Burgundy may have produced a golden vintage in 2002, with Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays delivering the sort of exceptional quality that occurs only a few times each century in this finicky region.
While other wine regions in France and Europe suffered from torrential rains and killer floods, the Côte d'Or, where Burgundy's most famous vineyards grow, had a drought in the summer and fall. To conserve water, authorities imposed restrictions on washing cars and watering gardens, which were still in effect last week.
Despite the lack of rain, there were enough regular showers and moisture to keep the vines healthy, according to winemakers.
As the harvest approached, the key appellations in the Côte d'Or were spared the few storms that passed through the area, although some lesser communes were touched, especially in the Côte de Beaune, the southern area of the Côte d'Or. Picking started on Sept. 16 under good conditions, and the Indian summer continued through last week, allowing wineries to wrap up the harvest at a leisurely pace.
On paper, this is as perfect a harvest as they come. Laboratory analyses of the grapes, the must and the first wines coming off the fermentation vats all pointed to one conclusion: impressive equilibrium among the ripeness, acidity and tannins in the Pinot Noirs
"We have extraordinary luck," said Henri Jayer, a grower in Vosne-Romanée, who at 80 years old is the unofficial dean of Burgundy's winemakers. He predicted that the Côte de Nuits might make the best reds in France this year given the problems encountered in wine regions in the south and southwest of France.
Jayer said he believes 2002 has the potential to be one of the best vintages since he began his winemaking career 63 years ago. Although it will be some time before the reds go through their malolactic fermentation, he already finds them supple, with ripe, refined tannins.
The optimism in the Côte d'Or seems well-founded. I visited parts of the region last week, dropping in unannounced at several wineries. I tasted fermenting grape juice and some young wines from barrels. I checked laboratory documents and observed the quality of the small Pinot Noir berries in the fermenting vats, and I came away feeling that this is finally the vintage for which Burgundy has waited so long.
With no major climatic challenges, and the slow fermenting of the wines, winery crews stood by idly or left work early last week. Such smooth working conditions suggest that even less-talented winemakers could do well, as the wines almost make themselves.
"Look at this," said Christophe Perrot-Minot, taking out a binder filled with lab tests of wines from his highly regarded family winery in Morey-St.-Denis. "There is nothing for me to do to improve on the wines, and that is a sign of a great vintage."
The vintage appears particularly successful in Morey-St.-Denis and the other communes that make up the Côte de Nuits, which is the northern part of the Côte d'Or. The surrounding villages of Vosne-Romanée, Nuits-St.-Georges, Chambolle-Musigny and Gevrey-Chambertin have produced some of the ripest and most balanced wines in recent memory, according to winemakers.
The Côte de Beaune followed a similar scenario, with the Chardonnay crop in the most prized communes -- Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet -- showing good amounts of natural acidity and high levels of potential alcohol.
And Chablis had one of the greatest harvests since the superlative 1989 vintage, as pickers harvested very ripe grapes under sunny skies in late September, without a drop of rain during the entire harvest. The weather was more difficult in the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais, however, resulting in crops of uneven quality, according to shippers and growers.
As the wines age in barrels, much can change up until they have been bottled, but the potential is high for the reds of the Côte de Nuits. Winemakers are quick to refer to the Pinots from the 1990 vintage, rated a classic 98 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, and the outstanding 1999, which earned 90 points.
"We had exceptional berries. This is a grand vintage, and it's more balanced than 1999," said Philippe Charlopin of Domaine Charlopin-Parizot in Gevrey-Chambertin.
The crop was relatively small -- about 25 percent to 30 percent below the yields of the abundant 1999 vintage -- due in part to a cold period during flowering. That led to uneven bud set and the formation of small berries.
Many of the top domaines reported harvesting about 1.43 to 2 tons per acre -- equal to the maximum yields set by French authorities. It was the first time in years that the Burgundians didn't have to petition to exceed those crop ceilings.
"In the 10 years I've been here, I've not seen berries of this quality," said Perrot-Minot, reaching into a fermenting tank to grab a handful of tiny Pinot Noir grapes with concentrated flavors. The pips were yellow, a sign of physiological ripeness.
To further prove his point, he retrieved a sample of fermenting grape juice from a tank holding a Nuits-St.-Georges premier cru, La Richemone, which was picked at 13.6 percent potential alcohol. "The fermentation was slow to start. There is a lot of fat in these wines, with silky, ripe tannins," he said, taking a sip.
With such balance, said winemakers, there was no need this year to acidify (add tartaric acid to) the wines. They reported that only a few cuvées were chaptalized (a legal procedure in which sugar is added during fermentation to boost alcohol levels).
"This year I've not added a gram of sugar or a gram of tartaric acid. I've done nothing. It's ideal. I love it," said Nadine Gublin, winemaker of Domaine Jacques Prieur in Meursault, which makes Pinots and Chardonnays from top appellations across the Côte d'Or.
"I don't have a single wine in my cellar below 13 percent potential alcohol," said winemaker Jean-Nicolas Méo of Domaine Méo-Camuzet. "That's the first time it's ever happened to me. They have the same personality as the 1990s and 1999s, but the fact that they have lots of acidity is promising. It will protect them as they age."
The year was somewhat bizarre because the weather was relatively cool and overcast for most of the growing season. The ripening cycle was behind schedule in early September, worrying winemakers, but September was dry, except for a couple of minor storms. The cool conditions helped preserve the good acidity levels in the grapes even when they became very ripe, said Charlopin.
The thick-skinned berries became more concentrated with the sunny weather and the strong northern wind that preceded the start of the harvest, winemakers said. The crop was clean, and whatever pockets of rot there were proved to be only a minor nuisance.
One concern was that the 2002s would be too tannic because of the thick skins and the way the juice evaporated rapidly when the northern wind blew strongly for five days before the harvest. "We were worried that with such little juice in the grapes and such thick skins, we would make tannic wines," said Méo. "But with such ripeness, you get a lot of roundness in the mouth."
Philippe Prost, winemaker at Bouchard Père & Fils in Beaune, said the challenge is to avoid creating austere 2002 Pinots. "We don't want to make cubic and angular wines," he said. "We want to make them sexy, like the 1999s."
Read Per-Henrik Mansson's report:
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