2005 and 2004 Red Burgundies

At the risk of throwing another log on an already raging fire (see Market Monitor), I'd have to say that 2005 is potentially the greatest red Burgundy vintage I've yet tasted from barrel, and I've been sampling these wines in depth every year since the 1987 vintage. Growers who couldn't make excellent wines in 2005 should find another line of work. This does not mean every bottle will be outstanding, nor does it guarantee that these structured and eminently ageworthy wines will give early pleasure. And in light of the very high prices resulting from strong worldwide demand and full mark-ups along the way from producer to consumer, long-time Burgundy drinkers may wonder if they can't get more bang for the buck on other vintages. But the better producers have made dark, rich, classic wines with all the components for a long and spectacular evolution in bottle.

All the conditions were in place to make great wines, and pinot producers could hardly have diagrammed a better growing season. Following a very cold winter, early spring rains allowed for good water reserves in the soil. A very warm and dry June made for a fairly uniform flowering centered around the second week of June. The rest of the summer continued dry and sunny, but without the extreme heat seen in 2003. Temperatures routinely cooled off at night, allowing the grapes to retain good levels of acidity. Some hillside sites, from Chambolle-Musigny through Savigny-lès-Beaune and Beaune, began to suffer a bit from drought stress during continued dry weather in August but perfectly timed rainfall in early September re-invigorated the vines, and drying winds from the north prevented rot from gaining a foothold. While the harvest officially began on September 12 on the Côte de Beaune and September 15 on the Côte de Nuits, clement weather allowed growers to pick at their leisure, and many let their fruit hang for more thorough phenolic ripeness.

Vinifying the 2005s. Grape sugars were high—typically in the 12.5% to 13.5% range—and few winemakers felt the need to chaptalize. Most did rather gentle extraction due to the thick, tannin-rich skins and relatively small berries, often doing fewer punchdowns of the cap (pigeages) than normal or relying more on pumpovers (rémontage). But some conducted their normal vinfications because they felt that the health of the grape skins and the density of the raw material could support it. (And why not try to make Burgundies that could last 40 years when the conditions seemed perfect?) Some vignerons experimented with the vendange entier method (fermenting whole clusters), because they felt the stems were sufficiently ripe, but others destemmed as always because they were convinced that their wines would already be tannic enough without them.

The malolactic fermentations for the most part went slowly, with many only ending in the late spring and summer of 2006. Many wines that only finished their secondary fermentations in early fall were still on their lees in November and some of these were quite reduced. Owing to the strength of these wines and to the late malos, many wines showed a severity in November—a certain lack of personality—and more than one grower told me that the grand crus in particular were evolving at a snail’s pace. On the face of it, this would appear to be a vintage that could support a relatively long élevage, but many estates today seem obsessed with capturing the fruit by bottling sooner rather than later.

Early impressions of the wines. The young 2005s show a fleshiness approaching that of the 1990s, but they rarely display evidence of surmaturité; there’s little of the almost syrah-like roasted character that was present in many 1990s from the outset. On the contrary, the 2005s convey a sappy impression of verve and extract and the ineffable floral/mineral/earthy character that only red Burgundy can offer. And their buffering flesh gives them a more generous palate feel than most 2002s, even if there’s plenty of backbone beneath the babyfat. Tannins are substantial and acids and pHs are sound, but in the early going the best wines show a balance of elements so close to ideal that no one element stands out. In fact, Freddy Mugnier went so far as to suggest that some of the young wines are not yet showing much complexity because they’re so smooth in the early going.

But these wines have the stuffing, balance and structure to evolve in bottle for a long time, even if many of them possess the sweetness to give pleasure early. As a general rule, I would want to hold village wines for at least two or three years, premier crus for five or six, and grand crus for eight to ten. But the top cru bottlings from the best producers, carefully cellared, may well develop positively for 25 to 30 years, or even more. Veteran Burgundy buyers: these should be wines to follow for the rest of your drinking lives.

The best wines are true to their sites, but in many cases their youthful baby fat will take years to burn off to reveal the terroir beneath. Yields were generally healthy but rarely excessive, and the superb health of the grape skins meant that most growers did not need to eliminate more than 5% or so of their grapes, if that. When yields are viewed in terms of the actual crop loads carried by the vines, the true production in 2005 was lower than average, and sometimes by a wide margin. Skin-to-juice ratios were high owing to the dry summer, and this has further concentrated the wines.

Are there particularly favored spots in 2005? For the sixth consecutive year, I have a preference for the Côte de Nuits over the Côte de Beaune. But that’s largely because the soils on the Côte de Nuits are inherently more interesting, rather than due to any particular problems during the growing season or harvest, although some Côte de Nuits properties clearly benefited by picking later. In fact, the Côte de Beaune has had an excellent vintage—in theory not as perfect as 1999, but offering the important advantage of lower crop levels (sometimes by as much as 20% or 30%) than that earlier year. If there was one sweet spot that stood out in my tastings in November, it was the middle of the Vosne-Romanée hillside, stretching from Malconsorts across to Suchots, and including the grand crus in between. The wines are glossy, fleshy and wonderfully rich; it’s possible that the crop-reducing effect of some hail in early May gave these wines an extra measure of ripeness and concentration. As a rule, the vintage is especially strong in normally cooler sites with a tendency to produce severe wines in marginal years, such as Clos Vougeot, Bonnes-Mares and especially Chambertin. On the other side of the coin were some of the lower-altitude village sites and premier crus of Chambolle-Musigny, where the wines could be almost too rich in 2005—even heavy in the context of this village’s normally elegant style.

About the only real point of uncertainty among growers in November was whether the wines will always be accessible owing to their uncanny richness and sweetness or whether they will shut down in the bottle. The producers I visited were nearly equally split on this subject. My own view is that most of the wines I tasted from the best estates will indeed go into a shell at some point in the next few years, and they may remain there for quite a while. There’s simply too much phenolic material here for the wines not to go through a disorganized, sullen stage.

The 2004s revisited. Although chardonnay enjoyed a clear advantage in 2004 (when the growing season is not easy on grape skins, pinot noir is virtually always at a disadvantage), I continue to like the best red Burgundies from this vintage for their pure floral, mineral and fruit aromas and transparency to soil, for their sappy energy, and for their intensity without weight. I tasted a sizable number of additional 2004s chez moi in January and February, and I’m happy to report that the better examples held up well in the recorked bottle. They are not fragile wines with a tendency toward oxidation.

On the down side, some growers—and the importers who love them—will admit that the crop fell short of full phenolic ripeness. The result can be leaner wines that lack mid-palate stuffing and that finish with dry tannins, especially where winemakers tried to overextract what was not there. Many 2004s finish with a slightly peppery quality; in some instances, say certain winemakers, this character was not obvious in barrel but has emerged only in recent months. In the better 2004s, this quality will always give the wines a finishing freshness and grip, but in those that are not quite ripe enough, this element may turn increasingly green and herbal with time. In my experience, pinot noir that achieves a certain level of phenolic maturity on the vine can literally seem to ripen in the bottle over time. But wines made from fruit that did not quite reach this ripeness threshhold can fall away quickly without ever blossoming in the bottle.

The bottom line: there are some stunning 2004s, and there are also a host of very good, and less good, wines that will soon be let go in the retail marketplace at very attractive prices. Obviously there are plenty of 2004s that do not merit your attention. But keep this in mind: if you chase 2005s simply because of the vintage on the label, you may find yourself paying twice as much as for the same 2004s—or more—and you won’t be getting two times the wine. When I was in Burgundy in November, most growers were talking about moderate price increases for their 2005 reds, in many instances only back up to the levels of their 2003s. But the longer the estates waited to set their prices, the higher they have turned out to be—and that’s before their importers, distributors and retailers had a chance to grab their shares of this hot item.

Following are brief producer profiles and notes on the 2005s and 2004s, 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. I have omitted early notes on 2005 village wines that figure to be good but not outstanding.