2011 and 2010 White Burgundies

In more innocent times, when politics was still the art of compromise and lovers of white Burgundy could buy their favorite wines without worrying about premature oxidation, a vintage like 2010 would have represented an opportunity for collectors to stock their cellars with gorgeously dense, sappy, mineral-driven wines to savor over the next 10 to 20 years. Indeed, my extensive tastings of the 2010s from bottle during my annual late-spring Burgundy tour of the best addresses at the end of May and beginning of June, as well as follow-up tastings at home this summer, featured some of the most spectacular wines of my 2012 tasting year.  The 2010s are even more impressive than they appeared to be a year ago from the barrel.

But more about that shortly, as it is the new vintage, in this case 2011, that's the focus of my spring tour.  Given the mostly mediocre press for Bordeaux in 2011, it will be hard to convince casual wine lovers that other regions in France can have done well in 2011.  But although this was a very tricky growing season weather-wise (2010 was no walk in the parc either), 2011 has produced many fresh, attractive, nicely balanced wines, most of them ideally suited for near- or medium-term drinking.  It is a good vintage that produced its share of excellent and even outstanding wines.
The 2011 growing season.  I summarized the extreme growing season of 2011 in my introduction to Chablis in the last issue.  In a nutshell:  the season began with unusually warm weather from March through late May; many growers believe that the vegetative cycle was speeded up largely by unseasonably warm weather in early April.  Conditions were also much drier than the norm during the second half of March, April and May, which led to an extremely early and successful flowering.  In fact, for the first time, the flowering was well over by the time I arrived in Burgundy for my annual late-May tastings.  

The morning I arrived (May 31), the temperature had dropped 20 degrees from the previous day, marking a change in the weather pattern.  Cooler and stormier conditions ensued, and through most of the summer the Côte de Beaune received more precipitation than the Côte de Nuits. The generous flowering had set the stage for a copious crop, and due to the freakishly early start to the season the growers anticipated picking during the last third of August.

June was mostly cool other than a sharp two-day heat spike near the end of the month that brought some hydric stress, but sunshine hours were average for the month.  Mid-July to mid-August was a mostly dreary period, featuring frequent rainy spells and cooler-than-average temperatures that slowed down the vegetative cycle.  Hailstorms were an issue in some spots, including a damaging storm that affected many grand cru parcels in July.  Outbreaks of rot were widespread, requiring vigilance in the vines.  Rot issues were exacerbated by hot, stormy weather during the second half of August, especially on the 26th.  With enough water reserves in the soil and the days still long, sugar levels increased while acidities fell.  Botrytis continued but its development was slowed by the thickness of the grape skins.  Grapes were approaching full maturity and the vines, by most reports, were nearing the end of their cycles.  More storms at this point could have led to runaway rot.  

Tricky picking in 2011.  Many producers picked quite early before rot became well-established and acidity levels plunged.  By early September the foliage that had been degraded by mildew during the summer was no longer helping to ripen the grapes, and for most growers there was nothing to be gained by waiting, even if phenolic ripeness was still incomplete.  The first few days of the month were very warm, and some rain fell.  Careful triage was necessary to eliminate large grapes and underripe berries--as well as grapes dried from earlier hydric stress dating back to the dry spring and to the hail in July.  More than one producer, however, told me that there was ultimately less of an issue with rot in 2011 than there had been in 2010; others reported picking a good percentage of golden grapes.  Most agreed that 2011 was an extremely difficult year in which to select the optimal time to pick.

Following the rains in late August and the beginning of September, grapes picked after the 4th or 5th may have lost some of their water, but that did not necessarily mean that they gained in flavor and aromatic interest.  Most growers reported that the fruit ripened more from concentration than via photosynthesis.  The early date of the harvest and warm ambient conditions required growers to cool down their grapes and carefully control temperatures in their wineries, but in many cellars the alcoholic fermentations went quickly.  As the wines were relatively low in malic acidity and the cellars were warmer than usual, the secondary fermentations similarly occurred quite early as a rule, in contrast to 2010, when the fruit was picked in much cooler conditions and the malos often did not even begin until springtime.

An early look at the wines.  The result, as you might expect, is a mixed bag of quality and a wide range of wine styles.  The 2011s tend to show ripe flavors at lower-than-usual levels of alcohol.  Many growers chaptalized moderately almost across the board, although several told me that when potential alcohol levels were in the 12.2% to 12.5% range they left the wines untouched.

To give you an idea of the variations in the vintage:  Some growers describe their young 2011s as exotic or exuberant.  Others find them to lack personality.  Many winemakers practiced periodic lees stirring (batonnage) to enrich their wines and extract more character; these people are likely to consider the vintage a bit dilute or skinny, especially following the 2010s.  Some say there's more varietal fruit character in 2011 than in 2010--such as pear, apple and white peach--but that can also be another way of saying that the 2010s are fuller, deeper expressions of terroir.  Others find the '11s a bit limp, like some '89s.  Due to the successful flowering, many producers reported making the full allowable yields but others said yields were just 5% to 10% higher than those of the previous year, probably due to stricter selection at the harvest, or to losses from hydric stress or hail.

Those who picked a bit later generally maintained that their grapes gained in fullness and phenolic maturity, with pHs remaining stable even if acidity levels were falling, but their critics say they lost purity of aromas, and even got a bit of surmaturite despite the low alcohol levels.

More than one producer I visited at the end of May claimed to prefer 2011 to 2010 for its charm and easy drinkability.  But while the better 2011s will be fruity, fresh and attractive, only the vintage's exceptional bottles will approach the combination of density and energy shown by the 2010s.  A number of growers compared their 2011s to the 2007s, but for a range of reasons.  Some prefer them to the 2007s (another year with an early harvest), saying that the new vintage is more taut; others said almost exactly the opposite, describing the 2011s as lower in acidity, and the 2007s as having "a bit more body and harmoniousness."  Clearly, yields were critical in 2011.

The better 2011s have a deliciousness and open-knit early appeal that cannot be denied.  In addition to their accessible and often suave textures, they offer the floral and mineral qualities that are often cooked out of the chardonnay grapes in the hot years.  The best of them will be alluring wines while the lesser bottlings will fall short on flavor interest and personality--or simply on energy.  Some wines show a dryness on the finish owing to an insufficiency of balancing mid-palate material.  The 2011s will be ideal for drinkers who do not have proper cellar conditions or have become gun-shy when it comes to cellaring white Burgundies.  Most of these bottles will probably be best over the next seven or eight years, although the top wines should last longer.

The 2010s in bottle.  This has turned out to be a glorious, complete vintage for classic white Burgundies.  But it's important to note that, at its best, the vintage is spectacular for its rare combination of sheer density and concentration of material and bright, harmonious acidity accented by minerality.  (More often, tiny crops get overripe and lose acidity, thus yielding heavier wines of questionable balance.) The 2010s display ripe stone and citrus fruits; salty minerality; superb inner-mouth energy; considerable body and richness; aromatic notes of flowers, spices and herb; an impression of high dry extract; and long, tactile finishes.  Most impressive in my book, these wines often show the ineffable treble notes that are simply cooked out of the grapes in warmer years.  Due to their inner-mouth energy, the wines are downright invigorating, but they rarely come across as austere owing to their depth and ripeness of fruit.  

The late, difficult flowering with substantial millerandage resulted in a small crop from the start rather than one reduced by crop thinning, or by extreme weather events during the summer and harvest, or by selective picking.

I see 2010 as a richer, riper, more refined style of 2008, another vintage I love.  The wines are not necessarily denser than the 2008s, but they show even more texture than they did a year ago from barrel, and they offer a superb balance of chewy minerality and silky texture.  One grower said that 2010 combines the acidity of 2008 with the density and minerality of 2005.  But that view does not do justice to the deliciousness of the fruits, flowers and spices in the 2010s.  Many growers mentioned the saline quality of 2010 and I certainly found that characteristic in spades in my tastings.  Clearly, this element is associated with minerality and dry extract.  When you taste these wines, you know you've got something in your mouth.

But it was also easy to make overripe wines in 2010:  I tasted plenty of wines with golden colors and exotic aromas that lacked vibrancy.  Although the harvest was late by recent standards and took place under very cool conditions, many growers found they had to move up their picking dates due to the effect of the thunderstorms that hit the Cote de Beaune on September 12, bringing damaging hail to the Santenay area.  The electrical charge in lightning activates enzymes in ripe grapes that can trigger the oxidation of polyphenols, turning the grape skins a full gold color, or even brown, in a matter of days.  Those estates located closer to the center of the storm, such as growers in a good part of Chassagne-Montrachet, often scrambled to organize their pickers to harvest their grapes before they degraded too much (and carefully eliminated those that had), but growers farther to the north were less affected and often profited by waiting.  And of course it was critical to eliminate rotten berries.

There's no question that some 2010s seem very ripe, open-knit and opulent, even a bit lacking in energy and tension; some even betray slightly advanced aromas.  I would generally opt to enjoy these wines over the next five to eight years.  For collectors who have become gun-shy about buying white Burgundies owing to bad experiences with premature oxidation, it would make sense to avoid wines that display an exotic side today (this should be clear in my tasting notes).  But even the ripest 2010s, assuming they have pristine corks with good seals and were bottled without the unwanted introduction of oxygen, should age gracefully on their sheer stuffing.

And of course wines from hillside sites that often struggle to ripen in cooler years can be spectacular in 2010.  Some of these wines have wonderfully tightly coiled springs, and it's hard to believe that they will not age gracefully.  I was particularly struck by the high quality of such crus as Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatieres and Bienvenue-Batard-Montrachet, which benefited from the extra concentration and richness of the year.  (In 2011, on the other hand, Bienvenue struck me as an underperformer among the grand crus.) 

One final note:  I don't believe in penalizing wines that offer early appeal from barrel.  So if you're worried that my scores for the 2011s and 2010s seem to be too close to each other, don't be.  Many of the top 2010s rate (+?)s because there is a good possibility that they will merit even higher scores as they approach maturity, and not necessarily just one point more.  And if the 2011s lose any more of their freshness by the time they go into bottle, they could very well receive ratings at the lower end of my projected ranges in next year's coverage of the finished wines.

The following wines were mostly tasted in the cellars at the end of May.  I followed up by tasting more 2010s in New York during the summer.