2003 and 2002 White Burgundies

Having now tasted two sets of 2003s from France in depth. red Bordeaux and white Burgundy as well as early releases from Spain and a handful of Beaujolais and red Burgundy bottlings, I'm tempted to say that Europe's heatwave summer was even more challenging for white wines than it was for reds. White wines, after all, essentially rely on their acidity for structure and balance, and the brutally hot weather of 2003 tended to cook the acidity out of the grapes. And yet my overall impression to this point is wonderment that any vineyards could survive the extreme heat and drought conditions of this harsh summer. The grapevine is obviously hard to kill, and France's best vineyard sites are considered among the finest in the world as much for their ability to ripen their fruit under difficult circumstances as for any other quality. That said, the 2003 growing season was a challenging one for growers of chardonnay on the Cote de Beaune. My annual tour of the best white wine addresses made it clear that this extreme vintage was characterized by highly variable quality.

The 2003 growing season. Although the harvest of 2003 will always be remembered for its extreme summer heat, and for the earliest harvest start in over a century, the growing season actually began with a series of very cold nights in early April, with the night of April 11 and 12 being the most damaging. Potential crop levels were cut significantly in many village parcels of Puligny-Montrachet, but there were also losses in low-lying vineyards in Meursault and Chassagne-Montrachet, including the lower portions of some premier crus. The flowering took place in a rush at the end of May, and the growing season was consistently hot from then through late August. The first half of August was especially brutal, with temperatures reaching well over 100oF for several days in a row, and considerably higher in the vineyards themselves. Where the leaves shriveled and fell, the ripening process could be stunted and the grapes were more vulnerable to sunburn.

Numerous growers told me that vines on the middle of the hillsides suffered most from the hot sun and dry conditions in 2003. Vines at the tops of slopes often produced fruit with better balance, while those at the bottom of the slopes, many of which had been affected by April frost, had better access to moisture in the soil. Still, many vineyards hard-hit by frost ripened later, and in some cases this resulted in fruit with dangerously low acidity. Above all, young vines, which have not yet developed deep root systems, were particularly vulnerable to heat and drought during the summer of 2003.

The chardonnay harvest of 2003. Many growers cut their August vacations short and hurried home because they realized their fruit was ripening so quickly. But havesting at such an early date involved a number of challenges. First, it was often difficult to scare up a team of pickers; a few growers described making desperate phone calls to their harvesters and asking them to report for work early. For many estates, it was also necessary to have bottled, or at least racked to tank, their 2002 white wines in order to free up barrel space for the new crop. As the bureaucrats who declare the official harvest starting date (the ban de vendange) were still away on their summer vacations, some growers who wanted to begin picking as early as August 15 simply dropped letters in the mailbox to inform the administrators that they were starting. The administrators ultimately met with the growers' unions on Monday, August 18 and the harvest was officially underway.

Some estates began picking fruit immediately (often beginning with pinot noir), or later that week, as they believed they had sufficiently ripe fruit and did not want to risk losing even more acidity. Others waited, in some instances as much as two full weeks. One of the great debates in 2003 is the one between the early and the late harvesters, with both claiming advantages to their choice. The early pickers say they retained acidity, and that the vegetative cycle was so advanced by the extreme heat that there was little advantage to waiting any longer. The vines' foliage was in poor condition, some claimed, and the grapes were being cooked by the sun.

Later pickers, however, said that the grapes were not yet truly ripe in mid-August, even if potential alcohol levels were already high. Those who ultimately harvested on the late side claim that this approach brought several advantages. For starters, they were able to bring in their fruit under less extreme conditions (those who harvested during the August 17 to 22 period still had to contend with hot weather, and if they did not pick in the early morning hours and chill down their grapes, the fermentations could start quickly and take place tumultuously). Many late pickers also cited the beneficial effects of a series of light rainfalls in late August and early September, which they say helped to restore life to heat-stressed vegetation and grape skins. They brought in more normal-looking grapes without significant further loss of acidity, they claim. (They may also have gotten more normal yields, as the grapes prior to the late-summer precipitation were small and thick-skinned, with a high ratio of skins to juice.) However, a few late harvesters admitted to me that they wished they had picked earlier.

The 2003 wines. With extremely low levels of acidity in their grapes, and virtually no malic acidity, the overwhelming majority of winemakers added tartaric acidity to their musts to ensure better fermentations (as well as to replace the acidity that is typically lost during the alcoholic fermentation). Some of these producers have since then made further acid additions. A minority of vignerons chose not to acidify at the outset, for fear of drying out their wines. However, most of these latter winemakers made acid additions later on, typically after the end of the malolactic fermentations, when they felt they could more accurately judge what adjustments were needed. The malolactic fermentations generally finished very early because there was so little malic acidity in the wines. (This is one vintage in which blocking the malolactic fermentation was not often particularly useful in preserving freshness, as there was so little malic acidity in the first place.) The quick malolactic fermentations and low acidity of 2003 are two reasons why many winemakers I visited at the end of May and beginning of June were anticipating bottling these wines earlier than usual.

Perhaps the most important winemaking variable with vintage 2003 involved what use, if any, to make of the lees. A narrow majority of the estates I visited did a longer debourbage (or settling of the must, to eliminate the heavier lees, or bourbes) than normal, followed by less batonnage (stirring of the lees in the barrel) because they felt that the wines were already more than thick enough and did not want to risk introducing any more oxidative influence. Others, though, felt that substantial use of the lees, which were clean and rot-free in 2003, was the key to making better, more vibrant wines that would be characterized more by terroir than by the signature of the vintage. Unfortunately, my tight schedule and a national holiday weekend in France made it impossible for me to taste at Verget with Jean-Marie Guffens this spring. Guffens was one of those who felt that use of the lees was critical in 2003, and he is happy with the way his '03s are turning out (I will report on the finished wines next year). He believed that retaining and stirring the lees was essential to regaining freshness and recapturing the minerality of the vineyards, and that only by using the lees could one hope to make chardonnays in vintage 2003 with real complexity. At the same time, the use of press wine was often counterproductive, yielding heavier though not more aromatic wines, often with a cloying quality.

Most growers agree that 2003 is a vintage for early drinking, although a minority who were lucky and skilled enough to have made extremely rich wines with reasonable balance believe that these wines will surprise with their longevity. In my early tastings at the end of May and beginning of June, I found far too many wines in which primary fruit, floral and mineral character appeared to have been burned out by the summer heat and relentless sun. Relatively few wines have real depth of fruit or energy in the middle palate, the latter characteristic being one that sets white Burgundy apart from most of the world's other chardonnays. This is not generally a vintage in which terroir character comes through in the wines, and it is not my preferred style of chardonnay. The best wines, though, are undeniably rich and tactile. Most 2003 village wines and premier crus will probably be at their best over the next five or six years, with the grand crus lasting a bit longer. But because many 2003s will probably be bottled with a hefty dose of sulfur, I would hold off on drinking these wines until next spring.

There are many grotesque wines in 2003: wines with exotic aromas of lichee, licorice and banana (calling to mind viognier, white wines from the Southern Rhone, or even gewurztraminer), wines that offer thickness and impressive mouth feel without corresponding flavor, wines that are obviously warm with alcohol. Many 2003 white Burgundies resemble California chardonnays from warmer sites, whose primary fruit aromas are often fleeting, sometimes disappearing by the time the wines appear on the market. There are also undernourished wines from vines whose ripening process was stunted by excessive heat or drought. The key questions with the 2003s are: Will the finished wines show real fruit, mineral and floral flavors, or was the life baked out of the grapes? And do the wines ultimately possess the depth and intensity of flavor to support their sheer alcoholic power?

The 2002s revisited. As with Chablis or even Sancerre for that matter, this is a lovely vintage for hard-core Burgundy lovers as well as for the uninitiated. The wines are minerally, floral and fruity, often with a very fresh citrus character, without being austere or clenched. Most wines are round enough to provide considerable early appeal, but the best of them should offer medium-term ageability-perhaps like the '92s, perhaps better. Assuming proper cellaring conditions, most of the better 2002 premier crus should be at their best from 2006 to 2012, while the period of peak drinkability for the grand crus will be more like 2008 to 2016. The most serious wines of the vintage should be capable of longer development in bottle. But this is not a recommendation to lay these wines down and forget them. On the contrary: the wines are already delicious, and early drinkers will love the exhilarating sugar/acid balance and fresh fruit character of the 2002s.

One potential wild card with the 2002s was the extremely hot summer of 2003, which in many cases resulted in warmer-than-normal cellar temperatures and required some growers to bottle their 2002s in a hurry during the heat of August. In my tastings of the finished 2002s this spring, I saw no obvious evidence of wines compromised by warm cellar conditions. However, it is possible that the early accessibility of many of these wines is an indication that they are somewhat more evolved than they ordinarily could be expected to be at this stage of their life in bottle. It must be noted, though, that most of the top growers of the Cote d'Or have either deep cellars or adequate air conditioning. As far as the ageability of these wines is concerned, I am more worried about other factors that have affected many white Burgundies made since the mid-1990s.

A digression on premature oxidation of white Burgundy. It is dispiriting for a wine writer to speak of the firm acid balance, structure and potential longevity of a crop of wines and recommend that collectors buy and cellar them, only to find years later that a significant percentage of the wines is disappointing. This, unfortunately, has too often been the case with white Burgundies. Clearly, numerous factors are at work here, with no magic bullet currently available to miraculously solve this problem. The following paragraphs describe some of the possible forces at work.

For starters, there have been many disappointments owing to cork problems-not just TCA but also the premature oxidation that can also result from faulty corks. (This latter problem is much more of an issue for white wines than for reds, as red wines have tannins to protect them.) Perhaps the most problematic vintage in this regard is 1996. But most growers of my acquaintance will admit to at least one problem cork vintage since the mid-1990s-in spite of their ongoing efforts to pre-screen their corks and reject lots that appear to be less than pristine. (Burgundy's BIVB recognizes that corks are an especially serious problem today with white Burgundies and is engaged in significant research into the issue.)

Many growers are convinced that they received defective corks from their suppliers in 1996, but they are more likely to cite counterproductive treatments to the corks than cork mold. Corks washed in chlorine (or peroxide) solutions to protect them against TCA appear to have been a major problem in 1996. Chlorine left behind on a cork can absorb the free sulfur in a newly bottled wine at a rapid rate, leaving the wine vulnerable to quick oxidation. More than one grower who admitted problems to me with rapid oxidation of a particular vintage pointed out that his magnums from the same year are sensational-not just because magnums age more slowly but because the corks were sound in the first place. Other growers blame the silicone or paraffin treatments that facilitate extractability of corks or allow them to grip the glass more effectively. If these treatments are not done perfectly, the seal provided by the cork can be compromised.

Some Burgundy insiders have also noted that record demand for cork has forced cork producers to harvest their trees earlier. Cork from a young tree can be softer and less dense, which in turn can affect the cork's ability to protect the wine from oxidation. One grower even told me he was considering ordering corks a half-millimeter or full millimeter wider, to get a firmer seal. Thus far, he had refrained from taking this approach, fearing that his customers would tear the tops off too many of his bottles in their attempt to dislodge jammed-in corks-a scenario that has been known to occur with Italian wines in my kitchen.

Bernard Hervet, director of Bouchard Pere et Fil,, expressed great unhappiness with today's cork suppliers. "In Burgundy today, we don't hide anything from our customers," Hervet told me. "When someone visits our cellar, they can see information written on the side of every barrel: when the wine was last racked, when it was sulfured and how much was added, and so on. But as much direction as we give our cork suppliers, we never really know if they are going to use treatments that they don't tell us about. There's not the same kind of transparency to the customer as we try to offer with our wines." Many growers today are specifically requesting their suppliers to skip certain treatments they view as potentially harmful to their wines, such as any use of chlorine. Jacques Lardiere, winemaker for Maison Louis Jadot, told me that he bottled all of his 1993s with completely untreated corks-an approach that many estates would find too risky-and has had virtually no problems with bad corks or premature oxidation of these wines.

Besides cork problems, issues of nature and nurture may be contributing to premature oxidation of white Burgundies. Global warming has brought earlier springtimes and more summer heat. The trend to later harvesting of grapes has resulted in a further reduction in natural acidity levels in the grapes. Perhaps the desire to attain ultimate ripeness has caused some growers to forget the critical role of acidity, notes importer Neal Rosenthal, an observation that holds for many wines, reds even more than whites, worldwide. Rosenthal continues: "We might be witnessing more incidents of premature oxidation because some producers are recognizing the fact that the overwhelming majority of wines today are consumed in the first year or two of their existence and thus need not be handled according to the ancient rules of thumb." White Burgundy is vulnerable to oxidation because it is typically made in barrel (as opposed to vinification and elevage in stainless steel, during which the fruit is far more protected from air), and because acidity levels in recent ripe vintages have been low. Loire Valley sauvignon blanc and, especially, German riesling, are made more reductively, normally in stainless steel, and have higher acidity in the first place. But while white Burgundy has tended to come in riper, with lower acidity, sulfur additions to the wines (including both free sulfur and total sulfur levels at the time of bottling) have trended steadily lower since the late '80s.

Over the same period, growers have used batonnage, or lees stirring, to enrich their wines and give them more early textural appeal. This process is by its nature oxidative, and those who have not adjusted their sulfuring regimes accordingly risk bottling wines that will age prematurely. The local enologists, needless to say, are constantly advising their clients to use more SO2, and they did the same thing again with the very low-acid 2003s. While many of the top producers of white Burgundy have traditionally eschewed techniques they feel are overly conservative, numerous growers now believe that they have bottled past vintages without sufficient protection against oxidation. In the past couple of years some of these producers have actually increased their use of sulfites.

A couple of other factors may have compromised numerous 1996s, but do not generally apply to subsequent vintages. The 1996 white Burgundies received strong early press, and the market was primed to buy these wines. Some growers may have bottled their wines ahead of their normal schedule to capitalize on this early demand. The vintage was also high in tartaric acidity, and numerous growers who were afraid of bottling wines with tartaric crystals hired mobile bottlers to do a quick cold processing of their wines in order to prevent this from occurring. Some used a chemical euphemistically called creme de tartre to accelerate the rate of precipitation of tartrates. But the mere process of pumping their wines to a truck outside the cellar and then back again was highly oxidative to the wines.

A word on Burgundy pricing. The 2003 white Burgundy crop was generally a small one, with numerous growers citing yields of less than 30 hectoliters per hectare in many of their vineyards, and even lower when there was significant loss due to frost. Not surprisingly, almost no one has reduced prices in euros, even those estates that are less than thrilled with the quality of their wines. Price hikes of 5% to 15% are typical, and the weaker dollar has made these wines closer to 15% to 25% more expensive to U.S. importers. Pricing of 2003s has been further pressured by a damaging and unusually widespread hailstorm that struck Burgundy on the night of August 23, just over a week before this issue went to press, and estates that had not already set prices for their 2003s will put off pricing decisions until they see how seriously their 2004 crop will be affected. (Early reports on the hail suggest that Pommard and Volnay were hit hard, but that there was also significant damage in Clos Vougeot and the village of Chambolle-Musigny, with Musigny (quelle horreur!) seriously whacked. For the moment, my advice to Burgundy lovers is to snap up the best 2002s, red and white.

On the following pages are brief producer profiles and tasting notes on the 2003s and 2002s, based on my visit to Burgundy in late May and early June, and on some additional tastings done at home since then. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines not yet bottled.