Pump Up The Volume: 2019 Burgundy - Blind


What price is a Burgundy label? To what extent does value derive from what is printed on the bottle's exterior?

Do you appreciate a sketch differently, knowing it is by Leonardo da Vinci, a song without knowing it was composed by Bach, sitting on a chair blissfully unaware that it’s an original Eames?

Do you feel that endorphin rush when noticing the eye-catching font of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti heading in your direction or the ornate artwork that preludes Rousseau’s Chambertin? Does your heart sink if it’s a grower or appellation less noble than one expected?

Taking a line-up of Burgundy bottles and steaming off the labels is tantamount to disrobing its identity, downgrading each wine to its core existence as an anonymous Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. The playing field is leveled. The imbiber can no longer be swayed one way or the other by Domaine, appellation or climat, history, reputation and arguably the most influential of all: market value. Its taste is unaltered. What has changed is perception.

That is essentially what the annual Burgfest tasting is. It’s not entirely blind since flights are pre-ordered per appellation, and there is a valid case that it would be a more interesting exercise to undertake if bottles were completely jumbled. Then again, it is a group tasting and certainly not mine to organize, notwithstanding it would preclude an equally valuable chance to juxtapose like-for-like. Burgfest is a tasting I treasure: a chance to assess Burgundy with minimal background noise. It is a humbling learning exercise that potentially vindicates and mercilessly ridicules extant reviews. No change this year. I see it as part of a never-ending learning process. Burgfest affirms that after 25 years, I know a bit about Burgundy, but now and then, it prods you in the chest and says that I’ve learned nothing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Growing Season

I refer readers to my original vintage report for a detailed analysis of the growing season. Before discussing the wines, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the 2019 growing season within that slither of precious agricultural land known as the Côte d’Or.

A warm start to the year meant that rainfall of 84mm was crucial in limiting hydric stress later in the year. Bud burst was early, and a temperature dip predicated frost damage that affected the Chardonnay more than Pinot Noir. May was dry, but some showers in early June disrupted flowering, and widespread millerandage meant some producers lost half their crop. Afterward, the weather became more settled and witnessed two significant heat waves that blocked some grape maturity, particularly the second. It was very sunny with higher-than-average luminosity hours, so it was crucial that vineyard managers did not remove leaves to provide shade and avoid burnt bunches. August was actually a little cooler than normal. Then, a northerly wind increased evaporation and enhanced concentration in the run-up to harvest. In fact, some parcels saw potential alcohol levels increase by one degree every three days instead of the usual seven. Harvests for the whites began around September 3, and the reds around September 16. There was a danger that growers could pick fruit on concentration without ensuring phenolic ripeness. At least hygiene conditions were ideal, the warmth precluding any rot, but cold storage was vital in controlling when fruit entered the vats.

How The Wines Were Tasted

As usual, just under a dozen of us convened for one week at the end of May to taste the whites and a second week in September to tackle the reds. Each week, just over 200 wines are tasted single-blind, arranged in flights according to location, i.e., one flight of Pommard Rugiens, one flight of Clos Saint-Jacques and so on. Where there were insufficient wines, flights were merged logically according to proximity. After each flight, scores from the group are given, and finally, the wines are identified with attendant gasps and groans.

The Wines

As you would expect, stylistically, the 2019 whites can be categorized within the growing set of warmer years à la 2018 and 2020. Summer is the guiding hand that molds the fruit in the vineyard. There is growing credence to the theory that those clever vines have adapted to their new environment, resulting in wines that not so long ago would be described as possessing irrational levels of natural acidity, freshness and all the tropes respective to their terroirs. While climate undeniably sculpts the wines, it is far from a seismic shift into wines transfigured into something unrecognizable insofar that in both colors, they are immediately identifiable as Burgundy and not a New World region. Long may they do so.

Before I continue, I feel that blind tasting against peers is the toughest test. You tend to become highly critical. Perhaps the juxtaposition illuminates shortcomings that otherwise might be missed or overlooked. Also, these wines are poured and decanted, ensuring they are served at the correct temperature at every moment. Even so, some of the more stoic and backward wines are denied perhaps the two or three hours in a carafe that would see their true personalities revealed. That’s just the way it goes. Consequently, I am always more critical in my scoring, so marks tend to be lower.

The Whites

We commenced the whites with Chablis as usual. I must confess that I was not totally enamored. Chablis is arguably susceptible to stylistic alteration more than its contemporaries in the Côte d’Or. This is a topic that I have discussed in my Chablis reports, so there is no need to repeat it here. Adieu to the steely, austere, and even “mean” Chablis of the past, save for a rare reappearance in 2021? Perhaps. Yet there are some very fine wines: Domaine Christian Moreau’s and Jean Collet’s Vaillons, the latter winemaker enjoying a good Burgfest with a delicious Montée de Tonnerre. There was a tangible step up when we broached the Grand Crus, notably a superb Chablis Bougros Côte Bouguerots Grand Cru and Les Clos from William Fèvre. Also, Benoît Droin knocked the ball out of the park with a fantastic Vaudésir.

The Meursault appellation seems to revel in warmer growing seasons, perhaps their weightier, less austere personalities suited to the richer style of Chardonnay. I loved the Meursault Genevrières and Les Charmes-Dessus from Michel Bouzereau, a grower who deserves more kudos. Conversely, the Genevrières from Benjamin Leroux appeared out of sorts. Indeed, Leroux suffered a rough ride at this year’s tasting. It always happens to one or two winemakers I admire and wax lyrical about - a pitfall of tasting blind. Leroux isn’t the only one. On the other hand, Antoine Jobard infused his Meursault Charmes with impressive mineralité, ditto the Les Perrières from Château de Meursault and Jean-Marc Roulot. As might be expected, the Les Perrières was the strongest Meursault flight with fine showings from Domaine Ballot-Millot, though Domaine de Comtes Lafon is curiously ostentatious, an almost Gewürz-like Les Perrières at complete odds with previous experiences. Burgundy…never the most predictable of wine regions!

The two flights of Saint-Aubin were solid rather than spectacular, perhaps one surprise being the quality of Olivier Leflaive’s En Remilly that outclassed that of de Montille and even Olivier Lamy. Damien Colin’s En Remilly was the only challenger to Domaine Marc Colin & Fils. Maybe I was expecting more from this appellation, as its cooler microclimate should have given it an advantage.

There were four flights from Chassagne-Montrachet, each moving up the slope. Quality was slightly inconsistent, though I would single out the Les Embrazées from Thomas Morey, Les Baudines from Jean-Marc Pillot and Bernard Moreau and Drouhin’s Morgeots down the slope. The frequency of top performers increased as we moved up the slope: Damien Colin and Philippe Colin’s Vide-Bourse and En Remilly, respectively, were outstanding. Puligny-Montrachet was perhaps less up and down like Chassagne. For every disappointment like Sauzet’s Les Perrières, there were startling whites from Bachelet-Monnot (Les Referts), Vincent Girardin (Les Combettes), Michel Bouzereau (Le Cailleret) and Leflaive (Les Pucelles). Best in show? Step forward a stunning Caillerets from Domaine de Montille. Chapeau winemaker Brian Sieve.

Two flights from around the hill of Corton-Charlemagne and the conjugations of orientation, altitude and terroirs give rise to variant scores. Some of the “big” merchants did very well: Louis Jadot under the Domaine des Héritiers Jadot label and Albert Bichot under their Domaine du Pavillon moniker should not be overlooked; likewise, Olivier Leflaive (again!). Continuing with the Grand Crus, among the Bâtard-Montrachet flight, I single out those from Coffinet-Duverney, Olivier Leflaive (and again!) plus Jean-Jacques Carillon’s Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet that eclipsed Domaine de la Vougeraie. There was clearly an uptick in quality as we broached the Chevalier-Montrachet, as one would hope, given price differentials. Olivier Leflaive (this is getting boring!), Bouchard Père, with their regular bottling rather than from the La Cabotte lieu-dit and Bruno Colin were all excellent. Yet, they must kowtow to a heavenly Chevalier-Montrachet from Domaine Leflaive, where winemaker Pierre Vincent weaves his magic. The whites climaxed with a quintet of Montrachets. They all showed well, though Olivier Leflaive (I’ve stopped taking bets) strode home with a brilliant wine that even outshone the preceding Montrachet from Domaine Marc Colin.

The Reds

We began the reds with the Beaune appellation, and frankly, these seemed to struggle with the growing season more than others. However, the Beaune Grèves from Domaine de Montille and David Croix’s Pertuisots are both well worth seeking out and, lest we forget, don’t carry the premium of more auspicious appellations. Likewise, the Volnays seemed a bit impacted by the growing season, its tendency for the ripe, fleshier style of Pinot perhaps pushed over the brink by the warm temperatures. The flight from Taillepieds and Clos des Chênes was more consistent with a fine example of the latter courtesy of “retired” winemaker Dominique Lafon, who also delivers an outstanding Les Santenots-du-Milieu. The Pommard appellation was very mixed. Applause, please, for Australian winemaker Mark Haisma’s Clos les Arvelets, Violet-Guillemard’s Epenots and Rugiens, and Domaine Launay-Horiot’s Clos Blanc - a sterling performance given it is not one of Pommard’s premier league vineyards. The Clos des Epeneaux from Domaine Comte Armand did not show as well as it might at Burgfest; however, winemaker Paul Zanetti offered a mini-vertical at a subsequent visit where the 2019 showed much better, even if direct comparison proved that the 2018 has more clarity and noblesse. Would you know, the 2017 showed even better than those two! The final flight focused on Pommard’s most esteemed vineyard, Les Rugiens, where Violot-Guillemard again proved their mettle, having triumphed earlier with their Epenots.

Corton is often given inadequate attention because perceived wisdom is that a chunk of it was lucky to receive Grand Cru status. However, quality has improved markedly over recent years, particularly in terms of tannins that are less like Victorian girders and now more dentelle. Tollot-Beaut produced really lovely Corton and Corton-Bressandes Grand Crus, David Croix a ripe and spicy La Vigne Au Saint, while Bichot continued their impressive run of form at Burgfest with an energetic Clos de Maréchaude. Also, hats off to Michel Mallard, whose Corton Les Renardes showed well and is armed with a caressing finish. There is nothing spectacular within Corton, at least not at this tasting, but given market prices, there are rich pickings here if you do hanker for a Grand Cru and nothing else.

Nuits Saint-Georges began with a flight of wines from further south around Prémeaux-Prissey and generally rose above expectations: Mugnier’s Clos des Maréchale, de l’Arlot’s Clos des Fôrets-Saint-Georges and Patrice & Michèle Rion’s Clos des Argillières, even if both their wines did not match my estimated scores from barrel. As we moved to more acclaimed Premier Crus, the wines became more consistent with strong showings from Henri Gouges, Robert Chevillon (apart from a curiously New World-like Les Saint-Georges) and Thibaut Liger-Belair. Also, Pascal Mugneret (Domaine Gérard Mugneret) had an oddly Médoc-like La Richemone where the whole bunch did not feel as integrated as its peers. One standout transpired to be the Aux Cras from Comte Liger-Belair. Sure, we can talk about the market price for their wines until the cows come home, but under blind conditions, this really stands out despite its precocious youth.

Clos Vougeot? There were some decent wines in the first flight, though nothing startling. The 2019 from Domaine Castagnier was the first that tickled the tastebuds in all the right ways, conveying classicism despite the warm summer. Méo-Camuzet’s Clos de Vougeot augurs a bright future but needs time. I was smitten by Hudelot-Noëllat’s contribution, even if it failed to win approval from every attendee.

Within Vosne-Romanée, there were a couple of bangers that set the pulse racing: Maxime Chuerlin’s Les Chaumes at Domaine Georges Noëllat, Cécile Tremblay's tremendous Les Rouges du Dessus, both for starters. Burgfest omits Village Crus simply because of time constraints, though Mugneret-Gibourg’s Vosne-Romanée Colombier sneaked in and held its own against the Premier Crus. Some bottles were off-color: the Brûlées from Domaine d’Eugénie and Grivot’s Les Beaux Monts. There were better showings from Pascal Mugneret’s Aux Brûlées and Bichot’s Les Malconsorts (under Domaine du Clos Frantin). We began seeing wines at opposite ends of the qualitative spectrum. Comte Liger-Belair and Amélie Berthaut’s Les Petits Monts were stellar, the former’s Aux Reignots breathtaking. But I remain unconvinced about Confuron-Cotetidot, besmirched by ultra-ripe scents that belong more to the Southern Rhône than Burgundy.

The Grands Crus really deliver, as they are duty-bound to do, given they cost a king’s ransom. The flight of Echézeaux was impressive, more so than the 2018s, with outstanding examples from Comte Liger-Belair, Château de Marsannay, Mugneret-Gibourg, Jean Tardy, Gérard Mugneret and A.F. Gros. The bottle from Domaine d’Eugénie did not reflect how I found it from barrel. Mea culpa. I suspect it was me just misreading the wine. Michel Mallard kindly poured another in November that was more representative. The Romanée-Saint-Vivant/Richebourg flight was thrilling: Stunning bottles courtesy of Domaine de l’Arlot, Grivot, Thibaut Liger-Belair, Hudelot-Noëllat and (again) Comte Liger-Belair. Alas, we no longer receive the La Grande Rue from Nicole Lamarche.

Chambolle-Musigny was bejeweled with some real gems, and I have fonder memories of the 2019s than their 2018 counterparts. Ghislaine-Barthod’s Les Fuées needs time but possesses real structure and balance. Hudelot-Baillet’s Les Borniques was a bit of a dark horse, though their Les Cras exhibited some TCA. Christophe Roumier’s Les Cras is pure class and outshines his Morey-Saint-Denis Clos de la Bussière, as I would have predicted. This appellation did not have the usual representation, and compounding the shortfall were misfiring bottles: Stéphan Magnien’s Les Faconnières ignominiously winning most corked bottle of the week, and Dujac’s Premier Cru, again, affected by a touch of TCA. The best is the Vieilles Vignes from Domaine Hubert Lignier, a cuvée that is a strong performer and too often overlooked since it lacks climat designation. Remaining in Morey, the Grand Crus delivered impressive wines from Domaine Arlaud, Castagnier (Clos Saint-Denis great, Clos de la Roche corked), Leroux and most splendid of all, Clos du Tart and the Clos de la Roche from Hubert Lignier. Once again, I was a bit disconcerted by another odd showing of Dujac’s Clos de la Roche that had a tincture of TCA. The flight of Bonnes-Mares was a disappointment. Due to a miscommunication, I tasted them under the misapprehension they were Premier Crus, though upon reassessing them in light of what they were, I decided to leave my scores unchanged. Hence, the wide divergence apropos my score for Roumier’s Bonnes-Mares. I will endeavor to re-taste it. I found de Vogüé’s Bonnes-Mares, one of the last vintages under winemaker François Millet, much too sinewy for my liking, in stark contrast to their Musigny Vieilles Vignes that was far superior in every way. The flight of Musigny and Les Amoureuses was much more enticing, studded with fabulous wines from Messrs Nicolas Groffier and “Freddy” Mugnier. But I was mystified by the showing of Les Amoureuses from Roumier, which hints at some brettanomyces on the nose and feels alarmingly mature. Surely, an errant bottle?

The series of Gevrey-Chambertin formed the final day’s session. Like previous Burgfests, it provided further evidence, if any is still needed, that it is a bastion of excellence. Maybe it is not garlanded with the illustriousness of Vosne-Romanée, and yet its wines deliver at all stages of the hierarchy, not just at its lofty summit. The flights of Lavaux Saint-Jacques were bejeweled with stunning wines from Pierre Duroché and Henri Magnien that I scored higher than the Armand Rousseau, though the bottle from Domaine Denis Mortet seemed out of sorts. Rousseau reassumed top position in the following, no less impressive flight of Les Cazetiers. The quintet of Clos Saint-Jacques is always freighted with heightened anticipations. There was broad consensus about the finest, but I think nobody foresaw that it was not Rousseau or Fourrier…but Louis Jadot. Under head winemaker Frédéric Barnier, Jadot has fine-tuned this cuvée, and it’s possibly the best I’ve ever tasted. That’s not to slander the other four that also scored above many of the Grand Crus.

Rousseau continued to show strongly among the Charmes-Chambertin, scotching those claiming that the quality of wines has come off the boil in recent vintages. The Ruchottes-Chambertin had a surprise in the form of an over-achieving 2019 from Château de Marsannay, though it was the following flight of Latricières-Chambertin that “wowed the audience”: a brief but heavenly flight with stunning wines from Launay-Horiot and Rossignol-Trapet. The flight of Chambertin Clos-de-Bèze was strong, even if it did not include a standout, though Bruno Clair and Faiveley showed extremely well. This year, the flight of Chambertins contained brilliant wines from, again, Rossignol-Trapet and Camille Giroud.

Final Thoughts

As the tasting reached its denouement, discussion ensued about whether the 2019 reds are better than the 2018s since the two vintages encourage comparison. My own view concurs with the consensus that the 2019s have their noses in front. As one of the learned group members pointedly asked: How will the 2018s mature with those alcohol levels? While analytically, alcohol levels are equal, if not even higher, in 2019, the difference is that in 2018, the alcohol seems to jut out and define the wines. In 2019, the alcohol is more assimilated. How is that? It is because, whereas in 2018, the alcohol was pushed upwards while other facets remained the same or only slightly exaggerated, in 2019 all facets of the wines were amplified by the growing season so that everything remained in proportion. Ergo, the alcohol levels are less conspicuous.

Is this part of the vines’ adaption to the “new normal” of growing seasons? A genuine botanical phenomenon? Or is it just a convenient ruse to hype recent vintages? Factors underlying the cause have been discussed in my previous reports. Nobody, as of yet, can scientifically explain how they adapt at lightning speed. You just have to taste the wines and draw your own conclusions. However, you cannot escape the fact that if seeking cooler, less alcoholic, more linear and classical wines, then cherry-pick from the 2021 growing season that was unequivocally never the write-off some propound.

One question I am asking myself, something that is becoming evident after conducting this same tasting for a decade now, is that maybe Burgundy is becoming less stable in bottle, irrespective of how they are cellared. It has never been as predictable as Bordeaux. Hence, my “cat and dog” analogy wheeled out from time to time. I’m just noticing more misbehaving and wayward bottles, which is less of a problem for growers since the wines are sold and more of a caveat for consumers who patiently mature these wines over several years and pay handsomely for the privilege of doing so. Consequently, there is perhaps some kind of crowbarring between in-barrel and bottle scores that implies that some bottles skid off their trajectories. Perchance, elevated alcohol, 14% and above, coupled with higher pH levels, offers less protection from infections such as Brettanomyces, rending them more mutable throughout years of micro-oxygen ingress through the cork, whose pores vary from one to the other. Perhaps the way in which tannins polymerize is less predictable. Returning to my cat and dog analogy, the felines are becoming more feral.

Another year, another Burgfest. I came away with a galvanized appreciation for a vintage that seems to have handled that year’s warmth to furnish wine lovers with great wines, perhaps leaning more toward the reds than the whites, with pockets of the Côte d’Or more successful than others. Global warming is not advantageous to those appellations prone toward riper and fruit-driven styles of Pinot Noir, notably Volnay and Chambolle-Musigny. As I have often opined, so much of quality is underpinned by the grower and, by extension, domaine. In my experience, Burgundy aficionados flock towards their favorite winemakers, that bond between wine-drinker that has fuelled the region towards Mecca-like status. After tasting the 2019s from barrel, one wine writer wrote: “The [2019] growing season is 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.” That was borne out by this Burgfest.

These are not subtle wines.

Some might find them a bit “loud”.

But if the music sounds good, why not pump up the volume?

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