White Burgundy 2009 and 2008

When I developed the wine habit just over 30 years ago, my gateway bottles were cabernet and chardonnay from Napa Valley (remember chardonnay from Napa Valley?). I soon discovered the more complex, idiosyncratic and soil-driven wines of France—specifically, red Bordeaux and white Burgundy. As I began haunting New York City’s top wine shops on Saturday afternoons, it became clear that I was hardly alone in my fixation: these were the two categories most hotly pursued by many budding enophiles in New York City. (The surge in red Burgundy’s popularity did not generally occur here until the hype began for the 1985 vintage.)

A generation later the love affair is over. Red Bordeaux and white Burgundy are no longer obsessed over by veteran winos, and for most casual consumers and relative wine neophytes they are simply two categories of expensive collectible wines out of many. Most long-time claret collectors are appalled by today’s high prices for top classified growths and their Right Bank equivalents; after all, these folks bought cases of first growths in the early ’80s for much less than they’d have to shell out for a single bottle today; besides, they long ago discovered red Burgundy, Barolo and Barbaresco, Rhône Valley wines, and even pinots and syrahs from the New World. Meanwhile, mass-market consumers can now choose from so many immediately accessible wines in every price range that Bordeaux is seldom at the top of their buy lists. Younger wine drinkers and sommeliers these days are not nearly so preoccupied with cabernet as were their predecessors—not when there’s a world’s worth of other red flavors to discover.

As for white Burgundy: In a weak economy, these wines are, apart from the occasional splurge, simply beyond the means of most wine drinkers. Even long-time white Burgundy collectors have become gun-shy because of concerns about premature oxidation, which can make long-term cellaring a risky business.

Our ongoing fascination with so-called Great Vintages has also had the effect of dimming interest in white Burgundy lately. After all, although many outstanding wines were made in 2007 and 2008, neither year is considered a no-brainer by critics. For those who enjoy vintage generalizations, here are mine: 2007: Minerally, leanish and austere, in need of aging. 2008: Minerally too, with greater density and richness than 2008, occasionally with a glyceral or even exotic quality due to some botrytis; a thicker and more accessible version of “classic” than 2007. But there are so many exceptions to the norm in both of these vintages that, as usual, I would urge readers to look beyond vintage generalizations and focus on the best producers and the best wines. And what about 2009?

The 2009 growing season. As I noted in my introduction to Chablis in the previous issue, 2009 was a very warm, dry growing season that yielded a large crop of healthy grapes. Most growers on the Côte de Beaune started harvesting chardonnay by September 9, with many of the habitual early pickers beginning the previous week. Grape sugars mounted quickly and acidity levels fell during a very warm spell during the first 12 days of September, after which temperatures moderated for the rest of the harvest. The Côte de Beaune was less affected by irregular ripening than was Chablis, where the later flowering was drawn out by cool, wet weather. Grape sugars were generally healthy but not extreme among those who did not pick too late. Acidity levels were generally lower than average, and many of those who picked early did so for fear that they would have acid-deficient grapes if they waited much longer.

With low levels of malic acidity in the grapes, the fermentations were generally easy and the malos went relatively quickly—in sharp contrast to the 2008s, whose malos were often difficult and extremely late. As a rule, 2009 produced a large crop of fleshy, fruit-driven wines offering considerable early appeal. The wines have baby fat but, in late May and early June at least, were not generally showing the minerality of 2008 or 2007. The less successful examples of 2009 struck me as blurry with alcohol and soft, with their lack of acidity giving them less definition and verve than the better wines from the two previous vintages. Some show rather exotic yellow fruit, or even tropical aromas and seem best suited for drinking over the next five to seven years. While rot was rarely an issue, several growers described their grapes as very ripe and pink.

But once again, generalizations do not hold up. The wines from a number of estates I visited seem much fresher and more classic—aromatic, silky and utterly beguiling. Dominique Lafon, who told me he considered 2009 an outstanding vintage for white wines since the outset, said he was puzzled by the comments of colleagues who said the ’09s had a heaviness. He described his wines as elegant and balanced, with healthy pHs and moderate alcohol levels. Henri Boillot ventured that 2009 is a year with “a lot of different styles, depending to a great degree on picking dates. Those who harvested early had the chance to make wines with strong acid backbone.” Jean-François Coche called 2009 a charming “vintage of pleasure,” comparable to attractive mid-term vintages like 1979 and 1982. These earlier vintages provided great enjoyment, so if Coche is right, white Burgundy lovers should have a lot of good juice to savor over the next 10 to 15 years.

A second look at 2008. The 2008s risk being lost between the classic, minerally and sometimes severe 2007s and the fleshy, easy-to-understand 2009s. This was a tricky growing season that began with a drawn-out flowering, and then was affected by oïdium, isolated hail events, a mostly gloomy summer, and a miserable August that set the stage for serious botrytis problems. But the harvest was saved by a drying north wind during the second half of September that helped nip incipient rot in the bud and often had the effect of concentrating sugars and acids. Picking dates were again critical, as fruit brought in too early could yield screechy wines, while late-picked grapes could quickly pass to surmaturité, and careful selection of botryis-affected fruit would have been essential.

As in Chablis, the 2008s from the Côte de Beaune often display pronounced minerality but also more buffering density of fruit and weight than the more austere 2007s. They often have a glyceral quality that comes from a bit of noble rot. The best wines of this vintage boast impressive depth of flavor and sex appeal; most of them will be ready to drink before the ’07s. But I also tasted a lot of wines that will need at least a few years in bottle to harmonize their thick textures and sweetness of fruit with their pronounced acidity.

As to the issue of premature oxidation: an early taster must make judgments, and predictions, based on what he or she tastes, and believes to be true about the producer’s viticultural and vinification practices. That said, until the Burgundians definitively ascertain the causes of premature oxidation and take the necessary steps to prevent it, it’s hard to give many of these wines the benefit of any doubt. Put another way, there are still too many superb wines available from top estates to take expensive risks on the rest. In my coverage in this issue, I have tried to make clear with my descriptors where I have nagging doubts about the freshness or likely longevity of the wines I tasted. Descriptions like “lacks verve,” “exotic aromas,” “nut skin,” even “honeyed” in the context of a low-acid wine, should be taken as indicators of wines best suited for early consumption.

This issue features brief producer profiles and tasting notes on the 2009s and 2008s, 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.