2004 and 2003 Red Burgundies

The growing season of 2004 was another summer from hell rescued by a favorable September. This latest "year of the vigneron" featured a huge flowering, an early and stubborn outbreak of oidium (powdery mildew), widespread problems with rot, a mostly sorry summer with limited sunshine, and several hail storms. But a sunny and temperate September, with a steady drying wind from the north, allowed the fruit to reach higher-than-normal sugar levels and to achieve reasonable phenolic ripeness.

Following a dry and warm spring and an early and abundant budbreak, the flowering was especially generous, as the vines snapped back from the short crop of 2003. The stage was set for a large crop, with big clusters as well as big berries. While the chardonnay flowering on the Cote de Beaune took place under near-perfect conditions, the pinot flowering, which occurred several days later on average, was more drawn out due to some sharply cooler weather during this period. Oidium, a fungus that is associated with warm and dry weather, had already been spotted in the summer of 2003. Smart growers treated their vines early and often with sulfur mixtures, beginning in the spring of 2004, because by the time oidium is visible on the vines' leaves and grapes, it is extremely difficult to eliminate. As oidium afflicts the vines' leaves as well as the grapes, it can deter photosynthesis and retard the ripening process, and it can potentially affect the flavor of the grapes too. Those who did not take adequate preventative measures battled oidium all summer long. Although powdery mildew normally hits chardonnay more than pinot noir, it was also a serious issue in many pinot vineyards in 2004.

The summer then turned cooler and damper through much of July and August, with few extended sunny periods, and the ripening process, already slowed by oidium, was dangerously behind schedule. Numerous hail storms, mostly in August, resulted in highly localized damage. But the last and worst storm, on August 23, struck vineyards in a wide swath, from Volnay clear to Marsannay, though as a rule the worst damage occurred in the Volnay premier crus and parts of Pommard and Beaune, and in Gevrey-Chambertin. Many estates had carried out extra green harvests in 2004 to remove grapes affected by rot and oidium and to reduce the crop load in the hope that what remained would ripen properly. So too, most domains had no choice but to do extra passes through their vines during the last few days of August and early September to remove hail-compromised fruit, which was prone to rot due to damage to the skins. The harvest took place in late September and early October under very good conditions, with most estates finishing just before rains arrived on October 6 and 7.

One of the mysteries of 2004 is that so many vines seemed to recover from the hail storms and still produce fruit high in sugar. In fact, some of the most freakishly high grape sugars achieved in 2004 were precisely from those vineyards in Volnay, Pommard and Beaune that were most seriously hit by hail! There are many possible explanations for this phenomenon, besides the favorable weather that set in shortly after the last major hail storm on August 23. First, unlike in 2001, the hail storms largely occurred prior to the veraison (the turning point in the summer when the green pinot grapes begin to take on color), because the ripening was already so far behind schedule. The hail thus may have had less of a shocking effect on the process of maturity-assuming, of course, that the vines' leaves, the factories for photosynthesis, were not decimated by the hail-than it did in 2001, when many vines in Volnay stopped ripening and never really caught up. Then, too, the further reduction of crop loads following the storms allowed the vines to pour their energy into a smaller remaining quantity of grapes. Still, the resulting high sugars did not necessarily translate to phenolic ripeness. The ripeness of the skins and seeds tended to be only average in 2004, with a wide range of variability according to Mother Nature and the vineyard work of estate owners.

Not surprisingly, careful selection at the time of harvest, either in the vines or on sorting tables in the winery-or both-was essential to vinifying with healthy, ripe raw material. Tossing out hail-battered and rotten fruit was essential to making successful wines, but so was eliminating underripe grapes, which would otherwise give the resulting wines an herbal, peppery flavor and green tannins. Although the 2004 growing season began with a large crop load, the ultimate production for many of the most conscientious growers-after all of the debudding in the spring, green harvesting in the summer, and sorting just prior to and during the harvest-was frequently slightly lower than production in vintages like 2002, 2001, 2000 and 1999. Vintage 2003 was lower still, as yields were sharply reduced by frost in the spring and heat stress and dehydration of the grapes during the brutal summer.

The 2004 wines. Most growers reported grape sugars in the 12% to 13% range and told me they did only moderate chaptalization or none at all. Some vineyards, especially those in hailed-on premier crus in Volnay, Pommard and Beaune, produced fruit with off-the-charts potential alcohol-in numerous cases more than 14%. Malic acidity levels were very high due to the absence of summer heat, and most growers reported that their wines were hard to taste, and impossible to enjoy, at the outset. With true skin ripeness ranging widely, winemakers often relied on softer fermentations, according to the principle that overextraction of underripe phenolic material is hardly a formula for making pleasing, balanced wines. As a number of growers pointed out to me, it was a year in which the juice was ripe, but not necessarily the skins and seeds of the grapes. Winemakers also did careful decanting of the wine following the fermentations (debourbage), eliminating the gross lees for fear of getting off aromas and tastes in their wines.

Due to the high levels of malic acidity in the grapes, and a cold winter, the malolactic fermentations proceeded very slowly. In most cellars the malos did not finish until late spring or even early summer, and some barrels had not even finished at the time of my November visit. However, the secondary fermentations radically transformed the wines. In their near-finished state, the 2004s are not especially high in acidity. Wines made from only moderately ripe fruit have a tendency to come off as a bit dry on the finish, with slightly underripe tannins that are not sufficiently buffered by mid-palate material, but wines from growers who were able to get their fruit ripe have a much more pliant feel and more pleasing balance. The wines are rarely especially fleshy or full, but they offer lovely aromatic character, good energy in the middle palate, and, where the raw materials were sufficiently clean, accurate terroir character. Tannins vary widely in character, but the best wines from growers who took all necessary steps to ripen their fruit, including waiting a few extra days to pick, finish fine-grained and ripe. (Some wines from Volnay, Pommard and Beaune show slightly dusty tannins, perhaps from hail-afflicted grapes, and are also more likely to show higher alcohols as well as the somewhat exotic aromas that come from dried grape skins and surmaturite.) I was pleasantly surprised in November by the percentage of wines at the best addresses that show little of the blurring effect on aromas of hail and rot.

In sum, concentration levels and ripeness vary widely, but 2004 has produced a classic style of Burgundy, about as different in character from the heat-wave crop of 2003s as a vintage can be. There is every reason to believe that this vintage will be agreeable fairly early (earlier, say, than the 2001s), and will be best suited for mid-term aging. With some notable exceptions, the village wines will give greatest pleasure over the next six to eight years, while the better premier crus will normally benefit from five years or so of cellaring and the grand crus seven or eight. But relatively few wines will be too hard to approach in their youth.

The 2003s revisited. Many purists maintain that the 2003s are roasted and overripe, that the heat of the year completely obliterates terroir character, and that the vintage is thus of little interest to the real Burgundy aficionado. I believe that in addition to wearing their elitism like a badge, these Burgundy snobs are also largely wrong and are going to miss out on some extraordinary bottles. Sure, there are many wines that show a distinctly stewed, even pruney, character; some of these wines are already displaying incipient oxidation. These bottles have nowhere to go and should be avoided. At the other extreme, there are also wines that miss out on the potential richness of the vintage, in most cases due to a blockage of maturity during extreme summer heat, which may have prevented the tannins from ripening completely. But at the level of the best producers, there are plenty of wines of staggering richness-wonderfully creamy, ripe pinot noirs whose babyfat will eventually melt away to reveal the soil character beneath (indeed, in many cases, the vineyard character had already begun to emerge during the last months of elevage). I believe that some of my scores on the top examples will turn out to be conservative.

I have never experienced a set of red Burgundies that held up better in the recorked bottle than these 2003s. I tasted another 100 to 150 examples in New York in January and February (mostly wines from top negociants) and had the chance to follow the best of these wines in bottle-an opportunity I do not have when I taste in the cellars in November. Upwards of 80% of these wines were better after 24 to 48 hours: creamier and deeper and yet fresher, with emerging notes of fruits, minerals and earth and with virtually no sign of oxidation. Cynics will say that this is due to acidification or higher-than-usual levels of free sulfur, but in the best wines I suspect it's simply high alcohol, which is a preservative, and richness of phenolic material. I have enjoyed a number of the great 1947s-though not before they had been in bottle for a good 30 years-and there is something about the voluptuous creaminess of the best '03s that remind me of the earlier vintage. On the downside: there are many wines with huge tannins-though rarely as dry as the '76s-and it is entirely possible that many of these wines will go through an extended sullen stage in bottle. Only the best of these tougher examples will come out of their big sleep with their fruit intact.

While it's likely that these wines will always be easy to identify blind by their vintage character, when consumed on their own they will be capable of giving great pleasure. Long-time readers of these pages are aware that I look for aromatic vibrancy and precision, as well as complexity and definition of flavor, especially in pinot noir. I do not enjoy tired pinot aromas. And yet I find no shortage of energy in the best 2003s, in spite of what the numbers might say. Those who reject these wines simply because they find them atypical will be missing out on some monumental wines. Yes, this is an extreme expression of Burgundy-some have called the vintage Californian in style-but with global warming . . . get used to it!

As powerful as many 2003s are, their thickness and silkiness of texture make many of them accessible in their youth. One word of advice, though: to maximize freshness and minimize roasted aromas, serve these wines a few degrees cooler than you normally would, say at 62 to 64 degrees. One might think that a wine that tends to taste raisiny at room temperature might be in danger of oxidizing quickly. But this has demonstrably not been the case. Superripe does not necessarily mean oxidative and decadent does not automatically mean unstable.

A word on red Burgundy pricing. At the grower level, prices in Euros for the 2004 reds are generally the same as those for the 2003s or a bit lower, although price cuts by negociants tend to be more substantial-often 20% to 30%. A few growers have made sharper cuts, but generally only those who took sizable increases on their 2003s. Recent strengthening in the U.S. dollar will help make these wines somewhat more affordable for American wine drinkers. Most Burgundy growers and negociants are aware that export markets are already beginning to obsess about the highly promising 2005s and that the 2004s are likely to work their way through the pipeline very slowly. Still, let's face it, cru bottlings from the best growers and negociants are bloody expensive. For now, I would recommend sticking to the best wines of the vintage, or to bottlings you need to keep your favorite vertical tastings intact. Wait for close-outs on the rest.

Following are brief producer profiles and notes on the 2004s and 2003s, 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 that were not yet bottled at the time of my tastings. Due to space constraints, I have omitted early notes on 2004 village wines that are not good bets to merit 85 points.