2012 Red Burgundies

For a vintage that produced so many utterly compelling red Burgundies, 2012 could easily have been a disaster.  And it was a financial calamity for many estates on the Cote de Beaune, where crop levels were down anywhere from 30% to 80%--the third of four consecutive years with less fruit than normal.  Winter frost damage, a long rainy spring, a poor flowering, and mildew and oidium lowered the potential size of the crop everywhere on the Cote d'Or, and a series of damaging summer hailstorms made life especially miserable for growers on the Cote de Beaune.  The growing season witnessed nearly every affliction known to Burgundy except for rot, which was largely prevented by the small, well-aerated clusters, thick grape skins and north wind in the weeks leading up the harvest.  

Of course, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger:  the tiny crop was also the key to the high quality and richness of the 2012s, imbuing the wines with outstanding natural concentration--i.e., a concentration that did not throw off the balance of the wines.  The 2012s show a density of texture, usually without heaviness, that is extremely rare for Burgundy.  Had it not been for the poor flowering, the weather conditions of 2012 would probably not have been sufficient to ripen fuller crop loads.

When I visited Burgundy in November of 2012 to taste the '11s and '10s, it was already clear that that year's harvest had produced some exceptional red wines.  But while a number of growers were already raving about the purity and sappy intensity of fruit and the lush tannins of their young 2012s, which had only recently gone into barrel, others were still too bummed out by the difficult growing season and the meager crop to work up much enthusiasm for the new vintage.
You won't have to make excuses for Burgundy's 2012 reds:  when you taste them, you'll know you have something serious in your mouth.  Even chronic overcroppers made unusually concentrated wines.  The poor flowering was even better than green harvesting because it happened early and required no manual labor.  Smart, conscientious growers and winemakers were in the position to make some of the richest and most satisfying wines of their careers.

"The texture of 2012 is Chambolle-Musigny," said Mounir Saouma of Lucien Le Moine, referring to the wines' glossy, silky mouthfeel and velvety tannins.  Dominique Laurent noted that the 2012 reds combine the acidity of a cool year and the tannins of a warm year.  The combination of concentration and finesse--ripe, fully buffered tannins and inner-mouth energy--shown by the better 2012s is rare for the region, and it wasn't always obvious during the vinifications or early weeks of elevage.

On my annual November tour--my 26th without missing a vintage--to taste the 2012s from barrel, more than one grower noted that when you taste the wines today, they are so silky and harmonious that you'd never guess they came from such a difficult growing season.  "We were totally fooled; we did not expect great pinot noir," said Nadine Gublin, winemaker for Domaine Jacques Prieur.

These are superconcentrated, rich wines with plush tannins and sound acidity. While numerous growers--and critics--describe them as transparent to soil, today many of these wines are more easily identifiable by their vintage. They are powerfully fruity and plush, and the terroir character of many of them is partly masked by baby fat in the early going. But it is surely there! For me, the best wines of 2012--and they abound--are those that, for all their early appeal, still have a tightly coiled spring; high-pitched aromas of minerals, spices and flowers; more red than black fruits; and gripping finishes.  And I fully expect many 2012s to display greater refinement during their final months of elevage, as some of their baby fat recedes and their backbone and mineral underpinning become more apparent.

As great as the best wines are, though, 2012 is not outstanding across the board.  Some wines harvested too early show a slight lack of phenolic ripeness that can manifest itself in dry tannins, while those picked too late betray a chocolatey or even roasted quality to their fruit. Then too, many growers found it psychologically difficult to eliminate more grapes at harvest-time as their crop levels were already alarmingly low, so there was always the risk that underripe or sunburned grapes found their way into the fermenters, as well as some with hail taint.  A number of wines struck me as just a bit heavy or too powerful, but that's to a large degree a function of their thickness of texture, sweetness and glossy tannins.  And low crop levels and extreme concentration are more likely to throw chardonnay off balance than pinot.

Some wines from the Cote de Beaune show a hard edge from hail damage, both from direct damage to the grape skins and from problems with the ripening process due to compromised vegetation.  On the other hand, the most successful Cote de Beaune reds of 2012 are remarkably concentrated wines that demand cellaring.  More than one grower noted that in comparison to the best Cote de Beaune wines, those from the Cote de Nuits showed more early charm and drinkability, which represents something of a role reversal for these two areas.

The 2012 growing season.  Readers may want to refer to my earlier introduction to Burgundy's 2012 growing season in my coverage of the region's white wines in Issue 169 for a more detailed description of the weather.  Following a cold, sodden winter, March turned dry and warm, resulting in an early budbreak.  But April, May and June were fairly miserable.  In fact, sporadic rains plagued the next four months, and a period of frost in mid-April affected some vineyards.  It was difficult to conduct necessary vineyard treatments as the breaks in the rain rarely lasted for more than a couple of days.  Under humid conditions, mildew and oidium were widespread and demanded constant vigilance.

But it was the lousy weather during the flowering in June that set the stage for the very small crop.  The flowering was drawn out over nearly four weeks, with heavy showers and especially cool temperatures marking the beginning of the period.  Under poor conditions, there was substantial coulure (poor set, or shatter) and millerandage (shot berries, or "hens and chicks") as well as serious mildew pressure. The older vines were particularly vulnerable to coulure.  Of course, the tiny millerandé berries are usually positive for wine quality owing to their concentration and lower quantities of seeds.  At the end of June, there was a brief heat spike that scorched the young, vulnerable grapes, and there was another similar episode in late July, which occurred just after some estates had pulled leaves in an attempt to aerate their fruit.  But in general this was a cool growing season.

August brought warm weather, although the last serious hailstorm hit the Cote de Beaune on the 2nd and there were more storms in the middle of the month.  As there were ample water reserves in the soil, there was no drought stress in 2012, although the ripening of the fruit was slowed in areas that had been hit by hail.

Clusters were generally small yet well aerated and the millerandé grapes had thick skins, which protected the fruit against botrytis.  So did a north wind during the weeks leading up to the harvest and very cool weather during much of the pinot harvest, which took place mostly during the last ten days of September, sometimes extending into the first week of October.  While temperatures had cooled somewhat as the harvest approached, the weather remained largely dry, with some nippy nights helping to preserve acidity in the grapes.  There was some rain on the 21st and 22nd, just as many growers were getting started, and then substantial rainfall on the night of the 25th and all day on the 26th--two to three inches across much of the region.  However, chilly ambient conditions and the thick skins of the grapes forestalled rot, and most growers maintained that the post-rain fruit was little affected by the precipitation.

Although there was little rot, it was often necessary to eliminate dried grapes and those affected by hail.  The effects of hail ranged widely, as some vineyards had been hit multiple times and others scarcely touched.  In some cases, the loss of foliage had resulted in loss of acidity, while in others the remaining fruit struggled to ripen and acidity levels remained high.  Most producers agree that the hail occurred early enough in the season that the obviously affected berries shriveled up and fell off the vines.  Even the major August 1 storm was followed by dry, windy conditions, which facilitated this process.

The crop, which had been cut sharply by the poor flowering, was eventually down by 20% to 40% in spots that escaped hail to as much as 70% or 80% in sites that were seriously hit.  Many growers cited extremely low estate-wide production numbers.  The worst-affected producers are seriously short on wine in 2012, but red wine producers in Volnay and Pommard are in even worse shape, especially after the catastrophic July 23 hailstorm this past summer.  (Crop levels in 2012 are also off substantially on the Cote de Nuits, but due mostly to the difficult flowering, as hail was not generally an issue farther to the north.)

The vinification of the 2012s.  Potential alcohol levels in the grapes were mostly moderate to good, typically ranging from 12% to 13%.  Some growers chaptalized lightly, mostly to prolong their fermentations, but others did not.  Owing to the high skin-to-juice ratio, many growers opted to extract gently, cutting back on the frequency of pigeages (the punching-down of the cap), and relying more on remontage (pumping over) to keep the cap wet.  Some were hesitant to ferment their wines with a high percentage of whole clusters (vendange entier)  because they already found their wines to have plenty of tannic support.  But just as many others used whole clusters to add structure, verve and a further dimension of aromas and flavors to their wines.  As a rule, the highly concentrated material of 2012 appears to have supported extraction well; similarly, the wines have mostly absorbed their new oak without being thrown off balance.

Some malolactic fermentations finished by Christmas, and these wines will generally require an earlier bottling.  But others did not even begin until late spring or early summer because the cellars remained  colder than usual due to unusually chilly weather that lasted until the beginning of June 2013.  Many wines only finished their malos at the end of the summer and some had recently been racked at the time of my November visit.  Tasting this year was a bit tricky as wines in the same cellar were often at very different stages of their evolution in barrel.  While most growers planned to bottle at their normal times, or even a bit early when the malos finished quickly, a few maintained that the wines were gaining in shape with elevage, and thus they were in no hurry to bottle.

The likely aging curve of the wines.  The 2012s are fuller and much more pliant than the 2010s, which tend to show great inner-mouth tension and less easygoing sweetness.  For me, 2010 is a great millésime du terroir and a potentially very long-lived vintage, while 2012 offers more charm and early appeal.   Very few 2012s will be austere in the early going.  The best examples, though, possess the concentration, balance and verve to evolve slowly and gracefully in bottle over the next 12 to 20 years, with the top grand crus probably capable of lasting another decade or more beyond that.  Their pHs are generally very healthy and they possess good to very good acidity.  It's hard to imagine that these wines will go through an extended sullen stage in bottle, owing to their balance of  ripe tannins, fresh acidity and sheer concentration of fruit.  I suspect that over the next decade the 2012s will give more pleasure than the 2010s, and many Burgundy lovers will prefer them.

The producers are split on the likely aging curve of the 2012s.  Some believe that the wines will give pleasure early and age very well.  As Frederic Mugnier replied when I asked him when to drink the 2012s,  "They will be easy to drink over the next 50 years."  But others currently view the vintage as a mid-term ager, and they question whether the wines have enough structure for the long haul.

Current Burgundy pricing.  With production of Burgundy's family domains limited under even the best conditions, the past four years have been particularly difficult from a financial perspective.  Virtually all producers have lost the equivalent of at least one vintage out of the last four, and on the Cote de Beaune more than one and a half.  It is ironic that the worst financial crisis in decades in the region has been unfolding at a time when the rest of the world, including many new markets, thirsts for Burgundy.  And still another short crop in 2013--brutally short on much of the Cote de Beaune in particular--has continued to exert pressure on Burgundy prices.  On my November tour, in cellars where producers were willing to discuss their likely pricing for the 2012s, I heard everything from "the same as 2011" to 20% or even 30% higher.

Most of the producers who did not plan to take price hikes from 2011 levels had already raised their prices in 2011 or 2010.  But even those who could easily sell their '12s at significantly higher prices are concerned that Burgundy pricing may be reaching unsustainably high levels.  What is clear is that the region needs a healthy high-quality crop in 2014--especially on the Cote de Beaune.

Availability of the 2012s will also be an issue.  Even well-heeled collectors who can afford their favorite Burgundies will have more trouble tracking them down in 2012 than ever before.  Good luck and happy hunting!