Burgundy 2019: the whites

Burgundy producers are just starting to release their 2019s – a vintage that offers amazing consistency and balance. After a week tasting in the Côte d’Or, Gavin Smith delves deeper into the whites of the Côte de Beaune, putting the vintage in context

“Good maturity, a nice freshness and lots of energy Olivier Lamy, Domaine Hubert Lamy

“Microscopic grapes each with very little juice but perfect balance” Guillaume Boillot, Domaine Henri Boillot

Joseph Colin presenting his 2019s

These comments from some of the leading white winemakers in the Côte d’Or sum up our findings nicely. 2019 is a fantastic vintage for whites in the Côte de Beaune. The wines are both generous and exuberant, while retaining fantastic acidity and freshness. Despite the volume on the palate and, in some cases, warming alcohol (ranging from 13.5% to 14.5%), the Chardonnays predominantly retain a classic Burgundy flavour profile. It is not all pineapple and passion fruit, but lots of ripe apple, white peach and that acidity running through the palate keeps these lavish Chardonnays feeling fresh. So where does 2019 sit compared to other recent vintages of Chardonnay in the Côte de Beaune?

Many believe it is not a vintage that can easily be compared. The combination of maturity and freshness for many is something not experienced before. The 2019 growing season, like 2018, was warm and dry. In fact many vignerons saw huge similarities in terms of temperature and rainfall (or lack of) between 2019 and the previous summer, with both considerably higher in sunshine hours and lower in rainfall than average. However, there were distinct differences that has made 2019 clearly a cut above its 2018 compatriots. Most obviously and particularly for the white wines of the Côte d’Or is an increase in both concentration and acidity, caused by drastically low yields and small berries (a result of a difficult flowering period during the spring).

The team tasting at Domaine Au Pied de Mont Chauve

The generosity of the vintage is therefore unlike the more austere, citric vintages of 2011, and it does not have the linearity and focus of 2014. It is undoubtedly a warm vintage for the Côte de Beaune but it is clear that vignerons are getting a better handle on how to deal with the heat. Many were keen to make the point that these days they pick on acid levels rather than alcohol, and maybe that has helped them get the picking date right. Also notable in parts of the Côte de Beaune malic acid levels were very low in 2019 (typical for sunny vintages) and this where relevant certainly played a part in the wine’s composition. Low malic acid actually helps emphasise the freshness in the final wine, since the malic acid is converted to lactic acid during malolactic fermentation during élevage. The more lactic acid, the more the wines feel softer and creamier. The malolactic fermentation therefore had much less of an effect in the 2019 whites, the result being an accentuation of freshness that beautifully contrasts the generosity and richness of fruit. Despite being a warm year, it certainly hasn’t fallen into the trap of 2015, a similarly warm vintage where the aromas were distinctly tropical and the wines a little flabby – a result of picking too late.

A term we heard used a lot when visiting the wineries was that 2019 was a “floral” year. There is undoubtedly an expressiveness of aromas for a grape that often can be a little shy on the nose. For Fiona Ragg at Mischief & Mayhem, despite the similarities to 2018, “It had nothing like the sunshine hours. And didn’t suffer from heat spikes either.” Etienne de Montille noted that while it was warm during the day, the nights were distinctly cooler than in 2018, helping the vines regenerate, preserve acidity and prolong ripening, allowing more complex aromatics to develop.

The dry weather kept disease at bay and a harvest around the second week of September under ideal conditions saw grapes brought in in perfect health. Was it these factors that helped retain such delicate florality to these “gourmand” wines? Many of the producers we spoke to believe that 2019 offers a certain degree of precision and delicacy which, at the height of a warm July, they were not expecting. The freshness in the wines is a welcome surprise for many. This is matched by a lovely pristine fruit clarity not dissimilar to 2017, but with much more concentration – and much more freshness than 2018.

An interesting comment from Jadot’s Frédéric Barnier when struggling to compare the vintages is that in the past, vintages as rich and concentrated as 2019 relied on a certain level of botrytis in the vineyards. But in 2019 there was no botrytis, this was just natural concentration caused by the small size of berries combined with the low yields.

Alvina Pernot tasting her spectacular 2019s

Qualitatively, there seems to be tremendous consistency across the appellations, but also across producers. If anything, what seemed most evident to me was producers who perhaps were a little disappointing in 2018 produced much better wines in 2019, and the top producers seemed to really excel. In this respect, the vintage stands head and shoulders above vintages such as 2016 and 2013, where selection was essential. Yes, there are some flamboyant examples and they are hugely enjoyable for it, even if they do push the classic concept of white Burgundy to the limit. The majority of the wines we tasted, however, remain much closer in flavour profile to the classic Côte de Beaune flavours of yellow apple and white peach, with a strong mineral salinity shining through on the limestone soils, and richer body and creaminess of the heavier clay soils. The wines behave as they should, reflecting their respective terroirs despite the added concentration and verve. The top wines eschew a beautiful fruit clarity and are delightfully expressive, with a lifted florality, avoiding the overt tropical notes which can bury what we know and love about white Burgundy in a warm vintage.

The clarity of fruit, exuberant florality, concentration and freshness combined makes 2019 a very happy vintage. The lack of volume however remains the sting in the tail, with some producers down up to 50% on normal production levels due to a bout of frost (on the low-lying vineyards), poor flowering throughout the region and hydric stress affecting the young Chardonnay vines. These episodes, however, have not diminished quality and, in some important ways, have helped define a unique and exciting vintage for Chardonnay in the Côte de Beaune.

We'll be publishing our full Burgundy 2019 report on 15th November; in the meantime, follow all our coverage of the vintage here.

Sitting down with William Kelley

BY Sophie Thorpe,

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