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Burgundy: After Challenging Weather, Uneven Quality

Chardonnay fared better than Pinot Noir in the Côte de Beaune, but Chablis struggled with rain.

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: January 2, 2002

  United States  
  2001 Harvest Diaries  
  2000 Vintage Report  

When rain fell in September, just before Burgundy's harvest, the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune flew a helicopter over the vineyards to dry the grapes before picking them.

Meanwhile, in Volnay, Meursault and other communes in the Côte de Beaune where some vineyards were seriously damaged by an August hailstorm, vignerons faced the difficult task of selecting out the ripe grapes from rotten and unripe ones.

The 2001 vintage posed difficult problems such as these across Burgundy. The challenges continued from the vineyards into the cellars, and winemakers predicted the year would produce uneven quality.

This was certainly the case for Pinot Noir in the Côte de Beaune, and to a lesser extent in the Côte de Nuits, according to winemakers in both those Côte d'Or regions. On average, Pinot Noir grapes in the Côte d'Or were picked on the low side of ripeness levels, with potential alcohol levels of 11.3 percent to 12.5 percent.

"The winemakers who didn't make a lot of effort in 2001 will make average wines," said Vincent Girardin, a grower and négociant in the Santenay appellation. "As usual, the best winemakers and growers will rise to the top."

It's still difficult to compare the overall quality of the young 2001 Pinot Noirs to those from the unheralded 2000 vintage. "Last year [2000], we had higher ripeness in the grapes, but this year we had less rot," said Girardin.

In any case, according to several Burgundians, 2001 was unlikely to show the across-the-board high quality of the 1999 vintage, when the weather was good until midway through the picking. In 2001, the best Pinot Noir terroirs fared better in the difficult weather than the lesser appellations did, and the Côte de Nuits enjoyed slightly better conditions than the Côte de Beaune.

Rain and cool weather alternated with scorching hot days during the 2001 growing season. In the Pinot Noir vineyards, some growers had to eliminate sunburned berries. September was unusually cool.

"The cold weather blocked the ripening of the [Pinot Noir] grapes," said Hospices de Beaune winemaker Rolland Masse. "Some Pinot Noirs made rosé at 10 degree potential alcohol. We threw them out!"

The harvest started on Sept. 20 in the Côte de Beaune and extended into early October in the Côte de Nuits. It rained on the eve of harvest, but then the weather turned mostly sunny and cool, with an occasional shower during the last week of September.

Considering the gloomy weather during much of the growing season, especially in September, winemakers expressed surprise that their Pinot Noir grapes turned out as well as they did. "It's a good to very good vintage, but it's not extraordinary," said Masse.

Winemakers reported fewer problems with Chardonnay, as there was little rot in those vineyards. The Côte de Beaune produced some fine, balanced white Burgundies, according to vintners, and the young wines show good, crisp natural acidity and clean, exciting aromas.

Domaine Marc Colin in St.-Aubin reported good potential alcohol levels in the Chardonnay grapes -- from 12 percent in the Bourgogne Blanc wines to more than 14 percent in the Montrachet appellation. As long as growers kept yields reasonable, "2001 is a beautiful vintage for Burgundy Chardonnays," said Colin.

In Chablis, however, 2001 proved more difficult than the 2000 vintage, which made clean and focused Chardonnays. "It rained all of September and the wines were hard to vinify," said Samuel Billaud of Domaine Billaud-Simon. Rot spread in the vineyards, and grapes had difficulty ripening. In general, winemakers picked their Chardonnay at 11 percent to 11.5 percent potential alcohol; they then raised the alcohol level by generously adding sugar, a process called chaptalization.

In the Mâconnais, some growers rushed to harvest early and picked less-mature fruit than those who waited. The late pickers included Domaine Cordier Père & Fils, which finished an anxiety-producing harvest as late as Oct. 3. Big storms broke out briefly during the harvest, but some Chardonnays reached an impressive 14.3 percent potential alcohol, according to Roger Cordier. This level of ripeness exceeded the legal maximum permitted in the appellation, and the domaine had to receive a special dispensation for the wine from French authorities.

In the adjacent Beaujolais region, as elsewhere in Burgundy, the 2001 growing season saw fewer hours of sun than 2000 did, yet the wines -- made from the red Gamay grape -- were just as ripe, said vintner Georges Duboeuf. He harvested in the first part of September, before heavy rains hit the region. The 2001 Beaujolais from Brouilly and other crus tasted fruitier, with higher acidity, than the wines from 2000, when the Beaujolais were rounder, said Duboeuf.

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