Jan 12 - This is a much longer version of an article also published by the Financial Times. See also this guide to our coverage of burgundy 2013. This week, London's jam-packed Burgundy Week, we will be busy adding to the many tasting articles of 2013 burgundies which already provide notes on more than 700 wines.
I always enjoy my annual visit to Burgundy to taste the latest vintage at many of the top addresses. Who wouldn't? And, because I concentrate on those domaines whose wines are too sought-after to be shown at the plethora of UK wine merchants' tastings to be held this week in London, my visit generally leaves me with a rather inflated idea of the vintage's quality. Judging a vintage on the basis of the likes of Rousseau, Roumier and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is a bit like judging the average state of French cuisine on the basis of three-star restaurants. It is this week's tastings of well-travelled cask samples from more lowly addresses that will give a more accurate picture of Burgundy 2013.
But one observation from my Côte d'Or travels may be enough to give you some idea of the character of the vintage. Tasting at Domaine Dujac in Morey-St-Denis is always particularly enjoyable as my usual host, Jeremy Seysses, is an Oxford graduate who speaks my language in several senses. No decoding the subtext of a carefully rehearsed comment in a foreign tongue is required here. We were just coming to the end of a run of dozens of wines both from the domaine and from their négociant label Dujac Fils et Père when Jeremy looked reflectively at the line-up of glasses and said, 'I'm rather tempted to try out a bit of deacidification.' (This is an entirely legal process whereby the acid in a wine can be lowered by treating it with tiny quantities of something not unlike chalk.)
The next day I visited another irreproachable producer, Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier of the atmospheric Château de Chambolle-Musigny, a fairy-tale house that seems to spring organically from the rocky hillside behind it. I mentioned en passant this conversation about deacidifying 2013s. Mugnier (pictured above) smiled, got up from his deep armchair and showed me a basket of little sample bottles sitting on the floor. These contained the results of his own deacidification experiments.
In the end, Mugnier abandoned the idea of deacidification, having found that in many cases it achieved the opposite of what was sought; the deacidified wines tasted harder and meaner, whereas the wines left alone to develop in barrel seemed to continue to put on flesh and charm. And Seysses deacidified just one wine, the Nuits-St-Georges, Damodes, that they buy in for their négociant business Dujac Père et Fils, raising the all-important pH from 3.3 to 3.5.
But all this gives some sort of indication of what sort of vintage 2013 is: far from opulent, it is fresh and focused. And as many a top grower pointed out to me, it is only where yields were really low that the fruit was able to reach anything like full ripeness. Where growers were tempted to encourage too generous a crop, or not to sort out every damaged or rotten grape, the results will be wines that are either too tart or lacking healthy fruit expression.
Long-standing burgundy lovers will remember the 1996 vintage that in its youth seemed as fresh and marked by terroir differences as the best 2013s. In general terms I loved the 2013s I tasted from barrel last November, but I did ask a few growers whether it was possible we had another 1996 on our hands, wines that in many cases almost 20 years later are still dominated by searing acidity. 'My concern is more that 2012 will do a 1998 or 1988', said Jean-Marie Fourrier of Gevrey-Chambertin, referring to vintages that developed a toughness in bottle after exhibiting great charm and intensity in youth, 'rather than worrying that 2013 will do a 1996. Burgundy has changed so much since 1996. It was my third vintage and if only I'd known then what I know today about how to handle high-acid grapes.'
His neighbour Denis Bachelet was equally convinced that all will be well with the 2013s. 'The acidity of the 2013s is not like 1996's, which was created by a month of exceptionally cool wind and drought. In 2013 it was the three weeks immediately before the harvest which finally ripened the grapes, but because the harvest was so late, well into October for the reds – the days were shorter and cooler than usual resulting in higher acids in a very classical, typically burgundian way.'
This was the latest harvest in a generation or two and it followed the second growing season from hell in a row. 'I never knew a more tiring vintage', Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey of Chassagne-Montrachet told me. The southern end of the Côte d'Or where he is, the Côte de Beaune, suffered even more than in the north because, for the third year running, it was hit by devastating hailstorms that destroyed significant proportions of the crop for many growers. As Raphaël Coche of Domaine Coche-Dury pointed out exhaustedly, 'we've been hailed and had cool summers five years in a row; if it happens again in 2015 it will be a catastrophe, both economically and in terms of morale – how can we afford to keep on improving?' Thierry Glantenay in Volnay, a particular hail target, pointed out that if he totalled the amount of wine he made in 2012, 2013 and 2014, it was only about as much as he made in 2009.
You might expect, with another small crop maturing in the cellars and worldwide demand for burgundy showing no sign of abating, that growers might be tempted to raise their prices yet again for their 2013s, but most of those I spoke to sounded rather shaken by the adverse reactions to the record prices set for the 2012s. Currency movements should mean that sterling prices for 2013s are lower than for the more concentrated 2012s. Étienne de Montille was the first to tell me he was planning to reduce prices, admittedly with particularly generous financial backing, and observed, 'Burgundians should not be short sighted. Look where Bordeaux is stuck now. Once you cross the Rubicon it will take a lot of time to get your reputation back.'
I did meet one interloper from Bordeaux, Frédéric Engerer, who is responsible for both the first growth Château Latour and Domaine d'Eugénie in Vosne-Romanée. He couldn't get over the difference between France's two great wine regions: 'In Bordeaux we had half the rot they had here in Burgundy, but in Burgundy the grapes really seemed to fully ripen phenolically despite that.' He was far from the only commentator to remark on how, despite the terrible flowering and disease pressure, Burgundy's Pinot Noir grapes seemed to achieve full ripeness of skins, pips and stems after one of the longest growing seasons on record – even though growers had to fight mildew in muddy vineyards in the early summer and the threat of rot, particularly after the storms of the first weekend of October, at the end. 'Usually we plough about four times', said Jean-Marie Fourrier wearily, 'but in 2013 it was closer to 10. It made me think fondly of all those herbicides we used to use instead. The atmosphere among vignerons here in September was very unusual because it was so challenging up to the end of August and no one knew what to do.'
Aubert de Villaine of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti can afford total honesty. 'Very frankly, we were afraid of the 2013s initially. When we picked the grapes, we thought the wines would be much thinner than they have turned out, but since their first summer in cask they have become much more fruity and tender. Such difficult vintages can often be more interesting than the sunnier ones, which can sometimes leave their mark too strongly.'
It is certainly true that the hundreds of 2013 burgundies I have tasted to date are generally delightfully terroir-specific. Alcohols are low, generally closer to 12 than 13%. From the right addresses, wines for true burgundy lovers.
Next week we will publish our hundreds of tasting notes so far on 2013 burgundies but will continue to add to them as we taste like crazy at next week's rash of tastings in London.
2013 KEY CHALLENGES
- Exceptionally cool, wet spring resulting in floods and in vineyards so muddy they were exceptionally difficult to enter, much less work.
- Rain during flowering in June resulted in very poor fruit set, and relatively low yields (which helped the remaining grapes inch towards ripeness at the end of the season).
- In July devastating hailstorms hit the Côte de Beaune for the third year running.
- Some warmth arrived at last in August, reducing the three-week delay in the growing season to two.
- A humid September brought the threat of rot, exacerbated by rainstorms on 5/6 October, but acid levels were still dangerously high.
- White wine grapes were picked mainly at the end of September and red wine grapes in early October.
- Sorting was essential but biodynamically grown grapes were generally in much better health, with earlier ripeness, than others.
- Stems were rarely fully ripe, making whole-bunch fermentations potentially difficult.
- Virtually all wines were chaptalised, with a bit of sugar added before fermentation to increase the final alcohol level.
- For winemaking, gentle infusion rather than extraction was the key.
See also Mugnier on Australian Pinot for a short video clip of Frédéric Mugnier.