2011 Red Burgundies

As there are now essentially only two types of vintages in Burgundy and Bordeaux--"vintage of the century" and "better than expected"--that would put the 2011 red wines of Burgundy in the latter category.  But such a characterization would be selling this charming vintage short.  And it would reveal nothing about the crazy shape of the growing season, in which summer and spring virtually traded places.  Two thousand eleven, as summarized by Faiveley CEO/Advisor Bernard Hervet, is a very rare vintage that combines the low grape sugars and freshness of a cold year with an unusually early harvest.

As I learned on my annual red Burgundy tour--my 25th consecutive November trip to taste the region's red wines--this wild growing season has produced aromatically expressive, medium-bodied wines with modest alcohol levels, enticing fresh fruit, mostly smooth and ripe tannins and an early harmony of elements that will give them great immediate appeal as well as the balance for mid-term aging.  If they do not generally have the sheer mineral drive, inner-mouth tension or potential longevity of the classic, terroir-driven 2010s (notes on the finished '10s will be published in the next issue), few Burgundies do.  But unless you have the patience--and the ideal cellar conditions--to sock away your wines for a decade or more, the 2011s may provide more pleasure over the next ten years, even if the better examples will go on for two decades or more.  The 2010s are for serious collectors; the 2011s are for everyone with a fat wallet.

Perhaps most remarkable of all is that, as good as the 2011 vintage is, it would have been a disaster a generation ago, when relatively few estates could afford labor-intensive vineyard work, yields were routinely much higher, and winemaking equipment and techniques were harder on the raw materials.  In fact, many growers expressed the opinion that the small size of the 2011 crop saved the vintage.

The growing season in brief.  As I noted in my comments accompanying my coverage of the 2011 white Burgundies in Issue 164, the vegetative cycle got off to a very fast and early start with freakishly warm and dry weather from March through late May.  The flowering was extremely early and took place quickly, but a couple days of damp weather in the middle of this period resulted in widespread coulure (grape shatter), and millerandage (shot berries) further reduced potential crop levels in some sites.  In fact, for the first time since I began visiting the region in the late '80s the flowering was well over by the time I arrived in Burgundy for my late-May tastings of the white wines.

The weather pattern changed dramatically on the last day of May.  Cooler and stormier conditions ensued, and June was mostly cool apart from a sharp two-day heat spike near the end of the month that brought some hydric stress and burned some berries.  The weather through mid-August continued mostly dreary, featuring frequent rainy spells and mostly cooler-than-average temperatures that slowed down the ripening process, which had been up to three weeks ahead of normal schedule.  Many growers reported that the veraison in July was drawn out by the mediocre weather conditions.

Through most of the summer the Côte de Beaune received more precipitation than the Côte de Nuits, as well as some isolated hail storms.  Yves Confuron, who makes wine at Domaine de Courcel as well as at his family's estate, Domaine Confuron-Cotetitot, told me that more than eight inches of rain fell on Pommard between July 7 and August 12.  And with warmer winds occasionally blowing from the south between rain events, the rot started to take hold by the beginning of August.

Outbreaks of rot and mildew were widespread, requiring vigilance in the vines.  Botrytis pressures were exacerbated by hot, stormy weather during the second half of August, especially on the 26th.  With damp mornings and hot afternoons, previously healthy grape skins often became more fragile.  Grapes were approaching full maturity and the vines, by most reports, were nearing the end of their vegetative cycle.  More storms at this point could have led to runaway rot.

The pinot harvest of 2011.  Many producers picked quite early, before rot became well-established and acidity levels fell.  By early September the foliage that had been degraded by mildew during the summer was no longer helping to ripen the grapes.  The vegetative cycle, according to most producers I visited in November, was essentially over by the end of August or first few days of September.  By the first of September the leaves in many sites were turning yellow and becoming useless as sugar factories for the grapes.  Those growers who had not successfully protected their vines against mildew during July and August were more likely to have had difficulties with the foliage and greater problems ripening their grapes.  There was little to gain by letting the fruit hang, noted several producers, as the ripening of the skins had essentially ended, and there was risk of spreading rot and falling acidity.  Where sugar levels in the grapes were still climbing, it was more likely to be simply from evaporation of water than a matter of increasing phenolic ripeness.

At the level of the top domains I visit every November, the harvest typically began during the last days of August on the Cote de Beaune, and during the first few days of September on the Cote de Nuits.  Following significant rainfall on the evening of August 26, which was more of an issue on the Cote de Beaune than farther to the north, there was also some rainfall on the night of September 4, but precipitation totals were again considerably lower on the Cote de Nuits.  Daytime temperatures remained high through the harvest period, and even the mornings were warm--in sharp contrast to the late-September harvest of 2010, during which morning temperatures dropped into the high 30s.

Careful triage was necessary to eliminate large grapes and underripe berries--as well as grapes affected by rot or dried from earlier hydric stress dating back to the dry spring.  Some growers noted that 2011 witnessed an unusually high ladybug population in the vines and that it was also critical to eliminate the critters that rode in on the grapes.  (Ladybugs release chemical compounds called methoxypyrazines that can introduce an almost bitter green element if a sufficient quantity of them or their secretions find their way into the fermenter.  Some insiders believe that this was a cause of herbaceous notes in some 2004s, but it should be noted that the fruit and skins in 2011 were clearly riper that those of the earlier vintage.)

Interestingly, a number of growers reminded me that the weather forecasts at the beginning of September were quite pessimistic, calling for significant rainfall over the following two weeks.  In the end, the period remained mostly dry.  But many growers rushed to pick for fear that serious rainfall would trigger wider rot problems and dilute the fruit.
Vinification of the 2011s.  The early date of the harvest and very warm ambient conditions required growers to chill their grapes and carefully control temperatures in their wineries, but in many cellars extended pre-fermentation cold soaks were impossible to do as the alcoholic fermentations began quickly.  By most reports, the fermentations went easily and quickly, and colors were easy to extract.  

As the wines were relatively low in malic acidity and the cellars were warmer than usual, the secondary fermentations frequently began early too, in contrast to 2010, when the fruit was picked in much cooler conditions and the malos often did not even begin until the following spring.  In many cellars, the 2011 malolactic fermentations finished by Christmas.  But where the beginning of the malos could be forestalled until cellar temperatures declined with the arrival of winter, they frequently did not start until spring and some malos did not finish until August or September.

Growers were distinctly split on the value of vendange entier (vinifying with whole clusters) in 2011.  Some felt that the inclusion of at least a portion of the stems would give the wines a much-needed aromatic and structural component.  But others were concerned about incomplete ripeness of the stems or worried that the stems were affected by mildew that was virtually invisible to the eye.  (By the way, it's tempting to say that whole-cluster fermentation is coming back into vogue today, but there are also numerous high-visibility estates that have been cutting back on their use of stems in recent vintages.)

Fears of imperfect skins and stems and underripe tannins also motivated many winemakers to cut back on extraction during fermentation.  Some considered the vintage to be on the delicate side and did not want to overextract or throw their wines off balance.  Others worried about getting peppery, dry tannins.  While the general trend in Burgundy continues to be in the direction of gentler extraction--in particular, less frequent and less physical punching down of the cap (pigeage)--in 2011 most winemakers were especially protective of their fruit.  Most also chaptalized with a light hand, even when grape sugars came in under 12%, as they wanted to protect the vintage's purity of fruit and terroir character and protect the natural balance of the wines.

The style of the 2011s.  In spite of the upside-down growing season, the wines themselves are very good and frequently outstanding, though not as consistent as some early fans of the vintage would like to think.  Generally speaking, the vintage has great charm.  As a rule, fruit aromas are more red than black, but there are important exceptions.  Textures are supple and tannins are mostly ripe and smooth.  Acidity levels are average, and generally down from those of 2010, but the aromas and flavors retain good freshness.  There's generally enough stable tartaric acidity to give the fruit a crunchy character.  

At the level of the producers I visit, the grape skins achieved good levels of phenolic maturity in 2011 and the tannins are ripe and pliant.  For this reason, very few wines will really be tough in the early going, even those that have the concentration and balance for solid mid-term aging (say 8 to 12 years for village wines, 10 to 15 for premier crus and 12 to 20 or more for grand crus).  It is entirely possible that the vintage's better examples will surprise with their longevity, but I prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to burying young Burgundies in my cellar.

It was clear from my tastings that weather conditions favored the Cote de Nuits.  Although there are some major successes on the Cote de Beaune, the fruit here was not usually as pristine, as rain totals were higher during the summer (especially in August) and rot was more of an issue by early September.  A number of top Cote de Beaune estates, though, managed to make wonderfully pure, fruit-driven wines.

In some ways, 2011 resembles the most successful vintages of a generation ago, with the grapes reaching sound phenolic maturity at modest sugar levels.  Most growers will bottle their 2011s with 0.5 to 1.0 degree less alcohol than in recent years--and that's after some chaptalization (typically 0.5 to 1.0).  It's also after the elimination of obviously underripe berries, a step that of course had the effect of raising the average potential alcohol level of the rest.  

The 2011 vintage has also broken the recent pattern of minerally, brisk wines in even-numbered years and richer, less taut wines in odd-numbered vintages.  As in 2010 (and, apparently, again in 2012), relatively few 2011s show cooked aromas or the effects of overripeness, and that's one of the reasons, in this taster's opinion, for the vintage's considerable appeal and bright future.  The better examples show classic Burgundy perfume of red fruits, flowers, minerals and soil, and compelling precision in the mouth.

On the other hand, it's difficult to generalize about the style of 2011s.  Many growers who harvested on the late side have made wines with a distinctly chocolatey, jammy or spicy aspect or obviously soft acidity.  These latter wines will be best for early drinking, and fans of higher-pitched, more minerally and floral red Burgundies will likely be lukewarm about them.  Although I particularly enjoy the 2011 vintage for its fresh red fruit character (cherry, raspberry, even pomegranate and cranberry), the wines in some cellars tended toward much darker fruits.

I also tasted wines with distinctly herbal or peppery components--sometimes from incomplete ripeness of the skins or pips but in other cases from the inclusion of a stem component that may not have been adequately supported by mid-palate texture and ripeness.  Vines affected by mildew are less capable of nourishing their fruit, and this may also have resulted in some green tastes in the wines due to incomplete ripeness.  Then, of course, there was the issue of ladybugs, which can be hard to detect in the early going.  But at the level of the estates I visited, these issues do not appear to have been significant.

Red Burgundy pricing today. In a nutshell, there is no good pricing news to report.  Crop levels have been lower-than-average for the last three vintages, with 2012 especially sparse.  The top small growers have little wine left in their cellars and their 2010s have been shipped or are spoken for.  Burgundy continues to enjoy strong demand around the world.  Small family domains will have to scramble to supply their loyal customers with 2011s and 2012s.  Most estates have lost the equivalent of a full year's crop over those three vintages.  And in areas of the Cote de Beaune hit hard by damaging hailstorms in 2012, losses have been even greater.  Small domains that live from vintage to vintage are now facing a cash crunch.  In the best-case scenario they may have to delay needed investments in their vineyards and production facilities until they have more wine to sell; in the worst case they may literally have to sell off some of their vineyard holdings to survive.  And all this despite prices for Burgundies being at all-time highs!

Meanwhile, talented winemakers who rely on purchased fruit and barrels of wine each year will be under pricing pressures.  As their suppliers continue to raise prices for their fruit and wine, they will have little alternative but to pass these higher costs along to their clients.