The 2018 vintage is undoubtedly a hedonistic vintage – with a rich, opulent, ripe fruit profile and a wonderful concentration that will provide huge amounts of drinking pleasure. But it is also a heterogeneous vintage. This was already apparent during the harvest, with some pickers starting as early as mid-August and others waiting until mid-September. Given how warm it was between these dates, this was clearly going to make a dramatic difference to the wines’ profiles.
When we tasted over 300 separate wines 14 months on, this variation was clearly noticeable. There are wines with crunchy fresh red fruit profiles and, where picked too early, a touch of phenolic bitterness and minimal aromatic complexity. At the other extreme there is warming alcohol and black syrup-like character and over-extracted tannins. Fortunately, these two extremes were in the minority with the wines we tasted and the top domaines were well aware of these pitfalls. As William Kelley pointed out in his vintage report, Burgundians are getting much better at handling warm vintages and many were keen to outline the extra steps they made in the vineyards to minimise the extremes of the vintage.
Picking at the right time!
Picking at the right time was no doubt the most important decision made in 2018 and that didn’t necessarily mean erring on the side of caution and picking early. To get the complexity in aromas and phenolic ripeness, day by day assessment was necessary and different vineyards no doubt ripen at different times. Knowledge of the vineyards was key and with higher yields and a smaller picking window due to the warm weather at harvest smaller operations certainly were at an advantage, knowing their vineyards inside out and being logistically more able to manage optimum times to pick.
The Handling of Ripe Tannins
Another recurring topic, particularly in this vintage, was the extraction of the tannins when the grapes were back at the winery. Again and again we were told that it would be easy with the 2018s to over extract due to the high levels of sugar in the grapes and particularly thick skins because of the dry weather. Certainly, the best examples of the vintage we tasted came from producers who opted for very minimal gentle extraction either through a gentle pump over – wetting of the cap and infusion methods – rather than typical levels of pigeage (punching down of the skins) that would be applied in a cooler, more classic vintage. For some, pigeage was necessary at the very early part of the fermentation but greatly reduced or refrained from altogether once the fermentation got going. At Domaine Fourrier in the 2018 vintage they would work the cap just once a day compared with the 2017 vintage where it was three times a day.
The 2018 Vintage at its best
With these two factors weighing heavily on the minds of the winemakers, those who successfully navigated them produced utterly stunning, profound wines. What particular struck me about the 2018s when handled well was an additional level of viscosity on the mid palate. A richness in texture that beautifully marries the fragrantly perfumed and fresh attack on entry and the lingering mineral salinity on the finish. This was also evident in many village wines and even in some Bourgogne Rouges that I had never experienced before. There was a handful of Bourgogne Rouges that were easily the richest, most viscous and densely structured I had ever tasted. Normally basic Bourgogne Rouge just doesn’t come close to this level of concentration. Many village wines (and I stress – where handled correctly) have a lot more fleshy richness than you would expect from their village appellation status. Perhaps that means some of the terroir transparency is lost in 2018 but what you lose in terroir transparency, you gain in density and richness and at village level it is often a price worth paying. You could do very well out of the vintage stocking up on village wines and with the lower acidity of the wines at this level they will be drinking beautifully with just three to four years in bottle.
What makes this vintage great? Density, viscosity, richness, complex tannin chains providing depth and, where freshness is retained, good ageability. These elements all exist in the finest examples. Whilst there isn’t the terroir transparency of last year, there is more concentration, more power and more intensity and there are no green vegetable notes. It’s fair to say those looking for more ethereal examples of Burgundy should look for the cooler village appellations in 2018. We tasted some fantastic examples of Fixin, the lesser known village neighbouring Gevrey Chambertin. Villages in the Cote de Beaune such as Monthelie and Pommard also showed beautifully in this vintage. At Premier and Grand Cru level there is undoubtedly more terroir definition and the top vineyards have an incredible dynamism, energy and pulsating power.
Nuits Saint Georges seems to be on a roll in recent years as it’s more chalky minerality is fleshed out with lovely juicy mid-palate weight. Chambolle-Musigny too seems to have excelled in 2018. Sometimes Chambolle can come across a little bony but the viscosity of the vintage adds a dense texture to the mid palate whilst the famously complex and fragrant aromas of the village remain. This was true not only of of the top Premier Crus, Musigny and Amoureuses, but throughout the appellation. There really are a wealth of fantastic wines made from the appellation in 2018. The wines from Charles Van Canneyt at Domaine Hudelot Noellat really stood out for their precision and profundity.
The Importance of Winemaking in 2018
A warm vintage in Burgundy accentuates winemaking perhaps more than it does terroir. The ripeness in the stems in a warm vintage gave many producers more confidence in their use of whole bunch during vinification.
Domaine Heresztyn Mazzini, Olivier Bernstein, Domaine Tortochot and even larger négociant producers such as Albert Bichot used more whole bunches in their fermentations in 2018 than any previous vintages, believing that the tannins bring a freshness and salinity to the palate, something that is even more desirable in a warm vintage. For Chantal at Tortochot whole bunch fermentation has become a really important factor with the warming of the climate. Now they can use stems without fear of too much greenness in the wines whilst bringing an additional level of salinity through extraction of mineral salts that replaces the higher levels of natural acidity you find in cooler vintages. Benoit Stehly at Domaine Georges Lignier was another producer who cleverly managed to retain the freshness of the vintage whilst capturing the fruit concentration synonymous with the vintage.
Other producers who prefer to opt for removing all stems in the fermentation had to look for freshness elsewhere. For Domaine Fourrier (who destem all their fruit) freshness came through viticultural practices beyond picking dates. Reducing leaves on the vines (the ones on the inner parts of the vines- i.e. not the leaves that were used to shade grapes from the sun) reduced the transpiration of water, stopping the berries losing water and drying out.
Whilst Fourier wanted to pick early enough to retain freshness, they were tasting the berries every day and whilst some of their neighbours were already in the vines picking in the last two weeks of August, Jean Marie Fourrier still believed there was phenolic bitterness in the pips and the aromatic complexity had yet to fully peak, so held off until the 6th September before picking. The results were worth the risk. Just tasting Fourrier’s Village Gevrey Chambertin the depth of flavour is outstanding and at the other end of the scale his Clos St Jacques and Griotte Chambertin Grand Cru provide breath-taking density and freshness on the palate, a wonderful purity of fruit and exceptional length.
Oliver Bernstein’s wines carry similar weight in reputation and complexity but produce wines in a completely different style to Fourrier. Winemaker Pierre Olivier Soares told us how they carried out a green harvest in their vineyards in order to bring each of their parcels of grapes in at optimum ripeness across their Grand Cru vineyards before the fruit profile turned more jammy. They were keen to retain a red fruit profile by harvesting early, picking all their fruit in just three and a half days by the 1st of September.
The vintage is difficult to summarize in its entirety but all the wines carry hedonistic rather than ethereal vibes. At their best the hedonism scales up to profound levels of enjoyment – the warmth of the vintage provides a quiet intensity and opulence whilst retaining true individual terroir characteristics. These wines leave you giddy with joy and will provide incredible drinking pleasure for years to come. The concern over over-dilution of a bumper crop seems unfounded in the wines that we have tried and will offer over the next few months. The opposite is in fact true, village wines are denser and fleshier than usual. With quantities way down in the 2019 vintage – 2018 is a Burgundy vintage that offers the rare combination of concentration and good availability (at least by Burgundy terms!). This will not be the case in 2019 so I recommend taking your pick from this beautiful bountiful vintage whilst you can.