This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
Access more than 2,000 tasting notes on 2012 burgundies via this guide to all our coverage of this vintage.
Usually when tasting in Burgundy you are poured a generous tasting sample from the barrel via a glass wine thief (involving judicious sucking on the part of the vigneron), you sniff, you taste, you write, you spit and then you pour away what remains in your glass into either a spittoon or a general mixed slops container. But when tasting the tiny 2012 crop last year I noticed that for the first time I was asked to return every precious drop. The only producers who did not impose this discipline were Domaine Jean-François Coche-Dury and Domaine Jean-Marie Fourrier at the southern and northern extremes of the Côte d'Or respectively, but then that's their usual practice. It certainly wasn't because they were unscathed by a year that Romain Taupenot of Domaine Taupenot-Merme in Morey-St-Denis described as 'the worst growing season ever', and not just because wild boars ate 3.5 tonnes of his Chardonnay grapes in St-Romain. The Taupenot team had to treat their vines against pests and diseases no fewer than 16 times in 2012.
Raphaël Coche of Meursault told me that they ended up picking just half of a normal crop in 2012, not at all unusually for a grower on the Côte de Beaune, thanks to bad weather during the crucial flowering season and much of the summer, and at least two lots of hail. Like virtually all growers there, the Coches were unable to make any Monthelie at all and, with the exception of Corton-Charlemagne well north of the village of Meursault where they are based, all their plots of vines suffered in some way. Virtually everyone at the southern end of the Côte d'Or was affected by hail and I was amused by how those who follow biodynamic practices reacted. At the world-famous Domane Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet, they went to the village pharmacy the morning after the hail and bought arnica and valerian, mixed it with rainwater and sprayed homeopathic doses on to the vines to help them recover from the trauma. One hundred millilitres, less than a wineglassful, was enough for the whole domaine.
The Coches may have been lucky enough to see their grandest vineyard survive the onslaughts of 2012 but Jean-Marie Fourrier, who always sheds some of the brightest light on vintage characteristics, was not the only grower to point out that, most unfortunately, it was the oldest vines, the ones that produce the best wine but naturally produce grapes of different sizes, that flowered during the coldest weather. This meant that their yields, never high, were even lower than usual. 'This was the only vintage when I have seen vines with zero fruit', he told me gloomily, adding, 'the biggest danger of 2012 was to over-make the wine. The sorting tables made everything easy, easy to eliminate the sunburnt fruit, any less-than-healthy fruit, but you really had to control yourself not to say "I'm bored so I'm going to punch the cap [the floating mass of skins in the fermentation vat]. It was all too easy to overdo the extraction. You had to leave it alone!'
To judge from the hundreds of 2012 burgundies I tasted both in Burgundy last December and in London last week, the majority of reputable burgundy producers treated their musts with a gentle hand and the wines are in general delightfully pure and unforced, providing textbook examples of their various and delightfully different terroirs in the majority of cases. The average yields cited by Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti give a good idea of how severally Nature has dealt with even the favoured Côte de Nuits recently: a respectable 30 hl/ha in 2009, 25 in each of 2010 and 2011, less than 20 in 2012, and just 18 in 2013. The result of this succession of small vintages is that some producers have over-ordered new wooden barrels. Some of them seem to have decided to fill them anyway with wines that would not normally be judged robust enough to withstand the onslaught of new oak. But in general in Burgundy it is relatively difficult to find 2012s that are over-oaked, too alcoholic, or even particularly deep in colour. Perhaps this is why the ranks of burgundy lovers have been swelling so markedly recently.
Although some of the more exposed grapes suffered sunburn during one of the 2012 summer's few hot spells, most growers struggled to achieve full ripeness before the September rains arrived, so that natural alcohol levels are in the 12 to 12.5% range, often supplemented by a bit of sugar added to the fermentation vat to prolong fermentation. (Even Domaine Leroy chaptalised a little in 2012 - despite an average yield of just 9 hl/ha thanks to Lalou Bize-Leroy's over-zealous thinning of buds before flowering.) As Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac pointed out, Burgundy is one of the few wine regions in the world where alcohol levels have remained stable. Something else to celebrate?
Generalisations about burgundy are particularly dangerous but I'm prepared to go out on a limb and say that, while there are examples that are too soft, I found some of the whites extremely high in acidity and feel that the best may need a few years in bottle to round out while others may always be a bit skinny. The better reds on the other hand at this early stage in their lives, while being generally lighter than either 2010 or 2005, are almost eerily charming, and expressive of their various origins. Presumably the generally cool summer helped to preserve freshness and aromas. I do wonder about their longevity, but when they offer such pleasure so early, perhaps this is a needless concern.
Thanks to the poor flowering many of the grapes were small, so the ratio of flavour-inducing skin to juice was usefully high - although these are not excessively tannic wines by any means. Those who like to use whole bunches rather than destemmed grapes found stems generally ripe enough to include in 2012. Many growers found the malolactic conversions finished relatively late, not helped by the relatively cool temperatures in 2013. With the current vogue for keeping the wines on the lees of their original, alcoholic fermentation for as long as possible, reduction was a common phenomenon during my December tastings.
As Fred Mugnier of Chambolle commented ruefully, 'in the first decade of the century we were trying to limit yields but in the last four year it's the opposite'.
OVERPERFORMERS IN 2012
Most of the finest 2012s were made by the most famous names, and are available in tiny quantities at sky-high prices. The following producers are slightly further off the beaten track and made a range of 2012s that impressed me. If a well known name is here, it is on this decidedly non-exhaustive list because I thought their 2012s were unusually good.
François Carillon, Puligny-Montrachet
Chandon de Briailles, Pernand-Vergelesses
Thierry Glantenay, Volnay
Michel Gros, Vosne-Romanée
Mark Haisma, Gevrey-Chambertin
Gérard Mugneret, Vosne-Romanée