The evolution of the 2018 wines in barrel over the last 12 months has been truly exciting.
It was during the 2017 tastings, a year ago, that I first quizzed growers about the recently completed 2018 harvest. In fact, for the reds, not too much quizzing was required. Quite rightly, there was a universal air of quiet confidence. What was fascinating however, was the hugely varying opinions on the best time to harvest and the best approach in the cellar to handle the warm conditions of 2018.
Twelve months and six visits later, I fully understand the conundrum. The average Burgundy domaine with a good team of pickers takes about six days to harvest their vineyards. Dates ranged from starting on 24th August in the Côte de Nuits to the latest completion date at a Côte de Beaune domaine on 25th September. With such a disparity, there is inevitably significant stylistic variation. What is fascinating however, is the extraordinarily uniform quality.
For the whites, there was far less variation of harvest dates. Any post-harvest reticence had nothing to do with the clearly excellent fruit quality. The question, rather, was how could the 2018s compete with the sensationally good 2017s, particularly given the abundance of fruit? One year on, any trepidation has all but vanished. My lasting memory, after three weeks tasting in November, was the comment from Thierry Pillot’s father Jean in Chassagne about a famously high yield vintage: “1982 was one of the greatest years of them all and they are still drinking magnificently today. Thankfully I still have some left in my cellar!”
The 2018 growing season can be split into three parts. Firstly, the winter of 2017 and first three months of 2018, were among the wettest on record in the region, with almost 20 inches of rain. Secondly, the all-important budburst in spring happened quickly and free of frost, allowing a relatively early flowering in mid-May to take place quickly and in ideal conditions. The final piece of the jigsaw was the very hot dry summer before picking in perfect conditions at the end of August and early September.
Looking in a little more depth, each part played a huge role in the overall quality and style of the wines. An excess of rain in the winter months can sometimes be a concern, particularly if it carries through into spring and encourages a spread of disease. In 2018, this excess was partly the vintage’s saviour. Water tables were higher than usual, well-managed soils and vineyards had a reserve of moisture and, crucially, the vines had protection against hydric stress during the long dry months of July and August.
A quick and speedy flowering in May is something that all growers dream of. It is such a critical moment, pivotal in any vintage. The 2018 flowering was spectacular, taking place in perfect conditions: evenly, fast, and with no coulure. This was the first indication for the white wine growers in the Côte de Beaune and Chablis that, with a fair wind, they really could be in for a healthy and potentially very generous crop.
July and August were both hot and dry, giving concerns that this could be another 2003. In fact, in 2018 the Côte d’Or didn’t experience the extreme spikes in temperature of that year. Equally essential, night temperatures were significantly cooler. So, whilst sugar levels did rise in the final days before harvest, this was at a pace which allowed the skin and seed tannins to reach maximum maturity and which kept acidity levels perfectly balanced. In addition, and not to be overlooked when comparing to other previous hot dry years, the best vignerons had learnt from experience. Global warming or not, in Burgundy, climatic extremes are no longer a rarity. Growers have risen to the challenge and learnt how to give their precious vines greatest protection through careful soil and canopy management, and green harvest techniques.
The soundbite for this vintage will surely be “picking dates”. Whilst unquestionably important, this is arguably a bit misleading. Harvest dates are influenced by every decision a vigneron makes from the minute a vineyard is planted. Rootstocks and vine clones, pruning practices, canopy management techniques and the extent of green harvesting can all dictate timing of ripeness. It was not unusual to visit neighbouring and hugely respected growers, with adjacent vineyards, who had harvested a week apart with equally good results.
This brings us to the vital human element. Some growers will pick early, preferring vibrant, energetic wines on the lower alcohol spectrum. Others favour maximum ripeness and argue that, providing the vine is still active in its very final stages, phenolic maturity increases rather than sugar levels. What is important is that each domaine has its own personality and these characteristics have not been lost in 2018.
Crucially though all the fruit, both red and white, was received at the wineries in absolutely tip top condition. Sorting tables were virtually redundant as the bunches and berries were so very healthy and clean. Many estates adjusted their picking schedules to mornings only, to allow the fruit to arrive in the winery cold and the fermentations to start in a slow controlled manner. For the Pinot Noir, the level of fruit ripeness and concentration was instantly apparent, and growers needed only follow minimal extraction techniques. Both reds and whites have flourished in barrel and, as they approach bottling, the finished articles are hugely impressive.
We always approach a new vintage with cautious yet open minds, but when respected growers such as Arnaud Mortet and Nicolas Potel rate their reds amongst their very best and you hear comments of “a vintage of a lifetime”, it would be churlish to ignore them.
The best reds are outstanding. They have a superior density to some of the preceding vintages this decade. Despite the heat, alcohol levels have been kept in check. The wines have superb depth and volume of fruit. The tannins are not in short supply but are tremendously fine and underpin the rich fruit. Finally, whilst it is not a high acid year according to analysis, there is a lovely flowing freshness which provides the perfect foil to the intensity and invigorates the palate. In terms of aging, I suspect they will give youthful pleasure during their first few years in bottle and may then go through Pinot’s familiar subdued period, only to blossom at the other side and produce gorgeously complex mature wines.
I have loved tasting the white wines in both Chablis and the Côte de Beaune. Before tasting, I was concerned whether they might lack personality as a result of the high yields. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the greater volume arguably saved them. In warmer drier summers there is a danger that Chardonnay can become excessively intense and concentrated. Instead we have wines which show enticing white floral fruits, delightful freshness and generosity. Most importantly, they reflect the distinctive nuances of their appellational origin. As Bruno Colin says, “I can hardly imagine them better, 2018 is a vintage of superlatives.”
The seasons have been kind to Burgundy in 2018. This is undoubtedly another high-quality vintage in the Côte d’Or and Chablis. Growers have stamped their individuality on each cuvée with their decisions in the vineyard and cellar. My predominant impression of the 2018s, particularly pleasing in this warmer year, is that both reds and whites really do portray their unique terroirs. It is this appellational individuality that makes this Burgundy vintage so special.