2000 and 1999 White Burgundies

Considering the fact that the 2000 harvest brought another huge crop of grapes and was marked by a wild storm less than 48 hours after the ban de vendange, the 2000 white wines from the Cote d'Or are turning out miraculously well. I visited the best Cote de Beaune addresses for white wine in late spring armed with more than my usual skepticism, but was charmed by the fruit, freshness and balance I found in the 2000 whites. If this is not generally a vintage with the structure for the long haul, it will still be a pleasure to drink over the next 8 to 12 years.
The 2000 growing season and harvest. A large and quick flowering at the end of May guaranteed a second straight copious crop and presaged a very early harvest. Unlike 1999, when hillside vines in Chassagne-Montrachet often suffered from heat stress and lack of water in August, the summer of 2000 featured a cold and rainy July and early August and a series of storms later in August, even as temperatures warmed up. By early September, the pinot noir skins were quite vulnerable to rot, while the thicker-skinned chardonnay grapes were more resistant. But a north wind and sunny weather helped to dry the grapes in the days leading up to the harvest.

The ban de vendange for village and premier cru vines on the Cote de Beaune was Monday, September 11, and the 13th for the Cote de Nuits. Grand cru plots could be harvested from the 15th. But hardly had the vintage begun when a wild storm swept the Cote d'Or on the night of the 12th and morning of the 13th. The French press, particularly attuned to the grape harvests in the country most important viticultural areas, was filled with headlines about the intense thunderstorms and incessant thunder on the Cote de Beaune and Cote Chalonnaise. The storms were especially intense in Santenay and Pommard, with the mayors of those two villages requesting that they be declared disaster areas (due to damage to buildings and streets rather than vineyards). In fact, the storms were highly localized, with precipitation amounts varying from under an inch to as much as four or five inches. Hail was a factor in Bouze-les-Beaune and Savigny-les-Beaune but not in Santenay or Pommard, despite the violence of the storms there.

Violent thunderstorms at harvest-time always raise the specter of damage to the grape skins, and of course hail damage would quickly lead to rot. In 2000, the pinot noir skins on the Cote de Beaune were already ripe or nearly ripe by the time of the storm, and in many sites rot quickly took hold. Many growers on the Cote de Beaune had no choice but to quickly pick their pinot, even when the fruit was short of optimal ripeness. The year 2000 was clearly a difficult one for red wine on the Cote de Beaune. (On the Cote de Nuits, the pinot noir was several days behind in ripeness, the storm of the 12th was considerably less intense, and most growers were able to harvest under decent conditions the following week.)

In Meursault, where growers are less likely to own pinot noir vines, many started in immediately on their chardonnay, and they may have started too early, before the fruit was phenolically ripe. In Chassagne-Montrachet, in contrast, many growers picked their pinot in panic mode during the first few days of the harvest, and could not have attacked their chardonnay until Thursday or Friday even if they had wanted to. Some estates waited until the following Monday to begin picking their best chardonnay sites. In virtually every case, growers benefitted from waiting, as weather conditions were reasonably good through the 26th. By most accounts, there was little obvious rot, and the chardonnay gained in ripeness in the days prior to the harvest.

For the second year in a row, the crop level was huge. Yet most growers produced 10% or 15% less wine than the previous year, basically because they were refused the 40% P.L.C. (plafond limite de classement, or the amount by which Burgundy growers are allowed to exceed the rendement de base, or base yield) they were granted in '99. Most still made the maximum allowable amounts: 54 hectoliters per hectare for village wines and premier crus (45 plus the "standard" 20% P.L.C.); in '99 they were able to declare 63 (45 plus 40%). That said, too much is made of high chardonnay yields in Burgundy: 1996 and 1990, two previous outstanding years for Cote de Beaune chardonnay, also featured full crop loads.

The 2000 wines. On the whole, the 2000 whites began with healthy grape sugars and average to below-average acidity. However, more than one grower told me that much of the acidity was tartaric, and thus the wines after the malolactic fermentations often retained as much acidity as the '99s. Aromas and flavors are generally lively and fruit-driven, and the overall balance of sugars and acids is typically quite agreeable, if not downright succulent. One of the keys to success in 2000 was the quality of the lees, which in most instances were sufficiently clean to allow producers to nourish their wines through extended lees contact and active batonnage [stirring of the lees]. This treatment has contributed texture and richness to many wines and protected them against oxidation in barrel.

In Chassagne and Puligny, for example, there are numerous instances of 2000s that are more complete than 1999s, and in some cases richer and more concentrated. On the Chassagne hillside, 2000 produced very good wines. And the village of Puligny-Montrachet in general seems to have been favored: yields were often especially high in '99, and the somewhat lower crop level may have made a difference in 2000. But there's no shortage of successful '99s in these two villages. And growers who did not prune short or crop-thin during the summer made dilute wines in 2000, just as they had the previous year.

A look back at '99. September conditions favored the earlier harvest on the Cote de Beaune, where most chardonnay was in before the worst of the late-September rain. For the region's red wines, 1999 is a glorious year. Chardonnay yields tended to be more excessive than those of pinot, but where they were not out of control, many classic white Burgundies were made, with fresh, floral aromas; good but not excessive ripeness; clean flavors; and a juicy sugar/acid balance that will make them delicious from day one. (A minority of wines are youthfully austere and really demand five to eight years of cellaring.) From the outset, many growers compared the '99s to the '79s and '73s, two large crops whose wines were harmonious from the outset and gave pleasure for many years (the best '79s from cool cellars are still delicious). These same growers are likely to compare the young 2000s to the '92s. Because of the large quantity of wine produced, many of the better '99s can still be found in the retail market and should be snapped up by white Burgundy lovers with cool cellars.

On the following pages are brief producer profiles and notes on the '00s and '99s, based on my visit to Burgundy in late May and early June. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines still in barrel. Due to space constraints, I have omitted many 2000 village wines that are not a strong bet to rate at least 85 points.