A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. We have begun to publish our many tasting articles devoted to this promising vintage and will continue to add to them. I tasted in Burgundy in November. Julia, Richard and I have been tasting various négociants' offerings in London and this coming week will be doing our best to fill in the gaps at the 22 burgundy tastings in London that we know about. See this thread on our forum about planned coverage, and this guide to it.
Michel Lafarge, for long mayor of the famous Burgundy village of Volnay, was born in 1928. He is ecstatic about the quality of his 2015s. After he'd finished tasting them, his son Frédéric told me, he said they reminded him of the 1929s and had the best balance in the last 50 years. Since Charles Rousseau of Gevrey-Chambertin died a year ago, it's difficult to think of anyone with sufficient experience to contradict him. My experience of Lafarge burgundies is much, much shorter but the 2015s were definitely the best I have ever tasted in this celebrated cellar.
Another towering figure in the Burgundian landscape, Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, reported that in 2015, his fiftieth vintage, 'the vines were more beautiful than ever' although he is worried that the bountiful ripeness of the grapes may mean that the wines will be more marked by the personality of the vintage than by the character of the individual climats, or vineyards, he worked so hard to have recognised by UNESCO during the early July heatwave of 2015. (He is also a big fan of the 2016s.)
But many a burgundy lover, and producer, is characterised by more than a streak of masochism. Some suggest that all this ripeness and richness may be just too much of a good thing in a Burgundian context, particularly younger producers such as Blair Pethell of Domaine Dublère and Brian Seive of Domaine de Montille and Château de Puligny-Montrachet. Is it merely a coincidence that both of these winemakers are American, and did not live through the years when Burgundians struggled to ripen grapes at all? French incomer Olivier Bernstein of the highly successful eponymous Beaune négociant business admitted to me that 'the purists may think 2015 is too rich, but I think it could be even better than 2010'.
What no one can deny is that the grapes were quite exceptionally healthy. Hardly any sorting was needed in 2015, and the stems were sufficiently ripe that even those normally sniffy about the fashionable technique of including stems in the fermentation vat such as Domaine Comte de Vogüé in Chambolle-Musigny experimented with this technique, often called 'whole bunch'. At Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, unusually, not a single grape was destemmed.
The key was that after a particularly mild winter, the vines flowered early, fast and efficiently (crop levels were relatively generous in 2015) and benefitted from some much-needed rain in June. But July was seriously, brutally hot for the first two or three weeks with night-time temperatures up to 30 ºC (86 ºF) with hardly a drop of rain – shades of the heatwave vintage 2003. Young vines with shallow roots unable to reach underground moisture really suffered, while vines on heavier, damper soils benefited. The ripening process stopped altogether in some quarters as vines husbanded their meagre resources. Vignerons were shelving holiday plans and preparing for a record early harvest when the weather broke. I was at a celebratory weekend in Beaune when sleeveless was suddenly not enough.
In sharp contrast to July, much of August was relatively cool, damp and cloudy so the vines recovered and seemed set for a relatively but not exceptionally early harvest in the first week of September. Towards the end of the month, a north wind freshened up the vines and a few days of very high temperatures killed off the spores of oidium (powdery mildew) that was, unusually, the only disease to have troubled the vines in 2015.
With a decent quantity of healthy, evenly ripe grapes, harvest conditions looked ideal but picking was interrupted by heavy rains on 12 September. The Chardonnays for white burgundy had already been picked, but some red wine producers had to wait for their later-ripening Pinot Noir to recover from the storms. From my tastings in Burgundy, however, I could not discern a general rule about the effect of picking date on red wine quality. Nicolas Potel of Bellene and Sébastien Cathiard of Vosne-Romanée were two of the latest pickers, but whereas I was impressed by the Bellene range of 2015s, I found the Cathiard 2015s (no whole bunch) marked by excessively dry finishes. The ripest, most potent wines I tasted were those from the highly sought-after Cécile Tremblay of Morey-St-Denis, who picked from 8 to 15 September and whose alcohol levels were up to 14.4%. 'Psychologically, it was almost difficult to decide what to do with 2015 because the quality was so obvious', she told me. 'Should I go too far? Will I extract too much? I found it very complicated.'
Sylvie Esmonin of Gevrey-Chambertin was particularly worried about excessive ripeness levels in 2015 and hastened to pick in early September before the forecast rain. Christophe Roumier of Chambolle-Musigny, on the other hand, delayed picking until 10 September, paused for the rains and then restarted until the 15 September (showing just how fast and concentrated his picking team is, but from next year he will have a bit more Bonnes Mares to play with thanks to a recent transaction). He professed himself wary of picking too early, being concerned about the maturity of the tannins. He pointed out that the wines tended to reduction more in 2015 because of the sulphur treatments against oidium. His wines were wonderfully distinctive and persistent, without the drying finishes of some others that seemed at this early stage to betray just how thick the grape skins were in this notably dry growing season.
The skin to juice ratio was exceptionally high. Jean-Marie Fourrier of Gevrey reported that, while it usually takes 10 of the boxes his pickers use for grapes to fill a barrel, in 2015 he needed 13. Frédéric Mugnier of Chambolle was expecting an average crop level of around 25 hl/ha and was surprised to find the yield of juice turned out to be much lower.
These thick skins meant that people had to have a particularly gentle hand in the cellar when extracting. There certainly wasn't any need for the old practice of chaptalisation (adding sugar before fermentation to raise alcohol levels) and acid levels were if anything on the low side. I was told that some producers (legally) added acidity but no one actually admitted to this wildly exotic habit. Malic acid levels were so low that the customary malolactic fermentation that converts malic to lactic acid made very little difference to the wines' total acidity.
What is clear is that in these warmer winters and sunnier summers, the 1990s practice of thinning vine leaves to expose grapes to more sunshine is unnecessary and can even lead to sunburn.
The 2015 reds (I'll write more about the whites next week) are seriously impressive – though for those paying in pounds they will also be seriously expensive.
OUTSTANDING 2015 RED BURGUNDIES
The reds I tasted in November at these domaines were particularly impressive across the board, but next week's many tastings in London are likely to yield wines that will be easier to acquire.
Comte de Liger Belair