What to drink: white Burgundy
Author: Adam Bruntlett
Adam Bruntlett, our Senior Buyer, turns his focus onto white Burgundy, eyeing up which vintages drinking well now, and which ones which will take a little longer to reach maturity.
While, for obvious reasons, my travel was substantially limited in 2020, I did manage to make it to Burgundy several times between the lockdowns. I visited Chablis in the middle of July, followed by the Mâconnais, Côte Chalonnaise and Côte de Beaune in August.
On both occasions, growers were very optimistic about the vintage. During the few weeks of visits I managed to squeeze between lockdowns in Burgundy last autumn, our growers could barely contain their excitement at the potential of their nascent ’20 white wines.
Indeed, while the Pinot Noir crop was even smaller than ’19’s meagre yield, early reports indicate that for Chardonnay, ’20 will be a vintage which gives reasonable volumes of excellent, age worthy wines. Watch this space.
Chardonnay is renowned for its sturdiness and ability to resist difficult weather conditions, so it’s no surprise that it has succeeded in the sunny vintages of ’20 and ’19. 2019 was a sunny but not excessively hot year, which yielded white wines with plenty of everything; flavour concentration, ripeness, texture and freshness are all present in equal measure, and these are wines which have the charm and fruit to drink well early, but the structure to age well in the medium term too.
Now that they have completed their élevage and had some time in bottle, it is clear that my initial suspicions about ’18 have been confirmed: this is a vintage which has several parallels to ’15, in particular in the way the wines have gained in freshness and precision with time.
They’re wines which are easygoing, but arguably with more classic features than in their infancy. Indeed, when we tasted them immediately after the dense and concentrated ’19s, as was often the case last autumn, the ’18s showed a restraint and subtlety that had not been as evident a year before. Most of them are approachable now, although there is no rush to drink up.
The ’17 vintage is one of the top white Burgundy vintages of recent times, perhaps a smidge behind ’14 for the purists, but arguably more complete and balanced for most tastes. I am resisting temptation for now, but the wonderful balance of this vintage means that to drink a ’17 now would not be a catastrophe, particularly at regional and village level.
On the whole, ’16 is a vintage whose white wines are perhaps evolving less positively than initially expected, and I would certainly recommend taking a look even at the grander wines. It was a complicated season, with frost having a greater effect on the earlier-budding Chardonnay than on Pinot Noir, which resulted in variable levels of ripeness.
The harsh frost has imbued in the wines a sense of fragility, and consequently this does not feel like a vintage which is built for the long haul. A very notable exception is the Mâconnais, where ’16 is arguably a stronger vintage than ’17 in many cases, although there was some hail in certain sectors which means quality is not uniform.
In contrast, ’15, which was initially somewhat maligned in terms of its white wines, has been a pleasant surprise in its evolution. The wines are certainly a little riper than the classically-styled ’14s, but on the whole, the wines retain a sense of terroir definition. I often find myself plumping for this vintage on a wine list when in Burgundy, as the wines are holding their own and drinking beautifully now, showing no lack of freshness. Top examples can certainly go on for a while yet.
On the other hand, ’14 is mostly a vintage to hang onto, although lesser whites can be enjoyable. The vintage has a trenchant acidity which renders many of the wines a little too austere for many palates, particularly in Chablis. However, there are some exceptions and decanting can also be beneficial to wines which are a little tighter.
For me, ’13 is a vintage to drink up. The harvest was complicated by the arrival of poor weather and an electrical storm which caused the rapid onset of botrytis. The optimum window for harvesting was very small indeed, and wines often tend to fall into two categories depending on which side of this they were picked.
Earlier, and the grapes were often a little underripe, giving wines which lack a little flavour; whereas those which were picked later tend to have some notes of orange and rose petal, along with a slight softness. Both styles are valid and interesting, although I must profess a preference for the latter, which can be interesting when paired with rich or spiced foods. Either way, ’13 is a good vintage to drink now.
The ’12s and ’11s
On the other hand, ’12 has some merit in keeping; while the vintage often produced concentrated grapes with good levels of both ripeness and acidity, there were problems with oidium, rot and lack of acidity, so it’s important to choose carefully and favour quality-conscious growers.
The ’11s should now be drinking well, having probably turned out a little more positively than was initially expected.
White Burgundy: the ’10s and older
At its best, 2010 can be superb for whites wines, with flesh and acidity in equal measure. Chablis, in particular, was very successful, and the wines will continue to drink well for years to come. We are probably in the optimum drinking window for Côte de Beaune whites, which should be enjoyed over the next year or two.
While excellent wines can still be found in vintages older than 2010, it is something of a lottery because of the inherent risks of prematurely oxidised wines – so I would certainly recommend drinking up. Recent adjustments to viticultural practices, winemaking techniques and closures have done much to resolve the issue – the root cause of which is still much-debated.
Explore our range of white Burgundy here.