“You call that work? ” asked a friend of mine when I told him about the rigours of Burgundy week in early January. “Most people would pay serious amounts of money to do what you’ve just done.” And he’s right. There are much more onerous ways to earn a living than assessing 1200 samples of 2009 Burgundy. In such a good year, it’s mostly a pleasure.
The Burgundy-loving public seems to have got the message too. Everywhere I went last week, from Westminster to Pall Mall, the City to the Middle Temple, rooms were full of punters sipping (and sometimes even spitting) glasses of red and white Burgundy. People who buy Burgundy — Pinotphiles if you like — are extremely passionate about the stuff. More to the point, they might even drink it, rather than regarding it as an alternative to the stock exchange.
The 2009 en primeur campaign may not turn over as much money as 2009 Bordeaux did — one merchant told me that it would be less than a tenth of the size worldwide — but that’s partly because Burgundy makes far less wine. According to Jasper Morris MW’s excellent book, Inside Burgundy, the figures are 1.5mhl and 5.7m hl respectively.
The contrast doesn’t stop there. Burgundy has nearly twice as many appellations (100 compared with 57) and that doesn’t include all the premiers crus and lieux-dits (place names) that appear on labels. Burgundy is infinitely more complicated than Bordeaux. Most châteaux produce two or three wines at most. One Burgundian domaine, on the other hand, could easily make 15 or more.
It’s worth bearing this in mind when you taste Burgundy. The place is so intricate, so complex, so diverse, that for every rule there’s an exception. Generalisations are always unwise, but in Burgundy they are doubly so.
So what’s my opinion? I should preface this by saying that I’ve sampled more than 2,000 samples from the vintage, visiting more than 50 domaines and négociants in the region last September and December, and tasting wines from hundreds of additional producers in London. It’s not the only tenable point of view on 2009, but it is based on soild research and hard work.
My conclusion is that 2009 is a very good to great vintage for red wines and a good one for whites. It all depends on how you like your Burgundy — I’m not a great fan of high acid, so-called “classic” years — but the thing that strikes me about the 2009s (and I know it’s a generalisation) is how much fruit they have. It is a vintage for wine drinkers rather than wine nerds.
These are not wines for the long haul in the majority of cases, but I’m not sure that matters. What’s wrong with Burgundies, especially red Burgundies, that are drinkable young? 2009 is a very good counterpoint to 2005, which was a more structured vintage. People who bought 2005s and have them sitting in a cellar somewhere will have a long wait before they reach their peak. With the 2009s, the opposite is true. Some of the wines were quaffable straight from barrel.
The key point in 2009 was how to retain enough freshness to underpin all that ripe fruit. This was a warm, even very warm vintage, although it was a long way from being another 2003, which was positively steaming. In 2009, the producers who made the best wines were those who picked early (or at least not too late). In the case of the white wines, some took the additional precaution of blocking the malolactic fermentations on some of their tanks and barrels.
As in Bordeaux, the conditions meant that even lesser sites produced good wines, especially if they were cooler. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is a vintage that offers excellent value at the bottom end. I’ve never had as many good samples of Bourgogne Rouge, Bourgogne Blanc, Hautes Côtes de Nuits and Hautes Côtes de Beaune. In the mid-price range, the Chalonnaise and Saint Aubin have made some stunning wines. The only real disappointment for me was Chablis, which should have made better wines in 2009, given its more northerly location. There are some decent wines, but few great ones.
And what about the prices? At the top end, they are certainly ambitious, though not as exorbitant as those for comparable 2009 Bordeaux. You can still buy exceptional Grand Cru Burgundy for less than £1000 a case in bond and that wasn’t the case of the First Growths and Super Seconds last year.
Lower down the scale, I think prices are reasonable and even cheap in some cases, given the quality of the vintage. If I were spending my own money, my focus would be on wines under £300 per dozen. In fact, that’s just what I’m going to do. Tasting Burgundy is a lot of fun, but not as much fun as drinking it.
First published in Off Licence News