What has taken us by surprise however, is the equally stunning quality of the white wines. The received wisdom, proliferated by some critics, is that the glorious summer of 2015 was ideal for making high quality reds, but that the whites were in danger of being excessively rich and ripe. Whilst the whites certainly do have the plumper fruit characteristics of a warmer year, giving them a deliciously drinkable charm, every grower commented on the outstanding level of natural acidity in the juice in 2015. This acidity provides a delicious lift and freshness to the wines.
The simple fact is that 2015 is one of the most complete vintages in recent times at all classification levels and for all styles, red and white.
Great wines start in the vineyard with the seasons and weather conditions. Their delivery is down to the vignerons’ decisions governing everything from picking dates to handling in the cellar and élevage. 2015 is no different to any other year in this respect.
The winter of 2014/15 was relatively uneventful. Flowering took place with impeccable timing at the end of May/early June. The only slight gripe was that conditions were slightly hotter than ideal, meaning some aborted flowering took place. This disruption to flowering was particularly hard-felt by those growers who had suffered reduced yields over the previous vintages back to 2009. At this moment the harvest looked set to commence around the 12th September, just about the perfect date.
There then followed three glorious months, starting with a warm June. Temperatures climbed throughout July and on into August. Whilst not reaching the sustained excess of 2003 it was a hotter year than normal. The biggest fear was the risk of drought. Whilst vines were pushed to their limits, fortunately hydric stress was avoided thanks to rainfall at key moments. Small amounts of rain fell in early August, at the end of the month and, equally importantly for the later harvesters, on the 12th September as well. This prevented the vines from shutting down and ensured healthy fruit of wonderful quality. The harvest took place in superb conditions and the oft-required sorting tables were happily redundant as pickers gathered clean, perfectly formed bunches of small, intensely flavoured grapes.
It has been thirteen years since the famously hot 2003 vintage. Whilst but a brief chapter in Burgundy’s illustrious vinous history, this has been a dynamic era witnessing a revolution in viticultural ideas and winemaking philosophy. Among the most important changes are the new attitudes to soil and vineyard management. The days of excessive fertilisation are long gone and growers encourage their vines to dig deep roots down into the subsoil to obtain nutrients and moisture. This anchors the vines and helps them avoid water stress in drier vintages where shallower rooted vines would struggle. Another crucial change is in canopy management. At the start of the century it was fashionable for growers to cut back the canopy exposing bunches to maximum sunlight. Today they are more judicious and, as there was certainly no shortage of sunshine in 2015, many deliberately retained the canopy to shade the bunches.
Similarly in the winery, attitudes have changed considerably. The preferred approach today is minimal intervention, letting the wines make themselves. Two schools of thoughts still exist regarding fermentation of whole bunch versus destemmed fruit, however everybody agreed that the red grapes had such natural ripeness that only the gentlest handling was needed. The skins were thick, tannins ripe and sugar levels ideal, therefore extraction of flavours and tannins was not a concern. In addition, night time temperatures during the harvest were cold, meaning that the grapes were able to macerate in naturally cool conditions for a week or so prior to the start of fermentation. Nothing could be more perfect; as the great Henri Jayer once said, “My fermentations should only start after the last of my pickers have left...”
The final part of the jigsaw in 2015 was the date of the harvest. Much has been said on this subject as the dates vary considerably, ranging from Olivier Lamy starting some of his Chardonnays on 25th August through to Yves Confuron at Domaine de Courcel waiting until 25th September when he considered his grapes had reached maximum maturity. Views and reasons vary enormously; each grower has his own logic. The early pickers felt it was vital to avoid excessive ripeness and maintain freshness and acidity in their wines. The late harvesters believe that once sugars are at a certain level they don’t really increase further, and for them the key is to achieve maximum phenolic ripeness giving harmonious balanced tannins. In my experience both approaches to picking dates have their place. In fact, it is impossible to generalise. Very often the real reasons for differences in picking dates come from staggered ripening due to pruning techniques, age of vines (younger vines ripen earlier), types of rootstocks and clones used and, most importantly of all, vineyard location.
Having tasted over 700 wines during this campaign, I am bowled over by the fabulous results of both philosophies. There are some sensational wines all round and no one group has done better than another. It is surely the mark of a great year that, provided appropriate attention was paid to detail, success was guaranteed irrespective of harvest date.
To conclude, 2015 has produced a delicious range of wines. The reds have a natural sweetness of fruit and alcohol levels are balanced, averaging between 13 – 13.5%. The tannins are beautifully rounded, silky and restrained providing a subtle degree of body and depth. Most importantly, the wines are delightfully fresh. The underlying acidity is not unusually high, but there is a freshness woven through all the wines giving composure and quality.
As I stated, overlook the white wines at your peril! 2015 is a hugely successful vintage for Chardonnay. The wines are diametrically opposed to the 2014s which were bright, racy and focused. The 2015s are richer and plumper, most certainly showier but arguably more rewarding in their youth. Like the reds they have a beautiful touch of freshness sitting at the back of the palate which gives life and energy to these lovely wines.
Commercially 2015 is a very interesting vintage indeed. Burgundy has been in the ascendant for some years, demand is at an all-time high and the growers know they have a great year on their hands. In addition, on April 26th 2016 the Côte d’Or suffered the most severe frost the region had seen since 1981, decimating certain vineyards. Savigny Lès Beaune was possibly the worst hit, losing up to 95% of the crop in some sites. In these circumstances, one might expect to see noticeable price increases. In fact, our growers have been sensitive to the situation. The reality is that in 2016 there will be next to no wine in some cases, so whilst prices have gone up in part due to the exchange rate, there is a very strong argument to buy whilst these outstanding wines are available.
I hope you enjoy our report and our offer of the lovely wines of 2015.
David Roberts MW