2018 Burgundy: Confounded Expectations

BY NEAL MARTIN | JANUARY 09, 2020

God surveys the vines

As far as the eye can see.

Golden slopes that we all know as

Bur-gun-dy.

He laments the rise in prices,

How much He now must pay.

For even on a deity’s wage

He can buy only

Beaujolais.

Mother Nature tells Him

She’s going to play a prank.

And though it may vex vignerons,

Nature they will thank.

When pickers arrive at wineries,

Heaving vinous loads,

Berries will be crushed, and watch...

Juice then doth explode!!

“Complaints about small yields?” she says,

“I’ll give them a surprise.

They won’t believe how much juice

Is flowing before their eyes.

And alcohol will be quite high.

That’ll test them to the max.

And they don’t even know (quite yet),

About Trump’s import tax.”

“And in the ’18 vintage,” God asks.

“That I’m about to anoint –

Can I ask if there’s a wine

That gets 100 points?”

“God, you must be patient,”

Mother Nature does retort.

“Don’t ask me. Just sit down.

And read this report.”


The mesmerizing mustard and yellow panorama. I took this in mid-October just below the woods that crown the hill of Corton-Charlemagne.

There is one big question, even bigger than whether God exists or whether those putative 100% tariffs are threat or bluff.

Is the 2018 Burgundy vintage a turning point?

Will the 2018 and 2019 vintages eventually be looked back upon as the first where global warming shaped the wines? Warmer winters, early bud-break and flowering and, most importantly, earlier harvests are no longer the exception but received as the norm. That has implications for the resulting red and white wines. Is it a positive or negative change when one considers the paucity of great vintages in the past? Is there a new style of Burgundy that we just have to get used to? Or are we exaggerating trends, rushing to conclusions?

Of course, this report examines and reviews the wines, but also asks whether the 2018 vintage prefigures Burgundy to come. In many ways, it is a vintage that confounds expectations. It sprang a number of surprises and prompted this writer to reconsider the factors that lie behind great wines. So without further ado, let us examine the weather conditions in 2018.

Growing Season

The winter of 2017/2018 was relatively mild, one of the effects of global warming upon Burgundy and many other wine regions. It is analogous to leaving the car engine running instead of turning off the ignition so that you can speed away more quickly. Vines are less dormant and their growth cycle sprints off earlier once temperatures rise. January was an unprecedented 4.4°C warmer than average, though before you dismiss winter entirely, a Russian front meant February was 2.6°C colder. March saw temperatures creep back up to normal. The first months of 2018 saw a lot of rainfall that proved crucial in terms of storing water underground to succor vines during the dry period that lay ahead. Frédéric Weber, head winemaker at Bouchard Père & Cie, remarked that there was twice as much rainfall as normal. In fact, February witnessed 190% more rainfall than average in the Côte d’Or. From April 10, temperatures soared up to 33°C in some spots. This prompted rapid, almost explosive growth of buds; mid-bud-burst was around April 16–18, similar to 2010 and 2015, though around two weeks later than the previous year. It meant that as soon as vineyard workers had finished pruning, those producers that limit yields by de-budding early in the growth cycle had to do so immediately.

There was a minor hail episode on May 8 that affected Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, although the damage was nothing like what happened in 2016 or 2017. Precipitation continued at average levels into June, whereupon rising temperatures led to increased mildew pressure. Disease pressure was not too extreme, but it depended on the exact location; for example, Vosne-Romanée was affected more than nearby Flagey-Echézeaux and, for that matter, much of the Côte de Beaune. Nicolas Jacob, vineyard manager at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, reported that the rain came at the wrong time in Vosne-Romanée – that is to say, just when the mildew spores develop – which explains why yields appear lower here compared to elsewhere. The lengthy dry spell that lasted all the way through to harvest soon vanquished fears of continuing mildew pressure.

July remained hot and dry and berries started appearing around July 10, though subsequent véraison was slow due to heat and the dry conditions. Two localized hailstorms, one while France was triumphing at the World Cup on July 15 and a second on July 20 in Nuit Saint-Georges, were so intense that they caused mudslides in Domaine de l’Arlot’s monopole of Clos des Fôrets in Prémeaux. Winemaker Géraldine Godot watched helplessly from the first-floor window as the rain lashed down for 20 destructive minutes, thankfully reducing production less than initially feared, even if it did oblige hauling topsoil back up the slope. There was in fact a third, smaller hailstorm in August that seemed to have less impact. Meanwhile, down in Puligny-Montrachet, some white wine producers conducted a green harvest. Brice de la Morandière at Domaine Leflaive explained how cutting away perfectly healthy grapes is considered sinful by some growers; nevertheless, convinced that he was facing two or three times the amount of fruit required, he reduced his potential crop by 40% and remains adamant that this was imperative to guarantee quality. Paradoxically, many growers insist that the high yields were important in terms of mitigating high sugar levels and therefore green harvesting was certainly not passim. Several winemakers in the Côte de Nuits conducted green harvests for their reds, including Arlaud, Armand Rousseau and Duroché; Albert Bichot for some of their parcels, such as Les Malconsorts; and Michel Mallard at Domaine d’Eugénie, who carried out two green harvests, in July and the end of August. Cyprien Arlaud explained that this was particularly necessary in parcels severely frosted in 2016 whose vines continue to compensate for that year’s shortfall.

Another trend is that a small but increasing number of growers are ceasing rognage or hedging of vines, and instead allowing tendrils to roam free, often tying them in arches to maintain air ventilation and make them less jungle-like. The most famous practitioner is Lalou Bize-Leroy, but the approach is being adopted by more growers, who feel that it benefits the well-being of their vines, notwithstanding that it enhances shade.

By August, the vines were beginning to get parched throats. Loïc Dugat-Py gave me rainfall figures that resemble a tap being gradually turned off: 104mm in June, 69mm in July and just 17mm in August. The latter month’s total, which was generally around 20–21mm across the Côte de Nuits, seems to have staved off endemic hydric stress. Winemakers usually downplay this, though one vigneron in Chassagne did show me a photograph that shockingly depicted browning and furling leaves. The last two weeks of August, which ultimately preceded the harvest, saw extreme heat and dryness exacerbated by a southerly wind, the mercury reaching 40°C at its peak. There were heat spikes rather than the prolonged heat wave of 2003; nevertheless, this seems to have nudged harvesting dates forward. Winemakers deliberating over an August picking had their minds made up for them, lest they risk excessively high sugar levels.

Picture two parallel railway lines. On one there is a train that we shall call “Sugar Level” and on the other a train called “Phenolic Ripeness” (meaning ripeness in the seeds, stems and skins). One effect of hot weather is that ”Sugar Level” arrives at the train station called “Picking Date” quicker than “Phenolic Ripeness,” when ideally you want them to arrive at the same time, or according to Mark Fincham, head winemaker at Domaine Tawse, with the latter slightly before the former. Consequently, many winemakers told me about the difficulty in choosing the harvest date in 2018, and the restless nights spent weighing up the pros and cons of when to dispatch their pickers, not least when all your neighbors can observe and judge your decisions (and believe me when I say that in all my years of visiting Burgundy, never have I heard more gossip about neighbors’ actions than in respect to 2018!) Do you risk excessive sugar/alcohol to guarantee phenolic ripeness? Differing judgment calls explain the variation in harvest dates. Having said all that, Alex Moreau remarked that sugar accumulation seemed to slow toward the end of August and he is at a loss to explain why.

As harvest rushed into view, winemakers could look back on a growing season that had seen the traditional 100-day hang time reduced to around 80 days, though as I shall explain, it is more complicated than that. Olivier Lamy mentioned that there were 1,550 sunlight hours instead of 1,200. Frédéric Weber at Bouchard Père noted that average temperatures were 2°C higher, while his counterpart at Louis Jadot, Frédéric Barnier, pointed out that it was sunnier in Dijon than down in Nice. At least you now know where to brush up your suntan.


This was taken in a Grand Cru in Vosne-Romanée. I noticed the abundant bunches on the vines, even though the yields in this appellation were actually smaller than others.

The Harvest

I have one abiding memory of the 2018 vintage. After one Burgfest session, I popped down to Chassagne-Montrachet for an impromptu visit with Alex Moreau. I will always remember being hit by the frenetic atmosphere, the workers hollering and rushing around the winery, and in the middle of this maelstrom, Moreau’s face, whose expression could be summed up with the acronym WTF. “I can’t believe it,” he said with a combination of pleasant surprise and mild panic. “Where is all this juice coming from? We can only just keep up!” I stayed for a couple of minutes, witnessing another heaped load of Chardonnay enter the reception area,cognizant that whatever transpired, 2018 was not going to be a small crop for the whites at least.

One of the headlines of the 2018 vintage is the size of yields. Generally, they were high with respect to the whites, but average or occasionally slightly lower for the reds. Figures for each domaine are presented within their respective introductions, but many winemakers quoted around 50–55hl/ha for the white Premier Crus. I suspect that it was a lot more at some addresses, pushing the maximum permitted by authorities; after all, cynical as it reads, more wine equals more money. What caused these high yields? Several growers credited the high rainfall earlier in the season. Although on the surface soils were arid, the roots were able to suck up underground reserves throughout the growing season. This did not increase the size of bunches, but rather seemed to fill the berries with a lot of juice that only became apparent once they were crushed (Mother Nature’s “surprise” in my poem, which I hope you either enjoyed or just ignored). Yields for the reds were lower, often around 30–35hl/ha. In fact, Charles Lachaux at Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux ended up picking 50% of his normal crop. This was because the hot, dry weather impeded the accumulation of juice inside the berry; additionally, some bunches were eradicated because of grillure.


I don’t quite know how I took this picture, since I seem to have clambered onto the trailer! This was the afternoon of September 3, when the whites were coming in at full pelt, just down from Montrachet toward the village of Chassagne, although I do not recall which domaine.

Much attention is always paid to the start of picking. While it is important, it can be misleading, since that date might represent legions of pickers entering the vineyard or just a small team snipping off bunches in one or two parcels that tend to ripen earlier than others. For this reason, within producer introductions I state start and finish dates with as much detail as possible about how the picking was conducted without overwhelming readers with minutiae.

Perhaps the one vigneron who best sums up earlier picking dates is Frédéric Mugnier. Back in 2003, he vowed never to harvest in August and pointedly sent the harvesters into the vines on September 1. In 2018, his pickers could be seen in Bonnes-Mares on August 28. “I guess I changed my view,” he commented with a grin.

One of the earliest to pick was Olivier Lamy, whose vineyards mainly lie within Saint-Aubin. His pickers were out in the vines from August 22, though Xavier Monnot began two days earlier than that. Generally, the harvest for the whites was in full swing by the final week of August, so it was imperative to have both owners and picking teams primed and prepared for an early kickoff. Reds were picked from around September 2–3. Generally, the clement weather conditions meant that harvests were completed more quickly compared to recent years. For example, both Jean-Louis Trapet and Charles Van Canneyt had their entire production safely in vat at Hudelot-Noëllat within five days. Winemakers could see that every additional day that bunches remained on the vine resulted in escalating sugar levels. This is because daylight hours at the end of August/beginning of September are longer and mean warmer temperatures than in late September/October, ergo an earlier harvest effectively shortens the window of optimal picking. But it is not that simple. This is Burgundy, after all. Inspecting their array of holdings, many growers found not only variegated levels of ripeness, but levels that seemed illogical. “It’s the first time we’ve seen such a spread in terms of ripeness,” Alec Seysses explained at Domaine Dujac. “We had to keep starting and stopping. I think it was because of localized thunderstorms, which meant that average rainfall varied from one village to another. To give you an example, we picked Clos de la Roche at 13.4% and then picked some of the Vosne-Romanée at barely 13.0% around eight days later.” Some producers found that their traditional picking order was warped by the growing season. At Domaine Dugat, Bertrand Dugat harvested his three grand crus in a completely different order than any previous season.

Since Pinot Noir demands precise picking dates, one of the challenges of the 2018 vintage was the logistics of maneuvering teams of pickers to the right place at the right time, especially if a producer owns a diaspora scattered over multiple appellations. This factor is often overlooked, and the abundance of fruit exacerbated this challenge. There was simply a lot to pick, especially for the whites. Another oft-forgotten factor crucial to final quality is the expertise and efficiency of pickers. A couple of growers privately lamented the increasing difficulty of recruiting sufficient numbers of skilled and efficient vendangeurs and the precious time wasted trying to motivate lackadaisical pickers who are more interested in chatting up the cute girl in the adjacent row than focusing on what they are being paid for. In general, the 2018s were harvested up until around September 12, approximately two weeks in total. There are exceptions; for example, Nicole Lamarche (Domaine François Lamarche) picked September 7–14, Emmanuel Rouget from September 9 and Etienne Grivot on September 11. Square this with, say, Mark Haisma, who commented that from September 12 the wind swung around to the north and sucked out any elegance or finesse (he actually used a far ruder vernacular that I shall not repeat here).


I took this image on my mobile phone when I dropped in at Domaine Comte Armand. It captures the hard labor of the harvest, winemaker Paul Zanetti heaving armfuls of fruit onto the so-called giraffe conveyor and into the vat.

Vinification

The mantra is that great wine is made in the vineyard. That is not true. Great fruit is made in the vineyard. Great wine can only be made in the winery.

In the beginning of the élevage, many winemakers had doubts about their wines, perceiving that they bore the hallmarks of the growing season rather than individual terroirs. It was only after the malolactic that geographic distinctions became apparent and confidence began to swell. One interesting aspect of 2018 is that indigenous yeasts had to eat the sugar of different kinds of berries than they are accustomed to, insofar as the fruit had higher sugar levels. Cyprien Arlaud commented that it rendered alcoholic fermentation more complicated; two of his cuvées struggled to finish their ferments, a challenge that confronted many winemakers. Think of the different yeast strains saying to themselves, “What have we got here? Ain’t seen this before.” Interestingly, Arlaud opined that by the 2019 harvest, which saw similar fruit, the yeasts had adapted to cope with the higher sugar levels. But with respect to 2018, it was not uncommon to find some alcoholic fermentations dragging their heels and continuing into June or July the following year.

One of the most significant and discussed trends in the Côte d’Or is the increasing use of whole bunches that include stems. That is very in vogue, as winemakers are inspired by revered producers such as Domaine Lalou Bize-Leroy, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and, of course, Domaine Dujac. Here there is a bifurcation of views. Some winemakers, such as Etienne Grivot and Emmanuel Rouget, follow the Jayer approach of complete de-stemming, which is unsurprising as both are scions of the Jayer family. So is Cécile Tremblay, although she reduced the percentage of vendange entière because she felt her pH levels were already high. Stems contain potassium that combines with tartaric acid and reduces acidity – not what you want in a growing season where acid levels were already low. Consequently, many domaines, such as Lamarche, ration whole bunch to around 20%, often maintaining this level across all cuvées so that it does not skew the differences between terroirs. Putting analytics aside for a moment, there is the notion that the “stemminess” of whole bunch naturally offsets fruité and ripeness to create fresher and more complex wine, manifesting opposing theories about the benefits of whole bunch addition and partly explaining why its use ranges from zero to 100%. Then there is the practice of removing the central axis of the bunch and using just the peripheral stems, employed by Leroy and adopted by the likes of Charles Lachaux, Arnaud Mortet and now Mark Haisma. It is a laborious process, although it does make a tangible difference if one compares, say, Leroy against Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. It is a practice that I believe will become more popular in the coming years, at least for those prepared to spend the time.


Pierre Duroché with his entire production of Griotte-Chambertin. He uses whole bunch, not least to bump up the measly quantity.

There is a growing trend to use less SO2 during the alcoholic fermentation, with the first sulfur added only after malolactic fermentation. Domaine d’Eugénie introduced this practice quite recently. As Damien Colin at Domaine Marc Colin pointed out, taking this approach means that it is important to ensure that the alcoholic fermentation starts promptly. With warm temperatures, you don’t want to expose your bunches to the heat without any protection. To this end, some winemakers employ mobile refrigeration units to cool incoming bunches. Up in Gevrey-Chambertin, for the first time, Arnaud Mortet installed one in his parking lot to maintain bunches at 10°C. One other benefit of this equipment is that it momentarily stalls the rush of incoming fruit, allowing him to keep it inside the unit at a constant temperature overnight and then transfer it into vat the following morning. In 2018 this gave the stressed-out winemaker some much-needed breathing space. The malolactic fermentation appears to have started quickly, sometimes overlapping with the tardy alcoholic fermentation. To this end, François Millet used the cellar’s air-conditioning to lower temperatures and delay the start of malolactic. Also, several growers reported a shuffling of the order in which each cuvée’s malo tends to start. “The Romanée-Saint-Vivant is usually the first to do its malo,” Sébastien Cathiard told me. “But in 2018 it was the last, at the end of July. Aux Malconsorts is usually last, but it was finished around mid-May.”

In a growing season like 2018, you would imagine that there is no need for chaptalization. Indeed, most found no reason to add sugar in what was already a sugar-rich vintage, although one or two did admit to adding a little just to extend the alcoholic fermentation. The ripeness of the fruit and the high sugar levels meant that winemakers kept a watchful eye on must temperatures during alcoholic fermentation. For example, Frédéric Weber limited his vats to around 17°C. Another key aspect is the approach to maceration. High ripeness levels and the ratio of seeds to berries meant that many winemaker took a “softly, softly” approach, the word of the moment being “infusion.” Think of a tea bag. Instead of squashing it with a spoon on the side of the cup to extract as much tea as possible, winemakers just gave a gentle stir before taking it out. What that means is a soft maceration with limited or no punching down of the cap over a shorter period of time. Pigeage was limited, remontage no longer on the menu. Nearly all wineries seem to have adopted this approach, Paul Zanetti at Domaine Comte Armand using what is technically known as a “bucket” to gently do the remontage and keep the cap wet toward the end of the alcoholic fermentation.

Tasting the wines in autumn 2019, it was interesting to note another bifurcation in views on the length of barrel maturation. On one hand, you have winemakers such as Romaric Chavy in Meursault, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair in Vosne-Romanée or Pierre Duroché in Gevrey-Chambertin who mature their whites and reds, respectively, for just one year (also the modus operandi chez Leroy.) Then there are other growers who are convinced that their wines require two winters in barrel and that the second winter is crucial. Maxime Chuerlin at Domaine Georges Noëllat is seriously considering longer barrel maturation than customary, and he is not the only grower thinking along such lines.

Furthermore, there continues a more prudent use of new oak compared to just a decade ago. Even producers such as Dugat-Py that ritually utilized high percentages of new oak throughout their range are dialing down the new wood; likewise just around the corner at Drouhin-Laroze. Both are examples of the next generation taking over from their parents (Loïc Dugat-Py and Nicolas and Caroline Drouhin) and applying their own tenets. One challenge often overlooked is estimating the number of new barrels to pre-order from the cooperage, recent topsy-turvy vintages having made it impossible to project forward and estimate the number of used barrels you will have at your disposal. Some winemakers found themselves facing a shortage when they realized the yields that 2018 had bestowed. Cue the frantic calls to friends to see if they could spare any, only to find that they were all in the same boat. In a couple of instances, I could see that the producers were out of sync in terms of new/used oak ratio, employing perhaps too much new wood in 2018 but hoping that it will keep them stocked up with one-year-old barrels for 2019 and so forth. More winemakers are experimenting with vessels other than the traditional Burgundy piéce: foudres at Benjamin Leroux, demi-muids used by Laurent Fournier in Marsannay and Olivier Lamy down in Saint-Aubin, clay amphora chez Jean-Marie Fourrier, concrete eggs hatching at Dujac and a few cigar-shaped barrels spotted at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti last year, to name but a few off the top of my head. I suspect we will see more varied vessels, wooden or otherwise, in the future.

This report is not a tsunami of tasting notes and scores. Readers will find further details on each producer by clicking the relevant name in the right-hand column. Some of them are particularly detailed and worth reading, either offering the minutiae of their winemaking or updating developments of the last 12 months. Irrespective of their wines, I would guide you toward the profiles of Domaine Comte Armand, Jean Grivot, Georges Roumier, Comte Georges de Vogüé, Genot-Boulanger, Louis Jadot and Bouchard Père & Fils, to name a few that offer an insight into the 2018 vintage.


I cannot recall exactly whose stainless steel vat this is – possibly Duroché again – being filled with 2018 fruit.

How the Tastings Were Conducted

The “grand marathon” actually began in early September when I called in at a couple of producers after the Burgfest tasting, prior to the incipient harvest. But it officially commenced in mid-October and comprised five weeks of visiting over 100 domaines from Maranges to Marsannay, wrapping up in the first week of December. By that time, after what felt like interminable freezing weather, cellars were becoming too cold to taste properly. All the tasting notes included in this report come directly either from barrel or from bottled wines in Burgundy, with a couple of exceptions where I could taste in professional conditions in London (namely Joseph Drouhin, Albert Bichot and Chanson).

This is always a physically and mentally demanding tasting. One welcome trend is that more producers understand that although it might be convenient and perhaps “romantic” to taste in a cold, dark medieval cellar reeking of barrels and lacquered in mold, it is far better to taste in a warm, comfortable, Wi-Fi connected tasting room, preferably one where your fingers do not turn into icicles. Twice I had to stop tasting and run my fingers under a warm tap to restart circulation. You would be astonished how many famous producers do not even have a table to place a laptop upon, forcing you to balance your keyboard between two barrels or, only slightly better, an upturned empty barrel that tends to be a) an awkward height and b) malodorous. Hopefully we will see more producers investing money in tasting rooms like the ones at Grivot, Thibault Liger-Belair and de Montille.

The theme of the tasting was the 2018 vintage, although some producers showed their 2017s at the same time. Last year I held these notes back until my in-bottle report. This year, I see no harm in including them, since they provide interesting juxtapositions with their 2018 counterparts and update banded barrel scores in more timely fashion. This will not stop me revisiting them in a few months’ time under blind conditions. Even though there are over 2,000 tasting notes in this report, this is only Part One of my 2018 Burgundy coverage. Probably at the same time as you are reading this introduction, I will be plowing through more wines at the annual London tastings. I also hope to visit some producers who prefer me to taste their wines in the New Year, which includes Jean-Marc Roulot, Jean-Noël Gagnard and Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, not to mention those who were unintentionally missed, such as Faiveley and Michèle & Patrice Rion, and maybe even Bonneau du Martray, who did not permit anyone to taste their 2018s. As time goes on, my intention is to expand coverage toward lesser-known producers and “new kids on the block,” leading up to the Grand Jours tastings in Burgundy next March (always a good opportunity to forage for new names).

This is always my largest report of the year by some considerable way. For me, since I invest so much time in the region tasting one-on-one with growers, nearly every producer will contain information gleaned from that visit and plenty of direct quotes and insights. I encourage you to read these.


At Dujac, they kindly allowed me to taste in the warm living room rather than down in their cold cellar, although their kitten wanted to partake in the tasting with Alec Seysses.

The Wines

Twelve months ago, as the 2017s were coming onto the market, I recall some growers taking umbrage at some merchants speculating about the 2018s. That was too early, of course, but now is a more timely moment to ask whether the excitement surrounding the vintage is well founded.

In some areas I would say yes. I am not convinced that it is a classic vintage in the realms of, say, 2010, and that is probably reflected in the absence of potentially perfect wines (if God is still reading this). I pointedly asked growers to rank the 2018 vintage. Answers depended upon whom I spoke to. David Croix candidly told me that he does not see the 2018s belonging to the all-time greats because they are too easy to drink, just missing the requisite complexity and structure of a top-tier growing season. Then there are the likes of Arnaud Mortet, who unhesitatingly responded that his 2018s are among the best he has ever produced, a view that is borne out completely by their spectacular showing in barrel. A lot depends on how the producer coped with the warm and dry conditions, predicated on a myriad of factors from vineyard husbandry to the time of bottling.

Let’s start with the whites. One winemaker’s comment resonated with me throughout my tastings, and I will expand upon it. Changing location to Bordeaux for a moment, here it is commonly agreed that a good vintage for the reds means a poor vintage for the whites, and vice versa. This fosters a preconception that the same applies everywhere; after all, it is logical that white grape varieties tend to prosper in cooler growing seasons that help to retain tension, while red grape varieties need warmth to ripen. However, the grape varieties of Burgundy skew that theory. Chardonnay is a versatile grape that can handle both cool and warm climates. That’s why it is planted widely. By contrast, Pinot Noir is a sensitive grape variety more particular about the growing season. It’s a fussy and demanding grape, unforgiving in many respects. So whereas on paper 2018 implies a more favorable growing season for the reds, in reality the “personalities” of those grape varieties make potential differences much slighter than you would imagine and, depending on terroir, might give Chardonnay an advantage. If your immediate reaction is to dismiss that idea, consider how, against my own expectations, I found that the 2003 whites seem to be evolving better than the reds.

And for this reason, I was taken aback at how well many of the white wines show in 2018. I was expecting heavy wines with low acid levels, viscous textures, loads of tropical fruit and short drinking windows. On the contrary, I discovered whites with surprisingly zingy acidities that impart more tension than anticipated, far fewer obvious tropical notes and far greater articulation of individual terroirs. This partly informed the title of this report, inasmuch as the white wines confounded my expectations, just as they seem to confound those of winemakers. That can be attributed to the aforementioned versatility of Chardonnay, and also to some fabulous terroirs, while not forgetting that in recent years there has been an upsurge in talented winemakers seeking to capture tension, acidity and mineralité. Of course, their challenge is to keep hold of that into bottle; some aim to do this by bottling before the next harvest, while others believe that extended time in barrel or with lees contact is crucial.

Zoning in on specific appellations, I would not single out any particular one as being superior to the rest. However, I do want to draw readers’ attention to two growers in Chassagne-Montrachet who are “killing it” at the moment. Firstly, there is Alex Moreau at Domaine Bernard Moreau. This is a domaine whose wines have risen to a whole new level in recent years. Moreau’s portfolio is a veritable tour around Chassagne’s Premier Crus, showcasing the nuances between climats on the flatter lower sectors and more limestone-rich parcels located on higher contours. Then we have Sébastien Caillat, winemaker at Domaine Lamy-Pillot and his own Domaine Lamy-Caillat. I just had time to visit the latter this year, in the small cellar up the road from Ramonet. Quantities are tiny, but they represent Chassagne-Montrachet at their peak – razor-sharp Puligny without the asceticism!


Alex Moreau, winemaker at Domaine Bernard Moreau, whose wines continue to perform at a consistently high level.

I also cover a triumvirate of producers located in and around Saint-Aubin that continue to make outstanding wines, even if Saint-Aubin is no longer the bargain that it used to be. Olivier Lamy, Damien Colin (Domaine Marc Colin) and Jean-Baptiste and Benoît Bachelet (Domaine Jean-Claude Bachelet) are all exploiting this offshoot valley’s terroirs, Lamy taking viticulture to an extreme with his high-density plantings. Despite heightening demand, they still represent attractive alternatives to Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet, whose wines often come at a premium. Dominique Lafon’s wines are not cheap, though their quality, especially in the last three or four years, does go some way toward justifying their price tags. And there are always alternatives, not least Lafon’s own wines from the Mâconnais that are included in this report, or producers such as Domaine Michel Bouzereau, whose portfolio delighted me from top to bottom this year.

Moving on to the reds, firstly, we do not see the same abundant quantities as the whites, and in some cases they are markedly down. Generally, the 2018s in barrel tend toward vivid and bright red and blue fruit aromatics. They seem to leap out of the glass with a sense of nascent joie-de-vivre. Given the growing season, I was generally pleased with their delineation; many winemakers managed to avoid blowsy, smudged bouquets. As with the whites, the challenge is for winemakers to retain the wines’ vivacity in bottle, since last-minute addition of SO2 plus incarceration in glass can often dim the energy they had up to that point. It is also worth mentioning that nowadays winemakers are more prudent in terms of using new oak in proportion to the fruit. I would wager that a decade ago, a season similar to 2018 would have tempted many to crank up the level of new oak. These days, many winemakers, especially the new generation, refrain from overuse, wishing to avoid masking terroir expression; rather than employing new oak, they practice a longer period of barrel maturation.

Preceding my visit, I had heard talk of particularly high alcohol, but I found that although levels are indeed higher than previous years, they are not beyond “reasonable.” I asked every winemaker about the range of alcohol levels, and many appear to be at 13.0% to 14.0%, with proportionately fewer cuvées exceeding 14.0% than I expected. This is not to say that they don’t exist. But they are not as common as you might think.

On many occasions the alcohol is masked by very good levels of acidity or low pH. I’ll save my pent-up rant on the ubiquitous claim that “the alcohol level doesn’t matter because you cannot feel it” for another time. There are various theories about why the acidity levels are high and pH levels low given the warm growing season. Romain Taupenot at Domaine Taupenot-Merme conjectured that winemakers are now aware that in the past, vineyard managers dumped too much potassium on the soil, and that this has been addressed via less prolific use of fertilizers and chemicals. Consequently, less potassium-rich vineyards are imbuing their fruit with naturally higher acidity levels. In terms of fruit profile, as with the aromatics, I find more red fruit than black, something that I personally prefer because red fruit is associated with that ambiguous descriptor pinoté. I use it myself, and when I do, it just seems the most obvious but perfect word for a wine that sings of pure, unadulterated Pinot Noir. If it doesn’t, then we have a problem. I often found that the blue fruit on the nose translated across to the palate, suggesting blueberries, black currants and so forth. There were also plenty of floral characteristics, such as pressed violets and iris, and often potpourri scents, perhaps signatures of the warm growing season.

Similar to the whites, when reflecting upon whether any particular appellation stands out, I plead guilty to sitting on the fence. This is more a producer-centric vintage, the quality determined by each grower’s tenets and practices. One fundamental question is whether it was correct to pick early in August. Some growers feel that the pendulum has swung too far from picking late and that too many skinny, shrill wines are being foisted on consumers in some kind of race to be first to pick. That aside, judging by the barrel samples, it would seem that in most cases, commencing the harvest in late August was the correct course of action. I never inquired about harvest dates until the wines had been tasted, to avoid any prejudice, but it seems clear that 2018 represents what you might call a “temporal tectonic shift” to what is an earlier growth cycle instead of a shortened one. Of course, that creates its own challenges – and in particular, difficulty in determining the harvest dates, since everything is accelerated when you commence picking in late August rather than late September. Sugar levels are increasing more rapidly and consequently the optimal picking window is shorter. You might have more difficulty hiring pickers who would prefer to finish their summer vacation before working your vines!

There are instances where I feel some cuvées had been harvested a day or two tardy, resulting in prune-like characteristics and cloying finishes. Sometimes this was simply down to the tricky logistics of keeping an eye on a myriad of parcels maturing at various speeds; the more parcels under your watch, the greater the challenge. Success seems largely to have been determined by the speed of picking. One insightful comment from Christophe Roumier was that while he does not regret his chosen harvest date, he wishes he could have picked more quickly. Alas, you can only pull that harvest trigger once. That is not to suggest that later pickers made the wrong choice; my scores for Coquard Loison Fleurot or Grivot evidence that. A lot comes down to quality of terroir and vine age. Both of those producers oversee an enviable portfolio of vineyards that seem to be able to mitigate against overripeness. Older vines have seen it all before, and they tend to achieve natural balance in their fruit while their deeper spatial root system staves off hydric stress.

Many winemakers referenced the infamous 2003 growing season, but the wines are very different, as I knew from my recollections of tasting the 2003s on release. The 2018 growing season did not see the same relentless prolonged heat wave. Another factor is that nowadays more producers are using whole bunch. Although it does risk increasing pH levels, stem addition often counterbalances the opulence of these wines and keeps a leash on perceived ripeness. Part of their success is that many winemakers are learning empirically about the correct percentage of stems to include for each individual climat. They are not being added by rote. There is consideration of what is appropriate in order that the stems do not mask terroir expression.


Denis Bachelet in Gevrey-Chambertin oversaw a small portfolio of sublime wines in 2018.

The Market

Where do you begin? I have written many times about how demand for Burgundy has outstripped supply by such multiples that stratospheric market prices are ineluctable. I have also addressed how demand increases exponentially as you approach the top of the pyramid, those half-dozen names that everyone, or at least everyone with bottomless pockets, is chasing. Demand has softened a little in recent months as even the super-rich have begun to balk at the enlarged price tags needed to accommodate such large numbers. But they are coming down from extraordinarily high peaks, which means that much of Burgundy remains beyond the financial means of most people, including myself.

For many years I have commented that I cannot foresee this landscape changing and that it would only shift if external forces came into play. Pick up a newspaper and you can see that happening, whether it is Brexit or protests in Hong Kong, where much top-end Burgundy is sold for consumption in the city or passes through it as a conduit into mainland China. However, winemakers and merchants alike told me that the most important factor by a long way is the US government’s import tariff on wines below 14% alcohol; at the time of this writing, it was levied at 25%, with speculation that it could be hiked up to 100%. This bolt out of the blue has more implications for Burgundy than, say, Bordeaux, since proportionally more of their wines are traditionally below 14%. Or maybe I should say they were traditionally below 14%.

With consumers already bemoaning the escalating prices of Burgundy, the tariff could potentially slash demand from one of the region’s most important markets. A sudden increase in prices will either price out consumers on budgets or postpone buying decisions pending a reversal in the tax, a decision they might regret if indeed it does increase to a punitive 100%. The general consensus seems to be that at 25% the tax could just about be shared between producers and importers without affecting consumer prices too much. A 100% tax would blow that out of the water, and I suspect it would decimate demand entirely. One major US Burgundy importer told me that they are feeling “apprehensive” and their greatest fear is the effect that the higher tariff would have on value-sector wines, perhaps pushing consumers toward wines from countries currently not affected by tariffs. They did tell me that winemakers and importers have been cooperating successfully to minimize the impact on final prices to consumers, but of course there is only so much you can do.

With all that considered, merchants have told me that prudent producers will price their wines equal to or slightly below 2017 even if 2018 is generally regarded to be higher in quality. The one advantage is that cellars are full. The vintage was bountiful for the whites and, with the exception of hail-hit Nuit Saint-Georges, pretty decent for the reds. That gives producers some flexibility after a run of depleted harvests from 2011 to 2016, especially with good quantities for the 2019 vintage.

Demand for Burgundy, especially the top wines, will continue because it fits the prerequisites of what consumers seek beyond intrinsic quality: the notion of place, terroir and, crucially, the human aspect of wine. Unlike Bordeaux, which is built around brands, there is the name of the grower on most Burgundy labels. I foresee burgeoning demand from mainland China as a potentially huge market of “label hunters” matures into those wishing to expand their knowledge and seek new horizons. That would have a major impact not just at the top of the hierarchy, but down the pyramid.


Etienne Grivot with his daughter Mathilde on the rooftop of their winery overlooking Vosne-Romanée. They were certainly one of the later pickers.

Final Thoughts

You always have an inkling of how much you will enjoy tasting a new vintage. On reflection, the 2018 Burgundies exceeded my estimate. Talk of excessively high alcohol levels proved largely unfounded; there’s no denying that they are higher than average, but they are not outrageous, nor do they smother terroir expression or dictate the personality of the vintage. (I suspect 2019 might be different.) The 2018s are generally more energetic and, banal as it sounds, “fun” wines that are destined to give a lot of pleasure, and certainly less austere and reserved compared to their 2017 counterparts. Perhaps this unfolding joie-de-vivre has led some winemakers to downplay the quality of the 2018s, skeptical of their longevity. Yet pleasure, intellect and aging potential are not all mutually exclusive. The real surprise is the quality of the whites. I will taste further in the opening months of 2020 and see how far this quality extends, and whether it is restricted to the best terroirs and/or winemakers. There is only one way to find out. Perhaps higher yields did result in spreading the accumulated ripeness over a larger number of bunches so their tropical inclinations are more nuanced than they otherwise might have been. I loved the purity of fruit and the pinoté of the reds, the fineness of the tannins and the surprising structures the wines are developing. Here I agree with winemakers that the second winter is important, and I suspect it will lend more weight and backbone to these 2018s. Finally, I doff my hat to the manner in which so many 2018 reds adeptly articulate their respective climats when, to be brutally honest, I anticipated more monotony.

The title of this report is “Confounded Expectations.” Of course, that can be read in two ways, either positively or negatively. I chose it with a positive intent. But it neatly summarizes how 2018 foils preconceived views and experiences: the purported deceleration of sugar increase at the end of August, the sequence in which different parcels reached maturity that determined picking, the overflowing yields of the white harvest, the natural acidity levels, the order of malolactic fermentations. If ever there is a vintage you need to spend weeks tasting in the region to really understand it, it’s this one.

Returning to the question posed at the beginning of this article: Does 2018 bear the imprimatur of the growing season and, by extension, the thumbprint of global warming? First, let’s accept the reality. The 2018 growing season was the warmest of the 21st century and second in terms of sunshine after 2003. The average picking date at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in the 1970s was October 5. Over the last ten years, that date has moved forward to September 15. Global warming is not on our doorstep, but making itself comfy in our favorite leather armchair in our living room. A majority of 2018s demonstrate that winemakers need not rush out their CVs looking for alternative vocations. Firstly, improvements in winemaking techniques allow them to cope with a growing season like 2018 far better than they have in the past. A couple of winemakers, such as Chisa Bize (Domaine Simon Bize) and Marie-Christine Teillaud (Domaine Georges Mugneret-Gibourg), confessed that 2018 turned out to be a lesson in dealing with such a dry, warm season, standing them in good stead for the following year. Likewise, several spoke in wonderment at the alacrity of their vines in adapting to these conditions, retaining acidity levels hitherto thought unfeasible. Maybe those vines will respond to environmental changes... or import tariffs!

One or two people expressed discomfort that what might benefit winemakers in the Côte d’Or could be detrimental to humankind. Well, such is the fervor for Burgundy that I bet there are some who consider it a fair trade. Nothing is more confounding than us. 

My thanks to my assistant Gabrielle Halifax for organizing over 100 visits to producers, including many rearranged at the last moment to accommodate schedules.


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