, or shot berries, a condition in which berries ripen irregularly, leaving the bunches with grapes of highly varying maturities within the individual clusters. Potential yields were, therefore, reduced dramatically, anywhere from 10-50%, depending on the specific site. On the plus side, there is little question that low yields turned out to be a saving grace as a normal crop load would never have ripened under the conditions that would follow in the summer and into the early fall. Things improved slightly in late June, only to worsen again in July, when cool, wet weather returned. August cleared up a bit, but was marked by cooler than normal temperatures, but with good light. September brought with it generally stable warm, sunny days. Most growers I spoke with were planning to harvest around the 20th, until a thunderstorm hit Santenay on September 12, which caused many of them to move up their schedules by a few days to get all the fruit in before the weather turned. Natural alcohols came in around 12.5%-13.5%, quite healthy for Burgundian standards. As a result, very few wines were chaptalized. At the same time, because of the cool summer, acidities were also very high, which meant the malolactic fermentations were long and slow in the majority of cellars.

The 2010s combine serious fruit with equally intense acidity and minerality. These are white Burgundies with tons of energy, vibrancy and sheer depth. Readers can begin to check out the personality of the year by tasting the top Bourgognes and village-level wines. Unlike the 2009s, the 2010s are quite faithful to the hierarchy of their respective terroirs. If there is a weak spot to the vintage, it is that some wines are overly heavy, perhaps because the fruit was picked on the late side. One of clear attributes of the vintage is a certain exoticism in some of the wines. I noticed this especially in Puligny, where I tasted quite a few wines with hints of botrytis-like sweetness and opulence. I say this is an attribute of the vintage because it really depends on one’s view if this is a positive or a negative.

Looking Ahead to 2011

I also tasted a number of 2011s during my visit to Burgundy in late June and early July. The 2011s are generally fleshy, open wines with considerable early appeal. Overall acidities are lower than 2010. Today, 2011 looks to be an excellent vintage for near-term drinking. In tasting through the wines of the Côte de Beaune, I did not find any of the greenness or signs of dilution I found in the wines of Chablis. A number of growers told me they planned to give the 2011s extended contact on the lees and/or additional time in barrel in order to give them more body, which is the element most growers feel is missing at this stage. Nevertheless, I am encouraged by what I tasted, and expect to see an above average level of quality once the wines are bottled. In a handful of estates, the 2011s could prove to be better than 2010s.

Finding Value in Burgundy

No, ‘value’ and ‘Burgundy’ is not an oxymoron. Although I enjoy tasting the iconic premier crus and grand crus of Burgundy as much as anyone, frankly I find more joy in discovering wines from lesser-known appellations that over-deliver relative to their more modest prices. The premier and grand crus are supposed to be great. They are certainly priced that way. The reality is that quantities of the best and most desired wines are tiny and ever-escalating prices put those wines increasingly out of reach for normal consumers. At the same time, though, it is abundantly clear that there are a number of appellations that deliver superb quality for the money. Many of these, such as Montagny, Givry and Rully, lie outside the Côte d’Or, and, therefore, I taste them only rarely, but what I taste each year – especially the finest wines – is of remarkable quality. A handful of those wines made by growers based in the Côte d’Or are included in this report.

In Praise of Aligoté

Lastly, budget conscious readers should pay serious attention to Aligoté, Burgundy’s lesser-known white grape. In the hands of top growers such as Laurent Ponsot and Lalou Bize-Leroy, Aligoté has proven to be capable of yielding wines of true character and pedigree that also age exceptionally well. Beyond those high-flying wines, there is a plethora of affordable Aligotés that deliver true pleasure at every day prices. Aligoté tends towards a profile of white stone fruits and citrus. Most wines lie somewhere between the intense minerality of Chablis and greater body typically associated with the Chardonnays of the Côte d’Or. Along with the generic Bourgognes, these are the least expensive wines within each grower’s range. I highly encourage readers to spend some time getting to know the Aligotés of Burgundy’s top domaines.

A Note on Drinking Windows

As I did last year, I kept drinking windows very much on the conservative side, with starting dates but no end dates. Given all of the issues surrounding premature oxidation, this seems like the only reasonable thing to do, even though I am fully aware that many of the best wines in this article will take many years to peak. Or will they? That is the essential question that confronts all of us every time we choose to buy white Burgundy. The top growers in the Côte d’Or have all made significant efforts to address the problem of premature oxidation. Still, a measure of prudence seems warranted. Most of the 2010 village-level wines will drink well upon release, although many of them have enough stuffing to hold or even improve for years. The premier crus and grand crus need time to fully come together, but how much time is anyone’s guess. I have tried to give readers an idea of how long wines should be cellared, but the best advice I can give is to check in on the wines frequently. The best 2010s appear to be built for the long-term. I hope they make it. I have said it before, and I will say it again. Many of the most thrilling, moving experiences I have ever had have been in front of an aged bottle of white Burgundy.