2018 Burgundy En Primeur
The 2018 vintage in Burgundy has attracted plenty of comment to date. The UK wine magazine, Decanter, released an article shortly after the harvest with the tagline that there were whispers in Burgundy suggesting this vintage could become ‘one of the region's all-time great vintages’; other sources alluded to the great 1947 vintage, one which is regarded as something of a legend. When we tasted the 2018s in advance of the Hospices de Beaune auction shortly after the harvest, we were certainly impressed by the quality on show; while we had heard concerns relating to the heat of the vintage, none of the wines seemed to reveal this in the glass. Was this going to be the case when we tasted more widely the following year?
This year, returning to Burgundy in October and November, we had the chance to assess a far broader sample in order to form our view of the vintage. There is no denying that 2018 was a hot and dry vintage, in fact the hottest vintage since 2003 and a vintage that received half the average rainfall recorded over the last 30 years. As dramatic as these parameters sound, neither is particularly encouraging for balance, particularly given that 2003 remains a decidedly mixed vintage, with very few wines approaching greatness. The 2003 whites lacked acidity and seemed overblown in the main, whereas the reds could come across thickly textured and cumbersome. And so, we approached our tastings with some trepidation.
The lack of rain through much of the 2018 cycle permitted for grapes with very high levels of sugar and thereby higher alcohol levels than normal (some Grand Crus were reported at approximately 15% compared to a more typical 13%). Soil water reserves were crucial as they ensured that, even in the dry conditions that prevailed, the vines avoided excessive stress. Winter and spring rainfall had done much to establish strong ground water reserves that benefited old vines with their extensive root network. But equally, the rain that fell through the growing season was well-timed, invariably in the hottest periods. Remarkably, acidity levels are not that low, perhaps as a consequence of fresh early season conditions as well as the shift between day and night-time temperatures towards harvest. In some cases, gentle acidification, which is not often practised in Burgundy, was more than justified in 2018. Perhaps the most fascinating fact, and one that sets 2018 apart from a vintage like 2003, is that the berries were not small in size, in fact they contained a good volume of juice. Jean-Pierre Latour reported that storms on 12th and 13th August had brought such significant rainfall that the berries almost doubled in size, countering the worrying fact that they were previously too tiny to yield much juice at all. So yields were generous in 2018, more notably in the Côte de Beaune than the Côte de Nuits, which is not something that we habitually expect from a hot, sunny vintage. The fruit was harvested in good condition with high levels of fruit and phenolic ripeness.
Without doubt, there is a sense that climate change is being witnessed in Burgundy, but, just as in other regions, growers are gradually adapting to counter the risks posed by these conditions. If we were to classify vintages of the last two decades, approximately half would be termed hotter vintages, resulting in richer, more concentrated wines with elevated levels of alcohol. Over this time period, growers and winemakers have learned from experience, with most exploring ways of slowing ripeness down, rather than encouraging it as was the case in the 1990s. Harvests in 2018 took place in August, as the fruit was fully ripe at this point. Marion Javillier described the vintage as a “traditional vintage Bourgignon”, which may seem an unusual comment in the context but when qualified by “rich and balanced, plenty of substance but harmonious, not a vintage ‘solaire’,” and with alcohol levels in all her wines of around 13 degrees (compared to 13.5-13.8 in her 2019s), you can appreciate her rationale.
The point concerning yields was a continual topic of conversation in the region – growers were pleased to have full cellars, given some growers lost significant proportions of the crop to frost in 2016 and 2017. Aside from financial considerations, the higher yields have done much to preserve balance in a hot dry vintage and that in itself is surely the most significant factor that has shaped the unique 2018 vintage, notably with regard to the whites where the yield was markedly higher compared to recent vintages. The size of the red harvest was more normal in comparison. Some growers in the northern half of Burgundy, the Côte de Nuits, may actually record a lower production volume than was the case in 2017, on account of more restricted rainfall in this area.
The style of the wines is difficult to describe in one catch all sentence. The best of the reds have good concentration of juicy fruit, with fine, ripe tannins and fine freshness. There is no lack of substance, but they do not come over heady or lacking in poise as could be expected on reading about the vintage conditions. Across the estates we work with there was a little variation in terms of structure that will be reflected in the recommended drink dates that we provide for guidance, but I think the best of the vintage will offer good potential longevity. There was a challenge for growers at harvest time, as the normal order of ripeness across their holdings may well have been different and so they had to determine the best order in which to harvest. This challenge was magnified by the fact that most vineyards achieved optimal ripeness at the very same moment, a point that was emphasised by Vincent Lécheneaut of Domaine Lécheneaut.
In terms of vinification, growers realised they needed to be careful with extraction as more tannins, and harder tannins, are leached from the skins in a higher degree of alcohol. Pigéage, punching down the cap of skins that forms at the top of a vat, was not practised widely as it could be too harsh. The approach was “more about infusion than extraction” as we have increasingly heard from more and more growers this year and in recent years. Indeed at one estate the wine was removed from the skins before fermentation had finished, the grower believing enough had been extracted by that point. The resultant wine was certainly well balanced.
The whites are shaped by harvest date, some growers may have waited a fraction too long before harvest and therefore lost a little poise. The best examples however have a remarkably classic profile, not in the same manner as say 2014, but there is a fine freshness that is not as apparent in vintages like 2015. The fruit did not struggle for ripeness, but the timing of harvest was everything – I am really pleased to see just how well estates like Latour-Giraud and Morey-Coffinet have come through the vintage. Their success owes much to their ability to mobilise their harvest teams in quick fashion to bring in the fruit at optimal ripeness, without allowing it to become overblown in any way. The longevity of the whites may not compare to the tauter, more linear nature of the 2014s or 2010s, but there is no doubt that these will prove to be impressive wines to drink over the mid-term, with the sole caveat relating to the judgement of harvest date. We should bear in mind that, in the Côte de Beaune, the harvest started around the 20th August and that ripeness was accelerated from this date, occurring perhaps twice as fast as the norm! Harvest invariably took place much earlier in the morning to ensure the fruit was brought in cool, such was the weather at harvest.
The 2018 Burgundy vintage may well prove a controversial one, with dramatically varying results possible from grower to grower even in the same appellation. The potential for high sugar levels and consequent higher alcohol – not to mention the threat to full and efficient fermentations – meant vignerons needed to be extra vigilant with the utmost attention to the evolution of the fruit across their holdings. We did taste a number of wines with higher alcohols, in which a lack of clarity and definition was immediately evident. None of these examples have made it into this Atlas offer. What we are delighted to report is that the producers and domaines with which we continue to work, or have started to work, remain focused and meticulous in their approaches. While they have captured the ripe fruit the vintage permitted, they have also, through early and swift harvesting together with sensitive vinification, retained a freshness and sense of place, the combination of which has yielded a plethora of beautifully crafted wines that will show well early but which have the substance to gain complexity with bottle age. In this sense we are in broad agreement with and full understanding of those Burgundians who maintain that, despite the relative heat, this is not a vintage ‘solaire’ but one which has produced wines of freshness, energy and an already evident clear sense of terroir.