2000 and 1999 Red Burgundies

Vintage 2000 marked the fourth consecutive year of healthy to high grape sugars on the Cote d'Or; but a stormy, wildly uneven growing season, and significant climatic differences between the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune (and even between neighboring villages), made for a tricky vintage for pinot noir and a mixed bag of wines. As is frequently the case, however, growers who were pessimistic about the vintage at harvest time were considerably more sanguine about their 2000s by the time I viewed the vintage in detail in November, 14 months after the harvest. Still, it appears that most of the year highlights come from the Cote de Nuits, which clearly had the better of the weather in 2000.

The 2000 growing season. An early and successful flowering at the beginning of June following a hot, stormy May set the stage for the second consecutive very large crop. But then July was cool and wet, the middle third of the month freakishly cold (one of my Parisian friends with a summer house in the Loire Valley told me he had to return to the capital just to get warm). More than one grower expressed the opinion that the relatively thin, fragile skins that characterized the pinot noir grapes in 2000 can be traced back to this period, when a bit more sun and warmth might have made a major difference. But mildew was seen in some spots as early as the end of May, due to the atypically high humidity that held through much of that month. While serious outbreaks of rot were largely prevented by vineyard treatments and by a warm month of August, the thin skins remained vulnerable straight through to the harvest.

Early September offered mostly favorable conditions, with very little precipitation, and the ban de vendange for village and premier cru vines on the Cote de Beaune was Monday, September 11 (it was 13th for the Cote de Nuits, and the 15th for its grand crus). But just as the harvest got underway, a violent series of thunderstorms, with widely varying amounts of rain and even some hail, struck Burgundy on the evening of the 12th and morning of the 13th. The storm was centered over the Cote de Beaune and Cote Chalonnaise, where rainfall amounts ranged from an inch to as much as five inches. But barely an inch of water came down in Nuits-Saint-Georges and even less fell farther to the north. In any event, most of the top estates on the Cote de Nuits did not begin harvesting until the following weekend or even early the next week, under better conditions and with riper fruit. Meanwhile, on the Cote de Beaune, quickly encroaching rot required many growers to harvest in a rush, often before the grapes had reached optimum ripeness, and before growers brought in their chardonnay. Those who waited generally had more damaged skins and dilution from the rain, although those who practiced strict sorting in the vines and in the winery often produced wines darker and richer than the norm.

The 2000 wines. The crop level in 2000 was large, only slightly smaller than '99 and '96. Quality-conscious growers carried out significant crop reduction during the summer, green-harvesting in an attempt to hasten the ripening of the grapes that remained and in many instances pulling leaves to aerate the bunches and forestall rot. (The most serious growers routinely begin their growing season by pruning short, but even some of these estates found it necessary to further reduce the crop load during the summer.) While yields were rarely excessive among the top domains, at least in terms of hectoliters declared per hectare, the wines do not generally have as much structure as the '99s. As the berries were large and the skins thin, the ratio of juice to skins was higher in 2000 than in the previous year. On the Cote de Nuits, the fruit was mostly ripe (in much of Morey-Saint-Denis and parts of Chambolle-Musigny, almost freakishly ripe), and acidity levels were slightly to substantially lower than average. But even on the Cote de Nuits, strict sorting of the fruit to eliminate less-ripe or rot-affected grapes was critical to making successful wines, in part because beginning with healthy material allowed numerous estates to fatten their wines and protect them against oxidation by doing extended aging on the lees. Many growers attempted to concentrate their musts by running off a small percentage of the juice prior to fermentation (the process known as saignee). This technique always risks throwing wines off balance by accentuating their tannins, but saignee appears to have been successful in many cases, especially on the Cote de Nuits, where the tannins were generally ripe, round and moderate.

During the first half of November, when I made my annual tour of the best addresses for red Burgundy, the better 2000s generally showed succulent fruit and good aromatic freshness, even if they rarely have the spine and thrust of the '99s (and the '96s and '93s). Many of the more successful growers told me that the '00s have some of richness and extreme ripeness of the '97s but with less roasted aromas and flavors. The wines frequently come across as fresh even where pHs are high, and colors are healthy. Others describe 2000 as a more concentrated version of 1992. (I find these wines considerably more complex than the '92s and therefore far more interesting.) But estates that vinified with too many rotten berries made essentially fragile wines that will quickly lose their primary fruit character and mature quickly; their wines are often quite pale in color. I also found in November that many wines have absorbed their new oak very quickly; it's possible that those wines that don't have enough stuffing and oomph will always show more oaky torrefaction (chocolate, coffee, mocha, tar) than primary fruit. Even at the highest levels, 2000 will be a vintage for enjoying over the medium term. But the best wines will give considerable pleasure.

As to favored spots for pinot noir in 2000: estates on the Cote de Nuits obviously benefitted from being able to pick later, in contrast to the previous year, when some late harvesters were caught by heavy rain. Having received much less rain on September 12, more growers were able to let the fruit hang until it ripened thoroughly rather than being forced to pick prematurely by rapidly encroaching rot, as was the case from Beaune south. I was especially impressed by wines I tasted in Gevrey-Chambertin, which at a number of addresses seemed as satisfying as the wines made the previous year, though they will likely be for earlier drinking. At the cellars of growers like Rousseau, Serafin, Fourrier, Mortet and the two Dugats, I did not have the feeling that I was tasting anything but a very good and thoroughly ripe vintage. This is a vintage of essentially supple, fruit-driven wines, and thus appellations that normally produce wines with a tendency toward hardness in their youth, such as most of Clos Vougeot and Bonnes-Mares, showed a bit more early appeal than usual.

The Cote de Beaune, especially from the town of Beaune south, was far less successful for pinot noir, with many wines showing less-than-exciting colors, diffuse aromas and flavors and traces of rot. (Chardonnay, on the other hand, was healthier, riper and more consistently pleasing.) Many growers noted that the Volnays of 2000 are atypically dry, although producers like d'Angerville, Lafarge, and especially Henri Boillot have outperformed the norm. It was not just in September that the Cote de Beaune had the worst of the weather in 2000: here the rainy spells of July and August tended to bring more water as well. Numerous growers, including a few on the Cote de Nuits, told me that one of the chief challenges at harvest time was to eliminate grapes affected by mold inside the skins, which few estates without the proper triage tables are in a position to detect.
Prices for 2000 reds will generally be flat to slightly lower. Although red Burgundy from the better estates is spread thin around the world, many producers have gotten the message that sales of expensive wines have slowed dramatically in recent months and are practicing pricing restraint in order to be assured of moving their wines. In some instances, U.S. importers have cut their margins, and ultimate shelf prices may in some cases be 5% to 15% lower than those asked for the '99s. This will be a vintage of interest to those Burgundy lovers who purchase specific bottlings from particular estates every year, and for restaurants that cannot afford to cellar Burgundies before putting them on their lists. For opportunists who try each year to find the best values in Burgundy, it will be a vintage to buy with caution. There are still better buys available from the '99 and '98 vintages.

The 1999s revisited. This is a delicious crop of wines despite the very high crop levels. While it is tempting to say that they will be for medium-term aging (they will certainly last longer than the 2000s), I believe that the best of these succulent, well-balanced wines will repay even longer cellaring, based on their adequate acidity levels and thoroughly ripe phenolic material. Most of these wines are approachable from the outset, and it is hard to believe that they will go through an extended sullen stage. Tannins are generally ripe and firm but rarely hard or dry.

I've been sampling Burgundies in the year following their bottling since the 1983 vintage, and 1999 is the finest crop of Cote de Beaune reds I've ever tasted. They are fleshy, ripe, fresh and elegant, so complete and complex that they approach Cote de Nuits wines in quality. I normally find the soils of the Cote de Nuits more interesting than those of the Cote de Beaune (and obviously so have centuries of French wine bureaucrats as there are no red grand crus south of Aloxe-Corton), but in '99 Cote de Beaune wines are as often as satisfying as those from the Cote de Nuits. I was especially taken by the quality of bottlings from Beaune and Volnay - in fact, I can't recall when I was more struck by the quality of wines from Beaune. On the Cote de Nuits, I was particularly enamored of the floral perfume and definition of the best wines from Vosne-Romanee. Nuits-Saint-Georges and Chambolle-Musigny are also strong, suggesting that the southern portion of the Cote de Nuits slightly outperformed the northern half. But there are outstanding wines to be found in every village.

Following are brief producer profiles and notes on the 2000s and 1999s, based on my visit to Burgundy in November and subsequent tastings in New York. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines still in barrel. Due to space constraints, I have omitted most 2000 village wines that are not a strong bet to rate at least 85 points. One final note: I was unfortunately unable to taste the 2000s of Domaine Leroy. The wines were being bottled earlier than ever before, and the cave was closed for the entire two weeks of my stay in Burgundy.