2010 and 2009 White Burgundies

It's hard to think of another important wine region where vintage generalizations are of so little value to consumers and collectors than the Cote d'Or. So when I say that I prefer the style of the 2010 white wines to that of the 2009s, that's not necessarily useful information about a wine you're considering buying. In fact, It's probably saying more about my own tastes than about any particular bottle. The 2010s, in theory at least, are my kind of white Burgundies: fresh, pure and minerally, with high-pitched fruit, floral and herbal notes along with intriguing saline soil tones; it's a vintage of wines that clearly express their terroir. The young '10s are very much in the manner of the 2008s, but perhaps less dense and tactile in spite of their low yields, and often a bit more pure, owing to healthier grape skins.

But in the real world, where people actually drink the wines rather than simply read about them, the choice of harvest dates was critical, as was the vineyard work during the summer.

The 2010 growing season. A cool, rather overcast May delayed the flowering in 2010, which eventually took place during the middle two weeks of June, or about a week later than normal. A particularly cool and humid period in the middle of the flowering caused significant coulure in many of the more precocious parcels of vines. The periods of precipitation in June also triggered outbreaks of mildew in some vines, and showery, unstable weather in late July and much of August once again was conducive to the development of mildew. Moreover, dry anti-cyclone conditions with cool nights from June 21 through mid-July left vines vulnerable to attacks of oidium. Through much of the summer, timely treatment of vines was essential.

September was cooler than average and following some light rain early in the month and a more serious storm on the 12th, which brought damaging hail to Santenay, affected the grape skins on riper vines and required many growers in the general neighborhood (including Chassagne-Montrachet) to pick their fruit before it degraded further. Some 2010 white wines from fruit affected by botrytis can be high in alcohol. In general, the grapes in 2010 were smaller than average, sugars were generally higher than in 2008, and total acidity a bit lower. Still, malic acidity levels in 2010 were slightly higher than average (but way lower, for example, than Chablis in 2010.)

Many of the Cote de Beaune's earlier-maturing chardonnay parcels achieved good ripeness of aromas with a nice balance of potential alcohol and acidity; they also rapidly lost any remaining vegetal character through the first week of September. But it was often difficult to achieve the same balance in the later-ripening parcels, as some cooler green notes remained and acidity levels stayed firm. I tasted numerous wines that simply lack give and are unlikely ever to become satisfying. Still, some of the best wines of the vintage are those from fruit picked on the late side with good ripeness. They benefitted from long hang time and can offer a particularly successful balance of fruit intensity, complexity and verve.

The selection of the best time to harvest was tricky in 2010, and careful triage was often required to eliminate grapes affected by rot or "chocolatey" skins. But at the level of the producers I visit every spring, the 2010 whites are clean wines, with very little rot and strong, fresh fruit--medium-bodied white Burgundies with noteworthy elegance and accurate vineyard character. Most of the wines I tasted at the end of May and beginning of June appear likely to offer relatively early appeal but also offer solid mid-term ageability. At the level of the best wines, the 2010s show lovely high-pitched aromas of fresh fruits, minerals, flowers and noble herbs; enticing inner-mouth energy; and medium weight. In short, they are typical and classic white Burgundies.

A look back at 2009. This was a warm, dry growing season that yielded a full crop of grapes. In theory again, the wines are fleshy, opulent and expressive early, with lowish acidity and high alcohol widely resulting in a blurring of terroir character. As a rule, the wines will give pleasure on the early side. But that's the theory. In fact, although most of August was quite hot, July and September were more moderate months. Thus, although there are some wines with overripe or even exotic aromas, fewer wines come across as over-the-top than in 2006, 2003 and even 2005, in spite of their rich textures. And vines in normally cooler sites benefited in 2009; they also produced ripe wines but with their sounder acidity and stronger mineral character giving them a balance that wines from riper sites often lack.

Plenty of 2009s show wonderfully fine-grained texture and good baby fat. But the aromas and flavors of others are blurred by high alcohol, and these wines do not offer the fruit of this generally fruity vintage. Cooler, higher sites often did best: they ripened their fruit while retaining a bit more acidity and minerality.

Winemaking decisions could also result in 2009s that don't fit the vintage profile. As one veteran broker told me, in their attempts to "bring back the vintage to balance and minerality," some winemakers used excessive doses of SO2, acidification or too much filtration. All of these steps can compromise the inherent richness of the vintage and give a false mouth feel of tightness, or even of minerality. Rough filtration of the wines can freshen them up initially, but at the expense of some of their texture and depth. So in 2009, too, generalizations are of little value. I recall Dominique Lafon describing his 2009s last year as elegant and balanced wines with healthy pHs and moderate alcohol; he seemed genuinely puzzled when some of his neighbors expressed the fear that their 2009s seemed a bit heavy. So much for vintage generalizations.

As you might expect, both vintages have their proponents. "If you asked me the question six months ago, I would have preferred 2009," said Bernard Hervet, CEO/adviser at Domaine Faiveley. "But since the malos of 2010 finally ended, the wines are getting better and better. We've made something completely different from 2009: more energetic, more minerally wines. But it's a question of taste preference rather than quality." He went on: "The 2010s are more austere than 2009s, but the wines at the village level give more pleasure. Still, most 2009s will be better over the next couple years than the 2010s."

The following wines were mostly tasted in the cellars at the end of May and beginning of June. I followed up by tasting more 2009s chez moi during the summer. As a rule, I have offered notes only on 2010s that had finished--or almost completed--their malolactic fermentations by the time of my visit. Numerous wines were late to finish their malos, but not as many as in 2008.