2013 and 2012 White Burgundies

With the 2014 harvest well under way under sunny skies as I finished this article, but with the potential for thunderstorms over the next week, the size of the 2014 crop will come into focus soon.  But it is clear that a short but very destructive hailstorm on June 28 once again cut yields sharply in the northern half of the Cote de Beaune, marking the third consecutive year of serious crop losses for many estates.  This year's storm was especially heartbreaking for growers in that the flowering had been even and copious for the first time since 2011.  Producers in Meursault and parts of Puligny-Montrachet are not happy campers these days, and of course vineyards in Beaune, Volnay and Pommard have also been especially hard-hit over the past three years.

Nor is this a particularly good time for long-time lovers of white Burgundy, as limited supplies have resulted in scarcity of the top items, and high prices.  But the cool, late, challenging 2013 growing season has produced many delightful wines that Burgundy connoisseurs will appreciate while the fleshier, richer 2012s will give pleasure to a broader market of well-heeled consumers.  I had the chance to taste these two vintages in depth, side by side, during my annual white Burgundy tour at the end of May and beginning of June.

The 2013 growing season and harvest.  The 2013 growing season began poorly, with cold, rainy weather during late winter and much of the spring.  May was particularly dismal, setting the stage for oidium and mildew.  On the first day of my annual late-spring tour in 2013--May 28--it was raining and the afternoon temperatures that week were mainly in the 50s.  The flowering was nowhere in sight, and did not begin until several days after my trip was over (in sharp contrast to 2011, when the flowering was long finished by the time I arrived at the end of May).  Conditions did not begin to improve until the following week, but the latest flowering in a generation took place mostly during the second half of June under distinctly mixed conditions, with some cold, rainy weather resulting in millerandage.  Once again, the stage was set for a crop of limited size and uneven ripeness, but in the end it was small grapes and small bunches that were in the best position to ripen properly without rotting.

July brought mostly favorable conditions, with some rainy breaks.  The second half of the month was quite warm and the longest hot period of the season extended from July 21 through August 5, after which August temperatures turned more moderate through the end of the month and into early September.  There were a few rainy days but also plenty of sunny ones.  But a severe hailstorm on July 23 did major damage to many vineyards stretching from the northern half of Meursault to Savigny-les-Beaune.

The second and third weeks of September were cool and overcast, with multiple rainy spells; better conditions arrived after the 20th.  Those who picked relatively early in 2013 (i.e., beginning by September 25 or 27) maintained that rot was taking hold and that the risks of waiting for more ripeness outweighed the possible rewards.  Some growers also claimed that the growth cycle was essentially over by the beginning of October.  Those who started late were interrupted by a wet weekend on October 5 and 6, after which, according to all reports, the grapes still on the vines quickly deteriorated.  Clearly, some fruit was picked in a rush in advance of the rainy weekend, before it was fully ripe.

Strict sorting of the fruit was essential, to eliminate grapes with less-than-healthy skins (from rot or oidium) as well as underripe berries.

The raw materials and the making of the wines.  Potential alcohol levels in the grapes were generally lower than average to average in 2013 by recent standards, and most growers made at least some use of chaptalization.  But many of the producers I visited in late spring reported potential alcohol levels as high as 13% or a bit more.  This level of ripeness was made possible by the small size of the crop.  The alcoholic fermentations generally went well, but many malos were slow to start.  At the time of my visit at the end of May and beginning of June, many wines were still finishing their secondary fermentations and some hadn't even started.  This should only pose a problem if growers then bottle those wines early, without having given them a chance to stabilize in barrel or tank.

Prior to the malolactic fermentations, a number of growers found their '13s a bit tart and lean.  As a general rule, growers brought a bit less solid material than usual into the barrels owing to their fears of imperfect grape skins, and many were hesitant to do much lees stirring for the same reason.  Still, most are happy with the way their wines have gained in pliancy in barrel.  The wines began with very healthy levels of malic acidity and thus have generally been softened by the secondary fermentations.

Some producers compare their 2013s to their 2010s in their fresh acidity, clarity of flavor and minerality, but it's only the truly exceptional 2013 that can match 2010 for structure or power.  Still, the '13s may show clearer terroir character in the early going, as they are not generally as dominated by their acidity.  Others mentioned 2008 as a comparable style, while numerous producers compared them to the 2011s in their easy-drinking charm and scale.  At this early stage, I prefer the '13s to the '11s as I find they have more clarity and personality.  There's a cool aspect to the 2013s that I appreciate.  The pHs are generally healthy.  The wines are often somewhat peppery or herbal but, at the level of the estates I visit, rarely vegetal.  This will generally be a less commercial vintage than 2012 but should be of considerable interest to long-time Burgundy lovers.  In many ways, it's a throwback to the vintages of a generation ago:  cooler-style wines with moderate alcohol levels from fruit harvested late.

The 2012s in bottle.  This is a rich, ripe vintage that has largely triumphed over a very challenging growing season featuring spring frost, a difficult flowering, oidium and mildew, a heat wave in late June, a lot of rain, and destructive hail storms.  Acidity levels are generally sound and the wines have plenty of flesh.  A minority of the wines I've tasted to date appear to be quite youthfully tight and will need at least a year or three in the bottle.  Many others will give relatively early pleasure.  As a rule, this appears to be a vintage for medium-term aging, although the best wines may surprise with their longevity.  And as the vintage's better wines lose some of their baby fat, they should display more underlying minerality and site character than they are revealing today.

While it's tempting to say that the 2012s will be longer-lived than the 2013s owing to their greater concentration and density of material, a fairly sizable minority of growers believe that they may be best consumed before the '13s.  But some producers describe their 2013s as fragile owing to the season's rot pressure, and thus for drinking before the '12s.

The '12s are often riper and fruitier than the 2010s, due in large part to the smaller crop and to a somewhat sunnier (read: less bad) summer.  But they rarely show as much inner-mouth tension or grip.  They will offer earlier accessibility owing to their sweetness of fruit and more pliant texture.  The thick skins of the grapes in 2012 generally protected them from rot, and growers found it easy to eliminate sun-burned and hail-affected grapes.

Tasted side by side, the 2012s occasionally came across as a bit heavy following the more delicate 2013s, which often dance on the palate.  But most 2012s have more stuffing.  As Vincent Dancer summarized, "the 2013s are about finesse and the 2012s about fruit concentration." 

The best news of all to those who normally avoid California-style white Burgundies with high alcohol, low acidity and exotic fruit flavors:  there's virtually no evidence of surmaturité in 2013.  And while the 2012 often show more exotic aromas than the '13s, and must be placed in the line of recent ripe years, they typically combine sound acidity and full phenolic ripeness without extreme octane levels.  It's a very good vintage.