When in January I gave some suggestions about which vintages of bordeaux to drink this year, many of you asked me to write a similar article about wines other than bordeaux. So here are the best generalisations I can muster on the wine regions I have space for, although please bear in mind that there is probably greater variation in performance and style between different producers in Burgundy and the Rhône than between the various Bordeaux châteaux.
Being the most unpredictable wine region of all, Burgundy poses particular problems for those of us with a collection of various vintages, and this is even truer of its mercurial red wines than its whites. The one sure piece of advice is that the better red burgundies from the 2000 vintage, rather overlooked initially, have consistently provided delicious drinking almost from the moment they were bottled and continue to do so. So when in doubt, especially when panicking over a restaurant’s list of red burgundies, choose a 2000 – even if they may not last that much longer.
You could also start to drink some of the 2001 red burgundies now, although they are rather sterner and the best should be worth keeping, just like the best 2002s and 2004s (although the 2004s are much lighter than the very promising 2002s and should probably eventually be drunk first). The heatwave vintage 2003 produced small quantities of quite extraordinary red burgundies, many of them slightly grotesque with overripe flavours, a lack of acidity or too obviously added acidity and/or uncomfortably dry finishes if the grapes were allowed to shrivel too dramatically on the vine. I would drink these less successful 2003 red burgundies sooner rather than later while there is youthful fruit there to distract from any shortcomings but the very best 2003s, perhaps 15 per cent of all of them, should be monumentally good and worth keeping for at least another 10 years. The problem is working out which they are. In this case at least, price is a pretty good guide.
As for red burgundies from the last century, 1999 was a hugely successful if prolific year, especially in the Côte de Beaune, and the better wines are just starting to come into their own. I am just starting to drink premiers crus now. I don’t have any 1998s but if I did I would wait for them to become less obdurate and - who knows with burgundy? - develop a bit of grandeur. Red 1997s are quite charming now, while 1995s and, especially, 1993s are lovely. Like 1982, 1992 was a light, soft, early-maturing vintage for red burgundy and all 1992s should be drunk, while the equally light but tarter 1994s should have been drunk already.
Those who still have 1990 and 1991 red burgundies in their cellars are lucky indeed and should certainly start to pull some corks, with the 1989s being generally earlier maturing and the 1988s later-maturing than this blessed pair.
The vintage on which I have not commented yet is 1996 which is a conundrum for both red and, especially, white burgundies. It looked highly successful when young – with lots of fruit and marked acidity to keep the wines fresh. But as the wines have aged, many of them have lost fruit much more rapidly than expectedly, particularly the whites, so that all we are left with is tartness, and in some cases premature oxidation. This is closely related to when the grapes were picked - late-picked 1996s are much more likely to last – but it is also thought that some producers used dangerously low additions of sulphur dioxide, the all-purpose fruit preservative, in 1996.
As for other vintages of white burgundy, 2002 and 2000 are lovely to drink now and should be treasured for that, with the best 2002s worth hanging on to for a year or two. Many 2001s and 1999s have aged rapidly alas and most should be drunk sooner rather than later. And in general the growing season of 2003 was far too hot and short to make refreshing, interesting white burgundy for the long term – drink all but the grandest of them this minute. Some of the lesser 2004 white burgundies are already delicious but otherwise I’m afraid you will have to concentrate on those 2000s and lesser 2002s, as well as the most successful 1996s and 1997s. A grand cru from 1992 would be a real treat.
All of the comments above relate to the Côte d’Or and the white wine vineyards south of it in the Mâconnais. Chablis vintages can be quite different, and fine Chablis in general lasts much longer than most Côte d’Or white. I would be much more confident about opening a grand cru or premier cru Chablis from 1990, 1991 or 1992 than about an equivalent from the Côte d’Or. And 1995, 1996 and 1997 make up another exciting consecutive run of three highly successful Chablis vintages. Since great Chablis takes time to unfurl, I would keep 2000s, 2002s and the exciting 2004s for a few years yet if possible, although basic Chablis from 2004 and 2002 is great now and 2000 premiers crus are starting to drink well. Any lover of white burgundy looking for value should look carefully at Chablis and the Mâconnais.
And now, the increasingly popular Rhône Valley. The white wines made here get better with each vintage but even now are rarely candidates for ageing. Reds divide sharply between north and south. For insider guidance on which northern Rhône vintages to drink now I asked Marcel Guigal, the king of Côte-Rôtie. He suggested 1976 and 1982, which is probably fine if your cellar contains hundreds of bottles of his single vineyard bottlings, but the owners of more modest collections might like to consider the easy, open vintages of 2000, 1997, 1995, 1994 and anything made between 1988 and 1991 inclusive. Avoid 1993 and 2002, and 2004 wasn’t nearly as successful for reds as in the south. The 1999s are so chock full of fruit that many are already a pleasure to drink even though the best are nowhere near ready. The 1998s, as in the southern Rhône, are going through a difficult period which one hopes is just adolescence.
The southern Rhône has been blessed with a run of delicious vintages since 1988 with only 2002 being diluted and softened by rain and 1991 also being a bit of a write-off which should already have been drunk. Otherwise there is usually pleasure and ripe fruit to be found. It’s just a question of leaving the more tannic years to age. The most suitable vintages for current drinking are 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1997, although none is as toothsome as 1988, 1989 and 1990 which are already delicious. The best wines from 1995, and all wines from 1998 to the present day should ideally be kept a bit longer, apart from the 2002s which are much lighter and looser than most years and could be drunk now, and some 2000s seem breezily open already.
In the Languedoc-Roussillon the best 2001s are still glorious but such has been the pace of change there that there are few older wines than this that are really stunning.
I wrote about Champagne vintages a couple of weeks ago. In the Loire, look out for 2003, 2002 and, for drinking now, 1997.
But when in doubt, drink rather than keep – better to enjoy a wine on the way up than on the way down.