Each year, the dark January days of London are lit up by Bourgogne Week. Growers from Chablis to Mâcon, and especially from the storied villages in the Côte d’Or, present their latest vintage at events across town.
These tastings allow for the most comprehensive overview of the most recent Burgundy vintage across communes and styles. Even wines made in smaller quantities and sold only on allocation are represented. Private and trade buyers place orders en primeur for delivery months later, after the wines are bottled.
Burgundy’s 2018 Vintage: The Heatwave Year
This year, the 2018 vintage was on display, which was a heatwave year that began with extremely wet winter months. The May flowering was followed by a hot, dry summer, according to the Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB). Young vines were stressed by the lack of rain, but older ones ripened fruit fully, due to high water tables. Fruit was exceptionally healthy and clean. Comparisons were drawn with the legendary, warm 1947 vintage, which BIVB hailed as “ideal.”
Two merchants said that the atypical ripeness and plushness of the wines might represent a “new normal” for Burgundy. It certainly demanded painstaking vineyard work to manage yields and protect fruit while helping guide the rapid ripening.
Picking the right harvest dates was crucial. Only growers who adapted to the warm conditions produced outstanding wines. The challenge to capture freshness for both reds and whites was the talk of the event.
Burgundy’s 2018 White Wines
Though the heat cast some doubt, good growers produced bright Chardonnays with energetic freshness and alluring fruit. Chablis illustrates the divide well, as the best expressions come with a fullness of flavor that highlights the all-important chalky soil, while less successful examples may lack that Chablis typicity but still come across as perfectly ripe, rounded and super-charged Chardonnays.
The rest of Burgundy is more nuanced.
“The whites have great tension and freshness, which I was not expecting,” says Dominique Lafon, of Domaine des Comtes Lafon in Meursault. “The crop was big, and I think this helped to keep alcohol levels down. With a smaller crop there would have been a lot of heaviness.”
Even regional appellations like Bourgogne Blanc are vivid with expressive fruit and richness. The Premiers Crus and Grands Crus show real site expression. The depth and concentration of the different appellations is cushioned by a layer of lush fruit, like yellow plum and melon. The character of their soils is present, though, with the very best showing an aromatic finesse that will continue to beguile. The wines from the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais specifically have a lovely, full-fruited, mouthwatering juiciness.
Top 5 White Wines
Domaine Etienne Sauzet 2018 Les Combettes Premier Cru (Puligny-Montrachet)
A mossy, smoky, fruity freshness suggests creamy lemon as well as subtle Mirabelle. The palate carries all these notions and swirls them in an energetic vortex. It’s propelled by uncommon freshness for the 2018 vintage. All this energy almost skates over the inherent, chalky depth, but it’s definitely there.
Domaine Moreau-Naudet 2018 Valmur Grand Cru (Chablis)
A shy nose allows mere glimpses of apple and citrus, but the palate immediately suggests elegance with its lace-like structure. There’s depth and stoniness, but also a fine-boned finesse, even for 2018. This is taut, concentrated, understated and calm. It rests beautifully within itself, as it suggests depth and dimensions of limestone. This will unfold and blossom.
Domaine Paul Pillot 2018 Les Caillerets Premier Cru (Chassagne-Montrachet)
Very subtle smoke speaks as much of reduction as hazelnut nougat. There’s an overtone of linden blossom, as well as citrus brightness. Vivid freshness pulses through the palate, which lends exquisite juiciness and verve. This is joyful, incisive and bright with flavor, which emanates from stony depth. Real tension flexes on the chalky finish.
Domaine Olivier Leflaive 2018 Clos Saint-Marc Premier Cru (Chassagne-Montrachet)
The nose unites gentle reduction with subtle oak. The palate is bright, vivid and tense, framed by the chalky depth of limestone and smoky oak. It’s in these limestone depths that the freshness resides. It channels the fluidity and generosity of the 2018 vintage well.
Domaine William Fèvre 2018 Vaudésir Grand Cru (Chablis)
Lovely overtones of green apple, moss and fern play about the pear aroma. There even is a whiff of kelp. It shows real aromatic finesse. The palate is immensely concentrated, has substance, power and chalky depth. Its tone is sunny, generous and bold, but underneath it is anchored in freshness.
Burgundy’s 2018 Red Wines
When a growing season is so dry, there’s very little disease pressure. The fruit harvested in 2018 was pristine and healthy, which made many sorting tables almost redundant. Many of the red wines seem so open and expressive that they could have been enjoyed right away.
As with the white wines, the challenge was to preserve freshness. Yields for the reds were lower, so already-concentrated fruit became more concentrated in the heat.
“We love freshness and vibrancy in our wines, and when to harvest was a difficult question in 2018,” says Mathilde Grivot, of Domaine Jean Grivot in Vosne-Romanée. “My entire family and the team work[ed] in the vineyard to prolong the vegetative cycle.” She emphasizes that “to make a good Pinot Noir, you need to have to have the perfect maturity of the skin.”
To delay harvest for riper skins and mitigate the danger of lost acidity takes experience and skill. Skins contribute structure to the wines through their tannins. In the end, the tannins in these wines are silky and often reach the generous softness of velvet. The red wines are concentrated and full of fruit, but it’s the fruit expression, freshness and finesse that differs.
Grapes harvested too late produced jammy flavors and had none of the complexity of a classic Burgundian Pinot Noir. Some bottlings even had baked notions, flabbiness and furry tannins that made them lack distinction. Thankfully, these are in the minority.
The best wines, however, have soaring aromas and red-fruited, poetic allure. These wines have sufficiently balanced fruit, freshness and structure to age and evolve.
Top 5 Red Wines
Comte Armand 2018 Clos des Epeneaux Premier Cru (Pommard)
Notions of rose petal and Amarena cherry play about the nose. On the palate, bold tannins are lush and generous, soothing almost, in this ripe vintage. The fresh fruit shines with a touch of ripe cherry and appetizing juiciness. This is plush yet structured. It’s lovely now, but sure to charm for years to come.
Domaine de Montille 2018 Les Taillepieds Premier Cru (Volnay)
Raspberry and conifer on the nose spell freshness and set the tone. The palate is crunchy and concentrated, but manages to remain slender, translucent and transporting, even in 2018. A 100% whole-bunch ferment gives characteristic aromatic lift and a firm backbone. Underneath is a slumbering sumptuousness of ripe raspberry and red cherry richness. This is pure, pristine, firm and caressing.
Domaine Jean Grivot 2018 Les Beaux Montes Premier Cru (Vosne-Romanée)
The nose is shy, and the palate shows sumptuous fruit contained in a frame of vivid, expressive freshness. Red cherry is luscious and bright, presented against a fine-grained, highly pixelated background of elegant, concentrated tannins. It pulls off the feat of being juicy while also providing total structure. This is textured and honest, unforced and fresh with innate elegance.
Domaine Sylvain Cathiard & Fils 2018 Aux Malconsorts Premier Cru (Vosne-Romanée)
The merest hint of dark peony petal is all the nose gives away with brooding promise. The palate is dense and sumptuous. The drying tannins, pervaded by a juicy, lively freshness, unfold like ripples of crimson velvet. Both tannins and freshness provide a wonderful structure for the measured, precise generosity of this wine. Its twin expressions of rigour and pleasure, restraint and release, are beguiling.
Domaine Taupenot Merme 2018 Grand Cru (Corton-Rognet)
A touch of white pepper plays ever so subtly on the dark cherry notes of the nose, which signals freshness and verve. The palate is concentrated, compact and precise. Freshness frames and pervades everything, an achievement in 2018. The sumptuousness of the vintage is recognizable in the ripeness and suppleness of the tannins. A feat of elegance and freshness.
A vintage like 2018 provides lots of pleasure at various price points. Village appellations shine, and the “lesser” villages that struggled to ripen grapes reliably in the past are now treasure troves for value. Examples include Pernand-Vergelesses, Savigny-lès-Beaune, Chorey-lès-Beaune and Aloxe-Corton. The commune of Beaune itself is undervalued, and the reds of Givry and the whites of the Mâcon village appellations are also juicy and affordable throughout.
That said, global demand for fine Burgundy will keep prices sky-high, and the most desirable wines from the best growers come with eye-watering figures. Hopefully, those who get their hands on them will enjoy them.