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Burgundy 2018: Key points from a surprising vintage

A vintage that defied expectations and delivered a number of pleasant surprises especially in an area most weren’t expecting, the 2018 Burgundies provided an engaging week of tasting and discussion.

It’s fair to say that the occasionally grey, windy and rainy conditions of London in mid-January were rather different to the prevailing conditions in which the 2018 vintage was formed.

A mild winter started the year, followed by a cold snap in February turning to a good dose of rain into March, which would prove useful as rainfall dropped off dramatically throughout the summer months.

Temperatures picked up markedly from April and hit 40°C on certain days in August. With temperatures and sunshine hours above the average, harvesting of the white wines generally began in late August and the first surprise was not only the size of the white harvest but just how much juice was coming out of the berries.

The season then required a quick harvest for the reds as well which caused a number of logistical challenges. The harvest was wrapped up in many places by mid-September but occasional delay and the weather did have an impact on the fruit in some places.

That said, after the harvest the emphasis was very much on the strength and quality of the red wines while the whites, although notable for how much there was, sat somewhat in the background.

Fast-forward to the latter end of last year and beginning of this month, however, and a more rounded picture emerged.

Many vintages do not suit generalisations and none more so than 2018 Burgundy but there are some salient points which are worth considering or bearing in mind when approaching the wines:

  • The reds can be brilliant but are also the most inconsistent element: Although it is more of a ‘red vintage’ in some ways, many of the major merchants noted that, brilliant as some wines are, they are also surprisingly inconsistent at times. Time and space pressures as a result of the weather and larger than expected white crop caught some producers out. BBR’s Burgundy buyer, Adam Bruntlett, commented that: “Even within the same cellar there are very diverse wines. It wasn’t always possible to pick at the perfect time for everything.” As one might expect, growers will have prioritised their top plots so these have suffered least whereas more ‘basic’ wines will have borne the brunt of over ripeness or other problems yet, entirely conversely, some ‘Bourgogne’ and villages wines are absolutely delicious. Nicolas Clerc MS, a buyer at Armit Wines, said he was surprised by some of the reds and said he thought “warmer vintages suit some AOC better than others,” picking out Vosne, Volnay and Pommard as “all very pretty”. David Roberts MW, buying director at Goedhuis advised that it is a “producer-led” vintage in many ways and not quite a vintage like 2016 or 2010 where you could “bowl on and buy everything”.
  • The reds are pretty now but should have the guts to last: The red wines have tons of fruit and ripe, supple tannins which makes them very appealing now but many have an underlying structure to them that is stronger than it might at first appear. Jason Haynes, director and Burgundy buyer at Flint Wines made the point that the wines were “deceptive” and that, “once the puppy fat wears off, the structure will become more apparent”. He said he thought the wines would likely “shutdown” for a while at some point but ultimately the best would prove “very long-lived”.
  • It’s a good vintage for ‘overlooked’ AOCs: Given the riper conditions, it’s a good vintage to look around AOC such as Fixin, Maranges, Marsannay, Santenay and the Hauts Côtes for not only good value but also some thoroughly drinkable red wines – the on-trade in particular in its quest for affordable Burgundy would do well to take note. As reported last week by the drinks business, Bruntlett said he thought the “less favoured vineyards have done really well” and in warmer vintages their naturally cooler sites became a useful and positive attribute.
  • The vintage was big for white wines but not so much for reds: Given the talk of how big the vintage was it would be easy to assume that it was a bumper crop for both red and white grapes but this was not the case. The white crop was the big one but the red crop was more in line with more ‘normal’ recent years such as 2017.
  • The whites are the biggest and best surprise of the vintage: Given the size of the crop there were fears that the white wines would be either too ripe or too dilute but in reality they are a pleasant mixture of the two. “The whites are a surprise,” said Giles Burke-Gaffney at Justerini & Brooks, “and they’re surprisingly consistent.” They may not be outright ‘classics’, nor have quite the tension and line as the white wines in 2014 or 2017 but they are better than many supposed and are a testament in many ways to how much Burgundian growers have learnt to adapt to warmer vintages.

In terms of offers it seems as though merchants are expecting good demand, Burke-Gaffney said he was hoping to at least equal and even exceed the £5 million the last Burgundy primeurs made at Justerini & Brooks while Will Hargrove at Corney & Barrow said interest was high but so was a “growing savviness not to plough in regardless”.

There are encouraging volumes but the amount of wine is not likely to greatly exceed what was available last year, with some merchants noting that not only were growers replenishing depleted library stocks after the lean years of the early and mid-2010s but also the 2019 vintage is very small and many will need some excess 2018s to tide them over.

Prices are, again, a mixed bag with some minor rises and many others staying at 2017 levels, an improved exchange rate at present between the pound and euro has helped absorb what rises there have been.

On the other hand, given the short 2019 vintage that is to come it’s a small shame that once again there’s not quite as much wine to offer as there needs to be to satisfy global demand.

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