2008 Red Burgundies

Two thousand eight is yet another red Burgundy vintage that will split the market.  It already has.  Long-time Burgundy aficionados who prefer wines of delicacy, aromatic complexity, vibrancy and sharply defined terroir character are gravitating toward these wines, while those who get hot and bothered by the fleshiness and fully ripe fruit of only the warmest years may wonder what all the fuss is about.

It's clear that the 2008s have now been overshadowed by the 2009s, just as the very good but initially understated 2001s were largely ignored at the time by the early hype for the 2002s. A decade earlier, the 1991s were born in the shadow of the large-scaled, fleshy 1990s.  But with both the 1991s and 2001s, seven or eight years later Burgundy lovers began to discover the qualities of these vintages, and many U.S. importers went back to their suppliers to snap up the best wines that remained.  I fully expect the same thing to happen with the 2008s, the best of which are wonderfully pure and elegant expressions of red Burgundy.

As I wrote in Issue 149, "The most successful 2008s are sharply delineated, classic Burgundies with the complex fruit, mineral, floral and soil perfume and the inner-palate energy that other pinot-producing regions can only dream about--if the wines were made with intelligence from sufficient ripe and clean raw materials."

I love the best 2008s; they are my kind of Burgundies.  While relatively few wines have the sheer density of material to require more than another seven or eight years of additional bottle aging before approaching peak drinkability, the better wines have the structure for mid-term drinking--say, 10 to 18 years for the premier crus and 12 to 25 for the grand crus.  Some wines have the stuffing, structure and tightly coiled springs to surprise with their longevity.  A number of growers I visited in November clearly prefer the style of 2008 over 2009, and several of them are convinced that the 2008s have better nervous systems for aging.

To be sure, 2008 is a year of widely varying quality.  Even the producers I routinely visit in Burgundy, who represent the tip of the quality iceberg, were not all successful in 2008.  So you can only imagine how tricky it would be to purchase 2008s from  Burgundy's lesser lights.

The challenges of the 2008 growing season.  As I reported a year ago, the growing season was a throwback to the vintages of a generation ago.  The flowering was interrupted by cool, rainy weather, which resulted in millerandage and set the stage for uneven ripening.  A rather dreary summer triggered oidium and mildew and required constant vigilance on the part of growers.  The ripening proceeded slowly, and even at the beginning of September grapes in many areas were still green, with rot pressures building.  The vintage looked like a disaster in the making, as much of the fruit had barely reached 9% potential alcohol.  But then, following significant rainfall on September 12 and 13, the weather finally cleared, and a drying north wind blew for the next three weeks, with further precipitation holding off until early October.

Many growers told me last year that phenolic ripeness was ahead of sugar ripeness in 2008, and as grape sugars climbed, well-placed vineyards could ripen well.  Other sites achieved healthy potential alcohol levels more through evaporation of water in the grapes due to the drying wind.  Farmers who had reduced crop levels during the summer and pulled leaves in late August or early September to open up their clusters to the sun eventually got healthy sugar levels, but ripening was irregular and the most conscientious growers eliminated their less-ripe (and rotten) fruit in the vines or on their sorting tables.

The 2008s generally show piquant acidity, not to mention herbal and peppery elements, and the better wines are ripe enough to evolve positively in bottle.  Of course the lesser wines can be unacceptably green or tart, or simply too thin to give much pleasure.  Although it's the rare 2008 that can match its 2009 sibling for fleshiness or sweetness, I was surprised by the number of beautifully balanced, silky midweights I found. These wines offer classic Burgundy intensity without weight, and their impression of tightly coiled energy can be thrilling.  I tasted wines whose sappy core of fruit and ineffable high notes of flowers, minerals and spices--and sometimes more exotic yet vibrant notes of blood orange and white fruits--make them dance on the palate.  These successes of the vintage do not lack for material or structure.

The 2008 vintage has also yielded some very successful but downright uncompromising wines whose savory, smoky earth tones convey great site specificity but which may not possess the primary fruit qualities that so many pinot lovers crave.  But these wines will be appreciated by connoisseurs of terroir.  Happily, there's little in the way of outsized or cooked wines in 2008, as the conditions of the growing season did not support this style of wine unless fruit was left to hang too long, or fermentations were too hot and tumultuous.

As a rule, the Cote de Nuits was more successful than the Cote de Beaune.  As Bouchard winemaker Philippe Prost put it last year, the Cote de Nuits wines show a "cool concentration," while some Cote de Beaune wines made from fruit concentrated by the wind could display a more plummy character, even some hints of dehydrated fruit.  And some vineyards on the south side of the village of Volnay were affected by hail in late July.

A relative bargain in red Burgundy?  Burgundy's 2009 reds, not surprisingly, are opening at very high price levels, in response to strong demand, and the top wines will be difficult to find in the U.S. marketplace, not least because a growing percentage of these wines is now being shipped to more dynamic markets with stronger currencies (i.e., Asia). Importers, distributors and retailers here have little incentive to hold down their mark-ups because they have struggled to make money on Burgundy since 2005, and 2009 finally looks like a vintage that will sell through fairly easily.  Meanwhile, many 2008s remain on retail shelves and may soon be sharply discounted.  So it's probably no exaggeration to say that some 2008s will be available for half the price as the same wine from the 2009 vintage.  Long-time Burgundy lovers should be ready to pounce.

Most of the wines in this article were tasted in Burgundy, others in recent weeks chez moi.  Additional sets of samples were still arriving at press time, and I plan to add more notes to this issue in the following weeks.