La Lumière Noire: 2019 Burgundy - Côte de Beaune
BY NEAL MARTIN | DECEMBER 17, 2020
I doubt that The Clash’s immortal “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” was inspired by a wine writer ruminating about whether to travel to Burgundy or not. That said, I like to imagine Strummer and Jones in some dingy backstage dressing room, smoking fags and coming to blows over the best Premier Cru in Vosne-Romanée. Burgundy was my dilemma last September and yes, my indecision was bugging me. The Côte d’Or is the only wine region where visiting is mandatory. With few exceptions, growers are not predisposed to send unfinished samples and even if they acquiesced then their fragility and the fact that unlike Bordeaux primeur, final blends are not assembled, renders it a pointless exercise, literally.
If I go it will be trouble but if I stay it will be double.
By September, Covid figures were ominously ticking upwards. Was it the right time to pack my bags? Why tempt fate? I’ve had my fill of hospital wards. The unprecedented early harvest of 2020 offered a unique chance to commence my tastings much earlier than usual and obviate quarantine rules that the French government might impose. I could lessen the risk by driving to Beaune instead of flying and renting an apartment instead of hotel. The Jedi pull of the vines was strong.
Tease. Tease. Tease.
Tasting at home has its advantages but the truth is that nothing compares to tasting face-to-face with winemakers and a Burgundy report needs background commentary. You have to feel what’s going on. The only way to do that is to go there. So, the morning of 28 September, I bid sayonara to my family (eliciting no more than a shrug from the kids) turned the car ignition with my entire office loaded in the back, headed down through Champagne to arrive in Beaune that evening - home for the next few weeks. The following morning, I hit the ground running with the first appointment in Clos Vougeot and pressed pedal to the metal for 33 consecutive days, until the fateful night when our restaurant waiter uttered a single word. Lockdown.
If I returned to UK it would be trouble, but if I stayed it would be double.
Continuing was feasible, but it felt morally wrong and irresponsible flitting between winemakers at this time of crisis. I came home three weeks earlier than planned. Though three or four major names would be omitted, at least this precious window of opportunity allowed me to amass over 2,500 tasting notes from over 140 visits. Numbers only tell half the story. The time spent living in Burgundy presented insights and information straight from horses’ mouths. Much of this can be found in the numerous producer profiles. I made a concerted effort to embrace smaller, less well-known producers, which is why I headed up into the lofty Hautes-Côtes, down to the Côte Chalonnaise and why I invested a little more time in Savigny-lès-Beaune.
The 2019 reds on parade at Louis Jadot and awaiting inspection - a long but informative tasting.
Such is the size of this report, in order not to overload readers, it has been divided: Part One dissects the growing season followed by commentary about the general performance of 2019, before drilling down to examine the Côte de Beaune appellation by appellation. The forthcoming Part Two includes an overview on the market and in-depth commentary on the Côte de Nuits. Although there are a vast number of wines in this article, my job is not finished, and more reviews are imminent.
So alas this year there is no blasphemous preamble featuring God and his cohorts, though one was written, featuring a biodynamic vaccine that only worked according to the lunar calendar. (Pfizer ruined the punch line.) There is no poem because I used up my rhyming couplets last year.
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty with the minutiae of the growing season.
The interplay between a vineyard and the growing season is not limited to the calendar year. It is the continuation of a perpetual cycle, the cumulative effects of previous vintages that set the starting blocks for the new one. Two thousand and eighteen was marked by a dry and hot summer that parched vines’ throats. Vineyard managers prayed for rainy winter months to replenish depleted underground reserves and cold snaps to encourage vines’ dormancy and kill off viruses or nematodes. October to December saw around 60mm of rain per month – relatively low for that time of year. Temperatures in the first three months of 2019 were all warmer than normal, February positively balmy, prompting Anne Parent to remark that it was “summer in winter”. Thankfully, 84mm of rain arrived in April, the first crucial factor that underpins the success of the growing season because without those showers, hydric stress would have been more acute.
The mercury fell in April and heightened frost risk. Bud burst was about a week earlier than normal due to the warm temperatures, mi-débourrement 2 April for Chardonnay and 11 April for Pinot Noir, the average time of year. Temperatures dipped precariously on the night of 4/5 April and given those dates you can understand why it affected whites more than reds, particularly severe in Saint-Aubin and Chassagne-Montrachet. Previous evening’s showers exacerbated frost damage by creating a humid atmosphere, reducing the effectiveness of wind fans and manifesting an environment where moisture could penetrate buds, causing some to rupture. Unlike in 2016, winemakers were prepared and lit up their vineyards with wax candles or burnt bales of straw to create cloud cover, though the smoke blew across Chagny to the chagrin of its townsfolk. Damien Colin explained that this frost seemed to affect more the vineyards on slopes rather than those on flatter and lower stretches of Saint-Aubin. Some winemakers like Alex Moreau and Cécile Gagnard said that they under-estimated the impact of this frost at the time, that it was not visibly apparent and that its affects were not fully realized until later in the season. Frédéric Barnier of Louis Jadot insisted that it affected eventual quantity rather than quality. A second frost episode on 15 April was more dangerous since the buds are more open, but was less severe since the atmosphere was drier.
A depressed vigneron lamenting frost damage in Chassagne.
May was relatively dry, but from the 22nd it was cold, with average temperatures of 12.9°C. June was warm but saw 64mm of rain, which disturbed flowering, particularly for the whites, causing it to take place slightly late, with mi-fleuraison on 5-6 June. Cécile Gagnard of Fontaine-Gagnard lamented the widespread millerandage, where bunches form shot berries, small and seedless. Thibaut Clerget reckoned he lost around 50% of his potential crop due to millerandage and, to a lesser extent, coulure. At Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the flowering was spread out over 15 days and this disturbed potential evenness that was subsequently exaggerated by conditions leading up to harvest.
After flowering, the summer settled down and, similar to 2018, conditions, remained warm and dry. Temperatures averaged 20.1°C in June and 23.1°C in July, but more significant were two week-long heat waves, what the French call ‘canicule’, at the ends of June and July. Though temperatures spiked at 42°C, there were only 4-6 days when it remained over 35°C compared to 12-14 days in the infamous 2003 vintage. So, it was hot, but not torrid. Outside these heat waves, temperatures dropped at night, partially explaining why vines were able to retain decent levels of acidity. The 83mm of rain in July limited hydric stress that was more acute in 2018, when leaves visibly curled and browned, though winemakers reported some blockage after the second heat wave. The tap was really turned off in August when there was just 35mm of rainfall and September, just 27mm. Frédéric Barnier believes that these showers saved the vintage by avoiding over-ripeness but certainly the dryness impacted vines on shallower and less clayey soils, leading to a lack of potassium uptake. Some vineyard managers ploughed between rows in order to reintroduce organic matter.
One crucial aspect of the 2019 vintage is the hours of sunshine that remained above average, particularly in August that saw 272 hours of luminosity. Nicolas Groffier described it as a kind of cold light, the kind you get in spring instead of summer, what he poetically termed “la lumière noire”. Nevertheless, vineyard managers wisely eschew leaf removal since it provides shade from the sun, sometimes extending the upper canopy cover. This must be balanced by retaining air circulation to inhibit rot, should it turn rainy. There were some outbreaks of grillure, burnt skins, though winemakers such as Benjamin Leroux and Benoît Bachelet told me that in fact the biggest risk was burning berries after spraying their vines with sulphur. Berries began to colour around mid-July although it needed rainfall on 9-11 August to give véraison a spurt, still several days later than average. August was warm but in fact, average temperatures were slightly below normal at 20.8°C. One important aspect of the growing season is that there was a northerly wind just before picking. Bouchard Père’s winemaker Frédéric Weber and Aubert de Villaine are two of many that believe this concentrated the berries and reduced the amount of juice inside through increased evaporation - more on that later.
This was taken on 9 September during the Burgfest tasting. Healthy bunches in a Grand Cru in Vosne-Romanée.
Using the traditional 100-day yardstick between flowering and harvest, winemakers expected to bring in the whites around 15 September and the reds around 20 September. Vineyard analyses indicated accelerating sugar levels. “We are used to saying one-week equals one degree of potential alcohol,” Frédéric Barnier told me, “but in the Côte d’Or that was just three days.” Analytical figures from the BIVB confirm this. In 2018, daily rates of sugar increase for Chardonnay were 2.9g/l and then levelling towards 1.7g/l, for Pinot Noir, 2.2g/l and then 1.9g/l. For 2019, those figures for Chardonnay are 4.4g/l then 3.2g/l, for Pinot Noir 3.7g/l then 2.6g/l. Projected picking dates were nudged forward two or three times, which can pose challenges in terms of recruiting pickers. The harvest for the whites began around 3-9 September, reds quite dispersed but generally around 16-19 September. There is a great deal of variation and there are cases whereby the picking of the reds finished earlier than the whites, for example, Taupenot-Merme. [Readers will find exact dates within producer profiles.]
Harvest date was fundamental to success. Bertrand Dugat likened it to a cook whose hob is stuck on high gas. You had to take the pan off at exactly the right moment. Rocketing sugar levels meant that choosing the wrong date was more punitive, risking a mismatch between sugar ripeness and physiological ripeness, a subject I have covered in previous reports. Many, openly admitted that the most challenging aspect of the 2019 vintage was deciding when to fire the harvest start gun and so there was a lot of looking at what neighbours were doing (and a lot of gossip afterwards!) As I wrote in last year’s report, those farming a scattering of small plots and/or without access to a large and flexible pool of experienced pickers could be disadvantaged. Some like Dugat-Py doubled the number of harvesters as speed was of the essence. The hot conditions made it more arduous for picking teams, one reason why many sheathed their secateurs around noon. Winemakers like Laurent Martelet at Domaine de Chérisey spoke of picking according to acidity level instead of sugar, predicated on the idea that high alcohol levels are unavoidable. By locking in counterbalancing acidity, the wines should achieve balance and freshness. Though the sun burnt away much of the malic acid, berries retained good levels of tartaric, another important factor behind the 2019 vintage for both whites and reds.
Like many recent growing seasons, dry conditions throughout the summer meant that sanitary conditions were ideal, and sorting was barely necessary. Many use smaller plastic crates, for example at Domaine J-L Trapet, limiting damage to the fruit en route to the winery and allowing teams to inspect and select bunches more efficiently if using partial whole bunches. Several winemakers emphasized the importance of cold storage to stagger the incoming fruit and keep it cool or alternatively, pick early in the morning before it becomes too hot. Apart from keeping the fruit fresh, you do not want the alcoholic fermentation to commence rapidly and starting the process from low temperatures prolongs the entire cuvaison.
Bertrand Dugat in Gevrey-Chambertin offered a useful analogy to explain the 2019 growing season.
Vinification was pretty straightforward apart from one crucial aspect apropos the whites. Last year I vividly recall Alex Moreau’s expression of disbelief and mild panic at the huge quantity of juice being squeezed from the berries, wondering whether his winery had sufficient capacity. In 2019 the opposite happened. There was barely a dribble from the press. Alain Serveau, winemaker at Albert Bichot explained how this impacted the skin to pulp ratios. Though most winemakers claimed that the 2019s were easier to vinify, the higher percentage of solids made it especially hard for the whites. Whereas in 2018 Serveau needed 330kg of fruit to fill a barrel, in 2019 he required 350kg. It doesn’t sound like much. Multiply it by the number of barrels and that’s a lot of additional fruit and a lot more pressing required. Mark Fincham at Domaine Tawse explained how in 2019 there was two-thirds juice to one-third solid matter whereas in 2018 it was around one-quarter solid to three-quarters juice and this led to slightly more concentrated wines in 2019 than anticipated.
Generally alcoholic fermentation passed normally and unlike the previous vintage, most winemakers claimed it was far easier to complete to dryness despite high sugar levels. Guillaume Tardy and Cyprien Arlaud are just two winemakers that remarked upon the nutrient-rich yeasts devouring the sugar - “like crazy” to quote Tardy, which could be one reason why final alcohol levels did not spin totally out of control. Many were surprised how easily the fermentations finished, though Nicolas Rossignol was one who said that several vats had stuck fermentations and doubtless there are more that prefer not to disclose it. There is the question of how many producers acidified? Some like Nicolas Potel, Juliette Chenu and Benjamin Leroux were open and said that some cuvées required a bit of what Leroux calls “pH correction”. There were a couple of instances where despite denial, the acidity felt shrill and manipulated. But it was not as widespread as it might have been a decade or more ago.
Winemaker David Croix who elected to slightly reduce the percentage of stem addition in 2019.
The trend for stem addition continues apace. It can increase potassium that in 2019 was deficient in some shallower, clayey soil types. It can increase pH levels, which might be something you don’t want in a warm vintage when safeguarding acidity, but it does impart a sense of freshness. So, for example, Pascal Mugneret decided to use 100% stems across his entire range for the first time. In some cases, such as Domaine Comte Armand, the stems are sometimes used to simply make sure that the vats or barrels are full. In one or to instances it resulted in excessive stems addition that occluded the style of the wine. Similarly, some winemakers use the same percentage of whole bunch across every cuvée from Village to Grand Cru. Philosophically that is an interesting exercise because you can compare like-for-like. Check out say Domaine Lamarche or Duroché. But not every cuvée warrants the same percentage of stems and occasionally I felt there was too much. Not everyone advocated using stems. Some winemakers such as David Croix and Carel Voorhuis at Camille Giroud reeled it back because, as Croix opined, he felt the fruit already had locked in sufficient energy and freshness.
As I mentioned last year, the laborious process of removing the central axis of the bunch is spreading. If Lalou Bize-Leroy does it, then it can’t be wrong. It is such a laborious and time-consuming process that until a machine is invented that does it automatically, it is limited to those with small parcels and nimble-fingered workers prepared to spend hours performing “heart surgery” on each bunch. But it does make a tangible difference. Just compare the same wine from Dujac and Leroy.
Of course, nobody macerates wines anymore. No, no, no. They infuse. They dial down maceration to enhance transparency, terroir expression, freshness and poise, also to extend the duration of cuvaison. It is a development that I have advocated for many years, although sometimes it is taken too far, resulting in cuvées that lack substance and grip, bizarre in a growing season like 2019. Some vignerons spoke about reducing pigeage and eschewing remontage altogether, though Anne Parent and Charles van Canneyt (pictured below) of Hudelot-Noëllat did the opposite. Jérôme Flous, head winemaker at Faiveley, felt that remontage added oxygen during the fermentation and made the yeasts more competitive. As I mentioned last year, many winemakers are limited or reducing SO2 addition throughout alcoholic fermentation and only adding it after malolactic – details in individual producer profiles.
Charles van Canneyt at Hudelot-Noëllat did more remontage in 2019. I am not sure when he uses the medieval instruments of torture.
Another continuing trend is for moderate use of new oak. Thankfully the days of lacquering sensitive Pinot Noir in lots of new oak are gone and there is a more judicious, prudent application. Even Clos de Tart that historically used 100% new oak by rote, now uses 70%. There were occasions when the new wood was disproportionate to the level of fruit, sometimes because the shortfall in volume left winemakers such as Romaric Boursot in Vougeot with potentially too many unused new barrels. Some winemakers like Leroux used the new barrels to vinify their whites, then rack them off and use them to mature the reds, thereby lessening the impact of wood. This seems to work well. In addition, Leroux and other winemakers such as Chisa Bize (pictured below) in Savigny-lès-Beaune and Laurent Fournier in Marsannay are shifting from orthodox 220-litres pièces to 600-litre demi-muids in order to moderate the influence of oak, though their larger volume makes them unsuitable for producers with small cuvées.
Chisa Bize, winemaker at Domaine Simon Bize.
Some winemakers bottle their wine after one winter in barrel, though a majority undertake two winters and bottle in spring two years later. Sylvain Pataille is among the growers who strongly advocate a second winter and feels that there is a precise moment when it is enough and time to bottle. Theoretically a longer barrel maturation enhances complexity and substance, though some like Pierre Duroché seek to retain the freshness and vitality and bottle after one year in barrel. Sometimes a winemaker has no choice and must bottle simply because they need room to mature the following year’s crop, one in/one out. The warmer growing season means that the decision of when to bottle has become increasingly important. If it is mishandled, then all the work up to that point might be wasted.
A Conversation: The 2019 Côte de Beaunes?
Me: “So you would like the lowdown on the 2019 Burgundy vintage.”
You: “If you wouldn’t mind.”
Me: “Did you read the preceding paragraphs on the growing season? Or did you skip down to this section?”
You: “I don’t have much time. I’ll read it later. Promise.”
“So, is it any good?”
“Yes. It’s very good.”
“Is that all? Can I go now? I’ve got a mountain of 2018 Bordeaux and South Africa samples waiting in the wings.”
“Well, a little more detail would not go amiss.”
“Fine. The growing season was like an amplifier. As any audiophile will tell you, a quality amplifier maintains a clear and balanced sound even if, like Nigel Tufnel, you turn it up to 11. In 2019 Burgundy has an excellent amplifier. It amplified all facets of both white and red grapes instead of just the sugar and alcohol. Somehow, it concentrated acidity. Just check some of the pH figures within the notes or producer profiles.”
“I’ve never heard of that before.”
“It’s an unexpected and generally welcome phenomenon. If winemakers could retain natural balance throughout vinification, then you potentially created 2019 whites that offer irresistible perfumed aromas combining brush strokes of tropical notes with the crucial mineralité that makes them unmistakably Burgundian. The 2019 whites are not “tropical” in the sense of a hot Mediterranean climate. There is depth but not heaviness, few fat or buttery wines. The tropical notes are not in your face, hence my frequent use of moderating descriptors like “subtle” or “glimpses” of passion fruit, apricot, white peaches, yellow plum and nectarine. They don’t have the nerve of the benchmark 2017s though like the 2018 whites, they defy preconceptions, especially in terms of crucial salinity. They unexpectedly offer freshness and richness that were once thought to be mutually exclusive. It’s as if Mother Nature said to winemakers: You can have your cake and eat it.”
“Lucky Burgundians. So, what is your explanation?”
“Firstly, in 2019 there were not a prolonged period of intense heat: two weeks a month apart when the cooker was turned up and then, just when it might have really stressed the vines, it was turned down again. Sunshine burnt away much of the malic acidity so meant that malolactic fermentation had less impact but since tartaric levels held up well, 4-5g/l, better than in 2018 according to winemakers like Sébastien Caillat and Benoît Riffault. It gave the whites their acidic spine.”
“Is that the only reason?”
“Secondly there is also the concentrating influence of that wind towards the end of the summer that dialled up sugar levels and acidity. Thirdly, vines could be adapting to their new environment. Since 2017 there has been four consecutive warm summers. Winemakers like Chisa Bize are convinced that the vines are adjusting to the ‘new normal’, whilst Aubert de Villaine wrote ‘...vines are clever and have the instinct of life, i.e they have their own intelligence and try to adapt whenever they are faced with extreme conditions’. De Villaine was referring to Pinot Noir but it applies to both. Chardonnay is your ‘flexible friend’ to coin an old phrase; adept at mastering any new environment thrown its way, more so than sensitive thin-skinned Pinot Noir. Something else. Many organic and biodynamic winemakers believe that their vines are coping better in dry and warm conditions. It is difficult to scientifically prove, but perhaps that makes a difference, underlying the reason why wines retain acidity better in 2018 and 2019 than in the warm vintages of the past, like in 1990 or 2003.”
“Sounds like hippy claptrap to me.”
“I know where you are coming from. But truth is that winemakers and vineyard managers now pre-empt warm summers so, like Henri Magnien, train their vines higher from the ground and eschew leaf-removal. It seems almost passé! In this respect, they are fortunate that seasons have been dry with hardly any rot. Personally, I believe vine and vigneron are working with the new type of Burgundy growing season rather than trying to fight against it. That makes the resulting wines different to say the infamous 2003.”
Winemaker Ludovic du Gardin at Domaine Clos Salomon.
“But how about alcohol levels? I’m talking both colours here. I’ve heard that they’re all off the charts. Fine if your aim is intoxication, but I don’t pay top dollar just because a wine will get me drunk more efficiently.”
“Valid point. I refrain from quoting alcohol levels within the tasting notes but in every producer profile you will find the band of alcohol levels. Nearly every producers’ 2019s are comparatively high in alcohol, broadly 13.0°-14.5°. Some are above that and a handful breach 15.0°, unthinkable just a couple of decades ago. Most 2019s manage to contain alcohol levels insofar that they do not impede terroir expression. I was expecting much more volatility but found little. On a couple of occasions, the old I bet you couldn’t tell that wine was over 15.0° trick was wheeled out. But that is what it is – a trick. Pour a thimble-sized sip and it is difficult to tell. Share a bottle and see how you feel when it’s empty. When I reassess the 2019s in bottle, the impact of those elevated alcohol levels can really be judged, but tasting up to 100 barrel samples a day, I rarely detected the alcohol because generally they were not obscenely high and the acidity disguised it.”
“Fair enough. I assume that vineyards at higher and cooler altitudes are at an advantage.”
“To an extent yes. By that same token, it is why the Hautes-Côtes, where it can be 3-4°C cooler, is worth investigating and why its vineyards could become more coveted in the future. You’ll find several in this report like Nicolas Faure, Joannet and Machand de Gramont. But, generally yes, the higher reaches do have a small advantage although it’s a bit more complicated than that.”
“Well, this is Burgundy. I expect it to be complicated.”
“For example, those vineyards on limestone soils with a lot of surface-level detritus, all those pretty white rocks and stones reflect the heat back upwards creating unfavourably warm micro-climates. Clayey soils on lower reaches could have an advantage because they can retain moisture better than free-draining limestone. This is an important underlying factor in 2019 and evened things up a little. Vine age play a role, older vines with larger spatial root system that has penetrated fissures in the bedrock could suck up more water. And don’t forget that the determining factor behind all this is the winemaker, the decisions they take. Again, experience is beginning to tell, and winemakers are generally harvesting at the optimal moment, not too late and not too early. They know that their pickers must mobilize at short notice, maybe at the crack of dawn.”
“You have piqued my interest. Let’s go through this appellation by appellation.”
“I thought you were in a hurry?”
“It can wait. These whites are more intriguing than I presumed. Start from the south and work upwards.”
“Don’t forget the Côte Chalonnaise. As the Côte d’Or has priced out swathes of Burgundy lovers, this region is a treasure trove of value and more producers are upping their game. I only tasted the tip of the iceberg and my plan is to spend more time there next year. But just wrap your palate around say, a Rully from Domaine de la Folie or some of those lovely Bouzerons to see what I mean.”
“Côte Chalonnaise. Got it. How about in the Côte d’Or? Start with Chassagne-Montrachet.”
Simon Colin of Domaine Philippe Colin.
“Chassagne-Montrachet has become much more dynamic in recent years with winemakers like Alex and Benoît Moreau and Sébastien Caillat pushing the envelope, young guns like Simon Colin, pictured above, on the cusp of taking over part of his father Philippe’s holdings. New blood is always important. There is a sense of momentum in an appellation that’s had enough playing bridesmaid to Puligny. Despite this, their efforts to thwart frost were limited. Temperatures plummeted to -4.5°C according to Jean-Michel Chartron, colder than other appellations, and it is not logistically or financially feasible to place candles in every single vineyard. Unfortunately, this appellation was impacted more than any other, many winemakers reporting yields 30-50% down, though that figure might not be as dramatic if they are comparing to the prodigious crop in 2018. This meant that in some instances, they had fewer barrels to play with or sell if they didn’t come up to scratch. This occasionally introduced a little inconsistency, not only in Chassagne but elsewhere.”
“Isn’t it amazing how Saint-Aubin used to be given short shrift, so much so that 19th century Burgundy mavens like Camille Rodier or Dr. Lavalle hardly mentioned it. Now it is seen as the more affordable Puligny-Montrachet. Personally, I think that is damning it with faint praise because irrespective of price, the best climats such as En Remilly, La Chatenière or Derrière Chez Edouard can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Puligny Premier Crus. Skilled growers like Olivier Lamy, Damien Colin and his brother Joseph Colin, Benoît and Jean-Baptiste Bachelet are giving Saint-Aubin momentum, plus its slightly cooler microclimate advantages it in warmer summers so that the best wines combine steeliness with counterbalancing richness.”
“You mentioned Puligny-Montrachet. Is it still the benchmark for Chardonnay?”
“Quantities were down, though not to the same extent as Chassagne-Montrachet even if Jean-Michel Chartron lost half of his crop. The challenge for Puligny’s winemakers was to retain tension despite the warm summer. Generally, I found that many did exactly that. Much of its reputation derives from its Grand Crus. It might be sacrilegious to say it, but time and again, producers’ sacred Montrachets did not take top billing. Perhaps the factors that historically elevated it above every other climat could become its Achilles heel? It is logical. I often found the greatest pleasure derived from Bâtard-Montrachet or Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet. That was evident at producers such as Etienne Sauzet or Louis Jadot where they could be directly compared.”
Highwayman Jean-Jacques Carillon at his winery in Puligny-Montrachet.
“Meursault. There seems to be a lot going on there at the moment.”
“Correct. It’s a hive of activity and if there were more than 24 hours in a day, I would add more producers to this report and I eventually will. It’s much more than the proverbial “butter and hazelnuts”. Many growers achieved more acidity than in 2018, but as Dominique Lafon pointed out, potential alcohol increased by one degree within four days whereas it normally takes a week. So, you have to be very precise on your picking dates and focus on warmer terroirs before the cooler ones, or as Eric Germain at Vincent Girardin explained, reverse the logical sequence and harvest reds before whites. I found there were impressive levels of tartaric in Meursault, so many have plenty of freshness and zip.”
Dominique Lafon on the right with his nephew Pierre, who will take an increasing prominent role at the domaine in the future.
“So, which Premier Cru should I head for?”
“Don’t limit yourself to the Premier Crus because there are some wonderful single vineyard Meursault Villages. This year Les Tessons deserves a round of applause courtesy of great examples from Michel Bouzereau and Pierre Morey. But if you do insist on sharing a Premier Cru with me, then it seems predictable but Les Perrières reaffirmed its status as a first amongst equals. In fact, I anticipated that the warmth might erode its signature mineralité. On the contrary, its terroir shone through and where comparable, I found them a step ahead of Les Charmes and Genevrières.”
Guillaume Lavollée, the ‘Terry Thomas’ of Meursault, who made a raft of splendid 2019s.
“Given that those are no longer cheap as they once were, maybe I should go all out for a Corton-Charlemagne?”
“Maybe. To be frank I found the contributions from this famous hillside inconsistent. In 2019 I found that the season exacerbated differences between those sectors truly deserving Grand Cru status and others that don’t. So, whilst there are fine examples, not least, a brilliant wine from David Croix, they did not excite me as much as other Grand Crus and some showed some heat. Why not save yourself a few pennies and buy some of the under-rated Pernand-Vergelesses or Savigny-lès-Beaune Blancs from Domaine Chandon des Briailles, Jean-Baptiste Boudier or Dubreuil-Fontaine.”
“Is there anywhere else I should look for 2019 whites?"
“Certainly. St-Romain, another commune overlooked by Rodier and Lavalle in their classification, benefitted from its altitude since many of its vineyards lie between 350m and 400m. Alain Gras is your man here. Though I did not taste his 2019 white, his red is splendid and inexpensive as chips, whilst his 2018 white punches well above its weight. Also check out Christophe Buisson’s St.-Romain Blanc. Generally, I find that winemakers with small portfolios that are focused on this part of the Côte d’Or provided the best examples. I will also single out some of the fine Ladoix Blancs from Michel Mallard.”
Thibaud Clerget whose wines are as good as his looks.
“Noted. Let’s discuss the reds in Côte de Beaune. Volnay or Pommard?”
“That’s a tricky one. Both? It’s great to see Pommard nurturing forward-thinking growers like David Rebourgeon and Thibaud Clerget, whose winery is located in Pommard even though his vines are in Volnay. Pommard has been searching for its own stars for many years, names to put in on the map and at the forefront of people’s minds. They survived the dreadful run of frosted vintages. The opulence of recent warm summers is offset by Pommard’s intrinsic structure and austerity, thereby creating some really wonderful reds in 2019. Pommard is the appellation to watch.”
“And how about Volnay?”
“The danger posed to Volnaysians by the 2019 season is that it risked tipping its voluptuousness and sensuality into over-ripeness and heaviness. Fortunately, that appears to be avoided, principally because winemakers in this report know what they are doing. People like Frédéric Lafarge or Jean-Pierre Charlot have been honing their craftsmanship for donkey’s years. But there is a new crop of young guns, such as Paul Zanetti whose taken Domaine Comte Armand to another level or Pierrick Bouley at Domaine Réyane & Pascale Bouley. The latter was a late addition to my trip, and it is always exciting to meet a new name with wines that grabbed my attention.”
Pierrick Bouley, who have up his Sunday afternoon to guide me through his excellent 2019s.
“Fine. Let’s skip Beaune because I never buy it.”
“Em...Why don’t you buy wines from Beaune?”
“A bit common, isn’t it? I think of Volnay or Chambolle and the hairs stand up on end. Someone pours me a Beaune and I lose interest.”
“More fool you for ignoring the most underrated commune in the Côte d’Or. Proximity to the namesake town and that it lies in the shadow of a motorway, the fact that much is farmed by established négociants instead of artisan growers, the feeling that it does not deserve three-quarters of its vines to be classed as Premier Cru, conspire against Beaune. One winemaker mentioned how during the April frosts you could see wax candles lit in Chassagne or Puligny, but there were far hardly any in Beaune, left to fend for itself. But jogging around its Premier Crus and it’s easy to see that Beaune’s terroir is just as good as anywhere. Mid-slope climats such as Bressandes, Grèves, Teurons and Clos des Mouches can create exceptionally good wines.”
A serene Nicolas Potel at his home in Beaune. I detected more elegance to his wines in 2019.
“So where do I begin?”
“The Beaune appellation excelled in 2019, so fill your boots. Drouhin offers a very consistent portfolio of excellent Beaune wines from some of its choicest parcels. Ditto Louis Jadot, whose Clos des Couchereaux is delicious, Bouchard Père’s Les Grèves Vigne de L’Enfant Jesus worthy of bearing God’s only Son in its title, and it matures beautifully. Where some inconsistency creeps in might be attributed to négociants’ vineyard teams stretched by the logistics of harvesting so many vineyards within a short window of time. Someone like David Croix at Domaine des Croix has a small portfolio. He could pick at precisely the right time and proof can be found in his wonderful 2019s. I would put his Bressandes or Pertuisots into any line-up of Premier Crus from a more prestigious commune.
“How about round the hill of Corton and the villages around it: Savigny-lès-Beaune, Aloxe-Corton, Chorey-lès-Beaune and Ladoix?”
“Corton has traditionally been criticized for its excessive number of Grand Crus and its tendency towards rustic wines. In recent years, winemakers that do not rely on status to sell their wines have addressed its rusticity. Warmer growing seasons have shaved some of its edges, filled its tannic framework with more fruit to engender greater balance. There remains some inconsistency for sure, but year-on-year I find it less deserving of its somewhat tarnished reputation in cognoscenti’s’ minds. Check out Chandon de Briailles’ sublime Corton-Bressandes or Michel Mallard’s Corton Les Renardes.”
Nicolas and Colleen Harbour – following their dreams in Savigny-lès-Beaune.
“And the other appellations?”
“Savigny-lès-Beaune is another one to keep an eye on. Like Pommard it suffers acutely during seasons with late spring frosts as cool, heavy air funnels down the valley. But it contains some very fine terroirs, and the difference is that here there’s a momentum of new growers enhancing its reputation. Alongside established producers like Domaine Bize and the resurgent Chandon de Briailles, there is Guillaume Camus at Camus-Bruchon and négociant operations like Maison Harbour.”
“Shimmy round the corner and we have Pernand-Vergelesses, another of those overlooked appellations.”
Christine Gruere-Dubreuil at Domaine Dubreuil-Fontaine in Pernand-Vergelesses.
“Pernand-Vergelesses could be the dark horse in 2019. These are such pretty wines, maybe without the density or complexity for long-term cellaring, yet Premier Crus like Sous Frétille can create refined and very pure Pinot Noir. Then we have Ladoix, kind of caught in a no-man’s land between the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits. In terms of quality, it does lag behind a little, though Michel Mallard consistently demonstrates it can be achieved in similar fashion to Amélie Berthaut in Fixin. In Chorey-lès-Beaune, Tollot-Beaut’s 2019s are as sumptuous as ever, what you might call punter-friendly Pinot.”
The picturesque village of Aloxe-Corton with its famous glazed tile roofing.
“Fine. I really must dash. Well, that’s the Côte de Beaune then.”
“Shall we discuss the Côte de Nuits in the second part next week?”
“I look forward to it.”
To be continued...
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