2006 and 2005 White Burgundies

If there are any global warming deniers left, they are not generally to be found in the wine-producing regions of Europe. The future appears to be upon us, and my extensive tastings of the 2006s and 2005s this spring and summer gave a glimpse of the “new” white Burgundy: alcohol in the 13% to 14% range; moderate to low acidity; superripe if not downright exotic aromas and flavors that speak as much of varietal chardonnay fruit as of limestone-and-clay minerality and flowers; and early drinkability but questionable longevity. Although both vintages yielded many wonderfully rich and potentially outstanding wines, these are not your father’s white Burgundies—nor, for that matter, are they the wines you put in your cellar in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Both 2006 and 2005 were among the earliest Burgundy vintages ever, and with the even more precocious 2007 harvest already mostly in the tanks, we have another clear indication of climate change. (We can only hope that brisk, mineral-driven wines like the 2004s can be made once or twice per decade.) Happily, none of these vintages featured the roasted grapes or dangerously low acidity levels of 2003, a year that was particularly taxing to white varieties in Western Europe.

The 2006 growing season and harvest. The ban de vendange (the official date for the start of the harvest) was set for Monday, September 18, on the Côte d’Or, later than in Chablis for the first time ever, no doubt partly due to the fact that there was considerable rainfall on the Côte d’Or in August following a hot July—by most accounts, as much as six inches in the village of Chassagne-Montrachet. But after a very warm early September, during which grape sugars mounted quickly, a return of humidity and sporadic rainy spells exacerbated the rot pressures that had built up by late August. Where the vines had not been de-leafed and the grape clusters had not been thinned, rot could quickly spread, especially in more water-retentive sites. By the first legal date of the harvest, the grape skins in some vineyards were already showing danger signs. Ultimately, the selection of harvest dates was critical, and numerous growers told me it was essential to be reactive and flexible: harvesting plans often had to be changed on short notice when a vineyard demanded to be picked. Some of the earliest harvesters of chardonnay in 2006, such as Ente, Roulot and Lafon in Meursault, began picking as much as four or five days before the official start, with special dispensation from the wine police. But other estates in Meursault waited until a full week after the ban to start.

As a rule, the two camps have made markedly different styles of wine. Early harvesters maintained that their fruit was healthy and sufficiently ripe, and that waiting any longer would risk damage to the skins and a dangerous loss of natural acidity. Those who waited to pick simply did not believe their fruit was ripe, and they were willing to risk higher potential alcohol levels and some weakening of the grape skins.

In Chassagne-Montrachet, most growers did not start picking chardonnay until Wednesday, September 20, but the grape skins here, at least according to the producers I visited, were in more consistently good condition, and it was not at all clear from my early tastings that these growers paid much of a penalty for waiting. Still, strict selection at the time of harvest was often critical, even if few of the growers I visited admitted to bringing in fruit with much gray rot. Some told me that what little rot there was was of the noble persuasion, and indeed a bit of positive botrytis can give personality and richness to white Burgundy.

The development of the 2006 whites. Grape sugars were generally high and little or no chaptalization was needed. Acidity levels were widely described by winemakers as average, or healthy. A number of those I visited said the young wines showed a bit more early minerality and definition than the 2005s displayed at the same stage, but this may simply reflect the more expressive, forward quality of the new set of wines. As the musts were mostly rich to begin with, and as many winemakers did not feel that their lees were perfectly clean owing to less-than-perfect grape skins, some did a longer cold settling of the must than usual, keeping only the finer lees for the malolactic fermentation and aging. Others did less stirring of the lees (batonnage) than usual. In late spring, several winemakers I visited told me they intended to fine their wines with casein, which they believe can remove oxidative phenols and thereby revivify aromas and flavors and lighten wine color, but others reject this approach, as they believe the technique is hard on the wine and risks stripping it of texture and richness.

The exotic aspect of many of the young 2006 white Burgundies I tasted in late spring will give them considerable early appeal. Only the best of these wines are likely to age as slowly as the 2005s, another superripe group of wines but one with a tendency to be more introverted today. The ‘05s are glyceral, concentrated wines, high in alcohol and characterized by very ripe stone fruits. Numerous wines show more chardonnay than soil character, and some verge on heavy due to high alcohol. But the skins in 2005 were healthy, and my sense of the vintage is that, as the best wines slowly lose their babyfat with time in bottle, their underlying soil character and minerality will emerge with aging. It was a challenge to taste the 2005s in late spring and early summer, as many of the richest wines already appeared to be shutting down. But others, paradoxically, are simply austere: they finish with a slight bitterness from their elevated alcohol levels and they appear to lack enough supporting mid-palate fruit. In my notes and scores in this issue, I have attempted to differentiate between these two styles of wine.

Vintage highlights and lowlights. The village of Chassagne-Montrachet appears to have done better in 2006 than in 2005. As a few growers told me, the 2005s can be a bit blurry and devoid of personality today, even when the technical parameters are sound. Some growers blame the mid-July hailstorm here, which could reduce the potential crop level substantially but in some cases also played havoc with the ripening process. The ’06s here, in comparison, are at once rich and healthy, and they often show more verve and harmoniousness. In Meursault, there are likely to be some superb ‘06s, particularly from those estates that harvested early. But it was the 2005s here that really caught my attention on my recent trip, and again back in New York this summer. With each passing month, 2005 is looking more like a potentially great vintage for many of the village’s top estates. The best examples have everything: classic aromas and flavors of outstanding clarity; richness and intensity of flavor; mineral drive; structure and grip. In Meursault at least, 2005 may turn out to be one of the finest years of the past generation. In Puligny-Montrachet, it’s harder to choose between ’06 and ’05: both vintages yielded many outstanding wines but, in general, the ’05s are deeper and more classic.

On the following pages are brief producer profiles and tasting notes on the 2006s and 2005s, based on my visit to Burgundy in late May and early June, and on additional tastings done in New York since then. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines not yet bottled. Due to space constraints, I have omitted barrel notes on a number of village wines from the 2006 vintage.