Burgundy’s 2018 Vintage: The Importance of Harvest Date

During the annual press conference in November, 2018 at which various Burgundy luminaries discussed the recent vintage, Françoise Labet, President of the organization that represents Burgundy wine, proclaimed that the recently completed vintage was, “Close to 1947,” which was a legendary year.  He voiced no concerns about finesse or elegance of the reds, and was pleased with the quality, quantity and consistency of the harvest.  He noted that it was the second full crop in a row, a welcome relief after five years of reduced yields due to frost and hail.

Tasting the 2018 vintage a year later, the standing of the wines seems notably different.  A final verdict can’t yet be stated, since most of the wines are still in barrel.  However, an assessment at this point is in order, as the wines are now being offered for sale as “futures.”  After tasting wines from throughout Burgundy at négociant houses, such as Bouchard Père et Fils, Joseph Drouhin, and Louis Jadot, as well as many small growers, I found that some of the wines, especially the reds, are truly spectacular, but the consistency is variable.  Unlike 2010 or 2015, 2018 is not a “point and shoot” vintage for the reds, though there will be some outstanding and memorable wines.

To address the growing season concisely, suffice it to say that 2018 was hot and dry. Twice as much rain as normal during the previous winter provided adequate ground water, which saved the crop from what otherwise might have been desiccating summer weather, according to Frédéric Weber, winemaker at Bouchard Père et Fils.  Though not as blistering as 2003, the heat meant that sugars rose rapidly and sometimes unpredictably just prior to harvest.  Waiting even a day to harvest resulted in over-ripe grapes in many instances.  Every grower with whom I spoke emphasized that the timing of the harvest was the most critical element in making balanced wines in 2018.  But there is no one date after which grapes were too ripe. The optimal timing of harvest is distinct for each vineyard and to each plot within a vineyard.

Following Labet at the podium last November 18, Ludivine Griveau, the winemaker of the Hospices de Beaune, emphasized the importance of harvest date.  She explained that it was the first time in her nearly two decades of winemaking that she had to “wrack my brain to decide the harvest date.  One plot was ripe but, 100 meters away, the grapes were not quite ready.  It was a very complicated puzzle.  We had the pieces, but [it was] hard to put [them] together.”  In the end, she was satisfied that they succeeded in harvesting ripe grapes—not overripe ones¬—but it took 13 days instead of the usual eight days to complete the harvest of their 117 plots.

Overall, the reds are more exciting than the whites.  That said, the whites will provide great pleasure for early consumption, especially those from the Mâconnais, while some from more exalted sites in the Côte d’Or are truly stunning at this stage and will likely benefit from significant bottle age.  Barrel samples of Corton-Charlemagne from Bouchard Père et Fils, Drouhin, Jadot and Latour, for example, were all superb, leading me to believe that that appellation did exceptionally well in 2018.  Similarly, barrel samples of Drouhin’s Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot Marquis de Laguiche, Bouchard’s Chevalier-Montrachet, Jadot’s Chevalier-Montrachet “Les Demoiselles” and Alex Gambal’s were all exceptionally energetic, supporting the idea that the best sites produce great wines even under difficult circumstances.

(As an aside, I should note that I do not review individual wines tasted as barrel samples; see http://winereviewonline.com/Michael_Apstein_Against_Barrel_Tastings.cfm)

Before harvest, growers were anxious about the quality of the whites, fearing the warmth of the vintage would produce flabby, low-acid wines. That turned out to be an unjustified fear.  Though lacking the energy of the 2014 or even the 2017 whites, the whites from 2018 that I tasted at Maison Bouchard Père et Fils, Maison Joseph Drouhin and Maison Louis Jadot were, across the board, charming—with surprisingly good acidity.  In general, wines from the better sites, premier and grand cru vineyards, held their acidity much better.  Though a tank sample of 2018 Bourgogne Blanc from Michel Bouzereau, a top grower in Meursault, that was just days away from bottling was riveting and could easily be mistaken for a village wine (92 pts, NYA; 2017 is $33).  In the same vein, Drouhin’s 2018 white Rully (already bottled) was stone-y, ripe and fresh and should be a good buy (91 pts, NYA; 2017 is $27).  The vast majority of village and regional whites are forward in flavor profile and should be excellent for immediate consumption as soon as they hit retailers’ shelves.

Consumers should keep an eye out for the 2018 Bourgogne Aligoté because the grape’s natural acidity buttressed the ripeness of the vintage.  For example, a soon-to-be-bottled tank sample of Bourgogne Aligoté from Domaine Lafouge, an outstanding grower in Auxey-Duresses who does not receive the recognition he deserves, was spice-y and concentrated, yet vibrant.  (91 pts, NYA; 2017 is $18.)

Consumers should also look for the whites from Pernot Belicard, a small grower based in Puligny-Montrachet.  Emphasizing the importance of harvest date, Philippe Pernot told me that, in addition to the usual analysis, he tasted the grapes at least every two days before harvest to help him decide when to pick.  It paid off.  Tank samples of his 2018 whites, just days away from bottling, captured the ripeness of the vintage without losing acidity.

Frédéric Barnier, the winemaker at Louis Jadot, described in his usual thoughtful way the dilemma unique to Pinot Noir of when to harvest.  He believes that climate change has disrupted the usual simultaneous ripening of the sugar and ripening of the tannins, the so-called physiologic ripeness.  The window between sugar and physiologic ripening has changed.  Now, grapes with sugar levels that would give a potential alcohol of 13 percent still have unripe green skins.  He emphasized that the trick is to find the right balance, which changes depending on the yield and the ratio of juice to skin.  Too early a harvest in 2018 gave wines with lower alcohol, better acidity, but greener tannins.  Too late a harvest gives alcoholic, heavy wines though with plusher tannins.  The potential problem with the reds of 2018 in his view is that the wines could be over-ripe, which obscures their sense of place.  “The biggest risk in 2018 was to lose the identity of each wine.”

Though Maison Jadot is a négociant, they also are a grower, farming over 300 acres of vineyards, which made the timing of the harvest difficult. Barnier explained that there was “no magic.  You needed to taste the grapes to be sure the skins were not green.”  Similar to the harvest at the Hospices de Beaune, Jadot’s picking was spread over an unusually long period.  Barnier is confident that they got it right.  He exclaims with a broad smile, “we have not made beasts.”  After tasting Jadot’s lineup, I agree.

Barnier explains that once a decade, the wines of the Côte de Beaune are more exciting than those from the Côte de Nuits… and that 2018 was such a year.  His enthusiasm was apparent:  “In 2018, the Côte de Beaune is really great, even better than the Côte de Nuits.  Compared to the usual year the Côte de Beaune is great, especially in under-rated appellations.”  An earlier harvest resulted in better balanced wines overall, in Barnier’s opinion.

Barnier emphasized what everyone to whom I spoke told me:  The trick for the reds in 2018 was to capture their finesse and not try to enhance their inherent richness and power with more extraction or oak aging.  After tasting a lineup of more than 30 of Jadot’s reds, it’s clear they hit a home run in 2018.  Without exception, Jadot’s 2018 reds have concentration, elegance and freshness.  And, indeed, looking back at my notes, I have more three-star wines (my top category) from the Côte de Beaune than from the Côte de Nuits, though there were plenty of outstanding ones from there as well.

Like the reds from Jadot, those from Bouchard Père et Fils were consistently outstanding, showing restraint, balance and what I consider the quintessential quality of Burgundy—flavor without weight.  Frédéric Weber attributed their unqualified success to the date of harvest and their attention to detail during the winemaking.  He explained, “We let things go gently.  We didn’t need a big extraction because colors came out immediately.  We needed to limit the extraction because the raw material had lots of power.”

Drouhin’s emblematic lacey, finesse-filled style suits this vintage very nicely.  I urge consumers to look for the lesser (and more affordable) appellations from Bouchard Père et Fils, Drouhin, and Jadot when the 2018s hit the market.

Domaine Bart in Marsannay is another grower, like Lafouge, whose wines fail to get the accolades they deserve.  The Domaine expanded in the mid 1980s, when the venerable Domaine Clair Daü broke apart because of family squabbles.  Bruno Clair wound up with half the estate.  Louis Jadot smartly purchased half of the remaining half.  The remaining quarter was added to Domaine Bart, where Pierre Bart, who runs the estate with his uncle, Martin Bart, are descended from another part of the Clair family. Though Bart owns parcels in Bonnes Mares and Chambertin Clos de Bèze, the estate is best known for its exemplary wines from Marsannay.  The Barts made eight lieux-dits in 2018, all of which were sublime and reflected their sites.  Pierre ascribed the suave texture and freshness of these wines to their caution against extracting too much during fermentation.  The Bart Marsannays usually represent fantastic value.  I strongly suspect that the ‘18s will as well.

Though generalizations are difficult, especially in Burgundy, here are my 2018 vintage take-aways at this stage of their evolution:

1) Though this is a big crop, the second in a row, prices will not fall because of world-wide demand.

2) The heat helped wines, both red and white, in areas where ripeness is sometimes a problem.

3) The whites from the Mâconnais and the regional or village wines from the Côte d’Or have an attractive fleshiness, which will make them a delight to drink upon release.

4) Many of the reds will be spectacular, but I would urge you to wait and taste them from the bottle before taking a plunge because a lot can happen between now and then, both in evolution of the wines and in politics—the tariffs.

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January 1, 2020