2011 Red Burgundies

At its best, 2011 is a vintage of considerable charm for the red wines of the Cote d'Or--and especially those from the Cote de Nuits.  When the fruit was picked sufficiently ripe, the wines can be silky, medium-bodied and wonderfully transparent to terroir, offering enticing vibrant aromatics that incorporate most of the key Burgundy food groups:  fresh red fruits, flowers, minerals, spices and savory soil tones.  I love the style and precision of the vintage, and in a few cellars I even preferred the elegant 2011s to the richer, riper but occasionally overbearing 2012s.

But "when the fruit was picked sufficiently ripe" is an important caveat.  There's a dark--or should I say green--side to this very cool year.  Many wines show an obvious herbal component, and this element sometimes goes to downright peppery or even vegetal.  Some consumers will be put off by the rawness displayed by some wines.  But for lovers of classic Burgundy, the vintage's better examples are exactly the kind of wines that pinot producers elsewhere can rarely accomplish.  They will make delicious drinking over the next 10 or 12 years, and the best crus may well last longer.  And they will leave your salivary glands quivering.

To quote Bernard Hervet, CEO/Advisor for Domaine Faiveley, "2011 is a very rare vintage that combines the low grape sugars and freshness of a cold year with an unusually early harvest."  I provided a blow-by-blow description of this topsy-turvy growing season, in which April was virtually warmer than July, back in Issue 166, along with my barrel notes on the 2011s.  To save you a few clicks, I repeat here the salient features of the growing season and harvest:

Following freakishly warm and dry weather from March through late May, the floraison was extremely early and took place quickly, but a couple days of damp weather in the middle of the flowering resulted in widespread coulure (grape shatter), and millerandage (shot berries), which reduced potential crop levels in some sites.

The weather pattern changed dramatically on the last day of May.  Cooler and stormier conditions ensued, and June was mostly cool apart from a sharp two-day heat spike near the end of the month that brought some hydric stress and burned some berries.  The weather through mid-August continued mostly dreary, featuring frequent rainy spells and mostly cooler-than-average temperatures that slowed the ripening process, which had been up to three weeks ahead of normal schedule.  Many growers reported that the veraison in July was drawn out by the mediocre weather conditions.

Through most of the summer the Côte de Beaune received more precipitation than the Côte de Nuits, as well as some isolated hail storms.  And with warmer winds occasionally blowing from the south between rain events, rot started to take hold by the beginning of August.

Outbreaks of rot and mildew were widespread, requiring vigilance in the vines.  Botrytis pressures were exacerbated by hot, stormy weather during the second half of August, especially on the 26th.  With damp mornings and hot afternoons, previously healthy grape skins often became more fragile.  Grapes were approaching full maturity and the vines were nearing the end of their vegetative cycle.  More storms at this point would likely have led to runaway rot.

Many producers picked quite early, before rot became well established and acidity levels fell.  The vegetative cycle was essentially over by the end of August or first few days of September:  the foliage that had been degraded by mildew during the summer was no longer helping to ripen the grapes.  Those growers who had not successfully protected their vines against mildew during July and August were more likely to have had difficulties with the foliage and greater problems ripening their grapes. 

Several producers noted that there was little to gain by letting the fruit hang, as the ripening of the skins had essentially ended, and there was risk of spreading rot and falling acidity.  Where sugar levels in the grapes were still climbing, it was more likely to be simply from evaporation of water than a matter of increasing phenolic ripeness.  It appears that many growers rushed to pick for fear that substantial further rainfall (which was predicted but did not occur) would trigger wider rot problems and dilute the fruit.  But some who risked waiting insisted that they benefitted from harvest conditions that were better than forecasted.

At the level of the top domains I visit every November, the harvest typically began during the last days of August on the Cote de Beaune, and during the first few days of September on the Cote de Nuits.  Following significant rainfall on the evening of August 26, which was more of an issue on the Cote de Beaune than farther to the north, there was also some rainfall on the night of September 4, but precipitation totals were again considerably lower in the Cote de Nuits.  Daytime temperatures remained high through the harvest period, and even the mornings were warm--in sharp contrast to the late-September harvest of 2010, during which morning temperatures dropped into the high 30s.

Careful triage was necessary to eliminate large grapes and underripe berries--as well as grapes affected by rot or dried from earlier hydric stress dating back to the dry spring.  Some growers noted that 2011 witnessed an unusually high ladybug population in the vines and that it was critical to eliminate the critters that rode in on the grapes.  (Ladybugs release chemical compounds called methoxypyrazines that can introduce an almost bitter green element if a sufficient quantity of them or their secretions find their way into the fermenter.  Some insiders believe that ladybugs were the cause of offputting herbaceous notes in some 2004s, but it should be noted that the fruit and skins in 2011 were generally riper that those of the earlier vintage.)  And the most conscientious producers took care to address this problem on their vibrating sorting tables.

Growers were distinctly split on the value of vendange entier (vinifying with whole clusters) in 2011.  Some felt that the inclusion of at least a portion of the stems would give the wines a much-needed aromatic and structural component.  But others were concerned about incomplete ripeness of the stems or worried that they were affected by mildew that was virtually invisible to the eye. 

Fears of imperfect skins and stems and underripe tannins also motivated many winemakers to cut back on extraction during fermentation.  Some considered the vintage to be on the delicate side and did not want to overextract and risk throwing their wines off balance.  Others worried about getting peppery, dry tannins.  Most also chaptalized with a light hand, even when grape sugars came in under 12%, as they wanted to protect the vintage's purity of fruit and terroir character and preserve the natural balance of the wines.  Acidity levels are average, and generally down from those of 2010, but the aromas and flavors retain good freshness.  As a rule, the wines have enough stable tartaric acidity to give the fruit a crunchy character. 

At the level of the producers I visit, the grape skins achieved good levels of phenolic maturity in 2011 and the tannins are ripe and pliant.  Very few wines will really be tough in the early going, even those that have the concentration and balance for solid mid-term aging (say 5 to 10 years for village wines, 8 to 12 for premier crus and 10 to 15 or more for grand crus).  It is entirely possible that the vintage's better examples will surprise with their longevity, but I prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to burying young Burgundies in my cellar.

While relatively few 2011s show cooked aromas or the effects of overripeness, some wines made from late-picked fruit can convey an impression of flatness, perhaps due to a loss of acidity.  I noticed a darker fruit character and even a chocolatey quality in some wines.

In some ways, 2011 resembles the most successful vintages of a generation ago, with the grapes reaching phenolic maturity at modest sugar levels.  Most growers bottled their 2011s with 0.5 to 1.0 degree less alcohol than in recent years--and that's after some chaptalization (typically 0.5 to 1.0).  It was also after the elimination of obviously underripe berries, a step that of course had the effect of raising the average potential alcohol level of the rest. 
As I mentioned earlier, I have tasted 2011s with distinctly herbal or peppery components--sometimes from incomplete ripeness of the skins or pips but in other cases from the inclusion of a stem component that may not have been adequately supported by mid-palate texture and ripeness.  Vines affected by mildew are less capable of nourishing their fruit, and this may also have resulted in some green tastes in the wines due to incomplete ripeness.  Then, of course, there's the issue of ladybugs, which can be hard to detect in the months after the bottling.  But at the level of the estates I visited, this issue does not appear to have been significant, and most growers were fairly adamant that they had taken sufficient steps to minimize or eliminate this potential problem.

The vintage often shows strong saline soil and mineral tones, which make for particularly complex and classically Burgundian wines when they are supported by sufficient ripe fruit.  But where there's inadequate mid-palate fresh fruit, the wines can come across as salty and boring, and incapable of going anywhere interesting in bottle.

The 2011s are not large-scaled or particularly tannic wines, and very few of them have the serious structures to require--or support--long-term aging.  It's a vintage of purity and elegance, not power.  Most wines will be ready to enjoy within the next three to five years if they're not already approachable now.  The best will age nicely on their vibrancy and balance.  After all, it's often the overly extracted wines that fall apart first.

If you are truly allergic to anything green in red wines, then you should find it clear from my notes which wines to skip.  At current prices, Burgundy buyers can hardly be faulted for being risk-averse.  At the same time, I have little doubt that in many of the adequately ripe wines from this vintage, a modest greenness will simply contribute aromatic complexity.  And the better wines from the vintage will give great pleasure.

The wines in this report were mostly tasted in the cellars of Burgundy in November, with the rest tasted in New York this winter.