2008 and 2007 White Burgundies

Two thousand eight is yet another vintage in which miraculous September weather allowed Burgundy’s better growers and smarter winemakers to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It was a complicated growing season for chardonnay (and even more so for pinot noir), with many variables to challenge growers and winemakers alike. From the outset, many insiders have maintained that the vintage favored chardonnay over pinot. While some producers of red Burgundy believe they have made classic wines, others clearly struggled to get their fruit ripe or wrestled with serious rot problems, not to mention other vine maladies. Rather than generalize about the reds, I’ll wait until I taste them in depth in November. This report is about chardonnay.

The 2008 growing season and harvest. The flowering of the chardonnay was drawn out by cool weather and rainy spells in June, resulting in a lower fruit set from the start, with some coulure and millerandage. There were mildew pressures in June, and some incidence of oidium in July. The growing season also witnessed isolated hail events, including a storm in late April that affected Chevalier-Montrachet and another that hit parts of the north side of Meursault (not to mention Volnay). A mostly gloomy summer delayed the maturing of the grapes.

The vintage was shaping up as a disaster in early September. “On September 10, I didn’t think I would have a harvest,” said Thierry Matrot. And then it rained some more on the 12th and 13th. But the weather then suddenly cleared, and the north wind blew for almost three weeks, with day-time temperatures remaining mostly moderate and the nights cool. During this period, the grapes dried and shrunk as they lost water, and potential alcohol levels began to rise quickly. Many growers noted that the wind had the effect of concentrating the sugars and the acids. And the cool night-time temperatures also had the effect of preserving the malic acidity in the grapes.

Most estates started harvesting their chardonnay between September 22 and 28, and most finished during the first week of October, if not earlier. Some started on the late side, then picked very quickly. As Jean-Marc Pillot put it, “on the 26th the labs were telling us to finish picking quickly because the sugars were rising too fast.” Nadine Gublin, consulting winemaker at Domaine Jacques Prieur, told me that some chardonnay parcels weren’t ripe on September 23 but were too ripe by October 1, with levels of noble rot and sugars rising quickly.

The raw material and the vinifications. In the end, most of the producers on my late spring tour claimed to have harvested their chardonnay crus with potential alcohol in the 13% to 13.5% range (generally at least a half-degree higher than in 2007). Some cited numbers a half-degree lower, and a few were even higher, especially for their grand crus. There were a few exceptions: for example, Arnaud Ente, who routinely picks on the early side, reported grape sugars between 12 and 12.2%, or a hair lower than in 2007. Most of the vignerons I visited told me they did little or no chaptalization of chardonnay in ’08.

While some growers told me their fruit was healthy, others admitted having carried out a severe selection to eliminate rotten grapes. On the other hand, many intentionally kept some fruit affected by noble rot, which can add a glyceral texture and personality to chardonnay. (By many accounts, Chassagne as a village experienced less rot, the north side of Puligny and the south side of Meursault more.) Ultimate production levels were generally below the average of recent years, and often 15% to 30% lower than those of ’07 due to the need for strict selection. Some later pickers lost a significant percentage of their volume as the grapes concentrated via evaporation of water. Low yields are certainly one of the chief reasons for optimism about the future of the 2008 whites.

Some winemakers carried out a stricter débourbage than usual because they had less confidence in the quality of the grape skins and lees. By doing a longer settling of the must following the pressing, they fermented with cleaner juice and began their élevage with only the finer lees. Some then did their normal batonnage, or stirring of the lees, while others mostly avoided this practice. Some producers reported that the sugar fermentations went quickly, but in other cellars the process was longer and more difficult. (Even at the beginning of June, a few wines still had a bit of remaining sugar to ferment.)

Due to the generally high levels of malic acidity in the grapes, to less-than-perfect lees, and to colder-than-normal cellar temperatures during a long, cold winter, the malolactic fermentations generally began late and proceeded slowly. For the past 20 years or so, I’ve been sampling the new white Burgundy vintage during the last few days of May and early June, and I have seldom encountered so many wines that had not yet completed their malolactic fermentations—some had barely started. Needless to say, this made tasting this spring an adventure. In a few cellars, virtually no ’08s were ready to be tasted; in others I decided to hold off on publishing notes because it was simply too early to get an accurate handle on the wines. Even wines that had finished their malos were often in a disjointed state, with their strong acid impression and sweetness of fruit requiring further élevage to harmonize.

An early impression of the wines. As to the style of the wines themselves, most growers say that acidity levels are similar to those of 2007 but that one feels the acidity less because the wines possess more buffering richness and sweeter fruit. Some of this volume may be due to a percentage of very ripe, pink grapes, some of them affected by noble rot, which can have the effect of masking any aggressive acidity. Some growers told me they eliminated the dry rot and kept the noble rot. But of course this is as much an art as a science, the kind of labor-intensive activity that would have been far easier to carry out successfully during a leisurely harvest.

There’s an impressiveness about the 2008s in many cellars. Some producers described them as “dramatic.” Others felt the 2008s had outstanding inherent richness and potential but needed to be refined through further élevage. The best of these wines are sweet and sexy and nicely reflective of their sites. Some wines show a level of concentration reminiscent of the 2006s but with less of that vintage’s exotic aspect. But there were also wines that showed some evidence of surmaturité.

The key question with the 2008s is whether they will stay fresh. Will these wines be best for near-term drinking or will they stand the test of time? White Burgundy doesn’t yet come with a label warning against the possibility of premature oxidation, but neither does it come with any guarantees. As much as I liked many of the wines I tasted from barrel, I would be remiss if I didn’t raise a few warning flags.

First, there is evidence that wines that begin in barrel with very clear juice can be more vulnerable to premature oxidation. Many students of premox believe that the lees give the wines a measure of protection while the wines are aging in barrel, but of course this protection can be lost if the lees are stirred too much and the carbon dioxide is dissipated, or if insufficient SO2 is used. Prior to the days when gentler pneumatic presses came into vogue (a development that roughly corresponds to the beginning of the dreaded premox problems in the mid-‘90s), the chardonnay juice routinely went into barrel “dirtier”—i.e., with a higher percentage of its solids.

Another concern: Philippe Prost, winemaker at Bouchard, noted that there could have been aldehyde problems at the end of the fermentations, especially in instances where the alcoholic fermentations went quickly but then the malos were very slow to start. Prost, incidentally, reported that the north wind in 2008 brought a concentration of both malic and the stabler tartaric acidity, yet some of his colleagues told me that their 2008s are high in acidity but surprisingly high in pH as well. This latter phenomenon might have something to do with imperfect skins. Julien Desplans, the young enologist who works with Jean-Marie Guffens at Verget, believes that later picking in ’08 allowed more of the malic acidity to burn off and thereby resulted in stabler acidity in the post-malo wines. On the other hand, he wondered out loud whether the longer malos in ’08 will increase the likelihood that the wines will oxidize prematurely, as may have been the case with numerous ’96s that were rushed into bottle.

Although few growers consider their 2008s to be fragile wines (some said exactly the opposite), one of my greatest concerns is that too many producers, especially those in Chassagne-Montrachet where the habit is to bottle before the following harvest, will have no choice but to bottle their ’08s prior to the ’09 vintage even in cases where the malos lasted into June or beyond. Normally, wines need more time after the malos to stabilize prior to bottling; otherwise, the sulfur dioxide added at the bottling can be quickly absorbed, leaving the wines vulnerable to oxidation. There is plenty of reason to believe that wines that get a longer élevage, whether exclusively in barrel or in barrel followed by tank, are less likely to oxidize prematurely—assuming, of course, that their makers take steps to protect the wines at every step of the process.

As a rule, the 2008s should be harmonious early, due to their fleshiness and sweetness of fruit. Many wines are surprisingly vibrant and true to their sites, and show solid acid structures, impressive fruit and noteworthy concentration and density. Many of my early notes are quite positive, and I am optimistic that a good percentage of the finished wines will merit ratings at the high end of my projected ranges. There will be some very rich and sexy wines from the 2008 vintage, but consumers should probably not be buying these wines to bury deep in their cellars. I will have more to say about their likely aging curves when I taste these wines in finished form. Again, the wines were particularly tricky to taste in early June, and many were not yet in a proper condition to assess.

Another look at 2007. This is a classic white Burgundy vintage made from an upside-down growing season in which April was literally the warmest month. The year began with a very early flowering thanks to record heat in April, and a cool and fairly dismal summer followed. Most of the best growers picked their chardonnay in warm, dry weather during the first half of September—quite early, but not as early as the mid-May flowering would have predicted. The wines from the better makers show noteworthy transparency to terroir. Those who harvested relatively late often brought in thoroughly ripe fruit with healthy acidity levels and no obvious signs of overripeness. The skins of the chardonnay grapes in ’07 were mostly in good shape, in spite of wet, cool weather in June and July.

The 2007s are characterized by fresh citrus and white stone fruit aromas, plenty of minerality and floral lift, and good levels of acidity. Many are like fleshier versions of the 2004s, which sounds like a near-perfect formula for white Burgundy to this taster. Although I think of the typical style of 2007 as being pure, focused, minerally and racy, in fact there’s a creaminess without heaviness or other exoticism to many of the wines that buffers their acidity and gives them great early appeal. So please forgive my tendency to refer to the former style as the classic 2007 character. This is true in theory, but in the mouth there are many lovely 2007s with noteworthy generosity of texture. Incidentally, a number of producers told me that the wines were very awkward in the early going, and benefited tremendously from a longer élevage.

Relatively few 2007s need to be laid down for five years, but there are some impressive though tightly wound wines that really should be held and are likely to age gracefully in bottle for 12 to 15 years or more. Still, the overwhelming majority of these wines will probably be best over the next 8 to 10 years. Of course, there are plenty of disappointments in 2007 as well. Many vines were picked too early, and where yields were excessive there are many dilute, dry wines with screechy acidity and distinctly green flavors. These skinnier wines will never blossom in bottle because they’re simply not concentrated or ripe enough.

On the following pages are brief producer profiles and tasting notes on the 2008s and 2007s, based on my visit to Burgundy in late May and early June, 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.