2009 Red Burgundy

The 2009 red Burgundies are the wines most Americans thought they were getting when they paid through the nose to snag the much-hyped 2005s four years ago. After all, unless consumers had carefully read in-depth early reports on the 2005s in publications like this one—as opposed to making a Pavlovian response to raves about the vintage that began literally before the grapes were picked—they were likely to have assumed that a warm, sunny growing season had produced fleshy, fruity wines with great richness and sex appeal.

Don’t get me wrong: I am still confident that 2005 is one of the greatest red Burgundy vintages of my professional lifetime and will be uncommonly long-lived. But due to the firm acidity of the vintage and the grapes’ thick, tannin-rich skins (plus an element of drought stress in many spots), the wines are mostly tough going today, and still require extended aging. They are not wines to open on a whim, and those who bought them expecting early pleasure will be disappointed. Two thousand nine, on the other hand, is a splendid and alluring vintage from the get-go. These wines are more heterogeneous in style than the 2005s, and less powerfully structured as a rule, but the majority of wines from the top producers I visit every year should provide pleasure to their lucky owners pretty much throughout their lives in bottle.

The 2009 growing season and harvest. April and May were generally warm months, leading to a fairly early start to the flowering. But a cooler spell during the first third of June drew out the flowering in normally tardy sites and resulted in a good bit of millerandage, which would later give the wines an extra measure of creaminess and sweetness of fruit. The flowering was largely successful, though, setting the stage for a full crop, and a summer without vine stress maintained full crop levels, except where growers took active steps to reduce their yields. Many growers battled oidium and mildew during May and June, but by harvest-time those earlier challenges were mostly forgotten.

A very heavy period of rain around the Bastille Day holiday in mid-July had a meaningful effect on the ultimate style of the wines, according to numerous producers I visited in November. While the rainfall provided good water reserves to carry the vines through the second half of the summer, it also increased the amount of juice in the grapes and could have resulted in less-thick grape skins. The resulting wines, said a number of winemakers, were frequently silkier and more aromatic, with less tension than they might otherwise have had. In the more water-stressed summer of 2005, in contrast, tougher grape skins and smaller berries resulted in a very different balance and more obviously tannic wines.

After mid-July the weather was mostly warm and dry, but a nearly two-week-long heat wave beginning in the middle of August triggered the veraison, caused some loss of malic acidity in the grapes and sent sugars climbing. At this point the skins began to thicken up, and the fruit concentrated through evaporation of water. After more moderate temperatures at the end of August and beginning of September, warm weather returned and grape sugars began to skyrocket. Some growers may have been fooled by high potential alcohol readings into picking before they had true phenolic maturity. But those with heavy crop levels often faced the choice of picking fruit with high sugars and incomplete skin ripeness or waiting longer and bringing in fruit with low acidity and distinct aromas of surmaturité. I tasted numerous moderately concentrated 2009s that seemed quite open-knit already and will be best suited for early drinking.

Other growers, including some on the Côte de Beaune who began with their chardonnay, may have waited a little too long to begin picking pinot noir, as grape sugars climbed especially quickly during the second and third week of September, and thus they faced the risk of getting jammy fruit and loss of acidity. Plenty of estates made the full allowable crop levels yet still brought in thoroughly ripe fruit. But the wines in some cellars show distinctly liqueur-like fruit aromas and pronounced chocolatey character, while still others betray their high alcohol levels in their somewhat aggressive finishes. A lot of these superripe wines struck me as quite New World in style, which is not to say that most folks won’t get great pleasure from drinking them in their youth. But in these wines the warm vintage character, and the ripe pinot fruit, generally dominate terroir character. As a rule, they do not appear to have a hidden dimension that will emerge with time in bottle.

Once they started, most estates picked in a rush, and numerous growers told me they wished they could have hired additional pickers and brought in certain sites a couple days earlier. There was a bit of rainfall on the 10th, and some more on the 19th, but harvest conditions were quite favorable and warm through the peak period of picking. Sugar levels were generally high, and acidity levels lower than average. By many accounts, the 2009s have high polyphenol levels, but during my cellar visits in November the tannins, even where substantial, were on the whole well buffered by the wines’ sheer stuffing. In terms of the early balance of the ’09 reds, I had more of an issue with wines that had not yet absorbed their new oak element; this is not atypical for a low-acid vintage.

The growers weigh in. When asked to compare 2009 to past vintages, growers mentioned years like 2005, 1999, 1990, 1985, as well as much older vintages like 1969, 1964, 1959 and 1949. But virtually everyone who mentioned 2005 was confident that the 2009s would be much more user-friendly wines, more glossy and refined in their youth. In a number of cellars I imagined a blend of 1999 and 1985. I won’t compare 2009 to the earlier vintages because although I’ve tasted more than my share of these wines over the past 30 years, I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing a few dozen well-stored bottles from one of those vintages lined up in front of me.

The comments by the growers are particularly interesting on the subject of 2009. Some believe that 2009 is flat-out great: that the best wines are minerally, aromatic, elegantly styled, true to their vineyards, and built for a long and glorious evolution in bottle. Others make no claims for immortality, describing 2009 instead as a very good and appealing vintage from rot-free fruit that will give much pleasure over the next 10 to 15 years. Numerous winemakers pointed out various shortcomings: low acidity, high pH, lack of real tension, distinct evidence of surmaturité. Even assuming that they are only describing their own wines, their comments as a group give strong evidence of the heterogeneity of this fascinating vintage. Some winemakers clearly prefer their 2008s.

I should belabor the obvious, once again: My visits are generally limited to elite producers who represent the tip of quality iceberg in Burgundy—the top 10% to 20% of the hierarchy. Many, many additional growers, as well as quantity-oriented négociants, made even more exaggerated wines in 2009: dilute and diffuse owing to excessive crop levels, or simply too roasted and high in octane to convey any site specificity.

The tiny millerandé grapes, which typically release their sugars only toward the end of the fermentations, gave an extra boost to sugar levels, with the result that some growers were surprised at how high in alcohol their wines turned out. (Of course, others chaptalized lightly with the objective of drawing out their fermentations.) The date of the malos was often important. The cellars remained warm through the fall, and with low levels of malic acidity in the grapes, the secondary fermentations often began quite early. Where malos finished by the end of 2009, the wines will probably require earlier bottling, and early-malo wines that were not sufficiently protected by their lees or by added sulfur in barrel frequently seemed a bit too evolved in November, or relatively high in volatile acidity.

The vintage at its best. The young 2009s range dramatically in style and quality. The best are wonderfully silky, scented pinots, fully ripe but not roasted, with a rare level of fleshiness and compelling sweetness of fruit. I love their surprisingly fresh red fruit character. They will likely be delicious on release, but they also appear to possess the stuffing and phenolic ripeness for at least mid-term aging. The greatest among them have the concentration of phenolic material and balance to surprise with their longevity. Veteran winemaking consultant Bernard Hervet, now working his magic at Domaine Faiveley, compared the 2009s to the 1959s, many of which are still full of life today. “In 1961 La Revue du Vin de France said ‘don’t buy the ’59s’ due to the high yields of the vintage and their high pHs,” Hervet told me. “They said that the wines wouldn’t be able to age for a long time. But the backbone of a wine is its balance.”

Although some growers disagree, I suspect that owing to their sheer mass of phenolic material, many of the richest 2009s will shut down at some stage. But they are so sweet now, and their tannins and acids so well supported by mid-palate richness, that it’s hard to believe they will ever be as sullen as so many 2005s are today.

Actually, it was possible to make outstanding wine virtually up and down the Côte d’Or in 2009. At various points during my November tour, I was struck by the quality from appellations like Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Corton, Volnay and Pommard. The late May hail that hit the Gevrey/Morey border may have affected the ripening curve of some wines made in this area, but others benefited from smaller crop levels and longer hang time. One of the vintage’s few potential problem spots for me was lower-altitude sites in Chambolle-Musigny—mostly village parcels but also some premier crus—from which I tasted a number of very ripe, chocolatey wines that did not have their usual energy or lightness of touch. On the other hand, some vineyards and appellations with a tendency to yield austere wines have made unusually pliant and satisfying wines in 2009: whether it’s relatively cool sites like Chambertin and Clos Vougeot or entire villages like Aloxe-Corton and Nuits-Saint-Georges.

The year is potentially great in the Côte de Beaune. As more than one grower pointed out, 2009 is one of those rare vintages where the finest examples from the Côte de Beaune can be mistaken for their counterparts from the Côte de Nuits. I certainly tasted some sensational Volnays. The texture and depth of fruit of the best 2009s are truly exhilarating. But only a minority of these wines have the ineffable treble notes (the wild spices and herbs, the delicate floral perfume, the high-pitched mineral nuances) that so few pinot noirs made outside Burgundy can offer, and the rest are not suddenly going to develop these elements with bottle age. By the way, this is exactly the aspect I love about the most successful 2008s, which are more classic, laid-back Burgundies and can be spectacularly scented and complex, while possessing tightly coiled springs for aging. I will offer more detailed impressions on the finished 2008s in the next issue, along with a slew of tasting notes, but for now I would simply say that in a number of the cellars I visited, I preferred the 2008s, especially at the premier and grand cru level. I suspect experienced Burgundy drinkers will also consider 2008 to be a much more traditional style of vintage, but the better 2009s are knockouts of a different stripe. Even where I preferred the style of the 2008s, it was hard not to be seduced by the sheer hedonistic pleasure of the top 2009s.

The bad news on pricing. Few producers I met with in November planned to raise their cellar-door prices on 2009 reds more than 10%, although they may now be tempted to be more aggressive because of the very small size of the 2010 crop. Strong worldwide demand for the ’09s (often by collectors in markets new to Burgundy) will no doubt tempt American importers, wholesalers and retailers to take larger mark-ups along the way, especially in cases where their allocations have been reduced. It’s hard to blame them, as they have struggled to make any kind of real money with the prior three vintages of red Burgundy, many of these wines having eventually been dumped at little or no profit. And the weak dollar hasn’t exactly helped the pricing situation for American winos. So the wines will be expensive. The bottom line is that 2009 red Burgundy will be a rich person’s game. (Note that only a few importers had released their 2009 pricing when this issue went to press.)

Meanwhile, many 2008s sit unloved on the shelves; the best of them represent a very good buying opportunity for true Burgundy lovers who are not obsessed with the so-called “collectible” vintages. Prices may yet be cut to make room for the 2009s. Of course, there are also plenty of underripe, undernourished wines that will not go anywhere good in bottle, so selection will be critical. Later this winter many of the 2008s will still be available—perhaps at prices as much as 40% to 60% lower than their 2009 siblings.