An Early Overview of 2007 Burgundies

Even though it’s hard to recommend specific wines from the 2007 vintage at this stage because most are unfinished and still developing in barrel, an early assessment of the 2007 vintage in Burgundy is important because it helps determine a buying strategy now. The size and quality of the 2007s will affect prices of both existing stocks and the new vintage. So, even an early look at the new vintage as a whole will help you to determine whether you want to save your money and buy the ’07s when they are offered for sale or scour the market now for the remaining wines from prior vintages.

My assessments are based on visits to Burgundy in November 2007, March, June, and September of 2008, and tastings in the cellars of large négociants, such as Jadot, Latour, Bichot and small négociants/growers, such as Alex Gambal.

The Perils of Barrel Tastings

Tasting wines from barrel is fraught with difficulty and consumers should remember that when wine critics give their assessments of individual wines based on barrel samples.

Let’s start with the obvious. Is the barrel new, one year or two years old? Many producers in Burgundy age a portion of a wine in new oak barrels and a portion in older oak barrels and then blend them prior to bottling. Having tasted the same wine from barrels of different ages, I can tell you that the age of the barrel has an enormous impact on the taste of the wine.

Next, who made the barrel? During the barrel-making process, the staves are heated (toasted) to allow them to bend and be shaped into a barrel and to impart another layer of flavor. Whether the wine is aged in a light-, medium- or heavy-toasted barrel influences its flavor.

Now for the less obvious, but no less important, variables. Sugar fermentation and later, malolactic fermentation, does not proceed at the same rate in all barrels. Alex Gambal, a quality-oriented small négociant, noted extreme variability in the pace of malolactic fermentation with the ’07s. Even seasoned veterans, like Jacques Lardière, Maison Louis Jadot’s wizard winemaker, can’t explain the difference in the speed of fermentation–either sugar or malolactic–one barrel to the next. How long a wine is tasted after the completion of sugar or malolactic fermentation, or how recently the wine was racked from one barrel to another, has an enormous effect on the taste of the wine.

In Burgundy, where there is no blending of wines made from different grapes as there is in Bordeaux, the winemaker still must blend the different barrels for the final wine. Hence, tasting from one barrel doesn’t mean you are tasting the final wine. Furthermore, a winemaker may declassify some higher pedigree appellations into less prestigious ones depending on how they are aging in barrel and market demands. At Jadot, for example, Lardière always blends a substantial amount of wine from premier cru Chassagne Montrachet vineyards into the straight village wine. These are premier cru that either Lardière doesn’t think are worthy of the appellation or are small lots that he opts not to commercialize. I assure you that Jadot’s village Chassagne Montrachet–always a great buy–tastes very different depending on whether you taste it before or after Lardière has added the wine from the premier cru vineyards.

So Why Bother with Barrel Tastings?

With all the problems and uncertainty, why bother with barrel tastings at all? Because you can still get a clear sense of the vintage as a whole, even if you can’t assess individual wines. And sometimes, when you taste the same wine from enough barrels and repeatedly at different stages, you do get a sense–even though you haven’t tasted the finished product–that it will be fantastic. Jadot’s 2007 Chevalier-Montrachet ‘Les Demoiselles’ or Latour’s 2007 Meursault-Blagny are cases in point.

The Weather

As always, the weather determines the size and quality of the crop. Winemakers described the weather in 2007 as ‘upside down.’ Christophe Chauvel, Bichot’s viticulturist commented, ‘We had summer in April.’ It was unseasonably hot, which resulted in early flowering and presaged an early harvest. The remainder of spring and summer was cool and damp. In July 2007, during a visit, I noted that the vineyards had a light blue color from the widespread spraying of copper sulfate to fight the mildew–which thrives in humid conditions–that threatened the vines and made growers nervous about rot on the grapes.

Selection, Selection, Selection

Similar to 2006, the potential for rot on the grapes at harvest and in the wines was high. But the wines I’ve tasted have been clean and pure without a trace of rot, which means that selection of the grapes at harvest was key.

Louis-Fabrice Latour, head of Maison Louis Latour, confirmed the importance of selection. ‘Twenty years ago a vintage like 2007 in Burgundy would have been a disaster because nobody was doing the kind of severe selection that a vintage like 2007 demanded. Now everybody realizes the importance of selection.’ The reason the 2007 reds are good, according to him, is that conscientious producers performed a green harvest and used sorting tables. Gambal echoed Latour’s assessment, ‘Now even small producers have vibrating sorting tables.’

The Reds

The 2007 vintage produced charming reds with relatively low levels of acidity that should be immediately enjoyable. The reds are forward and fruity, and surprisingly–given the cool damp summer–pure and free of off flavors. They should be consumed soon, while the wines are young, and their freshness and charm can be savored. Although they’ve already put on additional flesh even in the 9 months since I first tasted them, this is still not a vintage to lay down, but rather one to drink while waiting for the more structured 2006 and 2005 reds to mature. Jean-Charles Thomas, the cellar master at Maison Latour, summarized succinctly what many producers told me, ‘We are bottling the reds sooner than usual to preserve their fruitiness.’

Lardière categorized the 2007 reds as ‘good wines overall, but not a great vintage to age. Some, however, will be better than 2006s or even some 2005s.’ He believes, as do most of those to whom I spoke, that the reds will be far better than the whites in 2007.

The 2007 reds are delightfully forward Burgundies with mild–almost unapparent–tannins. Even at the Grand Cru level they are immediately engaging and ‘pretty’ wines. They will be especially well suited for restaurant wine lists, unless their prices deter diners. Their forwardness should make them a good introduction to red Burgundy for Americans and an attractive alternative to California Pinot Noir.

The Whites

Inexplicably, the development of Chardonnay fruit was delayed during the 2007 growing season, and when it finally matured, it did so much later than the Pinot Noir. (Normally in Burgundy, the harvest begins with the whites.) According to Chauvel, some of the Chardonnay was not ready for harvest even after all the Pinot Noir had been picked. He cannot explain the slow maturity of the whites. ‘The flowering difference between the whites and reds in spring was normal, five to six days, but something happened in July and August to retard the development of the white grapes.’

Many growers panicked, fearing the crop would be destroyed by autumn rains, and picked the Chardonnay too soon, before it was fully ripe. As a result, many of the whites are very acidic. Lardière summarized the potential problem with the whites, ‘Some may not be completely mature, but those producers who waited longer (to pick) produced balanced whites. Some will be better than some of the whites from 2005.’ That probably explains why Jadot’s 2007 Chevalier-Montrachet ‘Les Demoiselles’ is so dazzling.

I found the high acid style of the 2007 whites appealing because the acidity in the finish amplifies the flavors in the wines. I suspect they will turn out better than many suspect, especially those from producers who waited to harvest until the fruit was fully ripe.

My Advice

There’s no rush to buy either the 2007 reds or whites as ‘futures’ because it’s not a ‘hot’ vintage–like 2005–that will sell out quickly. The lack of demand means that you will be able to taste before you buy, always beneficial when buying Burgundy, an area known for extraordinary variability. Importantly, these wines will evolve substantially between now and the time they are on retailers’ shelves.

The 2008 harvest was underway during my last visit to Burgundy and although the quality can’t be predicted, it is clear that the volume is down by about 30%, which means that there will be pressure on prices of prior vintages.

Hence, I suggest consumers search the market for 2004 and 2006 whites and 2005 and 2006 reds that many wholesalers are closing-out in response to the current economic uncertainty. I maintain that 2004, with firm supporting acidity, was an excellent vintage for white Burgundy. Marty’s, an excellent retailer in Newton, Mass. (617-332-1230 website to debut in 2009), is selling Bouchard’s stunning 2004 Meursault-Perrières for $49. Zachy’s, one of the country’s leading retailers, located in Scarsdale, NY, has a long and attractive list of 2005 red Burgundies for under $50 a bottle, including Nicolas Potel’s Savigny-lès-Beaune 1er Cru Peuillets for $35; Jadot’s Fixin for $25 or Beaune 1er Cru Avaux for $40, and Latour’s Beaune Vignes Franches for $44. Undoubtedly, retailers in all parts of the country are feeling the same pressure, so check with your local merchants to see what they’re closing-out.

October 21, 2008