1999 and 1998 White Burgundies

During my visits to Burgundy's Côte de Beaune in late spring and early summer, virtually no one among the more than three dozen producers I visited made claims of greatness for his 1999 white wines (some, however, were making such predictions for their reds). No grower pretended that the '99 crop was not humongous. Instead, they were all perfectly willing to let the wines speak for themselves, because the '99 whites are, in a word, delicious. They're round and ripe, fruity and floral, with a succulent sugar/acid balance that will seduce both casual chardonnay drinkers and serious Burgundy collectors. The overwhelming majority of these wines will give immediate pleasure. Although it is tempting to generalize that these wines do not have the backbone and concentration to reward extended aging, I suspect that the vintage's best examples will surprise us with their longevity.

The 1999 growing season and harvest. Following the extremely difficult 1998 growing season, during which growers on the Côte de Beaune faced virtually every plague but boils and frogs, the vines snapped back with a vengeance in '99. A copious and early flowering set the stage for a very large crop. In direct contrast to '98, conditions during the summer were mostly favorable, with warm, dry weather from late July through the end of August (this was a year in which Burgundy's more continental climate resulted in vastly different weather than in Bordeaux, which was cooler and damper through most of August). In Burgundy, on some sun-drenched hillside sites, the heat actually caused some vines to shut down in mid-August, retarding the maturing process and ultimately resulting in less regular ripening. More than one grower told me that a bit of rain during the last week of August as well as in the days prior to the start of the harvest served to revitalize the vines; the rains also further swelled the grapes, and triggered some uptake of potassium by the vines, which brought down acidity levels in the grapes. (Much of the grapes' malic acidity had already been burned off by the very warm weather in August.)

The ban de vendange was on Wednesday, September 15, and most domains started picking by Friday or Saturday. There was intermittent rain beginning on the 18th, mostly at night; more substantial rain arrived on the 24th and 25th. Most growers brought in the bulk of their chardonnay under decent conditions, and there was little evidence of rot or skin damage. But the crop level was huge, as much as 30% higher than growers had anticipated even a few weeks earlier. Growers successfully petitioned the INAO (Institute National des Appellations d'Origine) for the P.L.C. (plafond limite de classement), which allowed them to produce 40% more than the rendement de base (base yield) of 45 hectoliters per hectare for village and premier crus. The grapes were ripe despite the huge volume, but rarely overripe.

At the estates I visit regularly, many producers admitted to making the full allowable yields in '99. The more forthcoming winemakers said their declared yields were actually understated: "I made just 55 hectoliters per hectare in my premier crus," one candid winemaker in Chassagne-Montrachet told me, "but that's because I left more than a third of my fruit behind." Even very old vines, which usually provide protection against overproduction, tended to bear large crop loads. The most conscientious growers-those who prune short to begin with and drop crop on multiple occasions-fared best in 1999.

The 1999 wines. Because the grape skins were healthy, the lees [dead yeast cells and grape fragments] were typically clean, so winemakers were able to do a relatively brief débourbage (a settling of the wine to allow unwanted gross lees, or bourbes, to precipitate out), following the pressing. Growers could retain more of the lees and make extensive use of them, often via frequent and extended bâtonnage (stirring of the lees), to protect and enrich their wines throughout, and even after, the malolactic fermentations. Long, slow malolactic fermentations also helped counteract the "high-yield feel" of the vintage, as one insider described it.

The Achilles' heel of the vintage, clearly, is the sheer size of the crop. Relatively few '99 whites show outstanding concentration and grip. But the wines have been savory and appealing from the start, with fresh fruit, floral and mineral aromas and flavors of noteworthy purity. Numerous growers told me that their '99s possess only average acidity; some said that measurable acids were lower than those of 1998. Yet the wines rarely come across as acid-deficient. They taste bright and clean, ripe but not blowzy. The '99s are characterized by an exhilarating, delectable balance of grape sugars and acids.

Many of the young '99s show enticing floral qualities-a characteristic several growers said reminded them of the '73 vintage, a large crop of wines that gave pleasure early and aged well. Other growers compared the new vintage to the '79s, another huge crop that offered early appeal and, thanks in part to brisk acidity, hung on in the bottle (some well-stored '79s are still delicious today). Still others compared '99 to '82, a year in which legal allowable yields were actually 84 (!) hectoliters per hectare, and a few mentioned 1992. So yes, it's a safe bet to enjoy these wines on the young side-perhaps over the next four to seven years for the premier crus, and five to ten years for grand crus. At the same time, keep in mind that white Burgundy can be quite forgiving of high yields, and healthy vintages that are harmonious from the outset have a way of gaining texture and complexity in bottle.

A follow-up on the '98s. Back in Issue 86, I detailed the many climatological challenges growers faced during the nightmarish growing season of 1998-including severe frost in April, hailstorms in April and July, outbreaks of oidium (powdery mildew) in June and July, scorching heat in August and rain during the harvest. These problems were particularly severe in the village of Meursault. Yields in some vineyards were down 60% to 70% from normal, but this unnatural concentration led more often to rustic, inelegant wines than to harmonious examples of terroir. I tasted every species of flawed wine from this vintage: wine with exotic or downright unclean aromas, the latter often due to oidium; flat, low-acid wine already showing signs of oxidation; tart wine due to insufficient physiological ripeness of the grapes; wine with a hard edge due to excessive sulfur treatment or acidification.

While enrichment by the lees is in theory a good way to fill in the middle palates of skinnier wines, many growers in '98 were defeated by the poor quality of the lees. The negative impact of extensive lees contact often did not become apparent until later in the élevage. Many wines that were promising from barrel last spring lost a good bit of their freshness and clarity of flavor in the warm summer months prior to bottling, taking on tired notes of white chocolate and eau de vie; in other cases, growers made late sulfur additions in a desperate attempt to fend off oxidation, with the result that the wines are sullen and unyielding in their early months in bottle.
But to suggest that this vintage is a washout hardly does justice to the complexity of Burgundy or to the talents of its most dedicated practitioners. Nineteen ninety-eight is far from the worst vintage of the decade: I certainly tasted a larger number of interesting white Burgundies from '98 than from either '91 or '94, and perhaps as many as I'd enjoy drinking from '93 (minerally and precise but quite high in acidity) or '97 (rich and fat, and some outstanding). In fact, there are many very good 1998 whites: numerous estates in Puligny-Montrachet and, especially, Chassagne-Montrachet, were spared the frost and hail, and had little or no problem with powdery mildew. The best '98s are firm, well-delineated, medium-bodied wines that are rather reticent today but may well blossom with three to five years of bottle aging. The better '98 white Burgundies are far more likely to draw this taster back for a second glass than the overwhelming majority of chardonnays from California, which too often show everything they've got in the first sip. "This is not New World chardonnay with sweetness," one grower in Puligny-Montrachet noted. "This is a completely dry wine with richness, complexity and mineral character that comes from our unique soils."

A word on white Burgundy pricing. Nineteen ninety-eight was a difficult year for the négociants, as quality fruit was at a premium and prices were at a sky-high cyclical peak. Négociants generally paid about 10% less for fruit and must in '99, and had a much better choice of material. But while few '98 white Burgundies from large merchants or smaller estates can be said to offer real value, don't expect prices for '99s from the best growers to decline. In spite of the fact that a stronger U.S. dollar has helped American importers, early indications are that '99 domain wines from the Côte de Beaune will hit retail shelves here at roughly the same prices as the '98s, give or take 5%.