2012 and 2011 White Burgundies

After hearing a number of Cote de Nuits producers rave about the creamy density of fruit and ripe tannic structure of their tiny 2012 crop of red Burgundies last fall, I began my late-spring white wine tour of the Cote de Beaune with a mixture of optimism and trepidation.  After all, the growing season of 2012 was a wild ride that posed serious challenges to vines and growers alike, and conditions were more difficult south of Beaune.

In fact, 2012 has turned out to be a very good vintage for the white wines of the Cote de Beaune, yielding many flamboyantly rich, concentrated, sexy examples (I will taste the reds in depth later this fall).  It's also an uneven vintage because, as is often the case, weather conditions on the Cote de Beaune were even more extreme than those on the Cote de Nuits.  So although there will be many outstanding wines in 2012, buying the vintage will require selectivity.  And prices will be high, owing to the very short crop.

Strange to say, as a very general statement the 2012s taste like wines from an early harvest even though the grapes were picked during the second half of September, while the very early-harvested 2011s (most chardonnay on the Cote de Beaune was picked during hot weather at the end of August and beginning of September) tend to taste like wines from a later growing season.  This rather curious phenomenon is a good indicator of the climatic weather roller-coaster France has been on in recent years.  (And 2013 has been every bit as crazy.)

The 2012 growing season and harvest.  Following a cold, sodden winter, there was a break for better conditions in March.  But April, May and June were fairly miserable.  The season began with episodes of frost in mid-April and mid-May, the latter more of a factor in Chassagne-Montrachet than in Puligny or Meursault, but it was the lousy weather during the flowering in June that set the stage for a very small crop.  The flowering was drawn out across nearly three weeks, with heavy showers and especially cool temperatures marking the beginning of the period.  Under poor conditions, there was substantial coulure (poor set, or shatter) and millerandage (shot berries, or "hens and chicks") as well as serious mildew pressure.

A series of hail events further reduced the potential size of the crop, damaged the foliage and exacerbated disease pressures.  The most destructive of these were on June 30 and August 1 (the former causing significant damage in Meursault, Pommard, Volnay and Beaune, the latter in Puligny-Montrachet and the south side of Meursault, including the top premier crus), but Burgundy witnessed highly localized hail at the end of May and on June 7 as well, and at a couple more points in July and August.  Growers treated their vines repeatedly against mildew and oidium but their efforts were often washed away by rain the next day.  There were also some short hot spells in late June, late July and mid-August, but little in the way of extended heat.

Temperatures became more consistently summery in mid-July, but occasional storms, including the hail on August 1, continued to threaten the grapes.  Better weather prevailed through August and well into September; breezy conditions during the last couple days of August and first week of September sharply reduced rot problems.  The thick grape skins also helped to forestall maladies.  While temperatures cooled somewhat as the harvest approached, it remained largely dry, with some nippy nights helping to preserve acidity in the grapes.
Most growers began harvesting their chardonnay between the 17th and 21st, with some starting a couple days earlier because they wanted to avoid getting overripe grapes and losing acidity.  A few growers I visited told me that the vines were tired by the end, as was also the case in 2011, and needed to be picked.  The first several days of the harvest offered very good conditions, but then light rain fell on the night of the 21st and more precipitation on the 24th and 25th.  Many earlier harvesters made a point of telling me that they were finished by the afternoon of the 21st, as they had picked quickly ahead of forecasted rain (which in the end was lighter than predicted).

While there was little rot, it was often necessary to eliminate dried grapes and those affected by hail.  The effects of hail ranged widely, as some vineyards had been hit multiple times and others scarcely touched.  In some cases, the loss of foliage had resulted in loss of acidity, while in others the remaining fruit struggled to ripen and acidity levels remained high.  Most producers agree that the hail occurred early enough in the season that the obviously affected berries shriveled up and fell off the vines.  Even the major August 1 storm was followed by dry, windy conditions, which facilitated this process.

The crop, which had been cut sharply by the poor flowering, was eventually down by 20% or so in spots that escaped hail to as much as 70% or 80% in sites that were seriously hit.  Many growers cited extremely low estate-wide production numbers.  The worst-affected producers are seriously short on wine in 2012, but red wine producers in Volnay and Pommard are in even worse shape, especially after the catastrophic July 23 hailstorm this summer.  (Crop levels in 2012 are also off dramatically on the Cote de Nuits, but due mostly to the difficult flowering, as hail was not generally an issue farther to the north.)

The vinification and the wines.  Alcohol levels were mostly healthy in 2012 and the thick-skinned grapes held little juice.  Many growers reported that they did more careful cold soaks than usual in order to begin their fermentations with clearer juice.  Some, especially the early harvesters, chaptalized their musts lightly while others were more than happy with the potential alcohol they already had--often between 12.5% and 13.2%, and sometimes higher.  The fermentations generally went well but not too quickly.  Many producers subsequently cut back on lees stirring because they felt that the wines did not need more texture and they did not want to introduce any oxidative influence.

The malolactic fermentations were mostly finished by late spring but some were tardy, probably owing to healthy levels of tartaric acidity in the grapes (nighttime temperatures in the weeks leading up to the harvest were mostly cool).

My early look at hundreds of wines suggests that the 2012s are generally very rich, generous, full-bodied wines with a lot of dry extract, very much reflective of tiny yields and small grapes.  While some growers consider their 2012s to be classic white Burgundies, others find the wines to be overconcentrated.  As I have written in these pages through the years, some of Burgundy's most intelligent white wine producers are convinced that chardonnays made from tiny yields will never be the most elegant style:  they will always have some sort of imbalance reflecting the extremes of their growing season.

Indeed, I found a number of 2012s to be too powerful to be considered classic, often with a tendency toward heaviness.  These wines are robust but not austere; with their major levels of baby fat, they still need to be refined during their last months in barrel or tank, and may well benefit from a fining before bottling.  Some growers believe that the wines have good inherent minerality but that it's currently blocked  by the wines' fat.  They expect their wines to gain tension in the months leading up to the bottling.

Many 2012 white Burgundies are thick and rich in the way of some of the expensive boutique chardonnays from California.  Finally, a white Burgundy vintage that will not be steamrolled by California wines in early blind tastings.

Happily, relative few wines show obvious signs of surmaturite, so the aromas of these wines can be quite fresh and complex.  If anything the 2012s are weightier--more outsized--than the 2010s, but they rarely have the tactile, dusty minerality, the density of texture, or the bracing acidity and inner-mouth tension of the earlier vintage, which is looking more and more like a once-or-twice-a-generation vintage.  But where the 2012s do have enough acidity, definition and grip, they are extremely impressive and should age very well.  The combination of sheer richness of fruit and lively, harmonious acidity makes the best 2012s exceptional.  These latter wines will probably outperform their older 2010 siblings for at least the next several years.

The 2011s in the bottle.  This has turned out to be an elegant and attractive set of wines, in spite of the freakish year, in which summer-like conditions in April led to a flowering even earlier than that of 2003.  But late spring and summer were then miserable.  The vines struggled to ripen and achieved decent phenolic maturity at moderate alcohol levels.  Some wines show distinctly underripe green notes and peppery herbs.  It's possible that this pyrazine quality may be partly due to the outbreak of ladybugs (coccinelles) in 2011, some of which could have found their way into the vats.  But most growers with sorting tables were careful to eliminate ladybugs, and they generally agree that green tastes in their wines are much more likely to be due to incomplete phenolic maturity.

Other 2011s lack real intensity, thrust and length.  While relatively few wines show signs of overripeness, some come off as flat or even neutral, suggesting that the fruit was allowed to hang too long after the vines' cycle had finished.  Other wines are a bit too polite.  While some wines show more structure with extended aeration without losing their fruit, others display a mounting tartness.  This probably would have been a mediocre year if the crop had been prolific, but then the same can be said of 2012.

The better 2011 wines (and I normally limit my visits to the tip of the Burgundy quality iceberg) are elegant, fresh, soil-driven examples of white Burgundy that will give early pleasure while enjoying moderate aging potential--say, 4 to 8 years for village wines, 6 to 12 for premier crus and 8 to 18 for grand crus.  They are not blockbusters but they often offer delicate, complex, mineral-driven aromatics not often provided by chardonnays made outside Burgundy.  It is no exaggeration to say that in some cellars, I preferred at least some 2011s to the same producers' 2010 versions, for their balance, light touch and sheer drinkability.  But they generally can't match the 2010s for density, energy or grip.

Most of the wines featured in this article were tasted in Burgundy at the end of May and beginning of June.  I sampled many more 2011s subsequently in New York City.