2001 and 2000 Red Burgundies

On my annual November tour of the best red Burgundy addresses, growers were enthusiastic about their 2002 harvest and relieved to have mostly dodged the weather extremes that plagued the southern half of France. While it was too early in November to know whether sugar-laden grapes would translate into outstanding wines, it was already clear that there is strong early consumer interest in Burgundy's 2002 vintage. On the other hand, neither the 2001s nor the 2000s, the vintages I travelled to Burgundy to taste, have yet caught the fancy of international wine lovers. This is partly a matter of unlucky timing: the wines are entering the market at a time when consumers, particularly in the U.S. but in other wine-loving countries as well, are less willing to shell out major bucks for a bottle of anything. It's a shame, too, because the fleshy, ripe 2000s offer considerable early appeal, and the best young 2001s are scented, stylish midweights with the lightness of touch, tension and aromatic complexity no other part of the world can duplicate.

The 2001 growing season. After a rainy March and a spring with few temperature extremes, the flowering was drawn out by cool, rainy weather in June. The extended flowering planted the seeds for irregular ripening. Christophe Roumier told me, perhaps exaggerating slightly, that there could be three weeks of difference between the ripeness of grapes on the same bunch. There was also the potential for a large crop that would require substantial green harvesting. July began cool but turned hot during the second half of the month. The first three weeks of August were also quite hot, with a couple of major storms, including a severe hailstorm on the evening of August 2 that devastated much of the Volnay appellation and affected some parcels adjacent to Volnay.

The weather then turned cloudy and cool again in late August and the first ten days of September (nighttime temperatures twice descended to the low 40s during early September), though precipitation totals were modest.The ban de vendange for the Cote de Beaune was September 17, with the Cote de Nuits following on the 20th. Yet except for estates with extremely low yields, most of the fruit was not yet ready to pick.The inclement weather in early September had made it difficult for the late berries to catch up.

Some estates, concerned about forecasted rain, picked too early. Others waited as long as a week to start, but were bedeviled by some rain, mostly at night, during the week of September 24. More than one grower told me that ripeness came quickly in late September, along with a bit of rot, but others had already finished picking. (Overloaded vines were more susceptible to rot, and less likely to have been able to bring their heavier loads of fruit to sound ripeness.) Later harvesters who mostly avoided rot benefitted from greater phenolic ripeness, which offered the potential to make deeper, denser wines with riper tannins. But even growers who had carried out energetic green harvests to reduce crop loads and eliminate less-ripe grapes had to live with a wider than ideal range of fruit maturity. (This was a year, like so many others, in which Burgundy's hillside sites generally ripened earlier and derived advantage from their better drainage.) Strict sorting of the fruit was necessary in 2001, more to eliminate underripe than rotten grapes. And in Volnay, of course, it had been necessary to eliminate hail-affected grapes in August, but even so, the ripening process was compromised in many vineyards hit by the early August storm.

Interestingly, a number of growers told me that the grape skins in 2001 were ultimately more thoroughly ripe than those of 2000, even when potential alcohol levels were lower. Or, they say, the tannins are more effectively buffered by the wine's mid-palate material in the better 2001s. Others, though, said the skins were not as ripe as those of the previous year and voiced concern about the dry edges shown by some of their wines. With so many overcast days in the month prior to the harvest, there was simply not quite enough photosynthesis. On the whole, grape sugars were average by recent Burgundy standards, typically ranging from 11% to 12%, although some domains told me their fruit was in the 13% range. Crop levels were large but rarely excessive, and typically down slightly from the levels of 2000, especially for those who routinely drop crop during the summer.

The making of the 2001s. As a rule, levels of malic acidity remained high and the pHs of the musts were low due to the cool weather leading up to the harvest. Extraction of color generally came easily, and a number of vignerons believe that the strong malic acidity levels facilitated extraction. On the other hand, some 2001s seem overextracted: their tannins are out of whack with their underlying density of material, or they are slightly green or harsh because the skins were not fully ripe. Some of the top estates shortened their cuvaisons (the period during which the juice remains on its skins), while others made a point of doing less frequent or less vigorous pigeages (punching down of the cap) in an attempt to avoid getting bitter tannins.

Not surprisingly, at many estates the malos proceeded slowly, in numerous cases not ending until late summer. Very cold weather in late December and much of January had helped to forestall the onset of the malos, as cellar temperatures were colder than normal during the winter. Several growers told me the young 2001s were downright unpleasant to taste early on. As is often the case in Burgundy, winemakers were much happier with their wines as they approached bottling time, not least because the wines after malo were not especially high in acidity. This is a tricky vintage to assess from barrel in the sense that the best wines appear to be gaining significantly during their final months of levage, filling out in the middle and growing increasingly supple. At the same time, however, most growers have been loath to add much SO2 for fear that they would exacerbate the vintage's tendency toward hardness. Some of the cleverest vignerons have relied on CO2 and on the protective qualities of the lees to avoid using sulfur.

In November, most growers expressed the opinion that the 2001s are fresher and more aromatically interesting than the 2000s, with more precision and structure, and this was certainly what I found in my tastings. In other words, the 2001s are more likely to deliver the aromas, flavors and textures that few pinot noirs from outside Burgundy can provide, and they accurately reflect their terroir. The 2001s have more energy, more vibrancy, more floral and mineral character, than the 2000s. Even so, a minority of estates on the Cote de Nuits still prefer their 2000s, for their fleshy richness, riper tannins and early accessibility. Like 2000, vintage 2001 clearly favors the Cote de Nuits over the Cote de Beaune, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of numerous 2001s from Beaune and Aloxe-Corton.

The 2000s revisited. My mood on the 2000s vacillates from day to day, depending on whose wines I'm tasting. The appeal of wines from certain producers is limited by a slight dullness, a muddiness of their mostly red fruit aromas and flavors, sometimes from excessive alcohol, even when the underlying material offers good weight in the mouth. Other wines are very low in acidity and lack structure and thrust. Some show dry edges from too much saignee (the process whereby winemakers attempt to concentrate their musts by running off a small percentage of the juice prior to fermentation). But then I come across sappier, fresher wines with better definition and grip, good depth in the middle palate, and an absence of hard tannins. The better 2000s are less overripe, less fat versions of the more successful '97s, with adequate acids doing a good job framing the wines' flavors. The finest 2000s.and the majority of them come from north of Nuits-Saint-Georges, are rich and satisfying.

A word on Burgundy pricing: Burgundy sales, like sales of most wines over $30, are stagnant today, and few collectors are running to buy 2000s (or 2001s) despite the fact that both of these vintages produced a lot of very good wine. Even if Burgundy's growers and n gociants cut their prices somewhat, the significant decline in the value of the U.S. dollar against the euro in recent months will keep Burgundy prices high in American wine shops. Burgundy lovers who routinely buy certain estates and certain cru bottlings will want to purchase the 2000s and 2001s to keep their vertical collections unbroken. For all other Burgundy purchases, I'd advise careful selection; with numerous very good and fairly reasonably priced wines to choose from, I see no reason for fans of Burgundy to purchase wines whose prices are out of whack, either due to overenthusiastic prices at the cellar door or to fat markups along the way.

Following are brief producer profiles and notes on the 2001s and 2000s, based on my visit to Burgundy in November and subsequent tastings in New York. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines still in barrel. Due to space constraints, I have omitted most 2001 village wines that are not a strong bet to rate at least 85 points.