2006 and 2005 Red Burgundies

These are the best of times and the worst of times for American lovers of red Burgundy. Following the greatest vintage of our generation, a year that tomorrow’s Burgundy aficionados will still be toasting after many of us are gone, comes the stealth vintage of 2006, a growing season plagued by hailstorms and a mediocre August but which nevertheless has yielded scented, elegant, site-typical red wines that will offer considerable pleasure to Burgundy purists while they wait for the more massive 2005s to approach maturity.

The trick will be actually finding and affording these wines. As the demand for Burgundy skyrockets with the emergence of new markets around the world, and the dollar continues to lose purchasing power, the most famous Burgundy names are scarcer than ever before in the U.S. market, and prices for the top items have already reached the ozone layer. New customers paying with stronger currencies are absorbing all the wine that comes their way, and early indications are that the worldwide thirst left unslaked by 2005s will be filled by the best 2006s. In general, stocks in Burgundy are at or near record-low levels, which is helping to maintain pressure on prices at the cellar door. When case quantities of the most-craved wines are measured in the dozens, as opposed to the hundreds or thousands, and winos around the world with seemingly unlimited budgets are competing for them . . . you get the picture.

The growing season of 2006. Two thousand six was an up-and-down year. Following a cold, snowy winter and a late, damp start to spring, the weather began to dry out in May. The second half of June and especially the month of July were then quite hot and dry, and growers began talking about the possibility of another extremely early harvest, even as soon as the last days of August. A serious hailstorm struck on July 27, causing significant damage to both the fruit and the foliage. The slopes of Chambolle-Musigny (Musigny, Amoureuses, and across the village to Beaux-Bruns) were hit to varying degrees, as was an area stretching from the lower portion of Chambertin Clos de Bèze, Griottes-Chambertin and Chapelle-Chambertin northeast to Petite Chapelle and Clos Prieur. Quick work was necessary to dry out the vineyards and prevent the spread of rot. There would be other widely scattered if less damaging hail events in August, too, making this another year in which the Burgundians could scarcely afford to take their regular August vacations.

As the veraison [the turning point in the summer when the green pinot grapes begin to take on color] had not yet occurred when the big hailstorm hit, and as sugar levels in the grapes were still low, grape skins thickened by the heat of July generally resisted the hail well and rot was slow to spread. But damage to the skins was not the only threat from the hailstorm. Where the vines’ foliage was severely damaged, this could affect the ability of the plants to ripen their fruit during the remainder of the season, and in fact it was often the most hail-affected parcels in normally cooler spots, such as Clos de Bèze, that were harvested at the very end in 2006, sometimes just ripe enough but in some cases not quite there. (In some instances, the significant crop reduction owing to hail was constructive for wine quality, but in other cases yields were tiny yet the wines still have a dry edge.)

August then turned cool and overcast, with periodic precipitation that was much more substantial in the Côte de Beaune and points south than in the Côte de Nuits. The deterioration in the weather ended all talk of an early harvest. The veraison didn’t take place until the second week of the month, and the grapes, especially where the skins had been weakened by hail, began to swell with water. Rot remained a constant threat, especially in lower-lying vineyards with poor drainage, areas that had been hit by hail, and on the Côte de Beaune in general. And not much was happening in the way of ripening.

September then saved the harvest, as the weather turned warm and sunny during the first week of the month, although a few humid days and isolated thunderstorms on the Côte de Beaune kept the rot pressures on there. In favored spots, though, the grapes dried out, the development of rot slowed to a crawl, and grape sugars shot higher under nearly ideal weather conditions. The ban de vendange (the official start of the harvest) was set for Monday, September 18th on the Côte de Beaune, and for the 20th for the Côte de Nuits. Although a number of top estates on the Côte de Beaune attacked their chardonnay first and maintained that the pinot was slower to achieve full ripeness, they nevertheless began picking pinot within three or four days after the first legal date because grape sugars were already in the healthy 12% to 13% range—and in many cases higher—and because they did not want to risk further rot if the weather turned against them. In fact, there were a couple days of showers later that week but by then the harvest was fully underway.

Vinifying the 2006s. Selection at the moment of harvest, both in the vines and on the sorting table, was critical to making clean wines with consistent ripeness. Many growers eliminated rotten and dried grapes, but others said it was even more important to toss out berries that were not sufficiently ripe. Winemaking decisions were also critical, with many producers practicing a “softer” vinification than usual, for fear of making wines with hard or dry tannins, or with a bitterness from crushed grape seeds that were not fully mature. Some did fewer punchdowns of the cap (pigeages), preferring instead to gently pump over the juice to keep the cap wet without physically working the fermenting must. Many growers who had vinified with a high percentage of the stems in the very ripe 2005 harvest cut back dramatically on the use of stems in 2006, fearing that they would introduce sharp tannins into their wines or even some off tastes of rot.

Most of the producers I visited in November told me they did very little chaptalization, as natural sugar levels in the grapes were high, in some instances higher than those of the previous year. But others reported adding a bit of sugar simply to prolong the fermentations. The levels of malic acidity in the grapes were generally quite sound owing to the cool weather of August, and thus the wines were hard to taste early on. But the malolactic fermentations, which took place at a leisurely pace and in many cellars did not finish until late spring, radically transformed the wines. By early summer the growers could finally see what they had made of 2006, and, on the Côte de Nuits especially, they began to turn a lot more optimistic.

The successful wines are medium-bodied and fresh, with lively floral, mineral and fresh fruit high notes. They have sufficient flesh to support their fairly firm tannins. Best of all they are scented, pure and accurate reflections of their terroir. But there are also wines that are thin and underripe, overextracted, dry on the finish owing to excessive extraction of tannins or traces of rot, or simply not pure. Obviously, these are to be avoided. As a rule, the Côte de Nuits has outperformed the Côte de Beaune, where grapes were generally larger due to higher precipitation totals in August and early September, and where the fruit required more careful sorting for rot. (I was struck by the smoother-than-usual tannins in many wines from Nuits-Saint-Georges, even from vineyards on the south side of the village, an area normally known for its robust wines.)

The 2006s are generally riper and fleshier than the 2004s, and at least at the level of quality of the underrated 2001s. I suspect that long-time Burgundy collectors will love the better 2006s, and many of these wines will give great pleasure while you’re waiting for the more powerful 2005s to reach full maturity. As a general rule, the village wines in 2006 will be at their best between 3 and 10 years after the harvest, the premier crus 5 to 15 and the grand crus 8 to 20.

The 2005s revisited. This is, pure and simple, the finest red Burgundy vintage of my professional career (I began tasting red Burgundies in depth with the ’78 vintage). You can find bad wines if you look in the wrong places—certainly I tasted numerous examples that either showed a slightly roasted fruit character or missed out on the potential richness of the vintage—but Mother Nature made it hard to go wrong. The classic 2005 is remarkably rich, deep and full, with high levels of dry extract imbuing it with everything its site can offer. It’s the whole package: remarkably clean aromas and flavors, full and often downright silky mid-palate texture, substantial but harmonious tannins, fresh acidity, and balance and structure for a long life in bottle.

Of course, these wines are so rich in material that it’s hard to believe most of them won’t close down in bottle at some point, perhaps for many years. In my extensive tastings in the cellars in November, many wines were already beginning to go into a shell. Never before have I appended so many +? notations to my ratings of young Burgundies. But the fact is that I believe many of the best wines will blossom spectacularly with bottle aging: today they only hint at their longer-term potential. As a general rule, and assuming that the wines are purchased in good condition and maintained in a proper cellar, the village wines should be at their best from 2010 through 2018, the premier crus from 2012 or 2015 through at least 2025, and the grand crus from 2015 or 2017 through 2030. The vintage’s top grand crus may last 40 years.

Inevitably, impatient collectors will make the mistake of opening these wines too early. And far too many of these wines will be sold on restaurant wine lists over the next couple of years. Consumers may enjoy the occasional spectacular bottle in the near term. But in most cases they’ll be getting only a fraction of what these wines have to offer, and in others they will wrestle with stubbornly closed, sullen wines and wonder what all the fuss is about.

Burgundy pricing. In a word, depressing. The 2005s left the cellars at more or less fair prices (in Euros), but the weak dollar, healthy mark-ups taken along the way by most players in the distribution chain, and a feverish aftermarket for the top items, have sent prices through the roof. Today, many grand crus that could be purchased in past vintages for $150 to $250 are now routinely $500 to $1,000 on the Internet. Even some of the official prices currently listed by importers are breathtaking. With demand from Asia and Russia continuing to mount, with the U.S. dollar near an all-time low, and with wine quantities in 2006 often lower than those of the previous vintage due to strict selection of the best fruit, don’t expect a return to affordable Burgundy pricing. Given the continued scarcity of the top items, American importers and retailers will have little incentive to cut back dramatically on their margins. One positive note: as 2006 is unlikely ever to be considered a great collectible vintage in the style of 2005, prices are unlikely to go exponentially higher in the secondary market. It also remains to be seen how much consumer interest there will be for second-tier 2006s when these bottles hit retailers’ shelves at today’s high prices.

Following are brief producer profiles and notes on the 2006s and 2005s, 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 numerous 2006 village wines that figure to be good but not special.