2010 Red Burgundies

Two thousand ten is a superb modern version of a classic red Burgundy vintage.  This year I tasted more potentially outstanding red wines than on any past tour of the region--and I've been making the same November trip every year dating back to 1988.  As always, I should make it clear that I limit my cellar visits to the best addresses, so I can't pretend to speak knowledgeably about the Cote d'Or's lesser lights.  But at the level of the top producers, this year's pilgrimage was a display of liquid fireworks.

In Burgundy, virtually every wine merchant, wine critic and sommelier I ran into expressed their love for the 2010 vintage.  And it was clear to me that a solid majority of producers preferred their 2010s to the 2009s, including many who had harbored doubts about the new vintage at the outset, owing to an irregular flowering, a mediocre summer and a chilly harvest interrupted by rain.

Among the comments I heard from producers in November:   "Like 2008 but with more flesh and riper tannins.  "Taut, aromatically complex and very pure."   "All about elegance."  "Wonderfully expressive of their terroir."  "A very rare combination of low yields and great finesse."  "A near-perfect balance of fruit, acidity and ripe tannins."  Winemakers compared the 2010s to winning years such as 2008, 2002, 2001, 1993, 1985, 1978 and even 1962.  Or, I should say, they noted that the 2010s shared certain elements of those earlier vintages, but emphasized that 2010 was not really a close match to any of them.  There's something unique and rare about wines made from tiny, thick-skinned berries that have neither overripe aromas nor forbidding tannins.

The 2010 growing season and harvest.  The key to the quality of the vintage was the very small size of the crop, which was generally down 20% to 50% from 2009 levels depending on the site.  The tiny crop size was largely due to two weather events.  The first was a sharp and severe frost on the night of December 20, 2009, during which temperatures plunged as low as 10 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) on the northern Cote de Nuits.  As the frost occurred before the vines had gone dormant for the winter, many low-lying vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin suffered severe damage (including many of the same vines that had to be replanted following the brutal cold spell of 1985).  Vineyards were also hit in Morey-Saint-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne-Romanee and Premeaux. 

Even the grand cru Clos Vougeot was affected, especially the lower reaches of this clos, where cold air tends to settle.  Many growers complain that the local authorities have repeatedly built up the Route Nationale to prevent flooding, in the process deepening the swale at the bottom of the vineyard where air movement is limited.  Those vines that weren't destroyed by frost tended to produce very little crop.

Temperatures did not descend quite as far on the Cote de Beaune and the damage to vines here was generally less severe, although some estates reported losing vines in low-lying spots.

January and February were then colder and snowier than usual, but March and April brought pleasant early spring weather, with healthy levels of rainfall.  May was variable, with some warm spells but little in the way of sustained sunshine, delaying the development of the vegetation and pushing back the flowering.

The second important weather event was a period of very cool, rainy weather during the flowering in mid-June, which resulted in considerable coulure (a.k.a. shatter: when the vine's flowers do not pollinate or tiny berries fall off the vine soon after they form)  and millerandage (a range of berry size on the same clusters, including undersized, "shot" berries).  The drawn-out flowering also led to a wide range of ripeness among vines, among clusters, and even among berries in the same cluster.  If growers did not attempt to shrink these differences later on by doing a green harvest (and many did not, as they were reluctant to sacrifice even more grapes when the crop already looked so small), then the elimination of underripe berries at harvest-time would be especially important.

Following three weeks of warm, dry weather from June 23 through July 12, the weather turned quite variable, with stormy periods creating conditions conducive to mildew and botrytis.  Some cooler spells in August delayed the ripening of the grapes and the veraison took place in the middle of the month, a couple weeks later than average.  But the cooler August weather also limited the spread of rot.  There was a significant rain event on September 8 (and a violent hailstorm centered on Santenay on September 10 that barely touched the Cote north of Beaune), then cool but mostly dry weather took over during the run-up to the harvest, which began for most estates between September 21 and 27.

Many growers brought in some of their best parcels before significant rain fell on the night of September 24, but others may have begun to harvest too early.  The next several days were then chilly and mostly cloudy, more like early November than late September, with morning temperatures on the 28th and 29th dropping into the upper 30s.  Most growers insisted that the grapes did not swell in the days after the rains, especially where older vines have deeper root systems.  And as the vines had not been stressed for water, they were not desperate for a drink.

The total sunshine hours and average temperatures of the 2010 growing season could not have ripened a normal crop load.  But the well-aerated clusters and the small size of the berries enabled the grapes generally to withstand rot pressures and to reach healthy levels of sugar and phenolic ripeness.  Producers who practiced a strict sorting at the time of harvest were as likely to have eliminated underripe berries as rotten ones.

While the harvest typically starts three to seven days earlier on the Cote de Beaune than on the Cote de Nuits--less of a difference than a generation ago--that was not always the case in 2010.  At least one grower told me that the ripening cycle on the Cote de Beaune was more affected by precipitation in July, August and early September, and that it was necessary to let the fruit hang.

The vinification and the style of the wines.  Small millerande berries generally develop a high skin-to-juice ratio and release their sugars slowly during the fermentation.  They also contain fewer seeds, which is one reason they lead to dense wines with creamy textures.  (It's no exaggeration to say that the great majority of the vintage's most exciting wines come from vines with a very high percentage of grapes affected by millerandage.)  Still, a number of winemakers were especially careful about extractive vinification techniques because they were not convinced that the seeds that were there were totally ripe and they wanted to avoid making wines with a bitter edge.

Chilly conditions in the cellars often delayed the onset of the fermentations and allowed many winemakers to do longer cold macerations than usual.  Extraction of color was easy, by most reports.  Many producers practiced gentler-than-normal vinifications, cutting back on the number of pigeages (punch-downs of the cap) to do a softer extraction owing to the sheer mass of grape skins.  Many were reluctant to do much vendange entier (vinification with whole clusters), but others were convinced that this approach added another element of aromatic complexity and structure to their wines.

Due to the fact that the cellars had already cooled down by the end of September, and as most wines started with healthy levels of malic acidity, the malolactic fermentations typically occurred late, with the wines in many cellars not finishing until late summer.  Many 2010s had not yet been racked at the time of my visit, and they often showed reductiveness that made them tricky to taste.  As a general rule, I have not offered detailed notes on the wines that had not finished, or nearly completed, their secondary fermentations.

As there were no extended periods of extreme heat during the growing season, there's a fresh, sappy quality to the fruit in the 2010s, which tends to be pungent and red rather than brooding and black.  All the aromatic high notes of minerals, flowers and spices are there to give the wines lift and perfume, with deeper-pitched soil tones contributing complexity without overshadowing the wines' brilliant fruit.  But there's also terrific density of material and inner-mouth tension, intensity of flavor and silkiness of texture without any impression of undue weight.  The wines of the better producers are vibrant and beautifully balanced.  They dance on the palate.

Many of the 2010s show distinctive piquant red berry notes of of pomegranate and cranberry, and exotic spices like cardamom, coriander and ginger.  Where the wines show herbal elements, these are more likely to be suggestive of summer garrigue (fresh rosemary, thyme and lavender) or botanical herbs than of black pepper or green vegetables.

At their best, the 2010 reds offer compellingly fresh and complex aromatics and site character; silky but sharply delineated palates; and suave, long, gripping finishes featuring firm but harmonious tannins.  I think of them as denser, slightly riper versions of the '08s, with nobler tannins.  Even the minority of wines that are not lower in acidity than the 2008s taste that way owing to their pliant textures, sweetness of fruit and smooth tannins.  In their aromatic complexity, energy, intensity and clarity of flavor, transparency to soil, and overall balance, the 2010s are among the most exciting red Burgundies of my professional lifetime. 

Although many wines will be approachable early owing to their complex aromatics, sappy fruit character and smooth, fine-grained tannins, the better 2010s appear to have the balance and extract to evolve slowly and last very well in bottle.  Again, 2010 is the rare vintage whose equilibrium has not been knocked askew by the tiny size of the crop.

It's tempting to say that the Cote de Nuits outperformed the Cote de Beaune, but I should note that from the outset a number of growers on the Cote de Beaune thought they had made some of their best wines ever in 2010.  I tasted some brilliant Volnays, and plenty of Beaune wines that are less rustic than usual.  The low crop levels in Corton helped the grand crus.

On the Cote de Nuits, normally warm sites benefited from the cooler, slower ripening, while some cooler spots managed to produce wines with unusually refined tannins.  Of course, Cote de Nuits vines in flat, low spots were the most likely to have produced very short crops, and some of these wines were knocked off balance by the lingering effects of of the December '09 frost.

The bad news on pricing.  With the potentially huge Chinese market having recently begun to shift some of its buying enthusiasm from Bordeaux to Burgundy, it is quite possible that worldwide demand will outstrip supply for the 2010s from high-quality smaller estates.  Even in traditional Burgundy markets like the U.S. and U.K., there is no shortage today of collectors seeking the finest Burgundies for their cellars.  And a limited crop in 2011 is continuing to exert pressure on pricing.  In November, very few producers were planning to offer their 2010s at lower prices than their 2009s a year ago, and many were expecting to raise prices by 5% to 20%.  They may be in a more aggressive mood today, especially in light of the recent strength of the U.S. dollar.  Bottom line:  the 2010s will be expensive.  Worse still, due to the scarcity of the best wines, unless we find ourselves in a worldwide deflationary depression in the near future, this vintage may present long-time Burgundy lovers with their last chance to purchase outstanding bottles at anything resembling affordable prices.

The 2009s in the bottle.  The early hype on the 2009s overstated the consistency of this vintage.  Yes, there are many amazingly rich, fleshy wines that avoid obvious signs of overripeness and have the stuffing to age well.  But many of the best wines are already sold out in this country, and prices around the world are very high for what's left.  I would strongly urge lovers of more classic, somewhat cooler-year Burgundies to focus their attention on the better 2010s now and forget the 2009s for the time being.  I will offer extensive coverage of the 2009 reds in the next issue of the IWC.  I tasted hundreds of these wines in the cellars in November and will follow up in the coming weeks by tasting--or retasting--many more wines chez moi.  It's a dirty job (all those wine stains) but someone's got to do it.