When I asked a prominent Burgundian vigneron at what point during a growing season a winemaker knows for sure that the vintage will be great, she replied: “On the day of harvest.”
To me, that single upchuck of cold, hard truth says more about the difficulties of being a winemaker in Burgundy than the dozens of books written on the subject. Everything about the occupation is beholden to the tides of fate—weather, pests, mildew, even the fluctuation in market pricing. When I asked her if, on the Sunday prior to the day of harvests the churches in Burgundy were busier than usual, she laughed, “We’re Catholic. Our churches are always packed.”
That said, vintage 2014 in many ways typified the best and the worst the region has to throw at long suffering loyalists, especially in Beaune. Following three consecutive low-yield vintages, everybody in Burgundy was praying for a copious crop. With the introduction of modern improvements like pre-crush sorting and all-organic viticulture, few vintages are complete busts, but when yields are low, certain disadvantages unrelated to fruit quality set in. As any home winemaker knows, small batches of wine often begin to ferment at uncontrollable speeds, because fermentation is an exothermic process, which means that heat is produced as the yeast are doing their work and this raises the temperature of the must. A sufficiently cool environment for primary fermentation is not always possible. Plus, in smaller batches, the heat doesn’t dissipate as readily, so it is easy to exceed the maximum optimum fermentation temperature, which for white wines is around 55°F and for reds, around 80°F. Runaway heat plays hell with volatile aromatics and can produce funky flavors of its own. The lessened time for skin contact in quicker, hotter fermentation is another negative that results in substandard must.
In short, when yields are kept intentionally low, concentrated, complex wines may result, but below a certain level, the law of diminishing returns sets in.
In Côte de Beaune, the southern part of the Côte d’Or, 2014 pushed some limits to that critical mass after violent hail storms in the end of June, wreaking havoc outside the villages of Volnay, Pommard, Meursault and Beaune. The plague of hail is a double whammy in vineyards, because not only is fruit destroyed, but damaged wood goes into repair mode, producing the botanical equivalent of scar tissue. This can impart off-flavors, so destemming becomes a labor-intensive priority. In Beaune, in some of the vineyards hardest hit, sorting and destemming resulted in ratios of four bad grapes to every one that was salvageable.
The July that followed was less than ideal, with damp weather and chilly temperatures leading to slow ripening. And the first half of August was even worse. Said Gevrey-Chambertin’s Pierre Damoy: “Given that this was supposed to be an early vintage, the awful weather in August slowed everything down and caused us great anxiety.”
Then, voilà! Skies cleared, the sun warmed things up, and steady ripening through mid-September seized victory from the jaws of defeat. In all, whites fared better than reds, as thicker skinned Chardonnay was better able to withstand the fruit fly infestation that descended on the Côte de Beaune in the final weeks of August and some Pinot Noir growers, fearful that the flies would destroy their remaining crop, picked too early. Early-picked Pinot Noir leads to wine with unripe anthocyanins and tannins, both vital for color stability and textural quality. Growers who resisted the temptation to jump the gun were rewarded with wines both voluptuous and age-worth.
The beautiful safety net in the French AOC system is that Burgundies can be declassified by the producer if the fruit in a given harvest is deemed of insufficient quality to warrant using a previously, fully earned classification like Grand Cru. In other words, in off years, Grand Cru wines can be called Premier Cru, Premier Cru can be downgraded to Villages and Villages can become a basic Bourgogne. Of course, even in exceptional years that practice cannot work in reverse—unless your designation changes, there are no labeling upgrades.
The line-up of newly-released 2014 from Côte de Beaune I sampled featured producers Domaine Rapet, Domaine Bart, Domaine Françoise & Denis Clair and Domaine Claudie Jobard.
As far as Burgundy producers go, these are all rationally-priced selections fully capable of expressing the subtle majesty of the Burgundy, 2014.
Under the auspices of Vincent Rapet, Domaine Rapet sits on fifty prime acres in Pernand-Vergelesses, Savigny-lès-Beaune, Aloxe-Corton and Beaune.
Creamy apple strudel scents on the nose, crisp and ripe and stylish on the palate . The climat sits within a protected valley that lies between the fabled Grand Crus of Corton and Corton Charlemagne. The terrain funnels the wind, drying the grapes and concentrating the juice, producing a wine with a lovely mouthfeel and a long finish.
Beaune “Clos du Roi” Premier Cru, $46
Sandy soils in the northern end of Beaune make for a floral bouquet; the wine is rich with black fruits, ripe and ample with friendly cinnamon notes; sweet oak and austere minerality reins it in.
Pernand-Vergelesses “Ile de Vergelesses” Premier Cru, $56
The sheer vividness of the nose is outstanding; macerating black cherries mingle with rose-petals, lychee and spices with an almost chocolatey accent. The structure is powerful and rounded and the finish satisfyingly long.
¡Ay, caramba! Pierre Bart is the sixth generation Bart to manage the family holdings in Bonnes-Mares and Chambertin-Clos de Bèze, as well as Santenay.
Marsannay “La Montagne”, $26
Slightly smoky with aromatic hints of blueberry, cherry and cassis; fresh-tasting in the mouth, although the wine dies fairly quickly after mid-palate. The tannins feel a little raw still and need some time to integrate.
Domaine Claudie Jobard
Claudie Jobard manages 23 acres of old vines in Côte Chalonnaise and Côte de Beaune, including prime parcels in Pommard from family ties with Domaine Gabriel Billard. She’s the daughter of Laurence Jobard, Joseph Drouhin’s winemaker/enologist for 30 years.
Rully “Montagne la Folie”, $22
Beautiful aromas of apple peel, damp pavement, citrus and butterscotch. Extended skin contact without bâtonnage imparts a delightful richness to the wine, which at this price, is a genuine steal.
Bourgogne “Cuvée Milliane Vieilles Vigne”, $21
Fruits tends to the red side of the spectrum, with tart cherry and wild raspberry along with a soil-driven earthiness. Generally simple and short-lived, this is an ideal accompaniment to a light meal served outdoors.
Floral, peach, golden delicious, mineral
Rully “Le Chaume”, $22
Black currants and light red cherries, this is an entry level, Village wine from a single vineyard. Nice, not too complex, but balanced and well-rounded.
Pommard “Les Vaumuriens” Billard, $41
More clay in the soils of Pommard produce a lush, full-bodied wine of great repute. This one has some linseed oil on the nose behind rose and violet perfumes; the tannins are young and parching and the acids linger in the mouth.
Domaine Françoise & Denis Clair
Domaine Françoise & Denis Clair was created in 1986 with 12 acres of Pinot Noir in Santenay; since then it has expanded into the best terroirs in Saint-Aubin.
Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune, $20
Basic almond and citrus scented Burgundy, light and crisp in the mouth, not too heavy on any single element, but refreshing and easy to enjoy.
Restrained nose; a summery wine with butter and Golden Delicious apples through mid-palate; meant for drinking young. buttery fresh. Village wine, rocky vineyards. No lees stir bâtonnage, co2 evident when shake.
Saint-Aubin “Les Murgers des Dents de Chien”, $41
The oddly-named ‘Walls of dog teeth’ vineyard probably gets its name from the jagged hillsides, so steep that they have to be plowed from bottom too top. Sustainable agriculture encourages deep root growth, so the wine has gobs of complex and pure fruit layers behind smoke and an underlying mineral austerity echoed in a firm acidic grip.