2007 and 2006 White Burgundies

It is tempting to say that white Burgundy prices, like those of several other expensive categories of wine, are at unsustainably high levels today. Declining economic health in many Burgundy-thirsty countries is beginning to put a damper on demand, prices for these wines in the secondary market are cooling, and a weak U.S. dollar is discouraging American buyers. Then too, the problem of premature oxidation that has affected too many white Burgundies beginning with vintage 1995 has caused many long-time collectors to cut back sharply on their purchases of new vintages. Until they have reason for renewed confidence, some long-time Burgundy lovers have given up completely on the idea of cellaring high-end wines, even those from producers whose wines have not been implicated. At their finest, white Burgundies are among the world’s most gloriously complex and satisfying white wines, and I am confident that the best examples from the 2007 and 2006 vintages will reward their owners. But one needs a good measure of faith, and deep pockets, to play the white Burgundy game today.

The 2007 growing season and harvest. Although 2007 brought the third consecutive very early harvest for Burgundy, the wines produced from this growing season do not generally show a hot-year character. On the contrary: in spite of a season that began as potentially the earliest harvest ever, the ’07s mostly show a cool-year quality. They are closer to the minerally style of 2004 than to the very warm years of 2006 and 2005, which generally produced more powerful and exotic wines.

Record-breaking sunshine and warmth in April led to an extremely early flowering in mid-May, but April turned out to be the best month of the “summer,” at least until favorable September weather saved the harvest. The Côte de Beaune was spared the multiple hail events that sections of Chablis experienced in 2007, but a storm in late April swept across much of Chevalier-Montrachet and Saint-Aubin crus like Remilly, Combes and Charmois, in some places cutting ultimate vine yields by a third or more. The summer was mostly a dismal affair, and rot and mildew were constant threats. Work in the vines and the timing of anti-rot sprays and treatments against mildew were critical, although several growers told me that reports of mildew were overblown. The maturing process of the grapes slowed down, and what might originally have been a harvest starting as early as August 15 mostly began at least two weeks later.

Many estates on the Côte de Beaune began by picking pinot noir at the end of August and beginning of September, due in part to their concern over the health of the grape skins, and then moved on to their chardonnay vines, often waiting several days between the colors because they did not believe the chardonnay had reached adequate phenolic ripeness yet. Some picked chardonnay in fits and starts, waiting as late as they could to bring in their top crus. While a few of the growers I visited in late May began harvesting chardonnay in the final days of August to privilege acidity or to avoid getting aromas of surmaturité, others waited until September 10 or later to attack their best parcels. As a rule, the later harvesters brought in riper fruit, with healthy grape sugars: often in the 12.5% to 13% range and sometimes higher. A number of them told me that little or no chaptalization was necessary, especially at the premier and grand cru level. But some reported that after a certain point there was little to gain by waiting and a lot to lose in terms of declining acidity levels in the grapes and emerging exotic character. Happily, the weather held.

The making and style of the 2007 whites. In a number of cellars I was struck by similarities between the young 2007s and the ’04s. Although there are exceptions, the better 2007s show lovely aromatic freshness: many of the best wines are somewhat more supple versions of the mineral-driven 2004s. Winemakers faced similar challenges in making their wines in these two years. Although growers in 2007 benefited greatly from the clement September weather, many expressed reservations about the quality of the lees in 2007 due to the problems during the summer, as was the case in 2004. While the 2007s that were still on their lees when I tasted them in late May generally seemed stronger than those that had already been racked, several of the more intelligent winemakers I meet with each year told me they did less lees stirring (batonnage), or stopped stirring as soon as the malos were finished, simply because they were not confident about the quality of the lees. Perhaps due to the rising suspicion that excessive batonnage is a contributing factor behind premature oxidation of many Burgundies in bottle, some winemakers who might ordinarily have stirred the lees to give their wines more textural richness have backed off on this practice.

Happily, most ’07s were made from lower crop levels than those of 2004, a plethoric year, although some estates reported full yields. In spots where the crop was cut by the late April hailstorm, crop levels could be significantly lower than normal. As a rule, the new set of wines offers a bit more pliancy and flesh than the ’04s, and some wines—in theory, those from fruit picked late—can even show an exotic side and unexpected richness of texture. My favorite ’07s show fresh citrus and stone fruit character, sound acidity, obvious minerality and soil tones, and noteworthy finesse. These wines will be enjoyed by Burgundy lovers. On the downside, there are plenty of wines that lack concentration and true ripeness (I tasted numerous peppery examples), and others that show the effects of compromised grape skins. Some wines are more advanced than they should be at this stage. But then that’s nearly always the case in Burgundy.

Just as many growers were adamant that it was necessary to wait to harvest, many insist that the 2007s need a long élevage to fill in their middle palates. It’s worth pointing out that, partly due to the nagging issue of premature oxidation, this longer aging will not necessarily mean leaving the wines in barrel for additional months: more than one producer told me he would allow his wines to settle and stabilize for a longer period of time in tank before being bottled.

When to drink the 2007s, and another look at 2006. Very few of the winemakers I visited felt that their 2007s will need more than a few years of bottle aging before they can be enjoyed. I suspect that many wines will be delicious from the start, thanks to their combination of fresh fruit, expressive minerality and harmonious acidity. As a rule, the 2007s should be best between 2010 and 2018 or so, with a small minority of wines requiring a bit more bottle aging and capable of longer life. While I believe that the best growers have taken many constructive steps in recent years to address ongoing problems of premature oxidation of their wines, I would not want to bury any white Burgundies deep in my cellar. If you buy a half-case of a wine that’s a knockout virtually upon release—and many 2007s will be—try a first bottle within a year or two and then repeat as necessary. With all due respect to the best producers whose wines continue to age slowly and well in the bottle, today’s white Burgundies rarely have the staying power of the wines made 20 years ago. It pains me to say this, as I love mature white Burgundy, but too many growers are still in a state of denial about the issue of premature oxidation.

The 2006s are rich, powerful wines, often high in alcohol. Their glyceral textures and often exotic tropical fruit character give them great early sex appeal. Although the best wines—and I tasted many that transcend the style of the vintage thanks to their firm acids, strong minerality and terrific aromatic lift—appear built for aging, with 2006 too I would be tempted to enjoy virtually all of these wines within the next decade. Better to drink them too early than too late.

On the following pages are brief producer profiles and tasting notes on the 2007s and 2006s, based on my visit to Burgundy in late May, and on additional tastings done in New York since then. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines not yet bottled. Due to space constraints, I have omitted barrel notes on a number of village wines from the 2007 vintage.