1999 and 1998 Red Burgundies

The charming, delicious 1999 red Burgundies, made from a bumper crop of grapes, could hardly be more different in style from the concentrated but sometimes hard-edged '98s, which were the product of a challenging growing season. Having tasted several hundred '99s from barrel and almost as many finished '98s on my annual tour of the best red Burgundy addresses in November, I've come to this conclusion: while neither vintage is consistently stellar, both are very good, and both have produced many outstanding wines. Burgundy aficionados will buy and enjoy wines from each vintage. And the '99s will be easier to find in the marketplace, with the sheer size of the harvest, and recent strength in the U.S. dollar, helping to hold prices roughly to '98 levels.

The 1999 growing season. Following a cool and rainy spring, an explosive flowering under excellent conditions in early June generated an ungodly number of bunches per vine and ensured a superabundant crop in '99. After cool weather and some storms in the second half of June, the months of July and August were mostly warm and dry, with heat building in late August, causing the grape skins to thicken and some vines on southwest-facing sites to suffer from heat stress. Well-timed showers at the end of August and in early September helped revive the ripening process, and drying breezes after the rains prevented rot from taking hold. More than one grower told me that the showers revitalized the vines; but the rain also swelled the grapes to varying degrees, so that the ultimate size of the crop was a good 20% to 30% higher than growers had anticipated even a few weeks earlier. Most conscientious estates took multiple steps to control yields; some told me they did two separate green harvests during the summer and still brought in generous crop loads.

The ban de vendange, or official harvest starting date, was Wednesday, September 15 on the Cote de Beaune (September 20 for grand crus), and most domains began picking by Friday or Saturday. On the Cote de Nuits, the harvest began on the 18th for premier crus and the 20th for grand crus. Moderate rain fell on Sunday the 19th, and there was intermittent nighttime rain early the following week. More substantial rain arrived on the 24th, and the weather then deteriorated rapidly. Most growers maintain that the fruit remained in reasonably good shape through about the 26th before showing serious effects of the precipitation: dilution, loss of acids and potential alcohol, and rot.

In recent successful vintages, the P.L.C. (plafond limite de classement), or the amount by which Burgundy growers are allowed to exceed the rendement de base (base yield), which for pinot noir is 40 hectoliters per hectare for village and premier crus and 35 for grand cru, has generally been 20%. But in 1999 it was increased to 30%-and then, subsequently, to 40% in some villages (but not for grand crus), or 56 hectoliters per hectare. The INAO (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine), which granted this increase in response to applications made by the various villages, triggered a storm of criticism from quality-conscious growers and the local press, who feared that this decision would jeopardize the reputation of Burgundy. Clearly, the copious crop level of '99 is a potential weakness. Only a few wines have the flavor authority, concentration and grip to be outstanding and long-lived. But many of the wines I tasted in November at the best estates showed little obvious sign of dilution.

How can very good pinot noir be made at such high crop levels? One answer lies in the size of the grapes. Although a few growers told me that the fruit was swollen by the early September rain, most maintained that the high yield of '99 is due to the huge number of bunches. In fact, many growers told me that their grapes were average in size or even smaller than average, and that the thick skins that developed in the August heat provided a healthy skin-to-juice ratio and plenty of concentration. Several mentioned that their yields were no higher than those of '96 or '90, two of the most highly regarded pinot noir vintages of the past generation.

Grape sugars were consistently healthy, even high, despite the elevated yields. Except for fruit picked very late, there was little need to eliminate rotten grapes. Chaptalization tended to be light, in many cases done more to prolong the fermentations than to add alcoholic heft. Acidity levels were generally in the average to low-average range, and few growers felt the need for more than minor acidification.

The 1999 wines. The unfinished '99s have vibrant, dark pinot colors, thanks to the firm, healthy, ripe skins. Among the captivating early characteristics of the vintage are the purity and freshness of fruit aromas and flavors and the succulent sugar/acid balance of the wines. ("Yummy" is the technical term that comes to mind.) The wines, even where they are not superconcentrated, offer seductively silky textures and supple, ripe tannins. The best examples have the balance and flesh for mid-term aging, but most will offer substantial early appeal. Only a small minority of the growers I visited in November recommended that their wines be laid down and forgotten for five years or more. Happily, at least for this taster, there little of the roasted character of 1990, even if some growers compare '99 to that copious, superripe year. The '99s are mostly less concentrated than the '98s, but they are more pliant, and their aromatics tend to be purer and more fruit-driven. Terroir character comes through clearly, especially where yields were under control.

The size of the crop often required accommodations in vinification as well. Some winemakers who normally ferment with the stems had to destem at least part of their fruit just to have enough room in the vats. Others did shorter macerations or even speeded up the entire process by punching down the cap (the process known as pigeage) more frequently during the fermentation. Many estates, including some that took steps during the growing season to limit vine yields, bled off a portion of the juice (saignee) to concentrate their musts. But excessive saignee can throw off the balance of a wine, and I tasted a number of hard-edged '99s that may be too tannic as a result of overconcentration of the wrong elements.

On paper, the yields at many domaines are too high to take the wines seriously. But Burgundy is sniffed and swallowed, not read, and there are many, many wines with lovely perfume, satiny texture and enough acidity to give them balance and verve. Where pinot noir is made from small grapes with healthy, ripe skins, very good sugar levels and adequate natural acidity, considerations of yield may be beside the point. I wouldn't say the Cote de Beaune produced better wines than the Cote de Nuits (I think that the soils in the former region are less interesting on the whole), but 1999 is a splendid year for red wine on the Cote de Beaune, which brought in more of its fruit between September 18 and 23, the window of optimal harvest-time weather. On the Cote de Nuits, '99 must be considered a very good to excellent vintage, but not truly outstanding (only a few producers on the Cote de Nuits claimed in November that '99 will rank as a great year). Most estates I visited told me they planned to bottle on the early side.

A second look at the '98s. A detailed description of this extremely tricky growing season and harvest can be found in Issue 89. The finished wines are classically styled, slowly evolving red Burgundies that appear to be best suited for mid-term aging (i.e., the premier crus should be at their best 6 to 10 years after the vintage, the grand crus 8 to 15), though some wines will be longer-lived. The '98 reds about which I am less enthusiastic generally fall into two categories: those whose tannins tend to be hard and dry, and those whose aromas are not quite pure and primary enough to suggest that they will develop gracefully. I tasted a number of wines whose aromas have been somewhat dulled-either by damage to the grape skins (in some cases from the powdery mildew that occurred in some sites in early summer, in others by rot at harvest time) or by too-late or harsh bottling. But the vintage's best examples boast aromatic precision and clear soil character, excellent concentration, and firm backbone.

On the following pages are brief producer profiles and notes on the '99s and '98s, based on my visit to Burgundy in November. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines still in barrel. Due to space constraints, I have omitted most 1999 village wines that are not a strong bet to rate at least 85 points.