Burgundy: Sorting Out the ‘0 Tens’

“Let’s taste some 0 tens,” was Louis-Fabrice Latour’s invitation as I met him in late September at the imposing Chateau Grancey, the heart of the Domaine Latour estate in the picturesque Burgundian village of Aloxe-Corton where they vinify all the reds from their Domaine.  Inaddition to their négociant business, where Jean-Charles Thomas is in charge of winemaking, Latour’s Domaine holdings (vineyards they own) comprise about 125 acres, almost 60% of which are Grand Cru.  Indeed, Latour, with their 72 acres, is the largest owner of Grand Cru vineyards in the Cote d’Or.

Latour had started harvesting their Domaine wines about 10 days earlier and had just finished the previous day, so what we tasted varied from grape juice to wine that had yet to finish its alcoholic fermentation.  Even at this early stage, the magic of Burgundy was apparent.  Despite being sourced from the same grape–Pinot Noir–and same winemaking team, you could easily taste the differences from one terroir to another.  Corton Bressandes, Corton Perrières, and Corton Clos de Vigne au Saint, all lieux-dits (place names) within several hundred yards of one another in the same climat (vineyard) of Corton, were unique and distinctive.

And even at this point, it was enough for Latour and Denis Fetzman, whose has been the head of winemaking for the Domaine for 38 years, to determine that the quality was sufficiently high that, unlike 2007, they could make Corton Grancey, their flagship red Corton that is a blend composed of the best batches from their Grand Cru vineyards in Corton.

Chickens and Hens

The vintage will be remembered for two things: an extremely small crop and a pleasant surprise.

Latour, the current head of Maison Louis Latour and president of the négociant organization, thinks the crop could even be smaller than in 2003.  Fetzman noted that they could understand the short crop that year because of the drought and heat.  But the size of the crop in 2010 caught many by surprise.  Bruno Champy, tapped by Domaine Latour to replace Fetzman in 2012, said that the bunches of grapes weighed half of normal.

In retrospect, Fetzman speculated that the low yields were due to a severe frost in December of last year that affected the nascent flowers already encased in the plants’ buds.  The flowering in the spring was terrible, resulting in millerandange, or the formation berries of various sizes (sometimes called “chickens and hens”).  But Fetzman believes the reduced crop size would result in concentrated wines, perhaps not as charming as usual when young, but built to last.

Up until three weeks before the harvest, Latour figured it would be a reasonably sized crop affected by rot because of the cool rainy summer, but with high acidity (because of under ripe grapes).  But three weeks of perfect weather leading up to harvest changed the outcome.  It turned out to be a small crop, there was less rot than expected, and the acid levels had dropped to normal levels as grapes ripened under sunny skies.

A Small Crop

The number of lots at the Hospices de Beaune auction, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year on November 21, reflects the diminished size of the crop.  According to Roland Masse, winemaker and manager of the Hospices, there would be fewer barrels offered at this year’s auction than in 2009 or 2005, but it was too early for him to give a precise number.

Jacques Lardière, Maison Jadot’s veteran winemaker (who is set to retire after the 2012 vintage) agreed that the vintage “was difficult because of rot.”   Watching the workers at the sorting table at Jadot excising and discarding rotten berries from the bunches with a surgical-like precision helped explain why there would be less wine in 2010.  Unlike 2009, in which almost all the grapes could be used for wine, a substantial portion needed to be discarded in 2010.

In addition, hail hit parts of Santenay, including Jadot’s Clos de Malte vineyard, just prior to harvest.  Jadot, a house that always harvests by hand, had to rush out and find mechanical harvesters to bring in the remaining fruit quickly from the Clos de Malte vineyard before further damage ensued.   Lardière is fearful they will need to declassify much of the wine from Santenay down to Bourgogne Pinot Noir, but is upbeat about the quality of the vintage in general.  He noted with a broad smile that, “There would be some outstanding wines, especially from the Cote de Nuits.“

Sylvain Pitiot, who is in charge of Clos de Tart, a Grand Cru in Morey-St. Denis, said it was too early for him to asses the precise size of the crop (he knew the weight of the grapes, but not the volume of juice) to make accurate predications.  He sensed it would be smaller than average, but felt that the short crop would produce high quality wines.

Alex Gambal, owner of the eponymous winery, echoed others’ assessments, “small crop affected by rot.”  Working at his sorting table for several days, I was amazed by the variability of the rot, not only vineyard by vineyard, but from one plastic crate of grapes to another within the same vineyard.  Clearly, it’s a year in which the sorting table is the most important piece of equipment in the winery.

Whites versus Reds

Conventional wisdom holds that white wines are better than the reds in a year afflicted with rot because the skins play a less important role in the winemaking.  Indeed, many winemakers avoid skin contact entirely when making white wines, pressing the grapes immediately after harvest and fermenting the juice in the absence of the skins.  For reds, since the juice and the skins stay in contact during fermentation, any off flavors from the skins could be transmitted to the wine.  But among producers to whom I spoke there was no consensus about the 2010 Burgundies.  Gambal preferred the whites, while Latour favored the reds.  Roland Masse liked them equally.

All agreed that selling them, particularly in the United States, might be difficult because of the continued troubled economy, the small size of the crop, and the weakening (yet again) of the dollar.  And of course, the gorilla in the room is that they will follow the much hyped, deservedly praised, 2009s.

October 19, 2010