Red Burgundy

Why the 2004 vintage is the one to watch for lovers of classic Pinot Noir.



In the ever-expanding world of Pinot Noir, Burgundy remains the best place to observe vintage differences. There can be no greater contrast between the heat wave conditions of 2003 and the much more normal conditions of 2004. Vintage 2004 forms a bridge of freshness between the dense 2003s and the power of the still-in-barrel 2005s.

For lovers of the taste of velvet-smooth but lively Pinot Noir, 2004 is the Burgundy vintage to savor. And it has two other advantages: the wines are cheaper than the 2005s will be, and they will mature relatively quickly (in 5-10 years, compared with up to 15-20 years for 2005). Because initial reports of red 2004 Burgundy were disparaging, the market for these wines is only just beginning to pick up. Wine merchants are now beginning both to sell and, as they retaste them, rave about the 2004s, so expect demand and prices to start rising.


Tasting the vintage
The first indication that 2004 was a notable vintage was the great success of the white wines, which I tasted during visits in June 2006. Later that year, I returned to taste the reds in September and November. During my last visit, autumn had barely arrived and the days were still warm and sunny—a perfect time to taste at some of the great domaines without shivering in their cellars. Focusing on the Côte de Nuits, my goal was to find the best wines of the vintage.

The Côte de Nuits is the long, majestic slope that runs north of Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy, towards Dijon, the political capital. Its villages boast names that make Pinot Noir lovers go weak in the knees: Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey St. Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne-Romanée, Vougeot.

Overall, 2004 is a "typical" vintage, the kind that made Burgundy a global name. It is a vintage that brings out the best in the best vineyards, justifying the jumble of appellations and tiny vineyards that form the mosaic of Burgundy. The only addition now is the expertise in the vineyards and cellars that 21st century knowledge and technology brings. It is the essence of the difference between Burgundy and its many fascinating New World children. All bear a resemblance to the father, but cannot duplicate its character.

"There is tranquility in the wines of 2004," says Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Burgundy's most famous name. Yet "tranquility" is not a word one usually sees in the context of a grape, especially the tempermental Pinot Noir. "This is a vintage that really interests and pleases me," de Villaine continues.

De Villaine is one of the many producers united in their enthusiasm for the 2004s and agreeably surprised. "In all the reds, you see freshness and harmony," asserts Etienne Grivot of Domaine Jean Grivot in Vosne-Romanée. His tasting table, like many others even in the top domaines, is an upturned barrel, in a cellar surrounded by barrels full of wine. "There is so much fruit in these wines. This is a really enjoyable vintage."

He continues: "2004 is the sort of vintage I like. There was lots of work to do and I enjoy that. It has given us wines that are very fresh, very Pinot Noir. It wasn't an exceptional year, but it is good if you worked in the vineyards." And, in a reflection of the technical changes that have occurred throughout Burgundy in the past decade, he adds, "It was the first time we had been able to get such good results in a less-than-great year, just because of the work we did in the past years among the vines. I was able to use all the things I have learned. Twenty years ago, this would have been a pretty average year."

What is so fascinating about these Burgundies is the way they reflect their terroir. It's much more obvious than in the 2003 wines, where the richness and weight from the heat of the summer masked the differences among the appellations. The same terroir differences so apparent in the white wines of Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chevalier-Montrachet (see "White Burgundy: The Triumph of Terroir," December 1, 2006) is also true in the red wines. This is best expressed in the Côte de Nuits, which, according to Vial "produced better balanced wines" than the Côte de Beaune. He should know: He arrived at Domaine Bertagna in November 2006 from Domaine de Montille in Volnay, so he experienced the 2004 harvest in the Côte de Beaune firsthand.

 Clos de Tart

 The Clos de Tart Vineyard in the village of Morey-St. Denis

I talked with de Villaine about the vintage in his small office, packed with papers and books. "The grand and premier crus show their superiority and their individual characters more in 2004 than in 2003," he said. "There is some concentration, but the balance is what is so good. With its normal alcohol level of 13 or 13.5% [2003s are sometimes over 14%], it is a balanced vintage," explained de Villiane.

From there, it was on to the modern laboratory of Maison Joseph Drouhin on the fringe of Beaune. Wines for this tasting came from virtually every village of the Côte de Nuits. Robert Drouhin, the firm's patriarch, tempered his enthusiasm for the 2004 reds with a reminder that the wines "are to be drunk young. Look for elegance, not extraction."

Véronique Drouhin, Robert's daughter who lives in Burgundy, but who also runs Domaine Drouhin in Oregon, adds: "You can't say 2004 is a really great vintage like 2005 will be. But there are some delicious red wines that will age relatively quickly."

The balance so evident in the 2004 reds didn't come without drama. A wet January, a dry and cold February, a heat wave in March, cool April, hot May and June, a cool July followed by hail and an attack of oidium, it was all there, and by the end of August, growers were despairing. As happens so often, a hot, dry September saved the day. Growers who waited to pick their Pinot Noir until the end of September or even the beginning of October were rewarded with what Jacques Lardière, technical director of Louis Jadot, calls wines "characterized by great aromas, very Pinot Noir. It is a vintage that displays great tenderness."

Should you buy the 2004 red Burgundies? Yes, for the pleasure they will bring to your dining table. De Villaine voices the regret that "collectors aren't interested in this sort of vintage. To my mind, it shows they don't understand the cultural implications of a great wine. They are missing out on the pleasure you can get from an agreeable vintage."

I concur. Before you broach the 2002s, 2003s or 2005s, there will be two vintages that will vie for being the first to enjoy: the intensely fruity 2001 and now the 2004. Of the two, I prefer 2004. That's because when you drink these wines, you will savor the essence of Pinot Noir from Burgundy: just sit back and let the velvet slide over you.

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