In some years, like 2009, 2005, 1999 and 1990, nature looks kindly on growers in Burgundy, delivering benevolent weather and abundant quantity. Then there are years like 2008, when every possible obstacle rears its ugly head, forcing growers to be vigilant and proactive to harvest the best possible grapes.
Yet, it's in exactly those challenging vintages like 2008, when the vigneron prevails over nature, that Burgundy produces its most typical reds. These are light, fresh, translucent Pinot Noirs, with balance and vibrant profiles.
"The 2008 vintage was a vintage where nature was both very negative and very positive at the same time," noted Aubert de Villaine, co-director of the famed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. He was in New York last week to lead two exclusive tastings, the only preview of DRC's newest releases.
The range of 2008s from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti provides an ideal example of the expression of Pinot Noir from the individual grands crus climats. They are light ruby, brilliant, pure and almost ethereal in aroma and flavor, exhibiting vibrant fruit and floral flavors and wonderful harmony.
The downside is that yields were about half the usual average, dramatically reducing the quantities of bottles produced—the reason the wines were presented only in New York.
The growing season started with a cold winter extending into March and April, delaying the vines' development. In Burgundy, the wind direction on Palm Sunday is said to determine the dominant wind of the growing season. It was a west wind, one that generally brings damp, wet weather.
The flowering was late and prolonged, with a lot of millerandage, small, seedless berries. Along with reduced yields, the flowering also promoted loose clusters and grapes with a higher skin-to-juice ratio, advantageous for quality.
The extended flowering also resulted in less uniform veraison, when the Pinot Noir grapes turn from green to black in color, and therefore in less uniform ripeness of both sugar and polyphenols.
Hot, wet, humid weather and a number of storms during the summer brought attacks of all the scourges in Burgundy: Mildew, oidium and eventually botrytis. This was capped by heavy rain and storms in the second week of September. The DRC team managed to fight the fungal diseases organically, but with a loss of fruit, further diminishing the crop.
Finally, after Sept. 13, the north wind arrived, as it often does in Burgundy, bringing clear, fresh weather. This dried up the grapes and concentrated both sugar and acidity.
The significant moisture in the soil, combined with the sun, fostered photosynthesis. De Villaine recalled there was an increase in potential alcohol of 1.5 percent per week. Picking began on Sept. 27.
I tasted the wines from barrel on my visit to DRC in January 2010; this was my second opportunity to taste them. My observations were pretty consistent between the two tastings, with the exception of the Echézeaux and Romanée-St.-Vivant, which showed even better in bottle than when I tasted them from barrel at the domaine.
All the wines were tasted non-blind. Prices are estimates on release and may vary from state to state.
There is a Vosne-Romanée Cuvée Duvault-Blochet in 2008 ($230 to $255), from a second harvest of the old vines that were a little less ripe or less desirable for the grands crus. It is a blend of all the grand cru sites and declassified to premier cru. The aromas evoked cinnamon, rose and peony. Though bright, elegant and firm, it lacked the density of its cousins (90 points, non-blind).
The Echézeaux ($390 to $425) was a big step up. Perfumed with flowers, spice and a touch of oak, it was concentrated yet supple, with well-integrated tannins and a refined finish (92 points, non-blind). It was showing exceptionally well in bottle.
Revealing darker fruit flavors, the Grands Echézeaux ($630 to $685) started out with aromas of red currant, black cherry and licorice, keeping with the black fruit notes on the palate, along with spice, wrapped in a seamless profile (93 points, non-blind). Already a wine of great finesse, its black fruit and licorice themes had more in common with La Tâche than neighboring Echézeaux.
It's always interesting to compare the Romanée-St.-Vivant and Richebourg. Separated by only a road, the two sites produce wines that are very different. The Romanée-St.-Vivant ($985 to $1,070) offered aromas of strawberry, cherry and rose, very pure, if reserved. It possessed an inner beauty, translucent and yet firm and austere (94 points, non-blind). Richebourg ($965 to $1,045) is usually more flattering, a charmer, and the '08 lived up to that reputation with plenty of flesh and generosity surrounding a core of cherry and floral notes. It had structure and concentration and a long, sweet fruit finish (94 points, non-blind).
The La Tâche ($1,085 to $1,175) featured darker blackberry, black cherry and licorice aromas and flavors, allied to a density and heavier textural component that sets it apart from the others. It was very complex, vibrant and long (95 points, non-blind). Romanée-Conti ($3,155 to $3,725) itself was still marked by new oak on the nose, delivering spices, rose, red cherry and strawberry aromas. It had terrific intensity on the plate that just kept building to a long, expansive aftertaste (96 points, non-blind).
What amazed me most about the reds was that despite the low yields, they were not heavy, overly concentrated or extracted. Nor were they oaky, despite having begun their evolution in 100 percent new oak.
The Montrachet ($2,050 to $2,225) was another story in 2008. The Chardonnay vines experienced a different cycle, undergoing veraison later and therefore fewer attacks of botrytis. The yield was normal (40 hectoliters/hectare or roughly 2.2 tons/acre). About 10 to 15 percent of the grapes were affected by botrytis. "You see the concentration from the botrytis, but also the freshness from the acidity and the terroir," noted de Villaine.
The wine exhibited a gorgeous nose of toffee, vanilla bean, pastry and hazelnut cream. On the palate, lime, grapefruit and hints of citronella and peach emerged. It was both opulent and elegant, a great Montrachet (98 points, non-blind).
These 2008s from DRC are exactly the style of Burgundy vintage that will provide pleasure to Burgundy connoisseurs for many years.
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