2001 and 2000 White Burgundies

White Burgundy lovers under the impression that there hasn't been an outstanding vintage for these wines since 1996 have been missing out on a whole lot of satisfying chardonnay lately. On my annual late spring tour of the best white wine addresses on the Cote d'Or, I tasted the supple, fruit-driven, rather forward 2001s from barrel and took a second look at the somewhat finer, more precise, more classic 2000s, mostly from the bottle. Counting 1999, Burgundy has enjoyed three consecutive very good to excellent white wine harvests. With copious crop levels by historic standards - huge in 1999, a bit less excessive in 2000 and more reasonable still in 2001 - these three harvests have produced more excellent white Burgundy, by a wide margin, than any past trio of vintages.

The 2001 growing season and harvest. Flowering started at the beginning of June with a burst of warm weather but was then drawn out by a return to much cooler conditions, setting the stage for uneven ripening and a somewhat smaller crop level than in either of the two previous years. Most of the summer was then cooler than normal, with a few hailstorms along the way, the most severe of which struck on August 2. July was a fairly miserable month, though less dire than July of 2000, and it was only in the last three weeks of August that the region enjoyed a sustained period of warm, dry weather. Early September was then chilly and rainy, although the actual precipitation was moderate - and considerably less than was recorded in Chablis, barely 75 miles to the northwest.

The harvest officially began on Monday, September 17 (and on the 20th on the Cote de Nuits), but most growers did not attack their chardonnay in earnest until late that week or the following Monday, as ripening was mostly incomplete and, in many vineyards, levels of malic acidity had not come down during the gloomy weather earlier in the month. Moreover, in some site the early August hailstorm had blocked the maturing of the grapes by destroying the vegetation needed for proper functioning of the vines. Uneven ripeness and some rot called for careful harvesting and strict selection. There was some rainfall during the week of September 24, but mostly during the nighttime, and the harvest was for the most part completed in good, but not hot, conditions. Wind and warmer temperatures helped concentrate the grapes as the harvest progressed, but growers needed to be alert to overripe, browning skins and spreading botrytis. Again, growers on the Cote d'Or enjoyed much more benign picking conditions than those in Chablis, who harvested in wetter weather in early October.

The 2001 wines. As in 2000, chardonnay producers on the Cote de Beaune were initially pessimistic about the quality of their wines. In 2000, a cold, rainy July and early August and a series of storms in late August had raised fears of rot. A wild storm then swept the region at the beginning of the harvest. In 2001, ripeness levels varied widely even if average sugar levels were good (relatively little chaptalization was needed), and the grapes were generally high in tart malic acidity - often so high that the growers found tasting their just-fermented chardonnays downright unpleasant. But by spring, and increasingly so since then, the top white wine producers of the Cote de Beaune were pleased with the way their wines were evolving in barrel. In shallower cellars more influenced by outside temperatures, very cold weather in December and January often delayed malolactic fermentations, not at all a bad thing for the development of white Burgundy but tricky for tasters who visit in the spring.

Some growers told me in late May and early June that they were making extensive use of the lees to nourish their wines and keep them fresh in barrel, while others did less lees stirring (batonnage) because the lees were not squeaky-clean or because they felt the wines were already sufficiently rich. My early impression of the '01s is that they are forward, moderately rich, essentially gentle wines with fresh, often complex fruit aromas and good length. A bit of noble rot has given some wines a more glyceral texture without compromising their acidity, but in others - especially where there was grey rot, noble rot evil twin - aromas can be blurry and the wines can even show a dry edge. These latter wines clearly have been robbed of some of their purity by damaged skins. As a rule, the 2001s are fuller but less precise than the 2000s, leading with their fruit more than with their underlying minerality. But at the level of the top crus, there is no shortage of vineyard typicity in 2001.

The 2000s revisited. The 2000s have largely turned out well. These are pure, medium-bodied wines with lovely aromatic precision, very fresh fruit, and subtle floral and mineral nuances. While I still give a slight edge to the best '99s for their richness and youthful austerity, the best 2000s offer surprising density of texture and depth of flavor considering the full yields of the year. There an elegance to the best 2000s, and a succulent sugar/acid balance. But lesser wines, especially those from fruit harvested too early or from high yields, lack mid-palate stuffing, backbone and thrust.

A word on white Burgundy scoring and the difficulty of making vintage generalizations. The number of truly great wines (say, those rated 95 points or higher in this publication) is always limited in vintages that are less than perfect, and all of the past three vintages had their shortcomings and challenges. But Burgundy leading practitioners in Meursault, Puligny and Chassagne, working with the world greatest sites for chardonnay, are able to make excellent or even outstanding wines in years when their fruit is ripe, reasonably concentrated and reasonably clean - or when they're willing to ruthlessly eliminate fruit that is underripe or rotten. And 1999, 2000 and 2001 all offered considerable potential for white wine producers on the Cote de Beaune.

It is the nature of Burgundy to defy vintage generalizations, never more so than in 2001, 2000 and 1999. Not surprisingly, the growers I visited this spring offered a range of often contradictory comments on these three years. In the Meursault appellation, most growers agree that 1999 was the strongest of the recent trio, but there are notable exceptions. A majority of the Meursault growers I visited told me their 2001s had more fat and power than their 2000s, but a couple prefer the earlier year for its balance, finesse and minerality. One excellent producer described '01 as being particularly elegant and minerally, and has the wines to prove it. Puligny-Montrachet may have been the favored village in 2000, as yields here were a bit less full for this appellation than those in Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault were for theirs. Certainly my tastings turned up a number of stunning 2000s from Puligny. Several growers in the village admitted that yields here in '99 were too high to make truly outstanding wines, and more than one producer noted that high yields again in '01 made it essential to wait for acid levels in the grapes to come down. In Chassagne-Montrachet, all three harvests were capable of yielding very successful wines; sometimes it hard to pick a favorite even within a single cellar. A number of growers say they prefer 2001 to 2000, and some like the new vintage better than '99 as well.

On the following pages are brief producer profiles and notes on the '01s and '00s, based on my visit to Burgundy in late May and early June. Coverage is essentially limited to domains in Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, as well as a few negociants in Beaune. (My report on Chablis, based on visits I made after I finished on the Cote de Beaune, appeared in Issue 103.) As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines still in barrel. Due to space constraints, I have omitted many 2001 village wines that are not a strong bet to rate at least 85 points.